With its weathered plastic seats under a canvas roof, this wharf at the edge of downtown Iloilo is as basic as it gets. I am standing in line here with a few dozen other would-be passengers, waiting for my turn to board a wooden commuter boat. There is neither entertainment nor air-conditioning. This would be a sweltering summer morning if not for the constant sea breeze. Behind us, an array of food vendors, trishaw drivers, bystanders and a sleepy security guard give us company. This isn’t quite what I had in mind when the person at the tourist office mentioned “tourist-class amenities”. Yet admittedly this humble prologue is making me curious about my destination.
I am on my way to Guimaras, an island that just a few decades ago was being promoted as one of the Philippines’ tourism gems, alongside classic spots like Cebu, Boracay and Bohol. Yet, while the latter three have gone on to become world-class crowd-drawers, Guimaras has stayed somewhat low-key, its shores attracting mostly local visitors. This place has long been the go-to beach getaway for those living in Iloilo province, in the Philippines’ Visayas Region. But save for its signature export — plump, juicy, sugar-sweet mangoes — many others don’t seem to know much else about this 600sq km island roughly the size of Metro Manila. But why should anyone make the trek to Guimaras? I am here to find out.
In a mere 20 minutes I arrive at the wharf of Jordan, the capital of Guimaras. If the Iloilo dock is a notch above spartan, this one is happily more developed — it has a reinforced concrete jetty, metal-roof walkways and even an in-house souvenir shop. Outside, typically provincial sights, sounds and smells greet me. Tricycles — native three-wheeled motorcycle-and-sidecar combos — zip down the seaside avenue, past little houses, sari-sari stores and hole-in-the-wall eateries. At a nearby corner I manage to find a motorbike to rent for the day. Surprisingly, the owner asks for neither an ID nor a security deposit — in other, more touristy places there would no doubt be stricter requirements. Instead, he simply quotes the rental price of P500 for the whole day and tells me how to return the bike.
“Just look for me at the pier — the people there will know where to find me,” he tells me after we exchange phone numbers. “You can pay me when you return from your ride.”
Equipped with two wheels, Google Maps and a full tank of gas, I set off to get acquainted with Guimaras. My plan is to do a loop of the island’s northern side, before heading back to Jordan at the island’s center and then riding onward to spend the night at the southern coast. An hour later I find my first stop in the coastal village of Navalas. The Church of San Isidro Labrador isn’t spectacularly old, at just over 130 years, but its baroque façade and idyllic seaside location are an interesting peek into the Spanish colonial era. In fact, it is Guimaras’ only surviving church from that period; its counterparts in the island’s other communities have since been rebuilt to modern specifications.
I am surprised by the church’s shiny interiors. Save for the bright red tiles on the floor, it’s evident that this church has also undergone a recent makeover. Thankfully the building’s original exterior has been well-preserved. A historical marker states the years of construction (1880-1885) and the name of its biggest benefactor (a certain Don Miguel Jayme). Just a few meters away, a watchtower stands opposite the façade, a reminder of the time when the islanders had to be wary of bandits from the sea.
Not too far from here I visit another, slightly younger structure called the Roca Encantada, a seaside mansion that looks like it belongs in a Mediterranean setting. Standing over coral rock, this palatial abode was built for a woman from a prominent clan — a former Iloilo governor’s wife, Doña Presentacion Hofileña Lopez, whose descendants still own the place. Not much information is given about “The Enchanted Rock”, but it is easy to see why it is a popular landmark. From its spacious elevated courtyard I savor sweeping views of the Iloilo Strait. Seen from land, its picturesque cream-colored main building seems to grow out of a hill. From the seaward side, on the other hand, it could well be a palace on an islet. So unique is its style that Roca Encantada was declared a National Heritage House in 2002.
From the far north of the island, I follow the coastal road to the next town of San Lorenzo. Here I spend the next hour or so driving over verdant rolling hills, through sleepy fishing villages and an eye-popping vista of towering wind turbine engines. Installed in 2015 by energy corporation PHINMA and sprinkled all the way to the horizon, the massive propellers look like something out of a sci-fi movie; the scene is so surreal I have to remind myself to keep my eyes on the road.
Back at Jordan, I sample a curious delicacy called the mango pizza, a creamy concoction featuring the island’s favorite fruit over mayonnaise and cheese. It’s not the most sophisticated of lunches, but it does manage to hit both the sweet and savory spots in a delectable package. Later on I watch mango pickers in action at a nearby orchard. With ropes over their shoulders, they hoist themselves up 80ft-high trees to gather the produce onto baskets.
