At around noon, the pump boat dropped anchor on the beach at Gigantes Norte. It felt good to finally arrive after eight hours of travel that involved air, land, and sea transport. The Islands of the Giants were that isolated.
At the beach, we were met by our tour guide, Kuya Joff, from the resort. After registering at the barangay hall, he assigned each of us our habal-habal driver. For non-Filipinos, a habal-habal is a motorcycle used by residents in the provinces the way city folks use a taxi. Except these hardy motorcycles can go anywhere cars can’t, over rough trails and through the narrowest mountain passes. It is the most popular mode of transportation in remote areas across the Philippines.
I am not a fan of motorcycles. I fear it.
But here’s the irony. I love the wind blowing through my hair. I love seeing the sky whip by as I look up without metal or glass in the way. I love seeing the stars, too, whenever we find ourselves riding at night like in Camiguin or Siquijor. I love the sense of freedom.
A habal-habal ride is probably the most existential experience I could ever have while cruising along on lonely provincial roads.
Romanticism aside, it was a ten-minute ride from the pier to our resort. Along the way, my driver pointed out the island’s “call center,” so-called because it was the only place where the islanders could use their phones to send text messages or make calls. Even our resort didn’t have any Wifi. There was absolutely no cellphone signal. Therefore no calls, no texts, and definitely no internet. They had electricity but they didn’t have TVs either.
Our smartphones essentially became next to useless, good only for taking photos. My friends and I had to contend with being cut off from the rest of the world.
At first, it felt weird. There’s no other way to describe it. An uncomfortable feeling as if there was something big and awesome happening in the outside world, and there we were in the middle of nowhere trapped in a bubble unable to break free.
Our itinerary for the rest of the afternoon was supposed to involve island hopping after lunch, but our guide suggested we hold off and exchange that day’s itinerary for the next day’s. The skies were getting cloudy by the minute. We didn’t protest; we’ve had enough rough seas and huge waves for the day (see Islands of the Giants).
Part of our packaged stay at the resort included meals. Lunch was served when we arrived, and it was a treat. There were crabs, grilled fish, and the island’s delicacy, scallops. I never knew I could eat that much seafood. Our resort was generous with the food, to be sure.
After lunch we rode our habal-habal again to the first tour of the day, Bakwitan Cave.
A dry type of cave, Bakwitan is most famous for having been the place where the bones of giants were found. Thirty minutes across from the entrance, it is capable of comfortably holding hundreds of villagers at a time. In fact, our guide explained, back in World War II, this was where the islanders escaped to hide from the invading Japanese forces. In more recent times, the cave has become a haven from typhoons. Hence the name “Bakwitan” from the word bakwit, appropriated from the English word evacuate.
After Bakwitan, we proceeded to the Spanish-era Gigantes Lighthouse and Museum. There we found local kids practicing for their speech choir for a school contest. They had no teacher to help them so my friends and I thought we’d help out a bit.
It was late afternoon when we got back to the resort, just in time for dinner. More seafood.
Sightseeing has a way of distracting us from ourselves, and it was certainly fun. But once back at the resort with nothing to do, the uncomfortable feeling settled in again. That feeling of holding a phone and not being able to do anything about it. We couldn’t surf, couldn’t call, couldn’t play games. We were stuck with one another.
Not that that was undesirable. The company was great. It’s just the way modern life has become for most of us: our smartphones – preferably connected to the internet – have become our lifeline, our comfort zone.
At Las Islas de Gigantes, we learned to set aside that manufactured need. There was no other way for us to entertain ourselves except through good, old fashioned conversation. From dinner till late that evening, we sat underneath the open sky, exchanging stories. The only thing missing, really, was a bonfire.
The next morning I was up at five to indulge a personal habit when on vacation at the beach: catching the sunrise.
It’s not just the sun peeking over the horizon. Low tide reveals what is normally hidden from the world and that has always fascinated me. Everything seems fresh and to watch the rest of the world wake up is a privilege. Some of my most intriguing photos have always been at sunrise by the beach.
By seven I was back at the resort. We had breakfast (yes, seafood) and at eight o’clock, we pushed off for the islands. We visited three: Cabugao Gamay, Antonia Beach, and the one I was raring to see above all, Tangke Lagoon.
According to legend, Tangke was originally the bathtub of the giants. The water here rises and falls with the ebb and flow of the tide. It does look like a tank – hence the name, Tangke. Posting a better photo of the lagoon from blogger Marcos Detourista:
After lunch, we headed back to the resort and at 2 PM, we were back at the pier for our five-hour trip back to Iloilo City. My friends and I regretted how short our trip was, actually dreading the moment civilization was back at our fingertips again.
Las Islas de Gigantes may be isolated but it was the first time we felt we were truly on vacation: no frantic calls from the office, no dings, no distractions from a world we had left behind if only for a day and a night. It was a taste of what the rest of us in the city are missing: total peace. In a hyperconnected world, it is important to cut ourselves off from time to time; to take a break, have fun, and take on the task of living, recharged and ready once more.
Interested in seeing the Islands of the Giants? See our itinerary below: