TO most Cebuanos, Bantayan is a place that requires a visit at least once a year. Coming from Mindanao, I’ve only been to the island three years ago. I’ve been back every year since. I can’t help it — you start getting withdrawal symptoms if you don’t get some vitamin sea.
It’s easy to fall in love with the island. It is very tempting to stay at the pristine white sand beaches all day, but there is more to Bantayan than just sand and sea — its rich Hispanic colonial history, for instance — that are all worth experiencing.
Explore the laid-back island
The easiest way to explore the island is to rent a motorbike. Bantayan is only 11km wide so you can easily go around the island via motorbike in half a day. For only P300, you can have the motorbike for the whole day.
We explored the island’s three municipalities (Santa Fe, Madridejos and Bantayan) the whole afternoon with as many stopovers as we could. Take your time.
Walk through Bantayan’s forts
A little trivia about the island’s name: during the Spanish colonial times, Bantayan was home to 18 watchtowers to look over incoming moro pirate vessels. The moros from the south and the Spanish government have long been enemies — the Spanish can’t colonize the moros because they were too resilient. During the watchmen’s vigil, they would say “Bantayan! Bantayan!” or “Keep watch! Keep watch!” which is how the island got its name.
Many of the watchtowers no longer survive, but some relics remain. The best surviving one is the fort in Kota Park, Madridejos. It might look like just a bunch of stones to most people, but they served an important purpose 300 years ago.
The old Spanish forts and churches were built so sturdily to protect the natives from kidnappings. Moro raiders and pirates used to come at night and kidnap girls and boys to be sold off to slavery, a massive, profitable industry at that time. If it weren’t for these forts, our folks might have ended up in Slaver’s Bay and be one of Khaleesi’s Unsullied (sorry, I just had to make a GOT reference).
It’s amazing how Spanish walls and forts, made from stone or quicklime with egg whites as mortar, still survive centuries after, despite constant visits from typhoons and earthquakes. Many of our modern buildings (like the CICC) weren’t as lucky.
Admire the old Spanish structures
I marvel at the old Spanish plazas you can only find in out-of-the-way provincial towns. It’s amazing to see how Spanish colonial urban planning is like, how buildings and streets were organized into grid, and how it’s still being used centuries after the first plan was drawn out by order of the Spanish king.
The municipality of Bantayan is laid out in a colonial Spanish layout. Typically, there is a central plaza and the heart of the city is the iglesia or church, the town council building, the residences of main religious and political officials, the residences of the city wealthy and VIPs, and the principal businesses, which were also stationed around the central plan. The “less important” people live further out of the grid.
The houses are typical 19th century Spanish colonial architecture known as “bahay na bato.” I like exploring ancestral homes and how similar they are in elements — a two-story house, mosquito net in the bedroom, one big heavy piano in the sala, a massive door made of hardwood, and religious idols and crucifixes adorned in every room of the house.
Bahay na bato are modeled after the pre-hispanic bahay kubo, but bigger and made of more concrete materials. It is built to be suited to the tropics, with good ventilation, high ceiling, enough openings to let air and light in but at the same time provide enough protection from rain and heat of the sun.
This makes you wonder though: if the old Spanish houses were a symbol of Filipino identity and ingenuity, why don’t we build houses in this tradition to keep our heritage? Why do we allow the last of our “endangered” houses to be destroyed and replaced by “modern Asian” or minimalist building styles, when these houses were perfectly built for the tropical climate?
That being said, there’s always something new to discover in Bantayan, about our past and our selves. Bantayan is an unspoiled Cebuano treasure that deserves more inquisitive discovery.
*Rachel Arandilla is a lifelong learner and educator at USC Fine Arts. A self-proclaimed travel hacker and budget hunter, Rachel shares her travel stories from 15 different countries (and counting) and from around the country. Her insights in “Postcard Travels” are hinged on history, culture and the arts. You can catch more of her musings on her blog at postcardpretty.com.