“We get 200 to 300 kilos every four months from each tree,” says Gil Mejia, one of the farmers. “Our biggest harvests happen around March. You should come and see Guimaras during that time. The mangoes are sold everywhere, on roadside stalls and at the markets. Even the corner eateries will have mangoes hanging on their display windows.” Last year, Guimaras’ 137,900 mango trees produced over 11,000 metric tons of fruit — an amount that comprises merely 1.4% of the Philippines’ total mango output. What the island can’t offer in volume, though, it more than makes up for in quality — Guimaras’ mangoes are the only Philippine mangoes that meet the strict import standards of Australia. They are also found in markets in Singapore, Canada and the United States.
In just a few hours I’ve traversed roughly a third of this island’s coastline, and so far the only tourists I’ve seen are a dozen Manileño vacationers on a side-trip from Iloilo. On this slow summer afternoon — right in the middle of the March-to-June holiday season — it seems easy enough to conclude that Guimaras remains well under the tourism radar. I get back on my motorbike and continue further south, towards the area that is said to host the island’s prettiest beaches.
The sea breeze keeps me company as I steer the scooter through quiet countryside roads lined with sprawling mango plantations. From Jordan it takes about 40 minutes to reach Guisi, a sleepy little village that boasts a picture-perfect stretch of shoreline. Some residents tell me this corner of the island is popular among day-trippers, but it isn’t the lovely beach that they come for — it’s the ruins of a Spanish lighthouse on a nearby cliff. Built in 1896, the Faro de Punta Luzaran used to watch over the southern entrance to the Iloilo Strait, before it was replaced by a more modern building in the 1920s. I climb the spiral staircase to the top of the rusting tower, and am greeted by a stunning view of the cove and the waters beyond it. I look around for any of the above-mentioned day-trippers, but find only a group of local kids playing amid the crumbling remains of the lighthouse compound.
There’s one final item on my must-see list, and this I hear is the favorite spot of tourists. I savor the moody charm of Guisi and then zip off to nearby Alubihod Beach. If the former is a quiet corner of Guimaras, the latter is its livelier, busier counterpart. Situated on an equally scenic shore, this area is home to a bustling little resort row. It is already late in the afternoon when I arrive here, so I get a room at what appears to be the favorite option around, a hotel called Raymen.
After getting acquainted with “tourist-class amenities” at the Iloilo wharf, I’m not expecting much at this establishment. Raymen Resort has basics covered, at least, with a clean air-conditioned room and a working TV. Outside, a row of nipa huts line the beachfront, giving it the rather nostalgic atmosphere of an old-school resort. At the main garden walkway, visitors make their way to and from the water. We are miles away from any seaside bar, but the in-house sari-sari store dispenses cheap, strong Red Horse Beer and Tanduay Rhum, along with garlic nuts, grilled “banana-cue” and other time-honored Pinoy munchies. A few steps away, a stall of fishermen-cum-tourist boat drivers advertise snorkeling excursions to the outlying islets. This feels like the kind of place we used to visit back when I was a kid, a time of simple joys, when all that was needed for a great holiday was the sea, a basket of food and good, wholesome company.
For a traveler used to funky restaurants and fancy resorts, this shoreline is a breath of fresh air with its come-as-you-are vibe. I get myself a Red Horse (“#1 Extra Strong Beer! Kick of the Horse Power!” says the poster in Filipino) and plant myself on the sand to watch the day end.
At sunset the resort guests are out, forming a local crowd of families and friends from across the strait. I see mothers playing on the water with children, while the fathers gather together leisurely downing libations. There are no chill-out lounge beats or reggae music wafting from funky-hip gastropubs (although a radio somewhere is playing Freddie Aguilar) — instead, a group of youths are enjoying their own makeshift party with a handphone speaker and a LED keychain. Under the fading sky, their multi-hued lights affirm that flashy holiday islands, with their pricey superficial trappings, are far, far away.
I look at the wholesome — and well, very provincial — scene before me, and realize why large-scale tourism hasn’t quite made a sizeable mark on this island. It’s simply that the locals like it the way it is. I came to Guimaras looking for the country’s next big attraction, but instead found an idyllic island of simple joys, from the space on the beach to the unplugged flavor of their evenings. Anyone who yearns for the same thing will feel right at home on its shores.
This story first appeared in the August 2017 issue of Smile magazine.