The Island of No Return – Culion 3D2N

Tagged as the Leper Colony of the Philippines, Culion has a rich history that goes way back in 1906 when the island was established by the US government in order to rid leprosy from the Philippine islands through the only method known at the time: isolating all existing cases and gradually phasing out the disease from the population. In addition to segregating the disease from the rest of the population, the island was later established in order to offer a better opportunity for people afflicted with leprosy to receive adequate care and modern treatments.

the island of no return

For the lepers in the past, going to Culion meant forced separation from their families and loved ones that they might not see each other once again. The thought that there was little hope for ultimate recovery were discouraging and overwhelming for everyone affected by the disease. Thus, the mere thought of being sent to Culion meant going to an “Island of no Return”. ( An excerpt from the Culion Museum)

In contrast, some of those who lived in the colony felt that they have at last found their home – a haven where they were accepted and lived in peace.

Culion has been declared leprosy-free by World Health Organization since 2006.


How to go to Culion:

Fly down to Coron (Busuanga) through Cebu Pacific, Sky Jet, Philippine Airlines or cruise by choosing 2GO.

From Coron airport, ride the van going to the town proper (you can tell the van to drop you off at the pier). Otherwise, you can ride the tricycle going to the pier from the town for 10php.

Note: There’s only one scheduled trip daily going to and fro Culion. If you miss it, you will have to wait for the trip the next day.

MWF: Boat leaves from Coron at 1:30PM and arrives in Culion at 3PM.

TTH: Boat leaves from Coron at 2PM and arrives in Culion at 3:30-4:00PM.

Fare is 180php plus 20php terminal fee. Make sure that you go to the pier early and register your name and pay the terminal fee as the boat can only accommodate 32 passengers.

From Culion:

Boat leaves from Culion at 7:30 or 8 in the morning. Always remember that you need to register your name early.

Culion Port, at the front of this port is Culion’s Tourism office. You can get a map or a tour guide from there.

Where to stay:

There are only a number of hotels or guest houses in Culion. The most famous one is Maya Hotel which is near the heart of the town. The other two are Tabing Dagat and Safari Lodge.

The view from Hotel Maya’s terrace

Hotel Maya – I wanted to stay in Hotel Maya as it looks really nice and the view from the hotel rooms are amazing. The airconditioned room with two beds costs 1300php and the fan room with shared bathroom and toilet costs 900php without breakfasts.

Tabing Dagat – I checked in at Tabing Dagat as it was cheaper than Hotel Maya — 950php for an airconditioned room with two beds and 750php for the fan room with shared bathroom and toilet, all without breakfasts. The room was spacious and clean.

The view from the Tabing Dagat’s terrace

Safari Lodge – Just beside Tabing Dagat Lodge. I haven’t really checked their rooms but the online people said they have 450php for the fan rooms with shared bathroom and toilet.

Actually, there are a lot of transient houses in Culion but due to the isolation of the island and the almost non-existent data services, it’s not posted on the Internet. To arrange for one, contact Pastor Herme (the tour guide).

There were a lot of transient houses offered to me for only 300php/night. Most has a cabana outside and a great view. If I could re-do Culion, I’d definitely stay on it.

One example is this… 500/night rooftop fan room. You get this view everyday of your stay and you can swim in the mornings with Nemo and his friends.

Where to eat:

As what I’ve said in my Coron blog, I haven’t really explored the food scene of Coron and Culion. In Culion, there are only a few establishments as choices where to eat. The three hotels mentioned above have restaurants. I had dinner at Safari Lodge and I ordered shrimp in butter and garlic and I was so disappointed with the taste – nothing foodgasmic about it. It was also worth 350php.

For breakfast, I walked near the port and saw Warnel’s. It’s like a small carinderia which cooks mostly sizzling dishes. I ordered a sizzling spicy squid and it was actually yummy.


What to do:

Truth to be told, there’s nothing much to do in Culion. The community’s pretty small that you can explore it in two hours by walking! I was glad I asked for a tour guide so I was able to understand the history and see the other barangays by riding the motorcycle.

