text | Carla Ocampo
photography | Carla Ocampo and Lester Valle
Oh freakin’ yeah, there will be a Part Two. But first, we’re telling you about our FIRST EVER trip to this Philippine province… that changed our lives in so many ways.
What do we know about Romblon? From our elementary geography, it would seem to be famous for nothing more than: Marble quarries. Marble tiles. Marble sculptures. A thorough scan of their current provincial brochure would tell us that one of their smaller islands, Alad, has enough marble to be commercially mined everyday for the next twenty years without running out of it.
But elementary days taught us a lot of half-truths, we always say, and there was just nothing left to do but to see it for ourselves. What more is there to see in Romblon?
Leonard “Hokbu” Reyes— our ka-kapit-blog who is the sharp and sensitive lensman-cyclist behind Padyak/Pitik— gave us the most opportune time to find out exactly that.
Finally, with Hokbu ironing out all accommodation and transportation concerns, we waited for the next Montenegro Liner to Romblon, and patiently wondered what could be in store for us.
MONTENEGRO LINES, AND THE BATANGAS PORT
Guess what? We waited 12 HOURS for our sea trip. Not actually the ticketing office’s fault; they do tell passengers to get their tickets at least five hours before boarding to get sure slots (click here for ticket rates). We got ours… merely an hour before our target schedule. No-can-do. We were relegated to the next trip. Yep. 12 hours away.
Tuloy, the Upper Waiting Area at the Batangas Port could be one of the most lingering images I have had in recent traveling memory. Jampacked with people of ALL ages, crying babies left and right, and the occasional manicurista-pedicurista who would offer her services while you wait for your ferry to arrive.
Food here is quite good. They serve agreeable bowls of porridge and guinisang pancit miki; while at the Lower Waiting Area, two kitchenettes serve rice and viands for a minimum of PhP50.
Weather was perfect. We were at sea for about eight hours, again, with crying babies left and right, and the occasional videoke kings taking turns at the machine. The ferry’s economy class was a riot, but this is possibly negligible as you hit the isle-dotted Verde Island Passage, all the way to the Tablas Strait. For contemplative travelers, all you hafta do is look out into the sea and meditate. Aum…
In no time, the emerald islands you saw in the first few hours of the cruise will be followed by white-streaked chunks of earth. Boom. You ARE in Romblon. And if you choose to land on the capital town’s port (Romblon town on Romblon Island in Romblon Province. Whew!) the following is what you would expect once you set foot on their rustic Mediterranean-esque shore.
You’d probably be growling hungry by this time (the only “meals” sold on board the ferry are instant cup noodles. And beer, hehe). So, from the port gate, turn right and go straight. West of the town center plaza, a row of canteens and mini-restos offer quick fixes. Php 50-Php 90 combos are served in Sizzlingan, Aber Diin (haha!) and other hole-in-the-wall eateries here.
The Caucasian-frequented Romblon Deli are for those who have extra money to spare. They serve cold cuts, pizzas, pastas, the works. Here, wanting a full stomach would mean shelling out about Php 250 per person.
Within the vicinity of the town proper are must-sees for heritage heads. The St. Joseph Cathedral, for one, is a 17th Century structure. Lester suspects it has only undergone minimal renovations, if at all. The limestone walls expected of old Spanish churches in the Philippines are intact (albeit cleaned white). The National Museum lists this cathedral as a National Cultural Treasure.
Just beside the public market, a flight of adobe stairs goes all the way up to another heritage site, Fort San Andres. It is also a survivor from way back, built in the 17th century. Also of limestone, it is strategically placed on top of the town center’s highest hill, giving it a sweeping view of Romblon waters, and for a good reason. It helped repel several vicious attacks by Moro pirates during their era of non-stop pillage in the Visayas region. Today, owing to its elevated location, the fort serves as a PAGASA weather station.
The best thing about the capital town is that it is virtually a zero-crime-rate zone. The nipa bungalow we rented was never locked up, ever. No one seems to be interested in looting anything from anyone.
Romblon surprises the first-timer with stretches of white-sand beaches and sandbars. As of this writing, most of these are thankfully free from disco bars and pubs. Unadulterated, and yes, free for all. For instance, the beach called Bonbon in the village of Lonos is a mini-paradise, with patches of wavy metamorphic rocks accenting the already eye-catching white shoreline. You walk on this beach in about 20 minutes without finding any other person on it, but yourself. Now how’s that for Boracay’s anti-thesis?
BIKE, BIKE, BIKE
Lester and Hokbu had the time of their lives negotiating the route around the whole island, about 40 kilometers in all. And why not. Rolling terrain, 80% dirt road, fantastic scenery and just about the kindest, smilingest people of the Philippines would greet all bikers who decide to go on this roundtrip. Not to mention, one of the best-tasting isaw con siling-suka in the island. We’re not telling where, biker pips. Suffice it to say, it’s just along the road, and it’s for you to find out
In the 1950s, a group of Italian artisans taught Rombloanons the art of sculpting marble. Locals have since been shaping marble slabs into dolphins, buddhas, Chinese dragons, elephants, frogs, lions, nudes… even small mortars and, gulp, tombstones and lapidas (visit Lito’s Little Lapida on Facebook for the wackiest samples) . The marblework industry is arguably the most unique in the country, yet, one of the most underrated as well.
We learned from the stories shared by marble sculptors and sellers that their businesses are at an all-time low. The last time they had a lot of buyers was during the late 1980s to early 90s, and it was all downhill after that.
It is one sad fact. Romblon’s marble crafts, smoothly polished and extremely elegant, are products of one too many fingers chipped, sliced, or completely dismembered… the industry literally thrives on blood, sweat and tears. To survive by scraping the bottom of the tourism-boom barrel makes the situation all the more heartbreaking.
WE FELL IN LOVE WITH COBRADOR
North of Romblon Island, and still within the main town’s jurisdiction, is the island of Cobrador. Ringed by white sand, talc-like in some parts, it is here where we met the most gracious and funniest people. Sleeping on the beach with only a strip of tarpaulin over your heads is a must-try; summer nights in Cobrador are the gentlest yet. The sea breeze never roars, since the island is protected by the wide hilly ranges of neighboring isles.
Meals throughout the day were literally ‘from the sea to the table,” and it was always a rich buffet: fish galore! This is a direct effect of their love affair with the waters— Cobrador has several parts which are marine protected areas. Ergo, travelers should practice caution and ask permission from locals before diving into the sea.
The catch, if you have to call it that way, is this: Cobrador has no tourism facilities. No inns. No restaurants. Nothing. Almost all of the structures within the island are nipa huts with thatched roofs, save for a few concrete boxes like the barangay hall and the local elementary school. So how did we survive three days on the island? We befriended the locals, talked to them lengthily, shared bottles of rum with them, sang with them, ate with them, laughed with them, and lived with them. Because of this, we had the most unforgettable out-of-town vacation— in a land where we were practically strangers!
Today, more than remembering the vistas and the roads and the islands, we remember the people of Cobrador, and it is, perhaps, the best reason for our return.
(For questions regarding accommodation, it is best to call their Provincial Tourism Officer, Senia “Tita Sen” Oñas at +63929 506 9187)
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