Beautifully secluded seascapes make this enchanting island in the Philippines a beacon for bliss
WHILE THE tourist-packed island paradise of Boracay off the northern coast of Panay has been given half a year off to recover on the order of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, to the south temptingly dangles mango-shaped Guimaras, and a waterworld ripe with possibilities.
Natago Beach – Hiding Beach – lives up to its name with a sparseness of visitors, subtly delighting in ways reflective of intriguing Guimaras, which quietly produces some of the tastiest mangoes found in the central Philippines.
While never approaching the epic grandeur of Koh Phi Phi Leh’s Maya Bay, Natago’s tempting alcoves can still trigger recollections of the enchanting spot popularised by the film “The Beach” before the Thai idyll, like Boracay, recently temporarily closed to visitors, a victim of its own beauty.
Iloilo is the point of arrival on Guimaras and the launch pad for island adventures. The small city offers bustling malls, places to dance and gamble and many Spanishera marvels.
For the time being, like one of its fat, juicy “carabao” mangoes, Guimaras hits the traveller’s sweet spot – engaging vibes and precious few visitors.
Laid-back locals, convenient proximity to vibrant Iloilo City, a range of water sports and ample opportunities for solitude help make this emerald isle a perfect place to disappear for awhile.
While other local mangoes suffer from smallness and imperfections, the best Guimaras mangoes are second to none in the world.
The matrix of rigging lashed to the ferries plying the short, exhilarating Iloilo-Jordan route show their readiness for the times of the year when mangoes aren’t in season. This is when gusting winds and monsoon rains are busy nourishing the fruit’s goodness towards another triumphant harvest.
This central Philippines islands group is known as the Visayas, a name etymologically linked to the English word “victory” but more particularly to the Indian-inspired Sri Vijaya Empire. Malay migrants from the culture based in what is now Malaysia, southern Thailand and western Indonesia settled here, bequeathing their name to the islands.
Natago Beach – ‘Hiding’ Beach – is as inviting as any stretch of sand on any sea and, with few visitors, far more placid than most.
A bracing 15-minute ferry ride from Iloilo, the isle of Guimaras is most easily entered from the port of Jordan, the main jumping-off point to its multiple attractions.
Among these are an 18th-century lighthouse, countless beaches, unique rock formations, tours of the mango groves and sampling anything and everything made from Guimaras’ famous fruit, including biscuits, biscotti, drinks and chips, as well as shopping for souvenirs bearing its likeness.
Bouncy jeepney rides spiral out from Jordan to all parts of Guimaras. One road passes restaurants advertising mango-topped pizza on the way to Alubinod Beach, which looks like something waiting at the end of the world and is a popular spot to embark on island-hopping tours.
Buho Ramirez Cave delights with its moody serenity.
The summer monsoon wind, the habagat, blows strong, but not so strongly as to dismay the fun-loving residents who’ve endured Indian, Spanish, American and Japanese colonisation.
The skies over Guimaras lash out more juicily during summer and winter typhoons, darkened by storm clouds lending mood to the otherwise brightly coloured seascape, a dazzling array of aquamarine, turquoise and the like.
Flanked to the north and south by two island groups named after their biggest islands – Luzon and Mindanao – the Visayas, like much of the archipelago, are an outpost of raw natural beauty.
With towns named in Spanish superlatives – Buena Vista, Nueva Valencia – and with most residents adept at English thanks to the US occupation, Guimaras most deeply delights with its natural scenery. It is blissfully far beyond the great sweep of influences of conquerors and travellers who left behind remnants of cultural flotsam.
Raymen Beach offers an ideal spot for bobbing in the wild but accommodating sea, as well as journeying off for an exciting island-hop with any of the many tour operators.
Besides the mango sweetness of this idyll – and of Natago Beach, made for quiet romantic moments – also within reach are abandoned nunneries with epic sea views and countless under-appreciated attractions and surprises that only the locals know about.
Particularly deserving a look is Buho Ramirez Cave, well worth a few hours’ exploring by boat. Also known as Baras Cave, this darkened environment unveils vistas that are likely to stay with visitors for a lifetime.
The waters encircling Guimaras and the other Visayas islands are radiant and multicoloured.
As the boatman silently guides guests past fruit bats in their perches, the sunlight fades and then disappears, only to return at the end of the ride, which can be as short or as long as desired. It’s a mysterious place that gradually transitions into a beautiful seascape of colours, now all the more radiant as you emerge from the gloom.
Getting to Guimaras is easy via the short flight from Manila, touching down in nearby Iloilo, a small city offering excellent seafood, bustling malls and opportunities for dancing and gambling. There are Spanish-era delights like Jaro Cathedral and colonial mansions.
Iloilo’s Jaro Cathedral harks back to the twilight years of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines.
The extraordinary Esplanade walkway lining both banks of the beautified Iloilo River is an amazing testament to the public’s will to restore areas previously pockmarked by industrial blight.
The colonisation of the Philippines has been likened to spending three centuries in a convent, followed by 50 years in Hollywood.
Many Spanish-era sights in the region go under-appreciated and show signs of physical neglect. Similarly, American-era mega-malls offer far too many cheap thrills. But the intrinsic beauty of less-discovered spots – well developed but not overdeveloped, like those that dot Guimaras – reflect the timeless quality of the Philippines’ smaller islands, which seem ideally designed for capturing flavours previously undiscovered.