Natural beauty in marble country

Text: Maricar Cinco – Reporter / Philippine Daily Inquirer 

Photo: Clifford Nunez – Photo Correspondent / Philippine Daily Inquirer 

05:51 AM September 24, 2017

Cantingas River in San Fernando town in Romblon is deemed the cleanest inland water body in the country. It supplies 90 percent of electricity on Sibuyan Island.

One thing visitors to Romblon province must prepare for are the difficult goodbyes. Leaving the island is like parting with a newfound love but keeping fingers crossed for second chances.

No wonder people like Marzio Guidi, a 53-year-old Italian, chose to live and open his pizza store, Jd & G., near the Romblon port. For two years now, his tiny ristorante has been selling homemade pizza and gelato served on marble tabletops.

Marble has been the province’s top product from way back 19th century. Artisans work along the road in Barangay Kilometro Dos in the capital Romblon, sculpting figures out of marble slabs. Some of the finished products, such as souvenir items, are sold at the shopping center in the town center.

“Many people, even my own children, do not understand why I prefer to stay in Romblon. (When visiting my children in Manila), they always ask me, ‘Why do you always hurry back home?’” said Myrna Silverio of the provincial tourism office.

There is something enchanting about Romblon, composed of the three main islands of Tablas, Romblon and Sibuyan. Beyond the spectacular view of mountains and pristine waters are a people happy and content with the beauty in their midst.

Local economy

With an annual income of P706 million and a population of 292,781 (2015), Romblon is among the backward local economies dependent on fishing, marble quarrying, and coconut and seaweed farming. The land, however, is rich in gold, iron, nickel and other minerals.

The people speak in different tongues, such as Asi and Onhan in Tablas, and Ini in Romblon and Sibuyan. Generally, they speak and understand Tagalog and English.

“There are many big companies from around the world that wanted to come in. But we told them we do not allow mining,” Gov. Eduardo Firmalo said. In 2011, the province issued an indefinite ban on metallic mining in an effort to preserve its natural resources.

Transportation and accessibility are the biggest hurdles to economic growth and tourism. At present, only one airline flies from Manila to Tablas four times a week, while it takes 14 hours for the Ro-Ro (roll-on/roll off) vessel to arrive from Batangas City port.

There is not a single mall or a movie house. The handful of banks (and ATMs) is concentrated in Odiongan and Romblon. Cellphone signal is spotty, which, come to think of it, allows one to detach a little from the exhausting daily grind of Manila.

‘Galapagos of Asia’

Prepare to fall in love with Romblon once you arrive at Tugdan airport in Alcantara town. A small store selling “lechon” (roast pork) welcomes visitors.

From the airport, it takes an hourlong drive to the San Agustin port where you can hop on a boat bound for Sibuyan.

The boat leaves at 5:30 a.m., briefly docks at the Romblon port, and arrives at the Ambulong port in Magdiwang town, Sibuyan, before 10 a.m. Catch the 10 a.m. jeepney to reach San Fernando town by noon.

Sibuyan is an isolated island composed of the municipalities of Magdiwang, Cajidiocan and San Fernando. Scientists call it the “Galapagos of Asia” for its unique biodiversity and the dense forests of Mt. Guiting-Guiting.

This is why Guillermo Rocha, the vice mayor of Magdiwang, talks very passionately about the island’s preservation.

“We’ve been managing Mt. Guiting-Guiting Natural Park for the last 20 years,” Rocha said. “If we hadn’t stood up against mining, we could be nearing our end now.”

Cresta de Gallo

“(Cresta de Gallo) is shaped like a chicken crest. It is also said that Spanish galleons used to dock here,” San Fernando Vice Mayor Arben Rosas said.

A school of flying fish and dolphins may usher your boat to this slice of paradise, where you can stroll on the 100-meter sandbar under the immense sky.

Only four families live on the island. They are tapped by the local government to serve as caretakers.

Other Sibuyan attractions are Cataja Falls, Gaong River and Lambingan in Magdiwang; and Dagubdub Falls and Cantingas River in San Fernando.

Cleanest river

Cantingas in Barangay Taclobo is the Philippines’ “cleanest inland water,” according to the national government in 2007.

It is also the source of hydroelectric power accounting for 90 percent of electricity supply in Sibuyan.

There are a couple of homestays in San Fernando and 18 accommodations in Magdiwang.

In Barangay Tampayan is Sanctuary Garden Resort that offers rooms from P250 (dorm-type) to P1,500.

The resort sits close to Pawala River, which locals refer to as the “dam.” Boat-paddling on the quiet, calm Pawala leads you to an astonishing view of Guiting-Guiting’s jagged mountain ridge.

Perfect for soul-searching

The lone municipality on the island of the same name, Romblon houses the provincial capitol and serves as the center of trade and marble production.

“Romblon gives you some nice, quiet time best for soul-searching,” Firmalo said.

From Sibuyan, it takes two hours on the boat to reach Romblon. Tricycles bring travelers to their destination.

A site closest to the port is St. Joseph Cathedral, built in 1640 and declared a national treasure in 2001.

In 1991, the church lost its 400-year-old image of  Sto. Niño de Romblon until an antique collector from Aklan province found the statue and returned it 22 years later.

Another historical attraction is Fuerza San Andres in Barangay Dos. It is one of the twin bulwarks built with coral stones by Fr. Agustin de San Pedro in the 15th century to protect the island from Moro marauders.

Not competing

“Romblon (province) is like a pretty lass that could perhaps use some hair fix,” Silverio said.

Romblon is not perfect and you must forgive it for the long,  bumpy rides, limited transportation, poor Wi-Fi signal and the lack of fancy hotels offering beach parties. 

It has a lot to offer, however, in terms of adventure, such as snorkeling off the beach of Cobrador, an island village of Romblon.

Tourists may also want to enjoy the stretch of white sand beaches in Barangay Lonos, which include the private Nonok beach, the Tiamban beach (which has an entrance fee of P40 to P50) and Bonbon beach, where entrance is free and where visitors get to see a sandbar leading to Bang-og Island.

Governor Firmalo said the province was not aiming to compete with Boracay, a popular beach destination, but to offer travelers a “different” experience.

When he assumed office in 2010, he had to start “barely from scratch.” He saw how marble production in the province, weakened by the influx of synthetic tiles, appeared to be a dying industry.

But the local government has introduced programs to encourage local businesses, improve agricultural production, and promote ecotourism.

“We do this little by little but we already feel we are now inching our way (to progress),” Firmalo said.