A portly woman beckons me over and asks, “who do you want to hex?” At the same time, she’s brandishing a motley collection of curios: raggedy, sinister-looking voodoo dolls that hang by their necks from sharp hooks, and dusty glass bottles filled with love potions and therapeutic oils. She’s selling the unusual paraphernalia under the dappled shade of an enormous, gnarled balete (banyan) tree, which has been standing guard over a cold freshwater spring in Siquijor for 400 years.
Located some 160km south-east of Cebu City, the island of Siquijor (pronounced see-kee-hor) has long captured imaginations thanks to its notoriety for witchcraft and folk healing – traditional practices that can be traced back several centuries, when shamans called babaylan spearheaded communities across the archipelago.
While increasingly rare, these occult practices have endured in isolated locales like Siquijor, where inhabitants, especially those living inland, have limited access to modern healthcare. In fact, such is the isle’s mystical standing that folk healers from across the Central and Southern Philippines convene in Siquijor every year for its annual Folk Healing Festival. During this time, natural ingredients such as herbs, bark, roots and insects are foraged and brewed in large cauldrons to make varied potions and healing ointments.
But the lady I’ve just encountered at the spring is no witch. Instead, she’s merely a garrulous vendor, her voodoo dolls no more than trinkets. She tells me that the balete tree beside us is the ancient dwelling of an engkanto (nature spirit), which occasionally takes the form of a white dog sleeping on the surface of the pool. Despite her firm belief in spirits, she laughs off the island’s reputation for black magic. “They’re nothing but children’s stories!” she scoffs in her native tongue of Cebuano.
For many others, however, witchcraft is no mere fairy tale. Upon overhearing the conversation, my tricycle driver Danny Caspiz offers to take me to a self-proclaimed sorcerer living in Cang-atuyom, a village located in the foothills of Mount Bandilaan – a forest reserve and the highest point on the island. Along the way, Danny regales me with stories of the supernatural, including that of a friend who suffered a painful death after needles emerged from his back – a tell-tale malady of barang, or sorcery. I begin to have second thoughts after hearing his gruesome tales, but it’s too late to turn back. Our tricycle is already juddering along the potholed dirt road towards the distant village.
Upon emerging from a thick grove of coconut trees, we find the modest home of Alberto Baroro, a septuagenarian farmer who has been moonlighting as a mambabarang, or sorcerer, for the past 40 years. He claims to have inherited his powers from a mysterious old woman who used to visit his farm. When he isn’t tending to his crops of corn and sweet potatoes, raising fighting cocks or doting on his four-year-old granddaughter, Mang Edol – as he is known in the village – is an enchanter-for-hire. Those who have fallen victim to infidelities and land disputes approach him in the hope of casting deadly spells on their enemies and exacting revenge.
“To hex someone, I can use a strand of hair or a piece of clothing, but photographs work best,” Mang Edol states matter-of-factly as he leads me to the kitchen shed behind his house. This is where he usually performs paktol, his death hex of choice, in which he wields a human skull stuffed with pictures of unsuspecting victims and folded pieces of paper ontaining their full names. “I see customers every day,” the beady-eyed necromancer reveals. “Yesterday, a woman from Surigao City [in the southern island of Mindanao] asked me to put a curse on her husband’s mistress.”
Unlike Mang Edol, most sorcerers in Siquijor prefer to use their talents to heal illnesses, purge malevolent spirits and counteract hexes. Their rituals are in part influenced by Roman Catholicism, which was introduced to the Philippines by Spanish conquistadores in 1521. Ceremonies are often coloured by religious symbols and incantations invoking Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and other Catholic saints.
Most sorcerers use their talents to heal illnesses and counteract hexes
In the neighbouring village of Cantabon, I find 47-year-old Juanita Torremocha, a fourth-generation mananambal (folk healer) specialising in tu-ob. This is essentially a fumigation ritual that smokes out sickness from a patient’s body, using a jet-black powder concocted from 260 plants. When I tell her that I’ve been experiencing trouble sleeping recently, she presses my wrists gently, noting an imbalance in my pulse. Her diagnosis is almost instantaneous: My insomnia is apparently the result of unwanted attention from an engkantada, or female spirit.
“Sometimes, being good-looking can be a curse,” the wizened healer quips, chuckling, before seating me on a plastic stool that has been placed over a clay pot of embers. She spoons some herbal powder into the pot, before wrapping a blanket around me to trap the billowing fumes. Just as the smoke begins to make my eyes water, she removes the blanket and, while murmuring prayers, anoints my forehead and nape with herbal oil in the shape of the cross. Finally, she prescribes a sumpa necklace, a protective amulet carved from a piece of rare “eyeless” coconut shell. “Wear it wherever you go,” she instructs.
Emboldened by this lucky charm, I spend the next few days exploring the rest of the island with reckless abandon – leaping off limestone cliffs into the glassy waters of Salagdoong Beach; swinging from jungle vines and plunging into the turquoise cascades of Cambugahay Falls; and trekking through the subterranean tunnels of Cantabon Cave. The latter is supposed to be another haven for engkantos, which find refuge in its ethereal chambers that gleam with snow-white flowstones.
And while my talisman may have warded off buluhisan, malicious mermen believed to patrol the anvil-shaped rock in front of Salamangka Beach and Dive Resort, I discover plenty more otherworldly spectacles in the waters surrounding Siquijor. Local divemaster Ely Nodado takes me to the island’s western coast, where most of the best dive sites are situated. Unlike the nearby islands of Cebu, Bohol and Negros, scuba diving is only just taking off in Siquijor, so we have the waters to ourselves – well, almost.
At Lighthouse Reef and Tubod Marine Sanctuary, we weave through sloping labyrinths of cauldron-like sponges and soft corals, their pom-poms dancing in the ocean surge beneath a flurry of rainbow-hued fish. Razor-toothed lizardfish perched on brain coral stare back at us with eyes that glow a malevolent red under our dive lights. Tucked between the stinging tendrils of an anemone, a porcelain crab waves its tiny claws like a wizard casting a spell.
During our descent along Paliton Wall – a 50m-deep coral wall that is Siquijor’s most popular dive site – I encounter a white-eyed moray eel with a diabolical grin, and a thumb-sized sea slug with devilish horns inching over a patch of mossy algae. More than 30m down, Ely excitedly beckons me towards a shadowy cave with a gargantuan sea fan, where we gaze in wonder at minuscule spider crabs.
On the way back up to the surface, we swim past a hulking sea turtle larger than any I’ve ever seen. Spellbound, I watch it glide over a coral outcrop and disappear into the blue like a ghost in the night. While the island’s mystics and monsters may well be the products of imagination, its natural wonders are capable of bewitching even the most hard-bitten sceptic.
From Cebu City, take the fast craft (six hours) to Siquijor town on Oceanjet, or the ro-ro ferry (ten hours) to Larena on Lite Ferries. Alternatively, travel to Dumaguete by direct ferry or public bus (via the Bato-Tampi ferry crossing), before transferring to Siquijor by fast craft, ro-ro ferry or passenger boat.
Where to stay
Salamangka Beach & Dive Resort
Highlights include plush rooms adorned with folkloric paintings by local artists, a 24-hour restaurant, and a well-equipped dive centre.
Coco Grove Beach Resort
This eight-hectare property features 94 rooms (including a two-storey luxury penthouse), three swimming pools, three restaurants, a spa centre, and a dive school set amid tropical gardens.
The Bruce Private Luxury Cottages
This rustic beachside resort offers either fan-cooled double rooms or native-style treehouses for two. Dagsa Restobar across the road serves Filipino and Western fare, and hosts live music every other night.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine