Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Guiltless in Guimaras

Hopping into some of the 7,107 islands (plus 400 more new ones?) that form part of the Philippines, especially those off the beaten path, thrills me no end. The exhilaration and uncertainties of the sojourn, not to mention the exciting discoveries that go along with it, can be quite therapeutic to the mind, body and soul!

Going off the beaten path, for me, means throwing myself out of my comfort zone, discovering a hidden hideaway, having a novel experience or stumbling upon a new spot I haven’t seen before. It could be revisiting a popular destination yet finding something out of the ordinary somewhere in the thickets of mediocrity. 

This predilection for roads less travelled, I guess, spells the difference between a tourist and a traveler. So far, I’ve managed to strike a balance between these two by seeing some must-see attractions in a certain place as well as searching for something other than usual stuff offered by tour guides, travel shows and what have you.

The giant cross in Balaan Bukid as seen from Guimaras Strait

On certain occasions, I go for the so-called “touristy” routes if only to satisfy my guilty pleasures, not to mention my curiosity. Even so, I always try to find something new and unusual in those destinations in any way I could. Just like this recent sojourn I had in one of the islands belonging to Western Visayas—Guimaras! 

After taking a peek at some of the popular destinations in that part of the country, particularly those in the neighboring islands of Panay and Negros, I ventured into the island province that's sandwiched by those two large ones.

Guimaras isn’t exactly a destination off the beaten path—it’s among the oft-visited destinations in that part of the Visayas. Though I’ve seen the island several times en route to Iloilo and Bacolod, I haven’t scoured the place. So that made the sojourn worth pursuing as far as this gadabout is concerned. 
Guisi Beach in Nueva Valencia as seen from a hill near the lighthouse

Guisi Beach: one of Guimaras's well-kept secrets


Once a sub-province of Iloilo, Guimaras has come into its own as a full-fledged province in 1992. Made up of five municipalities (Buenavista, Jordan, Nueva Valencia, Sibunag and San Lorenzo), the island is separated from Panay and Negros Islands by the Guimaras Strait a.k.a. Iloilo Strait.

Best known for producing probably the sweetest mangoes in the country (or should I say, the whole world?), Guimaras has numerous natural come-ons that are as exotic and luscious as the popular tropical fruit it produces. The island has several beaches, waterfalls, springs and offshore islets that never fail to lure local as well as foreign tourists.

Mangoes galore!

A mango plantation in Jordan

It was Lent when I flew to Iloilo City and headed for the island via a 15-minute boat ride from Ortiz Wharf in Iloilo to Jordan, the provincial capital.  

In Jordan, I flagged down a tricycle that took me to the town of Nueva Valencia. Nearly an hour later, I reached the secluded Guisi Beach where I billeted myself in one of the resorts there. 

After resting for a while, I spent the rest of the afternoon scouring the place, feeling guiltless as I indulged in some "guilty pleasures" that ascetics and puritans would probably frown upon during those days of penance, prayer, passing up and pondering.

Jordan-bound boat at Ortiz Wharf

Whenever self-abnegation becomes the order of the day, the free spirit in me always manages to find ways that combine the secular and the spiritual. For instance, snapping nature on my way to a sacred mountain, saying a little prayer before roaming around a sought-after monastery, lighting a candle after exploring the remnants of an ancient church, among others.

Sunset as seen from Guisi Beach 

Let’s just say I’ve imbibed a certain kind of religiosity that somewhat differs from the church’s dogma yet I also saw to it that I got to spend some time reflecting and meditating even as I enjoyed myself in the island, albeit on a subdued scale. 

Besides, I sought divine intervention to make the trip possible amidst some unfortunate incident that recently affected me.

So, here’s a rundown of the things I’ve done which I think those visiting Guimaras can try doing:

Bask in Balaan Bukid Shrine. For Catholic devotees, Balaan Bukid is the perfect pilgrimage site during the Holy Week. On the way to the top of this hill are the 14 stations of the Way of the Cross that depict the significant events in the life and passion of Jesus Christ. Visiting Balaan Bukid would surely delight the senses, not only of the most fervent devotees but also those of non-believers.

Panoramic view of Guimaras Strait and Iloilo City

Awe-inspiring vista at Balaan Bukid's peak

Grotto of the Sto. Niño (Holy Child)

What’s in store for you if you go up there? A picturesque view of nearby Iloilo City and the town of Jordan down below. Found at the summit of Balaan Bukid is the Chapel of Ave Maria Purisima and a humungous cross, the one often seen as you pass through Guimaras Strait en route to the regional capital’s coast. 

