For one to visit Bojo River in Aloguinsan, Cebu, he should be fully convinced that the experience is worth it, that the adventure being offered is worth the time and money, because the place is far.
Aloguinsan is located in the southwest part of Cebu. From Cebu City, it takes two hours to reach the town through Carcar City. It can also be reached through Toledo City after two to two-and-a-half hours of travel time. That’s at least two hours wasted, not counting the trip back, if the experience it offers turns out to be huh-hum and overrated.
This was why I read and listened to news on Bojo River bagging international awards with just a passing interest. So what that it won in the Pacific Asia Travel Awards in 2009, the Top 100 Sustainable Destinations in the World in 2016, and the ASEAN Award for Best Community-based Tourism in Southeast Asia this year? It is just a river meeting the sea. And when the tide is low its muddy bottom even shows. Not appealing. It won’t be in my bucket list.
It was with this type of disinterest and ignorance that I joined a group doing a photo shoot in Aloguinsan for the cover photo of the upcoming Cebu Provincial Tourism Office magazine.
(The name Aloguinsan came from the word Ulokinsan. According to the story, there were once two friars who came to the place and went to the beach. There, they saw a fisherman with the head of the kinsan fish in his hand. The friars asked him, “Cómo se llama este lugar (What’s the name of this place)?” The fisherman did not understand the question and thought that they were asking what kind of fish he was bringing. He answered, “Ulo kinsan”, since he only had with him the head of the kinsan, having sold the body earlier. Another version is that the name came from Alokinsan, or an underwater drop where the kinsan lives.)
So, having been picked by my boss to spend that particular Saturday as part of the photo shoot crew, we left early, 7 a.m. to be exact. I was still dozing when the van we hired stopped by the side of the road. We finally arrived. As I got out, a lady with a smile as warm as the bright, sunny day greeted me and placed a lei of fresh flowers over my head to welcome us. “This is interesting,” I said to myself.
From the road we followed a trail to the reception area 230 meters away, or a good five- to 10-minute leisurely walk. Interestingly, the trail included a footwalk made from molave wood salvaged from dismantled old houses, since cutting down of trees is prohibited there.
Halfway through the footwalk one would see at the left-side portion a gushing spring that feeds into the mangrove. The spring used to be where residents took a bath and washed their clothes, which is now forbidden because soap residue harms fingerlings at the mangrove area.
A few meters more and guests are confronted with a billboard detailing the do’s and don’ts at the place, including not throwing of trash anywhere, garbage being the bane of most eco-tourism sites.
I was walking a short incline, where the view to the reception area was blocked by the uphill portion of the path, when the wind carried the sound of voices singing Visayan songs. Serenading visitors was the community’s way of welcoming guests.
“Malipayong pag-abot sa Aloguinsan! Malipayong pag-abot sa Bojo River!” chorused the singers. (I later learned that the one who strummed the guitar, he who was almost always smiling, was no less than the barangay captain.)
We were then given fresh coconut juice as refreshment and were immediately made to feel at home.
The singing nanays belonged to the Bojo, Aloguinsan Eco-tourism Association (BAETAS), the local community that manages the Bojo River Cruise, a project initiated and funded by the local government of Aloguinsan. The project was made as an alternative source of income for the people, whose main livelihood were fishing and farming.
Through the project, BAETAS members were able to protect and preserve the environment by working as guides, unlike before when they cut trees for charcoal. I was starting to be impressed and at the same time feel guilty over my skewed impression of what the river cruise would be.
After the coconut drink, the nanays showed us the ropes in puso (hanging rice) making and in native mats making, while the make-up artists were busy prepping up the model for the shoot.
After a while, our group, including the photographers, took our spots in the glass-bottom boat, which left the reception area shortly after, with the model and the barangay captain (still strumming his guitar and still smiling) in a banca in tow.
As the boat slowly glided its way towards where the river sprang out to the sea, the tour guide took his spot at the helm and started his spiel about the species of mangrove trees around us, including the story on how the mangrove saved the lives of many Aloguinsan residents who hid from the invading Japanese soldiers during the Second World War.
One interesting fact I learned was on why mangrove leaves have holes. He said they serve as glands to expel the salt in the water as the plant takes in nutrients.
