Before Boracay became home to beach party scenes, it offered pristine white sands, clear waters, island hopping, and snorkeling. Today, vacationers seeking sun and simple beach-bound pleasures have found a new destination: Islas de Gigantes, or the Gigantes Islands.
There are not many establishments, so one cannot expect party scenes. It is for those seeking to return to nature. There are caves to explore, virgin remote beaches on which to soak up some sun, karst rock formation hiding a saltwater lagoon, snorkeling and P1 scallops, fresh from the pristine, clear turquoise waters.
Dubbed “one of the hottest and best tropical tourist attractions in the Philippines today” by TripAdvisor, it is a cluster of 10 islands in the Visayas, and belongs to the municipality of Carles, on the northeastern tip of Iloilo in Panay Island.
Truly off the beaten track, it takes up to four hours by bus, or 2.5 hours on a commuter shuttle van, to Carles from Iloilo City. Alternatively, it takes one hour and 45 minutes from Roxas City. The islands are 19 kilometers off the coast from Carles.
The two largest islands are Gigantes Norte (North Gigantes) and Gigantes Sur (South Gigantes). Local legends speak of gigantic human bones found in coffins inside Bakwitan Cave. Hence, the islands’ name. Hence, the islanders’ belief that engkantos – spirits – live there.
There is also a white lighthouse, 12-meters tall, on Gigantes Norte, built before 1895. It has a keeper’s house and a focal point 23 meters high, which flashes once every 10 seconds.
Island-hopping is the main attraction. Booking a tour is the easiest way to explore the islands, though there will only be time to snap a few photos and take a quick dip if you want to fit all of the sites into one day.
The more adventurous visitors can rough it on the campsite on Antonia Beach. Others can opt for glamping – glamorous camping – in resorts like the recently-opened Solina Hotel and Resort in Carles, Iloilo.
The boat ride from Carles, where most of the hotels and resorts are located, takes a good hour or so, depending on the weather and currents.
Island-hopping will take you first to Cabugao Gamay Island, where a short walk up to the viewing deck atop the major rock formation on the island offers a 360-degree view surrounded by ocean. A perfect setting for a Gigantes Island selfie.
Tinagong Dagat is what locals tout as a mini-Boracay with its fine white sand, though part of the beach area is rocky.
Light slips in between the boulders of Tangke to illuminate a picturesque saltwater lagoon surrounded by karst cliffs, turning the water a gorgeous emerald green, giving the place an enchanted feel.
On Bantigue Island, one can walk along the sandbar that changes shape depending on the current, and take a dip in the cool waters surrounding it. Snorkeling is best at Bantigue Island and Antonia Beach. A small sari-sari store on Antonia Beach rents out snorkeling gear.
Seafood lovers will want to visit the private Antonia Beach. It belongs to the Antonia Resort on the southeastern tip of Gigantes Sur, known for its P1 scallops. Yes, at that price, wolf down all you can, all you want.
The sari-sari store offers soft drinks, chips and scallops. The minimum order is 100 pieces. Fresh from sea to table, the scallops are boiled and served with a simple vinegar and garlic dip.
Likewise, there are wasay-wasay oysters at P200 “per tray,” which really was a whole basket of oysters boiled in the shell.
The wasay-wasay – or hammer – shells are shaped by nature like axes with rectangular, sharp, blade-like edges. Mussels stuck to the wasay-wasay shells are cooked along with them and are a bonus – and definitely well worth the P200.
Meat is served as well for carnivores.
No gastronomic fine dine, the meal served on rickety wooden benches and tables – with diners dripping wet from swimming and bare toes digging into the sand – embodies the Gigantes Islands life.
It is unadulterated simplicity in a bucolic setting, fresh air and the gentle sea lapping lazily on a clean shore, a perfect escape from the urban jungle.
The Gigantes Islands, a simple place with big things to offer.