Magic and mysticism in the Philippines
The entire island of Siquijor in the Philippines can be circumnavigated by motorcycle in about four hours. (Christina Durano)
In a small wooden hut far up the hillside, Consing Achay closed her eyes. Her patient, riveted by the intensity of this traditional bulo-bulo treatment, watched intently as the 86-year-old woman moved her wrinkled right hand across her body in the Catholic sign of the cross and mumbled a short incantation in Latin. Consing then took a glass of clean water, dropped a magic stone in it and began blowing through a special bamboo straw. Air bubbles formed in the water, and she rubbed the glass across her patient’s body. As the water became murky, she rinsed the glass and repeated the process. After a third time, the water finally stayed clear and Consing smiled, satisfied that the bad spirits and sickness had left her patient.
Consing is one of dozens of witches, or as some prefer to call them, mananambals (traditional healers), on Siquijor, a remote island in the central Philippines. The mananambals are a big draw for the island, which has branded itself as the “island of healing”.
While bulo-bulo is one of the better-known healing methods on the island, it is also one of the most rare – only still practiced by Consing. Other witches prefer to use faith healing, hilot (traditional rubbing) massage, or local herbs and oils to work their magic. Some even sell potions purported to make people fall in love. These special concoctions can only be made once a year, during the Lenten Festival of Herbal Preparation between Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday.
To help you find them, the provincial tourism department and many hotels can provide a list of “official healers”. Most tricycle drivers know where these healers live as well. For just a few dollars, you can test their magic firsthand.
In addition to having good witches, the island is also rumoured to be a haven for several shamans who cast spells that cause sickness or death, magicians who can make paper dolls dance, and mystical creatures that roam the countryside wreaking havoc. Although I did not personally see any of these, several people I met on the island testified to their existence. But do not worry – the biggest curse you are likely to encounter is if the island’s only ATM breaks.
The origin of Siquijor’s mystical reputation varies depending on whom you ask, but most agree that the stories started years ago and have been passed down through generations. Until recently, the island had no hospital. The majority of the population lives below the poverty line, so the availability of rare but cheap healing plants makes traditional healers popular among locals.
After spending a day “witch hunting”, I decided to rent a motorcycle and explore the other sights the island has to offer. Like many remote areas of the Philippines, the easiest way to get around is by hiring a tricycle (price negotiable with driver, but approximately 1,000 Philippine pesos for a half day) or motorcycle (about 200 pesos for the first hour, and 100 pesos for each subsequent hour). Most hotels and resorts can arrange these options and provide you with maps of the island. More exclusive resorts like Coco Grove in the city of San Juan also rent out private cars.
The entire island can be circumnavigated by motorcycle in about four hours. A well-trodden road dotted with small villages criss-crosses verdant hills and remote beaches. Along the way you can pause to swim in stunning waterfalls, marvel at the gnarled trunk of a massive ancient balete tree, spelunk in one of the island’s cave labyrinths or say a prayer at Lazi’s San Isidro Labrador Convent, reputedly the country’s largest and one of its oldest convents. The tourism office and most resorts offer free brochures and maps that can help you discover Siquijor’s many attractions.
Like the other 7,000-plus islands in the Philippines, Siquijor has quintessential elements of an island paradise: calm turquoise seas, isolated white-sand beaches, towering palm trees swaying in a gentle breeze and brilliant orange and fuchsia sunsets.
Underwater is just as grand, if not more, than above. Vibrant hard and soft corals, sea turtles, eels, lionfish and other sea life put Siquijor on the map for divers and snorkelers alike. An average dive for PADI-certified divers costs about 1,200 Philippine pesos, and dive shops also offer certification courses.
How to get there
There is no airport on Siquijor island, but passengers can fly to Dumaguete, Negros from Manila on Cebu Pacific or Philippine Airlines, then take an hour-long boat ride on Ocean Jet Ferry, Delta Fast Craft or Jaylann Fast Craft. From Siquijor’s port, tricycles can take you to the island’s various towns.
When to go
While the island can be pleasant any time of year, you are less likely to see cloudy skies if you go during the dry season of March through June. No matter what the weather though, a visit to this mystical island will leave you feeling the magic – either from witches or the island’s simple charm.