Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sun-kissed skin in Guimaras

One of the best discoveries I uncovered in visiting Western Visayas is discovering Guimaras as a perfect summer destination. Dotted with coves, beaches, nature beauty and pockets of coastal sceneries, no wonder it is a perfect place to worship the sun and enjoy pristine seascapes. Though, almost hidden and underrated, Guimaras is suitably dubbed as “an island that fits your taste” for it doesn’t just fit for a summer destination.   It fits to any season to be visited because of the best kept secret it offers to its visitors. From various beaches, islands to explore, unique local cuisines up to the selection of its prided mangoes, it has everything to fit your taste.

The highly prided mangoes of Guimaras - in a form of 
keychains at Trappist Monastery!
Guimaras is the youngest and the smallest of the six provinces of Western Visayas. It used to be a sub-province of Iloilo until 1992 when it became a full-fledged independent province. Local folklore tells that the island exists after an ill-fated lovers Princess Guima and slave Aras lost from their escape because of unapproved love for each other. The island is formerly known as Himal-us before it gained its present name after the folklore story.

Guimaras can be reached from Iloilo via a 15 minute boat ferry from Iloilo’s Ortiz Wharf that goes straight to the capital of the province – Jordan. After a day long trip in Iloilo City, we arrived six in the evening in Jordan Wharf. Though, we arrived in the province’s capitol of Jordan, our destination is to the municipality of Nueva Valencia where we will stay for a night. In Jordan Wharf, we have an option to either take a jeepney, multicab or tricycle to Nueva Valencia. We took a tricycle after bargaining for a standard rate since it was getting dark already and it is the fastest way to Nueva Valencia.

First glimpse of Guimaras island.
Arriving at Jordan Wharf.
As the tricycle goes through Jordan then passes through Sibunag, I noticed the province’ status as a progressing and developing province. Some of the roads were not yet paved in concrete cements as some of the roads we have run through were still in flattened soil. And at times we have to endure a rough ride on the road because of unpaved roads. Streets and roads far from capitols and establishment areas have no street lights to guide the way so imagine our dark road ride to Nueva Valencia which is 1 hour away via a tricycle ride. Public transportation is also scarce at night time. But dispelling all this, I know a trip to this province is worthy because it offers beautiful islands, pristine beaches and exciting adventures to explore.     

Nueva Valencia is a 4th class municipality of Guimaras province.  It was the site of Guimaras oil spill in August 2006 when a boat named MT Solar 1 sank a few kilometers from Nueva Valencia. But today, the municipality has been recovered to the ecological disaster after years of clean-up. Sitio Alibuhod is part of Baranggay Poblacion, where Alubihod cove and beach are found. Travel time to reach these places is 45 minutes but it ranges to 1 hour trip from Jordan Wharf during our tricycle ride.

Accomodation at Raymen Beach Resort.
Good morning, Guimaras! Its sunrise!
 One of the fame resorts in Alubihod is Raymen Beach Resort, where I and my travel mates stayed for overnight. The resort sits at the center of Alubihod cove and beach making it accessible for beach bumming and island hopping. It’s night already and we are tired from a whole day activity in Iloilo, so I decided to reserve our energy for tomorrow’s activities in the island by resting and sleeping early but before that we indulge in Pancit Molo for dinner. It is a soup dish rather than a noodle (pancit) dish with spiced pork and chicken meatballs daintily wrapped in thin dough, boiled in chicken–pork broth. It is must-try cuisine when in Iloilo or Guimaras.