I never planned to stay one more day in Coron as I only wanted to finish whatever purpose I had in mind but I had a really nice sleep (the first good sleep I got after so many months), I woke up late and missed the boat.

The guy from the port told me, “Ma’am, huwag na po kayo mag-effort, nakaalis na ang bangka,” while I caught my breath after running from Tabing Dagat to the port.

Another hugot moment, bakit ka pa mag-effort kung wala na nga? Lol.

I didn’t want to spoil my day so I just shrugged the dreaded fact that I had to stay one more night and instead asked Tabing Dagat to find me a tour guide. I could still remember how everyone told me that it was definitely God’s will (you know, I missed the boat and all that) so I had the chance to enjoy Culion more.

IMMACULATE CONCEPTION CHURCH

This church goes way back in the Spanish colonial period. This church was built by the Jesuits, but if you walk further at the back, a fort of defense still stands up to this day with canyons and were older than the church itself.

The church goes way back in 1933 when the Spanish friars came to the leper colony.
The ceiling was beautifully painted and it was said that the mosaic glass was made of corals.
The fort at the back of the Immaculate Church. One the of tourists (the one sitting on the canyon) told us a romantic story of how he proposed marriage at this exact same spot to a pharmacist, now his wife, residing in Culion way way back in the days.

LOYOLA COLLEGE OF CULION

It is a college run by the Catholic religious order in Barangay Libis. It was established as an elementary school named Culion Catholic School in 1936, and became a college in 1985 named St. Ignatius College. Presently, the school is now named Loyola College of Culion and it only offers two college courses – Literature and Tourism.

High school students of Loyola College of Culion practicing their dance steps for the college foundation day at the heat of the day!

CULION SANITARIUM AND GENERAL HOSPITAL

The heart of the leper colony, Culion Sanitarium Hospital has become the main building for scientists and individuals interested in the disease.

When leprosy was eradicated, Culion Sanitarium was then mandated to become Culion Sanitarium and General hospital functioning as a public health unit, implementing DOH thrust and programs supporting RHU in the BusCuCoLin Inter local Health zone while at the same time taking care of the remaining people affected by leprosy through custodial care and acting as leprosy referral hospital in the province of Palawan and the region validating diagnosis, managing complications and trainings.

THE AGILA

It was said that the Agila was a seal of the Philippine Health Services and a precautionary symbol that one is entering a leprosy zone. Coral stones were carried by the townsmen to the side of the mountain back in 1920 and has stayed as the island’s symbol of pride and hope.

The Agila symbol from afar.
Aside from conquering 721 steps in Mt. Tapyas, I have conquered another 300 steps in the Agila. Way to go for someone who’s not physically active.

Upon reaching the top, you have no idea how awestruck I was to see the view. I sat down and just took everything in. The peace, the quietness, the ocean, the wind, arggghh my heart was so overwhelmed. There was that kind of silence that makes you feel like your stomach was on pretzel knots.

Looking back at it now, it seemed not a bad place to have my heart broken.

Best place to have heart to heart talks, to reflect, to clear things off your mind and to see the sunrise!

CULION MUSEUM AND ARCHIVES

A former research lab at the back of the Culion General Hospital, it has been converted to a museum that continues to tell the story of Culion through photos, artifacts, medical records and equipments, letters dated way way back, coins and everything there is in between.

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Get your tickets at the entrance of Culion Hospital. Entrance fee for locals is 150php and 200php for the foreigners. I heard that the entrance fee’s used to fund the museum and Loyola College of Culion. The museum closes at 4PM.

Personally, I was amazed by how they were able to preserve significant objects such as letters, medical records, coins and all that. I was also surprised that this place almost became like a separate colony – they had their own money, government system with specific rules and many more. They had their own world and as much as the journey of curing the disease was heartbreaking, I couldn’t help but be grateful to all the people who continually make an effort to keep the history alive.

