You’ll find both sleepy old-world charm and pulse-quickening modern thrills in Cuyo, the former capital of Palawan strung out in the Sulu Sea
Towards the end of a 14-hour voyage from Iloilo City, I caught sight of land, lit by the orange glow of sunrise. The ferry I was on had bobbed across the sea through the night, rocked by monsoon winds, so finally stepping onto terra firma was no small relief. I would’ve kissed the ground if there hadn’t been a frazzled crowd, burdened by bags, eager to disembark and leave the port.
The three-level iron vessel had docked at Cuyo Island, a speck of earth situated where, looking at a rudimentary map of the Philippines, one would assume there was nothing but a vast expanse of water. A regular stopover for passenger ferries traveling between Iloilo and Puerto Princesa, it is the largest of 45 tiny islands that comprise the Cuyo Archipelago in the middle of the Sulu Sea. Despite its size and isolation, Cuyo town is the oldest colonial settlement of Palawan, established in 1622. It also became the second provincial capital — after Taytay — from 1873 to 1903.
Several capiz-windowed ancestral houses still dot the townscape, which is designed like most of the country’s Spanish-era conurbations. Administrative and religious buildings are clustered around a leafy plaza, while the residential sprawl spreads out from the center. But no other structure harks back to this bygone era as much as the Fort of Cuyo, a few minutes’ walk from the pier. One of the most magnificent Spanish fortifications in the country, it lords over the township like an overprotective parent. Built to guard the settlement from Moro raiders, its 2m-thick perimeter of coral stone surrounds the St. Augustine Parish Church, convent and adoration chapel. The heavy cannons and statues of Catholic saints standing on the 10m-high walls are clear indications that the island was both a military and religious stronghold.
Entering the stone archways, I tiptoed into the silent refuge of the church, where I could hear nothing but the somber murmuring of a lone old woman praying the rosary in front of the silver-paneled altar. The belfry rose above the formidable walls. Roosting on a high ledge was a flock of evil-eyed starlings that weren’t too happy about my sudden intrusion. As the birds flitted noisily away, I emerged onto a wraparound balcony, taking in the panoramic views of the town proper and nearby islands. From where I stood, I could see Capusan Beach, an immaculate stretch of white sand that sweeps away from the port and tapers into a sandbar, an ideal viewpoint to marvel at breathtaking sunsets.
The next day, on a motorbike trip, local photographer Ronald Palay showed me the rest of the island that time seemed to have forgotten. We rode all the way to the even more tranquil eastern side of the island, where much of the critically acclaimed 2008 indie film Ploning was shot. Starring big-name actress Judy Ann Santos, the Cuyonon-language movie was based on a local folksong about a maiden’s romantic longing for her lover who had left the island. Among the quaint spots we visited that were used as filming locations were the Igabas Chapel, sitting on a hill of volcanic rocks shaded by old acacias, and Aceros Park, a forested watershed with brooks and cold springs, nicknamed “Little Baguio” for its cool surroundings. Another 17th-century fortress was built on this side of the island, but was never finished. Its ruins can be found along the shores of Barangay Lucbuan in an area the locals still call kuta, or fortress, and it was dressed up with styrofoam crosses by the production crew for the movie’s cemetery scenes.
The long, slow day ended at the last traditional Cuyonon house on the island, with cogon roofing and a separate kitchen also built on stilts. While not used as a filming location, the rustic dwelling also exuded the movie’s nostalgia. And it was spooky: the abandoned hut had a large crab claw hanging next to a photo of the Virgin Mary by the door, both items traditionally hung outside rural homes to ward off aswang, or mythical vampire-like ghouls believed by superstitious islanders to prowl the hinterlands at night.
After many languid days spent soaking up the island’s charm, my body was craving for adrenaline. Cuyo has recently been heralded as a paradise for kiteboarding, so I couldn’t leave without experiencing the island’s relatively new attraction. For introductory lessons, I met up with local kiter Jing Tabangay at Capusan Beach. He calls this island the best spot for kiteboarding in the Philippines, if not one of the best in the world. Cuyo’s geographical isolation and low-lying topography allows the north-eastern amihan trade winds to blow strongly and consistently from October to June, peaking between the months of December to February. On days when the wind is particularly strong, the wind whistles through the beachside trees and the eaves of houses, beckoning kiters to take a ride.
A group of Swedish windsurfers were reportedly the first ones to discover the island’s potential as an oasis for wind-based watersports in the late 1980s, but kiteboarding itself was only introduced by kiters from Boracay Island in the last decade. Capusan Beach, in particular, is the perfect spot, because it stretches out into a sandbar that enjoys wind blowing towards and away from the coastline. The sandbar also naturally creates a wide sand flat of calm shallows, ideal for kiteboarding, while choppy waters behind the sandbar are conducive to kitesurfing (essentially kiteboarding on waves).
Jing first taught me the basics of kiteboarding on dry land. These exercises focused on kite control. I practiced with a 2m training kite attached to a body harness, tracing an imaginary figure “8” in the sky. After getting used to the gear, we moved on to the professional 9m kite, which can harness enough wind power to lift a kiter several meters off the ground. To properly maneuver this kite, I had to lean back and allow my body weight to counter its pull. As a safety precaution, my instructor had to hold on to me to prevent the kite from crashing, or worse, dragging my lanky frame all the way to mainland Palawan. Kiteboarding does require a lot of upper body strength, a little epiphany that slowly came to me while I struggled with my gear. It also explained why my coach, who has been kiteboarding for eight years, was built like a wrestler.
Eager to see how the pros do it, I turned over the gear to Jing. He walked out onto the sandbar where a steady gust of wind then picked up the kite, pulling him across the shallows. He gave the kite a tug and it quickly lifted him up, allowing the masterful execution of several gravity-defying tricks. I watched what I had yet to learn — twists, somersaults — and felt my heart start to thump.
My sea adventure hadn’t ended when the ferry docked after all. What had started as a slow weekend of walking around town, inspecting the remnants of past glory, was turning into a high-octane thrill ride. Its colonial heritage and natural landscapes are an obvious draw, but Cuyo’s aptitude for watersports was a tremendous surprise.