ONE of the most popular destinations in Cebu during Holy Week is the island of Bantayan. The people of Bantayan make grand preparations for the Holy Week and the highlight of the observance is the solemn foot procession on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday when life-sized images and icons are mounted on elaborately-decorated carrozas depicting the tableaux of the Passion of Christ.
Another interesting practice in Bantayan during Lenten season is that the people are allowed to eat meat! During the Spanish time, the people of Bantayan presented their case to the Vatican saying that their fishermen cannot go out to sea to fish during lent, and that they have no choice but to eat meat. The Pope then gave them special dispensation and since then, Holy Week in the island is celebrated with a feast of what else, but lechon!
This 11,000-hectare island is said to be the second oldest parish in the south next to Cebu. When the Augustinans came to the island in 1580, they discovered a group of inhabitants who came from the other islands but stayed there because its almost flat lands were filled with fruit bearing trees and the surrounding waters were teeming with fish.
The Spaniards soon regarded the island as an important post to control the movement of people and goods to and from Luzon and the Visayas, that they started building fortresses and watchtowers or ‘kutas’ all over the island to ward off the residents from the attacks of marauders. These lookouts were called “Bantayan ng Hari” or “Watchtowers of the King,” and this was how the island derived its name. Eighteen “kutas” were built all over the island, but only a few remain at present.
The island now has around 120,000 residents, spread all over the three towns, namely, Bantayan, Santa Fe and Madridejos. These towns belong to Cebu province. Bantayan, the oldest town, is now regarded as the egg basket of the Visayas region, producing over a million eggs daily. Madridejos, originally named Lawis before it became a separate town in 1887, is one of the biggest producers of dried fish in the province. Santa Fe, the gateway to the island, is where most of resorts are located.
Despite the recent growth in tourism and agriculture, the island remains laid back. Visitors may opt to stay in Santa Fe and enjoy the modern tourist facilities or they can go inward on bike or on foot to discover the many hidden attractions that the island can offer the intrepid travellers.
How to get there
The quickest way to reach Bantayan Island is to fly to Cebu Mactan International Airport. From the airport, take a taxi to the Cebu Northern Terminal at Subangdaku, Mandaue and take a bus to Hagnaya Port. Travel time is three hours and fare is P150 for ordinary bus. Fare for air-conditioned bus is P165.
From Hagnaya port, there are regular boats to Bantayan via Santa Fe. Travel time is 30 minutes and the boat fare costs P170, plus P10 for terminal fees.
Those with private vehicles can drive all the way to Bantayan as the port in Hagnaya now has roll-on roll-off facilities.
What to see, what to do
Most of the tourists stay mainly in Santa Fe, where the famed Bantayan white sand beaches are mostly located. There are also many tourist facilities located in Santa Fe like hotels, restaurants, bars and sports equipment rentals.
But the island of Bantayan offers more for the intrepid traveller. In Bantayan proper, there is the centuries-old Church of Saints Peter and Paul. The church that was finally completed in 1863 was made of coral stones put together by a combination of tree sap and limestone. Its skillfully crafted architecture and well-preserved antiquity has made the church the center of spirituality in the island, and also a “must-see” destination for visitors.
The adjacent Convento de la Asuncion de Nuestra Senora now houses the parish museum in Bantayan. Opened in 2005, the museum showcases old liturgical vestments, parish records and religious art. An interesting piece on the exhibit is the “rueda” or circular wheel mounted with a dozen bells. It was used during the Sacrament in the different part of liturgy and to keep the devotees awake during the long Latin mass.
In the next town of Madridejos, visitors can still see the ruins of the old watchtower. It is now located inside the Kota Park where ruins has become its centerpiece. Its stoned walls remain intact while the remainder of the old bell-tower that must have rung for centuries now stands in peace. On the adjacent beach of Lawis, a modern observation bridge was built recently. A baywalk that extends all the way to sea now gives residents and visitors a viewing deck to admire the beauty of Visayan Sea.
Another interesting attraction on the island is the community-based mangrove-planting project that the people of Barangay Obo-ob started several decades ago. It has now turned into Mangrove Garden Ecotourism Park where visitors are treated to a spectacle of seeing migratory birds as well as endangered marine creatures.
Inside the property of the Bantayan Island and Nature Resort is a subterranean cave, where one can take a dip in a natural pool after exploring the cave.
Where to stay, what to eat
Most of the resorts in Bantayan are located in Santa. Fe. Resorts like Bantayan Cottages, H K Kozy Kottages and Kota Beach offer budget accommodations from P500 to P700, while Cou Cou Lodge, Maia’s Beach Resort, Ogtong Cave Resort, Santa Fe Beach Club, St. Bernards, Tickety Boo, Tristan’s Resort, White Beach Bungalows and Yooneek Beach offer mid-range to high-end accommodations.
Bantayan Island and Nature Resort offers accommodation in garden setting. The resort has a wide collection of flowering plants and also has a mini-zoo.
Remember though that the prices of accommodations in Bantayan double during Holy Week, and one must book months in advance to get a reservation.
For dining, Bantayan is known to be the main source of poultry and eggs in Cebu, and so many of the eateries in Santa Fe serve their own version of lechon manok.
But for those craving for lechon, visit the market in front of the Santo Nino Church in Santa Fe. There’s this old lady who sells probably the tastiest and juiciest lechon in the island. At P350 per kilo, one can enjoy the island’s specialty every day, even on Good Friday!