competition’s Luzon category. They had the simplest business plan — which was to help the souvenir business of the natives of Isla Culion — but the most compelling story and motivation: to boost the tourism of their island, the world’s largest leper colony (a total of 16,138 residents) until 2006. It wasn’t hard for me to promise to visit their island and write about them, although I wasn’t sure it would come in that order.
A month and a half later, my friend Brad and I found ourselves stuck in C5 at 9:30 a.m., trying to catch our 10 a.m. flight to Busuanga. People are not exaggerating about Palawan, I thought to myself when we finally landed. Before all these, I was in touch with Maye, the manager of Isla Culion’s Hotel Maya, who had us picked up from the airport and taken to the port in Coron, where we were going to take a two-hour boat ride to Isla Culion. We had a quick hearty lunch at a turo-turo in Coron town proper and took a tricycle going back to the port. The driver, detecting that we were tourists, asked where we were going. “We’re going to Isla Culion!” I proudly answered. He was ominously quiet for a while, then sounded worried: “You do know about the island’s history, right?” I said yes, and he probably thought we were freaks for wanting to visit a former leper colony because his overly friendly face never spoke a word again.
When we got settled on the boat (more like a bangka), things started to get a little more exciting. First, a seemingly dying woman was boarded onto the boat. Everyone started to make way for her. We later discovered that having been a colony to victims of one of the world’s most alarming diseases, Isla Culion, to this day, still has some of the best doctors and hospital facilities in all of Palawan. Driven by either impatience or pity for the woman or both, some passengers urged the boatmen to set out quickly, since the overcast weather had ceased to be funny. When the boatmen finally thought it was time, these pleas turned around. The storm was rocking our boat like an evil stepbrother would a baby’s cradle, and we were promptly asked to wear the bright-orange lifejackets hanging above us. I was one with the passengers who passionately begged for the powerful men to stay put. But they, too, were thinking of the dying woman! She needs to get medical attention! “She’s just one, there are plenty others of us in this boat (who are going to die in the sea in this storm!)” Buddy, my seatmate, yelled. I was praying to Jesus to calm the storm when all these things happened, and in hindsight, it seemed as if somebody had to die for us to be spared from it. Thankfully, this was not case, although I had never heard again about the sick woman. Buddy, a cigarette distributor, promised us that in his seven-plus years of bi-weekly trips to Isla Culion, he had never seen a storm so strong and scary. (Some passengers were laughing excitedly the whole time, as if they were in an amusement park ride.) Despite our cries for mercy, the boatmen assured us that we were sailing away from the storm, so we set out.
Sure enough, the storm did calm down eventually, and it was the cue for Buddy and I to start bonding. He gave us a crash course in the history of the island and the disease that plagued it: how the best doctors there were children of leprosy victims, and how the few leprosy victims that remain are now simply outpatients (because there has been a cure). He invited us to his house in the capital of Palawan, where we did end up staying five days later, but not before he offered to introduce us to Mayor Emil Marasigan of Isla Culion.
It was an interesting, animated conversation that was only interrupted by the remarkable eagle, a white-stone formation on the hill of Isla Culion. Referred to by the locals as simply “the eagle,” it forms the logo of the Department of Health on the slope of the 300-step hill.
As soon as we docked, we were greeted by two hotel staff who promptly decorated us with kalachuchi necklaces and loaded us and our bags on a waiting tricycle. I met Maye, and thanked her for upgrading us to their best room, called Kabel Kabel, which had the most beautiful 180-degree view of the sea. One of the staff, Kuya Toto, showed us around the adjacent century-old church and the boulevard. He left, and we decided to get lost in the island.
Isla Culion has electricity only from 12 noon to 12 midnight, and we had so much fun at dinner that lights went out only a few minutes after we retired to our room. We cleaned ourselves quickly in the dark, and called it a night. The next day, we woke up to the view of the sea and realized one thing: Culion people are so kind, they won’t wake you up and interrupt the peaceful sleep they’re sure you’re having. We still woke up decently early at around 6 a.m., though, during which the sun was already out. Kuya Toto was waiting for us outside to take us up the eagle, the way to which is made up of approximately 331 steps and has been turned into a Stations of the Cross pilgrimage site. It was an exhausting journey, but it was even more exhausting for me to think of how leprosy victims had to climb up the steps to build the eagle. It was done as a recreational activity, though, and on top of the eagle was a rather majestic statue of Christ the Redeemer. The view that He maintains from the top was even more majestic.
On the way back, Kuya Toto showed us the welcome sign that divided the town and its residents into Barangay Balala for the leprosy victims and Barangay Libis for those without the disease. It felt like a gateway from one world or another, there was even a small “checkpoint” to make sure that only those with leper relatives can go to the other side. Compelling doesn’t even begin to describe the experience of being there, and thinking of the freedom that the residents now enjoy. Back in Hotel Maya, we prepared ourselves for the meeting with the mayor.
