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The Filipino archipelago has more than 7,000 islands, scattered in 18 regions. As is the case for Indonesia, one would need a whole life to travel around the entire country (a lifetime may even be not enough). On July, 2016, I travelled around the three regions that receive more tourists in the Philippines: the capital, Manila, the island of Palawan (chosen as the best island of the world in 2013, 2015 and 2016) and the island of Cebu. Yes, it is a beautiful country. Yes, its beaches are impressive. But you need to be aware of the fact that moving through this archipelago is not simple and you will need a lot of patience. Get on board and welcome to the Philippines!
Before arriving, I had mixed feelings about the city: some fellow travellers have disparaged Manila and I could not find any positive information on the internet. I thought about avoiding the capital and flying straight to Cebú, but I agreed with my current ex-girlfriend to stay for two days to try our luck. “There must be something interesting”, we agreed.
Reality is we could not find many places to visit. Miguel López de Legazpi founded the city in 1571 in the current area of Intramuros (Spanish translation for “inside the walls”), which is the greatest tourist attraction of the city. Inside the walls, you can see Spanish churches (Spanish influence in the Philippines, due to the colonization, can be specially appreciated in the architecture, in the food and in the language), narrow hallways and persistent Filipinos offering carriage rides.
We were not interested in taking carriage rides or in going shopping, but if you are, you can do it on a large scale. SM Mall of Asia was inaugurated in 2006 as the biggest shopping mall in the Philippines. Currently, it is the fourth biggest shopping mall in the country and it is the eleventh biggest shopping mall in the world with 42 hectares and a daily average traffic of 200,000 people.
The most striking feature of Manila (and of the large Filipino cities in general) was the amount of rubbish on the streets. If we bear in mind that the average temperature here is between 25 and 30 degrees Celsius all year long, the combination becomes fatal: the smell of rotten rubbish in the streets of the capital is unbearable.
Manila was, beyond the shadow of a doubt, intense. It was complicated and impractical. It was, also, very hot and suffocating. As a first impression of the Philippines, it was strong and, maybe, predictable. The most interesting sites of this country are not in the large cities, but in the small towns and in its islands. Therefore, we left Manila to meet them.
Palawan Island is located in the Western Visayas. Flying from Manila takes approximately one hour and 20 minutes (Cebu Pacific flies for 31 USD). This island contains the most visited attractions of the country; thus, moving around here is simple (even though bargaining, as in almost all of South East Asia, is imperative).
Palawan is the capital of Puerto Princesa (it hosts the airport with the biggest traffic of the island). The city is located almost in the centre of the island, so it is a very convenient point to begin exploring the island.
The biggest tourist attraction of Puerto Princesa are the subterranean rivers. This landscape is make up of limestone formations cleaved by subterranean rivers, in a national park of approximately 5,753 hectares. In 1999, the national park was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and, in 2011, it was declared as one of the seven marvels of the natural world.
Some hours away from Puerto Princesa by motorbike is Nagtabon beach. The road, at least on rainy days, is not suitable for beginners, since it contains dangerous slopes and curves over gravel rural roads. The beach mainly attracts a local audience, especially during weekends, and it has a small grocery store and there are some hay huts to take shelter from the sun. And that is all: nature in pure state.
El Nido is, undoubtedly, the most visited town in the Philippines. To get to El Nido, you need to get a bus from Puerto Princesa that takes between 6 and 9 hours, depending on the humour and on the willingness of the drivers, since they stop almost constantly: to smoke, to go to the toilet, to eat, to…
We arrived at night; there was no electricity and we were really tired. It approximately took us two hours to find our hostel, and it did not have electricity, or internet service or hot water. It did not seem a warm welcome. However, when we went out on the next day, we could see the landscape that was hidden last night: turquoise water beaches, fine-grain sand and capricious rock formations embellished with jungle.
El Nido has (at least) two facets: walk-in beaches and beaches accessible by boat. The former, in general, have algae in the seabed and the water level is too low to swim in it. The latter, on the contrary, are really impressive.
To find these beaches, you need to take one of the four tours available in El Nido: A, B, C or D. The most recommended tours are A and C. In the time span of seven hours, from nine in the morning till four in the afternoon, we visited islets, bays, virgin beaches and coral formations spread across the surroundings of El Nido. At midday, the boat berths in some random island and fresh lunch is served: roasted fish, seafood, pork, rice, salads and fresh fruits.
El Nido lives up to its reputation: its beaches are truly unique. However, being truly honest, we ended up with a bittersweet flavour. The town is pretty, but it is really simple, and available accommodations offer little and charge a lot (if we compare them with other areas of the Philippines). Saying that it is overrated would be an exaggeration, but I would like to hear your experiences and your opinions.
