The Gigantes Islands are a small group of islands and islets off the northernmost point of the province of Iloilo in the Western Visayas region. It’s not unusual for most Ilonggos themselves to be unaware of its existence because the Gigantes, as a destination, is well off the beaten track. It is isolated by a body of water at least 2 hours away from the mainland and even it’s nearest mainland point is very distant from the main population centers of the province.
As a result of this isolation, there is scant tourism infrastructure in the islands. Whatever is known about its potential as a tourism destination is largely spread by word-of-mouth and through helpful tips by travel bloggers who have been adventurous enough to explore the islands. Currently, the tourism industry is at a very low level of development, and whatever efforts the local government is making to promote tourism is supplemented by the efforts of a few individuals, who do so on an almost voluntary basis.
If you recall, I posted an ad earlier this year asking for traveling companions who could join me on an exploratory trip to the Gigantes. I’m pleased to report that the trip has been successful and my companions Richie, Gracey and myself all had a great time island-hopping and food-tripping. In the course of the next few entries, I’ll present a chronicle of how our trip went.
The original plan was to: (1) arrive at Iloilo City early on March 23 and arrive at the Gigantes Islands that same afternoon; (2) go island-hopping the whole of the next day; (3) leave early on March 25 for the trip back to Iloilo City and explore the city a bit in the afternoon; and finally (4) spend the night there and prepare for the flight back to Manila on March 26.
However, since Gracey and I had an extra free day, we decided to stay behind on March 26 to visit nearby Guimaras Island while Richie went ahead and flew back to Manila that day. (We actually missed our own flight to Manila the following day but that will be discussed on a later entry.)
MEETING AT THE AIRPORT
The three of us met at the airport (NAIA Terminal 3) very early in the morning of March 23 to catch our 5 am Airphil Express flight going to Iloilo City. I was the last one to arrive at around 3 am because Gracey had been there since 2 am and Richie actually spent the whole of the previous night in the airport. He lives in Laguna and there weren’t any available public transportation from his place going to Manila at that very early hour.
Gracey and I met somewhere near the entrance and spent a long period lined up at the check-in counter because there seemed to be a lot of people going to Iloilo City that day. Upon checking in, we then proceeded to the boarding area to look for Richie. When we found him, he had that unmistakable look of being sleep-deprived. But it didn’t show in his voice. Richie has a talent for conversation that makes you feel you’ve known him all your life. Upon introducing Gracey to Richie, they cozied up like old friends.
(By the way, I first got to know Richie in Batanes last year and you can read about our first meeting here. As for Gracey, we first traveled together in Sagada also last year, which you can read about here.)
Because we all got so caught up exchanging stories, we didn’t notice that the people lining up and getting on the shuttles were in the same flight as us. As a result, we were some of the last ones to board the plane. I even had my window seat taken by a middle-aged man who was already so settled in he was even eating soup. (Seriously, how hard is it to read the seat number on your boarding pass and compare it to the actual seat number in the plane? It’s not like it’s in a movie house where everything is dark. Yet another undesirable Filipino trait.)
Prior to the plane taking off, I learned that it was to be Gracey’s first ever airplane ride (which was really saying a lot since we are of the same age.) Oddly enough, she didn’t seem to be particularly excited about the whole thing, but maybe she’s just a bit nervous and tempering down her excitement is her way of coping. At any rate, I was feeling more excited because this is the first trip I ever organized and I really was looking forward to see how it goes.
ARRIVAL AT ILOILO CITY
It was just after sunrise when the plane arrived at the Iloilo airport. The first thing that struck me was how nice the airport was. It looked clean, new and a lot bigger than what you would expect in a provincial airport (although technically, it is an international airport.). Not 10 minutes had passed since we disembarked that we spotted another airplane (Zestair) also with disembarking passengers a short distance away. It must have landed within 10-15 minutes after ours did.
After we got our baggage, we decided to have breakfast first at a cafeteria within the airport to discuss the day’s itinerary. The cafeteria attendants were kind enough to allow us to eat our own food within their premises. (A short while later, Richie figured in a hilarious situation when he used the women’s restroom by mistake after his yosi break.)
Having had our fill, we then got a cab that would take us to the Tagbac terminal where we would catch a ride going to the municipality of Estancia. The cab fare was pricey at a fixed rate of P500 and we’re thankful that there were three of us to divide the cost. It’s at this point when we realized that the airport was a great distance away from the city proper. Its actual location is in the town of Cabatuan and two entire municipalities would have to be crossed to reach the city proper.
GOING TO ESTANCIA
Arriving at Tagbac terminal, we were faced with 2 options to reach Estancia. (1) Take a Ceres bus or (2) take a van. Practically everyone I asked (including our guide Joel Decano) were in agreement that a van is a lot faster and makes less stops than a bus. Our taxi driver actually assisted us to find the spot in the terminal where the vans going to Estancia are. Since the last one just left, we had to board the next one and wait for around half an hour until it got filled up.
The van was old and not very comfortable, even the air conditioning was on its last gasps, but it was indeed fast – aided no less by the excellent condition of the roads. I was torn between trying to sleep and looking out the window viewing the scenery as the van drives by. We made it to Estancia in good time. All throughout the ride, I’ve been in constant communication with Joel via SMS. He would be meeting us at the arrival point.
Upon arrival at the Estancia terminal, Joel was nowhere to be found. This coincided with the fact that the terminal area seems to be a cellphone dead spot, so we followed his last instruction and boarded a tricycle and proceeded to the port. Now, the boat that leaves for Gigantes Islands leaves at 2 pm and we arrived at the very early hour of 10 am. We figured we’d buy supplies and have an early lunch first in the port area while waiting for Joel to show up and for the boat to allow boarding.
