Philippines: Guimaras Island

We had waited long enough.

Trying to find a weekend without rain was like trying to find spaghetti in the Philippines without sugar; it’s simply not happening. Our Canadian contingency opted to roll the dice, and despite lingering heavy clouds and rain in the forecast, we decided to take a day trip to Guimaras.

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Guimaras is roughly an hour away from our hotel in Iloilo City, between the taxi and the ferry. An independent province in the Western Visayas, Guimaras is known for its beautiful green hills, its crystal blue beaches with bright white sand, but most its mangoes. The mangoes are world famous; the Queen of England and President Obama specifically have theirs imported directly from Guimaras. The locals are so protective of their crops that it is illegal to bring in seedlings from outside mango plants – cross contamination would ruin the purity and jail is inevitable for the offenders.

September isn’t the best time of year to go, as the crops are at their peak through May – but I simply don’t have the time to be picky and choosy.  So 4 of us packed off, and headed to the port, where our sea-worthy vessel awaited us.

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Okay, so it wasn’t quite the craftsmanship I was ready for. In fact, the only reason I set foot on it at all was the large beams that were attached to either side for balance. Without those, that thing would have been rocking harder than a Tragically Hip concert. I took my seat, and held on for dear life. I guess at 20 pesos (60 cents CAD), I’m in no position to complain about the quality.

About 20 minutes later we arrived at the port, where we were taken into the local tourism office. There, we were asked to fill out a form for statistics purposes; though they didn’t really seem to care what we put down. We were also given our travel options. Given the fact we’re all fully grown adult males, sharing a tricycle (a small rickshaw-like vehicle, pulled by a bicycle) was ludicrous, so we opted to rent a Jeepny for 450 pesos to take us to the peninsula.

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Being the largest member of our party at 6’1″ and 225 pounds, I was given the go ahead to ride up front while the other three squeezed into the back like canned sardines. This allowed me to take in the scenery along our route. We passed thousands of fruit trees, holding everything from coconuts, to rambutan, to mangosteen, and of course, mangos themselves. The smell of the mango trees in the hot sun was intoxicating; an air of freshness that in incomparable to anything back home.

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I was also fascinated by the many rice paddy’s, where local workers were slaving away underneath gigantic hats to shield them from the equator sun. I was given an explanation for the entire process of how rice is farmed, which was an eye opener. I didn’t realize how much labour went in to getting rice properly. While the stuff we typically eat is mass produced, the folks working for a living are doing so because the machines simply give away too much grain – and these people can’t allow any rice to spoil since the food is often times all they have.

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After nearly 45 minutes of travel, we arrived at what we were told was the nicest beaches on the island. Our entry fee of 25 pesos per person was paid to the resort, and we headed down to the beach. A couple of people opted to swim, but I decided to stay back and just soak in some of the sun.

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Once the guys had enough time in the water, we headed into one of the small resort restaurants for lunch. They offered a wide array of seafood, as well as a couple of choices of comfort food like chicken or burgers for pickier tourists. While the fresh fish was tempting, I was craving something with a little spice – so I asked for a medium platter of peel and eat shrimp, hot and spicy style. I got a cup of garlic rice on the side, and given I was in the Mango Capital, I figured it apropos to get freshly squeezed mango juice.

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The shrimp put off some of the other folks I was with, given that shrimp is often served beheaded and peeled in North America. I knew what to expect, but they didn’t, so my platter definitely turned a few heads. Unfortunately, I have no idea what “hot” and/or “spice” was on this plate, because it was sweet and garlicky. I have members of my family back home who work up a sweat on mild salsa, and even they could have eaten this without feeling any zing. I asked, and they confirmed this was the hot and spicy. What a let down! I grabbed the tabasco and doused liberally, just to add a little flavor.

They had also been overcooked a little, and had lost a lot of their moisture, getting a little rubbery in the process. It was worth the shot though; how often am I seaside with a bounty of fresh seafood at my disposal? One of the guys in our group had the red snapper, and he seemed to come away with a winner, so I simply got the wrong dish. C’est la vie.

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On the other hand, the mango juice was probably the best juice I’ve had in my entire life. It was thick, almost more like a puree than a juice. It had a vibrant natural sweetness to it, completely unlike anything I’d ever tasted before. There’s juice, and then there’s *juice*. I never thought I’d find anything better than the fresh orange juice I usually get when I’m in Clearwater at one of the local fruit vendors – but that was before I’d visited Guimaras. Juice will never be the same.

Bellies full, we headed back to the beach and rented a boat. At a cost of 500 pesos for the first hour, and 150 for subsequent hours, a couple of young guys in their early 20’s took us out into the ocean for a little bit of island hopping.

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The waves were a bit choppy, and we sloshed around in the middle of the ocean. Like the ferry, our vessel was balanced by giant bamboo shanks on either side. However, due to the much smaller size, big waves could have knocked us over, so I was thankful the guys seemed to have the knowledge and experience to keep us away from the worst spots. They wouldn’t take us where the snorkeling usually happens, as it was too dangerous that day. Instead, we spent a couple of hours checking out a few small islands. Two of the guys swam wherever possible, including jumping off the boat in the deep ocean. I envied their bravery, but I simply didn’t have it in me to join them. I knew that the Philippines was a bit of a hotbed for shark activity, including Great Whites and Bull Sharks. Even though the young men we were with insisted this area was not a problem for sharks, I wasn’t about to take that chance. One tug on my ankle, and I’m under the water and never seen again. No thanks!

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Once we got back to the main beach, and all limbs were accounted for, we paid the young guys for the trip and started to think about heading home. Before we left, we stopped at a vendor on the beach, run by a local artist. He was selling various hand made gems and other personalized items made specifically from materials found on the island. I found something I thought my wife would enjoy to bring back to her later this year, and the other guys took in some souvenirs as well.

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After grabbing an ice cold mango shake to help cool us down from the heat, we jumped back in our Jeepny and headed back towards the port.

Before we got there, we asked our driver to point us to the best fruit stand in the area. He took us to the city, but unfortunately, most of the sellers were out of mango for the day. Still, we found one lady who was selling them. Due to the fact they were unripe, and out of season, the price was a little high. We wound up paying about 200 pesos per kilo, which netted me 4 pieces of fruit that are currently ripening in my hotel room. I also got a couple of oranges, while the other guys loaded up on bananas and mangosteen. With fruit in tow, we called it a day.

Guimaras is a beautiful island; one of many in the Philippines, I’m told. They are a hotbed of tourist activity in the month of May, during their mango festival. At that time, the fruit is at its best, and is priced to move as low as 30 pesos per kilo. At the festival, a 50 peso entry fee grants you the right to an all you can eat mango buffet. While I’m disappointed I won’t have the chance to take that experience in, I’m happy I got to check it out when I did. Mango is my favorite fruit, so to visit its capital is a once in a lifetime experience that I thoroughly enjoyed.

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