The impressive fortress-church of Cuyo

The fortress-church of Cuyo , like that of Agutaya, a very unusual and unique structure compared to those found in other areas in the Philippines.

The fortress-church of Cuyo, like that of Agutaya, a very unusual but unique structure compared to those found in other areas in the Philippines.

The Cuyo Loop
Cuyo is in blue
In October of 2006, I visited the remote islands of Cuyo and Culion in Palawan for a photography assignment and passed Negros and Iloilo in transit. This is my account of that journey.

To put into context the many Spanish colonial era fortifications that can still be seen around the coasts of Luzon and the Visayas, I’ve written a more detailed 3-part post at A summarized version can also be found in this blog.

This is the 14th of a series I have seen photos of the fortress-church of Cuyo in books but the first time I saw it, cara y cara, and I was struck speechless. The photos don’t give you an idea of size and immensity unless you have a reference like a person within the image to provide scale. But looking at it, wow, its surreal. This was what I have come for in this remote island and its hard to imagine that in such a place, a very solid, massive and impressive structure was built here.

One of the canons that used to be mounted at the perimeter ready to engage the enemy is now cemented at the main portal.

One of the canons that used to be mounted at the perimeter ready to engage the enemy is now cemented at the main portal.

Augustinian Recollect seal carved at the side of the church.

Augustinian Recollect seal carved at the side of the church.

Palawan and its outlying islands were given to the Augus-tinian Recollects to administer. It was in Cuyo that the religious order first arrived in 1622 where they then fanned out to Agutaya and north Palawan, the Calamianes. At the height of the Maguindanao Sultanate under Sultan Kudarat, several raids were already done in these islands and based on records, between the 17th and 18th centuries, 43 Recollect missionaries met violent deaths.

The island, straddling between the Visayas and Palawan, is of strategic importance not only on economic but also on security considerations, thus, the reason that it has to be defended. The terrible conditions of the missions also prompted several priests to take it upon themselves to defend their towns. Here in Cuyo, the fortified church was first constructed in 1683 under the supervision of Rev. Juan de San Severo, OAR.

Interior of the church. Original <strong>azulejos</strong> (blue tiles) can still be found at the altar floor. The walls are more than a meter thick.

Interior of the church. Original azulejos (blue tiles) can still be found at the altar floor. The walls are more than a meter thick.

The nave of the church is quite narrow and doesn’t have a transept. Near the altar, original blue tiles, like those in Baclayon church (Bohol), called azulejos can still be found but most are broken and some parts missing. But I’m impressed as it’s altar frontal is still intact.

View of the fortress complex as seen from the belfry. The parochial house, lower left, was built in the 20th century.

View of the fortress complex as seen from the belfry.

The <strong>garita</strong> or sentry box where a sentinel positioned.

The garita or sentry box where a sentinel was positioned.

The fort is pentagonal in shape with four bastions. It is made of coral stones with walls more than a meter thick. The main portal faces the town which leads directly inside the church. A smaller entrance leads to a quadrangle.

Going inside the fortification complex, I was just disappointed that the original kumbento was no longer there. Instead, a modern concrete structure now stands. Rene Javellana, SJ, author of the wonderful book Fortress of Empire (of which this fortification series was named), wrote that it used to be parallel. Today, it runs in an L-shape: parallel and perpendicular to the church.

At the parapets, high above the walls, one can have a commanding view of the sea and neighboring islands. No wonder that this fortification complex was built in this area.

The belfry of the church located at a distance.

The belfry of the church located at a distance.

Irreverent drawings found at the belfry.

Irreverent graffiti found at the belfry.

The fortified-church underwent a major renovation in 1827 and during this time, the belfry was added at the far end, on one of the bastions. Even with its history and significance, I was just amused that inside, irreverent graffiti, besides the usual love quotes, can be found.

This fortress-church complex not only served to house the missionaries and protect the townspeople from pirates and slave raiders, it was also a fitting, if not an imposing structure that signified strength as the island was also the capital then of Palawan. This is really one of the impressive architectural legacies of the Augustinian Recollects in the country that I hope will be preserved for future generations.

