Everyone flying to Cebu lands in Lapu-Lapu City, the gateway to Cebu Island and site of the Mactan-Cebu International Airport. Serving both passenger and cargo operations, the Cebu airport offers an attractive entry option into the country, bypassing Manila. The Philippines’ second busiest airport has direct daily connections to a number of international and key domestic destinations, making it a transport hub for the region.
Encompassing several islets including Olango and a huge part of the popular beach island of Mactan, Lapu-Lapu City is currently linked to Mandaue City (on the main island of Cebu) by two bridges. A third link is in the works to absorb the expected rise in visitor arrivals and commuters as the city quickly progresses. Traffic to and from the island should then be smoother, congestion lighter and heads much cooler when this added access comes up.
The highly urbanized city hosts many multi-national factories clustered around its tax-free Mactan Export Processing Zone and has a hard-working, efficient and English-speaking labor pool. Cebu is typically represented by pictures of Magellan’s Cross, luscious mangoes, and additionally, white sand beaches and guitars.
Opon was the town’s original name when Augustinian priests founded it in 1730. Becoming a city in 1961, it was renamed Lapu-Lapu after the brave native chieftain who waged war and decisively defeated Spain’s conquistador, Ferdinand Magellan, right on Mactan’s shores in 1521. The spot is marked by the Magellan Shrine, while the local warrior stands heroically larger than life nearby, immortalized with a 20-meter high bronze statue and a city that bears his name. The Philippine National Police also carries his image on its official seal. The historic battle is commemorated at the site every year by the week-long Kadaugan sa Mactan (Victory in Mactan), a crowd-drawing festival in April. Tourist Police visibly patrol the area of the historical landmarks where little stalls selling souvenirs have also set up shop.
A treasured tourist destination, Mactan Island offers accommodations ranging from luxurious resorts for the indulgent to comfortable rustic lodges. If you can drag yourself away from its white beaches, popular excursions around Lapu-Lapu and Mactan include full-day island-hopping on a motorized banca (outrigger canoe) with a hearty seafood barbecue lunch on one of the islands; and bird-watching or guided walking tours around the Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary.
Check out the other things you can do when visiting Lapu-Lapu City:
FILM SCHOOLS. One of two film schools in Cebu, the International Academy of Film & Television offers Certificate and Diploma programs in Filmmaking, Acting and 3D Animation. Small stalls around the Mactan Shrine attract tourists who delight at the variety of souvenir items. The white beaches of Mactan are enticing and less than an hour’s drive from Cebu City.
GUITAR MAKING. With three generations of experience, Mactan’s craftsmen have perfected the fine art of producing world-class quality acoustic guitars, handmade and using locally grown hardwood in Barangay Maribago. Having perfected the art, a skilled craftsman is usually responsible for completing the entire production process of a single guitar to ensure quality workmanship.
OUR LADY OF RULE. Devoted parishioners pray at Our Lady of the Rule Church, also called Nuestra Señora Virgen de la Regla.
MAGELLAN SHRINE. The Magellan Shrine was erected in 1866 in remembrance of Ferdinand Magellan who is credited for bringing Christianity to Cebu. It marks the very spot where the Spanish conquistador was defeated in battle by the local warrior, Lapu Lapu.
LAPU-LAPU MONUMENT. The Lapu Lapu Monument is a symbol of the boundless courage of the local warrior chieftain who stands larger than life, immortalized by a 20-meter high bronze statue situated inside the Mactan Shrine.
Boljoon: A Treasure Trove of History
Your Boljoon experiences starts once you catch sight of Ili Rock, the distinctive landmark mountain that overlooks this beguiling coastal town 103 kilometers south of Cebu City. Jutting out and facing Bohol Strait, the limestone rock formation shelters the town from the north, like the natural fortress it was against invaders before and during the Spanish era. Now it serves as a towering backdrop to some of Boljoon’s heritage sites.
Coming around the bend brings the postcard-pretty town into full view. Nestled in a cove looking over the placid azure waters is the serene Nuestra Señora Patrocinio de Maria church. Listed as a National Historical Landmark, it is the only church in Cebu declared as a National Cultural Treasure – the highest honor given to a heritage structure by the National Museum of the Philippines.
Established as a visita in 1599, the Boljoon church is the oldest remaining original stone church in the country. Built of coral bricks with clay tile roofing in 1783, its walls are two-meters thick, as massive as the 26 pillars that support them. Behind the austere facade with bas-reliefs of biblical characters, the interior features gilded relief sculptures and colorful scenes painted on its vaulted ceiling. Constructed as a place of worship, the simple structure also had defense in mind to give the townspeople a safe refuge from the constant and merciless Moro raids.
Father Julian Bermejo, the Augustinian priest finally completed the church in 1841. Hailed as “el padre capitan,” he fortified the church perimeter with stone walls and started a watchtower defense strategy to alert the town of impending pirate attacks. Signaling with flags and gas lamps at night, the warning system was effectively carried out across the network of baluartes or watchtowers he initiated to be built along the coastal towns from Carcar to the southernmost Santander, a stretch of 96 kilometers. El Gran Baluarte, the largest of Boljoon’s four watchtowers, is a solid two-level structure which was both a weapons and ammunition storeroom and a prison. Standing today as the church belfry, the old mounted cannons have been silenced and replaced by cast iron church bells.
Nuestra Señora Patrocinio de Maria Church was built as a fortress church with two meter-thick walls, giving the townsfolk a place of refuge against Moro raids. The only remaining original stone church in the country, it has been declared a National Cultural Treasure.
The nearby Escuela Catolica was a school erected in 1940 for religious teachings. At times serving as a dormitory, girls and boys who were required to stay overnight before taking their first Holy Communion entered the school separately through a pair of concrete staircases. The old wooden building still remains in use today as a meeting center for the parish’s religious groups.
Recent excavations around the church grounds unearthed skeletons, gold jewelry and artifacts including antique Japanese plates, confirming that Boljoon was a thriving trade settlement in pre-Spanish times. The archeological finds are on display at the Boljoon Museum at the church complex. In spite of pillaging and repeated looting in the past – a communion rail with ornate silver works was even stolen from the church – the parish museum is a treasure trove of old church records, religious icons and historic ornaments.
Guided tours around the church complex and museum are handled by the community-based Asosasyon sa mga Boljoanon nga Magpakabana sa Turismo (ASBOMATU). Its Bygone Boljoon Tours package includes lunch at the historic bell tower. A chunk of the scenic Ili Rock was lost to a slope benching project following Cebu’s 2013 earthquake. The necessary, albeit painful, measure was an engineering remedy to prevent further landslides and to ensure public safety. All is not lost, however, as the quaint town of Boljoon still delivers as being a priceless heritage gem.
Originally published in Postcards from Cebu
Bantayan: A Pilgrim’s Paradise
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.
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