Banton Island is a hidden paradise nestled in the heart of the Philippines, Romblon Province. It showcases untouched forests, pristine beaches, rich history, and a colorful culture and tradition found only on this side of the country yet far from the hustle and bustle of other tourist destinations like Boracay, Palawan and Puerto Galera.
Banton Island is a rocky volcanic island situated in the Maghali Island Group of Romblon Province, around 7-12 hours south of Manila. This island municipality of more than 6,000 people is surrounded by the Sibuyan Sea which boasts one of the most preserved marine life in the Philippines.
The island was originally named Batoon due to its rocky coastline and topography. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, an ancient civilization has already existed in the island as suggested by the various artifacts recovered from the island’s caves in 1936. One of the artifacts is a boat coffin with a well-preserved mummy and burial cloth. The burial cloth is reportedly the oldest in Southeast Asia.
The island municipality is also one of the oldest in the Philippines, having been established as a town under Spanish rule in 1622. The Spanish built a fort called Fuerza de San Jose and a church in honor of San Nicolas de Tolentino, all of which were built under the supervision of a Spanish captain and priest, Padre Agustin San Pedro. The fortifications protected the town from recurring raids from Muslim pirates which used to infest the country’s waters.
Today, the island municipality is known for fishing, copra farming and various cottage industries but it also has lots of potential for tourism and development. The town of has a newly expanded ferry port and seawall that caters to interisland ferries and motorized boats that regularly plies the Sibuyan Sea. The town features numerous Spanish era houses and fortifications. One example is the aforementioned Fuerza de San Jose and the Ugat Faigao Museum and Ancestral House. The roads are narrow yet concrete and the only mode of transportation are the numerous passenger motorcycles called habal-habal which carry people and goods around the island. Due to its distance to the main island of Romblon and to the Luzon mainland, electricity in the island is an issue as it only lasts from late afternoon to around midnight. In recent years, cellular phone service from Smart Telecom and Globe Telecom became available in the island. A public satellite phone service is also available in the island.
The island municipality has its own language called Asi or Bantoanon. Majority of the islanders speak the local language but they also capable in communicating in Filipino and English. If you wis to learn basic Asi you can report to the Asi Studies Center for Culture and the Arts along Fortunato Fadriquela street.
Scattered along the island’s coastline are various white sand and coral beaches like Macat-ang Beach and Mainit Beach both in Barangay Mainit, the farthest barangay of the municipality. Macat-ang Beach offers cottages, huts and beach umbrellas for beach lovers and features a lovely view of Bantoncillo Island, an islet approximately two miles from the beach. Mainit Beach, meanwhile, has a longer coastline and boasts hot springs in the middle of the sea. Tourists and locals alike can bathe in the lukewarm water produced in the area. Other beaches include Tabonan Beach (located in an inhabited island a few meters from the island and famous for its fine golden sands), Siocan Beach (opposite Tabonan Beach and accessible only by boat) and Recodo Beach in Barangay Banice.
Spelunking enthusiasts might find Banton Island exciting as it is also rich in caves filled with history and culture. Among the many caves in the island are Ipot Cave in the Guyangan Cliffs where prehistoric artifacts were found in 1936 (now displayed at the National Museum in Manila) and the Silak Cave in Barangay Togbongan.
Banton Island was also cited in the book “Diving the Philippines and Southeast Asia” by Heneage Mitchell as one of the best diving sites in the country. Some of the diving sites in the island he noted are the island’s West Side, the Northeast Wall (just off the Moro Caves) and the Dos Hermanas Islands (two inhabited islands several kilometers northwest of the island). Unfortunately, diving enthusiasts have to bring their own equipment as the island has no diving facilities.
In a country which hosts various festivals everyday, Banton Island cannot be spared. The island hosts two festivals: the Sanrokan Festival during the Lenten Season and the Biniray Festival on September 10.
