Romblon is a province of islands in the geographic heart of the Philippines, it is a place where everything is measured in tides and sea breezes. Visitors to Romblon have no choice but to shift to a slower way of life, from waking up in the morning and through the moments of a day that seem to arrive in little increments. It is a province, after all, where the air still smells like burnt leaves in the morning, wafting from the fires that old ladies light to dispose of dried and withered things. The scent of freshly baked bread drift in the early morning air from backyard bakeries that still cook their wares in wood-fire ovens. And everywhere in the islands, there is an unmistakably slow start to the day. The islanders of Romblon know that things happen in their own time, or at least that they have the freedom to decide when to acknowledge the things that need doing.
I cannot imagine a single thing that I do not love about island life, there are never any meetings to get to and the days are always languid and sublime. Which is why it’s always with a great sense of expectation that I depart for such places, my mind is often on the island long before my boat can even leave port. Packing a bag for these places, I always only bring just enough. I choose what I bring so that it’s always just big enough to carry the essentials, but small enough that I am forced to leave behind all the other things that I usually cannot do without. Some would call it “going back to basics,” though it’s more like de-cluttering, of the mind and of life in general.
There are plenty of reasons to visit the islands of Romblon, though it might be difficult for those who are used to having scheduled lives and structured days. Traveling to Romblon is all about having time, after all. The boat leaves when it leaves, literally. I learned early on that it’s absolutely futile to expect things to go faster, just because we have an itinerary to follow. My suggestion is to get a hot bowl of noodles from the boat’s kitchen and use your itinerary as a placemat, you’ll end up happier and you would have saved yourself from a lot of unnecessary stress. Soon enough, you will hear the words “Fuera visita” blaring over the corroded public-address system of the boat, and then you know that you’re finally on your way.
My first time in Romblon was with my bike, a cheap steel mountain bike with snorkeling fins tied to the back of my saddle like an over-sized mud-guard. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure why I brought swimming fins to a bike ride. Perhaps, it’s because of the thought that I was going to an island, or the hope that I’d get to use them on a beach somewhere along the way. Although, it was the monsoon season when I visited and the waves were too large for any kind of swimming.
I rode my bike on the dirt roads of Tablas Island from the port of Odiongan to the fishing village of Santa Fe on its southern tip. It was my friend’s idea, actually. He had shown me a road map of Tablas that he bought from a gas station somewhere. It showed the island’s shape and a vague black line along its coastline that was supposed to represent roads. Neither of us had been there, and we had no idea what to expect or prepare for on a trip to Romblon and so, of course, we went! The ride took us an entire day to complete, along coastal dirt roads and over broken shards of marble and igneous rock further inland when the road diverted from the sea. We had stayed overnight in Santa Fe, sleeping at a fisherman’s house before boarding a wood and bamboo outrigger boat bound for the Island of Boracay the next day.
It was a real adventure riding across Tablas, and it wasn’t without little mishaps along the way, like when my friend went over the railings at a tricky curve in the road while we were going very fast down a hill. On my next visit to Romblon, I decided that I wanted to see more of the province by going to all three of its major islands. Tablas Island has the busiest port in the province, with truckloads of commodities being unloaded from the ferries that stop there on the way to destinations farther south. Tablas also has a university, from where we met a professor who specializes in the Asi dialect. He told us about Banton Island, a small island in the northern part of Romblon where it’s possible, he says, to see monkeys and mummies. Banton is accessible from Lucena in Quezon with wooden passenger boats, there is also a boat service from the town of Calatrava in Tablas that take passengers directly to Banton. In my opinion, Lucena would be a better option for the traveler on a tight schedule, the boat from Tablas leaves only once a week and there is almost always never a guarantee that the weather will cooperate to allow a crossing.