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Estan Cabigas is freelance photographer, blogger and writer based in Makati City, the Philippines. A true blue Cebuano, he makes stunning images and meaningful photo stories. His work has been published in local and international publications including National Geographic Magazine, Geo (Germany), Sunday Times Magazine (London) and other publications. He is also a peripatetic traveler and has traveled to all 81 Philippines provinces. I'm open for work, collaborations and inquiries, including hotel, restaurant and site features and reviews.


  1. carl
    September 14, 2008 @ 12:53

    nice reminds me of judai`s movie “Ploning”.it was shot in Cuyo

  2. estan
    September 14, 2008 @ 13:10

    Hi Carl, yep, unfortunately, the fortress-church was not shown. Inaabangan ko pa naman yun.

  3. donG hO
    September 15, 2008 @ 1:25

    ayos talaga tong mga napupuntahan mo. yung interior ng simbahan na yan may similarity sa isang simbahan sa rizal. halos magkapareho talaga.

    saan nga pala ginagamit ang mga pictures na to? magazines?

  4. tutubi
    September 17, 2008 @ 17:29

    gusto ko rin mapuntahan yan. awesome pictures always master estan. hope to travel with you someday and learn a few tricks 😛

    minsan na nag-cross paths na tayo kaso di pa alam hehe

  5. Endangered Agutaya fortress-church | langyaw
    September 21, 2008 @ 10:46

    […] the fortress-church of Cuyo, the Baluarte de San Juan Bautista, as what the one here in Agutaya is called, were constructed by […]

  6. End of the Cuyo Loop | langyaw
    October 2, 2008 @ 11:12

    […] the main reason that I ventured into these remote areas in the first place. These structures in Cuyo, Agutaya and Culion defended these towns from the Muslim slave raiders for more than a century. […]

  7. Culion’s remodelled fortress-church | langyaw
    October 2, 2008 @ 12:03

    […] in Taytay, Linapacan, Dumaran and Lucbuan (mostly ruined) and the fortress churches of Agutaya and Cuyo, construction was started in the last two decades of the 1600s. For Culion, it was completed as a […]

  8. Tea + Sulu = Miag-ao Church | langyaw
    January 1, 2009 @ 1:57

    […] Site is another example. High up a hill, it overlooked the coast. And so are the ones found in Cuyo, Agutaya and Culion in Palawan; Capul, Guiuan and Laoang in Samar; Boac in Marinduque. The belfry […]

  9. pinky
    January 12, 2010 @ 8:56

    thank very much for featuring our beloved fortress of cuyunos christianity.. matamang salamat..

  10. Planning at trip to Cuyo, Palawan Speedlinking – 04/10
    April 4, 2010 @ 15:00

    […] The Impressive Fortress Church of Cuyo […]

  11. mR. Nath
    August 9, 2010 @ 10:38

    very nice photos..naaalala ko pa nung sa cuyo pa kami nakatira, lagi naming inaakyat yang rooftop ng simbahan!i wish i could go back to cuyo..

  12. Micamyx
    December 2, 2010 @ 2:56

    Ganda nung Church but i hope they repaint that vandalized part 😐

  13. pusang-kalye
    December 9, 2010 @ 5:33

    me similarity sila ng Fort San Pedro when seen from above. para rin syang fortress…

  14. estan
    December 9, 2010 @ 7:07

    @ANTON,fortress kaya yan. hehehe

  15. » Langyaw #02: Cuyo | Langyaw: Sojourns and Off-the-Beaten Path Travels
    December 20, 2010 @ 7:36

    […] last year’s issue #01 and focuses on this far flung town. From everyday objects to the massive fortress-church. From fishermen early in the morning to a lazy afternoon with some children playing. Or an amble […]

  16. emmanuel enriquez
    April 20, 2011 @ 13:46

    simply amazing !

  17. Visita Iglesia: 14 remote heritage churches in the Philippines
    April 10, 2014 @ 19:29

    […] Read more: The impressive fortress-church of Cuyo […]

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