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Philippines: Busuanga Archipelago, whale sharks in Donsol, the mountainous north, crucifixions in San Fernando, Boracay

February – May 2011

Busuanga Archipelago

Coming from Vietnam I first visited on my trip to the Philippines this year the Busuanga Archipelago with the capital Coron. It is one of my favorite destinations in the Philippines. The archipelago lies halfway between Manila and Palawan’s main island and consists of countless small islands with offshore coral reefs and lonely beaches.

Behind the small town of Coron on the left side of the picture you can see the 210 meter high Mount Tapyas.

It offers a great view over some islands of the Busuanga archipelago. Especially at sunset the view is magnificent.

Four of us rented a boat for four days. The skipper and his crew accompanied us and took care of our well-being. We spent unforgettable days and nights.

Our guide Betan

Crystal clear water

My first attempts with an underwater camera

These crabs were part of a lunch.

In the evening we enjoyed surprisingly good food on lonely beaches and drank at the campfire into the night. We spent the night in tents right on the beach.

We spent one of the nights on South Malbinchilao. In the background our boat

… watching the sunrise in the morning: A grandiose experience

During the day we chugged from island to island, interrupted by snorkeling trips and other lonely beaches. With the new underwater camera I was able to film all the exotic fish and corals for the first time. There are also a few resorts in the area that we visited. Simply paradisaical.

Back in Coron the Philippine everyday life caught up with us. My Swiss colleague Dani in Coron told me why the power cuts are now so numerous and last much longer than before. The director of the local power station escaped with a million dollars. Now there is not enough money left to buy fuel for the generators. At the provincial level, politicians have sold a gas field and a power station to the Chinese and of course made sure that something falls off from the selling price for them personally. After the privatization, consumers have to dig deeper into their pockets.

In addition, two ex-governors and a mayor of Palawan are in prison after a killer they hired confessed to murdering an uncomfortable journalist on January 24, 2011. Among other things, the journalist uncovered the misappropriation of funds from the gas field project. He has also protested against mining projects that have benefited politicians. The killer’s salary was 3,500 dollars. That’s how it works in the Philippines.

Donsol – swimming with the whale sharks

Last year I was so excited about the whale sharks that I visited them again this year in Donsol. It is always a special experience to swim with these impressive fish, the largest on earth.

With the huge mouth the whale sharks pick up plankton.

The province of Albay and its capital Legaspi

The volcano Mayon is another attraction in the province of Albay. With its uniform cone shape it towers over the city of Legaspi. With 49 eruptions in the last 400 years, it is the most dangerous volcano in the Philippines. During an eruption in 2006, the volcano emitted a large amount of lava and ash. When a typhoon hit the area a few months later, ash and mud avalanches formed and covered more than 1,200 people. Entire villages were destroyed. The worst outbreak, however, occurred in 1814. At that time about 2’000 people lost their lives and the area was covered with a 9 meter high layer of ash. In addition, it rained larger lava boulders. A few hundred people died while seeking shelter in the church of Cagsawa, a village in the area. Today parts of the church tower and the facade are still preserved.

The Mayon volcano with the church of Cagsawa destroyed by the eruption of 1814.

On 11 March 2011, the earth trembled in Japan. My friends and I were also affected as we were in the coastal town of Legaspi. A tsunami warning was issued and we had to stay several hours on the 2nd floor of the hotel. Later the warning was lifted. Nevertheless, the otherwise lively city was extinct that evening.

Like every year I wanted to visit a lonely fishing island in the south of the Philippines. But persistently bad weather made this plan obsolete. This year’s La Nina weather phenomenon brought especially in the south rain and many clouds. So I decided to visit a Swiss colleague in Cebu, the second largest city in the Philippines. Unfortunately the weather did not improve in the south, so I decided to visit the mountainous north for the first time, where the Ifugaos tribe is at home.

The mountainous north

On the one hand, these people are known as builders of the world-famous rice terraces, which are particularly impressive around the areas of Banaue and Batad. On the other hand, they were feared head hunters and artistically gifted wood carvers. Headhunting was pursued to demonstrate skill and courage and to rise up in the village hierarchy. Village communities were chosen as hunting grounds which were two to three days’ walk away. After all, they did not want to liquidate any relatives. Women and men had equal rights insofar as the head of a woman cut off was worth as much as that of a man. Children were treated differently depending on the area. While in some areas the heads of the children were cut off immediately, in others the killing of children was considered cowardly. As a result, these children were raised in captivity and then cut off their heads when they reached adulthood. The Christian missionaries were finally able to convince the Ifugaos to give up head hunting.

