03 Apr Discover: Gigantes
No data reception, no ~fancy resort facilities; just you, the sun, and the beach(es)!
The trip started out with the flights to Boracay being all too expensive for that annual “Laboracay” madness the island is *quite* known for. There were two options: fly to Roxas and drive to Caticlan, or fly to Iloilo, go on a side trip to Gigantes Islands, and then drive to Caticlan. How do you say no to extra adventure?
Forget about Boracay, Bohol, Palawan, and whatever island is popular amongst Filipino and foreign tourists (for now). It’s time to get to know a group of islands that offers a different kind of traveller experience – Islas de Gigantes.
About Gigantes Islands
The area was believed to have been home to giants as coffins inside the Bakwitan Cave were found to contain gigantic sets of human bones; hence the name. It is composed of more or less 10 islands, spread around the Visayan Sea with main islands groups being Gigantes Norte and Gigantes Sur. North of Iloilo City, off the coast of Carles and Estancia, the group of islands is about a five-hour trip from Iloilo city proper. Sounds *really* far, but the islands were worth the sweaty bums and sore backs we had to endure just to get there. Trust me on this one.
Iloilo International Airport (ILO) is one of the two major airports serving the area, with the other being Roxas Airport (RXS), which serves only domestic flights (as of writing). Although RXS meant a shorter trip to Gigantes, Iloilo was my point of entry cos it had more flights from Manila (which basically meant cheaper airfare), plus a friend (Hi, Dot!) was willing to show us around town before we headed out to the islands. For the benefit of those who are coming from the other side of the world, there are direct flights to Iloilo from Hong Kong and Singapore, in case you want to skip a layover in Manila.
The main jumping points to Gigantes are Bancal Port (said to be faster and more convenient) and Estancia Port (the more popular option; our port of choice). The drive from Iloilo City to Estancia Port takes about 3 hours, while the boat ride from Estancia Port to Gigantes takes 2 hours.
Although public commuter buses also ply this route, my friends and I left Iloilo City early in the morning (before sunrise!) on a chartered trip to Estancia Port. We also hired (pre-arranged in the city) our own outrigger to Gigantes, so we left as soon as we arrived the port in Estancia. Research told me that there are public boats that cross to the islands, but do leave on schedule – it’s best to get to the ports early so you don’t miss the boat.
Where to Stay
Along with the pre-arranged boat transfers was a 2D1N package we booked which included everything – meals (fresh seafood!), lodging (fan rooms), and motorbike and boat transfers. There are not a lot of housing options in the island, but all of them (not too sure how many there are, though) provide the basics to survive – a roof, some beds, running water, and fans to keep you cool. Gigantes Hideaway was where we sought home (actual photo above, with our wet swimsuits and towels lol). Keep in mind that the island (at least at the time of visit) is on rotating electricity; meaning, there will only be electricity from 3pm to 11pm. This didn’t really bother me though, cos we were out the whole day and were knackered after a day’s activities.
Something to consider when booking your place – I believe there are air-conditioned rooms available in the island, but I personally think it’s almost useless as the island has rotating electricity. It’s best to go for the cheaper option – it adds to the experience. Bring insect repellant, though, to survive the night.
People traveling in big groups may be able to rent out an entire house somewhere around Gigantes North – check with the locals.
There are no cars in the main island (or at least I did not see any); motorbikes take you around – a maximum of three on each bike, including the driver. The outrigger we hired had to dock further away from where we were staying cos the tide was too low, so the bike ride to and from took a couple minutes. It was fun, tho, cos we had to bring our bags with us on the bike! I never got to ask if there are any motorbikes for rent, but I suppose the locals would be more than willing to lend their bikes (for a fee).
The outrigger we hired to cross to Gigantes was the same outrigger we used to go from island to island. Our itinerary did not include a lot of point-to-point travel via motorbike, except when we had to go to the “call centre” and the lighthouse.