Port Barton is a relatively new tourist attraction in Palawan. A Spanish business group started investing in the area to boost it, but it is still difficult to reach the town, since the road that ends in Port Barton is under construction.
The town is extremely small and homely: it has no more than ten blocks long and four blocks wide. That is all. Unlike the beaches in El Nido, walk-in beaches in Port Barton are as clear and as “swimable” as the ones that you can visit hiring a tour.
However, the most attractive walk-in beach in Port Barton is White Beach, separated from the main beach by a one-hour-walk through the jungle. You will hardly ever come across another tourist in this beach. It is crucial to take food with you, water and mosquito repellent since the beach is completely virgin.
You can also take several tours around Port Barton. The area has huge coral reefs that look like water forests of lysergic colours and there are countless sea turtles of all sizes.
Port Barton’s tranquillity, its sunsets, its dirt roads and its corals turn this destination into an ideal place for those who want to get away from the city noise. This will possibly change in some years time. When the pavement road finally arrives to Port Barton, luxury hotels and buildings will also come along, and together with them, mass tourism. In the meantime and until then, Port Barton will remain a shelter for the lovers of the authentic.
From Puerto Princesa, we flew to Cebu Island, located in the Central Visayas, in a flight that took approximately one hour and a half (Cebu Pacific flies for 50 USD and Air Asia has cheaper flights with a stop-over in Manila).
If you read Manila’s section, there is nothing left to say about Cebu City. Bear in mind that it has two bus terminals: one in the South to go southwards and another one in the North to go northwards. You can deduce everything else with these pictures:
Without hesitation, Malapascua was the revelation of our trip around the Philippines. To arrive in this small idyllic island, you have to go all the way to the North of Cebu Island until its coastal boundary, in the even smaller town of Maya. Then, from Maya port, you have to take a boat that takes approximately one hour to arrive in Malapascua.
Malapascua has two main beaches, one in the North and another one in the South. There are no cars in the island, so to move around the island, you have to walk through tiny trails (there are plenty of them and they are not very well delineated) or take a moto-taxi. The island is full of roosters, since rooster fight is the national “sport” in the Philippines, together with basketball and volleyball.
Most visitors come to the island to see the famous thresher shark, that is why there are so many diving centres in an island that has no more than 10 km². The second attraction in importance in the island is two hours away by boat: Kalanggaman island.
Kalanggaman is a private island of less than one kilometre long. The tour and the ticket to enter the island are not cheap, but they are worth every Filipino peso. It is surrounded by turquoise water and coral formations, and it has some palm trees to shelter from the sun. Honestly, this is the most beautiful beach I have ever been in my life. Do not you believe me? Have a look…
If you want to read more about Malapascua and Kalanggaman, you can follow this link.
To get to Bantayan (from Malapascua), you need to take a bus from Maya to Hagnaya port that takes approximately two hours. From Hagnaya port, there are ferries crossing into Bantayan (approximately one hour).
In Bantayan Island, we stayed in the most touristic part of the island: Santa Fe neighbourhood. This area is very peaceful, relatively cheap and it has several hostels and hotels, and a lot of restaurants with food from all over the world (Greek, Italian, Mexican, Indian, and others). We felt right at home in Santa Fe, as had happened in Malapascua; this reinforced our theory about the difference the Filipino cities and towns.
Bantayan beaches, unfortunately, depend a lot on the tide and on the sunlight. During the morning, the water tends to be calmer and retracted, whereas during the afternoon, there is high tide and the water stirs. As a consequence, it is advisable to get up early to enjoy the beach and then going for a drink or trying some strange dish in the local markets (Check the Typical dishes section to find some inspiration).
In the surroundings of Santa Fe and in the island in general, you can visit several beaches. Santa Fe’s main beach is called Kota, a long beach with white sand and turquoise waters. In Santa Fe, we also visited Sugar beach (next to Kota). A little further away, you will find Ogtong beach, which can be accessed through a luxury resort (that also has a cave). Of course, the best way to move around the island is by motorbike, so adjust your helmet and let the exploring begin.
Moving around the Philippines takes time and a lot of patience is needed. To get to Moalboal from the North of Cebu Island, you have to go first to the North bus terminal of Cebu City, and then take a taxi to the South bus terminal and, from there, take a bus to Moalboal. As we travelled on the eve of a holiday, the terminal was chaos and police organisation was less than efficient.
Moalboal is a very attractive coastal town. Its streets are narrow and few cars pass by (if any). The touristic area is over the main beach, which has a very entertaining attraction: sardines shoals.
A few metres away from the coast, the seabed descends and the sardines gather in massive shoals (here you will find more information about swimming with sardines in Moalboal). Honestly, I could have been hours on end playing with sardines: they swirl, they detach, they join, they go up and down, all in perfect synchronisation, and everything looks quite surreal.
