It was that time again. Wanderlust hit us hard during late August as we usually just work through it. We decided to visit Asia again and we heard plenty of nice things about the Philippines. It was also promo season for flights in springtime, so we bought two tickets to Manila. We had plenty of time ahead to explore and plan our route, which is something I always enjoy.
March came quick enough. We departed from Venice, with two stopovers - Istanbul and Hong Kong. We covered the first two flights with Turkish Airlines and the last one with Cathay Pacific and the whole stretch was the longest distance we’ve ever made. We spent 14 hours flying and quite a few more waiting at the airports. By the time we finally arrived in Manila we were barely standing. As our arrival was super late and our next flight in the morning we decided to spend the night in the airport sleeping lounge (1800 PHP).
Philippines are huge and you need domestic flights to reach different destinations. We booked three of these (Manila-Tagbilaran, Cebu-Puerto Princesa, Puerto Princesa-Manila) to make the most of our time there. I was checking the prices regularly until our departure and caught a few promos - still an average plane ticket cost us 3300 PHP per person. As far as accommodation is concerned, we paid 1600 PHP per night in average.
We were jetlagged crazy and boarded an early plane onto our first island - Bohol. Aerial views were stunning - first flying over the North Luzon, covering Mount Banahaw and then the islands nested in turquoise waters and surrounded by coral reefs. As we approached Bohol, we immediately spotted the chocolate hills, they’re basically everywhere! We landed in Tagbilaran, airport no bigger than a garage, and took a tricycle to Panglao island (300 PHP), southwest of Bohol, but so close it’s still within Bohol Province. Our first destination was actually the White beach, northeast from the famous, packed and busy Alona beach. Long beach, big waves, palm trees and sunshine. That’s when it hit us - we’re on a holiday.
The place seemed very local as there were no tourists. We found one restaurant on the beach - Yuken Mari and it was delicious (450 PHP). We had chicken, rice, veggies, fish and a San Miguel beer. Jet lag was bad so we went to bed quite early and continued to do so our whole trip :)
Next day was about exploring Bohol. We took a tricycle back to Tagbilaran Dao terminal and hopped on a bus for Carmen (100 PHP), the chocolate hills location. We seemed to be the only tourists on the bus, which was strange. The people were extremely friendly, giving up their seats so we could sit together and reminding us where to get off the bus for Carmen. We continued on foot up the road. The view over the green hills is great, they’re really unusual. However the place is packed with tourists. We circled back to the main road and strangely caught the exact van (90 PHP) to take us to Corella and our next stop - the Tarsier sanctuary (120 PHP). We wanted to see them in their natural environment or as natural as it can get. The tarsiers are supposed to be free here, they can even leave the territory if they wish to do so. These lovely and intriguing nocturnal primates basically sit in the same spot all day. A bored guide walked with us and spotted about five of them, she's probably done this about 50 times that day. Definitely worth a visit though!
We walked back to the main road and wondered how to get back to Tagbilaran. We didn't even know it was Sunday until a nice kid on a motorcycle reminded us the bus isn't coming anytime soon. He offered to call us a taxi, but for some reason we insisted on waiting. A local van arrived 15 minutes later and took us to Tagbilaran for 20 PHP, which is just absurdly cheap. The van was full when we entered, however we squeezed about six more people inside by the time we got to Tagbilaran - there's always room for more people. And a chicken.
We returned to Panglao island’s Alona beach to arrange a boat transfer for the next morning. Alona is a really touristy spot, maybe a bit much for us. Anyway we got our boat to Oslob and came back in the morning. We managed to knock the price down a bit (700 PHP/person), since we were going one way only.