Baguio is the largest city in the mountainous north


The first destination in the Ifugao area was the village of Sagada. It is a wonderful village away from the hustle and bustle of tourists. Nevertheless, there are a few restaurants that will satisfy even the most discerning gourmet. You can hike through forests, visit caves and rice terraces. But Sagada is especially known for the way the dead are buried. People who can afford a generous funeral meal for the whole village, are married and have grandchildren have the privilege of being buried in a “hanging coffin” on a rock face or in a cave.

Only a few people are buried in a hanging coffin.

In some caves hundreds of coffins pile up. People carve their coffins themselves before they die. If they are no longer able to do so, one of the sons or a close relative does. Some bones are broken so that the dead can fit into the rather small coffins.

Rice terraces around Sagada


On the way to Banaue I passed Bontoc, where also extensive rice terraces can be admired.


Next I traveled to the area of Banaue, which is world famous for its countless rice terraces up to 2000 years old. In 1995 they were recognized as UNESCO World Heritage. The terraces were dug in laborious manual work in each somewhat suitable mountain slope, so that flat surfaces for the rice and partly also for the vegetable cultivation developed. Since rice needs a lot of water, the Ifugaos had to develop and maintain a complex irrigation system.

For the younger generation, agriculture is no longer particularly attractive. They prefer to work in the tourism sector, which was created thanks to the rice terraces. As a consequence, the rice terraces in certain places are no longer fully maintained, which is problematic as the lower parcels depend on the intact irrigation system further up. In addition, some farmers have started to use grids for retaining walls, which certainly makes life easier for the farmers, but reduces the overall visual impression for the tourists.

Grilled chicken heads are sold here.

The Ifugaos are also very talented wood carvers, as a few photos from a museum in Banaue show. The statues were used for ritual purposes.

On this sculpture the heads of the killed enemies could be impaled and exhibited.

Hike from Banaue to Batad

With a guide I took a hike of several days to Kalumbulu and further to Batad, where the rice terraces are most impressive.


The village of Batad is surrounded by rice terraces.

We went on to Banga an.

Here the water is directed into another field by means of a bamboo cane.

From Banga an, my guide’s husband picked us up with his tuk tuk. Sometimes we had to wait a long time until the excavator cleared the road.


Then I visited Vigan, no longer in the Ifugao area, but on the northwestern coast in the province of Ilocos. It was a long bus ride through impressive mountain areas. The bush driver only drove with flip flops on his feet. But a cross, a statue of the Virgin Mary and an inscription “God bless this journey” on the windscreen protected us.

Vigan has the best preserved historic old town of the Philippines with old trading houses, cobbled streets and horse-drawn carts that now drive for tourists.

In the evening a religious procession took place.

Vigan was a trading town long before the Spaniards discovered it. Seafarers and merchants, mostly Chinese, regularly visited the coastal city and traded goods from Asian kingdoms for gold, beeswax and other products produced by the local population from the mountain areas. In the 16th century, the Spanish annexed the northern Philippines, including the city of Vigan.

Ilocos has the sad record of being the area with the most murders in relation to population worldwide. It is a bloody struggle for control of the tobacco business and for the seat in Congress in Manila. This conflict began between two families and dates back to the 1960s. One of the highlights of the conflict was the shooting of then Congressman Crisolongo during a mass at Vigan’s Church. His wife was more fortunate. She survived several assassination attempts. The opponent Singson was elected congressman after the murder of Crisolongo. He also survived several assassinations. One only because he danced with a fat woman and she became victim of the shots and protected him in this way. The then President Marcos also came from Ilocos.

San Fernando – Crucifixions

On Good Friday, the world looks to San Fernando, a small town north of Manila. There the story of Jesus during Holy Week is played with amateur actors. The highlight is of course the crucifixion. Ruben Enaje, a 50-year-old painter, plays Jesus for the 25th time. And every time he lets the Roman soldiers drive 12 cm long nails through his hands into the cross. In this way he thanks God that he survived a fall from the third floor of a house unharmed. He also prays for new paintings. Then two more men were nailed to the cross. In the beginning the Passion play was carried out without real crucifixions. In 1962 Artemio Anoza, a self-proclaimed spiritual healer and religious leader, was crucified for the first time. Since then, the crucifixion tradition has survived.

Many young men whip themselves for hours with bamboo sticks on their backs. Some even use glass splinters and razor blades. Accordingly, their backs are covered with blood and their skin is worn out. The healing takes several weeks. Some want to repent of sins, others pray for the sick or want to help themselves to a better life.


At the end of the trip I spent a week in Boracay, the most famous island of the Philippines. Shortly after Easter almost everything was fully booked. Nevertheless the island kept its charm. The beach is one of the most beautiful on the Philippines. The sunsets, good food, nightlife and an international atmosphere make Boracay unique.


My next destination are the Fiji Islands.


This text is an automatic English translation from the German original by