Travel log: August 9-10, 2014; Philippines
Given its proximity to the capital, it’s a wonder not more Manileños have been to Corregidor Island. But perhaps few like to spend their weekends and holidays touring old fortifications and remembering the World War II dead. Besides, for a quick dose of history, there’s always Intramuros, the Walled City of Manila.
Still, Corregidor Island offers visitors a more intimate experience. Feeling your way through the darkness inside Malinta Tunnel, or staring at the bombed ruins of the Mile-Long Barracks, you cannot help but wonder how the defending Filipino and American soldiers must have felt during the 1942 siege, the last stretch in Japan’s conquest of the Philippines. At the same time, all around you tourists are laughing, taking photos, climbing the artillery batteries. It is this that sets Corregidor apart: this sense of rapid recovery, of life hurtling past even as the island’s ruins magnify the pull of collective memory.
Geographically, Corregidor Island is closest to Bataan on the mainland, but the jump-off point for most tourists is Manila. For once, the best time to go is during the rainy season, when Sun Cruises, the sole ferry operator, offers a 50% discount on its regular rates. The summer rates are frankly exorbitant, but in 2014 the discounted rate was only P2,800 for two—inclusive of round-trip ferry transfers, shrine and entrance fees, a guided island tour, overnight stay, plus a standard lunch buffet and zip line ride. You only have to hope that the weather cooperates.
The ferry ride lasts over an hour. Most passengers sit in the air-conditioned section, but we recommend spending at least part of the journey on the rear deck, from where you can watch the city receding behind choppy waters.
There is no public transportation on the island. Tourists are shuttled around in guided tranvias, which operate on different itineraries to avoid congestion.
A total of 23 artillery batteries (groups of guns and mortars) were installed on Corregidor. The most famous ones—like Batteries Way, Hearn, and Grubbs—are included in the tour.
One of Corregidor’s most memorable sights, this famous barracks is actually less than a third of a mile long, but is said to be the world’s longest.
This circular memorial, which makes dramatic use of sunlight, was erected in honor of the soldiers who fought in the Pacific War. Behind the memorial rises the Eternal Flame of Freedom, a steel sculpture symbolizing hope, struggle, and sacrifice.
In the museum you can find items ranging from decommissioned machine guns to soldiers’ photos and personal items. For me, it was both moving and revealing to see everyday items like lipstick alongside bullets and binoculars.
So called for the leeches that used to inhabit it, Malinta Tunnel protected the Allied soldiers against Japanese bombing. It served as a 1,000-bed hospital during the Battle of Corregidor, and the ghosts of those who died there—including later Japanese soldiers who committed suicide—supposedly still roam the lateral tunnels.
Malinta Tunnel is part of the day tour, but the experience is incomplete without a night visit. We paid only an extra P150 each for the night tour, which includes sunset and sunrise viewings. At one point we were asked to turn off all flashlights and headlamps. In silence and complete darkness, we were able to more clearly imagine a soldier’s fear.
Supposedly you can also watch an impressive documentary or lights and sound show at the tunnel, but it was not available when we visited, and seemed to have been inoperative for some time.
The garden’s most memorable feature is a ten-foot-high stone Buddha, fronted by a rectangular pool. The place is very quiet and well-maintained, and the peace it symbolizes is affirmed by the number of Japanese tourists to Corregidor.
The old hospital lives up to its reputation as one of the most haunted places on the island. Despite clear indications of its use as a hospital—the structure was designed in the shape of a cross—it was still heavily bombed by the Japanese. The horrors continue post-WWII. Some of the building’s walls still bear markings left by imprisoned Muslim soldiers who were eventually killed in the 1968 Jabidah massacre.
On a less morbid note, the promontory behind the hospital is a good spot from which to view the sunset.
The night tour also includes a sunrise viewing, but we missed the tranvia (it left 5 minutes early!) and so ended up just walking along the coast. Luckily, the sunrise was beautiful anyway.
Keep an eye out for monkeys as you chase the sun. They’re easier to spot in the mornings.
This wasn’t included in our day tour, but we visited it anyway, walking all the way from the hotel. The top of the lighthouse offers a great view, as it is the highest point on the island. Souvenirs can be bought from the stalls downstairs.
The ferry ride back to Manila elicits none of the previous day’s excitement. Upon disembarking, avoid the overpriced vans and taxis near the docks and instead walk toward the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), from where you can get a cheaper ride home.