Guimaras – a short hop across the Iloilo Strait from bustling Iloilo City - is known by Filipinos for mangoes and not much else. It’s never been a major tourist draw, but these days that’s changing as the island draws visitors to its beautiful white-sand fringed islands.
What makes Guimaras attractive to visitors is the number of satellite islands around it, many located off its southeast coast. They have exotic names such as Nao-wai and Nalunga. Some of these islands are so sparsely populated you don't get to see a soul, while some have thriving villages. Most have fine beaches and lush hinterlands for trekking.
One of these islands is Nagarao. I first came here seven years ago on a backpacking trip. It was raining on that first visit, and on my second, it was raining again. Not that it matters. After an overcast afternoon exploring Nagarao’s beaches and coves, we had dinner to the relaxing pitter-patter of rain on the grass roof and then headed early to our cottage where I dozed off under the mosquito net well before the power was off at 11pm.
The next morning, I woke up to a sunny day. Andy, the resort owner’s son, has a dog called Booboo who followed us like a shadow as we took photographs along the rocky shores and the mangrove areas on the eastern side of the island.
Our accommodation at Nagarao Island Resort is one of 20 rustic cottages facing the sea. It’s nothing fancy, but when you’re “doing” tropical islands, who needs fancy?
The mobile signal was spotty and electricity limited, but we had fresh seafood and cold beers while we played after-dinner billiards. There were hardly any guests that time so it felt like we’ve got the island almost to ourselves.
That’s not far from the truth. The population of Nagarao is only about 30. Others have settled here but not all have stayed. Hiking through the forest, we stumbled upon the ruins of an old stone house owned by a German couple who used to live here.
Emma, the resort’s caretaker, is one of the 30 inhabitants. She has lived on the island for 16 years and says she never tires of it. At first it was lonely, she said, but “you get accustomed to the peace and quiet.” When she visits her hometown of Iloilo - with its honking traffic and malls – she finds it so busy and noisy she can’t wait to get back to Nagarao.
Nagarao is a great base for seeing dozens of islands in this area, many of them uninhabited save for a few fisherfolk or the odd farmer. Inampulugan, a privately owned crocodile shaped island to the northeast of Nagarao, is about 30 minutes away by boat. At Inampulugan we stayed at the Costa Aguada Island Resort, on the south side of the island. It has spacious, native-style beachfront cottages fashioned mostly from bamboo. Power comes on twice a day and there’s air-conditioning, but the sea breeze wafting gently through the cottage is much better.
Staff can arrange sightseeing tours by car or van, island hopping trips and activities such as horse riding, mountain biking, climbing, caving, fishing and kayaking. There’s a swimming pool, massage services, and – if you’ve got some serious money to spend and want to island-hop in style – a helipad.
The next day, we spent the early part of the morning chatting with the villagers, most of them from three generations of workers who settled, married and took up roots on the island, relying on fishing and the coconut industry. At one time, the village men were producing about 30 tonnes of copra every month. The women weave bags from grass and make organic soap using coconut, which they sell to resort guests.
Behind the resort is a hill with a viewing deck perched on top. There are mangroves and Hawksbill turtles. In the village, there’s a reminder of the island’s history, the remains of a World War II bunker used by occupying Japanese forces. Other day trips include ruins from the Spanish and American eras, including Guisi Lighthouse, an eighteenth century Spanish lighthouse near the beautiful Guisi Beach and, back on Guimaras itself, the remains of the United States Army cantonment, Camp Jossman, once home to the 19th US infantry Regiment and two battalions of Philippine Scouts.
In the evening, we found ourselves sharing the Coconut Pavilion restaurant with a group of missionaries. The food was excellent - a native dish called binakol, which is chicken simmered in coconut milk inside a coconut shell, slow-cooked over hot coals. Coconut is something of a theme in Inampulugan. Dessert is coconut ice-cream. After dinner, we had a nightcap at the relaxed little bar on the beach.
We decided to abandon plans to visit Us-Usan Island, to the west of Inampulungan because of bad weather. Us-Usan is mysterious and enticing, a slither of land that’s said to be home to only one family, who live Crusoe-esque style near a dazzling white sand beach with a magnificent sandbar. The more you see, the more there remains to be seen, so I make a mental note to return.
Another island on my wish list is Nauway, where you can buy fresh seafood from fishermen and have it cooked on the beach for lunch.
Back on Guimaras, we had a few hours to spare before heading back to Iloilo for our flight, so we visited Our Lady of the Philippines Trappist Abbey in Jordan, the bustling little island capital.
The Abbey is the only male monastery in the Philippines. Established in 1972 by the Cistercian Order – whose emphasis is on manual labor and self-sufficiency, it’s also the source of ubiquitous Trappist brand products such as mango jam, mango tarts and everything-mango. Visitors, from believers to curious tourists, drop by for a photograph, send prayer requests, or have a chat with Brother Peter, who watches over the dispensary and welcomes guests.
Cebu Pacific has flights from Manila to Iloilo for about P2,830 (about US$61). From Iloilo City, you can take a taxi to Ortiz Wharf for about P80 and then a local ferry across the Guimaras Strait to Jordan for about P14. Or book a tour with Online Travel Express for about P5,888. For more information, call +632 267 5311.
Place to stay
Nagarao Island Resort is about 10-15 minutes by small boat from San Isidro or Sabang. The rate per person per day (full board including three set meals, exclusive of drinks) is about P2,100. There are 11 cottages all with private bathroom. For inquiries, call +6333 329 0078 or email [email protected].
Costa Aguada Island Resort is on Inampulugan Island, off the eastern coast of Guimaras, about 20-30 minutes by boat from Baste Port, Sibunag. Non-airconditioned cottages start at P950, airconditioned cottages at P1950. For inquiries call tel +632 752 3688.
Raymen Beach Resort in Alubihod, Nueva Valencia is a popular, affordable favorite on a lovely white-sand beach. It has 45 air-conditioned rooms and 10 fan rooms. Room rates range from about P900 for non-airconditioned rooms, good for four people to P2,400 for airconditioned rooms, good for four people. For inquiries and reservations call +6333 582 1456.
Jannah-Glycel Beach House in Talisay Nueva Valencia is homey, with a relaxing, garden setting and a total of 9 air-conditioned rooms. Room rates range from about P1,450 good for two persons, to P2,500 good for four persons per room. For inquiries and reservations call +6333/582 1003 or email [email protected]
Originally published in InFlight Traveller December to January 2013. Updated April 2016