Our boat was scheduled to leave at 9:00, we set sail at around 11:00. Service providers seemed a bit lost and overwhelmed and kept us waiting on the streets of Alona. They packed us in tiny vans and took us to another beach where we had to walk about 300 meters to our boat. They couldn't come get us due to low tide. Guides carried our backpacks the whole way, belly deep in the water, which was a bit frustrating because of the camera gear. Everything was fine though. Our guides just kept smiling :) Our bangka's engine gave out a couple of times on our way as well but the handy Filipinos fixed it in no time. This service was shitty and took way longer than planned, but still it was the fastest and cheapest way to get to Cebu and I'm thankful for that.
We arrived a bit north from Oslob and took a tricycle (100 PHP) to the whale sharks' spot. Packed area, very organised. You get a ticket (1100 PHP), change, listen to instructions, take a van for 15 seconds, take a shower and hop on a boat that takes you 20 meters from the beach. Quite a chaotic experience. We swam with the whale sharks, but so did 50 other people. Amazing creatures, just unbelieveable. But still I can't quite decide if it was a positive experience or not. The whale shark is a slow-moving filter feeding shark and the largest known fish species. The largest confirmed individual had a length of 12.65 m, while the ones in Oslob were probably around 5-6 meters. They really are gentle giants, slowly cruising around and not really minding us people. Whale sharks in Oslob are being fed so they keep returning. More and more people come to see them and that couldn't possibly lead to a great future for them. It's just business at this point and sooner or later it'll fall out of control.
We continued with a yellow Ceres Liner bus (100 PHP) around the southern Cebu coast. We got off in the eastern village of Ginatilan. There was a sign saying "Inambakan falls 4 km". That seemed too much to walk, especially with our backpacks on, so two smiling Filipinos took us to the waterfall. The motorcycle ride through the tropical forest was an incredible experience. There's a small fee (20 PHP) to enter the area and Inambakan is a short walk from the road. Great waterfall, fresh water and local kids playing around. We chose this waterfall as Kawasan falls were supposed to be too touristy.
Another Ceres liner took us north to Moalboal (120 PHP), our two day snorkelling spot. We slept at Quo Vadis dive resort, which was great because we got to borrow all the snorkelling gear. Moalboal is known for the sardine run. Large schools of sardines recently migrated close to the shore of Panagsama beach. We found them right at the reef drop-off close to Chili bar. A Canadian guy we met during lunch pointed us towards a reef part just outside Quo Vadis, where he supposedly saw all kinds of fish, sea snakes and even a turtle. So naturally we headed there next. And really, some 50 metres from the shore we found an amazingly colorful part of the reef and couldn't stop snokelling. The Canadian guy was right, we even spotted a turtle! What an awesome experience. It's just so much different seeing animals free in their habitat. Cheers, Canadian guy!
We visited the White beach in the evening. It was a 30min tricycle ride north from Panagsama through a very raw landscape. People really don't have a lot there. They do have roosters though. Everyone has a rooster. White beach is a nice spot with super clear water where we waited for the sun to set over Negros island. We headed back to our resort, bought a coconut, drank the juice, called it a day. And a tough one ahead.
Woke up at 5am, headed to Moalboal town's main bus station and luckily caught a bus right away. A dusty old Ceres liner took us to Cebu city in about four hours for 250 PHP. It was a fun ride till Talisay city, where the traffic slowed us down. We took another taxi (300 PHP) from Cebu city to Mactan island - the actual location of the airport. That took us another half an hour. We had a flight for Palawan at 14:00, but Cebu Pacific was an hour late. That obviously happens a lot, yet we were quite lucky - we met an Australian couple that had 3 hour delays on their flights. An hour and 20 minutes later we touched down in Puerto Princesa, Palawan - our final island. As we were pretty late and the last vans were supposed to leave around 4pm, I rushed outside to get us one for Port Barton. There was an office right outside the airport, where I booked two seats for 1000 PHP. That could've been cheaper, but we were in a hurry and went with it. A guy took us to De Loro Inn, where the van later picked us up. Filipino drove like a maniac, we reached Roxas (kind of a crossroads for Port Barton or El Nido) in about 2.5 hours and continued east. A good portion of road to Port Barton is still under construction so the last part is the most difficult. We finally arrived in Port Barton around 9pm and checked in Elsa’s Cottage right on the beach. That was our day, fully spent on the road.