It is advisable to stay a few days in Moalboal, since it is a convenient starting point for travelling around the South of Cebu Island. The most famous beach in Moalboal is White Beach, located half an hour away by motorbike from downtown. With its turquoise and blue waters, with its white fine sand and its palm trees, White Beach offers dreamy views, almost unlike any other beach in South East Asia. It is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, a must.
You can also hire a tour that takes you to visit Pescador Island (Fisherman Island), a tiny uninhabited island surrounded by coral platforms, which is excellent for snorkelling and diving: rainbow-coloured fishes, jellyfishes, sea turtles and even sea snakes.
If you want to read more about Moalboal, you can do so following this link.
SOUTH OF CEBU
I was impressed by nature every step of the way in the South of Cebu Island: every site was better than the previous one. In one day trips from Moalboal, we visited three destinations: Lambug beach, Kawasan Falls and the Oslob Whale Shark Watching Centre.
To get to Lambug, you have to take one of the many buses that frequently pass by the road that surrounds the whole island southwards and you have to get down in the intersection of the road that is near the beach. From there, you have to bargain with a tuk-tuk driver for him to take you to the beach, which is approximately 20 minutes away.
Lambug is the ideal spot for travellers who want to avoid crowds: when we went to the beach, there was no single tourist on site. The tranquillity was only interrupted when three local children started playing near us to call our attention for one hour. Some 30 metres away from the coast, the seabed becomes alive: the coral formations increase in number, size and variety, until there is a steep drop in the seabed that forms a horizontal wall. It looks as if a sub-aquatic artist would have engraved it. Apart from that, only fine sand, a turquoise sea without waves and the peace brought about by the calmed sound of nature.
When we run out of the groceries we had taken with us, we looked around and we could only find locals singing karaoke with all their might. A lady who was washing her clothes asked us if we were looking for something: food, we answered. Without losing a minute, she prepared a basic menu and, after paying a few Filipino pesos, we had a great lunch in a beach that was completely empty. We had many doubt about Lambug, since we could not find much information about the place, but it was a pleasant surprise. So much so that this is one of the beaches that I most strongly recommend in the whole of the Philippines.
To get to the Kawasan Falls, you have to take the same bus that goes southwards and passes by Lambug. From Moalboal, it takes approximately one hour and a half. These falls are one of the most typical tourist attractions of the motley Cebu Island. However, they are not unique: the South of Cebu is full of cascades and waterfalls.
When we arrived, after walking through a jungle trail for some kilometres, the Kawasan Falls appeared before us and we could not help but spotting a detail: the water has a very intense turquoise colour. So much so that the water seems to be radioactive or illuminated from underneath. Actually, that is its natural colour.
We regretted the paraphernalia assembled around the site to receive tourists (a restaurant, a hotel, a bar, a raft to go under the cascade, tables and chairs), since we thought the place was virgin, and that there were no umbrellas, nobody trying to charge you for sitting at a ramshackle table to eat our sandwich. The fall in itself is formidable and it really stands out from in that environment. The circus the Filipino mounted around it is unnecessary and it takes away some of its wild charm.
OSLOB WHALE SHARK WATCHING CENTRE
When I heard that in the Philippines you could snorkel with whale sharks, I did not doubt it for a second. After swimming with reef sharks in the Perhentian Islands and in Komodo Island, I was fascinated with this animal, with its elegant way of swimming, with its speed and with its look.
When the appointed date was approaching, I started investigating about whale shark watching in Oslob. Some years ago, fishermen in Oslob realised that whale sharks were wandering around the fishing area looking for the leftovers that fishermen would throw into the water. Faced with these situation, they thought they could take advantage of it and they started feeding the animals so that they would stay in the area. This obviously affects the animal’s diet, its reproductive cycle and its migrations.
Once we read about this, we had to make a decision: either contributing to a business that is harmful for nature, that violates all norms and regulations of responsible tourism, or waving goodbye to our huge sea friends and continuing to another destination.
I do not feel proud about our decision, but we really wanted to meet these adorable creatures. It was a truly unforgettable experience; contradictory, of course, but unforgettable: whale sharks are admirable animals. They have a massive size and some of them can be as long as 12 metres; their look can soften even the most soulless human being; their movements, slow but reassuring, are more fit for a bird than a mammal that weights around 20 tons.
I strongly recommend all travellers against visiting the Whale Shark Watching Centre in Oslob. Do not replicate our egotistic behaviour. You can see whale sharks in many places around the Philippines and South East Asia; thus, with a proper organisation, you can enjoy a much more natural experience and you would not harm the Filipino fauna.
DO YOU FEEL LIKE READING MORE?
If you want to read more about the Philippines, South East Asia or other trips, I suggest you continuing with these sections:
This post is also available in: Español Pocas veces entré a una sala de teatro tan perdido: no conocía la duración del show, no sabía
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This post is also available in: Español