Mayor Emil Marasigan was very laid back and down-to-earth; he wins the Coolest Mayor Award in my book, and I’m not just saying this because our brief chat ended with him offering to take us island hopping the next day. With excited and grateful hearts, we left the city hall and had Buddy drop us off at Loyola College Culion (LCC) for our scheduled meeting with Fr. Javy Alpasa, the president of the smallest and poorest Jesuit school in the country. The great thing about staying in Hotel Maya was that it felt like traveling for a cause: not only were we getting affordable and comfortable accommodation (it’s the first and only hotel on the island), we also knew that we’re contributing to the noble project of helping children receive Jesuit education. Being the parish priest, he has spiritual activities tied with the hotel for the guests to experience if they wanted. That day, he was scheduled to say mass in San Pedro, an island community an hour or two away (depending on the waves) from Isla Culion town proper. They call it “Desitino,” and it’s something I highly recommend for everyone to join when in Isla Culion.
We had time to kill before the trip, so I grabbed the opportunity to meet the students who made me want to visit the island in the first place. Dhealyn and Jubelle were excused from their classes, and we caught up with each other while I had breakfast in their canteen. They then showed us around their small school, which was filled with the biggest smiles from the students. The school building did look like it needed help, but from the classrooms was a million-dollar view of the sea.
On the way to San Pedro, we saw fishermen with their little children hanging around on their boats, and Brad’s comment pretty much captured everything: “He’s in paradise and he doesn’t know it.”
Just when we thought the view couldn’t get prettier, the “entrance” to the island was guarded by mangrove plants. The trek to the half-finished church that was built right in the middle of the island was marked with small rivers and ultra-muddy soil, it was necessary that we occasionally take off our footwear. It was most rewarding to finally reach the structure that was going to be their church, and one of the assistants immediately rung an old, rusty oxygen tank beside it to signal our arrival.
When we got back to Isla Culion, we had late lunch at the convent and left to visit the museum that would close at five. At the hotel, we were lent a book that comprehensively chronicled through pictures and text the rich history of the island, and we were curious to see firsthand whatever evidence is left of this past, among them specially-made coins that could only be used by lepers to prevent transmission of the disease. We were relieved to see that it was still open, but the most unfortunate thing happened: they wanted to charge me P100, being Filipino, and Brad P250, being American. It was sad and appalling, because especially after seeing the magnificent beauty of the island, I was more passionate than ever to help with their tourism, but they were causing their own undoing. A spade will always be a spade, and in the same spirit that I call Isla Culion a storytelling, heartwarming paradise, the conventional practice of highway robbery of foreigners is still downright ugly. Being an unconventional tourist destination, Isla Culion should rise above this and lead the way in ethical tourism that doesn’t rip people off. I told Maye about this, and I hope that a solution is now in order.
The first order of business for our last day in Isla Culion was to meet the mayor, who sent us off. I absolutely did not expect to meet him when I set out to the island, but as I’ve learned, many pleasant surprises await you there. In addition to the mayor’s gift, these surprises included the Destino and the overall sense of peace and quiet that I experienced from the place, and nowhere else in Palawan. Isla Culion may not exactly be El Nido, but you go to Isla Culion for its hopeful history and the unique and rewarding experiences of Communion, Contemplation, and Celebration with God’s Creation — the “four C’s” that Fr. Javy coined as a mantra for when you visit Isla Culion. In many ways, it is better than the physical beauty of tourist centrals.
The mayor prepared a very fulfilling lunch for us and instructed the boatmen to take us to the private island of Dimlat around two hours from Isla Culion. The weather perfectly cooperated, and the boat trip was just as wonderful as the destination. There were pearl farms everywhere along the way, and some of the 41 islands that make up Culion would always be around you, hanging out. Our next stop was the famous Malcapuya, a private white-sand island that’s so well maintained it still felt like a perfect virgin beach, if not for the concrete house that was in the middle of it. We finally experienced the water, and we would not have left so soon, had not Kuya the Boatman called us to set out for Coron.
As we said goodbye to the Culion islands (to say hello to many others in Coron, El Nido, and Puerto Princesa), I was reminded of the students’ opening AVP presentation during the I Am A Changemaker competition finals. There was a dramatic photo of a group of islands, and over it was a text that said, “Palawan is the Philippines’ last frontier,” an undisputed fact that slowly faded into a revelation I was blessed to prove correct: “But Isla Culion is Palawan’s last frontier.”
(Many thanks to Maye for the assistance with the facts in this article, and Fr. Javy for the invaluable information about Isla Culion and the Jesuit mission in the island.)
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Joseph blogs on JosephMansilla.com.