Diversify your travel experience and take a side trip from Boracay Island to nearby ecotourism destinations in the Panay peninsula. Mararison Island is in the town of Culasi in Antique, the most scenic province in Western Visayas. Mararison is two hours away from Boracay by public transport.
Words by Ivery del Campo
In Mararison, there are no hotels, no restaurants, no electricity. Just people who have chosen to live on the island for its solitude, fresh seafood, coconut trees and coconut juice, and the view of Panay’s highest mountain across the sea.
The way to the quiet town of Culasi in the province of Antique is a serene ride on a smooth, uncongested road cradled by vast plains and mountains on one side, and the sea on the other. The sun rises behind the highest mountain in the range, the mighty Mt. Madjaas, the highest peak in Panay; it sets on the horizon by the sea, creating stunning sunsets on your bus window if you’re on your way back to Kalibo or Caticlan (where the airports are), with silhouettes of palm trees lining the road and disappearing into the night.
As an ecotourism destination, the main attraction in Culasi is the formidable Mt. Madjaas, one of the most challenging mountains to climb in the Philippines. Typically, climbers head to Mararison Island to complement a three-day hardcore climb with days of easy frolicking on the clean pebbled sand, killing time in a hammock under a tree, and being cared for by the humble folk who cook meals for visitors, take them around the island, and make sure they enjoy a hushed, leisurely time away from the world. In Mararison, there are no hotels, no restaurants, no electricity (except for a few hours in the early evening when a generator is turned on till the island retires at 9 P.M.). Typically rustic, there are neither tourist cottages nor decent comfort rooms, but guests happily stay on the beach or the sandbar with the locals all day long, all night long.
Cradle of Solitude
The 55-hectare island of Mararison is secluded though accessible. In fact, it lies just across the sea from the town market, off the coast of Poblacion. It’s the closest to town of the three satellite islands of Culasi (the other two islands are Batbatan and Maniguin). The island’s name is also spelled “Malalison,” but we prefer to use “Mararison” for that’s how the native speakers say it, with the distinct /r/ that sets Kinaray-a apart from other dialects in the region. From the Poblacion market, Mararison is fifteen minutes away by a small fishing boat. Mararison is basically a fishing village, so there are no big passenger boats to ferry visitors to and from the island.
The motorized fishing boats to Mararison are stationed on the beach by the Baywalk, which also functions as a seawall. The sand on this beach is dark and coarse, but the sand in Mararison is white and fine. The small island faces Mt. Madjaas, affording its people a daily majestic view of the sunrise. For sunset, however, one has to walk through the village or around the hills to the other side of the island, its flip side—here there’s no white sand, instead a vast bed of sea grass reveals itself on low tide, creating a pebbly, then a marshy, landscape bordered by boulders of rock on its beach. Walking on the sea bed, one has to watch out for corals and starfish. Here and there are shallow pools with schools of tiny fishes, as well as black sea urchins. Locals come out with their basins to pick something for dinner with sunset in the backdrop on this side of the island.
Aside from the hills where pitcher plants grow, Mararison’s two caves and adjacent islet, Nablag, may also be explored, as well as its rich underwater life, for Mararison is also a dive and snorkeling spot.
Back to the white-sand side of the island, those lounging all day on the sandbar, in the hammocks, on the tables and chairs will be roused by the sound of a generator as nightfall approaches and dinner is served. As the children place themselves before television sets, visitors lie on the sand and continue with their lounging till sleep arrives. In Mararison, it’s customary to make one’s bed on the sand—just bring along a blanket and you’re fine. Pitch a tent if you like. If the weather permits, we’d rather sleep on the sandbar under the stars.
And when we were there—after a meal of grilled fish, squid, and vegetables lovingly served by the locals—we watched the moon rise behind Mt. Madjaas, the mountain’s peak outlined against the nightsky. Night swimming felt mystical. And when the generator was hushed, there was total darkness except for the moon above us.
When one lives in the city, one can live impervious to the seasons. In Manila and other Philippine cities, for instance, life proceeds with its routines come dry or wet season. Workers head to work, schoolchildren head to school, regardless of the weather. The rains and floods and occasional storms are inconveniences, just as much as the heat and traffic jams. But when one lives on an island, the amihan and habagat determine one’s life.
