Looking for My Father on Cuyo Island

Cuyo Island from the air (Photo by Gia R. Mendoza)

Cuyo Island from the air (Photo by Gia R. Mendoza)

A few decades ago, I was born in Cuyo, a small island of 22,000 square miles off Palawan.

There, my father, as chief and resident physician of Cuyo District Hospital from 1936 to 1943, delivered most of the babies. These included me and my four other siblings as our father was the only doctor on the island at the time.

For the work he was doing for the people, he was recognized as “Son of Cuyo” by municipal edict in 1940.

The staff of Cuyo Hospital in 1940 (Photo courtesy of Gia R. Mendoza)

The staff of Cuyo Hospital in 1940 (Photo courtesy of Gia R. Mendoza)

After 1943, we stayed a few more years on the island because my father joined the guerrillas, serving as medical officer of a unit of the U.S. armed forces. Shortly after the war, our family left the island for another provincial assignment in Luzon.

Many more life events ensued, and my parents have passed away. I myself have no early memories of Cuyo because I was too young to remember when we left. 

As I always had the nagging need to visit the island of my origins, I finally returned to Cuyo last year, accompanied by my husband.

For a long time, Cuyo was the most important island in Palawan because it was inhabited earliest. It belonged to an archipelago of 45 islets, followed by Agutaya and the Calamianes. According to an old document by S. Pigafeta, the whole of Palawan province in 1879 was sparsely inhabited. Puerto Princesa, the capital, had a population of only 373; Cuyo had 9,476.

The Cuyunons had their own culture and seafaring traditions and had established some commerce with Panay long before the Spaniards came. They were animists who bravely fought against any attempt at conversion by the Muruts or Moros from Borneo, but they were more amenable to Christianity, which the Augustinian fathers brought to the island in the 1600s. Chinese migrants and, later, the Spanish, intermingled with them.

To get to Cuyo today, one has three options: an 18-hour ferry boat ride from Puerto Princesa; a 12-hour boat ride from Iloilo province; or an hour ride on a 12-seater Cessna Caravan from Puerto Princesa. The air option costs a pretty peso for what might be described as a dubious adventure.

The Air Juan flight to Cuyo (Photo by Gia R. Mendoza)

The Air Juan flight to Cuyo (Photo by Gia R. Mendoza)

In my parents’ day, they sailed from Manila to Cuyo in a “batil,” a wooden boat that took a week to get there, hopping from island to island going through open seas.

Cuyo Now

Cuyo island now is more modern yet still isolated and far from the tourist track; it could improve with certain amenities, like better transportation, hotels and access to the use of credit cards. The Internet there is not dependable. Cell phones are useable in certain areas.

The streets in town are paved but outside, they are mostly unpaved paths. There are very few cars, and hired transport consists mainly of motorized tricycles.

Because it is remote, Cuyo ‘s tropical beauty remains difficult to spoil. A Philippine movie was made in the recent decade, directed by a native Cuyunon, with Cuyo’s glorious sea and sand and a beautiful woman (Ploning) taking starring roles.

Cuyo now has 36,000 people. It is a fourth class municipality and prides itself on being the oldest town in Palawan with its unique dialect and culture. Welcome landmarks to Cuyo include a lighthouse at the pier and the Cuyo Fort, within which a church and a convent were built.

The tower at the Cuyo Fort (Photo by Gia R. Mendoza)

The tower at the Cuyo Fort (Photo by Gia R. Mendoza)


We decided to stay at the Philippine Villa of Anino Retreat (formerly named Quijano Windsurfing), after doing Internet research.

The view from Anino Resort (Photo by Gia R. Mendoza)

The view from Anino Resort (Photo by Gia R. Mendoza)

The villa was of wood and bamboo, and tastefully decorated Philippine style, fronting the sea. It was lovely and private -- but pricey, by island standards. Other than the Sulu sea waves, the retreat was peaceful. One could also enjoy beach surfing, kite boarding and windsurfing.

One must not expect television or constant electricity. Minimal lighting was provided from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. each day from a solar-powered generator.

Cuyo was hot and dusty while we were there, but was cooled by breezes at night.

The lady of the house, Victoria, cooked and prepared excellent food. She and Ulrich, her man friend and financier, had traveled a couple of times in the region, including Thailand, where she learned to cook Thai food.