The following day, I woke up at 6 in the morning to witness sunrise in Guimaras. So I quickly went to the beach side of the resort. The sunrise did not fail to marvel me! It was enough a beautiful sight to make my morning in Guimaras. But along with this sight is also the wide and gorgeous Alubihod Beach which the Raymen Beach Resort shares with the other two resorts. It is one of the most scenic beach in the country that I have been. On the right side of the beach is a lush vegetation of trees jutting with sea rock karst to the sea. On the center, is the wide calm and cerulean water of Guimaras. While on the left side of the beach is a scenic nipa huts sprouting over the rock formations owned by the other resort in Alubihod beach. This is also where one will see a group of islands on the sea that are just near the beach and made the left view of Alubihod beach uniquely beautiful.   
A panorama shot of Alubihod Beach.
Alubihod Beach has an ivory white sand beach. While not very fine sand beach, it is one of the cleanest beaches I have seen. You’ll notice only few litters along the shores of the beach. And if there is a litter, it is mostly natural litters of dried leaves that fall from trees and old trunks of trees. This is where I commend the Guimaraňons. They maintain the cleanliness of their natural sights and pro-ecotourism.     

Left side view of Alubihod Beach.
 Central view of Alubihod Beach.
Right side view of Alubihod Beach.
A closer look to the white sands of Alubihod...
 The sunny morning signifies a good weather for island hopping. So after exploring the beauty of Alubihod Beach, we proceeded in exploring the islands of Guimaras arranged by the resort via a banca ride.  Our first stop is Fairy Castle Island. The island is actually a tall rock formation shape like a fantasy castle that we see various medias thus it was given that name. Since it is a rock formation island, it is impossible for a banca to dock there so we just pass by around it.
Another island that has gorgeous meters high rock formation was Ave Maria Island. But this island has a beautiful and wide beach to dock with. So we spend sometime in the island for souvenir shots and explore some of its rocky sides. It also has a scenic beach side where I saw the islands near it that adds a scenic sight around the island. When I asked our guide why the island was named after Ave Maria, he informs me that it is because there is a rock formation in the island that resembles the grotto of Virgin Mary.

Spot the Virgin Mary grotto shape at the rock 
formations of Ave Maria Island?
Ave Maria Island's pristine beach...
The lone sea turtle in Turtle Island.
 Just across Ave Maria Island is Turtle Island where a lone sea turtle is under the care of the island’s caretaker. The turtle was showed to us for us to have a closer look at it. I never had a close-encounter with a sea turtle until this one. It was a learning experience about the importance of this sea creature in our ocean’s ecosystem. The island is a sea turtle sanctuary as according to other travel blogs, once the captive turtles being taken care of are old enough, they released it to the open sea. Turtle Island also has a wide and clean white sand beach.

Baras Cave was our next stop where our banca was able to dock inside its cave. It was an amazing experience because it was my first time to be inside a sea cave that is huge enough for a banca to dock inside. Though it was dark inside Baras Cave, light still passes through its openings that let’s you see numerous stalactite and stalagmite formations in its walls. Actually visitors can step out of the banca and explore the rock formations inside the cave like what I did. I only stayed in the cave for a minute since the waves are getting strong inside Baras Cave. After exiting the cave, we just pass by Baras Beach. Although it was tempting to swim in the beach’s shores we did not dock in Baras Beach because it was privately owned.

Entering Baras Cave.
A stunning view inside Baras Cave.
Baras Beach and its resort.
SEAFDEC Igang Marine Station - a government run aquatic fishery center.
Be careful with this giant Lapu-lapu... they're big enough 
to be carnivorous!
The last stop of our island hopping is a visit to SEAFDEC or Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center- Igang Marine Station. What visitors will see in SEAFDEC are big fish pens of breeded fishes like giant grouper, milk fish, sea bass and red snapper. A fun activity to do here is fish feeding which the kids will surely enjoy. I also enjoy viewing the different fishes in the big pens since its my first time to see giant lapu-lapu (grouper) and “mutant” 3 feet length bangus (milkfish). A visit to SEAFDEC let us have an education and awareness about the importance of fish breeding in our community. It was a satisfying way to end our exploration of the islands of Guimaras.

