With so much to do in this resort city, you may never even go near the beach, says Jose Costas.
The Philippines’ oldest city, Cebu was established by Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century. It is here where you can find the country’s oldest school, the University of San Carlos founded as Colegio de San Ildefonso in 1595 (antedating Harvard University by 41 years). The university houses a museum with an outstanding pre-Hispanic collection. The school is also a treasure-trove of Cebuano books from history to poetry to local politics. If you want to converse in the old dialect the local chieftain of Cebu spoke to Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan when he arrived in 1521, pick up the recently published Cebuano dictionary at the school’s Cebuano Studies Center. The museum and the centre are open Mondays to Fridays from 0800 to 1200 and 1330 to 1730; 0800 to 1200 on Saturdays. Museum entrance fee is P30 (US$0.71). tel 63 32 253 1000, www.usc.edu.ph
LIVE ON AN ISLAND
Dreaming of a quiet weekend on a sun-kissed beach? Head to Camotes. Hop on to a Golden Express fastcraft at Pier I, which docks in Poro, one of the four capital towns of Camotes. One-way fare is P270 (US$6.40) for the two-hour trip. Your destination is San Francisco, which boasts secluded coves, and a freshwater lake in the middle. The recent tourism boom has rudely awakened the island’s lethargic pace, so expect down-to-earth accommodation. Choose from Mangodlong Rock Resort (www.camotesresorts.com.ph), Santiago Bay Garden and Resort or Masamayor Beach House and Resort (www.camotesislandresort.com). Travelling within the island is a bit of an adventure too, with the motorcycle as the chief mode of transportation. Island life is so uncomplicated, even the locals are unmindful of your presence. The best months to visit are from February to May.
Spain left the enduring legacy of faith on the island. In the south, a thread of churches, watchtowers and forts runs from the towns of Talisay to Samboan, stretching over a hundred kilometres. The trip takes about a day, so it is practical to rent a car. Most remarkable are the churches of Carcar, Argao and Boljoon, their architecture a hybrid of foreign and local artistry. In the Spanish heritage village of Carcar, big red-tiled houses, some crumbling, stand in leafy gardens. Worth dropping by is the beautifully restored Balay nga Tisa. Call the Department of Tourism at 63 32 254 2811 to arrange a visit.
WATCH THE BIRDS
If you fancy wading in 920ha of muck to get that NatGeo bird shot, then Olango Island is where you want to be. A protected park for birds escaping winter in Siberia, Australia, China and Japan, the sanctuary is a boat ride away from Mactan island’s hotels and beach resorts. Inquire at their front desks for package tours. Or you can catch a boat leaving the port of Angasil in Mactan to Santa Rosa wharf and hire a tricycle to get to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources Center in San Vicente. It has a qualified birder who guides tourists and enthusiasts and can provide binoculars. There’s an P80 (US$1.90) entrance fee and if you’re carrying a video camera, it’s P3,000 (US$71) extra for shooting. Olango boasts 97 bird species, 48 of which are migratory species, including Chinese egrets, whimbrels, godwits and the rare Asiatic dowitcher. Visit between February and April. Be sure to carry an ample supply of water to keep hydrated, slop on sunblock and slip into a good pair of wading shoes. And avoid wearing bright-coloured clothes and designer perfumes, unless you want to scare the birds away.
GO TO MARKET
Every day, there is a town somewhere holding its market day. Mantalongon, Dalaguete, a mountain village 85km south of Cebu City, is famous for its vegetable farms and heavy-eyed weather. Farmers come down from their terraced farms every Sunday and Thursday to sell cabbages, carrots, pepper and potatoes. You can eat fried bananas and homemade ice-cream for a few pesos, while admiring piglets for sale bundled in banana trunks.
Near the city just up north is the vibrant Liloan Sunday market, where wayside umbrella-shaded stalls sell lechon (crispy roasted pig), grilled squid and raw exotic seafood: lukot (sea slug’s eggcase), seaweed, sea cucumber, sea urchin roe and fish fillet dipped in vinegar. These are best eaten with boiled camote (sweet potato), boiled banana and puso (boiled rice wrapped in coconut leaves). Titay’s, a century-old bakery selling excellent take-home cookies like rosquillos (ringlets), is just off the town plaza.
Back in the city, the markets are dirty, noisy and are teeming with hawkers, peddlers and shop owners. A walk through these bazaars is a test of patience but a virtual visual delight. In Carbon, you can spot bales of used clothing called ukay-ukay, cheap DVDs and piles of sweet mangoes Cebu is known for. For dried seafood, take a cab to Taboan for boneless danggit, fish flakes and sweetened fish fillet.