The Sanrokan Festival showcases the local tradition of sharing food, especially viand, among neighbors and starts from Black Saturday up to Easter Sunday. In the weeks leading to these days, preparations are made through the decorating of the town’s streets with colorful banderitas. Palm bouquets are hung on the four stone towers leading to the Church of San Nicolas de Tolentino. There are two phases to the Sanrokan Festival: the Sanrokan sa Barangay (sharing of food in the villages) and the Sanrokan sa Poblacion (sharing of food at the town proper). Sanrokan sa Barangay begins on Black Saturday in a venue set by the local village chieftains. It is here that families bring over their prepared assortment of viands to be shared with their neighbors. A boodle fight emerges as the feast begins. Parlor games such as chasing the pig, palosebo (climbing a greased bamboo pole to claim a prize) and the likes accompany the celebrations. The Sanrokan sa Poblacion, meanwhile, happens at Easter Sunday. It starts with the traditional Easter Sunday mass at the Church of San Nicolas de Tolentino. This is followed by the Hanrumanan (meaning souvenir/legacy) street dancing and parade. Various villages prepare tribal dances to be presented at the main street of the town. This is different from other festivals in the country like the Ati-atihan and the Masskara Festivals as it highlights local traditions and practices. After the parade, families join together at the Sanrokan venue to share the food they have brought along with them. At night, there is also the so-called Sanrokan Night, an event which includes contests that shows off the talent of many Bantoanons. Singing and dance contest are what usually pays off and cheers the crowd. This is followed by a public dance ball attended by both the young and the old in the town.
Meanwhile, the Biniray Festival is done in honor of the town’s patron saint, San Nicolas de Tolentino. According to legend, when the Muslims raid the various islands of the Visayas including Banton, the locals’ devotion to San Nicolas de Tolentino protected them from such attacks. One local folklore even explains the connection between San Nicolas de Tolentino and the island’s rocky coastline. It is said that the rocks used to be Muslim pirates turned to stone by an apparition of the saint thus thwarting their impending advance to the town. Every year, on the 10th of September, the entire island pays tribute and homage to San Nicolas de Tolentino’s role in enriching the faith and devotion of the locals to Catholicism. Holy mass is held in celebration of his feast day, followed by the parading of the image of San Nicolas de around town, accompanied by brass bands and devotees. This leads to a fluvial parade around the waters of the municipality, with each village giving homage to the image of the saint. The Bantoanon diaspora in the various provinces of Luzon like Cavite, Batangas, Laguna, Bulacan and Metro Manila also celebrate the Biniray in an agreed upon venue. A Sanrokan can accompany the Biniray Festival if the organizers wish so that neighbors can celebrate its patron saint’s feast day with a feast of food and drinks shared by the local people.
Why Not Go
If you are a tourist looking for the comforts of a luxurious beach resort or the rowdy and colorful nightlife in Boracay or Palawan, Banton Island is not the place for you. In an island with no electricity throughout most of the day, you might find yourself irked as you can’t charge your cellphone batteries, watch television or even get an ice cold drink throughout the morning till late afternoon. Accomodations are an issue, and if you are not comfortable with staying in at someone else’s home, then the island is not for you. There is also no nightlife to keep you company at night.
If you are an open-minded tourist, or just a plain hitch-hiker looking for the total extreme adventure in a place where you are a total stranger, then Banton Island is definitely for you. Forget about the comforts of a luxury cruise ship or an elegant suite in a high-end beach resort. Leave behind the hustle and bustle of crowded tourist destinations. Embrace the wild, the extreme, and let’s go back to basics in Banton Island. Grab that camera and the luggage and hop on to that bus and begin your adventure today!
Best Time to Visit
The best time to go to Banton is during the Lenten Season wherein the weather is perfect for travelling at sea. This is also the peak season for tourists and locals who wish to go back to the island in time to celebrate Lent with their families. Shipping companies often increase their number of trips to the island in the weeks leading to Lent to allow more passengers to travel.
Going to Banton during Lent is a wonderful opportunity as culture and traditions unfold more vividly at this time in religious and cultural activities such as the Offering of Palms on Palm Sunday, the Good Friday Procession and Sanrokan Festival. Bazaars and fairs from the main island of Romblon also go to the island during Lent to sell various souvenir merchandize made of marble, the main export product of the province.
