36 hours in Antique

Trekking, river rafting, and exploring some of the best beaches in gloriously off-the-tourist radar Antique

Kayaking across Tibiao River By Estan Cabigas
Antique, the lesser known sister of Boracay and Iloilo in Panay Island, is perhaps one of the best places for adventure travel. It has pristine beaches, waterfalls, and great rivers. To get to know the province, I joined Tribal Adventures’ Panay and Boracay tour for two days of non-stop activities — from whitewater kayaking and trekking, to a fish spa and a soak in a kawa tub.

Day 1
5am
. I leave the hotel at the crack of dawn, still rather disoriented from staying up late in a last ditch effort to make the most of the Boracay party scene. It’s really just a few hours after the clubs have closed shop, and everything is silent. My cousin Chili Ramon and I make our way to the Tribal Cafe to meet with the rest of the group who are going with us on a compressed version of Tribal Adventures’ award-winning Panay and Boracay tour.

The tour takes participants off the beaten track to Tibiao, Antique. The original itinerary includes activities such as trekking and white-water kayaking spread across three days, with a relaxing soak in an ancient hot tub and a fish massage in between. But we only had a day and a half. So as Tribal Adventures’ former tour guide Rosmar Magno briefed us on our itinerary over breakfast, we braced ourselves for what would definitely be a tiring, action-packed adventure ahead.

6am. When our group is complete, we set out on the roughly two-hour journey to Tibiao. First, a ten-minute boat ride to Caticlan in mainland Aklan, and then a van to Culasi, a sleepy town in Antique where the guide and some of the group go to the wet market to shop for food.

My cousin, our friend Mirra Reyes, and I forego the wet market and wait by the van, spying a small island off the Culasi coast. The island turns out to be Malalison, which we had seen photos of online and heard only good things about. We ask the locals nearby, and they tell us the island is less than 15 minutes away from Culasi by boat.

Malalison is not part of the Tribal Adventures tour, but we convince Rosmar to put it on our itinerary. It is decided that we would wake early the next morning and spend a few hours on Malalison before heading off to the Kalibo airport to catch our late afternoon flight.

Kayak Inn cottage By Estan Cabigas
8am. We reach Tibiao and head to Kayak Inn, where we would be spending the night. Nestled on the Tibiao hillside, Kayak Inn is definitely a back-to-basics kind of place, with several huts that can each fit up to four people, a small, clean shower and toilet area. After settling in, we head out for the first physically demanding activity of the day—the trek to Bugtong Bato falls in Tibiao’s Barangay Tuno, about 7km away from the town proper. It’s not the most difficult trek I’ve experienced, but it’s still a challenge for people who are not in absolute tip-top shape, especially with the slippery rocks, narrow bamboo bridges, and muddy paths. Still, the view on the way up is like a balm for our sweaty, panting bodies. At first we see rice paddies and cornfields, and then palm trees, and a panorama of rice terraces, with the raging Tibiao river snaking through it.

Hiking up Bugtong Bato Falls By Estan Cabigas
Depending on how fast you walk and how many photos you take, it can take up to an hour to reach the falls, which has seven tiers all in all. Finally reaching the first tier, we are already tempted to run our bodies under the rushing water, but before we even have time to strip to our swimsuits, Rosmar walks ahead to a steep staircase leading to the second tier.

Bugtong Bato Falls By Estan Cabigas
For someone with an almost crippling fear of heights like me, the sight is worrying, but for the sake of adventure, I soldier on, gingerly stepping one foot after the other on each precarious step, all the while holding on to the makeshift railings made of pieces of wood and thick vines from trees.

At the second tier, we meet the rest of our group sitting on logs at the base of the falls and sipping cans of beer that they brought with them on the trek. The third tier, which is a small pool that can only fit in so many people, is still occupied by another group of hikers.

More than anything, we are thankful for the breather, and take a dip at the second tier while waiting for the third to free up.

Finally, the people on the third tier make their descent, and seeing them do it makes me think twice about going up. Apparently, to get to the third tier, we have to climb up the face of the falls, holding on to only a rope as the guides assist us. Again, the fear of heights kicks in, along with a newly-discovered fear of death by waterfall. I consider not going up — I really didn’t have to — but the thing is, when you’re on the second tier of the waterfall, you’re too close to see anything beyond it. If only out of burning curiosity, I steel myself to go.

My cousin, brave girl, volunteers to go up first. Seeing her expression as she gets to the next level pushes me to follow and I clamber up, slowly but surely, taking care to put my feet exactly where the guides tell me to put them.

The view was well worth the effort. The water is much clearer on the third tier, with the color alternating from an aqua blue to a jewel green. As if it isn’t picture-perfect enough, a rainbow flashes from one end of the pool to the other.

We spend about half an hour up on the third tier, floating our tiredness away in the cool water. We eventually take turns jumping from rocks a few feet above the pool only to be outshone by the guides, who end up climbing 10, 15 feet high maybe — before diving into the pool. When we’ve had enough, we make our way back down, less afraid but just as cautious this time around.

With waterfalls conquered, we make our way back to home base.

White water kayaking in Tibiao River By Estan Cabigas
12pm. We reach Kayak Inn just in time for lunch. It’s simple Filipino fare of grilled fish, liempo (grilled pork belly), and lots of rice, with fresh mangoes for dessert. After eating our fill and giving our stomachs a few minutes to settle, we gear up for the second activity, whitewater kayaking.

