Hinoba-an – Pearl of Negros Occidental
Hinoba-an, a once-sleepy, far-flung town, southernmost in the Philippine province of Negros Occidental, was the traditional stomping ground of the sizeable Spanish (Basque) Mestizo-Filipino Bilbao clan.
In the early 1900’s, a 19-year old Basque émigré, consistent with the Basque diaspora of the day, sought opportunities in the former Spanish colony. Don Estanislao Bilbao y Mota, the clan’s patriarch, begun a decades-long process of settling and homesteading a vast track of heavily jungled area around Hinoba-an, long before the town existed.
Title to the rehabilitated lands was subsequently granted him under the Philippine Commonwealth’s (1935-46) Homestead Act. This land ownership, along with the total absence of government due to area’s remoteness, was the basis of Don Estanislao’s provisional administration of the people and the place.
He became the area’s primary, if not for a time, sole employer. As a matter of moral imperative and practical necessity, he also became the de facto Judge and Sheriff, adjudicating upon and enforcing common law.
Through his marriage to Felicidad Rivas — a patrician heiress to a similarly homesteaded, if a slightly larger parcel of land nearby — Don Estanislao doubled the size of the holding. Hand-in-hand with Dona Felicidad, they lorded over a highly productive agricultural expanse that, from points north to south, stretched ostensibly for miles on end.
The couple’s life-long beneficence and philanthropy endeared them to the populace making the Bilbao name well-respected and well-loved. Generations of offsprings have since reaped the fruits of their enduring legacy. A few have carved out legacies of their own. Sons Joaquin and Francisco, and daughter-in-law Teresa have each been elected town’s mayor. Collectively, they have governed (admirably by any reckoning) the municipality for over thirty years.
Hinoba-an is something of a paradise.
Paradise owing to its natural beauty — a primal magnificence, seemingly carried over from its former wilderness state (throughout the Spanish era and for most of America’s colonial tutelage, the locale had been a howling jungle), that envelopes her in an aura of ineffable exoticness.
Among its many attractions is a lengthy stretch of palm-fringed beach whose allure is heightened by the bountiful and expansive (largest and deepest within the archipelago) Sulu Sea; its warm turquoise waters crystalline throughout the area.
[ The Sulu is home to Tubbataha Reef, a remote and immense (56,000 acres) coral atoll whose diversity of marine life is virtually unparalleled anywhere on the planet. In 1988 it was declared a National Marine Park— Philippine’s first. In 1993 UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site, evincing it as one of the Earth’s inestimable treasures! The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) considers it the heart of the Coral Triangle—an area containing the world’s richest concentration of coral and marine life. The late diving guru Jacques Cousteau once described this undersea marvel as the most beautiful he had ever seen! ].
Hinoba-an’s best-known draw perhaps is Punta Ubong — a formation of three limestone caves situated at the tip of the mile-long, lushly foliated Sitio Ubong headland ( the land jutting out to sea in the picture below). From town, it is a short fifteen-minute boat ride north along the coast. Salvacion Cave, the more dramatic of the three and the hands-down favorite, is a spectacular, half-submerged coastal cavern with a large, sea-facing mouth. Pumpboats (motorized outriggers) regularly dock within its wide and deep natural pool to the delight of excursionists. The serene stillness inside the cave’s cathedral-like dome is occasionally shattered by frightened shrieks as her resident bats harmlessly swoop down on unwary visitors.
[ An entirely new species of bat was recently discovered in one of the cave’s hidden caverns by a team of Filipino scientists studying the area’s fauna. ]
Adjacent to Salvacion Cave is a shimmering emerald green cove with a stunning crescent shaped beach, hemmed in by thickly verdured limestone spurs. Exotic in the extreme, this deserted beach has the mystique of being the spot where famed World War II Filipino guerrilla leader, Col. Jesus Villamor, came ashore from aboard a US Navy submarine. Villamor reputedly utilized the caves as his hideout and command post.
[ Known also as Point Obong or Catmon Point, Punta Ubong was the World War II submarine landing site of the highly decorated Filipino fighter pilot and war hero, Colonel Jesus Antonio Villamor. Under the cover of darkness one January night in 1943, Col. Villamor, along with a cadre of handpicked men—an elite, rigorously trained, all-Filipino team of guerrilla / intelligence operatives, code-named ‘Planet Party’—were injected ashore by the US Navy submarine, the USS Gudgeon(SS-211) that had snuck in undetected from its base in Brisbane, Australia. Villamor’s mission—ordered by Gen. Douglas MacArthur himself—was to set up an intelligence network that would gather information on Japanese forces in the islands.