Culion, in a painting

While reading through the plastered wall frames about the history, I understood Culion’s way of life. It was a sad place to be and just knowing that they were not even allowed to marry and have a normal family life, to be separated from their loved ones, to be isolated to each other even while in  the island, it was definitely a tug on the heartstrings.

I actually felt depressed after the museum tour. I saw Culion the way I’ve never seen it before. I understood what he was going through. I understood why he did what he did. I understood why what happened happened.

CULION TOUR ON A MOTORCYCLE

I actually emailed Kawil Tours (the only tour agency in Culion) but I had a hard time securing a spot with them. They said they had technical issues with the Internet connection (which was yeah, mobile signal and data services were almost close to non-existent on the island).

Tabing Dagat though secured a tour guide for me in the form of a man called Pastor Herme, probably the best tour guide ever.

I paid 500php for him to drive me around Culion which also includes stories and explanations in between. It was the most exciting part of my day. I was so ecstatic and I felt so much more adventurous to ride and drive a motorcycle while exploring a hidden paradise.

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This island is like a melting pot due to the fact that they took all lepers around the country and isolated them here. There are people who originated from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.

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This is called the separation gate between the leper (upper) and non-leper community (lower). The tour guide said soldiers were posted on this gate and people would have to desynthesize themselves going to and fro by washing on liters of alcohol!
I call this the heart of the town where “life” really happens. On the right is the hospital and museum, on the center is the college and on the farther left is the church. The basic structures a community needs.
Saying hello to the locals!

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Western Philippines University – Culion located in Brgy. Badlat. I was told that people still walk to go to school and back home as there’s a very limited number of public vehicles in the area.

This is a retreat farm house up on the mountains called Sta. Ignacia Farm that was mostly ruined by Yolanda. As of now, there have been no plans of restoring the area.
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Pastor Herme the best tour guide ever. I’ll be posting his number at the bottom of this page so you can contact him if ever you drop by Culion someday.
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Mangrove planting area – I think this one is a very protected ecotourism area by the town of Culion. One of the girls I met (she’s doing a thesis with regards to Culion’s Ecotourism) asked me if I was willing to go back and participate in mangrove planting and the likes and I definitely said yes, but not too soon.

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How could you not appreciate the beauty of this place?
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I know I definitely said Corong-Corong in El Nido has the best sunset I’ve seen so far, but there’s something about the sunset in Culion that was heartrending. There was peace and it felt like as the sun sets behind the mountains, so did one chapter of my life.

Extra: 

Tabing Dagat Contact # – +63 999 656 7769 (hotel closes at 10PM)

Tour Guide – Pastor Herme – +63 921 394 7106

Malcapuya, Banana, and Bulog Islands (incl. Burog Marine Park) tour was offered to me for only 1000php from Culion. It was relatively cheap given that I was the only person they would take. These islands are nearer in Culion than in Coron so it was a really good deal. I was so tempted to spend one more day and take the transient house for 300php/night but I had to go back to Coron to go online for work. Contact Pastor Herme if ever you want this tour for yourself. 😉

Cellular Networks: Globe (3G) and Smart, the latter with the stronger signal

For itinerary/expenses, please visit my Coron entry.


Summary:

Okay, just a disclaimer. From this point on, I’ll try my best no to get too personal and if I do, please bear with me. Medyo malalim talaga ang hugot ko sa lugar na ‘to. *wink

Not a lot of people had the chance to see Culion as I did. Most tourists would just stay overnight or spend a day around the town proper and I felt so lucky and grateful that I gave myself a chance to experience it.

When I asked the people from Coron what Culion is like, they all answered, “Very province-ish. Very peaceful. Quiet. Isolated.”

I didn’t want to go there. I didn’t want to see it myself. It was a chance I had to take though. I thought, ‘No regrets, Kim. Go!’. I didn’t want to have regrets when I return to Manila. I didn’t want to think that I was an island away and let my pain and pride get in the way. If things had to end, no matter how painful, then so be it.