Spot the mango trees in the verdant plantation along Sibunag roadside.
Fine pine trees makes a nice view in Trappist Monastery.
Visiting Trappist Monastery for souvenirs!
On the road in Sibunag municipality going to Jordan.
Upon arrival in Alubihod Beach, we swam to its tempting waters and enjoy it for the last time. By noon, we were fetch by the same tricycle driver we had yesterday we off the road again for a hour trip to Jordan Wharf. I asked the driver to let us have a side trip to Mango Plantation and Trappist Monastery since both Guimaras sights are just on the way to Jordan. Mango Plantation is more than 8,000 hectares of mango trees throughout the island which creates verdant landscapes around Guimaras province. The province is very much associated with its mangoes produce from this plantation as this is the islands’ prided and most important product for it best exports quality and sweetness, of course! The mangoes of Guimaras have a reputation of being one of the sweetest in the world which is reportedly served in White House and Buckingham Palace. While Trappist Monastery is the only trappist monastery in the Philippines run by the order of Cistersians of the Strict Observance. The place is famous for being a stopover for Guimaras souvenirs and local products like mango jams and organic soaps. I recommend buying a mango-carved keychains as a souvenir.

My sweet Guimaras mango souvenir!
Leaving Guimaras, enroute to Ortiz Wharf, Iloilo City.
Guimaras is not just all about resorts, beaches and island hopping. Guimaras is also ideal for outdoor and adventure activities which one will find in Camp Alfredo and Guimaras Adventure Park. If you’re not contented with Alibuhod Beach, you can further explore Guisi Beach and had a side trip to another Guimaras landmark, the 18th century Guisi Lighthouse. If you prefer festivals, be sure to visit the island during Manggahan Festival which is celebrated along its anniversary as an independent province every summer of April or May.

Truly Guimaras is a perfect destination for summer. But it is not just finding a perfect summer destination when I was in Guimaras but finding it as an “island that fits your taste.” I discovered exciting island adventures, pockets of gorgeous seascapes, unspoiled beaches, rich marine life and beautiful mornings – all perfect for anyone that is looking for an island that suits any taste. And not just sun worshipping! I had great island adventures despite of worry of getting a rainy weather since I spend this trip during the wet season. But, whether it is summer or rainy season of July, whenever a great sunrise greets your mornings, the sun will always kiss your skin in Guimaras.

*How to reach Guimaras
In Iloilo's Ortiz Wharf, ride a 15 minute ferry boat to Jordan Wharf. Jordan is the capital of the island province of Guimaras. 

*How to reach Nueva Valencia, Guimaras
You have the option to take a jeepney or tricycle. Jeepney flies on certain times only. Since we arrive in Jordan at 6pm so we took a private transportation via tricycle. Travel time is 1 hour from Jordan to Sitio Alubihod of Nueva Valencia. 

*Accomodation, island hopping and tour in Guimaras
Raymen's Beach Resort
Alubihod, Nueva Valencia, Guimaras
They also provide island hopping tour of Guimaras islands at PHP500 per hour with their private boat. SEAFDEC is the only stopover with an entrance fee.
Contact no: Not available.
Website: Raymen Beach Resort

Sun-kissed skin in Guimaras is a part of my Guimaras blog series of the same title where I share my travel experiences in exploring the province of Guimaras last July 9-10, 2012. Some information are credited to Exlopre Iloilo - one of my guide and information source for this Guimaras trip.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Experience Western Visayas first in Iloilo

I have been to Iloilo several times which I consider it as my second home province since my father is a pure bred Ilonggo but I never had a chance to fully explore this underrated province when it comes to tourism purposes. Most people would think that Iloilo is a province for commerce, business, agricultural and industrial development. Only a few people would think that it is a province for tourist to explore. Often, people that would do their vacation there because it is either that is their home province or they have relatives living there just like what we normally do in my several trips to Iloilo.

One of the fame landmarks of Iloilo - Molo Church
Four years ago, my family visited Iloilo but we only made it as our jump point to visit our main trip destination which is Boracay. But four years after, I realized that it is time to return to Iloilo as it is emerging as home of exciting places, cuisines and adventures that can be ideal for travel vacation. Iloilo is just waiting for my feet to discover it.

It was a moment of excitement for my return to Iloilo after four years! I’m returning to the province to explore its wonderful sights, places and cuisines which I did not enjoyed in my previous trips there. My family usually stays at my grandmother’s house in Pototan whenever we visit them. So my latest visit to Iloilo is really something memorable.