Port Barton is supposed to be quieter, smaller, and more laid-back version of El Nido. There is no electricity, except from 18:00 until midnight. There are no banks or ATMs. There are no doctors or hospitals. Port Barton is a popular choice for budget backpackers seeking a relaxed atmosphere in nature.
We didn’t get much sleep as the loud bass music wouldn’t stop till 4am. Elsa’s Cottage wasn’t the best choice for us. I woke up in paradise though. Sun was rising over the palm trees covered in the morning mist. We could finally see the long Port Barton beach in all its glory.
We spent the day exploring the village, meeting the locals, relaxing and reading in the hammock outside our cottage. I also booked an island hopping tour for 700 PHP per person. Tour guy said it’s a mix of A, B, C and D tours and very private. Sounds good.
And it was. Only five of us left Port Barton beach the next morning and went island hopping. We first stopped at two beautiful snorkel spots - Aquarium reef and Wide reef. The marine life here is amazing, the corals seem very healthy and tropical fish abound. We continued towards the charming German island, where we had lunch and later a snorkel only to spot our second turtle. There were crazy amounts of jellyfish as well. Our tour guides said only the ones with long tentacles are dangerous, but we were getting stung all the time. Nothing major though. We continued towards Riddle point, another snorkelling spot and finished off with a waterfall. 15min walk from a nearby beach and we reached Bigaho falls to cool off.
I woke up with a fever the next morning, but I was fine in a couple of hours. We even went for a hike to Pamuayan falls - another waterfall, this one about 4km from Port Barton beach. The trailhead begins just past the Greenviews Resort, there are also locals offering motorcycle rides but we managed on foot. We passed a local cemetery, some rice fields and paid a fee of 100 PHP to visit the waterfall. It was a really nice tropical sight with local kids playing around, jumping in the water. We enjoyed a gorgeous sunset over the islands of Port Barton in the evening.
Port Barton was nice to us, but still not as calm as expected. The nights were pretty wild, maybe just in our Elsa's Cottage. Also the village seems to attract a very particular type of tourists - young, spoilt, hindu-symbol-tattooed hipsters doing tai chi in front of restaurants for everyone to see. Hanging indoors all day, waiting for electricity to come so they can post their selfies online. Maybe I'm just being mean. Nonetheless Port Barton is a must visit spot, maybe just find another guesthouse. We spent around 550 PHP for breakfast, 800 PHP for lunch/dinner and 200 PHP for drinks each day. We booked a direct van transfer to El Nido at our guesthouse for 1600 PHP and left the next morning.
Rough road to Roxas, and 4 hours more to El Nido. We arrived to the bus terminal and took a tricycle to our hotel - Nido Bay Inn. A fairly cozy stay, right on the beachfront, with a nice view over the bay and Cadlao island. We had two superb eateries right next to our hotel. L’Assiette and Artcafé were both a bit on the expensive side - especially L’Assiette, but it was our last stop, might as well live a little. We had a nice brunch with coffee at L’Assiette (1000 PHP). Coffee! First good, proper coffee in 2 weeks. I also took the best dump in 2 weeks afterwards. That's living.
We took a walk around the village, explored a bit and found a few island hopping tour operators. We wanted a 2 day / 1 night tour and got a price of 3000 PHP per person, but it looked too touristy and we wanted a more private experience. We found Philippines À La Carte and got an offer for two of us alone, private boat, all meals included, tent, shower, sunset cruise, fishing ... and tours of our choice. Super expensive though. Fuck it. We booked it as this was our first and probably last time in El Nido. We took a tricycle to Marimegmeg beach in the evening and watched the sun set somewhere over Pangulasian island.
We packed our supplies and left El Nido at 7am. We made a mix and basically saw a bulk of all A, B, C and D tours. Our four tour guides were a bit shy at first but we connected soon enough.
