Tuesday, January 06, 2015

What to see in Culion, Palawan heritage town

Culion, Palawan is a destination waiting to be discovered. It's not as popular an attraction to those who visit Coron. Most stays in Coron are only a few days, so one would rather spend time and resources exploring Coron Island, Malcapuya Island further south, or attractions near Coron town. But there's something about Culion that makes it an interesting find.

My first visit to Culion was in 2009. While there are daily commuter trips, we didn't have time to stay overnight. So we had to hire a boat for the one and a half hour ride from Coron to Culion. Our reason for making the trip to Culion was its heritage. Culion was where the Philippines eliminated leprosy. And the facilities of the Culion Lepers' Colony date back to the prewar period. Unfortunately, we only had time to visit the museum during that first trip.

Fast forward to December 2014, I was invited to speak at Dream Expo Culion which meant staying on the island for five days. I could not pass up on the opportunity.

It was because of this long stay that I got the opportunity to explore the town. The most imposing structure is the La Inmaculada Concepcion Church, which was reconstructed by the Jesuits in 1933 from the ruins and stones of Fort Culion, built by the Augustinian Recollects in 1740. I was told Culion has ruins of another fort called Fort San Pedro. But it was difficult to get to and under a lot of plant growth.

The main entrance of the church is actually the old entrance of the fort which explains the royal seal above the door. Behind the church is the last remaining bastion of Fort Culion, complete with old cannons.

Beside the church is the Loyola College of Culion, a Jesuit institution. It's buildings are heritage too! The hospital is just across. A very interesting museum on the Culion Lepers' Colony, the Culion Museum and Archives, can be found inside. While there are many prewar buildings in the compound (much of the old town is actually part of the DOH facility), I am wary of the ongoing renovations that are being undertaken since, while they are well-meaning, the work being done is slowly erasing the old architectural elements that make the hospital an important piece of heritage. I hope the NCCA steps in and gives technical assistance to properly guide the repair work being done.

Further down the road is Colony Hall, the old town hall of the colony, and other prewar buildings. At the rotunda beside it is a statue of Governor General Leonard Wood, a tribute to Gen. Wood from the lepers in 1931 in gratitude for his patronage and contributions to the colony. This is a rare monument to an American governor-general in the Philippines. I'll ask around if there are any others.

A ceremonial staircase where official photos of the colony and its visitors were taken, leads up to another plaza with a bandstand and a statue of Jose Rizal. Unfortunately, they now play second fiddle to a basketball court in what was once a beautiful garden.

Around the plaza are five-door tenements built in 1926 for married patients. The tenements used to have tiza brick roofing which have now been replaced by rusty corrugated iron sheets. Because of its characteristic clay tile roofing, the area was known as Worcester Plaza, and later Tiza or Barangay Tiza.

Further down the road are even more old houses with capiz windows, many of them dilapidated and damaged by Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). There are also institutional facilities such as a two-floor building with high ceilings that once housed a nursery. To my dismay, I was told the large prewar structure had been been partitioned into five and given to DOH employees. Can government property be given away just like that? Let's build new employee housing away from the heritage core.

There's so much more built heritage in the town. And it has such an important story to tell. But the heritage is fast disappearing as old government facilities are being awarded to employees, which they quickly renovate and add annexes to, thereby erasing the story the structure could have told.

I actually visited the Colony Cemetery which should have been a relic of the town's rich history. But I was aghast to see that the graves of the lepers and other colony inhabitants have been disturbed, their bones removed and placed in a common grave, and their beautiful tombs with statues of angels and crosses taken by current residents, built roofs on top of them, and painted in garish colors (think purple, orange, mint green, baby blue and cobalt blue). A historical record is almost gone, the names of those originally buried there erased from memory. If only there was a scarcity of land. But there is so much space! With so much land around it, couldn't the local government have allotted a new area for new burials?

Culion has so much potential to be a heritage town. I really hope the National Commission for Culture and the Arts steps in before we lose it.

Now for the best views of the town, you have two choices. If you're not the type who would climb up over 300 steps to the Agila, the seal of the Philippine Health Service on the face of one of the hills, you can visit the Jesuit Convento from where you can see the church, the town and Coron Island further away. But if you can climb up, do so at dawn for a fantastic view of the Culion sunrise.

Snorkeling at Crowning Glory Reef
While we were there, Kawil Tours, a community-based tourism enterprise of Culion, took us to one of the best kept secrets of Culion, Crowing Glory Reef. And its location is still a secret until regulations have been made for its conservation. I have a short video clip below while snorkeling at the reef.

The reef was fantastic, the water shallow enough to view the beautiful corals from the surface. You should visit the reef during high tide since the water will otherwise be too shallow for snorkeling. If you want to visit and explore Culion, just contact Kawil Tours. And did you know that Malcapuya Island is just 45 minutes from Culion?

I'm really hoping Culion becomes a popular destination. But the town will first have to create a heritage conservation master plan and strictly adhere to it for its heritage to shine.

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