On my trip, I didn’t bother to disembark from the boat in Tablas. I’ve already been there, after all. Instead, I just lay in my bunk bed on board while the ferry disgorged its passenger and cargo. It took about an hour before I felt the ship’s propellers churning the deep waters of Odiongan once more. From Tablas, it would be another hour or so before we arrived on the Island of Romblon, the political capital of the province. On the way, we passed the northern tip of Tablas and a hidden cove where there is a natural phenomenon called a blue hole, an underwater cave that descends to over a hundred meters deep. Though, in other places in the world, blue holes can go even deeper. The one in Tablas is not one of the great ones but it is definitely spectacular nonetheless.
The port of Romblon Island is in a cove, protected from the high winds and large waves of the Sibuyan Sea. The approach to the port is beautiful and the town looks picturesque against verdant hills and the glimmering waters of the cove. We went straight to a place called the Romblon Deli after setting foot on the island, where we promptly ordered freshly-made pizza and drinks. The establishment is just off the pier facing the sea, they also have a second floor dining area where customers can stare into the horizon and pretend to be deep in thought while nursing a cold bottle of beer, or wine. It is also possible to have Canadian bacon or German sausages at the Romblon Deli, or poached eggs and ham, if that is more your plate.
Incidentally, the owner of the Romblon Deli who is a young Balikbayan from New York, also owns a resort called the Diwata somewhere farther down the coastline. It takes about thirty minutes to drive there but it’s worth it because of the swimming pool and the boardwalk that takes guests through a pristine mangrove forest. There is an old fort in the hills behind the town, a few locals will recommend it but you wouldn’t be missing too much if you went straight to the Diwata instead. If you’re looking for a good view of the island, you’d have a better chance of getting that one-in-a-million photograph that you’d stick on your Instagram from a place called “the cell-site.” It’s called that because it’s a hill with several cellular towers at its peak. Local residents would know where it is and asking for directions usually gets you everywhere you want to go on the island, but for people who want a more traditional way of knowing things there is a tourism officer waiting at the “Municipio.”
One of the places in Romblon that qualifies as a revelation is Cobrador Island. It is about an hour from the port of Romblon Island by outrigger boat, the route going there will take visitors past picturesque islets and some of the most beautiful islands in the Philippines. The most important reason to visit Cobrador Island now is probably the lack of tourists and resorts. The island is blessed with white sands and a complete absence of commercialism, adventurers who get to this corner of Romblon will have to find a campsite by the beach or arrange for accommodations at a local fisherman’s house in the village. There is also a small hill where it’s possible to hike up and get a better view of the island. The waters around Cobrador are deep and filled with corals unlike anything you’ll see anywhere else, there is also an abundance of fish and other marine life. Snorkeling is great when done from a boat as it affords you the opportunity to travel from one coral reef to another, and there are many of them. There are only two things to consider when visiting the island: one of them is water, as you will have to bring your own unless you don’t mind drinking the local water supply collected from a shallow well. The other concern are some of the old men from the village who spend their time drinking rhum and staring cross-eyed out to sea. We met some of them shuffling along the beach like zombies. They are mostly harmless and they don’t really pose any danger, though it is best not to encourage them as they will end up asking for money to buy more alcohol. In addition, there are also very few stores where you can buy any of the essentials, it is best to get batteries, medicines and other things from the town in Romblon.
In town, the traditional way of getting around is by tricycle – a three-wheeled conveyance powered by a motorcycle. People who are looking to explore farther afield should look for a motorcycle that they can either rent or hire with a driver. Although, I would seriously suggest bringing your own mountain bike as the island is the perfect place to ride it. There is a coastal road that eventually turns into a dirt-road the farther away you travel from town. It takes a rather long day to ride around the island, but the route will take you to a pebble beach with a good view of Sibuyan Island and the jagged peaks of Mount Guiting-guiting at its center. Alternatively, there is also a trail going up and over the cell-site hill that will take you to the northern side of the island. It is quite a ride going uphill, at least half of the way, and you literally end up nowhere. Well, you end up on a beach with a view but there aren’t any hotels or resorts where you can put up for the night, you will either have to camp out on the sand or arrange for a vehicle to pick you up. But as it is a ride that takes a full day to complete, it might be best to just sit tight and enjoy the adventure. As with many other things in Romblon, one will have to learn to take life as it happens and not plan too far ahead.