We circled around the hill, passing Ipil, Ipil Ipil, 7 Commandos, Corong Corong and Marimegmeg beaches and sailed towards the rock that is Pinagbuyutan island. Its limestone cliff walls reach all the way up to 337 meters high. There's a beautiful sight on the other side as well. A couple of beaches, taraw rocks, palm trees and tall grass. Enchanted Island indeed.
We continued past a very jurassicy Malapacao island, stopped at a sandbar and went around Lagen island, kayaked to the beach and waited for lunch. Our cook Abel really proved himself. He prepared pork, squid, fish, mussels, rice and fruits. Crazy amounts of delicous food.
We continued towards Cathedral Cave and took a kayak ride inside. The second cave was mainland's Cudugnon Cave and then Snake island just around the cape. We ascended the viewpoint on Vigan island to see the whole "snake". We then passed Pangulasian, its luxurious island resort and went snorkelling over at Popolcan island. First thing, the water here is considerably cooler than Port Barton (and Bohol/Cebu for that matter), it feels quite good that you can actually cool off. But there's more jellyfish as well. We did another "dive" around Entalula Island, but the jellyfish drove us out soon enough, so we sailed on and watched the sunset from our boat - biggest ball of fire I've ever seen.
Then we settled on our very own private island for the night - Shimizu island. Surrounded by two massive taraw pillars, we had dinner under the stars and slept in a tent right on the beach.
Our tour guides really did their best to make the tour private and succesfully avoided the crowds, so we had an early rise to see the lagoons of Miniloc Island. We started off with Small lagoon, continued with Big lagoon and finished with Secret lagoon. Our yellow kayak really came in useful as we were able to explore the lagoons completely and had the whole place just for ourselves.
We then visited Secret beach, where we had to swim through a narrow hole underwater to reach ... a secret beach. We continued with a snorkel at Matinloc island. That was probably the nicest reef I've ever seen. The visibility was amazing and there were so many fish you could forget to breathe. Our captain then anchored at the beach in Tapiutan Strait, just across the Matinloc Shrine. We had another one of Abel's specialities - chicken soup. We visited Hidden beach - so many similar names we started confusing them, but still a nice spot, a bit crowded at that time already. Kayak came in handy again for Cadlao lagoon / Ubugon Cove, another lovely spot with toxic turquoise water. We passed Dilumacad (Helicopter) Island on our way back and anchored at Ipil Ipil for a final walk on the beach. A few packed boats came in and started unpacking tents for overnight camping and preparing for a party, so we definitely made a right choice by going private. Bacuit archipelago was an unforgettable experience. Thank you Abel, Sam, Jon & Nick!
We had two days left in El Nido and we wanted to make the best of it but we couldn't. I got sick with fever and this time it wasn't fun. I had to sleep it off. We planned on visiting the twin beaches Nacpan and Calitang and a hike on taraw cliff overlooking El Nido village. Turns out taraw cliff is (was) closed because some kind of an accident occurred not too long ago. But it's definitely a worthwhile visit if you can manage.
Next day we hopped on a van for Puerto Princesa (1200 PHP) and slept there for an adventurous night of diarrhea and TV. We then flew back to Manila/Hong Kong/Istanbul/Venice.
I didn't need any adaptation time for the Philippines, I forgot about work and home the second I was there, I guess these islands just radiate a special vibe. Filipinos are just the sweetest people I've had the pleasure of meeting. I always felt safe. Having been in Thailand before, I tend to be more careful in the crowded places but I have never felt any uncertainty in the Philippines. Truly a relaxed atmosphere wherever I was. I hope we come back someday to explore more islands, maybe dive in Coron, Tubbataha or Apo Reef. I'd also love to tour the whole Luzon from Banaue rice terraces, volcanoes Pinatubo, Taal and Mayon to Caramoan islands. Batanes islands require a trip of their own as well! Philippines, thank you for everything!