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Blog - A Hidden Piece of History: The Guinsiliban Tower of Camiguin

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(written on July 2020)

As travellers would know, sometimes you really need to take at least a bit of a look at the past to fully grasp the current shape of a place. Often, it’s not only on what we see of a place with our own eyes: knowing also about history can make our experience even richer. And sometimes, you can still find traces of the past even in small things.

We’ll start by introducing a small island province in the central-south of the Philippines: it’s called Camiguin. It is located at the Northern part of Mindanao Region, the most southern Region of the country, though still being very near the central Visayas Region. Upon landing in Camiguin, you’ll realize to be in a kingdom of nature. The island is famous for its 7 volcanoes despite having only 237 square kilometers of land: in roughly 1 hour, of relaxed driving, you can already trace the entire perimeter of the island using the coastal circular road. Don’t be wary about the presence of the surrounding volcanic activity: Camiguin is a small peaceful paradise, with a simple life and a beautiful nature inhabited by happy and welcoming people.

A view on the main island of Camiguin, with its Hibok Hibok volcano. Picture taken in Mantigue Island (Photo: Tropical Experience).

Natural thermae, the most beautiful white sandbar you’ve ever seen (White Island), warm black-sand beaches, exceptional snorkeling sites (the Sunken Cemetery’s is a must!): there is definitely a lot in store for travellers who want to be in communion with the natural environment.

At Camiguin's White Island (Photo: Tropical Experience).

It wasn’t my first time in Camiguin though, by chance, I discovered some new interesting historical facts about the island that I was not familiar with and were rarely highlighted on travel websites. I was then checking for some information about the smallest of the 5 towns of the island. I found out that it has only 6,000 inhabitants and it’s called Guinsiliban. In the ancient local language it literally means “watching out for pirates from a tower”. It’s strange that such a short word could have such a complex meaning. Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to ask for a detailed explanation of the name! The indigenous language is called Kinamiguin and is used as a dialect only in Guinsiliban and in the neighboring town of Sagay, and very few people can speak it.

The lush vegetation of Camiguin (Photo: Tropical Experience).

Of course, I then developed the desire of seeing the watchtower for myself.  I asked myself: would the tower still be there? It took actually just few clicks on Google to find out that a small tower – built by Spanish colonizers – still exists, facing the sea. I did not imagine that the renowned explorer Magellan also passed by the small Camiguin Island during his attempted sail around the whole globe (which actually ended with its death in Cebu, a Filipino Province not far from Camiguin). Plus, by the XVI Century, Spanish colonizers were present even in this remote island of the Philippines.

Once I reached Camiguin by plane from Manila, I grabbed a tourist map of the island and I saw a “Moro Tower” featured on it, even though not too highlighted as compared to other more famous attractions in the island. “Moro” was a term used to define the local pirates, specifically the Muslim kind coming from southern islands and that were the notorious enemies of the Spanish (unsurprisingly, since the latter were spreading Christianity along with their political control in the archipelago).

The entrance of the Elementary School of Guinsiliban (Photo: Tropical Experience).

I don’t think many tourists normally go to visit this tower, probably because they are focused on snorkeling (see video), trekking and sunbathing on the beach (understandable enough!). Exploring the nature of Camiguin is actually the best thing to do, though a trip can also be interesting with some small cultural side-stops: you’ll have a more complete picture of the place!

 

It was a bit of a problem to find the tower once we arrived in Guinsiliban, because…it wasn’t really clear where it was and there were neither road signs nor landmarks! Our driver, who parked near the road, pointed generically with his hand towards a certain area but we didn’t see anything more than few houses and an elementary school full of children playing in the fields, presumably during their break. So, I approached a teacher near the gate and I asked her – in English – if she knew where this tower was. After an initial surprised reaction, she was very happy that someone was searching for this piece of local history (confirming the theory that visitors are not many). She accompanied us inside the school.

The field of Guinsiliban Elementary School (Photo: Tropical Experience).

At first, I did not get why she was showing us around the school. Then, she sent some of the students (who were amused by our presence) to get some keys that she used to open a big gate and magically a grassy area with some preserved remains of the tower appeared in front us. The tower was just there, within the premises of a small town elementary school!

The entrance of the "Moro Tower", inside the Elementary School of Guinsiliban (Photo: Tropical Experience).

It was quite exciting to be able to visit it for some few minutes, because it allowed us to witness a piece of history that gives the name of this small town in such a remote place. Otherwise, “Guinsiliban” would have been nothing more than just an exotic word on a map. I climbed on top to take a look at the vast sea with the watchtower’s small window. For a moment, I imagined to find myself in the island a long time ago, a time of pirates, dusty Spanish soldiers and local people keen to defend their homes. I imagined a movie-like scenario, which was quite in contrast with the children’s happy cheerful screams on such a normal situation like a school’s break time.

The "Moro Tower" seen from the bottom and from the top. Below, the view of the sea, to check if pirates are coming! (Photos: Tropical Experience).

After taking some photos, we heartfully thanked the teacher.  Bringing with us some extra knowledge about the history and the life of the island, we left to go snorkeling around the wonderful sea beds of Camiguin.

If you are intrested in a tour of the Philippines including Camiguin and its beautiful sea, you can find one right here.