Steph Puyod discovers a slowly rising tourism gem replete with island adventures, breathtaking scenery, and an intriguing past
Our boat streamed through the sapphire sea, past the bobbing islands of Carles, Iloilo. It took roughly three hours to get here from Metro Manila, and I could already feel the thoughts of work and the fast-paced city life waning like Panay Island behind us. My smile grew bigger as we soon neared the island, glinting with its flat-peaked mountain, thick blanket of trees, and warm caramel sand. So this is Sicogon.
There’s a tinge of mystery surrounding Sicogon’s past—partly because it was a world-renowned destination in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and partly because it seemingly disappeared after.
Named after the cogon grass that prominently covers the island’s hillsides, the enclave was home to the premier Sicogon Island Beach Club that drew in socialites and foreigners long before Boracay’s glory days. Luxury cruises often visited the island, where guests can delight in scrumptious international cuisine, sample the local coconut wine tuba, or have a Vegas-style wedding. (It was quite a popular wedding destination).
Sicogon created such a big buzz that it even became the location for Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop sa Balat ng Lupa (The Most Beautiful Animal in the World), a local film starring Miss Universe 1969 Gloria Diaz. However, the shaky political landscape took a toll on the resort, causing it to close down in the late ‘80s.
Over the past 20 years, the island slowly regained its laidback, untouched charm. But back to its serene and rugged state, Sicogon now draws in a new wave of travelers who are hungry for a different adventure.
From the caramel shores at the northern drop-off point, our group immediately went on a tour around the island. Sicogon entices explorers with contrasting landscapes that create the perfect sea-to-summit experience. Near the old runway (soon to be reconstructed) is a four-hectare natural lagoon surrounded by mangroves. As we went deeper into the island, we saw little towns, which give way to grassy knolls and cliffs overlooking the sea.
As for the beaches, there’s a miscellany of glamping grounds to choose from. Long Beach glistens with more than two kilometers of pristine sand. This opens up to jewel-toned waters and the neighboring islands, which make a striking backdrop during a quiet swim. The Alipata and Buaya Beaches hold their own unique character, and though they have smaller stretches of sand, never fall short on clear waters and picturesque views. Little coves also dot along Sicogon’s coast, promising more secluded escapes.
With the nice patch of sand and nothing but the vast expanse ahead of us, it was easy to imagine pitching up a tent by the shore. The island will also launch the Sicogon Beach Camp in the second quarter of this year for more luxurious seaside stays. We were also thrilled about the water activities (like kayaking) that are said to come out by the third quarter.
A Big Iloilo Escapade
Aside from enjoying the island’s many beaches,one can also sign up for a tour to Visayas’ other gems. Sicogon’s strategic proximity to Roxas City Airport, Isla de Gigantes and Concepcion Islands makes it a great starting point for one big northern Iloilo escapade.
Isla de Gigantes made it to recent “top hidden getaways” lists because of its unspoiled beaches, mythical tales, and remote location. It is home to a tiny cluster of islands including the Cabugao Gamay, Bantigue, and Gigantes Sur—where you can take a leap of faith at the famous Tangke Lagoon during high tide.
The multi-island tour also takes guests to the lesser-known Concepcion Islands. Gifted with steep mountains and low shores, these islets look like large, green bobbing heads from afar. A closer and in-depth exploration brings tourists to pillowy sandbars and “private” sanctuaries.
Sadly, we weren’t able to squeeze the multi-island tour in during our Sicogon trip, but the promise of a next time still rings in the air.
After a day spent exploring Sicogon, we found ourselves admiring the lavender sunset sky from Buaya Beach. Making the view more dramatic were the gently rolling waters, which looked like a scenic setting for a quiet kayak ride. Our group later realized that we couldn’t have chosen a more idyllic time and spot for a short dip. In that rugged nook in northeastern Sicogon, we became audience to the rising of full, yellow moon.
By nighttime, there was nothing left to do but revel in the quiet beauty of island life: humming crickets, softly rumbling waves, and a sky full of stars you’ll rarely see in the city. Some areas in the island receive low network signal, which gave us more reasons to take a break from social media and just enjoy each other’s company. One of the locals (a former head chef in Sicogon Island Resort) regaled us with stories about the island, from the times when the beach club held festivals and dances to his own experience of being an extra in the Gloria Diaz movie. These painted a clearer picture of Sicogon’s shrouded history.
The next morning was one of conquering mountains. One of the highlights of the Sicogon trip is a hike on Mt. Opao (locally translated as “bald mountain”). Aptly named for its grassy and flat peak, the humble giant stands 350 meters high with a rather gradual ascent—less intimidating for a newbie like me.
The idea was to begin at 4AM to catch sunrise at the summit, but we started a little later and took a while to reach the top. Though the sun was already rising as we climbed, it gave us more reasons to appreciate each stopover and marvel at the strawberry-streaked sea. It felt invigorating to walk through the cogon meadows and low-hanging trees in the cool morning. After an hour and a half’s worth of hiking, ducking and stopping for air, we cityfolks felt our struggles disappear as we reached the peak. Imagine having awesome views of the inspiring morning sky, topaz waters and nothing but Mother Nature’s majestic glory. We won’t forget how much we wanted to run Mt. Opao’s cogon field and sing “Sound of Music”!
As we left Sicogon a little while before lunch, we felt tired but brimming with memories. The captain took a different route and decided to circle the island before we go. In our weary state, we couldn’t help but gape at the sight of the smooth coastline slowly roll into craggy shores, rock formations, grass-lined cliffs and back to sandy beaches.
Even at goodbye, Sicogon never failed to offer an exhilarating experience.
Puerto Galera may be known to many as “the poor man’s Boracay,” but dig past the nightly beach parties and you’ll discover a treasure trove of natural wonders and a cultural gold mine