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Hebden Bridge
Sowerby Bridge
Spellbound In Western Visayas
Phil Hopkins, Arts & Travel Editor
Phil Hopkins boiling in a traditional Kawa bath!
A visit to the seafood capital of the Philippines will not only tantalise your taste buds, but it also promises to make your blood boil…..quite literally!
And if anyone slips a clove of garlic into your pocket don’t think for a minute that it is a gesture of friendship designed to improve the quality of your meal, more a way of protecting you in the land of witches, cauldrons, myths and legends; welcome to Western Visayas!

Panay Island, embracing the four provinces of Capiz, Antique, Aklan and Iloilo, is 45 minutes by plane from Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport, with Roxas City representing the gateway to this intriguing but lesser known area of the Philippines, largely untouched by western tourists.

But it is an emerging destination that the country’s Tourist Promotions Board is keen to exploit, since there is not only much to see, but also an air of spiritual intrigue that is usually reserved for the likes of Transylvania or the voodoo areas of New Orleans.

“Look out for Aswang,” warns our guide as a busload of Filipinos start to jeer and make ghoulish noises.

Aswang is the umbrella term referring to a shapeshifting evil spirit in Filipino folklore – something akin to Dracula – and is the subject of a wide variety of myths and stories, particularly in Capiz, which was one of the first areas to be colonised by the Spanish who remained from 1521-1898.

Many believe the evil spirit was an invention of the Mestizo invaders as a way of controlling large dispersed communities. However, whilst there are still those who would genuinely advise spiritual caution or the wearing of protective amulets when visiting Western Visayas, the region is now using its reputation for witches, spells and dubious creatures of the netherworld, to capitalise on the tourist boom many consider to be just around the corner.

In Antique province’s Calawag Mountain Resort they will even boil you gently in one of their ‘witches’ cauldrons, known locally as a Kawa bath. You can bathe in beer, milk, coffee or turmeric flavoured hot water for total relaxation, while watching the flowing torrents of the River Tibiao complete with helmet clad ‘river tubing’ enthusiasts.

River tubers prepare to negotiate the Tibiao rapids!
Western Visayas is an emerging destination and, to some extent, local attractions are still getting used to the idea that European travellers have certain expectations but, for now, be advised that this is a region you will experience in the raw.

Hotels are often simple and hot water in the bathroom is not always a given. Breakfast can also be a limited affair – expect rice, beef and pork rather than muesli, toast and jam – and kitchen cooks - chefs is probably an over statement in the smaller hotels -have a tendency to make everything at once and serve it to guests when they enter the dining room whether the food is still hot or not!

Nevertheless, minor considerations to one side, this is an island that will reward you in spades, none more so than in the town of Panay, home to Santa Monica Church, declared a National Cultural Treasure by the National Museum in 2011.

Santa Monica Church now officially a national treasure
Built in 1774 it is home to what’s believed to be the heaviest Christian bell in Asia, cast in 1878 using 70 sacks of coins donated by parishioners and weighing in at 10.4 tonnes.

Santa Monica’s 10.4 tonne bell cast from donated coins
But no province of the Philippines worth its salt, would be seen dead without an iconic religious statue, and they can be found dotted across this country of 7,107 islands including in Roxas City, where the imposing 132ft Sacred Heart of Jesus – said to be the tallest in the Philippines - dominates the skyline as testimony to the miracle cure ‘granted’ to the family who erected it.

Roxas City’s Sacred Heart of Jesus Statue, dominating the Capiz skyline
Not to be outdone Garin Farm in San Joaquin, Iloilo Province – a strange hybrid attraction – decided to get in on the ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ bandwagon a few years ago, and now has a hugely impressive pilgrim site that attracts up to 7,000 people a day in Easter week.

The Garin Farm pilgrimage, sure to sap your energy in the midday sun…unless you use a golf cart!
Visitors can also indulge in golf, learn about aspects of agriculture, horseback ride or take part in other leisure pursuits and, if boredom sets in, there is always the option of a premature visit to Heaven, which requires you to either climb 480 steps or stump up a couple of quid for a double-quick golf cart taxi ride to Paradise! Sunscreen, a good hat and an Act of Contrition recommended!

Iloilo’s official Paradise!
Panay Island is a fascinating place and the diversity of attractions on offer will, no doubt, prove its strength over the coming years. Some of the best seafood in the Philippines is a given whilst agri-tourism is a growing area featuring sprawling properties like Ephrathah Farms, where you can enjoy leisure pursuits and learn about basic food production; you can even pick your own fruit or enjoy planting but, be warned, there’s no wi-fi and if the boss man thinks you’re not married you ain’t staying at this very Christian resort which boasts its own glass chapel!

The glass chapel at Ephrathah Farms
Siguin in Roxas City by contrast, is more about physical than moral integrity! Enthusiasts are advised to prepare for a soaking at this so-called ‘harvest place’, where you catch fish and crabs using traditional fishing methods before cooking and eating your haul!

Siguin where Travel Ed. Phil Hopkins, caught his own tea!

Marugo Lake in San Antonio, Tapaz in Capiz will leave you quietly breathless with its stunning views, power boat rides and the opportunity to relax on one of its floating bamboo islands

Breathtaking views at Marugo Lake

……whilst a trip to Miagao in Iloilo Province promises to deliver spectacular rice terraces carved into the steep sides of the Cabalaunan Mountains and Miagao Church – known locally as St Thomas of Villanova – one of the finest examples of baroque architecture embodying the graceful blending of Spanish and Filipino cultures.

The Baroque splendour of Miagao Church
Completed in 1797, Miagao Church it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

Western Visayas is a curiosity!

It is only when you start to tell people that you are on your way to Capiz that their faces turn a whiter shade of pale! The horrific creature Aswang may be no more than a myth and something to be scoffed at by an arrogant westerner but, to many Filipinos, it is still real, very real and they express a genuine concern for you to be careful.

And yet, when you get to Panay Island and visit its many provinces, you will find a region of exceptional beauty, fascinating religious monuments, agri-tourism and a beautiful people who never miss a chance to give you a glorious smile. Just make sure that you don’t go out in the dark because Aswang is on the prowl and he IS real. Don’t believe me? Ask one of the locals, many of them will bless you and press a protective amulet into your hand!

Travel Tips

Lots of sunscreen. It’s ‘ot ‘ere!
Sunglasses – an absolute must if you want to avoid facial wrinkles!
Drink lots of water, not just sugary drinks.
Carry photo ID with you. They often ask for it.
Carry some cash. Pre-loaded cash cards / credit cards not always accepted.
Be a ‘local’. Try not to pre-judge based on a Western perspective. Go with the flow!

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Spellbound In Western Visayas, 5th October 2018, 11:42 AM