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The water slowly clouded with mud, which was apparently a representation of my aura. Yet the healer’s wrinkled face was expressionless, giving away nothing.
Instead, he turned and poured the water onto the dusty ground outside the wooden mountain hut where he lived. The one thing left in the glass was the ‘magic’ black stone which, a local woman who spoke English explained to us, is an important part of the Bulo Bulo healing ritual.
The stone’s apparent abilities are not the only thing remarkable about the experience we were having in Siquijor.
What brought me to Siquijor?
The island – rested south of Cebu and touristic island Bohol – is a place quite unlike much of the surrounding Philippines. With a limited traveller flow, it’s known not for nightlife and beach basking but for the mystical powers of Siquijor healers and the practising of witchcraft, passed down through generations.
I’ve never been particularly superstitious but everything about the island shrouded in mystery and magic intrigued me. I had no particular ailments in need of healing but in the name of travel and new experience, I was keen to experience the art of ‘Bulo Bulo’ (healing through magic) which is found only on Siquijor.
My sister and I flew into Cebu to travel around the eastern side of the Philippines and, after exploring the Chocolate Hills of Bohol, we landed late at night at the Siquijor ferry port. With a French couple from the ferry also travelling to a guesthouse near ours, we piled into a tricycle (the Philippines’ answer to a tuk tuk) and began the hour-long bumpy ride around the island.
Circumnavigating Siquijor may not take long but after midnight with four of us piled on each other’s laps and all our luggage strapped to the roof, it certainly felt like a lengthy ride.
Unlike more touristic places, the island seemed abandoned. Following a storm, electricity hung in the air and palms rustled in the breeze. It was hot as usual but I felt a strange chill run through me. It was most likely my imagination but our arrival on the witches island, now dark and abandoned, felt different to our arrival anywhere else.
We arrived at our accommodation at 1 am and luckily the staff at Islandia Beach Resort had waited up for us. Many of the beaches on Siquijor aren’t accessible by public road but can be reached by sandy tracks (owned by guesthouses) leading to the curving seafront.
The stretches of sand in front of the hotels are often for use just by the guests staying there, so its definitely worth stretching your budget by a few pounds for a place on the coast.
The Siquijor healers
One of the first things we did on arrival was organise seeing a healer. Deep in the heart of the mountains, a steep incline and around 20 minutes on a scooter are required to find one of the Bulo Bulo practitioners. Local knowledge is a necessity as the huts and remote homes of the Siquijor healers won’t be apparent to passersby.
Even if you hire a scooter yourself, you’d be unlikely to find your way: the winding dusty paths up the unexplored mountains aren’t exactly mapped on Google and you’ll definitely not find the healers listed there. Tricycle drivers and guesthouse staff are your best bet for firstly, knowing a healer and secondly, taking you to find them.
Aboard the back of a staff member’s scooter, we ascended towards the misty mountains where some of the scenery was as unique as the experience we were about to have.
The villages we passed through were clearly untrodden by travellers. People of every age raised their heads to smile and wave at us; pleasantly amused at the spectacle of two blonde girls whizzing by on bike.
The tiny settlements comprised of small, wooden houses outside of which people sat, socialised and tended crops in the heat. Toddlers roamed freely, often aboard bikes or in the arms of their siblings. The goats tied to trees and water buffalo revelling in the mud may belong to people, but the skinny cats and dogs are owned by no one and everyone in equal measures.
Eventually, our driver pulled up outside an unexceptional looking hut alongside a sandy road. Signalling to a woman inside the house, we realised we had arrived at our destination. She greeted us and led the three of us off the road and downhill through a field lined with palm trees. At the bottom of the path was a small, wooden hut: the home of our particular Siquijor healer.
Here he lived alone. Either he spoke no English or wanted to keep an air of mystery between us, so the woman translated to us as the ritual began.
I was instructed to sit in front of the healer, whilst he filled a glass of water containing the all-important black stone. We were told that, traditionally, the stone finds the healer rather than the other way round. Our healer had disposed of his on a beach after initially finding it, yet it had returned itself to him in usual circumstances.
With a bamboo-style pipe, the healer blew into the glass of water, which soon became dirty. He emptied the glass (aside from the stone), refilled it with clean water and repeated the process several times over until eventually, the water remained clear.
The metaphor was clear despite the language barrier, though our female companion explained it to us more fully.
The water represents the state of health or the aura of he or she receiving the treatment. Cloudiness and dirt in the water can represent a disease or sickness, or alternatively negative forces, such as bad spirits or curses. As the healer continues to apply his energy to the water, it fights these obstacles and as the water clears, so will the physical or spiritual ailment.
I tried to work out whether the stick itself could be containing the mud clouding the water, and tried to look closely as he set up the procedure for my sister’s turn. The healer didn’t seem to do anything to it, but it was tough to tell.
So did it work?
I did feel especially calm and relaxed later in the day, but then I was on a private beach drinking a smoothie laced with rum, so perhaps that had something to do with it.
Enlightened maybe not, but I do feel like I’ve had an eye-opening experience into a different culture which I’ll be talking about for years.
I was told that Siquijor’s spiritual roots date back to a time when there was no hospital or medical care on the island – a situation which has only changed recently. With traditional forms of medicine unavailable, the residents came to develop their own ways of healing and seeing the body and mind.
The Bulo Bulo healers operate only by donation so we gave ours 100 pesos (£1.50) and began our decline from the mountain. Our scooter driver effortlessly made the transition from bumpy hillside track to highway and, with that, our adventures in the mountains were merely a memory.
Other things to do in Siquijor
Another spot of mystic interest on the island is the Healing Tree, a Balete tree which stands close to the roadside in the south of Siquijor.
The eerie roots and vines of Balete trees prompt rumours of dark spirits and enchantments. In front of this particular tree sits a pool full of small fish which, should you let them, nibble the dry skin on the soles of your feet and act as a free foot spa. Now that’s the kind of healing I’m more used to!
If your timing to Siquijor’s right, you can catch healing folk festivals; the largest of their kind in the Philippines. Our trip didn’t coincide with one, but we were told healers and shamans gather to perform rituals for locals and tourists. Love potions and herbal healing bracelets are readily available on the island if you’re keen for a souvenir (we’d had our fix of the mystical and left empty-handed).
There’s one thing you won’t need to worry about during your trip – crime. Locals told us that the residents of Siquijor commit next to no crime in fear that they’ll be cursed by black magic as punishment. So even if we weren’t completely convinced, it seems the locals are.
Siquijor as an island offers more than just magic however – plenty of tourists visit and don’t see a healer at all. The Cambugahay Falls were a highlight for us, as was relaxing on the beach by our guesthouse and escaping the hustle and bustle of other, more touristic islands.
Magic or no magic, Siquijor certainly cast a spell on us. Sunsets on abandoned beaches and unexplored mountain towns made for an experience that was almost spiritual all by itself. We won’t forget our time on the island in a hurry!
Thanks for reading!
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Read my other posts about the Philippines:
- The big Philippines travel guide
- Kalanggaman sandbar
- Doing the Jailhouse rock: my time at the Filipino dancing jail
- The 9 islands not to miss in the Philippines
- AND my complete Southeast Asia bucket list and how to spend 3 months in Southeast Asia
See you next time for more adventures,