The mouthwatering aroma of fried garlic wafts from a sizzling wok and slowly lures me out of sleep. Cooking breakfast is Cecilia Lorenzo, a 44-year-old homemaker who has opened her doors to tourists on Mararison, a 55ha island off the coast of Culasi, Antique. The cheerful mother of eight presides over a feast of dried bansi (flying fish) and adobong pugita, a spicy stew made from octopus she collected herself during the previous night’s panginhas, the traditional routine of harvesting seafood by hand — shells, sea urchins and sea cucumbers — when the tide recedes.
As we sit down for breakfast, a steady breeze blows through the coconut and sea almond trees dotting the settlement. It all contributes to the rustic charm that’s drawing a steadily growing number of tourists to these shores.
But almost five years ago, the weather was far from pleasant, Cecilia recalls. On November 8, 2013, one of the strongest typhoons ever recorded ripped across central Philippines. In Mararison, situated along the path of Super Typhoon Haiyan — locally named Yolanda — an entire village of around 140 households was nearly wiped out. “The storm blew everything away,” says Cecilia, recounting her family’s ordeal. “Nobody here has experienced anything that powerful before, not even the elders in our village.” As the typhoon ravaged the island, she led her children into the bedroom, where they huddled next to concrete walls, the only part of the house left standing as 300km/h winds demolished their home. “I thought none of us would survive.” The Lorenzo family lost their house, their tilapia pond and the fishing boat they depended on as their main source of livelihood. It was nothing short of miraculous that the damage to Mararison included no human casualties.
But it was in the wake of the natural disaster that Mararison’s tourism potential was discovered. Media reporters covering the aftermath of Haiyan, along with NGO workers conducting relief operations, inadvertently first brought public attention to the island and its overlooked natural beauty. The word was out, and travelers started pouring in. “The community was hesitant to embrace tourism at first,” Cecilia explains. “Having seen what happened to touristy places, many were concerned that local values would change, that trash would pile up everywhere and that only capitalists would benefit from the boom.”
The municipal government and national agencies stepped in to ensure that the local community would benefit directly from the influx of visitors. To prevent overdevelopment, a consequence of unchecked tourism that besets many sought-after destinations elsewhere in the country, a local ordinance limits the height of new buildings to two floors. Instead of constructing large-scale resorts, more than 40 homestays were established to accommodate travelers wishing to spend the night on the island, offering them not just a roof over their heads but immersion into the lives and culture of the residents.
“Augmenting our income from our traditional livelihood of fishing, tourism helped rebuild our houses, pay for day-to-day expenses, and even send our children to school,” my host shares. Moreover, fishermen now earn half of their income from ferrying visitors to and from the mainland on their fishing boats.
Music has also played a big part in helping residents cope with the tragedy, especially among the kids. At Kawit Sandbar, the hook-shaped strip of white sand fronting the community, I meet 26-year-old Joeryl Amaro, who taught himself how to play guitar, and the Mararison Island Children’s Choir, a 43-member group composed of local schoolchildren aged seven to 16. The choir occasionally serenades beachgoers with folk songs upon request. “First there was only one kid who was up for it, then three, until we ended up forming a big group!” Joeryl says, recounting how he informally started the choir four years ago with curious neighborhood children who joined his weekend guitar practices.
Among the songs the choir performs during my visit is one of Joeryl’s original compositions. Written in the local dialect of Kinaray-a months after Haiyan, it’s simply called “Mararison Theme Song”. With soulful voices, the children sing the wistful ode to the pristine beauty and life-giving bounty of the island before calamity struck. “Through this song, I want my beloved island to live on,” he tells me. As a follow-up, they perform a happier Kinaray-a jingle welcoming visitors to the island: “Come to Mararison! How beautiful is Mararison!”
“Donations of any amount help provide for the children’s school allowances,” Joeryl explains, “but our main mission is to share happiness with those visiting the island.”
Walk the land
Aside from setting up homestay accommodations, more than 60 villagers have also been trained to become trail guides to show visitors around. It may be tempting to spend your entire stay on the sandbar bordered by luminous shallows where pump boats anchor upon arriving from the mainland, but you’d be missing out on the island’s many other offerings.
