It used to go by the names Sabuluag or Salauag after a tree species endemic to these islands. During the Spanish colonial era, coffins containing oversized human bones were reportedly discovered at a cave in one of the islands. The skeletons were said to belong to 8 feet-tall human beings. Consequently, the islands were renamed Islas de Gigantes – Gigantes Islands.
For decades the beauty of the Gigantes Islands was hidden even to most Filipinos. About 10 years ago photos of Gigantes began showing up on the internet. Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) waylaid these islands in late 2013 but after a year the beauty of the islands had recovered. Two years later we paid a visit to Iloilo City and then on to Gigantes and got to experience the latter’s white sand beaches and sandbars, crystal-clear turquoise waters, ruggedly beautiful karst formations, secluded lagoons and verdant palms.
Two main islands – Gigantes Norte (North Gigantes Island) and Gigantes Sur (South Gigantes Island) – make up the Gigantes Islands group plus a few more islands or islets such as those below.
Comprising two hills on its northern and southern extremities, a splendid white sand beach on both sides of its northern perimeter and surrounding turquoise waters, the islet of Cabugao Gamay is the poster boy of the Gigantes Islands. One can hike up the view deck of the hill on the northern end of the island for excellent views of Cabugao Gamay and other islands nearby.
The island has very basic facilities in the form of native huts for overnight stay, a small restaurant and souvenir shop and tables and chairs for dining. At the time of our visit the fronds on the coconut palms have started to grow back after losing much of their number due to Typhoon Yolanda but it wasn’t enough to form a thick shade as before. Still, we enjoyed a relaxing stay on the island and didn’t feel the need for a swim in the crystal-clear waters. We were content with enjoying the gorgeous scenery around us.
Northeast of Cabugao Gamay and just 5 minutes away by boat is Bantigue Island and sandbar. There is a tiny fishing community in the southern portion of the island and three small rocky hills along its length. However, we mostly confined ourselves to taking a leisurely stroll along the creamy, golden sandbar on the southwestern part of Bantigue. Our tour guide mentioned that the sandbar changes shape and direction according to the tides and waves. Some boat tours use this island as a lunch stop and there are cooked scallops and wasay-wasay (a local oyster) for sale here at ridiculously cheap prices. Incidentally the Gigantes Islands are considered the scallops capital of the Philippines and you will be served these clams at just about every meal.
If there is a Cabugao Gamay (small or tiny Cabugao in the Ilonggo dialect), then there is a Cabugao Dako (large Cabugao) or Cabugao Grande (as seen in Google Maps). Actually, the difference in sizes between Cabugao Gamay and Cabugao Dako are not that large. Cabugao Dako lies very close to Cabugao Gamay. It has a nice white sand beach bounded by ruggedly beautiful karst formations. It is still a mystery to us today why we never stopped at this island since it is less than 5 minutes away from Cabugao Gamay. It was not included in island-hopping tours at the time of our visit. We could easily observe Cabugao Dako from Bantigue Island but we somehow did not inquire about it from our tour guide.
Antonia Beach, Gigantes Sur
Antonia Beach has often been erroneously labeled as Antonia Island – many referred to it as Antonia Island Resort – but it is actually just a part of Gigantes Sur island. This white sand beach lies between two massive karst formations on its northern and southern ends. It’s actually a twin beach with the sea on both its eastern and western sides. Boats dock on the western side where tables and chairs under the shade of coconut palms are emplaced for guests. The eastern side is the quieter section of Antonia Beach but both western and eastern sides are ideal for swimming. The western side offers good snorkeling particularly the section near the long pile of massive slanted rocks on the southern end of the beach (the most unique feature of Antonia Beach). We would spend the remainder of our time at this beach happily exploring the marine life at this section.
A short boat ride away to the northwest of Antonia Beach is Little Boracay Beach which became popular only in recent years. This beach is smaller than Antonia but it is just as beautiful and practically deserted. Unfortunately we were unaware about its existence during our visit to these parts.
Tangke Saltwater Lagoon, Gigantes Sur
The southern and eastern parts of the large island of Gigantes Sur are draped in towering karst formations not unlike those found in El Nido and Coron in Palawan, the Caramoan Peninsula in Camarines Sur and the Dinagat Islands. Hidden among those karst formations is Tangke Saltwater Lagoon, actually one of the better-known destinations in Gigantes. Massive limestone rock formations and sharp cliffs enclose the shallow emerald pool of Tangke. This lagoon is best viewed during the months of April to May when the waters are at its deepest and take on a lovely turquoise hue. In December when we visited the waters did not even reach up to our knees.
Gigantes Norte and More Islands
Gigantes Norte island contain most of the resorts in the Gigantes group of islands including the resort where we stayed. It is also home to a Spanish-era lighthouse and the Bakwitan Cave where the coffins reportedly containing oversized human bones were discovered and from which the Gigantes Islands got its name. There are reportedly 57 caves in both Gigantes Norte and Sur with Bakwitan being the most accessible.
At the western part of Gigantes Norte’s southern tip is Langub Beach with its beige sandbar and cave. There are also more islets or islands east of Gigantes Norte. Bulubadiang Island lies east of the southern tip of Gigantes Norte and has a white sand beach facing the latter. 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. North of Bulubadiang are the islands of Gigantillo and Gigantona, small rock outcrops sans a sandy beach. Much farther north and east of Gigantes Norte’s northern tip is Uaydajon Island with a pristine white sand beach and crystal-clear waters.
In recent years boat tours to Gigantes from Bancal Port in Carles have included Pulupandan Island (or Pulo Pandan). This is a relatively small island/islet with a white sand beach and beautiful rock formations. It wasn’t included in our island-hopping tour from Gigantes Norte probably because of its long distance from the latter. North of Pulupandan is the much larger Balbagon Island, an elongated island lined by an unbroken white sand beach ringing its perimeter. East of Balbagon is Turnina Island and reef.
Though no longer a secret among visitors to this part of the Visayas region, the Gigantes Islands continue to retain their charm and pristine nature. We could only hope that visitors and locals alike would be able to preserve its state for future generations to come.