Isla Culion is probably not your typical vacationer’s destination. Locals say that most people have either never heard of Culion, or know it only for once being the world’s largest leper colony. In fact, the island was isolated for over a century. The Culion leper colony was established in 1906, and patients from different parts of the Philippines and hospital staff were brought to Culion. But in 2006, the island was declared leprosy-free by the World Health Organization.
Thanks to Kawil Tours, I was able to see firsthand how the island’s isolation has resulted in unspoiled attractions. Culion now offers a combination of otherworldly underwater seascapes, historic allure, and a genuine community spirit and hospitality that is increasingly becoming hard to find. The place offers a feeling of remoteness and isolation, where you can reflect and recharge from the urban grind, making it a popular venue for retreats. For those who hate beach party scenes and want a more meaningful destination, this may just be the best place to visit.
WHERE EXACTLY IS CULION?
Culion is part of the Calamian group of islands situated at the northern part of Palawan, approximately 200 nautical miles southwest of Manila It is bounded on the north by Busuanga; on the east by Coron reef; on the west by West Philippine Sea; and on the South by Linapacan Island, which recently got international acclaim for being included in a list of places in the world with clearest waters for swimming in. [MAP]
HOW TO GET THERE:
There are no direct flights to Culion. From Manila, you need to take a flight to Busuanga and then a van/shuttle to Coron Town, and then ride a boat to Culion. Ferries from Coron to Culion depart daily at 1-1:30 pm (P180, travel time: 1.5-2 hours) and return from Culion to Coron at 7:30-8:00 am.
Some Coron-based tour operators arrange day trips to Culion, usually packaged as historical tours (with visits to the museum, church and fort). Group day tour packages cost roughly P1,200/pax for a group of at least 5. You can also charter a boat from Coron to Culion for P3,000.
Kawil Tours, the only Culion-based tour operator, can arrange longer stays and tours around the town of Culion and to nearby water-based attractions. For inquiries, visit their website at www.kawiltours.com
Getting around the Culion town proper is easy enough on foot or tricycle, the main mode of transport. There are no existing commercial bicycle or motorbike rentals yet, though it’s possible to borrow from locals if you want to explore the island on your own.
We were offered a motorbike for P500/day to go around town and to visit Pulang Lupa on our own, but didn’t have enough time to do that.
WHERE TO GO/WHAT TO DO IN CULION:
Crowning Glory Reef is a Marine Protected Area (MPA) and is one of Isla Culion’s best destinations. The water is so clear that visitors don’t need to dive to appreciate the rainbow colored corals and schools of fish. Sea turtles and dolphins also have been spotted in the area. This is the best place in the country that I’ve tried snorkeling by far.
Experience the native fishing method of Kawil, using bait on hooks tied to nylon string. This tests your patience and eye-hand coordination skills and will give you a greater appreciation of the job of fishermen.
3. Learn more about the island’s history at the Culion Museum & Archives
The well-preserved and curated Culion Museum & Archives established in 1997 is where you can learn more about the painful yet hopeful history of the island. It offers a vast collection of records and artifacts, including historical news clippings, letters and correspondences during the decades of struggle. there’s a detailed timeline of the history of leprosy, as well as photos, murals and actual memorabilia used on the island, including medicine, coins (they had their own currency!), slides of patients and hospital items.
The museum is located within the premises of the Culion Sanitarium and General hospital. Museum hours are from Monday to Friday, 9am-12nn and 1pm to 4pm. The museum is closed on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Entrance fee is P150. For inquiries, contact 0928-2812276/0921-5787152/0919-3779757. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
4. Visit the Culion Church
The La Inmaculada Concepcion Church is a 17th century church built by the Augustinian Recollects. According to the marker on the site, the walls of the church were taken from the old fortress built in 1740. The base and surrounding walls of the church are said to be hewn from live corals. The church was later restored and renovated to preserve its structural integrity.
5. Pose with cannons at Fort Culion
Right next to the church are the remains of Fort Culion, which was constructed roughly back in 1740 by the recollect Augustinians. There are a couple of cannons here, which were historically used to defend the island. The Fort offers an excellent vantage point o the sea, the town and the surrounding islands.
6. Take a walk through history around town
Black historical markers around town recount the significance of the buildings, plazas, streets and landmarks in Culion. For instance, the lower gate shows the boundaries between the two worlds of old Culion: the leproso (patients) and the sano (medical and para-medical personnel), who used to have segregated living quarters.
7. Get a breathtaking view at Agila Viewpoint
The hike up 330+ steps to reach the top of Agila Hill will literally leave you out of breath, but the panoramic view of the town and surrounding islands is worth the climb. Large crosses direct the way up the concrete stairs going up to the Christ the Redeemer statue at the top of the hill. On the last stretch of stairs, you pass through the individual stones which form the massive white eagle with the logo of the Philippine Health Services (now the Department of Health) which can be seen from afar carved on the face of the hill. The PHS logo was said to be personally crafted by the island’s former patients as a sign of their gratitude.
8. OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you have more time in Culion, you can visit other places like Pulang Lupa, Waterfalls or take a boatride to a hotsprings within Mangrove Forest (closed during our visit). Malcapuya Island and other sites like Lusong Shipwreck, which are popular destinations offered in island-hopping trips from Coron are near also Culion.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hotel Maya is the only hotel on the island and is probably the best option for families, couples and guests who want a comfortable and relaxing place to stay during their visit to Culion. The building itself used to be the Hijas de Maria Dormitory and Sta. Teresita Home. The hotel was set up as a social enterprise to support the financially challenged Loyola College of Culion, which is run by the Jesuits. Hotel Maya accommodate large groups and is often used for retreats.