“Ang mangrove atong patuboon inches lang ang tubo kada tuig. Kung putlon, diha-diha dayon,” said the guide. He pointed out that the trees were not really big since the huge ones were already wiped out when their community was still into charcoal-making, when trunks and limbs of mangrove trees were used to fuel the earthen ovens.
Gazing with child-like wonder at the wall of rocks on both sides of us as we made our way out of the river into the sea, where fresh and saltwater met and merged, I took pictures with my cellphone of guests in a few bancas that we passed by. I also requested one of the photographers for a picture. “This is an experience I should not miss having a photo of,” I found myself saying, a complete turnaround of my initial belief, which I must admit was completely baseless. I was made a convert, and we were just getting started.
As we positioned ourselves right outside the river and the photographer and the model commenced the shoot, wonder of all wonders! I saw through the boat’s see-through bottom the astonishing sight of sardines, thousands of them, darting to and fro in complete synchronicity. If somebody saw me at that moment with my mouth open, I should be excused. It was a first for me, and it was a first experience that could only be described as “joyful”.
Hundreds of shots (and several gulps of seawater) later, the photographer said he had enough. We hauled him up into the boat and we started traveling towards the next photo shoot site. It was when I was floored. Right under us we saw types upon types of corals.
“Fire corals…brain corals…grass corals…,” said one member of our group, likely one whose soul belonged to the sea.
“Wait till we reach our next photo shoot site, the buffer zone of the fish sanctuary, the corals there are just breath-taking,” said the tourism officer, apparently noticing the amazement that I was sure was painted all over my face.
He was not lying. Although there was trepidation in me since I am afraid of the sea (or any body of water for that matter, hence my inability to learn to swim, to my mermaid wife’s frustration), I could not help but be awed by the majesty of the sea, by the strange beauty of the yawning deep, by the sea turtle swimming by its lonesome, by the multi-colored fishes dancing their way, by the smoothness of some corals and the jaggedness of the others. How awfully wrong I was in thinking, even if it was out of unfamiliarity, that the experience would not be worth it.
From the buffer zone we backtracked a bit and proceeded to Hermit’s Cove, a white sand public beach that the local government had community organization Kantabogon Tourism Association (KEA) manage, for the next photo shoot. The group comprises farmers and fisher folks and their wives, who strictly imposed certain rules for the upkeep and sustainability of the place. Their dedication showed, because despite the considerable number of visitors, you cannot see any garbage strewn about, which could not be said even of private beaches. In particular, bringing of liquor, singing the videoke (thus causing noise pollution), smoking, gambling, and other activities are prohibited at Hermit’s Cove.
When our feet touched sand, we were similarly met with warm smiles and warm greetings—plus a good helping of local delicacy kaykay and budbod buli. According to local history, the beach was named such because there was once a hermit who lived there, when the beach was still heavily forested.
From Hermit’s Cove one can see Negros island’s Mount Kanlaon , which has a height of 2,640 meters, and Tañon Strait, which then president Fidel Ramos declared a protected area on May 27, 1998 through Presidential Decree No. 1234. Under the law, no fishing is allowed from Santander town in the south to Malaspacua island, Daanbantayan town in the north.
Hermit’s Cove’s beach area is 230 meters long, and guests are reminded to strictly stay within its boundary. This is because of an underwater precipice and the need to protect the coral reef, which the residents value as an important habitat for marine life. It’s because it lies in what is called a coastal zone, or an an ecosystem of sea grass, mangrove, beach, and coral reef.
We did a shoot at the beach, particularly by a portion of the wooden steps that lead to the beach if you go by land. Afterwards, we were treated, along with the rest of the visitors, to a presentation by members of KEA singing Cebuano songs. It was a beautiful performance, made more special because you could see that the nanays also enjoyed what they were doing.
Next was a demonstration on how they prepared the puto nga buli, from the pounding of the buli; sifting; mixing with coconut, ground rice, and sugar; to the actual cooking. And because Cebuanos love to sing while working, they also have a song whose rhythm the pounding is timed with.
After the presentation, our group made our way back to the boat for the trip back to Bojo River. I tarried a bit, ruminating on the events of the day, particularly on how I foolishly thought I would have a so-so experience.
And as the boat sped away, with Hermit’s Cove slowly disappearing from view, I found myself feeling especially happy to be proven wrong, and actually looking forward to again visit, this time with my family, the place where the river meets the sea. #