Sibuyan Island is a place that is recognized as the Galapagos of Asia. The island is surrounded by a deep trench and its landmass has never been connected to any other since it emerged from the ocean floor in a very slow cataclysm of tectonic forces. Because of its geographic isolation, the flora and fauna of Sibuyan has evolved through time independently. There are trees and animals that are still being discovered on the island that cannot be found anywhere else, it is a unique place that holds some of the greatest environmental treasures of the Philippine archipelago. If you visit Sibuyan, tread with the respect that it deserves, there is possibly no other place like it anywhere else.
I traveled to Sibuyan from the Island of Romblon by boat, I took the regular ferry that connects the three major islands of Romblon. It took about two hours to make the crossing and the difference between Sibuyan and the other islands was immediately apparent when we arrived. Unlike on Tablas and Romblon where commerce dictates the pace of life, there is no bustle at the port of Magdiwang in Sibuyan, even the streets outside the port are quiet and life moves at an even slower pace. People live in wooden huts on the coastline, spending their days fishing, mending their nets, and drying their catch for the day. Sibuyan has numerous rivers that are spanned by concrete bridges on the way into the town of Magdiwang. The town itself is a quiet place, coming to life once a week on Thursdays when the market opens. I went straight to a place called the Sanctuary Garden Resort on the banks of the Pawala River. I met the owner Edgar Mayor who described to me his vision of someday organizing tourism on Sibuyan into something that can be environmentally-sustainable for the long term. It is a good dream, though in many places around the Philippines that I have seen, the problem are the visitors themselves. many of them fail to see the value of the places that they visit, demanding for the trappings of the city and turning the natural attractions into a kind of side-dish for the cheap thrills of bars, spas, and airconditioning. People travel, for sure, but they travel with the pollutions of the city virtually stashed in their bags at all times.
There is a place in Sibuyan called Azagra, just a short distance away from the San Fernando River on the southern tip of the island. For climbers going to or coming from the famed summit of Mount Guiting-guiting, the San Fernando River is a familiar and welcoming sight, it signifies both the promise of a climb and the end of a difficult but rewarding adventure. San Fernando is also the name of a town where the river meets the sea, formerly called Pueblo de Azagra during the Spanish colonization of the Philippines. Today, Azagra is just a barangay of San Fernando where visitors can find Lamao Lake, a scenic hill with a lighthouse, and an old Spanish Church that is believed to be second only in age to the Basilica de Santo Niño on the island of Cebu. Another reason to visit Azagra is its proximity to an islet called the Cresta de Gallo, rarely featured in travel reports but its white sand and spectacular marine life might soon put it on every traveler’s map. Azagra is also on the way to Cajidiocan, a much smaller town than Magdiwang but also has a port that is a stop for smaller ferries from Batangas. There was a time when the Holy Week rush left us stranded in Sibuyan after a climb to Guiting-guiting, we had to take a jeepney from Magdiwang to catch a ferry in Cajidiocan going back to Batangas.
Sibuyan is another island where a mountain bike would come in handy when exploring the coastline and its inland trails. The coastal road of Sibuyan is mostly dirt but offers a grand view of the Sibuyan Sea the entire way. There are countless waterfalls and hidden riverside trails where the adventurous can ride and find places all to himself. Sibuyan is an incredible destination for adventurers, but it’s also home to those who want to take a break from the noise and chatter of write-up adventures and contrived images. Anyone can get to Sibuyan, but its secrets are open only to those who have the will to pursue its beauty deep into its waters and up its jagged peaks and into the clouds.
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About The Author
Myles Delfin is an adventure writer and photographer whose work has appeared in major adventure and travel magazines in the Philippines. In addition to over twenty years of experience climbing most of the major mountains of the Philippines, he also has competitive experience in multi-day adventure racing as well as endurance cross-country mountain biking. These days, he is also busy producing adventure and expedition videos.