[Photo extracted from YouTube video ‘Hinoba-an aerial’ by dazh – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edXIRCKtua0 ]
The area’s lowlands offer up a range of idyllic rolling foothills that end where golden fields of rice and lush plantations of coconut, sugar, and mango begin.
Her mountain interior boasts significant deposits of gold. In 1982, the municipality made international headlines when the discovery of 24-carat gold nuggets along a riverbed touched off a full-blown gold rush. Practically overnight, a substantial (over 100 hectares) tract of forest primeval was ravaged, transformed into a beehive of feverish activity as tens of thousands of would-be prospectors descended on it, jostling for panning spots in an anarchic free-for-all. Save for a lucky few, the eventual winners were enterprising merchants who hawked their wares, including basic necessities of food and water, to the needy hordes at astronomical profits. Decades hence, ‘Big Mining’ is poised to undertake large-scale commercial extraction of the valuable mineral.
A boon for Mining to be sure on the one hand and, if their record is to be an indicator, assured environmental degradation on the other.
Genially referred to in days past as “Bilbao Country,” first-time visitors, captivated by Hinoba-an’s beauty, would at once acclaim her a tropical Eden. Many found themselves returning year after year, while others, falling completely under her spell, had vacation homes built.
Indeed paradise it was to those who had logged many carefree summers living La Dolce Vita against the backdrop of that implausibly mesmeric countryside and its spell-blindingly alluring seascape.
While continuing to draw tourists to her natural beauty, those that know her well bemoan the loss of some of her priceless treasures.
Gone is a magnificent coral reef that once stretched for kilometers along her shore. During the mid to late 1970’s, the reef began deteriorating under the joint stresses of siltation and man’s exploitation (more aptly abuse: cyanide fishing and coral harvesting, carried out almost exclusively by outsiders). By the early 1980’s, the fragile ecosystem had utterly collapsed. What once was a hotbed of marine biodiversity—a reef as rich and exquisite as any in the archipelago—had been reduced to bedrock, barren but for a smattering of a seaweed species or two.
Gone too is a lush tropical rainforest, replete with old-growth trees and exotic fauna, that once blanketed her interior highlands. Decades of unrestrained commercial logging—with reforestation that if not downright nonexistent was spotty at best—all but assured the demise of yet another of the area’s irreplaceable riches.
Enormous and profound though these losses are, to most they are unseen, unknown, and therefore inconsequential. To the blissfully unaware, Hinoba-an is something of a paradise, and justifiably so, as by any measure, she remains beautiful.
The priceless treasure she once was will endure for as long as it remains extant in the collective memory of her former native sons and daughters. The gem she still is can endure for as long as it remains the collective effort of her current native sons and daughters to preserve what is extant.
This blog celebrates her—all that she was, and, still is. It does so through a veritable potpourri of anecdotes, factual and historical tidbits, photos — past and present (some with jestful captions), and, it is hoped, an ongoing dialogue on anything and everything Hinoba-an.
Welcome (at email@example.com) are all contributions: anecdotes, essays, photos, etc.. Please feel free as well to post your comments on any page.
My sincere gratitude is extended to the following people who have been an inspiration and a resource in the creation of this blog:
Blanca Beltran / Peter Garcia / Happy Uy Bico / Gina Beltran / Luis Beltran / Dinny Bilbao / Geb Bilbao / Cachita Carlota / JJ Beltran / Chuck Beltran / Paulina Espanola / Nini Bilbao
These people have contributed written pieces, actual and anecdotal historical material, photos, or have simply added their comments.
Heartfelt gratitude goes out as well to Mrs. Purita Bilbao de Garcia, Anne-Marie Garcia, and Manang Joy Jimenez for their resounding vote of confidence in the project.
Conversations with the late Mrs. Blanca Bilbao de Beltran, Don Estanislao’s youngest daughter and my dear mother, have yielded a wealth of historical facts and insight.
I also wish to thank my wife, Maritz, for her indulgence amid long hours expended on this project, and, for tolerantly listening to me recount stories about Hinoba-an ad nauseum. Salamat gid.
Lastly, this work is dedicated to the memory of Don Estanislao and Dona Felicidad Bilbao. Thank you for making possible our treasured remembrance of a time and place that was, and for some still is, Hinoba-an. – cb