Staying might be a problem in the island as there are only two small lodges, the Municipal Pension House operated by the municipal government and the Banton Tourist House for foreign visitors. However, the locals are very friendly and hospitable and are always ready to accept backpackers and hitch-hikers. Food and bath are also inclusive depending on negotations with the owner of the house. One recommended house is the Fadrilan Residence along Fortunato Fadriquela street (in front of Maley Kamo General Merchandize) owned by Julie Fadrilan (+639266343026). Campers can also set up tents in the beach or in the municipal plaza.
Where & What to Eat
There are no restaurants or cafes in the island but again once you have taken shelter in one of the locals’ homes, food can be inclusive of the fees which includes native dishes and delicacies. During the Sanrokan Festival, you can hop from one house to another to enjoy the various array of dishes offered by the locals. And it’s all for free! You can also buy various local delicacies in the many stores scattered around town. Among these delicacies are rice cakes, varieties of suman, biko, minatamis na bao and the local halo-halo with various indigenous toppings.
Bar hopping tourists won’t easily enjoy this island at night since there are no bars or discos in town. There are a few karaoke machines found in some stores where bystanders can sing a tune for Php 5.00. But if you are really looking for some nightlife, go on to the beach with a few bottles of booze, gather some wood, start a bonfire and get the party started! (Be sure to get home by 11:00 PM though as the lights turn off around that time).
My to do List
1. Take a good camera with you. The island offers a lot wonderful scenery for photography.
2. Hop on the walls of Fuerza de San Jose to view of the island’s rich architectural history.
3. Visit Ugat Faigao Museum and Library for a short course on Banton history.
4. Learn basic Asi at Asi Studies Center for Culture and the Arts
5. Ride a habal-habal around the island for Php 45.00
6. Get your diving gear and take the plunge at the island’s Northeast Wall.
7. Go spelunking at the Moro Caves (also called the Taguan ng mga Moros).
8. Go rock climbing at Matagar Point in Hipit (equipment needed though).
9. Buy various marble souvenirs at the Town Bazaar
10. Go island hopping by visiting Bantoncillo and the Dos Hermanas.
11. For mountain climbers, traverse the heights of Mount Ampongo.
12. Try the local dishes and delicacies by attending barangay fiestas.
Stay Away From
Avoid going out the streets after 11:00 PM as this is the usual lights off time in the island. Going out alone in an area you’re not familiar with might get you into trouble. While swimming in beaches, stay away from black sea urchins and sharp oyster shells that might give you cuts and bruises. Always swim in groups as wading in unfamiliar waters can get you into danger. The water depth in most beaches differ from shallow to deep so it’s best to take caution. While travelling, avoid talking to strangers who offer to take you to Banton or offer lodging in exchange for a steep amount. Make your arrangements prior to travelling.
Here are two conventional ways of getting to Banton Island:
1. Manila-Lucena-Banton: From Araneta Station in Cubao, take a Jac Liner or Lucena Lines bus to Talao-Talao Port in Lucena City (approx. 4 hours). At the port, take a wooden launch operated by Kalayaan Shipping or Asuncion Shipping which leaves for Banton thrice a week (Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; 4-5 hours approx.) Fare: P140-160 for the bus, P300-350 for the ferry. Wooden launches don’t have cabins and beds however, and only provide wooden recliners as seats.
2. Batangas-Romblon-Banton: From Alabang, take a bus for Santa Clara Port in Batangas City (approx. 2-3 hours), take a roll-on, roll-off ferry to Odiongan, Romblon (approx. 5-6 hours), take a motorized boat at Odiongan going to Banton (approx. 3 hours). Fare: P120-150 bus, P350-450 the ferry, P150-200 for the banca)
Epi Fabonan is a history teacher with a wide array of background on local history and geography. He loves to travel and document his adventures through photo-essays, slideshows and short films.