The amihan brings pleasant weather, and the people of Mararison enjoy calm seas. They obtain their rice, meat, and vegetables from the market across the sea. They entertain some visitors. They go fishing. The children go to the elementary school on the hills.
The elementary school was initially erected on the lower part of the island, but the people had to move it up on the hills because come habagat season, which brings typhoons and tropical storms, the sea can devastate the interior of the island. A storm may not even have to be in Antique itself to create havoc. A storm surge is just as likely to flood the island, driving the people uphill where they’re likely to stay without food for days. To prepare for the habagat, the people stock up on food, but many still go hungry in this season of precarity. It’s almost a yearly calamity season in Mararison, but like all seasons it’s temporary. It passes. The skies brighten again and everything is back to tranquility.
We were hanging out in the barangay hall (also the tourist information center) with Miriam Rose, the barangay treasurer who also prepared our meals. She worked in Manila as a cook before settling down with her husband who lives in Mararison. Though the town is just across the sea, she prefers the simple life in Mararison—it’s stress-free, as long as your kids eat three meals a day and go to school, you live contentedly. You need not be driven by big city ambitions. For entertainment, it’s just TV and hanging out with one another. And of course, entertaining visitors which the people absolutely love to do.
When visitors arrive, they are welcomed in the barangay hall where they get listed in a logbook and pay a minimal fee. Locals hang out in the area, too; whoever is available may take the visitors around the island, arrange for their meals or homestay accommodations. Visitors just need to pay for the ingredients of the meal; it’s up to the visitors to tip the cooks, tour guides, whoever offered help. However, arranging for boat rides around the island or to-and-from the market can be pricey. Rates vary, visitors can haggle when there are many offers, but it’s more or less PhP1000 for a two-way trip.
The barangay chairman, Mario Fuenteblanca, is a jovial man who wishes to at least have the boat fares standardized. He’s the friendly face of the island who welcomes guests into the barangay hall and makes sure they have a good time. He envisions the white-sand side of the island to be surrounded by bamboo rafts floating in the sea. Guests can go fishing and partake of their catch aboard the rafts.
Our chat drifted to a certain wealthy man who had visited a neighboring island and thought of developing it. When asked what he would do should an opportunity for development visits Mararison, Mario maintains a no for mega-structures on the island. Perhaps just to beautify the island using indigenous materials, a few passenger boats for guests, and renovation and maintenance of their barangay hall especially since, like other structures on the island, it’s susceptible to damage during the wet season.
He especially appreciates it when divers visit Mararison. He admires the divers’ eco-consciousness whom he sees picking up trash. He hopes that tourists cultivate that kind of respect for the places they visit, for these places are homes to some people. No vandalism on the rocks, please. No littering on the beaches. Don’t break glass bottles.
Some visitors stay on the beach for weeks, doing nothing, enjoying a no-wifi, no-signal lifestyle. Some are drawn in for a few days of necessary solitude. Some for a few hours of leisurely hiking on the hills, or diving, or an outdoor barbeque meal. However long you wish to stay in Mararison, the simple island provides simple delights. But aren’t those simple delights what we tend to crave for, anyway, momentarily, or even for life?
Going to Culasi: Culasi may be reached by public transportation (bus, jeepney, van) from Caticlan (1-2 hours travel time), Kalibo (88 kms. or 2 hours), or Iloilo (200 kms. or 5 hours), which have airports. By sea, visitors may pass through Caticlan Jetty Port; San Jose, Antique Port (2 hours); or Culasi’s own Lipata Port (5 kms. from Poblacion).
First things first: Get off in Culasi town proper and take a tricycle to the Poblacion public market. Proceed to the Tourism Office on the market’s second floor. Get registered, obtain a Safety and Conduct Pass, pay the environmental fee (PhP10 for locals, PhP40 for foreigners) and a diving fee (PhP200) if you’re a diver before getting on a boat to Mararison Island.
In the town proper are ATM machines, some shops and the market itself where you may buy food and bottled water to take to Mararison. Prepare at least PhP1000 for the boat ride (you can haggle, of course), and small bills for tips and food (if you’ll have the locals prepare your meals). Softdrinks/sodas are sold in the island, but not bottled water. If you plan to stay for the night, bring along a flashlight, a tent or blankets.
Best time to visit: In the dry months of October till May.
Contact: Mr. John Sumanting (Municipal Tourism Officer) +63 916 324 5068