Guimaras: The Sweet Taste of Summer

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For a tropical country like the Philippines, the hot days and warm winds seem to be the all too important indicators that summer has started. In the island of Guimaras, however, summer begins not solely with the gradual change of climate but with the smell of blooming mango flowers and the arrival of small fruits that jut out of the trees’ many branches. The wait begins and, soon enough, the Guimarasnons would be busy with the harvest of tons of the sweet yellow miracle known throughout the globe.

Mangoes As Sweet as The People

Reputedly the home of the world’s sweetest mangoes, Guimaras and its people have been sharing the fruit of its land to the world for decades, having earned the seal of approval from such countries as the United States and Australia. This unique quality, according to Governor Samuel Gumarin, may be attributed to the sweet character of the people of the province.

“When you say Guimaras, it’s always associated with mangoes. The quality of our mangoes differs by heaps from that of the other provinces and countries. Maybe it’s because of the climate and the soil; also, maybe it’s because of the people.” Governor Sam, a doctor and public health specialist, takes pride in serving his fellow Guimarasnons, and is eager to realize the full potential of the province as a tourist destination.

“What makes Guimaras ideal for tourism is, first and foremost, the people – we have a character that will truly identify us from other provinces. And aside from that, we have a beautiful island. If we are to describe Guimaras, it’s the island of no return. What you see is what you get.”

During our tête-à-tête, the good man was busy with preparations for the province’s busy summer season. Every Good Friday, the town of Jordan is witness to the “Ang Pagtaltal sa Bala-an Bukid,” a retelling of Christ’s passion across two kilometers of the municipality’s streets. The fourteen stations of the Via Crucis end atop the highest point of Guimaras, the Bala-an Bukid Shrine, where the pagtaltal or “the removal” of Christ from the cross is reenacted. This decades-old tradition sees thousands of tourists from all over the Philippines flocking the streets of Jordan to participate in the Lenten practice.

Immediately after the Lenten season starts the month-long harvest festival and foundation celebration of the province, the Manggahan Festival, where showcases in arts and dances coincide with an endless array of mango-related activities like competitions in creating mango-inspired dishes and days-long mango buffets or “eat-all-you-cans.” This year, the festival also sees sports activities in its lineup, owing to the provinces rolling and undulating terrain.

The challenge for the province today is to cope with the huge arrival of guests and tourists who will be staying inland throughout the summer. Governor Gumarin, the optimist that he is, remains confident in his people’s capability to cater to the needs of the visitors.

Sweetness In Check

Studies have claimed that the mangoes of Guimaras are the sweetest in the world, that is why the island is considered as “the mango province of the Philippines.” Dedicated to the study, propagation and enhancement of the province’s globally competitive mango industry is the National Mango Research and Development Center of the Bureau of Plant Industry, stationed in the town of Jordan.

Established in 1969, the BPINMRDC is tasked with the development of Philippine “Carabao” mango as a top commercial crop and has been teaching mango farmers across the province techniques to yield a significant produce. According to researcher Rhod Orquia, the center has been employing the “bagging” technology for decades, where growing fruits are inspected and bagged using paper to protect it from pests like flies and weevils. In Guimaras, it is also illegal to bring in any part of an alien mango fruit in the province, especially its seeds, lest these materials contaminate the purity of the island’s fruit variety.

“Being an island, Guimaras is isolated, making it easy to regulate and free the trees and fruits from pests. This is the reason why we have quarantine offices stationed in all ports in the island.”

The mangoes’ being free from many external risks makes it possible for the center to identify what factors aid in the mangoes’ undeniably sweet flavor and non-fibrous flesh.

“Although the number of fruits produced pales compared to other mango producing regions like Ilocos, Davao and Central Luzon, the quality of mangoes in Guimaras remains the best. Guimaras has moderately undulating terrain, with loamy soil good for mangoes. The island also has a distinct wet and dry season, and the soil has a good deposit of calcium salts known as lime, an important element in fruit-growing.”