We had two whole days of traveling around, which were enough to see the main island attractions (did not really include lazing around and getting a tan, though, but enjoyed the waters nonetheless!). Some remarkable islands – Cabugao Gamay, Bantigue Island, Antonia Island, and Tangke Saltwater Lagoon. And of coure, there’s the North Gigantes Lighthouse and Bakwitan Cave (which we skipped cos we had to be back in Iloilo City before sundown for some batchoy).
My personal picks are Cabugao Gamay (see: my photo with a horrible tan) and Tangke Saltwater Lagoon. When we visited, tide was low and the saltwater lagoon did not look like Google Images (lol) as it was empty. Going inside, however, was an experience – we had to climb through the rock formation. On days with higher tide, the lagoon is accessible by boat (think how low the tide was lol).
The North Gigantes Lighthouse is a sight to see. It was a long ride via motorbike, but was well worth it – think 1895 in the 21st century. Although the original lighthouse has been replaced due to its failure to survive Typhoon Frank in 2008, the keeper’s house stands still (as ruins) albeit being exposed to all the typhoons through the years. We were not able to climb up the new lighthouse cos there were repairs that have not been attended to, but the ruins of the keeper’s house proved picturesque.
Food in the island is something to look forward to – think barbecued scallops, steamed crabs, fresh oysters, and many other fresh seafood EVERY MEAL. Pork and beef dishes were not served in our package – I suppose they’re more expensive – but I’m not complaining. It was in the island where I learned how to get the most out of one fat crab (without a cracker!), how to eat fresh oysters (the kind that you open yourself), and to make do with having to wash your hands in the sea. Great food experience!
Make sure you visit the “Call Centre.” The islands – in any of them – do not have signal. I left my mobile on Airplane Mode as it was pointless to attempt getting even a single bar. Locals and travellers do not get cut from the rest of the world though – they have a “call centre.” It isn’t a building of sort where you can call using a phone they provide, though; it’s basically one of the highest points of the island that can be conveniently gone to (via motorbike) and the only place where you can get cellular service. Depending on your network provider, mobile internet reception was attainable (maximum 3G, but you have to look for the perfect spot!) – so your travels around can still be shared with the rest of the world (you know it!). What was interesting is that there is nothing at the “call centre,” but it was the biggest crowd I have seen in the entire trip; everyone was sitting by the road, all for cell service.
Multiple airlines fly to the two main gateways to Panay – Iloilo and Roxas. I’d be lying if I say I was able to score roundtrip air tickets for Php980, but I’m not going to say it’s impossible. I paid a bit more cos I booked just two weeks before the trip (still wasn’t that expensive, though; around Php3,000 with a return flight via Kalibo). Keep an eye out for seat sales to get the best possible deal there is.
Traveling around Gigantes cost me more or less Php2,500. Keep in mind that we booked a 2D1N package with meals, boat rental, and entrances and fees. The trip may cost you more if in a smaller group, or much less if in a bigger group. Gigantes has been getting more and more attention tourism-wise, so surely there are newer (and maybe cheaper) options to get there. Let me know if you find any!
My Two Cents
I’ll be frank – housing options in the island lack amenities, if any at all. They provide nothing but the basic things you need to survive. Electricity was intermittent, even at night, and there was no reception. At all. But to be honest, the absence of these conveniences in life was what I enjoyed the most. It felt refreshing to not check your phone for SMS, work emails, and social media notifications. Real and actual conversations were happening – with friends, with locals, with fellow travellers.
I was taken to a simple, carefree island life of no television, no internet, no anything, and I’m not complaining at all. It’s the kind of trip that makes you realise and appreciate the things that really matter. For the picky traveller, you might want to choose a different island destination, but I’m afraid you’ll rob yourself of an incredible experience that only Gigantes can offer. Would I go back? Yes. A million times yes.
Visited April 2015 with friends.
Find the good in getting lost,
P.S. I lost track of who took which photo, but some photos were taken on a GoPro and an iPhone; my travel buddies have contributed. Thanks, guys! x
P.P.S. My tan line was caused by forgetting to wear sunscreen on golf day. Haha, don’t make the same mistake!