Big things come in small packages. I was thinking about this when I finally discovered the “smallest plaza in the world.” It was my fourth time on the island when I first saw this sign on a small piece of lot barely the size of a basketball court with a statue of Dr. Jose Rizal surrounded by a small garden.
It also has one of the smallest Spanish churches in the Philippine, the quaint Navalas church, built in 1880, and was made to look like the miniature of the church in Jaro.
And of course, there’s the Guimaras mango, small in size compared to other mangoes, but considered to be the world’s sweetest. They say that this is the only mango variety being served in Buckingham Palace and the White House.
The small island of Guimaras was also one of the first islands that attracted foreign settlers when the Spaniards arrived. In 1581, Spanish Governor Gonzalo Ronquillo de Penalosa established a settlement on the island for the purpose of Christianizing the natives.
For most part of the Spanish occupation, Guimaras was under the jurisdiction of the province of Iloilo, but under different religious orders, from the Augustinians to Jesuits to the Dominicans. In 1755, Guimaras was organized into a parish, and later, when the population increased considerably, it was given its municipal status, with Tilad (now Buenavista) as its seat of government.
When the population continued to grow during the American time, the island was split into three municipalities, namely, Buenavista, Jordan and Nueva Valencia. This led into the creation of the sub-province of Guimaras in 1966, giving the island more autonomy.
In May 11, 1992, after an overwhelming “Yes” vote, the residents of Guimaras chose under a plebiscite to convert the island a full province. In 1995, the municipalities of Sibunag and San Lorenzo were added to its list of municipalities.
Today, this tiny island is one of the tourism stars of Western Visayas. It has lovely beaches, hidden coves, heritage attractions, and, yes, the world’s sweetest mangoes.
How to get there
From Manila, the gateway to Guimaras is the airport in Cabatuan, which is about 24 kilometers from the Iloilo city proper. Travel time ranges from 45 minutes to one hour from the airport to Parola and Ortiz Wharf in downtown Iloilo, where the boats to Jordan leave regularly every 30 minutes.
Crossing from Iloilo to Jordan takes around 15 minutes. Boat fare is about P15 per person. In Jordan, most destinations can be reached via regular jeepneys and multicabs. However, for those who are travelling in a group and wish to see most attractions in one day, it is recommended to hire either a tricycle (P1,200) or a multicab (P2,000) with a driver-cum-guide.
Those with vehicles can drive to Guimaras from Iloilo using the regular Ro-Ro vessels to Buenavista Wharf. Navigating around the island is quite easy as the friendly people of Guimaras are always ready to give directions to visitors.
There are also regular boats connecting Pulupandan in Negros Occidental to San Lorenzo.
What to see, what to do
Visit some heritage attractions like the old San Isidro Labrador Church in Navalas, Buenavista. This was built in 1880. Its old tower was once used to ward off residents from the attacks of pirates. There’s another sentinel in Guisi Point in Nueva Valencia. This is the old Faro de Punta Luzaran, the lighthouse that the Spanish government built from 1894. A new lighthouse now stands on the ruins of the old Faro.
Another structure that many people see as they approach the island is the big cross of BalaanBukid (Holy Mountain). This is where the annual Pagtaltal Festival during lent is held. A new addition to the Guimaras landscape are the 27 windmills in San Lorenzo, all in white and all 80 meters in height, producing 54 megawatts of electricity.
Check out the Trappist Monk Monastery. It offers a quiet retreat from the noisy city life. While at there, bring home some of the products made by the monks themselves, like mango and guava jams, coffee and turmeric powder, and other souvenir items. Outside the souvenir shop, there’s an old lady selling woodcuts with a crucifix at the middle.
There are also many ways to explore the natural attractions of the island. There’s the Guisi beach near the lighthouse, with its often-deserted white-sand beach. There’s also the popular Alubihod beach, where most of the resorts are located. It is perfect for chilling around for a weekend. Or one can charter a boat in Alubijod and visit many the islands and hidden coves of Guimaras.
No visit to Guimaras is complete without visiting a mango plantation, so why not visit the Mango Research Center in San Miguel, Jordan, to find out what it takes to produce the sweetest mango in the world.
Where to stay, what to eat
Most of the accommodations in Guimaras are located near the coastal areas, and their prices ranges from backpacker-friendly to high-end. In Nueva Valencia, stay at Alobijod Cove, Guisi Clerwater, Kenyama, Raymen, Rumagangrang and Villa Igang. Those looking for adventures can stay at Camp Afredo Adventure Resort, while those looking for serenity and exclusivity can stay at Isla Naburot.
For dining, the selections around the island are very limited to Ilonggo favorites like kansi and batchoy, so it is best to try what the island is best known for – that’s the mangoes. Aside from trying ripe mangoes, why not head to Pitstop Restaurant in Jordan and try Mango Pizza, Mango Pasta, BangusSisig with Mango or even Bulalo with Mango and wash them down with Mango Shake. If you are still “bitin” [wanting more]with your mango fills, why not bring home mango ketchup? It’s one of the many things that you can bring home from this big little island full of surprises.