With 41-year-old fisherman and village official Ariel Acupan as my guide, I leg it up over the grassy hills behind the village to explore the rest of the island at a leisurely pace. “Guiding tourists provides an important alternative source of income for us fishermen,” he confirms, “especially when the catch is poor.” We reach the 90m-high Lantawan Hill, which, he explains, is used by the community as a lookout to search for fishermen lost at sea. The views are magnificent from every angle. It’s the highest point on the island, overlooking the fishing village, the sandbar and, across the channel, the mighty mountain range of Antique province. I spy Mt Madja-as, the Panay mainland’s tallest peak, looming over the town of Culasi.
While the views are captivating, Ariel makes sure I don’t miss the fascinating flora right under our noses, pointing out unique plants along the trail like Nepenthes abalata, an endemic species of pitcher plant — curious-looking carnivorous plants with cup-shaped leaves that lure, trap and digest insects and other prey — found only on Cuyo and Culion islands in Palawan, aside from Mararison. We spot sundews, another insect-eating plant — thumbnail-sized rosettes with tendrils that secrete a sticky substance called mucilage to catch small bugs like flypaper. Also dotting the grassy landscape are Indian rhododendrons, pink-flowered shrubs locally called tungawngaw that bear sweet berries. “We used to eat these when we were kids,” Ariel tells me, handing over the small, purple fruits for me to snack on.
Surprisingly for an island its size, there’s a lot to see on Mararison. The scenic trail meanders over barren seaside ridges — a miniature version of the dramatic seascapes in Zambales or Batanes — to Luyo Beach, on a shallow lagoon surrounding the adjacent islet of Nablag. A nearby pebble beach with a small cave at the base of a cliff is the jump-off point for those who wish to return to the sandbar area by sea aboard an outrigger canoe. But from here, there’s also more to marvel at beneath the waves. The coral reefs fringing Mararison harbor more than 100 hard coral species and 400 fish species. Along this rugged shoreline is Gui-ob Reef, a 28ha marine sanctuary. I snorkel over coral gardens, colored with schools of reef fish that resemble confetti, before returning to shore to catch the sunset over the open waters of the Sulu Sea.
As the celestial fireball sinks over the horizon, we linger on Luyo Beach to witness another of nature’s incredible light shows. The final glow of daylight dissolves and the strong amihan (northeast wind) continues to blow over the cove, sending ripples across the surface of the deserted, moonlit lagoon. “We might not see them on windy nights like this,” Ariel says as a way of managing my expectations of the tour’s final attraction: a colony of fireflies converging by nightfall. Despite the windy weather, the bioluminescent beetles eventually appear one by one. “Look, they’re here!”
The fireflies float from the undergrowth and surround the branches of a small tree, lighting it up with their gentle greenish flicker. We lie down on the ground closer to their abode, observing them weave through bare branches overhead. Strong gusts of wind, however, sweep them away every now and then, dispersing them into the darkness. But in a display of resilience reminiscent of the island and its people, they carry on with their mesmerizing dance well into the evening.
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Isle of legend
According to Karay-a folklore, Mararison and the neighboring islands of Batbatan and Maniguin were the three children of Kanlaon and Madja-as. The brothers Mararison and Batbatban grew up to be strong men, while the daughter Maniguin was the most beautiful in all the land. But the siblings’ attitudes worsened in time: Mararison refused to obey rules (his name means “disobedient” in the Kinaray-a language), Batbatan disrespected elders and Maniguin avoided household chores. Despite their parents’ prayers, their stubbornness angered the chief god Bulalakaw who transformed them into islands, separating them for all eternity from their parents. To this day, their father Kanlaon, an active volcano on Negros Island, continues to fume in anger, while their mother, the tallest peak on Panay Island, still weeps over her children in the form of waterfalls, watching over her banished offspring from a distance.
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How to get there
From Caticlan or Kalibo, take a bus or van bound for San Jose de Buenavista and alight at Culasi town proper. Between 6am and 6pm, outrigger pump boats ferry passengers between Culasi Port and Mararison Island in 15 minutes for P150 per person.
For homestay accommodations and other inquiries, contact the municipal tourism office at +63 947 587 3067. Check out local tour company Katahum Tours for all-inclusive tour packages on the island. katahum.com
This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Smile magazine.