appreciate Camotes, one has to bite it and chew it, preferably
in little pieces. Its proximity to mainland Cebu is both a
blessing and a bane. It has enduring legacy at every turn.
Its people do not fit the paradigm of a fixed entity, handcrafted
from the same mold, thrown into a wood-fired kiln, coming
It is quite common to meet families of spinsters and bachelors,
and medicine men performing ancient rituals, like planting
camotes (sweet potatoes) with nothing on. These people emerged
from a cocktail of civilization and history borne by the sea.
Truth to tell, Magellan and his men had dropped anchor in
Camotes Sea on the way to plant Spain’s Cross in Cebu.
Camotes lacks the mystic of Bali and the colors of Caribbean.
Yet it moves through the light speed of the 21st century.
And the time warp can be a hazard and a boon. MTV and CRV
have come like uninvited guests, co-existing peacefully with
hilots and tambalans.
A few years ago, a strip of land was cleared for six-seater
planes. The idea was to bring in tourists. Instead, cash-driven
lab-aseras (fish mongers) chartered flights to sell their
catch in the city! In 1997, when the first jet-propelled fast
craft appeared on the horizon, skeptic islanders raised their
eyebrows, saying investors were just throwing away their money.
In hindsight, the coming proved to be more than worth it.
Investors and speculators, reminiscent of the Gold Rush have
staked their claims making real estate prices skyrocket.
But amidst all these dynamism and frenetic activity, there
is always the gentle and polite side of Camotes. A poet once
remarked, “I see smoke from dried leaves swept for burning,
and I can smell them. Against the trees and the sunset, it
is a reassuring feeling of neighborhood, of a provincial community,
of life at a standstill, a feeling that most places, in their
desire to get there, have already lost.”
When men, women and families gather, they buzz cheeks, they
kiss hands, they go through social rites that help preserve
the grace of a community and a fraternity about to be tainted
by the homogenizing impact of globalization.
In Camotes, there is the version of the Flying Dutchman ---
a ghost ship loaded with tons of cacao beans that nobody has
ever seen but has been whispered about. There is a river that
meanders uphill, enchanted palaces perched on century-old
rain trees, an old sunken town in Lake Danao, and believe
it or not, a church bell under the sea that is home to a giant
grouper. And looking for that perfect solitude? The blindingly
white secluded sand beaches of Dapdap and Lanao have cemeteries
that promise, well, eternal rest.
Camotes has also revealed to the world things not seen before.
Which makes it an interesting field lab for archaeology. In
the 70’s, a clueless resident started his pigsty project
and found instead an ancient burial ground teeming with grave
markers, pottery, celadon wares, Spanish medallions, gold
trinkets and Carnelian beads from India, proofs that Camotesnons
had traded earlier with other cultures before the Spanish
conquistadores came. There are farmers plowing into earthen
shards and skulls. In one expedition, the famous Otley Beyer
described the islands as a “basket of interesting archaeological
There are beautiful beaches, springs, natural pools and a
legendary waterfall said to be where Panganuron, the islands’
mythical Solomon held
court and mediated warring tribes. There is a limestone promontory
called The Quarry, a local lover’s lane overlooking
the seven-hundred-hectare Lake Danao. The waters around the
islands run the spectrum from blue to bottle green and finally
And what about its world under the sea? So undiscovered, they
say. Snorkelers and divers in Tulang Islet (where back in
the 60s, Italian actress Rosanna Podesta was rumored to have
swam about raising the male residents’ temperature)
report spectacular marine life.
Camotes has one leg on the grandeurs and spring times of the
past, and one leg on the megalomania and promises of the future.
It is an exciting study, a macrocosm of island life. The four
towns offer something different: Poro with its rich history
and unique spoken language, Tudela its cave systems, Pilar
its old houses and charming coastal villages and San Francisco
its vibrant commerce and stunning beaches.
Delicious. That is perhaps the single word that best describes
Camotes. It is a place of contrasts, of contradictions. An
island group leapfrogging toward the future with so much incredible
energy and passion.
Camotes is vibrant, progressive and confident in the coming
global network of trade and tourism. Yet, it has tradition,
rhythm and above all, a human face.