Sicogon Island: Buaya Beach, Balay Kogon, and Mt. Opao
First: where is Sicogon Island, and, how to go? Sicogon Island belongs to the town of Carles in the northern tip of Iloilo. It is an inhabited island of sitios and barangays with a beach called Buaya and a mountain named Opao. There are myths and legends here, stories locals tell themselves to mark and remember their place. Our guides told us so, brothers who are among the remaining residents after the Ayala group of companies brought the island. Maybe not yet the whole island as of now. But there’s a map of the development plan and constructions are ongoing. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I wanted to go: to see it now, after what happened to Boracay Island, and before it gets more expensive and exclusive.How to go here? For a commuter, they say the best way from Manila is via Roxas City, Capiz. Nearer. We are from southern Antique so my sister and I spent a night in Iloilo City for the first morning van ride to Estancia, the town before Carles. Here’s the thing: we have now nicer terminals but we do not have yet the published and exact time of arrivals and departures of buses and trains, like abroad. Because, until now, and especially with the increasing gasoline price, public transpo like the van will only depart once full. That is its advantage to the Ceres bus, that stops everytime there’s a passenger on the roadside, thus the trip takes longer. So, we operated on “acquired hunch”: we went to the van terminal in Ungka, Jaro at 4:30 a.m. We were able to leave at 5:15 a.m. Not bad. It rained midway. I calmed myself by trusting that the driver knows his road. 14 towns in 2 hours, and we were there at the Estancia Terminal! Important Note: It is still an underdeveloped terminal. In short, mainly an open space for vehicles to park for loading & unloading goods & passengers. We hired a tricycle for P100.00 to the port. There are two: the Estancia Feeders Port and the Estancia PPA (Philippine Ports Authority). The tricycle driver brought us to the Feeders Port. There is a row of carinderia. We ate in one, to my satisfaction: relatively clean, fresh and newly-cooked dishes in good price and quantity, nice & warm staff. Since availability and schedule of boats depend on the number of passengers, and usually leave at noon, we hired a banca via the customer service of Balay Kogon for P3500.00, round trip.It proved to be a good decision for a 45- minute to an hour of boat ride in the rain & waves with the two good men of Sicogon. To date, Balay Kogon is the only commercial accommodation in the island. The name appropriates “balay,” the Visayan word for the “bahay” of the Tagalog, the “house” in English. “Kogon,” from “cogon,” the variety of grass abundant in the island. Ayala owned & operated, it is tasteful, with attention to details. It has satisfied my expectations: from reservation to the in-house services; our Garden Room with its cozy ambience & lighting & soft linens & premium bathroom toiletries, to the quality of food (no MSG) & on-time service in the restaurant. There’s no Wifi. A signal booster is stationed in the main lobby, the dining hall, that is also the roof deck facing Higantes Islands. It was fine with me, in my “far from the madding crowd” mode. Work still caught me though, so, a mechanism for a stronger signal in designated spots would be helpful. We hiked Mt. Opao. From Balay Kogon, it was a P200.00/head habal-habal (motorcycle) ride in a single-lane-cemented-path traversing the barangays to the entry point where I have picked a ripe cashew fruit. Our drivers were also our guides. I have hiked and climbed higher mountains so the ascent was not remarkably hard. My sister and I enjoyed naming with our guides the many different fruit trees, flowers, grasses and insects along the way. We reached the top: what a joy, not only from the activated feel-good hormones but from the beautiful seascape. We were entertained with stories as we pointed to the surrounding islands: the legend of their name based on their distinct shape, and the disappearance after the supertyphoon Haiyan/Yolanda of the buaya (crocodile) shaped rock formation from which the beach derived its name. Also: the stories of anguish brought by the supertyphoon, and the relocation to the neighboring island of those who lost their home and livelihood and chose to sell to the corporate buyer for P150,000.00. More so: the stories of everyday struggles for survival, and to stay in the island – in their own balay; this island as their own balay.Balay Kogon employs the locals and coordinates with them for what they described as “summit-to-sea” activities. We tasted the best tuba, the “sugar water” of the newly-harvested fresh sap of coconut – so it is the organic coconut wine – courtesy of our Mt. Opao guides. We availed the tour of Higantes Islands the next day (subject of another blog)and left after breakfast on the third day. We woke up to a sunrise and the weather turned fair. We sailed smooth back to Estancia port. We ate lunch at the same carinderia and headed to Balasan Terminal, bigger and more developed, for a Ceres bus ride to the town of Carles. We felt we needed to experience more of the north, certain the “next time” will take a while and entirely different.