As someone who has done river rafting before, I go into it with complacency, but as we secure our life vests and helmets and board our individual kayaks, I start to second guess my ability to survive the rush of a raging river. After a safety briefing and a quick paddling tutorial on calm waters, the guides lead us on to the river, where a 3km stretch filled with raging rapids wait to be conquered.

Everything starts out calmly enough, but the rapids get more and more challenging the further we go. I try my best to paddle on without a guide having to turn my kayak around in the right direction.

Just when I think I’m getting the hang of it, I hit a boulder and my kayak capsizes. Adrenaline kicks in as the water pushes me under and straight ahead. I struggle to keep my head above water and swim against the current. The panic takes over when I realize that the water is carrying me further and faster than I’d like, but before I can freak out completely, I feel one of the guides tugging my life vest and pulling me back to safety. I am fortunate that they are all skilled and strong swimmers.

Tired but fulfilled, we head back to Kayak Inn after surviving the rapids.

Hot kawa bath By Amanda Lago
5pm. After an entire day of strenuous physical activities, a dip into the steaming kawas or pots brings our beat-up muscles back to life. Once giant woks used for manufacturing brown sugar, the kawas at Kayak Inn have been turned into jacuzzis. The kawa is set over a low fire and filled with water and fragrant leaves. The brew of sorts is heated to about 100 degrees F before the fire is put out and we are allowed to luxuriate in what seemed like the perfect remedy for our sore muscles. There are a total of six kawas scattered all over the Tribal Adventures property, some under trees, others with an open view of the river and the Tibiao hillside.

Most of the kawas are small with space enough for just one person to be able to stretch out and soak, but a few were big enough to fit two or even three people comfortably. We soak for as long as we like. I stayed in the water for just about half an hour, enjoying the scent of the local leaves and the sound of the water rushing past.

Feeling rejuvenated, we shower and grab dinner of roast chicken, cooked by the locals themselves over a fire that later on would warm us up as we gathered around it, sipping beer and single malt whisky. By the campfire, we trade stories and jam with the locals on their acoustic guitar well into the night, ignoring the fact that we would be heading for Malalison at the crack of dawn the next day.

Day 2
With barely any sleep, we take the half hour drive northward from Tibiao to Culasi, and then ride the boat to the hilly, 55-hectare island of Malalison. When we dock, I feel like I’ve stumbled upon a well-kept secret.

White sand beach in Malalison By Amanda Lago
Malalison may just have out-beached Boracay. Like the famous beach, it had the same fine white sand and crystal blue waters, but here it is completely unspoiled. The sandy, gently sloping seabed gives way to shallow waters, though at the time of our visit, the waves were quite strong. There is not a trace of litter on the beach, and no crowd too. After paying an entrance fee of P10 (about US$0.22) for locals and P40 for foreigners, we walk across the shore. So early in the morning, the beach is empty, and we take advantage of it by setting up our beach blankets and getting our fair share of Vitamin D.

Sleep-deprived and sore, I doze off as Chili and Mirra trek up the Malalison hillside. About an hour later, I wake to the sound of children’s voices, singing Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years”. The angelic voices bring tears to my eyes and I seriously wonder if I had died and gone to heaven. I sit up and realize that I am still very much alive as I discover the source of the voices, the Malalison Children’s Choir, performing for a group of foreign tourists who had come to the island.

I inch closer to the group and realize that I am not the only one who is crying. Pretty much everyone in the audience is teary-eyed too. Malalison, more than being a perfect beach paradise, apparently also has a lot of heart.

I savor their performance as I wait for my companions to return from trekking. When they get back, they show me photos of Malalison’s golden brown hillside, the cave, and the blue-green water and the sandbar leading to the neighboring Nablag islet. Malalison has given them a sublime experience too.

11am. Reluctantly, we head back to Tibiao, getting there with just enough time to grab our backpacks and eat a quick lunch before heading off to Kalibo to catch our flight. En route, I recall our accomplishments over the past few days: how we survived a raging river, conquered waterfalls, and trekked up and down hillsides. As I watch the bucolic beauty of Antique roll by outside my window I encounter a different challenge altogether, how to say goodbye. Before I get too emotional, I shrug off the thought of leaving and replace it with a question: when am I coming back?

Essentials
Cebu Pacific offers round trip direct flights from Manila to Caticlan for about P3,670. From Caticlan, take a Ceres Bus to Antique for P250 per person. Visit Cebu Pacific. For Ceres Bus schedules call +63917 771 1242.

Ride a habal-habal (local motorcycle) to get around the area, with prices at about P75 per person, but it can still be negotiated with the drivers. 

Tribal Adventures offers a three- day Panay tour, which includes the activities mentioned above, as well as hikes up Mt. Maja-as, side trips to the Malumpati cold pools, and a fish spa. The tour package costs P15,000 per person for a group of four, and includes a two night stay at Kayak Inn, meals, guided activities, and transportation to and from Boracay.

For more information call +6336 288 3207, email tribaladventures@gmail.com, visit Tribal Adventures.

Originally published in InFlight Traveller December to January 2015. Updated April 2016