DURING the 1970s, the town of Carles in Northern Iloilo was famous for one of its islands: the 1,160-hectare Sicogon. It has crystal clear waters and a long stretch of white sand beach lined with coconut trees. It was declared a tourist destination zone by then President Ferdinand Marcos in 1976. Being considered a “Marcos” island, its development stalled during the mid-1980s when a new administration took over and its popularity faded in favor of Boracay, Aklan.
Boracay became the most popular destination in Panay group of islands. From being an island where backpackers can hang out during the 1980s, it has now evolved into a world-class island destination with world-class resort facilities.
Carles may have lost Sicogon, but it still has another island destination: the Islas de Gigantes. It has become an alternative to Boracay, particularly for those who are not pleased with what Boracay has become. This is the “secret” destination for backpackers, where one can enjoy completely deserted white sand beaches, hidden lagoons and secret caves. This off-the-beaten destination in Carles that was once “whispered” and shared only within the backpacking community is for those who wish to experience what Boracay and Sicogon were before mass tourism exploded in those two destinations.
The town of Carles is blessed with many islands: fourteen of them on the north-eastern side of Panay. Its rich waters blessed with rich marine life have earned the town the title “True Alaska of the Philippines.” Carles is the unofficial scallop capital of the Philippines.
The town originated as Punta Bulakawe in 1846, with mostly settlers from Jolo. It started as an original settlement in Pueblo del Pilar in Capiz. In 1860, the local residents petitioned to the provincial government of Capiz to make it into a pueblo but were denied. Not discouraged by their failure, they travelled to Iloilo and made the same petition. The Spanish Governor, after studying the case, approved their petition. In gratitude to the Spanish Governor, whose name was Jose Maria Carles, they named the new pueblo of Iloilo after him.
How to get there
The town of Carles is closer to Capiz than from Iloilo. It is only 70 kilometers from Roxas City as compared to 120 kilometers from Ioilo City.
Going to Islas de Gigantes, there are two gateways: the ports of Estancia and Carles. The busier port of Estancia is the preferred jump-off because there is a daily big outrigger boat that goes to Gigantes Norte and Sur. Estancia port also has ample parking for those with private vehicles.
From Iloilo Airport, take a taxi to the northern bus terminal. Take the bus going to Estancia. Alternately, there are UV Express vans that go non-stop to Estancia. Travel time is between 2.5 to 3 hours. Once you arrive at Estancia bus terminal, take a tricycle to the port. From Roxas Airport, take a tricycle to the bus terminal. From there, take a bus going to Estancia. Travel time is about 2 hours.
It is also possible to come from Kalibo (4 hours) and Caticlan (5 hours). But for those who would like to do the ultimate land trip via the Ro-Ro (roll-on, roll-off vessel) can take the Ceres Bus from Cubao that go straight to Estancia. Travel time is around 18 hours.
The boat from Estancia port to Gigantes Norte leaves at 2 pm. Fare is P80 per person. Travel time is 2 hours. It is also possible to rent a boat in Estancia to take you to Gigantes and do the island hopping tour. Rate is P5,000 per day.
What to see, what to do
There are plenty of things to do in Islas de Gigantes. As most of the attractions are quite remote, it is advisable to hire a boat (P2,000-2,500 per day) and a local guide (P500 per day) to do island-hopping.
Bantingue Island is a small island that has a long and wide sandbar that emerges during low tide. It has one of the clearest waters perfect for swimming.
Cabugao Gamay or “selfie” island is the most photographed area in Gigantes. Climb the rock at the north end to get a good view of the whole island.
The enchanting Tangke is a salt-water lagoon in Gigantes shaped like a “tank.” To get inside, one has to climb the rock cliffs to enjoy its emerald waters.
Antonia Island, with its long stretch of white sand, is a perfect place to enjoy the sun. Entrance is P50 per person. The place also has several tables for picnickers. It is also possible to camp overnight on the island.
Those staying in Gigantes Norte can explore the island on a motorcycle taxi. Rate is P200 for a half-day tour. Go north of the island to visit the ruins of the old Faro de Gigantes. This lighthouse was built in 1893, but the original lighthouse tower was already replaced with a new one in the 1990s. Visit the Bakwitan Cave where the locals found gigantic set of human bones, prompting them to call the “Gigantes.” Then there’s Pawikan Cave with its spacious caverns that can easily be explored.
Also worth visiting is the village on the eastern side of Gigantes Norte, where they open thousands and thousands of scallops everyday to get the meat. Check out the so-called “scallop” mountain, where a pile of scallop shells has grown to as tall as a 3-storey building.
Where to stay, what to eat
There are several resorts in Gigantes Norte offering budget-friendly accomodations. Rosewood Place Resort (mobile numbers 0907-955-1099 and 0910-710-1595) has a nipa hut that can accommodate two for P500, a huge dormitory type cottage that rents out at P200 per person, and an airconditioned cottage for four for P1,500. Arjan Beach Resort (0999-991-8643) offers tent accommodation for P150 per person and a fan room for four for P800. Gigantes Hideaway Tourist Inn (0918-468-5006) charges P200 per night. If you’re lucky, you may get their famous tree house all for yourself during lean months.
But the islands’ “other” attraction is its seafood that are fresh and inexpensive! Get a scallop overload for less than P300 per kilo. Have it your way: adobo, steamed, barbecued or cooked in garlic-butter. Try the blue crabs, either steamed or in chili-butter. There’s also those fresh fish like lapu-lapu, cooked sinigang style or inihaw (grilled). Taste the tastiest squid cooked adobo style in ink. The choices are endless.
Be warned though the modern conveniences are not available on the islands. Electricity is available only from 3 pm to 11 pm while mobile phone signals are quite weak. If you wish to go to the next village, you have to get a motorcycle or just walk. But it’s a small price to pay to enjoy paradise that has remained unaffected by mass tourism.