First glance of Iloilo province in the air...
I also decided to explore Iloilo because it is often out of tourist radar when it comes to visiting Western Visayas region in the country as most are bound to the popular Boracay of Aklan province which is also in the region. Like I said, many visitors would think that it a province of commerce, businesses or agriculture and would just make it as an alternative gateway to the popular tourist island of Boracay. Its underrated status attracted me to prove that there’s more in Iloilo aside from that. And that is to prove that it is also an ideal place for travel trips and adventure!

Iloilo City is the jump point to explore Iloilo province. The city is a historical city rich in culture and heritages. I think this is the core of the province’s history and economic progress where most of the financial centers, businesses and establishments are located. In Iloilo City alone, I get to experience the rich heritage of Western Visayas when it comes to history, sights and culture of Ilonggo people. The city has wide choices of mass transportation to explore it. From buses, jeepneys, taxis, tricycles up to pedicabs, I tried it all just to discover Iloilo City’s sights and cuisines.

Welcome back to Iloilo after 4 years!
An grand ad welcome at Iloilo Airport.
And though, it is a city, it’s still has a relaxing pace without the rush hour mode of a usual city. It may not have rising tower buildings of a standard city, mushroom blocks of buildings or financial centres yet Iloilo City has an idyllic atmosphere that is simply enjoyable and charming. Actually, the Ilonggo’s are part of that idyllic atmosphere of the city. They are generally helpful, cheerful and friendly. People in the city are not always in rush or in a hurry but not very slow as well. They just take their time in doing things. And if visitors ask for a help, Ilonggo’s don’t hesitate to lend a help especially when I inquire about directions and correct public vehicles to ride in the city and going to a sight I want to visit. My good experiences with them made my stay in the province more enjoyable.  

It was 11 in the morning when we reached SM City Iloilo in Mandurriao district from the airport in Santa Barbara. It was a good thing that prior to my arrival I pre-arranges to meet my Iloilo resident aunt who will accompany us for this trip with my sister and cousin. When we met at SM City Iloilo we engaged into an almost never-ending conversation since I haven’t seen my aunt for a long time. While we continue our conversation and stories, I and my travel companions decided to take a lunch first to have energy before exploring the city.  

The facade of Jaro Church.
Jaro Belfry just across the church.
Even though it was one hot afternoon, I proceeded with the exploration of Iloilo City. We started off with one of the famous religious landmark that is near in Mandurriao – Jaro Church, also known as Jaro Cathedral or Church of St. Elizabeth of Hungary.  It was built in 1864, the year the Jaro district was named a diocese by Pope Pius the IX, by order of His Grace Mariano Cuartero, first bishop of Jaro. The cathedral’s style is basically Baroque, with the addition of Gothic elements over many renovations.

As I approach Jaro Cathedral, I can’t help but noticed the church’s belfry located on the plaza park on the opposite street across the church. I can clearly observe how old the ruins were dating back through the Spanish colonization period. I learned that Jaro Belfry is one of the few belfries in the country that stands apart from the church. It was ruined by 1948 earthquake and restored by the Iloilo City Government during the last decade of the 1900s. Though, it’s built is already old, the ruin still looks sturdy and hard. Its location makes a unique landmark within the Jaro plaza park with its towering height that attracts any Jaro district visitor.

The interior of "masculine church" - Jaro Cathdral.
Mother and child: Jaro Church entrance door with the opposite view of Jaro Belfry across the street.
Inside Jaro Catherdral, I quickly noticed the grand designed of the altar line up with male saints which dubbed the cathedral as a “masculine church.” The main altar is hanged with an elaborately designed chandelier. And at the centrepiece of the altar is an image of Nuestra Senore de la Candelaria (Our Lady of the Candles) with the painting of Jesus and Mary’s sacred immaculate heart hanged on the walls of both sides. The narrow ceiling painted in light blue jives with the dominant light yellow paint of the columns and walls with accents of green and white color as well. I looked back at the main entrance area where I noticed the colourful prayer candles on the stands that have caught my attention. And I think each color of these prayer candles is of different prayer purposes. All I know pink is for love life and blue is for career.  