The mango industry of Guimaras thus gave rise to such enterprises as Rebecca Tubongbanua’s McNester Food Products, the preserves of the Our Lady of the Philippines Trappist Monastery, and Eugene Torrento’s The Pitstop, all of which source out mangoes from throughout the province year-round. But while the province’s mangoes have earned a reputation for its sugar content, most locals profess that of the five towns in the island, the sweetest mangoes of Guimaras come from the town of Nueva Valencia, where many of the province’s century-old trees come from.

To Each Town Its Own

Aside from mangoes, the province also produces community-based products, working on a philosophy of non-competition by encouraging the towns to utilize materials that grow in their very own backyards.

In Brgy. Sapal in San Lorenzo, leaves of bariw, a local pandanus grown abundantly along the roadside are dried and weaved to make exotic hats and bags.

In Brgy. Rizal in Buenavista, kapo wood are cut and carved to make display galleons collected by many artists and enthusiasts.

In the coastal towns of San Lorenzo and Sibunag, summer transforms fish ponds to salt farms. Sea water is pumped from the coast through mills and left to dry under the sun through the morning.

In Brgy. Hoskyn in Jordan, however, sea water is desiccated by boiling a designated amount over charred coconut husks. The white blocks that come out after six hours of heating is called tultul. This salt, which is produced only from December to May, is a desired flavoring for foods in the region and is an effective additive to aquarium water to make it suitable for seawater life.

United in creativity, the people of Guimaras, with their innate warm character, have redefined Filipino hospitality for the rest of the country. Over slices of mangoes, we feasted with them and have come to learn what the island is all about; that more than the food, the products, and the destinations, it is the people who define the province as what it is – a sweet province with an even sweeter people.

Suba Malawig Eco-Tour (Nueva Valencia)

Run by the townspeople of Brgy. San Roque in Nueva Valencia, the Suba Malawig Eco-Tour features an island hopping boat ride across the town’s 11-hectare mangrove reserve, including the 500-meter Suba Malawig, a local term meaning “great river.” Get up close with four species of mangroves, a variety of sand beaches, caves and nesting birds. Tourists may also plant mangrove seedlings along the route, priced at $0.25 per seedling. At the end of the tour, check out the powdery white shores of Santo Niño Beach Resort at the edge of the reserve.

What to Eat: Raymen Beach Resort

A favorite stop for guests looking for a beachfront eatery, the restaurant of Raymen Beach Resort on Sitio Alubihod serves the freshest and tastiest seafood and vegetable dishes in the area. One of the first resorts in the beach, Raymen offers a wide range of seafood like grouper, milkfish, crabs and squid in all sizes and servings, all caught from the seas of Guimaras.

What to Do: Alubihod Beach

Swim your worries away on one of Guimaras’ famous summer destinations – Alubihod Beach. But for a more interesting activity, set off from Alubihod and try island-hopping to the nearby islets of the province. The tour also includes a fish-feeding visit at the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center (SEAFDEC) where they house species like pompano, sea bass and hundred-kilo grouper.

Where to Stay: Jannah Glycel Resort

Set within its own cove, many say that Jannah Glycel Resort is more of a home than a resort, with its cozy rooms and refreshing interiors. The winds pass by the cove year-round, so the climate remains cool even in summer. The resort also serves a variety of local and international dishes, including a paluto option with your choice of cuisine like French or American.

Inampulugan Island (Sibunag)

Inampulugan Island is a privately owned crocodile-shaped island just 45 minutes away by banca from the port of Sibunag. The second biggest island in Guimaras, Inampulugan is blessed with rolling mountains, virgin forests and bamboo thickets, and is home to monkeys, deer, and many species of rare birds. Rich in history especially during the Second World War, the island is inhabited by a thriving fishing village and cradles one of Guimaras’ first island resorts, Costa Aguada. Aside from Guimaras, boats from Iloilo and Negros also pass by the island.

What to Eat: Coconut Pavilion Restaurant

The Coconut Pavilion Restaurant of Costa Aguada Island Resort serves a variety of fare for the picky eater. Local favorites include binakol, crispy pata and all manners of vegetable and fish dishes, as well as savory desserts like coconut ice cream and leche flan. The restaurant can serve up to a hundred guests, and is open from breakfast in the morning to after-dinner drinks just before midnight.

