There are two sides in every story, and for an island like Culion, that held the stigma of the long-gone leprosy, there’s the view from the people who lived in the island and those who look upon it from the outside like me. I have this lingering fascination and curiosity with Culion Island that beheld me ever since I’ve heard about it. I wanted delve deeper and see for myself, hear for myself the stories of struggles, perseverance, hope and healing. I know there’s a lot more to Culion Island than what people perceive of it, so I made sure when I returned to Coron, I made a trip to this island used to be known as the “Island of the living dead” and “Island of no return”.
The Eagle Sighted
Almost a couple of hours boat ride from Coron Town, we caught sight of an Eagle just above a hill near a few towers. Upon further reading of literature about Culion Island (in reference to an article by Art Punzalan*), the sign of the eagle on the hill is the seal of the Philippine Health Service. It was built in 1926 to commemorate the colony’s 20 years anniversary. At that time, people outside the island, proceeds with caution when they see the Eagle Seal as it means they are entering a dreaded leprosy zone. But for the people who built the seal and carried the coral stones up the side of the mountain, it’s a symbol of hope and pride. The site is now popularly known as the “Agila“ a tagalog word for Eagle.
Nightfall over Culion Town
We settled in our lodging at Hotel Maya, found at the back of La Immaculada Concepcion Church. It’s a beautiful old hotel mostly used for retreats. I just love the view of the open sea at their patio. Wanting to see more of the town, we decided to visit the Agila. A few people volunteered directions and it plain and simple, follow the road down, past the Rizal Plaza is a White House, go on a pathway on its side. It was a pleasant stroll as we go into this small coastal town with only a few houses lined up, some stilt houses and friendly people we passed by. I am always charmed by places that seems far off the radar like this, small road, low-rise house and genuine smiles from people.
We again raced for the light on the 330-steps stair trail usually plied by devotees for their Holy Week Pilgrimage. Albeit shorter than our 700+ steps climb at Mt Tapyas in Coron, I found myself short of breath when we reached the site of the Eagle and the town slowly wrapped under the shadow of the hill. I looked at the stones, how huge they were and wondered how long did it take for those people who built this site for them to gather and build the symbol.
A Christ the Redeemer stands atop the Eagle symbol overlooking the town. From up there I could see the huge jagged Coron Island and the nearby islands and the number of boats that seems to go in different directions as the night falls, probably most of them on their way home. By twilight, the facade of La Immaculada Concepcion Church lights up and a few houses and establishments with generator. There is limited electricity on the island as they were waiting for the technicians who will work on the new generators that came from Coron.
A Starry Starry Night
As the night got deeper, the stars revealed themselves and it was plentiful, a sight I have sorely whenever I’m in Manila. We descended the hill rather late. There was electricity at Hotel Maya but the generator for the aircon would open by midnight. We decided to get some cool air but found the milky way revealing itself on the horizon. With almost pitch-black darkness sans electricity, we let the ambient light paint the landscape, the sky and the structures. It was a wonderful night to take photos and delight on a starry starry night.
There is only one public ferry to Culion Island trip per day. There are two boats that alternate every other day, the Barbara and Olympia, plies the Coron-Culion Island route and leaves Coron Port at 1-1:30pm. The next day, the Culion-Coron boat leaves at 7:30-8am. The ride takes about two hours. There is a 32-passenger capacity each trip so it’s best to visit early in the morning and sign up to reserve your slot. Boat fare at this time of writing is Php 180/pax payable on board and there’s a Php 20 terminal fee at the pier.
Day Tours to Culion Island are also offered by several travel agencies in town. Usually at Php 1,150/pax for a group minimum of 5 pax.
*Reference to Art Punzalan’s Colonial Leprosy Archives
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.