Is Siquijor Enchanted?

While growing up in the Philippines, Trin never traveled to the island of Siquijor [pronounced as “See-Kee-Hor“]. This 327 square kilometer (126 sq mi) island was known as the island of witches and voodoo-like practices. The phrase “Horror sa Siquijor” was popular. TV shows furthered the legends of otherworldly creatures and malicious mangkukulam (voodoo witches) that roamed the island.

Thousands of fireflies that live among the molave trees may have contributed to the lore. In 1565, when the Spanish first discovered the island, they named it Isla del Fuego (Island of Fire) because the island seemed to glow at night from the fireflies.

However, it was the lore of a blue enchanted river urged us to hop on the ferry from Cebu to Siquijor late last year and find out for ourselves if the island is truly enchanted.

The blue river waters in the woods on Siquijor

See also the enchanted caves in Brazil

Typhoon season

The perfect afternoon park…or so I thought

Our first objective upon docking in Siquijor was to find a motorcycle to rent for our time on the island. As we have done in many places we often find a spot where I can sit down with the backpacks freeing up Trin to find accommodation or wheels. 

After walking the town we found a large community park where I could wait. Trin went off to rent a motorcycle while I sat on a cement bench watching a few teenagers practice dance steps on an open stage at one end of the courtyard. 

A slight breeze blew through the open court. Far above me a thin metal roof shielded the entire sports park from the baking sun. Cement walls rose about six feet high along the length of the court on two sides. Metal bars extended high above the cement walls supporting the metal sun shield above our heads.

A dirt road on the island of Siquijor
Siquijor Island ride

Primal Warning

I felt something change in the air, a drop in barometric pressure that expanded the air around me. It was a feeling of discord, a primal warning that you feel rather than see, that moves one to action. 

I tightened my grip on my bag and looked around concerned. To my left, out the wide-open end of the court, I saw dark clouds. Just moments before, the entire sky had been clear and blue. Now there appeared to be black monsters racing towards me. 

Dirt from the street blasted me in the face before I had time to look away. Gale force winds raged through the open courtyard. A chair blew by in front of me. I saw a vendor’s cart tumble down the street just before closing my eyes against the debris.

The tin roof above our heads sounded as if it would be torn away at any moment. Rain was driving sideways through the courtyard.

I grabbed our bags and ran to the front of the courtyard where there was a small overhead of cement, hoping it would keep me safe from flying sheet metal. I ducked behind one of the cement pillars on the opposite side of the driving rain. A man and two small children joined me a moment later. We huddled together, giving each other tentative smiles.

What happened to Trin

I hoped Trin was not yet on the bike and that he found a safe place to wait out the storm. If he was driving he would surely be blown off the street. Within ten minutes the rain ceased its horizontal punishment and droned into a downpour falling from the sky like pennies dropped from a high rise. The wind calmed to a strong breeze. 

Two shirtless guys ran by, both of them squealing as they ran. 

I waited by the pillar for Trin’s return. It was typhoon season in the Philippines and storms blew in off the ocean seemingly from nowhere.

Trin pulled up on a moped soon after the torrential rains calmed. He took off his helmet and grinned at me. Thankfully he had been inside the bike shop when the storm hit. I laughed with his grin and stuffed his backpack in front of him on the foot well. I climbed on behind him with my pack on my back. We rode off to our Airbnb in the rain enjoying the break from the heat that it brought.

A small waterfall and swimming hole with a stray puppy that we hiked to while circling Siquijor
One of the three tiers of Lagaan Falls… and one reluctant model.

Driving around the island

We spent a few days riding around the island.  Along the way, we drank some local coconut moonshine (tuba) and went on a few hikes to waterfalls and beaches.

Tuba is a coconut moonshine made and enjoyed by locals in the Philippines
This is a local hut where Tuba (coconut moonshine) is made.

One of the island’s popular attractions is a 400-year-old Balete tree. This tree is fabled to be inhabited by strange mythical creatures like the dwende (elves) tikbalang (horse demons, and diwata (fairies). Many locals still believe that Balete trees are enchanted to this day.

There is a fee to park, a fee to enter and another fee if you want to soak your feet in a pond with a crowd of other people to have little fish nibble on your toes. We drove by happy with the view from the road. There are many attractions that suffer the injustice of an inadequate photo, for which people lament that a picture just doesn’t capture the beauty. This was the exact opposite.

Further along, we stopped at a trail and pulled up on public land to park. A few locals had decided to camp out there and charge a fee for parking. They told us that if we did not pay them the bike would probably get stolen, probably by them.  We had a feeling that the bike would not be as we left it even if we paid the fee so we moved on to the next stop.

