motorized outrigger boat at Bulubadiang Island

Gigantes Islands: The Not-So-Well-Known Side

The most well-known destinations in the Gigantes Islands group (sometimes called Islas de Gigantes) are Cabugao Gamay, Antonia Beach, Bantigue Island and Sandbar and the Tangke Saltwater Lagoon. Our island-hopping took us to these destinations in a little under 6 hours. However, there are other islands and islets scattered in this section of the Visayan Sea just off the towns of Carles and Estancia. The biggest islands are Gigantes Norte and Gigantes Sur, with the latter actually encompassing Antonia Beach and the Tangke Lagoon. These islands feature a diverse landscape of white sand beaches and sandbars, huge karst formations, secluded lagoons and otherworldly caves.

Cabugao Gamay, Gigantes Islands, Carles, Iloilo
Cabugao Gamay
Gigantes Norte

This island houses most of the resorts in the Gigantes group. Stretches of white sand line the northwestern and northeastern sides of the island although none are comparable to the beauty of Cabugao Gamay and Antonia Beach. There is, however, an interesting sandbar at the southern tip of the island at Pasil Beach. There are two inland destinations at Gigantes Norte: the Bakwitan Cave and a Spanish-era lighthouse in the northern part of the island.

boat leaving Gigantes Norte for an island-hopping trip
Leaving Gigantes Norte

There are actually several caves (reportedly 57) in both Gigantes Norte and Sur but the most famous and the most accessible is Bakwitan Cave in the southern part of the island. This cave contains many beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. The islands got the name Gigantes, incidentally, from Bakwitan Cave. Legend has it that coffins containing oversized human bones were found in this cave leading to the name Gigantes. Farther up north is a reconstructed lighthouse originally built in 1895 which provides excellent panoramic views of the island. Resorts can arrange a trip to the lighthouse for visitors. It normally takes a 30-minute motorcycle ride with the driver also acting as a tour guide for P60 per person, round trip. When partnered with a tour of Bakwitan Cave, the total cost is P500.

shallow waters off
Shallow, crystal-clear waters just off Bulubadiang Island

There are 4 other islands located to the east of Gigantes Norte. Uaydajon Island, located east of the northern tip of Gigantes Norte, has a pristine white sand beach and crystal-clear waters. Boat tours do not include this island in their itinerary probably because of its distance from the other islands. We have recently seen an ad online offering the island for sale and proclaiming that it is the only island in the Gigantes group with a “clean” title. We could only hope they allow visitors to this island regardless.

another outrigger boat at Bulubadiang
Outrigger boat at Bulubadiang Island’s shallows

Gigantillo and Gigantona Islands lie closer to the southern end of Gigantes Norte and are small rock outcrops without a sandy beach. Bulubadiang Island lies just south of Gigantona and has a white sand beach facing Gigantes Norte. At low tide it is possible to walk the 1-kilometer distance from the boat docking area at Gigantes Norte to Bulubadiang. This island is where we had lunch during our island-hopping tour.

on the way to Gigantes Sur
Our boat heads for Gigantes Sur
Gigantes Sur

As previously mentioned, Gigantes Sur contains Antonia Beach. The southern and eastern parts of the island are dominated by towering karst formations not unlike those found in El Nido and Coron in Palawan and the Caramoan Peninsula in Camarines Sur. Hidden among those karst formations is Tangke Saltwater Lagoon, actually one of the better-known destinations in Gigantes but which we’ll feature here nevertheless.

karst formations on the way to Gigantes Sur
Towering karst formations at Gigantes Sur on the way to the Tangke Lagoon

Our tour guide arranged for us to get to Tangke early in the morning. We must have arrived at around 7:30 AM, and had to transfer from our boat and scale some rocks to get inside the lagoon. Once inside the lagoon we found out why our tour guide got us to arrive here so early. Low tide was just beginning and the water inside the lagoon did not even reach up to our knees. By mid-day the lagoon would get completely dry. It’s almost always like this in December, our guide explained. If we want to see the lagoon at its deepest best – when the waters inside turn into a lovely turquoise – summer is the time to visit but it’s also the time when the Tangke is filled with visitors and, consequently, photo bombers.

inside the Tangke Saltwater Lagoon, Gigantes Sur
Shallow water inside the Tangke Saltwater Lagoon

There are other islands to the west of Gigantes Sur that we passed by on the ferry ride from Estancia to Gigantes Norte. Pulupandan is a white sand islet surrounded by turquoise waters. A small hut and docked fishing boats indicate that the islet is a rest area for fishermen but is definitely worth visiting. Its distance from Gigantes Sur probably discouraged boat tours from including this in their itinerary. A little farther to the east is Balbagon Island, an elongated island lined by an unbroken white sand beach completely ringing its perimeter. It looks like another gem in the rough waiting to be explored.