Colorful prayer candles for Our Lady of the Candles.
Jaro Cathedral is grand as it is but it serves its purpose – a solemn place to pray and communicate with the divine creator. The church is one of the great landmarks of the city and much more of the district of Jaro. Don’t forget to leave Jaro without dropping by at a branch of Bischocho’s Haus. The food shop and “pasalubong” store are a great way to sample unique Ilonggo delicacies like barquillos (local wafer), pinasugbo (banana brittle), piyaya  (flat unleavened bread filled with mozcovado (raw) sugar) and biscocho (buttered toasted bread and some with dry sweet condensed milk filled topping), of course!  

Museo Iloilo - a great place to start your Iloilo exploration trip.
 We took a jeepney to Bonifacio Drive to the province’s repository of cultural heritage - Museo Iloilo. A visit to this prime museum of the city leads us to experiencing being bought back century years ago. Inside were exhibits of scientifically-dated fossils, shells, rocks, native potteries and tools that indicate the arrival of civilization and age of Panay Island. Also inside the museum were local artifacts, religious images and antique relics and jewelries preserved from the Spanish period of colonization. One of the delightful sections of Museo Iloilo is the art gallery section where contemporary art paintings by Ilonggo artists are on display. The painting viewing was a great addition to the museum but I wished the curator or the city government would expand the museum to give more room for more historical artifacts and include a cover of the whole heritage of Western Visayas inside the museum.

I’ve learned that Museo Iloilo is the first gov’t sponsored museum outside Metro Manila and was designed by Ilongo architect Sergio Penasales. Museo Iloilo’s permanent exhibit covers the cultural history of Western Visayas from prehistory to contemporary history. Museo Iloilo is found in Bonifacio Drive, just beside the Iloilo Provincial Capitol and the Department of Tourism Regional Office.

Inside the repository of Iloilo's rich history, culture and heritage - Museo Iloilo.
Art gallery section of Museo Iloilo.
One of the untitled art inside Museo Iloilo.
The sun is scorching hot so we decided to take a taxi to Molo district to visit another Iloilo’s religious landmark, Molo Church.  The church is one of the most familiar landmarks of Iloilo and Molo district. Built in 1831, the church exudes a blatant expression of Gothic-Renaissance architecture while interior is a fusion of Gothic and Romanesque architectures. The Spires of Molo are yet the most interesting colonial “skyscrapers” in Iloilo City aside from the neoclassic Belfry of Jaro.

The church is distinctly characterized with gray-black covering walled bricks with imposing two bell towers with pointed roofs. Inside the church were predominantly white painted walls, columns and ceilings with grey color accents. I also noticed the 16 women saint images adorned the lining hall of the church towards the altar. This has made the church dubbed as a “feminine chruch” opposite of Jaro Church as a masculine church.  The altar of Molo Church is grandly lit with gold ornaments and designs with various images where the centerpiece in the retablo is the image of Sta. Ana, the patron saint of Molo.. After only a few minutes of stay in the church, me and my travel companions decided to leave the church as there is a mass is on-going inside.

The beholding facade of Molo Church.
Molo Chruch's elegant interiors.
From Molo, I don’t have a clue on how to easily reach Miag-ao, our next destination. So we decided to take a jeepney bound to “Super” where there is a San Joaquin bound jeepneys to take that will pass through the municipality of Miag-ao. Our goal in visiting that municipality is to visit the fame Miag-ao Church because of its UNESCO World Heritage Site status and being probably the most famous church in the whole province of Iloilo. The municipality of Miag-ao and its church is 45 minutes away from the city so be ready to endure a long jeepney ride going here and make sure to visit it first in your Iloilo itinerary trip.   

