Despite its pristine beaches, sweet mangoes, and even sweeter people, Guimaras is not a favorite tourist destination. Based on today’s defacto popularity index — the hashtag — Cebu is tops on everyone’s bucket list, leading (as of this writing) the millionaire’s club with a massive 4,281,581 tags, followed by Boracay’s 2,699,735 and Palawan’s 1,830,325. Davao’s 830,546 and Siargao, with 530,795 complete the magic five.
Iloilo and La Union, with 461,632 and 456,516 tags respectively, are in a tight race for 6th place. Three provinces with tags in the three hundred thousand range — Bicol, Ilocos and Bacolod — squeak their way into the top ten.
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#Guimaras lags way behind with 98,679 tags, which makes you want to (insert crying emoji here). Though there’s been a significant increase in visitor arrivals in the past couple of years, boosted lately by Boracay’s temporary closure, Guimaras’ pace remains unhurried.
“Walang traffic sa Guimaras. Meron lang pag may libing,” jokes Jerwyn Armada, a farmer’s son who moonlights as a van driver for MG Travels and Tours, our host for a one-day sojourn around the island. Jerwyn’s colleagues, part-time tour guides Kolin John Casquera, Sherilyn Zaragosa and Marivic Erpelua, proudly showed us Guimaras’ landmarks.
The province’s first luxury resort, Andana, offers 5-star modern comforts — sparkling pools, several suites including one with a private outdoor jacuzzi, a fully-stocked bar with a killer view, wifi, etc. — bordered by a 180-meter long shoreline. What will knock your socks off, though, are its so-called pods — curve-roofed, air-conditioned huts built close to the shore, with balconies that face Panay Gulf. Young parents who want to enjoy the amenities in peace need not worry: they can set their hyperactive kids loose at the awesome inflatable water park installed just off the beach.
Our stop at the Trappist Monastery was an Eat, Pray, Love moment. After meditating at the small chapel, snacks and signature cold drinks, like the Guimaras Mango Coffee Latte and Mango Coffee Jelly, at Cafe Sta. Hildegarda a few steps away provided relief from the summer heat. The monks earn their keep from the monastery’s little store, which is actually a great place for pasalubong buying. Here, you will find jams, coffee beans, baked goodies and other processed food produced by the monks themselves. There’s a line of Trappist t-shirts too, a reminder from the monks to stay cool and holy. Merchandise made by communities are also available, such as the massage oils infused with Ati herbs. “We have 400 medicinal herbs,” Sherilyn said. For doubters, Sherilyn, the first DOT-accredited Ati tour guide, cited an example of a traditional Ati cure — river turtle livers. “They’re good for the lungs. Walang Ati na may asthma sa community namin.”
Over at Guisi beach, a 15 minute uphill trek takes you to the Philippines’ second oldest lighthouse that dates back to the 1800s, and the ruins of a Spanish-era outpost. The hike, as well as the spectacular view of the sea below will literally and figuratively take your breath away. It might also leave you hungry. A quick snack of Guimaras’ mango pizza (a rite of passage, locals will insist) at Olivia’s Kitchen & Island Brew, restores one’s energy before continuing to a fantabulous highlight.
Gigantic wind mills are tourist magnets. More so if they are scattered over rolling hills browned by the sun, a pseudo-biblical scenery that has drawn gawkers to the San Lorenzo Wind Farm, the first in Western Visayas, and one of the largest in Southeast Asia. For your money shot, time your visits towards sunset, and take position at the farm’s highest point, phone cam in hand.
The wind farm is emblematic of the local government’s green slant which is reflected in its tourism program. Kolin, who is a passionate environmentalist, encourages participation in the mangrove-planting activities, as well as visiting the province’s protected marine sites. “We have twelve,” he says.
Unknown to most, Guimaras is the first Philippine province to pass the U.N. sponsored ICM (Integrated Coastal Management) ordinance, achieved with the help of coastal communities who are engaged and oriented in the efforts to preserve the marine environment.
Guimaras’ communities play an important role in the province’s tourism platform. “There’s a high demand for rural or community-based tourism,” exclaims Marianne Galaraga, the 33-year old owner of MG Travel and Tours, “but mostly from foreigners. It is really for experiential travelers.”
For those who travel deep, she suggests availing of the home-stay arrangements in accredited private residences located in farms or fishing communities. “Tuturuan sila gumawa ng fishing nets, mano-mano, and how to fish in the traditional way. In a farm environment, they can help feed the chickens in the morning, or help in the farm.” Guests can also taste the Guimarasnons’ simple everyday cuisine, using ingredients harvested from the homeowner’s backyard. “Hindi fresh enough yung binibili sa palengke,” Marianne said laughing. “Most locals grow their own vegetables because the market is too far. And we don’t have regular public transport.”
A selfie in humbler settings might not be as sexy as a photo backdropped by Palawan’s cliffs, Boracay’s powdery white sands, or Cebu’s whale sharks. But that’s not what your trip to Guimaras is all about. An immersive stay allows you to connect to the island’s rhythm, and discover Guimaras’ soul.
Photographs by Daniel Soriano