scallops at Gigantes Hideaway Tourist Inn
Gigantes is scallops paradise
Seafood

The Gigantes Islands are a sea food lover’s haven. The islands are sometimes known as the scallop capital of the Philippines. You can find huge amounts of scallops here at cheap prices (unfortunately this has also resulted in mountains of spent scallop shells everywhere). We had scallops here cooked in a variety of ways – the baked scallops in cheese and garlic our favorite – at every meal except breakfast. But that’s not all as there are also plenty of fresh squid, crabs, shrimp, fish and wasay-wasay, a mollusk resembling an oyster with a shell shaped like an ax.

blue crabs and wasay-wasay
Left: one of the best crabs we’ve had in a while. Right: Wasay-wasay
Where to Stay and Other Travel Tips

Most travelers to the Gigantes Islands flock to Gigantes Norte for overnight accommodations then book island-hopping tours to the various islands. Gigantes Norte is where most resorts are located. The more prominent resorts are Gigantes Hideaway Tourist Inn in Bgy. Asluman on the eastern side of the island (this is the resort where we stayed) and Arjan Beach Resort, Jesa Beach Resort and Rosewood Place Resort on the western side. Most of these resorts have aircon and non-aircon rooms. Gigantes Sur has mostly homestays but a Google search netted one resort there: the J-Grace Beach Resort.

It is also possible to stay overnight at both Cabugao Gamay and Antonia Beach with both places offering basic accommodations (tents mostly). Some travelers choose to stay at Estancia town then book a boat to take them to the islands in Gigantes and back within the day. We decided against this since the strong waves in December make for a long and rough ride even in a boat that can seat 10-15 people.

The main mode of transport within Gigantes Norte (and we assume in Gigantes Sur) is the ubiquitous habal-habal or motorbike taxi. We did not even see a tricycle during our stay on the island. Basic fare is P10 although we sometimes pay the driver P20.

Island-hopping. This is often included as part of the package offered by resorts in Gigantes Norte. Boat rental used to cost P2,000-2,500 (depending on boat size). Our  island-hopping package (excluding lunch and entrance fees for the islands/beaches) came up to P3,000 which was a little surprising; our resort host explained that just recently the government has started to regulate tours and have levied fees (e.g. to cover costs for training boat operators, tour guides ,etc.), hence the increase in package prices.

tour boats at the western beach, Cabugao Gamay Island
Boats used for island-hopping at Cabugao Gamay.

Electricity is limited in Gigantes Norte. It only runs from around 5/6PM up to midnight. In our case the resort’s power generator takes over at midnight but only runs until 6AM. There are no ATMs on the island so bring all the cash you need. Cell phone signals (and consequently internet connections) are also limited; we could only text the resort from Metro Manila or Iloilo as phone calls are next to impossible. On the positive side this was a welcome break, especially from all the political mudslinging at Facebook.

Getting There

There are several ways to skin a cat and that saying runs true for travel to the Gigantes Islands. If you’re going to Gigantes Norte you can either take the ferry from Carles or Estancia on the Iloilo mainland but that’s getting ahead of our story.

docking area for boats, Gigantes Norte
Docking area for boats at Gigantes Norte

The nearest airports to the Gigantes Islands are in Roxas City in Capiz and Iloilo City (we boarded a flight to the latter). Either way it is imperative to book an early flight to catch a boat in either Carles or Estancia since there is only one boat trip per day. Otherwise you might have to spend a night in any of these towns; in our case we spent the night at Iloilo before leaving for Estancia the following day as our early AM flight was moved to a later time.

From Roxas City:

If you’re coming from Roxas City the nearest ferry to Gigantes Norte is at the Bancal port at Carles. This port is also the fastest way to get to the Gigantes Islands. From the airport at Roxas head for the bus terminal at Pueblo de Panay. Ride a bus or van for Estancia and get off at Balasan (1.5 hours travel time). From Balasan ride a tricycle to Bancal port in Carles (30 minutes). At Bancal port take the ferry to Gigantes Norte. There is only one trip per day to Gigantes Norte; this boat leaves at around 10AM. Travel time to Gigantes Norte is about 1.5 hours.

From Iloilo City:

From the airport at Iloilo head for the Tagbak bus terminal at Jaro district (20-30 minutes). Take a bus or van at Tagbak for Estancia. Buses usually cover the route in 3.5 hours while vans can cover it in 2.5 hours. There are both aircon and non-aircon buses that ply this route for P150-180. From the terminal at Estancia take a trike to Estancia port for the ferry ride to Gigantes Norte. The boat usually leaves at 1:00 PM. Again there is only one boat trip per day although we’ve read reports that say there are additional boats available during summer when there are many more visitors. The boat fare is P80 and the trip takes about 2.5 hours. It is also possible to hire private boats at Estancia for Gigantes Norte if you happen to miss the ferry but this is much more expensive. The ferry returning to Estancia leaves Gigantes Norte at 8AM.

Tourism is just beginning to take off at the Gigantes Islands hence the latter is relatively underdeveloped compared to other destinations in Panay like Boracay or Guimaras. This stage of development is probably what contributes a lot to its beauty; we’ve already mentioned a few island destinations that are still practically untouched. We’re only hoping they remain pristine for many more generations to enjoy.

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