Where to Stay: Costa Aguada Island Resort

Located along the sandy shores known as Bamboo Beach, Costa Aguada Island Resort is the only island resort nestled in Inampulugan Island. 68 rooms are situated amid lush forests, coconut groves and crystal-clear waters, many of which face the glistening horizon of the sea. The resort is also equipped with a freshwater swimming pool, a sports complex, a playground, and riding stables.

What to Do: Island Tour

Get to know Inampulugan Island more by taking an island tour organized by Costa Aguada. Visit the turtle and mangrove sanctuaries by foot, or visit the village by cart just two kilometers away from the resort, to see the growing cottage industry that produces the resort’s kitchen and bath materials. Along the way, check out the remnants of the Pill Box, an armory used by the Japanese during World War II. One can also do horseback-riding or trekking to see the island and the neighboring ones from a bird’s viewpoint.

Trappist Monastery (Jordan)

Established in 1972, the Our Lady of the Philippines Trappist Monastery is the only men’s monastery of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance in the Philippines, where monks live in a cloistered life of prayer and work, tending to different crops and trees in the farm grounds. The ingredients harvested from these crops are then made into delicious jams, jellies, candies and pastries sold in the monastery’s gift shop and throughout the island. A guest house is also available for visitors who would like to take a retreat from the busy life of the city.

What to Eat: The Pitstop

Try the more than a dozen mango based dishes of The Pitstop, famous for its Mango Pizza and Mango Spaghetti. Many of The Pitstop’s dishes won in the province’s annual Manggahan Festival, including new dishes such as the Mango Beef Bulalo and the Baby Back Ribs with Mango Glaze. The Pitstop now has three branches across Guimaras, as well as a new restaurant known as The Grillers.

Where to Stay: Zemkamps Chalet

Zemkamps Chalet is a family-owned-and-operated hotel just 10 to 15 minutes away from Jordan Wharf. Located within a lush garden is what used to be a family home, a country-style building housing ten rooms, now open to serve Guimaras’ guests and visitors. The hotel’s location in the middle of the city makes all amenities and services easily accessible.

What to Do: Camp Alfredo

Perched on the hillside of Sibunag, Camp Alfredo Adventure Resort offers guests the chance to experience a thrill while on the island of Guimaras. The sought-after activity is the adventure package consisting of a zipline ride, a walk across a hanging bridge and a rappelling challenge from the treetop. The less courageous, meanwhile, can marvel at the resort’s landscaped ground and pool, and stay for a night or two.

Bariw Weavers of Sapal (San Lorenzo)

The representative industry of Brgy. Sapal in San Lorenzo is the weaving of bariw, a large species of pandanus which the community grows both for commercial and aesthetic purposes on the roadsides of town. The long leaves of bariw are cut, stripped of their thorns, and dried before they are cut to a desired width and weaved into mats, hats, bags and other modern-day containers such as laptop and tablet protectors. The community has featured their products in different trade fairs as a flexible material that can be used as clothing and footwear.

What to Eat: McNester Food Products

Starting from a measly capital and a desire to put production-grade calamansi and mangoes to use, Rebecca Tubongbanua rose from selling calamansi concentrate to being a household name in Guimaras for her industrial success. Known as a farmerscientist, Tubongbanua has concocted products such as mango ketchup and mango sauce, which are now sold throughout the region and used as base ingredients in many dishes.

What to Do: Model Galleon Makers of Rizal

When in Buenavista, visit the model galleons made famous by the galleon makers of Brgy. Rizal. Known for their exquisite craftsmanship and detail, the galleons are made by the men of Rizal from a soft wood called kapo, which is carved and dried for two weeks, before it is painted, varnished and equipped with accessories such as threads and bulbs for lighting. These ships have been featured across Southeast Asia, and have caught the attention of collectors worldwide.

Where to Stay: Neptune Pittman’s Garden Resort & Spa

A secret haven in the middle of Buenavista, Neptune Pittman’s Resort is a favorite venue for seminars and get-togethers as it is conveniently located away from the busy city center. A garden-cum-living museum, Pittman’s features the extensive horticultural and botanical collection of the owners, and proudly serves fresh and organic dishes to guests, with ingredients grown in their very own farm.

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