The first time I was in San Jose, several years ago, we were just spending the night to catch an early-morning flight the next day. The town at the southwest tip of Mindoro Island has the only regularly operating airport on the island. We just came from traveling the southeast plank of Mindoro, which we had entered via a ferry from Batangas City in the Luzon mainland. After several days of going to mostly deserted islands, sleepy towns, mangrove forests and forested upland areas, San Jose was an urban oasis with more lights, livelier nights and readily available amenities and modern comforts we were familiar with and looking for.
Like many travelers and tourists, we were just passing through. A major gateway to the province of Occidental Mindoro as well as to the whole island of Mindoro, San Jose is a known transit point on the way to other places and popular tourist destinations such Coron in Palawan and the islands of western Panay, especially Boracay. Aside from an airport, the town has a major port. San Jose is also a jump-off point for the province’s most popular tourist draw, the town of Sablayan.
San Jose is also the economic hub not only of Mindoro Island but also the whole region of Mimaropa (Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan) of southwest Luzon group, and thus it is the most densely populated and most urbanized town on the island with many commercial establishments including 29 hotels, inns and resorts and 35 dining places. It has a branch of the country’s popular fast-food chain, Jollibee.
There is considerable tourist traffic in San Jose, which is increasing year by year. About 68,000 tourist arrivals were recorded by the municipal tourism office in 2015, which jumped to about 76,000 in 2016 and about 90,000 in 2017. This year, they are about to reach 100,000. Many of the visitors may be really in transit, but they should also explore the town.
In a recent visit to San Jose, we sampled what a few days’ stay may reveal about the town.
Aside from the urbanized town proper, the rest of the 446.70-square kilometer land area is made up of beautiful rice fields, dramatic mountains and rivers, historical and heritage sites, villages where the indigenous Mangyan reside, hills, islands, beaches, etc.
Mountains and the tamaraw
A popular tourist attraction in the area is not actually in San Jose. The Mindoro Biodiversity Conservation, Research and Education Center, popularly called by its former name, the Tamaraw Gene Pool Farm, is actually in the barangay of Manoot in the adjacent town of Rizal, and it houses the only captive-bred tamaraw in the world, named Kalibasib, short for Kalikasan Bagong Sibol (literally, newly sprung nature).
The tamaraw or Mindoro dwarf buffalo (Bubalus mindorensis) is the only endemic bovine of the Philippines and to Mindoro Island. It is a critically endangered species, estimated to number about 500 left in the wild, mainly found in Mounts Iglit-Baco Natural Park, Aruyan-Malati Tamaraw Reservation and Mount Calavite Wildlife Sanctuary in Occidental Mindoro and the mountain ranges in Bongabong and Naujan in Oriental Mindoro.
It was almost a two-hour drive from the town proper of San Jose to Manoot, passing several barangays, fields of rice and refreshingly bucolic scenes.
The sitio of Naitan, in the barangay of Batasan, along the way, opened with a panorama of fields of ripening rice grains, a bristling sea of green-gold, with a jagged crown of mountains as backdrop. The mountain peaks, which look to many like horns, thus the colloquial name Devil’s Mountain. The mountain is said to cover 1,362 hectares with a height of about 450 meters. Nearby is the Arapay Falls. The area is popular for its picturesque view.
We crossed the Busuanga River to Manoot, trekking a dirt road pass more rice fields and a couple of carabaos followed by flocks of white egrets. In a spacious enclosure, Kalibasib went towards his carer, who gave him unripe bananas.
The Tamaraw Gene Pool Farm was established in 1980 as an ex-situ (off-site) breeding facility for the tamaraw. Twenty tamaraws were captured for breeding, but the program produced only one, Kalibasib, born on 24 June 1999. His mother, called Mimi, died of old age in August 2011. Now, the lone attraction of the facility, Kalibasib, is 19 years old, very old for a tamaraw, whose life span is about 25 years.
Miracles and the islands
San Jose has three major islands, just south of the town proper, across the Mindoro Strait and Mangarin Bay—Manadi, the smallest; Ilin, the largest, which has 10 barangays; and Ambulong, comprising a barangay in itself, where Grace Island Resort, one of San Jose’s most popular destinations, is located.
On a boat on the way to Ilin, we dropped by Manadi, colloquially called White Island because it is ringed with auburn sand and cracked corals. Part of the barangay of Pag-asa, the island is about one hectare during high tide and privately owned. Excursionists pay to swim along its shores.
The main gateway to Ilin Island is the sleepy and rustic barangay of Ilin Proper, whose sandy-muddy, shallow shore is covered with sea grass and fringed with patches of mangroves. The narrow and long jetty port leads directly to a narrow street that slopes upwards before branching into rough paths on uneven terrain. A statue of the Holy Trinity greets visitors at the pier. After maybe a couple of blocks, a church emerged, rising from a scattering of and starkly contrasting its neighbours of humble houses.