Hotel Maya is situated on top of the hill right next to the church, and has a great view. The rooms are clean and comfortable, and the staff give a personal touch that makes you feel welcome from the moment you step in. I really appreciated the welcome drink upon our arrival, the bath towels arranged like swans on the bed, and the cool book selection they had in the room and in the lobby for guests to read. There was a copy of The Princess Bride & Piers Anthony’s Ogre Ogre (part of the Xanth series) in our room. Nice! Since electricity is not regular on the island, they also have a built-in solar charger in the room that could power the lights and outlets.
- Single fan room w/ pull bed for 2 pax (common bathroom) – P800 or 400/pax
- Single fan room with pull bed for 2 pax (private bathroom) – P1,100 or P550/pax
- Single aircon room with pull bed for 2 pax (private bathroom), P1,300 or P650/pax
- Jr. Suite for 2 pax (fan room), 1 extra bed upon request – P1,320 or P660/pax
- Jr. Suite for 2 pax (aircon room), 1 extra bed upon request – P1,500 or P750/pax
- Angelitos room for 4 pax with aircon, max of 3 extra beds – P2,200 or P550/pax
- Hijas room for 6 pax with aircon, max of 4 extra bed upon request – P2,200 or P550/pax
- Extra bed: P330
Hotel Maya. Ateneo-Loyola Hostel Project in Culion. For reservations, email them at email@example.com or call them at 0921-3004004
View from Safari Lodge & Restaurant
Backpackers and budget travelers can also opt to stay in guesthouses and lodging houses around town mostly located along the Culion Port, including:
- Tabing Dagat Lodging House & Restaurant. Brgy. Balala, Culion. Rooms range from P490-P1300. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Contact: 0908-2451148, 0920-4056659
- Safari Lodge & Restaurant. They have a restaurant facing the sea and a karaoke bar frequented by locals.
- Raja’s Pension House and Business Center. For inquiries, contact Tong Contreras: 0918-2029123/0930-515526
WHERE / WHAT TO EAT IN CULION:
There are not a lot of commercial restuarants in Culion yet, though there are some small snack houses like Aljohn’s Food House, which serves affordable and good pastas, burgers, fries and rice meals. Other lodging houses like Safari Lodge & Tabing Dagat also have their own in-house restaurants, serving basic Filipino fare and tapsilog-type meals. Hotel Maya has its own restaurant and bar, so you can enjoy a good meal and beer (P50/can of San Mig) or two while overlooking the Culion bay. Their menu showed a range of chicken and fish rice meals, sandwiches, snacks and breakfast fare. Apparently, most fresh seafood is directly brought by fishermen to Coron since they have a bigger market. However, vendors also sell some fresh catch in the street especially in the morning. While walking around town in the afternoon, we lucked out and were able to buy 5 huge crabs for P120 bucks, which we had cooked in Hotel Maya (cooking fee was also P120).
We also had breakfast the next day at the hotel, and the fried danggit with vegetables and rice was pretty good. Breakfast costs P125 with coffee, while rice meals cost about P140-P165 in Hotel Maya.
As the only tourists on the island at the time, we were graciously invited to crash a birthday party/inuman in the house right next to the hotel, where we got to try freshly grilled seafood including inihaw na surahan (unicorn fish). The fish has a little horn on its forehead and the skin can be quite tough and black especially when grilled (so it’s not really photogenic), but underneath, the meat has a really delicious and milky texture. When dipped in soy sauce with calamansi, panalong pulutan! This went great with Red Horse beer. You’ve got to love Pinoy hospitality. 🙂
WHAT TO BUY IN CULION:
Isla Culion souvenirs like shirts and pins are sold in Hotel Maya and the souvenir center right next to it. There’s also a small Culion Information and Tourist Center in town that sells souvenir items like banig placemats and other crafts made by Tagbanua tribe. Tabing Dagat Lodging House & Restaurant also has a souvenir/gift shop.
Possibly the most meaningful souvenir I bought from all my travels, was a crocheted table runner, made by Lola Conching, a former leper patient, who we were fortunate to meet. We suggested that she consider weaving small items like wallets, cellphone pouches and other souvenir items that could possibly be sold in the souvenir center, as I’m sure many visitors would want to support the livelihood of the people who made the island so historic.
- NOTE: According to a reader, as of July 2016, electricity in Culion is now 24 hours. (Power supply in Culion is limited. Electricity runs from 12:00NN until 12:00 midnight. Some places like Hotel Maya have a service power generator that is utilized from midnight to early morning of the following day. Use the time wisely to charge all your gadgets.)
- During our stay, there was no WiFi yet in most of the establishments.
- Tabing Dagat Lodging House & Restaurant runs a small internet shop.
- You can access WiFi via SMART 3G. Globe didn’t seem to have a 3G signal.
- Bring enough cash because there are no ATMs or banks yet in Culion. Have small bills ready for the entrance fees for island-hopping trips and the museum. Credit cards and traveler’s checks are not yet accepted.
- Bring insect repellent & sunblock for the different activities.
- To save costs on buying bottled water, bring your own water bottle and refill at your hotel or lodging house. I recommend you bring water for the hike up to Agila viewpoint.
- Bring an underwater camera for all the beach and snorkeling activities! If you don’t have one, take the time to buy one or borrow one from friends before your trip, because you will regret not having pictures especially of the rich marine life while snorkeling in Crowning Glory Reef.