I volunteered to watch our backpacks under the shade of the port administration office as Richie and Gracey bought supplies and eat. It was there that Joel caught up with us and suggested a much better place to have lunch at Pa-on Beach Club, a couple of kilometers away from the port. I had to call up Gracey and Richie to go right back to where I was so that we could all proceed to Pa-on together.
Pa-on Beach Club turned out to be a good suggestion because its restaurant area was elevated and benefited from a good sea breeze. In comparison, the port area was absolutely sweltering in the summer heat. (The food however, was a bit inconsistent in taste and quantity. More on this in a later blog.) We arrived at Pa-on just before 11am so that left us a lot of time to have lunch and relax before going back to the port to make it on time for boarding the boat going to Gigantes.
AND ON TO GIGANTES
So after lunch, we hailed a tricycle to take us back to the port. Upon arriving there, we boarded the boat right away. There already were quite a number of passengers inside and we were lucky that there were still some vacant seats left. As the boat was getting filled with a more passengers, we took this as a sign that we would be leaving right away. However, we experienced a 1-hour delay because, as we learned later, the boat owner asked the pilot not to leave until she got back from the market.
This obviously inconvenienced a lot of passengers, including 2 Dutch men. But we could do nothing but wait. Richie, had to get off the boat while waiting because the bobbing caused by the waves was giving him motion sickness. Joel had to intervene by pleading with the pilot that a 1-hour delay was too much and unacceptable. As the pilot was pondering on this, the owner arrived and the boat finally left.
The sea was mostly calm and while we were complaining about the heat earlier, we began to appreciate the fact that if we had the same weather the next day, then it would be perfect for island-hopping and beach bumming. Richie was boasting that he was buenas, and that he has never gone on an out-of-town trip in bad weather. I was beginning to believe him and we reached the Gigantes Islands in good spirits.
ARRIVAL AT GIGANTES NORTE
Gigantes Norte and Gigantes Sur are the two main islands that comprise what is known as the Gigantes Islands. For the duration of our stay, our homebase would be Barangay Asluman in Gigantes Norte. Since the boat could not directly dock near Barangay Asluman, we had to do so on the other side of the island, in a barangay named Granada (if I remember right).
Disembarking was not an easy task since there were no port facilities to speak of, so we had to be unloaded by batches to the shore using a dinghy that could only fit around 10 people at a time while precariously standing. Once on land, each of us had to hire a motorcycle to transport us from Barangay Granada to Barangay Asluman. Along the way, I got my first few glimpses of the life of islanders.
Gigantes Norte has no cemented roads, and its streets are little more than dirt roads in the widest areas, and bike paths at the narrowest (which is only appropriate since there are no vehicles larger than a motorcycle there.) Most of the houses are made of light materials but I saw some concrete structures too, mostly schools and local government buildings. Everywhere in the island, I saw scallop shells littered on the ground. Later on, we learned that scallops are very bountiful in the seas surrounding Gigantes to the point that there are entire hills of discarded scallop shells larger than houses around the islands.
It was approaching late afternoon when we arrived so there were many children along the streets, most were playing and some were helping with chores, most often with the cleanup of newly harvested scallops. And since we looked all touristy with our backpacks and our getup, a lot of people stared at us as we drove by.
THE GIGANTES HIDEAWAY INN
As part of the tour package with Joel, we got to stay at the Gigantes Hideaway Inn which he owns and operates. Although the name has the word “inn” in it, the area is actually a sizable tract of land with a collection of cottages of various styles. (“Resort” would seem to be a more appropriate word.) While it does not have the benefit of a good location (the sea near it has mangroves instead of a beach) it does have a strong supply of fresh potable water straight from the mountain.
The two Dutch tourists whom we saw earlier in the boat were also staying there, along with their female companions. Since we were the only ones in the resort, the entire compound was divided equally between them and us. I think we got the better end of the deal because the kitchen was located at our side.
Speaking of the kitchen, this is perhaps the best thing about the Gigantes Hideaway Inn. After a whole day’s journey through land, air and sea, we were all primed for an epic dinner, and we were not disappointed. For one thing, the 3 of us were served a dinner that would have fed 6 people.
There were around 6 dishes served, 3 of which were different ways of cooking scallops – sizzling scallops, steamed scallops, skewered and roasted scallops – and they were all good! All throughout the meal, we were singing praises on how good the meal was and how this sort of thing would have cost a fortune back in Metro Manila.
Needless to say, the 3 of us were very sated after we were done. We made a mental note on how we’d reward the cook, Ate Anggay, with a generous tip once we check out. What’s great was that it was only our first night. We still have a full day ahead and we’d be served 3 equally sumptuous meals with the same excellent cooking. I personally was looking forward to it just as eagerly as the island hopping tour.
With our stomachs full and and our bodies tired from the day’s journey, we all slept soundly in our cottage as we eagerly anticipated the next day’s activities.
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This entry is part of the Iloilo & Guimaras series dated March 23-27, 2012:
1. Looking for Travel Buddies
2. Preview: Tangke Saltwater Lagoon
3. Las Islas de Gigantes (prologue)
4. Las Islas de Gigantes (morning)
5. Las Islas de Gigantes (afternoon)
6. Why are they called the “Gigantes Islands” anyway?
7. Gigantes Islands Sample Itinerary & Budget Estimate
8. Gigantes Islands Travel Guide
9. Las Islas de Gigantes (epilogue)
10. Back to the mainland, back to the city
11. Day Trip to Guimaras (morning)
12. Day Trip to Guimaras (afternoon)