The path en route to Balaan Bukid

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Interior of the chapel

Trail to the Trappist Monastery. Said to be the only one of its order in the country, Our Lady of the Philippines Trappist Monastery, which was founded in 1972, offers a serene and rarefied atmosphere ideal for solitary adventures and personal recollections. The Trappist monks belong to a branch of the Cistercian Order which is known for its strict rules, including extreme austerity and silence.  

Chapel of Our Lady of the Philippines Trappist Monastery 

Roaming around the hallowed grounds of the monastic enclave would surely leave you feeling refreshed, relaxed, renewed and re-energized, as if a cumbersome burden were taken off your shoulders. The monastery also has a small chapel and a retreat house, making it a sought-after venue for reflections and recollections. 
Before leaving, why not drop by the monks’ souvenir store? A wide array of mango-based delicacies such as tarts, candies, jams, preserves and other sweet temptations await those who go there. By bringing home some of the monks’ labor of love, you’ll be able to help them earn a living. Incidentally, all products sold at the store are made from ingredients grown within the Trappist complex. 

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Upper pediment and facade of the Navalas Church

Nuzzle up to Navalas Church. Find inner peace by nuzzling up against the oldest Spanish church in the island, St. Isidore the Farmer (San Isidro Labrador) Church. Built in 1880, the Navalas Church is the only extant heritage house of prayer in Guimaras. Located in the village of Navalas in the outskirts of Buenavista, the coral stone church is one of the heritage treasures found in the island. 

At first glance, the architecture of this quaint church would remind visitors of the Jaro Cathedral in Iloilo. This is so because Guimaras was once a visita of Jaro, that is, a village without a priest, usually placed under the care of a neighboring church for religious ministrations during Spanish times.

What makes the church standout is the sprawling garden found on its front yard, which is full of huge trees and surrounded by an old stone fence. Standing prominently in front of the church is a formidable belfry, which doubles as a watchtower, serving as one of the island’s early warning systems of any impending attack by Moro pirates.

Only the façade of the church has retained much of its heritage touch. Its interior, including the ceilings and other portions, has undergone massive rehabilitation. 

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Ruins of the old Guisi Lighthouse

Gulp down the view at Guisi Lighthouse. Lighted for the first time in 1894, Guisi Lighthouse, also known as Faro de Punta Luzaran, is considered the second oldest lighthouse in the country. The ancient structure is made up of imported prefabricated metals from France, clay roof tiles (locally known as tisa) from Portugal and cement from England.   

During Spanish times, the lighthouse or parola is said to be so visible at night, guiding ships passing through Guimaras Strait. Only the ruins of the structure remain for everyone to see. A new lighthouse has been constructed just a few meters away from the old one. 

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Alubihod Beach, the most popular beach strip in the island

Ambulate towards Alubihod Beach. “Touristy” in every sense of the word, Alubihod Beach is the most frequented nook in the island. Home to popular resorts such as Raymen, Alobijod Cove, Rico and the like, most, if not all of those visiting the island gravitate towards its powdery, white-sand stretch to get a healthy dose of sun, sea and sand.

Alubihod Beach is one of the best take-off points for island-hopping!

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Beachcombers gravitate toward Alubihod Beach

Roughly 45 minutes away from Jordan Wharf, it has one of the longest stretches of white sand in Guimaras (even though it’s only around 300 meters!). Alubihod is also a popular jump off point to one of the highlights of any visit to Guimaras–island hopping.

Take in as much vitamin sea as you can while exploring each of the sun-kissed islets bearing such exotic names as Ave Maria, Taklong, Isla Naburot, Inampulungan, Nagaro, Turtle, Tiniguiban, all of which are located within the fringes of the island province.

The windmills of San Lorenzo

Stroll around San Lorenzo Windmills. Spread out on a sprawling plain on the eastern side of the island, the San Lorenzo Windmills (sometimes ecalled Wind Farm) are among the latest man-made structures that attract tourists to Guimaras.

Launched last June 2014, about 27 windmills, each with a capacity of 2 megawatts, now provide 54 megawatts of electricity to the island, way above the reported13 megawatt power requirement of Guimaras. The remaining energy generated from the operational windmills are reportedly being used to energize the neighboring provinces of Iloilo and Negros Occidental. 

Source of power for the island and its neighbors

How do you while away time once you’ve grown tired of laying eyes on the structures?  Take as many selfies or groupfies as you can with the windmills as backdrop!

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Wait, there are so many other stuff worth doing if you’re in Guimaras. Given its rugged terrain and pristine waters, it also offers travelers the opportunity to indulge in adrenaline-pumping adventures—mountain biking, rappelling, scuba diving, jet skiing, to name some. Add to that the sweetest adventure of ‘em all—devouring what is probably the sweetest mangoes in the whole world--fresh, processed, cooked or what have you!

So, this summer, why not guiltlessly indulge in the numerous pleasures that await those who dare explore the island paradise of Guimaras! :-D

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