It’s difficult to be overshadowed by the popularity of Miag-ao and its church. Miag-ao church’s making it to the Unesco World Heritage site simply didn’t give the next town of San Joaquin a chance to get even a small portion of the number of tourists who visit Miag-ao.
But when CNN Go announced its list of Asia’s 25 Unseen Destinations in 2011, only one from the Philippines made it to the list: the rustic town of San Joaquin. There were several reasons why San Joaquin was chosen: t has the only church in the Philippines with bas relief depicting a military battle scene, it has one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the country, and it has a lovely secluded coast perfect for diving and snorkeling. Six years after this town made it to the CNN list, San Joaquin is slowly getting a steady increase of visitors, especially with the opening of Garin Farm and its unique “heavenly” attractions.
The first “foreign” visitors though to San Joaquin came during the 12th century when the 10 Malay datu landed near the mouth of Siwaragan River after fleeing the tyrannical leadership of Sultan Makutanao in Borneo. They were met by the Atis who took them to their chief, King Marikudo. Datu Puti and his men negotiated with King Marikudo for the Malays to occupy all the lowlands of Panay Island and for the Atis to go up the mountains. The negotiation was sealed with gifts to the King of one golden hat called saduk, a gold necklace called managyad and other gifts.
Datu Sumakwel was left in Panay after the other datu continued their journeys to other islands. He divided the island into three districts – Irong-Irong, Hamtic and Aklan. He also decreed the Code of Kalantiaw that kept the island prosperous and peaceful for three hundred years until the Spaniards came.
Siwaragan became one of the first pueblos in Irong-Irong to be established when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century. In 1801, the municipality finally adopted the name San Joaquin in honor of its patron saint.
How to get there
The town of San Joaquin is 53 kilometers from the city center of Iloilo.
Visitors coming from Manila should fly to Iloilo. Flying time is about an hour. As the airport is located in Cabatuan, take a shuttle van from the airport to the bus terminal in Molo, and then take any bus going to Antique and tell the bus driver to drop you off in San Joaquin. Another alternative is to go to Super Terminal in Iloilo City and take any San Joaquin-bound jeepney from the terminal.
Those with private vehicles can simply drive south passing through Oton, Tigbauan and Miag-ao, before finally arriving in San Joaquin. Allow two hours to reach San Joaquin as there are plenty of nice attractions along the way.
What to see, what to do
Among the most popular attractions in San Joaquin is its church. It is the only one in the Philippines featuring a military scene in its pediment. Constructed in 1859 and completed in 1869, the Spanish friar Tomas Santaren was so inspired by the Spanish victory over the Moors in 1860 during the Battle of Tetouan that he ordered Filipino and Chinese workers to create a beautiful bas relief version of the battle.
Another interesting attraction is its cemetery. Constructed in 1892, it has an interesting gate with figures of Jesus Christ, cherubs and skulls. Inside the cemetery is the Baroque-designed mortuary chapel standing in the center. The San Joaquin Church Complex and the Campo Santo of San Joaquin were declared by the National Museum of the Philippines in 2015 as National Cultural Treasures.
Along the coasts of San Joaquin are some of its hidden natural attractions. Talisayin Beach in Poblacion is a perfect family get-away for those seeking a quiet place for swimming and picnics. For scuba diving and snorkeling, head to Cata-an Cove and Tobog Beach in Barangay Cata-an.
For a unique family experience, visit the Garin Farm and Resort in Purok 2 in Poblacion. This 15-hectare privately-owned farm offers a mix of agriculture, leisure and pilgrimage activities. The lower ground allows visitors to see farm animals like goats and rabbits, marvel at the giant bananas and see a bahay kubo with all the vegetables mentioned in the song Bahay Kubo. In the middle level, there are leisure activities available like zip-line, boating and kayaking. On top of a hill is where visitors get to experience entering the tunnel of death, going to a judgment chamber before finally climbing to a 101-foot Divine Mercy Cross surrounded by dozens of angels. This is Garin’s way of depicting “heaven.” But as soon as you finally reached nirvana, you’ll be shown your way out as it is “not yet your time.”
Every 3rd week of January, San Joaquin holds the Bayluhay Festival where the historic exchange of gifts between the Malays and the Atis is celebrated. During the Bayluhay, the Pasungay is held where the town’s best carabaos are pitted against each other in a “bull derby.”
Where to stay, what to eat
For those who enjoy sleeping by the beach, there are available lodgings at Talisayin Beach Resort and Tobog Beach Resort. For those who wish to enjoy the farm and leisure facilities at Garin, they can try family cottages for P3,500.
For dining, Garin Farm serves favorite Ilonggo favorites. For those looking for inexpensive meals, there are several eateries near the San Joaquin market that serve tasty batchoy soup for only P30. The stalls outside Garin Farm and those along the road going to Antique are known for their tasty peanut brittle made from muscovado sugar.
But there are two delicacies in San Joaquin made from carabao’s milk that make the trip to this “unseen” destination worthwhile: the carabao milk ice cream and the creamy horns. Their taste are simply “heavenly.”