Island traffic
Island traffic

We stopped for lunch at a market along the way. Trin and I split up to look around and decide on our purchase. I walked up to one vendor to read the menu. Everyone turned to stare then they began pointing, whispering, and even laughing. I got a lot of that during our stay in the Philippines.

Finding A blue river

In pursuit of an enchanted river we got up early one morning ready for a long hike and rode the bike to the mouth of the river.

While we were looking for a place to park, a man on the road motioned us into a parking area at the end of the road leading to Cambugahay Falls. 

“Park here,” the attendant commanded, grabbing my arm and pushing me toward the direction of the parking lot. “You must park here. This is the only place you are allowed to park. We will watch your bike and the cost is 50 fifty pesos.”  I generally don’t obey strange men who feel that all women should do as they command. He had that air about him. I definitely didn’t want to park there.

We drove back out and parked along the street where there was another parking area. We asked the local next to us. He said it was fine to park there. I wouldn’t have minded paying for parking if the attendant had been honest or at least polite.

Blue river in Siquijor, Philippines
A Blue River in Siquijor

Brilliant Blue waters

I was excited about this trek. The pictures we had seen looked stunning. It was a sunny clear day, but trees shaded the path giving some relief from the heat. 

I was mesmerized by the blue waters and the natural turns and falling of the liquid blue along the path, but there was a discordant note.  At all of the most beautiful spots, hostels and restaurants in disrepair crowded into the scene. Ropes hung over every beautiful drop so that people could swing out over the water and drop into its depths. 

Waterfall in Siquijor, Philippines
Few people swam out to the deeper end of this pool below one of the Cambugahay Falls, but there are crowds behind me. Occasionally, someone will jump in here from the cliffs above.
swimming hole on Siquijor
One of the swimming holes along the Cambugahay Falls.

It was as if a magical place had been turned into a cheap amusement park. The water was refreshing and we enjoyed the brief glimpses of what this place might once have been, but the mystery was broken by a whoop and a splash, a broken fence and the request for a few pesos just to sit on a bench of peeling paint surrounded by mud. Many of the banks along the larger swimming holes were probably once green with foliage. Now they have mud devoid of vegetation ground away by too much foot traffic.

Crowds along the fabled blue river in Siquijor, Philippines
Crowds at Cambugahay Falls

Snorkeling in Siquijor

We rode back to our Airbnb. Trin dropped me off and went down the road a bit to pick up dinner. He often goes alone to purchase dinner. If I am with him the price for the same dinner will be twice as expensive or often even more.

We were near a few beaches and spent our afternoons snorkeling.

The waters around the Philippines are always warm. We could spend hours snorkeling and never feel cold. 

One of the Siquijor Island beaches
One of the Siquijor Island beaches

Deadly things in the water

While snorkeling we saw tiny black-and-white striped fish huddled together in a mass moving like one giant organism. It reminded me of a ball of baby moccasins, how they swirl together as if in a dark demented mass that could swallow and consume anyone who dared enter their circle. But it was also beautiful in its motion as if they had a Borg mind moving together always in motion creating designs much like a flock of birds in the air.

We followed the mass of fish filming them and admiring the grace and fluidity of their movement. Trin reached his hand towards the center of the mass, they moved out from his hand like he had a force field three inches around him pushing a hole into the circle.

Later, I looked up some information about the fish. They are called Striped Eel catfish and they are deadly. – esh!

At least with the banded sea krait, I assumed by its triangular head that it was venomous. Again, I was surprised when I looked it up later that this snake is one of the most lethal creatures in the ocean. Its venom is ten times more powerful than that of a rattlesnake. 

The banded sea krait is generally considered friendly and non aggressive. They say you have to be truly unlucky to be bit by a banded sea krait.

Dog fish

We began to follow a beautiful yellow tetraodontidae fish. His body was almost square and his face had the eyes of a puppy dog.  When we got close he stopped and hid in a few blades of grass and then looked at us. I swear he looked like a guilty puppy dog. Not sure I’ve ever seen a cuter fish.

A single tree in the water on a beach in Siquijor.
The lone tree in the water looked like something out of a dreamscape.

Is  Siquijor Enchanted?

When I see fog resting on a meadow in a pastel sunrise or the play of shadows on an open landscape I feel enchantment. It is not magic, but it is a beauty so big that the heart overflows with wonder. Blue silty waters surrounded with lush vegetations promotes the same feeling in me. 

We came to this island looking for enchantment. We found glimpses of it and what once used to be,  a drop of original beauty that can not be improved by human hand.

Will your next opportunity lead you down a blue pristine river?

If you are planning to retire soon to travel like us or maybe stay home and volunteer, check out this book that my friend Fritz just recently published. He covers 24 keys for a successful retirement.

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