So I got on the boat and found my way in the Island of No Return. It was indeed the Island of No Return. I lost him while he was there, and as much as I don’t want to blame Culion, it played a big part to my whys and I should know that at the end of the day, it was always a choice. For all I know, he might have found his home and indeed, there was no returning.

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If you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave.

Culion has left a big mark in my heart. When I took refuge in Coron for healing, it was Culion where my poor heart was broken. As much as I wanted to blame the place, I couldn’t. It was a sad kind of beautiful that I understood why things ended out that way.

It was in Culion that I saw how God protected me. It was in Culion that I found Him. It was in that beautiful island that I had my first intimate and personal encounter with Him. When I had my heart broken, God wrapped me in His peace that I cried not because of pain but because of gratefulness and joy.

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Dawn watch in Culion while the island was still asleep.

Not only that, He surrounded me with people who love Him as well. The tour guide’s a pastor. The group that I met were Christians and they all made me feel safe. It was the time and place that I surrendered everything to the Lord – my past, present and future.

The decision that I thought was a desperate act turned out to be a ‘big girl’ move. Every time I remember how I bravely confronted my weakness and vulnerability, I smile. It reminds me that even though I was scared, I pushed through… and lived to tell the tale. 

And if you ask me if I want to push the tourism in Culion? No, not really. I like it the way it is. I don’t want people to flock to it like Coron and El Nido. I want Culion to stay the way it is now – peaceful, isolated and quiet with a few tourists walking around.

Sometimes, life gets too chaotic that you just want to disconnect, recharge and reflect. Culion was the best place for that. With limited mobile signal and Internet connectivity, it served its purpose for relaxation.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip— he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you— the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm— he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. – Psalms 121

If I could re-visit Culion, I would. It’s such a quiet and nice place that all you want to do is laze around, write, take in all the peace and be happy. I feel like I missed a lot because I was clouded by thoughts and emotions.

I wanted to lay down on a beach or sit on a rock at a mountain and be awestruck at how the stars shine so bright against the dark blanket of sky, without city lights blinding their luster and beauty.

I wanted to swim in the clear ocean water and be marveled at how pristine the water is and how untouched the marine life is.

I wanted to stroll Culion without fearing of bumping into people I am not so happy to see.

I wanted to re-do Culion, give it another try to leave a beautiful mark in my heart. I wanted to see it when my heart’s whole again, with friends, with people I enjoy spending time with.

I want to enjoy it, to experience it, to live it. In my best shape, in joy, in awestruck travel wonder. So I could look back and have a smile on my face and talk about it with ease.

Culion might have a haunting past, but it’s slowly adjusting to the present and showing up again on the map. I wish Culion would stay historical as it is and the government to do their best to preserve as much as they can.

Culion’s is no doubt amazing, but for one to appreciate it, it must be looked at a bigger picture, not only in its way of living. I have nothing else to add except that what I found in Culion was beautiful – the sad kind of beautiful – but nevertheless, beautiful.

I may have broken my heart in the Island of No Return but hey, I returned stronger and wiser. I realized Culion will not be able to trap you unless you allow it to. 

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Ronel says:

    Very nice sharing 🙂

  2. Once again, a beauty of a place !!!

  3. ayelouise says:

    Teka Kim, yung puso ko. 😦

    Ang galing mo talaga magsulat. 🙂

  4. Kat says:

    Hi Kim.. Great photos.. Are you using an action camera ? What brand and model is it ?

  5. tina says:

    hi po, ask ko lang wala po bumabyahe ng saturday from coron to culion? thank you.

    1. Hi Tina, meron pong byahe over the weekend.

  6. toph says:

    What a beautiful piece about our humble place. Salamat po sa pag appreciate sa lugar namin. 🙂

    1. Hi, it was a privilege to see your place 🙂

  7. nick torres says:

    thank you for a beautiful and heart warming story of our town…….

  8. Awesome again .. nice pictures and a beautiful write-up !

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