Vacationers are drawn to Bantayan like pilgrims to a holy land – a blessed island actually, with blinding white beaches and sparkling aquamarine waters that beckon. Indeed, pilgrims do come for its time-honored observance of semana santa or Holy Week. The Maundy Thursday and Good Friday processions draw thousands of pious devotees as grandiose family-owned carrozas (carriages) bearing life-size religious statues, some handed down the generations, make their annual appearance around town.
Bantayan’s Holy Week is like no other in the country, an almost festive atmosphere pervades across the island. While faithful Catholics abstain from eating meat, expect lechon as part of the feasting among families and friends who made it to the island bearing the 3-hour long drive from Cebu City to San Remigio town up north, then an hour’s ferry ride to the Santa Fe port in Bantayan.
It is told that when their fishermen refused to launch out to sea and toil during the most religious time of the year, their families had nothing to eat. An indulto was then issued to Bantayan’s parish priest in 1840 allowing the townspeople to eat meat on Good Friday, and they have been doing so ever since. Whether this applied to Bantayan visitors is unclear but the special dispensation has most likely long expired. If you’re interested in seeing one of the oldest churches in the Philippines, the 15th century Saints Peter and Paul Church was built with walls of coral stone.
Jutting out to the sea, Kota Park’s footbridge allows an expansive view of the surrounding waters and offers an ideal spot to watch Bantayan’s magnificent sunsets. The ruins of the old fort (kota in Spanish) built in 1790 to protect the townspeople from pirates are now part of Kota Park.
During this peak season, inter-island ferries are busy shuttling the overwhelming number of visitors who show up at San Remigio’s Hagnaya Wharf, all of them in a mad rush to make the crossing and start their long Easter weekend on the tropical isle. Accommodations in Bantayan are unpretentious and pitching a tent on the beach is an option when rooms are hard to come by.
The laid-back lifestyle resumes once the Holy Week frenzy dies down as islanders around the 3 main towns return to their fishing nets and poultry farms. Bantayan, also the name of the biggest town, is where 80% of the eggs in the province come from, while Madridejos is Cebu’s main supplier of dried fish. The friendly resort town of Santa Fe is the perfect island getaway that tourists dream about. Its endless white-sand beaches remain nothing short of spectacular, and the best spot to bask in the sun, or watch it retreat gloriously beyond the horizon.
Bountiful harvests from the sea around Bantayan Island find their way to the local town market; seafood couldn’t be any fresher than here.
Originally published in Postcards from CebuMotorbikes can be rented to check out some of the island’s interesting sites like the Ogtong Cave. There’s also the little known Virgin Island for those who just can’t get enough of the beach. After super-storm Yolanda (internationally named Haiyan) brutally lashed across the island – and other parts of northern Cebu – in 2013 and rendered people homeless, Bantayan has pretty much well recovered. With generous humanitarian and financial aid from around the world, and the commendable hard work, resourcefulness and community spirit of the local population, the islanders are back on their feet again with rebuilt homes, revived livelihoods and renewed energy.