Islands of the Giants: The Gigantes Islands

Cabugao Gamay, Carles, Iloilo

Located in the northeastern corner of Panay Island, the Gigantes Islands have remained practically unknown until around just a few years ago. Located off the coastal towns of Carles and Estancia in Iloilo province, these islands were so named because of stories about coffins containing oversized human bones that were found in a cave in one of the islands.

Antonia Beach, Gigantes Sur
Antonia Beach in Gigantes Sur island

The biggest islands in the group are Gigantes Norte and Gigantes Sur but the major island-hopping destinations are Cabugao Gamay Island, Bantigue Island and Antonia Beach and the Tangke Saltwater Lagoon, both in Gigantes Sur. These islands feature a diverse landscape of white sand beaches and sandbars, huge karst formations, secluded lagoons and otherworldly caves.

Cabugao Gamay

Cabugao Gamay's eastern beach
The eastern beach on Cabugao Gamay

This island is the most attractive in all of the Islas Gigantes. Located about two kilometers from the island of Gigantes Sur, Cabugay Gamay is the most photographed of all islands in the Gigantes group. The peculiar shape of this narrow islet – two hills on both ends of the island connected by a beautiful white sand beach – and surrounding turquoise waters make it the poster boy for the Gigantes group. The hill on the northern end of the island has a view deck that offers excellent panoramic views of Cabugao Gamay and nearby islands (see picture on top).

tour boats at Cabugao Gamay
Boats on a beach at Cabugao Gamay

The island was the second stop on our island-hopping tour arranged by our resort. Before Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) struck in late 2013, a cluster of coconut palms provided excellent shade in the center of the island but the typhoon decimated much of the palm fronds and took out some trees as well. The fronds have started to grow back, however.

coconut palms at Cabugao Gamay
Yolanda survivors: a cluster of coconut palms at Cabugao Gamay

There are no resorts at Cabugao Gamay – only basic facilities in the form of native huts for overnight stay, a small restaurant and tables and chairs for dining. One can just take cover in the restaurant and huts if the sun gets too hot but since we came on a December morning, the little cover afforded by the coconut palms was enough.

Bantigue Island

Bantigue Island's sandbar
The sandbar at Bantigue Island

Known for its long, snaking, golden white sandbar, this island is just 1.5 kilometers away from Cabugao Gamay or about a 5-minute boat ride away. At low tide the sandbar is fully exposed by about a few feet above sea level, with one side of the sandbar sloping down at a steep angle into the water. The side facing Cabugao Gamay has shallower and calmer water compared to the opposite side. We could have taken a swim here had we wanted.

shallow side of the Bantigue sandbar
The shallower side of Bantigue sandbar

A tiny fishing community marked by a few huts and moored boats is located at the end of the sandbar where it joins the rest of the island. Three small rocky hills make out the latter. Bantigue is another lunch stopover for tour boats plying this route. There are huts with table and chairs for rent. Here the scallops and wasay-wasay (a kind of local oyster) are very fresh and ridiculously cheap.

Antonia Beach

karst formations at the northern section of Antonia Beach
Karst formations, white sand and turquoise waters

Sometimes erroneously referred to as Antonia Island, this beach is actually part of Gigantes Sur and is located at its eastern end. The tall karst formations on the beach's northern end actually house a small cave that may be explored but we skipped that part. We were content just to wade in the crystal clear waters and enjoy the view of the rest of Gigantes Sur from this side of the beach.

boat at Antonia Beach
Antonia Beach's crystalline waters

Just like Cabugao Gamay, there is a clump of coconut palms lining the center of the beach. There are tables and chairs here for guests to dine in and a small store that serves cold drinks. There's also a line of tents for rent on the western side of the beach; guests can camp overnight here. The eastern section is the quieter section of the beach, although both western and eastern sides offer good swimming areas. The western side offers good snorkeling particularly the portion near the long pile of massive slanted rocks on the southern end of the beach. We would spend the remainder of our time at Antonia Beach happily snorkeling and enjoying the marine life here. (We learned later that there are several excellent dive sites around the Gigantes group of islands although these have yet to attract dive tours.)

slab-like rocks at Antonia Beach
Stack of slanted, slab-like rocks at the southern end of Antonia Beach

At Antonia's southern tip is a unique collection of slab-like rocks that is probably Antonia's defining feature as we have yet to encounter a similar topography even in places like Coron, El Nido and the Caramoan Peninsula.

Gigantes Sur and Tangke Saltwater Lagoon

karst formations at Gigantes Sur
Karst formations at Gigantes Sur on the way to the Tangke Lagoon

The southern and eastern parts of Gigantes Sur are dominated by towering karst formations not unlike those found in El Nido and Coron in Palawan and the Caramoan Peninsula in Camarines Sur. Hidden among those karst formations is the Tangke Saltwater Lagoon.

the Tangke Saltwater Lagoon at low tide
Inside the Tangke Saltwater Lagoon at low tide

Tangke was actually the first stop of our island-hopping tour. We must have arrived at Tangke around 7:30 AM, and had to transfer from our boat and scale some rocks to get inside the lagoon. Once inside the lagoon we found out why our tour guide got us to arrive here so early. Low tide was just beginning and the deepest water inside the lagoon barely reached our knees. By mid-day the lagoon would get completely dry. We learned that it's almost always like this in December. To see the lagoon at its deepest best – when the waters inside turn into a lovely turquoise – summer is the time to visit but it's also the time when the Tangke is filled to over flowing with visitors.

