Guiuan’s treasure chest of history, natural wondersBy Vicente S. Labro
Philippine Daily Inquirer
GUIUAN, Eastern Samar—Perhaps no other place in Eastern Visayas has been endowed with so much tourist attractions than the ancient town of Guiuan in Eastern Samar. Not only is it rich in history and culture but it also boasts of many natural wonders.
Thus, when Tourism Secretary Alberto Lim visited the province last month, he was impressed by what he saw in Guiuan: “a long white beach which can rival other beaches in the Philippines.” It has all the elements of a tourist come-on, he added.
Among Guiuan’s “treasures” is the 16th-century Immaculate Conception Church at the town proper. Originally made of wood, the structure was rebuilt by the priests and natives using stones after it was razed by fire.
It is within a 42-square-meter fortress, its corners mounted with artillery.
At that time, it was “the best and most regularly planned in all the Visayas” and that it “exceeds in grandeur the celebrated fort in Zamboanga.” But with the passage of time, the walls were destroyed.
Most of the church, including its belfry is still preserved, however.
According to Prof. Eric Zerrudo, an expert on cultural heritage and museum development, the Guiuan church has been declared a “national treasure church”—one of only 26 in the country.
“Guiuan, had there been a chance, should have been catapulted to a world heritage level. Why? It has a very high authenticity. Everything here is original. Everything has been left intact; (only) very few interventions,” Zerrudo says.
The church has a main altar and two altars along the nave. One has a retablo built by the Franciscans while the other has a rococo frontal built by the Augustinians.
Shell embellishments are seen in the baptistry, side altars, side windows and niches. Zerrudo says the shell craft tradition dates back to the 16th century and has continued up to now. In Sulangan, a pilgrimage site in Guiuan, the altars are similarly adorned.
Located in the southernmost tip of Eastern Samar, Guiuan has a land area of 17,549 hectares and a population of about 45,000. A second-class municipality (annual income: P45 million to P55 million), it has 60 barangays, including the islands of Tubabao, Calicoan, Sulangan, Homonhon and Suluan.
It is 109 kilometers away from the provincial capital of Borongan City and 155 km from Tacloban City, the regional capital.
On Nov. 10, 1978, Proclamation No. 1801 was signed declaring Guiuan a “tourist zone and marine reserve” under the administration and control of the Philippine Tourism Authority (PTA).
It was in Guiuan where Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan and his men, sailing under the flag of Spain, first set foot on Philippine soil after crossing the vast Pacific Ocean—on the shore of Homonhon Island on March 16, 1521. The event was later marked as the “discovery” of the Philippines.
In 1944, the Americans arrived in Guiuan and built a military base for its torpedo boats, warships, bombers and fighter planes that were involved in the Philippine liberation campaign and in the invasion of Japan. About 100,000 American servicemen were stationed in Guiuan and nearby towns.
The base was the biggest American supply base in the Pacific during the war.
In 1949, about 5,000 Russians escaping from communist rule in China made Guiuan their home for 27 months.
With the help of the International Refugee Organization, they sought refuge on Tubabao Island until 1951 when they moved to Australia and the United States.
Mayor Annaliza Gonzales-Kwan says tourists usually frequent the paradise island of Calicoan, which has a 12-km stretch of white beach and a world-class surfing area.
Calicoan was declared by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as the “Surfing Capital of the Visayas.” What is unique about the island, the mayor says, is that the side facing the Pacific Ocean has big waves which is ideal for surfing. The side facing the Leyte Gulf has calm waters suitable for swimming and boating.
The 1,600-hectare Calicoan also has a lush forest with abundant wildlife, such as monkeys and monitor lizards, six lagoons and some caves.
Tourists can go surfing, swimming, kayaking, trekking, spelunking or island hopping and enjoy the white beaches of Suluan and other islets.
Aurora delos Reyes, municipal investment, environment and tourism officer, says at least 3,000 tourists have visited Guiuan in the first quarter. “Many visitors come here to surf,” she says.
More are expected once the airport becomes fully operational. It is the same facility built by the Americans in 1944 and is now undergoing rehabilitation.
Guiuan has been a consistent winner in the Clean and Green contest in Eastern Samar since 2004. It has been adjudged Best Managed LGU (local government unit) in the province.
Delos Reyes says the municipality has also been the best LGU One Town One Product (Otop) implementor on the provincial and regional levels and a finalist on the national level.
One of its products: Ecotourism.