MALAY, Aklan, Philippines - If you have been going to Boracay often enough since the 1980's you would witness the island's evolution from the off-the-beaten-track, enchanting paradise that it used to be, to the bustling, pricey tropical metropolis that it is today.
I remember trips to the island in the 80's when I had to endure an arduous 7-hour land trip from Iloilo to Caticlan--- on a mostly unpaved road--- just to take a dip in Boracay’s legendary crystal clear waters.
One arrived in the island coated with dust from split end to toenail, that dropping dead on its shores after a long and bumpy ride made him blend well with Boracay's sugar-fine sands like a flounder. The immaculately-white sands of Boracay-- so cool to the feet despite the scorching sun!
Boracay has always been worth all the hassle a traveler had to go through to conquer it. Its waters were made to refresh tired souls and its sunsets are a breath-taker, unmatched even by the postcard-perfect Manila Bay afternoon capper. All these sensual treats had drawn travelers to this once-secret island that in the decades that followed, Boracay was christened "the world's best beach" by travelers globally.
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Back in the 80’s we had to bring our own water, food, sleeping cots, "camping gear" and medicines. Even beer and soda were on "bring your own" basis as only a few stores sold them in the island. One almost had to have his entire life in tow to survive in a place that provided essentials as bare as palm trees for shade and a toilet as vast the Sulu Sea cradling paradise island.
For everything else we go to Malay Municipality, which Boracay is a part of. It is the nearest town to run to for ice, canned food, medicines or local knowledge. To discover the island's many secrets, one had to ask around for routes to the jungle where fruit bats thrived, or the secluded Puka beach, named after Puka shells that used to bejewel Boracay’s northern cove, until shell adornments became in fashion. Today, Puka beach is divested of Puka shells forever gone to wrists, necks and ankles of the vain that came and left the island.
Dinning used to be anything but "fine". Canned food, eggs and fish can be cooked by locals for a small fee--- cooking--- being as uncomplicated as "throw-in-the-grill" barbecue. We ate in the sand or in bamboo stalls one paid for with whatever amount his generosity would permit.
There was also fresh seafood that one may buy from vendors coming from nearby Mindoro Island. But one was lucky to chance on the very few of these fish peddlers adventurous enough to brave 8-meter high waves to cross to Boracay and sell fish, lobsters, crabs, shrimp and shellfish at pristine prices free of tax or service charge so commonly padding the cost of goods and services of the Boracay of today.
There was no electricity in the island whose beach front used to be dotted sparsely with simple cottages mostly made of native materials. One had to depend on sea breeze for cooling, torches and fireflies for lighting, or maybe inner happiness for entertainment? One had nothing but nature to lift his spirits.
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It was unthinkable to build concrete resorts in old Boracay (let alone high rises) as the cost to ship cement from mainland to island would be more than the price of land per square meter. Tall (folk) tales say before the Boracay boom land sold so cheap that today's value meal is thrice more expensive than a square meter of paradise.
Small Aeta communities inhabited Boracay which was owned by a few families who never even knew they were sitting on a gold mine until they were sweet talked by visionary capitalists, to whom they sold their property at regretfully low prices.
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In the late 70's and early 80's Boracay was a favorite destination of backpack tourists from Europe who wanted the secluded beach experience that’s easy on the pocket. They fell in love with the island and told the world about it. Kissing and telling on Boracay paved the way for more tourists to come and businesses to prosper from tourism money that increasingly poured in.
Today the cost of land in Boracay would shame prime Metro Manila real estate. The famous white beach is peppered with all kinds of resorts, bars and restaurants of various stars and classes interspersed by a sea of human settlement, legal and otherwise.
It also has malls, schools, department stores, golf courses, churches, museums, radio stations, clinics, hardware shops, gyms, wifi, spas and even a stock market brokerage where one can make oodles of money while on vacation. Going to Boracay today is like never really leaving home (or office). Boracay today is like Metro Manila with a slightly different dress code.
The island has a “Makati side” (where the upscale resorts are) an “Ermita side” (for budget tourists) and everything in between. Tourists can choose resorts, hotels or hostels as diverse as their tastes, preferences and financial circumstances. Many have even chosen to live in the island, lured by morsels from the island’s booming tourism-driven economy.
Infrastructure in the island has also dwarfed that of many other "pretend cities" in the country. Boracay has its own port, an airport and a road network connecting all of its three barangays. Lately local government has allowed cars and heavy vehicles in the island, creating the unthinkable---- traffic congestion in Boracay’s main artery.
This year, on what is perhaps my 22nd trip to the island, I was a little disappointed over Boracay’s inconvenient conveniences. Part of me wished that the island did not change so much yet I am thankful one need not go through what I’ve been through in the past, to enjoy Boracay.
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I once asked a local historian what Boracay meant. I was told that “Bora” (Aklanon term for “bubble”) meant sea foam formed by waves careening into shore; and “Cay” was some fisherman’s endearment to a wife who awaited the day’s catch along the shores of the Boracay of simpler times. No one’s really sure how the island got its name. Today kids even call it “Bora”. Now even its name is taking a different form.
But Boracay’s sea, sand, and sunset remain and continue to beckon many (myself included) who--- by the looks of it--- will never get enough of the world’s best beach.