The chapel, covered in terracotta bricks, was constructed by Father Fernando Suarez, famously known as the “healing priest.” He first arrived in the island in June 2011 and decided to build a proper and permanent chapel.
There was already a Chapel of the Santissima Trinidad, but it was a small, humble structure. The earliest structure is said to be built in 1843 out of wood. The chapel houses an old painting of the Holy Trinity, which came to the village through a miracle, according to local lore. Many villagers can retell the story.
During the Spanish-occupied Philippines, there were a fisher couple. Every morning, they went out to the shore to check on their baklag or fish trap. One day, the trap did not caught anything. Instead inside was a thin square plank of wood. They threw it away. The next morning, there were still no fish, only again the same piece of wood. They threw it away again. The same thing happened the next morning. They then decided to bring it home thinking of a use for it. While using the wood as a chopping board, blood flowed out of it and the image of the Holy Trinity slowly emerged. Now, villagers claim the image is miraculous.
This story is similar to other stories on the origins of religious images in the country such as the stories of Our Lady of Caysasay in Taal, Batangas, and Our Lady of Salambao in Obando, Bulacan.
While building the new chapel, Father Suarez renovated the old chapel, covering it in bricks and making it an adoration chapel. While renovating the chapel, he unearthed a spring in the altar area. Parishioners would draw water from spring, regarding it as miraculous. The painting of the Holy Trinity still hangs at the altar of the old chapel.
The new chapel has a floor area of nearly 600 square meters and can accommodate about 200 people.
Further up the barangay is the Iling Elementary School, where there is huge tree. This bubog tree, also called kalumpang or bastard poon tree, is said to be about a hundred years old. It marks an area called Ingbanhawan, said to be an old settlement site. No traces of the old settlement can be readily found, the place grown with weeds and trees.
We took a boat further down the Ilin-Ambulong Strait. South of Ilin Proper, there is a cove at the western coast of central Ilin Island, facing Silong Bay. Inasakan Beach, in the sitio of Maniraga, barangay of Inasakan, has fine auburn sand with a few palapas among coconut trees, favored by visitors for a day’s excursion and swim. The name Inasakan is said to have been derived from the Kiniray-a and Hiligaynon word ginasakaan, which means a place or something one climbed up or over.
Light on Aroma
Fluffy strips of gray and tangerine hung on the sky when the boat approached the mainland. We decided to get off at Aroma Beach in the barangay of San Roque, part of the town proper.
Aroma, with its gunmetal sand, is a well-known public beach, being very accessible. The airport is just across the road as well as a number of resorts and hotels. The municipal government plans of clearing some structures built on the shore and constructing a boardwalk or promenade, a beautiful idea which hopefully will be done tastefully and with concern on the environment.
Two new structures are on Aroma—the Dap-ayan Center for Culture and the Arts and the Bantayog-Wika para sa Mangyan ng Occidental Mindoro.
An octagonal building, the Dap-ayan Center for Culture and the Arts was inaugurated by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the municipal government of San Jose on 30 May 2018. It is one of the several structures being established by the NCCA throughout Luzon under its Dap-ayan project, whose name was derived from the Bontok and Kankanaey word, which means a place for dap-ay, a traditional meeting or gathering of village elders. In partnership with local government units, the project aims to develop an existing structure to become a cultural hub for which local culture and arts programs will also be developed.
A sculpture, which symbolizes San Jose and its culture, greets visitors to the Dap-ayan Center for Culture and the Arts, which currently houses an exhibit of photographs of the town’s attractions and traditions.
Nearby is the Bantayog-Wika for the Mangyan languages, unveiled on 4 July 2018, a project of the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF). Jumpstarted in March this year with the installation of a Bantayog-Wika for the Kiniray-a language in Antique, the Bantayog ng Wika project monumentalizes the languages of the Philippines. It will install markers or monuments all over the country, celebrating the country’s wealth of about 180 languages.
The monument is designed by installation artist Luis “Junyee” Yee, Jr., depicting a huge piece of bamboo made of stainless steel, etched with several lines from Philippine hero Andres Bonifacio’s poem, “Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Bayan,” (Love for the Land of One’s Birth) in old Tagalog abugida or baybayin.
The Bantayog-Wika in San Jose is the fifth marker installed, celebrating the different Mangyan languages of the subgroups of the indigenous Mangyan people—Alangan, Buhid, Hanunoo, Iraya, Tadyawan, Eastern Tawbuid, Western Tawbuid, and nearly extinct Ratagnon, said to be more similar to Cuyonon, spoken at the southern tip of the island.
Inside the hollow body of ten-foot bamboo structure, lights were installed. As the darkness gathers around the beach, the monument was lit up, the script becoming luminous, a light to guide you to the soul of San Jose.
Text and photos by Roel Hoang Manipon