Rediscovering the historic 'farola' at Capones Island

By Anna Valmero

SAN ANTONIO, ZAMBALES—A visit to Capones Island is incomplete without climbing up the iconic white lighthouse that has been guiding sailors navigating Manila and Subic over the past century.

I first set my eyes on the beautiful island of Capones sometime in 2006 during a summer getaway with friends. The Spanish-era light house stood out against the backdrop of blue skies and the turquoise sea below.

It took seven years of construction before the lighthouse went into operation on July 16, 1890.

The presence of the lighthouse off the coast of Zambales highlights the importance of the west coast as a trade route between the Philippines and other Asian countries. The lighthouse helped guide ships passing by the bays of Manila and Subic on their way to China and other northern countries.

The waves in this part of the country are particularly rough and strong, especially during the season when the strong winds locals refer to as “Norte” arrive by June. Sea waves during this time could trample down big motorized boats, even those with outriggers, leaving people stranded in the middle of the sea.

I have witnessed one happened from the shore of Pundaquit during a visit last year.

An old photo of the lighthouse, the main pavilion and courtyard - as seen in this photo - depicts the brick-and-mortar construction of the complex. It is this charming and laid-back beauty that captivated many travelers to see the iconic lighthouse for themselves and maybe return a second or third time with new friends.

Holding on to the memory of the old-world beauty I had seen, I traveled early this month to the village of Pundaquit  in San Antonio to take photos of the iconic lighthouse—and possibly meet again the old caretaker who invited us to visit the place. The caretaker passed away some two years ago due to old age, according to locals.

On my first time in Capones six years ago, the caretaker told me he gets very few visitors mostly mountaineers who usually traverse the the northern part of the island for an hour or two and arrive at the lighthouse for a short morning or afternoon picnic.

I remember our small group then passed by limestones and a steep slope shaded with some mountain trees. A friend from UP Mountaineers called it a “easy level” climb.

Waking up early from an overnight camp at Pundaquit cove, I rode a motorized banca and arrived at the  southwestern tip of the island, the easier route with a flight of stairs leading to the lighthouse. Upon arrival at the coral beach, we immediately saw another group of tourists descending the stairs and possibly, landing also at nearby Camara Island.

According to Environmental Protection of Asia Foundation, the light house was previously called Faro de Punta Capones and is one of the 24 farolas (lighthouse) built in the country during the Spanish regime. The one at Capones stands 55 meters above sea level.

Until 2009, the lighthouse was manned by a local caretaker who would invite guests for a cup of coffee. Friendly as he is,the caretaker is keen on performing his duty and did not allow everyone to climb up the lighthouse for safety and security purposes.

I guess he just didn't want us to ge disappointed - I saw markings on the wall that are undoubtedly the work of vandals and pieces of left-over plastic wrappers.

Compared to its condition before, the keeper's house also seems to have deteriorated over time. I saw tall golden cogon grass that block the full view of the main pavilion's red brick walls and windows. The keeper used to trim the grass below knee-level so guests could get better appreciate the pavilion's beauty.

Even the locals agree that the loss of the caretaker could mean the lighthouse complex has now seen its better days. Save of course for the lighthouse that is maintained by the Philippine Coast Guard, all else in the complex—from the main pavilion's rotting roof and the falling brick walls at the keeper's house—are in a fast stage of deterioration.

Since there are no entrance fees collected from those who visit the place, boatman Jonathan Abarra thinks that it will be hard for the local government to prioritize the restoration of the place, even to convince someone to become its caretaker.

In the absence of the caretaker to manually operate the dials at the tower, the lighthouse is hooked to two large solar panels and has a meteor-burst radio transmission system that notifies the Coast Guard when any of the lights or lenses are not working. It would have been nice to meet and see how a person will actually operate the dials at the tower and listen to their stories.

The chief of the Environmental Protection of Asia Foundation has proposed recommendations for the rehabilitation of the Capones lighthouse. But their website shows no updates or if anyt effort has been done to implement these suggestions.

The Capones lighthouse has that charming old world beauty rich in history and colorful stories. For the outgoing, you may consider holding camp in the complex but be sure to bring your provisions and tents because there's no nearby sari-sari store in sight.

Locals would also offer you a fair warning that you might hear or see something at night here, referring to those who died during the Second World War. Looking at the lighthouse fr afar and up close, it could very well make for a good setting for a horror film – the ruins, old walls and even the rotting wooden tindalo floor makes it interesting and mysterious.

It is best to go there early in the morning or late in the afternoon because the waves are not as rough.

Low tide will allow you to dock at the southwestern shore near the lighthouse. Make sure to take photos of the lighthouse from different vantage points and see how you could squeeze in a few more shots of the red brick walls that are just full of character.

Overall, climbing the lighthouse and enjoying the breeze atop Capones Island with the 360-degree view of the Zambales range, the sea, and sky is one of the merits of going to Capones.

Beyond that, I hope the local government can come up with a plan on how to preserve the lighthouse. There is potential in renovating the complex as a site where guests can converge and exchange stories, while sipping a hot cup of coffee, eating pandesal stuffed with sardines, and enjoying the cool sea breeze.

That was an enriching travel experience I look forward to doing again - but for now I'll be content with the memory of my first visit here.

Jonathan, our boatman, agrees that installing a historical marker will also allow visitors to learn about the historical significance of the Capones lighthouse. I absolutely agree. Visiting a place means more than taking photos you could later on post on Facebook.

Traveling is a great way to learn a thing or two about how a certain structure has performed its function over the years and possibly, gain a new perspective about the place, its history and its relevance to present times.

More than just beautiful photos, it would be better if everyone who visits the farola at Capones Island have an interesting story to share. That is when traveling becomes more than mere movement from place to place but a voyage ripe with experience and lessons from the people you meet.

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