My first Holy Week on an island was in Camiguin and the great experience brought me to explore the other Philippine islands like an annual pilgrimage: Siargao had the best beach experience; three ‘holy’ days was is enough to explore Palawan’s frontier; there’s nothing holy in Boracay as it’s the perfect place for party animals; Siquijor leads you to the old churches, at the same time, you hear stories of the omnipresence of beings from the world beyond; Bohol keeps you busy traversing from one tourist spot to the next; with surprising rural glory was in Punta Bulata.
My original plan this time was to go to Pagudpud in Ilocos Norte where the renowned ‘cinematic beauty’ of Saud Beach has always been my dream destination since I first saw it in the Siguion-Reyna film Hihintayin Kita sa Langit. The other stops in this rustic town have very inviting names like Kabigan Falls , the Blue Lagoon and the Paraiso ni San Anton.
But Holy Week this year awkwardly fell just after the summer school started, giving us less time for travel. I decided I just had to be within the Visayas this time.
Then I remembered that I have never conquered any part of the “mango country” of Guimaras Island. “Go GUIMARAS!” became my Holy Week theme.
On Maundy Thursday I crossed the Visayan Sea. Sailing from Negros to Panay islands, the window view from the fastferry gave me a beautiful frame of Guimaras Island, leading me to conclude, I made the right decision.
I went through the regular route with Iloilo as my first stop. For Dumagueteños, the best place to stay in Iloilo is Pensione del Carmen along General Luna Street, home of a lovely Dumagueteña Carmen Larot-Rio. The Lonely Planet guidebook Pensione del Carmen as a place that feels like home.
The solemnity of Holy Week in the old city of Iloilo can really be felt with almost all stores, including SM City mall , closed. I did not waste time; I urged my host Tita Carmen and her daughter Odette to join me in a revisit of the Miag-ao Church, a national shrine. The Church of Sto. Tomas de Villanueva, built in 1786, is one of the four Baroque churches inscribed in 1993 on the World Heritage List. The historic sanctuary draws many families, apparently on their way to Boracay. Upon the request of my furniture designer friend Karl Aguila, I took several pictures of the baroque details on walls, doors and the stairways. The noise of the hundreds of visitors was still drowned by the silent grandeur of the majestic architectural achievement, shimmering in gold with the generous light coming from the huge classic windows.
After the beautiful long day, we rewarded ourselves with a dinner Junho, a Korean corner that was the only place open during Holy Week. All the food in the menu was authentic Korean, and the vegetarian variations of Kim Jin Ho were perfect ways to celebrate with our oriental version of the Lord’s Supper. I suggested to Mr. Kim to open a branch of his bankable business in Dumaguete. We exchanged calling cards and as token of our new friendship, he handed me a set of Korean table utensils in ornate silver.
My “Mr. Congeniality charisma”, as friends tease me, must have been radiating even until later that evening because when Mr. Kim saw us waiting for a taxi for the longest time, he even offered to drive us home to Pensione Carmen.
I should say that Good Friday is the best day to be in Guimaras. Streamers were all over the Province to announce the big event in the island, Ang Pagtaltal sa Jordan (The Crucifixion in Jordan). The trip on a huge banca was about 25 minutes. This joyride to Jordan, the capital town, departs every 30 minutes. Then as we dropped anchor, we noticed the people voluntary lining-up for inspection, not for guns or bombs, but for fruits, especially mangoes. The local government there confiscates fresh fruits brought into the island so that these do not contaminate their indigenous varieties.
We were hoping to catch the 3pm ‘crucifixion.’ It seemed like Jordan was having a fiesta; colorful banners welcomed the visitors including a good number of foreigners who were curious about the taltal. Inside the poblacion was a play on the trial of Jesus with dialogues in the local dialects.
Listening to the Good Friday drama in Hiligaynon and Kinaray-a was truly interesting. The theatrical production, complete with colorful Roman-inspired costumes, which ended in the actual ‘tatal’ on a hill- while we were having a sumptuous lunch.
Native cuisine like puso sa saging salad and many others were on display in a booth made of coconut leaves – true Filipino spirit!
After witnessing the colorful production on the death of Christ, we proceeded to the town of Nueva Valencia where the popular beaches are found. All resorts were fully booked but we were lucky to have found a space in a private cove called Villa Igang. It turned out to be the best place to stay as it was not crowded. The tranquility of nature prevailed as it is away from the summer fiesta of beach people. Its landscape was carefully manicured, careful not to destroy the natural beauty. Igang in Guimaras means a kind of stone in the Province, framing the cove with natural sculptural formations.
Dr. Mary Lou Lacson-Arcelo of the John B. Lacson Colleges Foundation, owner of this charming Villa Igang, explained that igang is actually a good material for cement production. She said she is thankful that their provincial government disallowed the establishment of cement factories for it will certainly destroy the tourism potential of the island.
Mary Lou’s magic in landscaping is wonderfully transforming her part of the 43-hectare property of the John B. Lacson Foundation into a haven of peace, with much fun: fear-conquering dive from a cliff, with a view of the coral grotto, or rowing in a pond surrounded by mangroves, or exploring caves.
Eco-tourism is on the right direction at Mary Lou’s corner as she has two highly qualified consultants: her husband, educator-economist Dr. Adriano A. Arcelo, who is a consultant for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Dr. Angel C. Alcala, the world’s father of Coastal Resources Management who has visited the resort twice with his family.
I saw Philippine Daily Inquirer society columnist Maurice Arcache jamming with friends at the beach. He expressed how much he loves Villa Igang as it is a “humble paradise,” he said.
Maurice added that he enjoys rowing with his buddies the most. Meanwhile, Visayan Daily Star’s social columnist Edward Lacson said their favorite ride is a boat with a bird shape.
They were all proud to have covered the entire pond without the help of a boatman. Edward also expressed his appreciation for the professional service of the seven-man staff. He added that HRM students should actually do their internship in places like this.
Resort Manager Lorlyn P. Arañador committed to explore other options to make their service consistently good or even better. She said she hopes to offer more variations of the seafood cuisine in our next visit.
Guimaras does have endless opportunities. We went up to Valle Verde Mountain Resort for a relaxing afternoon, and witnessed the frolic in the huge swimming pool sandwiched by the slopes.
Then, on to a major stop: an amazing view of more than 50,000 mango-bearing trees in Oro Verde, one of the Province’s three main plantations.
Having sampled the world's sweetest mangoes known as the Guimaras Super Mango, it was not to be the end of our round-the-island tour.
Next stop was the Our Lady of the Philippines' Trappist Monastery where the kind monks, generous with their smiles, welcomed us in a shop of mango jams, jellies and other dried fruit products.
I got some of their baskets made of twigs and the spoon and fork set made of coconut shells and bamboo. A tour around the monastery grounds is a walk of green peace with trees and flowers!
There are more to see, and more fun to experience: Roca Encantada where the summer house of the distinguished Lopez family is located, the coral islets called Siete Pecados; the 30-minute climb up to Bala-an Bukid with a stairway leading to a giant cross and chapel at its peak.
But alas, our time was up, we had to journey back to Iloilo on Black Saturday.
I spent Easter Sunrise with a garden fellowship at the UCCP. I enjoyed the egg hunt and the conversations over the Ilongo favorite breakfast delights like pancit molo, and puto with dinuguan.
After the Holy Week, you’ve still got 45 days under the heat of the summer sun; go on your own journey; GO, GUIMARAS!