Siquijor may be famous for mysticism, but it’s not the only Philippine island where you’ll hear stories of black magic and the supernatural.
On Dwarves And The Art of Hilot
Growing up in the province and having relatives from many other provinces around the Philippines, my childhood was a mix of modern and old school. Part of it was experiencing albularyos, or in extreme cases, mangkukulam. Not to be confused with modern day wiccans or witches, an albularyo is a folk healer who uses herbalism, faith healing, and supposed contact with the supernatural to heal a person’s ailments. A mangkukulam practices voodoo to supposedly inflict physical, emotional, or mental harm on someone.
When my cousins and I were in Camariñes Norte in the ’90s, my relatives asked an albularyo to come over to check on my cousin’s sore knee. The albularyo said that an angry dwende (dwarf) punished my cousin for stepping on him while we were playing outside. He massaged my cousin’s knee, performed a few chants and spells involving a basin of water, and asked the dwarf for forgiveness.
My cousin’s knee eventually healed after a few days. It’s up to you if you believe it was because of the albularyo’s powers, or a natural progression of healing. For me, what else was the sore knee supposed to do but eventually heal?
When I was a little girl in the US, I had stomach issues. My grandmother called for a lady albularyo who was originally from the Philippines, but migrated to the US with her husband. She performed the hilot (an ancient Filipino art of healing that involves kneading) on my tummy. I was “healed” after that. But as a kid, I always had tummy issues that would come and go, so I think it was just a coincidence that my grumbling tummy subsided after seeing the lady albularyo.
My Stance on Abularyos
I’m on the fence when it comes to albularyos. I believe in the herbalist aspect of their practice—the medicinal power of plants and herbs. I also enjoy the art of hilot, which is now offered in some five-star hotels and spas in Manila. It’s good for people with back and muscle pain.
But when it comes to mangkukulam practices like chopping the head of a live chicken and spilling its blood on the soil to pacify entities, or hexing your enemies who have offended you—that I don’t buy.
To be fair, I have observed that my fellow Filipinos seek the help of albularyos for two main reasons—as alternative medicine (when they want a second opinion or can no longer afford expensive western medicine), and as the last resort (when the patient is terminal or has an inexplicable ailment).
I’ve watched so many documentaries on faux healers taking advantage of foreigners and ailing rich people. These fake healers use the sleight of the hand, plus animal blood and intestines for full effect. [Read one report here.]
I have other vague memories of the albularyo. I grew up hearings stories of the manananggal (a malevolent, man-eating and blood-sucking witch), kapre (cigar-smoking tree giant), and other mythical creatures of Philippine folklore. No, the stories were not the wonderful Harry Potter kind.
My Manila friend Sophia asked me to buy her a Love Potion from the famous Balete Tree of Lazi. “Just for fun,” she said. My travel buddy Martina was curious about our albularyos, so I shared with her my childhood stories.
I learned from the locals that foreigners are so fascinated with our albularyos that it tops their must-do list in Siquijor. Many of them pay around ₱500-1,000 for a session with an albularyo. Some ask for spiritual healing or guidance, some seek help in the fertility department, while others ask to communicate with dead relatives.
No Kapre, But The Fish Want Blood!
Martina and I decided to skip the albularyo, but we did take a motorbike ride around the beautiful island and found our way to the famous Balete Tree. You pay a ₱10 entrance fee, which allows you to hang out in their fish spa, a makeshift pond in front of the mystical tree.
The pond has fish of difference sizes. Their mission in life: to nibble the dead skin cells off your toes. I forgot I had a wound on my foot that day, so I screamed in pain when the big fish went straight to suck on my wound. My fellow travelers laughed.
In Manila, we are often warned to stay away from Balete trees or get hexed by the elementals that live there. But in Siquijor, we were more than welcome to sit right next to the Balete tree, which is over 400 years old. You may even enjoy a fresh coconut for ₱30.
There’s also a souvenir shop in the property, where you can purchase nuts, local delicacies, voodoo dolls, key chains, amulets (which look like the one my grandfather gave me when I was a kid), and of course, love potions! Inside the bottle are herbs and plants gathered by Siquijor’s albularyos and prepared with special chants and rituals.
I purchased a small bottle for Sophia for ₱200. The saleslady gave me a major disclaimer: It will not make people fall in love with you, but make them feel better around you (loosely translated from “Gagaan ang loob sa ‘yo”). They should change the label to “like potion,” or better yet, “Tequila shot,” or if I may a little more sarcastic: “You’re so desperate for the love potion to work that you will start acting overconfident, overeager, or awkward around people so you’re bound to elicit reactions.”
Instructions for use: Fill up the bottle with your favorite perfume or cologne. When you mix it with perfume and use it as your daily scent, the “magic” will supposedly start taking effect.
And just in case you’re not paying attention to my text: THE LOVE POTION IS NOT MINE. I bought it for a friend who asked for it. I don’t believe in love potions. I think it’s just a novelty like a mood ring that changes color depending on the wearer’s temperature and doesn’t actually read moods. It’s like a fortune cookie—fun to read but don’t gamble your life on it.
Love Potion Test in Manila
I gave the bottle to Sophia and told her what the saleslady from Siquijor told me. “I should at least get a date from this!” she joked. She filled up the bottle with her favorite scent, and used it daily for a week.
She was going through a tough time at work, so it was the perfect opportunity to put the potion to the test. After one week, she told me…
“Things got worse!” Oh dear. Her work problems seemed to be getting worse, including her personal conflicts. Of course, let’s not fall into false dichotomy or non sequitur reasoning. Buying a fortune plant will not make you a millionaire overnight. A lucky charm will not automatically ward off bad luck. My nightmare isn’t the fault of my dream catcher that did not work. You get the drift.
But if you want to keep the innocent fun going, Sophia will keep you posted in the comments section after a few more weeks.
In the meantime, I’m curious, have any of you purchased a Siquijor love potion or visited an albularyo lately? Share your stories below.
Date of visit: February 20, 2018
When I first published this post, I meant for it to be a fun story about Philippine folklore, and I hope my sarcasm made it clear that I don’t believe in love potions. Sophia didn’t bank her love life on this love potion from a mystical island—neither should you. But the comments section of this blog post has evolved into something that made me sad for humanity. To all the heartbroken people who found this blog post and think that buying a love potion will make that person love you, return to you, or treat you better, then you are missing the point of true love. I hope that instead of searching the universe for a magical potion, you find inner strength and grace.