EVERY once in a while, it is good to get out of your comfort zone, away from the humdrum of routine life, far from the shelter of the familiar and the predictable. To drop everything and visit an island where life is simple and unhurried.
Cuyo Island in Palawan is one of those places. This jewel of the Sulu Sea has been receiving for more than two decades a few dozen travelers mostly from Europe who would come regularly during the amihan or northeast monsoon season to enjoy windsurfing and kite boarding.
But Cuyo is more than the island for adventure-seekers. It is also an island rich in cultural heritage and history.
Cuyo is considered the oldest town in Palawan. The original settlers of Cuyo came from the south (Malaysia) in big boats called sakayan and brought with them language and traditions that became the foundation of the unique Cuyonon dialect, folk arts and traditions. The Chinese also came and introduced barter. In 1622, the Spaniards came and introduced Christianity. The fortification of Cuyo started in 1680 to protect the island from sporadic attacks.
From 1873 to 1903, Cuyo was made the second capital of Palawan next to Taytay.
The Cuyo Group of Islands is composed of 45 islands between Northern Palawan and west of Panay. It is further divided into two island groups: the Quiniluban group in the north where the 89-hectare, ultra-exclusive Amanpulo Resort in Pamalican Island belongs; and the Cuyo group in the south where the municipality of Cuyo, Magsaysay and Agutaya are located.
Cuyo with its population of around 25,000 is the biggest island and it is where the towns of Cuyo and Magsaysay are located.
The island is rich in natural resources and its people grow fruits like cashew, mangoes, bananas and coconuts. Meanwhile, the sea provides a bounty of fresh seafood. The island’s regular supplies of fuel, grocery items, soft drinks and canned goods come from the weekly boats from Manila and Iloilo. The island’s source of power is a diesel power plant and transportation in the island are tricycles (P10 for short distance) and private motorcycles. The Cuyonons are shy people but very welcoming. The island is very safe even for visitors since there is hardly any crime reported within it.
Cuyo was the location of the 2008 film “Ploning” starring Judie Ann Santos. The simplicity of life on the island as portrayed in the film has inspired many backpackers to visit the island.
How to get there
Going to Cuyo Island is an adventure itself. The island has an airport but it is not used for commercial flights. The nearest commercial airport is either in Iloilo or in Puerto Princesa. To go to Cuyo, one must take a regular flight to either Iloilo or Puerto Princesa then take a boat from there.
Vessels from Montenegro Shipping and Via Milagrosa sail between Iloilo to Puerto Princesa and vice versa via Cuyo Island. It takes between 12 to 14 hours to reach Cuyo from either way. The schedule changes frequently so it is best to check the Montenegro and Milagrosa websites.
From Manila, MV D’Asean Journey calls on Cuyo once a week. It departs from Manila every Sunday 2 pm, makes a stopover in Coron on Monday 8am (departing 12 noon), before finally arriving at Cuyo port the same day at 8 pm. Alternatively, one can also take a direct flight from Manila to Coron and catch up on the boat from Coron to Cuyo.
What to do, what to see
The easiest way to get around the island is to rent a tricycle with a driver. Daily rate is P500. The tricycle driver knows most of the island attractions and takes pride in showing them to visitors.
Adventure seekers can head straight either to Capusan or Victoria beach. The Capusan beach of Cuyo town is good for kite surfing because of the deep water between the pier and the natural sand bar. But for those who wish to combine windsurfing with kite boarding, the ultimate choice is Anino Retreat at Victoria. The wind blows on the shore permitting long rides inside the bay or going over the reef into the waves. Anino has a limited number of Balinese-style cottages on the foot of a small hill covered with palm trees.
There also other beaches in Cuyo like the one in Tabunan. To reach Tabunan, one has to pass a narrow dusty road lined with giant cashew trees. Tabunan is a perfect spot where one can just hide for days while enjoying the solitude provided by the empty white sand beach.
From Tabunan, the trail goes inward to Mount Aguado, the island’s highest peak. In the early 1970s, the locals built life-sized Way of the Cross leading to the peak of Mount Aguado for devotees who make their annual pilgrimage during Holy Week in Cuyo.
From Mount Aguado, the road goes further inwards to a place called Little Baguio. The locals go there to get their potable water. There are several wells built in an area inside a natural forest where one can get fresh water for drinking, washing and even for bathing. It is located in Sitio Igabas. Along the way to Igabas, there’s a picture-perfect sight of the small chapel on a hill covered with a cool shade of several century-old acacia trees.
But the main highlight of any trip to Cuyo town is a visit to its old fort built in 1680. The original complex of stone and mortar was square with four bastions. Its walls were 10 meters high and two meters thick. Its four-storey watchtower faces the sea. Inside the complex, the present day church of Saint Agustine was built in 1860. Access to the fortress and to the church is via hidden gate where the sign “Dayon Camo” is written.
Where to stay, what to eat
Honeymooners and beach enthusiasts usually stay at the secluded part of the island where they can enjoy the sun and the sea all day long. The most popular resort on this side is the Anino Retreat where garden villas for two starts at P2,450 during surfing season.
However, those on a budget can get inexpensive accommodation in Tenga-Tenga at the town center. The most popular is Nikki’s Pension right in front of the port, where fan rooms can be availed at P300 per day.
Lodging houses and dormitories such as Dok’s La Paz Batchoy and Homestay, Balai Seafront, Ellen’s Boarding House and PSU Hometel offer a similar budget range.
Food is also relatively inexpensive in Cuyo. There are several carinderias in front of the pier that sell fried fish or sinigang.
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