Miag-ao Church is the most beautiful church I have been in Iloilo. This is probably its unique architectural character and exquisite bas-relief that depicts images of ordinary life of Filipinos during the country’s Spanish colonization period. Constructed more than two hundred years ago in the year 1797, the Miag-ao Church stands as a living legacy of the culture and way of life of the people of Miag-ao centuries ago. The artistic facade of the church is decorated with a relief sculpture of St. Christopher carrying the Christ child amidst coconut, papaya and guava shrubs. A large stone image of St. Thomas of Villanueva, parish patron saint, dominates the center. Carved life-size statues of the Pope and St. Henry with their coat-of-arms above them flank the main entrance. Supporting the facade are the twin belfries, one towering two-storeys and the other three-storeys high.
Miag-ao Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The side area of Miag-ao Church.
Unfortunately during our visit, Miag-ao Church is closed. So I haven’t fully appreciated its inside façade. But I learned that the interior of the church is highlighted by a striking gold-plated retablo. We just explore the outside grounds and façade of the famed church and left right away as we have a boat ride to catch.

Souvenir photo with the famous church of Iloilo province.
When in Iloilo, don’t miss to try Iloilo’s culinary pride and must-try cuisine, the La Paz Batchoy. A local noodle dish made of scissored noodles and pork innards simmered in both is perfect either for afternoon merienda or breakfast treat. I was able to try a bowl of La Paz Batchoy at Ted’s La Paz Batchoy branch in Robinson’s Place Iloilo mall before we enroute to Concepcion. Eating a bowl of La Paz Batchoy is like eating a whole bowl of Iloilo cuisine! It was heavenly delicious with all the spices, broth and meat flavour! Just take cautioned and moderately in eating La Paz Batchoy because of it has high cholesterol content.

While I was in Guimaras, I got a sample of Pancit Molo, a soup with spiced pork and chicken meatballs daintily wrapped in thin dough, boiled in chicken–pork broth. It is also another must-try cuisine when in Iloilo which I surprisingly like it on my first taste! You’ll appreciate the deliciousness of the soup when served warm. Both Ilonggo dishes are also served in other specialty restaurants around Iloilo City.

La Paz Batchoy: Namit gid!
Puto: perfect partner for La Paz Batchoy!
Around Iloilo City.
If you still have time, you can insert in your “Explore Iloilo” itinerary trip, other must-do and must visit in the province. A side trip to Igabaras to explore Nadsadjan Falls via two hour trip and trek is a good sidetrip when in Iloilo or exploring other landmark churches of the city like San Joaquin Church and Guimbal Church. Located in Arevalo district, Villa Beach is a good option for seafood dining with its row of retaurants offering affordable and fresh seafoods. A fun night out in the city can be found in Smallville. It is a popular dining and nightlife complex located in Mandurriao district where visitors can go to eat, drink, and bar hop in Iloilo.

One of best time to visit the province is probably during its fame Dinagyang and Paraw Regatta Festival. Dinagyang Festival is one of the grandest fiestas in the province and in the country that is held both to honor the Santo Nino and to celebrate the arrival on Panay of Malay settlers and the subsequent selling of the island to them by the Atis. The festival is Ilonggo’s pride for showcasing its rich culture and heritage. While Paraw Regatta Festival is a race of colourful sailboats called Paraws in the straits between Guimaras Island and the city of Iloilo held every third weekend of February.
Iloilo - heart of the Philippines!
It was indeed four years has passed since my visit to the province. Yet, Iloilo did not change and remain idyllic and charming with friendly Ilonggos that made my stay enjoyable and comfortable. I enjoy exploring Iloilo and glad to prove that there’s more to this underrated province when it comes to places and sights to visit. I am also glad to discover and explore the historical Iloilo City that uniquely offers Ilonggo’s rich heritage, culture and daily life. A four year return is indeed worthy! I experience the best of Western Visayas first in Iloilo – the heart of the Philippines!

Experience Western Visayas first in Iloilo is a part of my Iloilo blog series of the same title where I share my travel experiences in exploring Iloilo City after 4 years since my previous visit last July 9-11, 2012. Some information are credited to Exlopre Iloilo - one of my guide and information source for this Iloilo trip. You may also read the other parts of the series here:
  • Visita Iglesia, Ilonggo style
  • Airport Review: Iloilo Airport
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