We went to town with a hired personal transport (tricycle) the same afternoon we arrived to talk with a few people about Cuyo, to get some idea of our early lives. Victoria came with us, as she had many good contacts, after a few years in place.

We visited both the imposing Fort (built 1680) and the church. Originally, the fort was built to ward off “Moro” invaders who wrought havoc on the island even before Christianity was established there.

The Cuyo Fort (Photo by Gia R. Mendoza)

The Cuyo Fort (Photo by Gia R. Mendoza)

Getting Acquainted

We met Ronald Palay, a writer-photographer of a beautifully illustrated book on Cuyo, past and present. Both Ronald and his sister Florabel work as contact persons for Air Juan, the plane that flew us to Cuyo.

We spent the late afternoon in front of Nikki’s Pension, which was an inexpensive lodging house for visitors, mostly foreigners, who were into kiteboarding. Nikki’s had a restaurant below the sleeping quarters. We had dinner on the beach, with the loveliest sunset as background.

Nikki’s served rice, crispy calamari, fried fish and lato seaweed, which the restaurant staff got fresh from the market next door.

We visited the market and took pictures of fish vendors who seemed happy that I lived in the U.S., and that their pictures, if not themselves, would get to there.

One of the fish vendors in Cuyo (Photo by Gia R. Mendoza)

One of the fish vendors in Cuyo (Photo by Gia R. Mendoza)

There was the usual crowd of visitors at the Capusan beach fronting Nikki’s: lodgers, the young inhabitants of Cuyo, foreign couples and return visitors.

One of them was Ernie Sandoval, a resident of California, who refreshes his spirits with the atmosphere and the magic that is Cuyo (according to him) at least once a year. Ernie knew anyone who’s who on the island. “I feel safe, secure and comfortable here where I spent my childhood,” he said.

In the days that followed, I met Ronnie Tan who was a few times mayor of Cuyo, and learned that his son was now mayor. We talked about people we knew, like the Manlavis and the Lims, big business names in Cuyo.

I also met Marjorie Española, a scholar-historian with a noteworthy last name in Cuyo’s history.

There are no Cuyo daily newspapers, as current events of any import are better spread by word of mouth. However, history is found in books and research papers.

Marjorie knew Cuyo’s history, as she had both the interest and vocation to promote this knowledge. She mentioned casually that the Españolas owned Pamalican Island, home to Amanpulo, one of the most expensive resort hotels in the Philippines. An elder Española had sold the island to Andres Soriano who promised to make better use of it than let it remain as idle property.

Marjorie showed me her award-winning video of Cuyo, taking pride in the assets of the islands, highlighting its ecological purity. In spite of some complaints of garbage and raw sewage being thrown out to the sea, and dynamite fishing, Marjorie said that those responsible often were NOT Cuyonons but were from other regions.

I also met the Eleazars, specifically Doris, who worked at the Municipio of Cuyo, and Bernice, who worked at the Commission on Elections (Comelec). Doris related to me that her family owned the land where the old Cuyo hospital had stood. The hospital has since relocated to new grounds.

My Father’s Cuyo

I went to visit where my father used to work and where we used to live. Both structures have been demolished and all that remained were stone steps to the old house and another set of steps to the hospital a few feet away.

The new district hospital was located a few streets away.

The current hospital was being expanded and improved by the addition of another building. Unfortunately, when I visited, construction was at a standstill due to lack of government funds. I met the hospital chief nurse, Jocelyn Bacosa Palayon, and the administrative officer, Ms. Sidney Andao Aviles, who graciously welcomed me.

Remembering Cuyo

Rene, my eldest brother, had the most memories of Cuyo, such as the wharf and the municipio, and eating lato (green beads of crunchy edible seaweed) and bandî (sweet cashew brittle). My other brothers remembered giant bamboos in the forest, American soldiers and the smell of tobacco.

When I got home I recounted my trip to those nostalgic for a faintly remembered island.

I stayed four nights and I was glad I came. I realized I had seen the place as a tourist rather than as a native. Though only stone steps remained of our early lives, Cuyo remains our place of origin, having an immutable place in our passports and personal histories.

As for our father, he may be in the memory only of people who, like him and our mother, have long gone. But he will always be in ours.

Gia R. Mendoza worked as an international civil servant for many years, and is now retired in Washington State. She enjoys writing and painting.

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