Gigantes Norte

This island houses most of the resorts in the Gigantes group. Stretches of white sand beach are found in the northwestern and northeastern sides of Gigantes Norte and, although interesting, none are as beautiful as Cabugao Gamay and Antonia Beach. There are two inland destinations at Gigantes Norte: the Bakwitan Cave and a Spanish-era lighthouse in the northern part of the island.

There are several caves (reportedly 57) in both Gigantes Norte and Sur but the most famous and the most accessible is Bakwitan Cave in the southern part of the island. The islands got the name Gigantes, incidentally, from Bakwitan Cave. Legend has it that coffins containing oversized human bones were found in this cave leading to the name Gigantes. Farther up north is a lighthouse originally built in 1895 which provides excellent panoramic views of the island. Resorts can arrange a trip to both destinations.

shallow waters off Bulubadiang Island
Boat in shallow water, Bulubadiang Island

Bulubadiang Island lies to the east of Gigantes Norte. At low tide it is possible to walk the 1-kilometer distance from the boat docking area at Gigantes Norte to Bulubadiang. This island is where we had lunch during our island-hopping tour.

There are other beautiful islands outside the scope of the existing island-hopping tours that have excellent potential as future destinations. Uaydajon Island, located east of the northern tip of Gigantes Norte, has a pristine white sand beach and crystal-clear waters. There are also islands to the west of Gigantes Sur that we passed by on the ferry ride from Estancia to Gigantes Norte. Pulupandan (or Pulo Pandan) is a white sand islet surrounded by turquoise waters. Balbagon Island is an elongated island ringed by an unbroken white sand beach along its perimeter and appears to be uninhabited. Probably the only thing keeping these islands off the existing island-hopping itinerary is the relatively lengthy distance from Gigantes Norte and Gigantes Sur.

Where to Stay and Other Travel Tips

Gigantes Norte is where most resorts are located. You can book overnight accommodations here and use it as a base for island-hopping. The more prominent resorts are Gigantes Hideaway Tourist Inn in Bgy. Asluman (the resort where we stayed) and Arjan Beach Resort, Jesa Beach Resort and Rosewood Place Resort on the western side. Gigantes Sur has mostly homestays but there is at least one resort there: the J-Grace Beach Resort.

It is also possible to stay overnight at both Cabugao Gamay and Antonia Beach with both places offering basic accommodations (tents mostly). Some travelers choose to stay at Estancia town then book a boat to take them to the islands in Gigantes and back within the day.

The main mode of transport within Gigantes Norte (and we assume in Gigantes Sur) is the ubiquitous habal-habal or motorbike taxi. Basic fare is P10 although we sometimes pay the driver P20.

Island-hopping. This is often included as part of the package offered by resorts in Gigantes Norte. Our island-hopping package (excluding lunch and entrance fees for the islands/beaches) came up to P3,000 which was a little surprising; our resort host explained that just recently the government has started to regulate tours and have levied fees, hence the increase in package prices.


The Gigantes Islands are known as the scallop capital of the Philippines. You can find huge amounts of scallops here at cheap prices. We had scallops here cooked in a variety of ways – the baked scallops in cheese and garlic our favorite – and had them at every meal except breakfast. But that's not all as there are also plenty of fresh squid, crabs, shrimp, fish and wasay-wasay, an ax-shaped mollusk resembling an oyster.

Getting There

The nearest airports to the Gigantes Islands are in Roxas City in Capiz and Iloilo City. Either way it is imperative to book an early flight to catch a boat in either Carles or Estancia since there is only one boat trip per day. Otherwise you might have to spend a night in any of these towns.

From Roxas City:

If you're coming from Roxas City the nearest ferry to Gigantes Norte is at the Bancal port in Carles. This port is also the fastest way to get to the Gigantes Islands. From the airport at Roxas head for the bus terminal at Pueblo de Panay. Ride a bus or van for Estancia and get off at Balasan (1.5 hours travel time). Then ride a tricycle to Bancal port in Carles (30 minutes). At Bancal port take the ferry to Gigantes Norte. There is only one trip per day to Gigantes Norte; this boat leaves at around 10AM. Travel time to Gigantes Norte is about 1.5 hours.

From Iloilo City:

From the airport at Iloilo head for the Tagbak bus terminal at Jaro district (20-30 minutes). Ride a bus or van at Tagbak for Estancia. Buses usually cover the route in 3.5 hours while vans can make it in 2.5 hours. There are both aircon and non-aircon buses that ply this route for P150-180. From the terminal at Estancia take a trike to Estancia port for the ferry ride to Gigantes Norte. The boat usually leaves at 1:00 PM. There is only one boat trip per day although there are additional boats available during summer to cater to the increased number of visitors. Boat fare is P80 and the trip takes about 2.5 hours. It is also possible to hire private boats at Estancia for Gigantes Norte if you happen to miss the ferry but this is much more expensive. The ferry returning to Estancia leaves Gigantes Norte at 8AM.

For more pictures of the Gigantes Islands visit our Flickr and Facebook pages.

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