I can’t believe it’s already been 30 days since I came to the Philippines. My visa is expiring, and so I have to leave (or pay to extend… which I’ve considered). This place is HUGE! I really feel like I only scratched the surface. There are 7000 islands and over 100 million people. Everyone speaks excellent English with accents that are indistinguishable from US Americans. The demeanor of every Filipino I met was warm, smiling, friendly, sociable. This is a great nation, and I can’t wait to come back.
Where did I go?
I originally decided to come to the Philippines when I did because 2 friends from San Francisco were going to be here for a few days. I couldn’t resist seeing some friendly faces from back home, and welcomed anything familiar after traveling for almost six months.
Boracay is a small island just off the northwest coast of Panay Island. To be honest, I’d never heard of it, but apparently it’s well-known internationally for its white-sand beaches and nightlife. Several travel magazines have crowned it “Best Island” in past years.
Boracay doesn’t have an airport, but you can fly into Caticlan Airport nearby, which is where you catch a boat to the island anyway. You can also fly into Kalibo Airport, as I did, which is about 1hr away and cheaper. For less than $10, you can hire a service like Southwest to pick you up at the airport, bus you to Caticlan, and ferry you to Boracay island. Once you’re there you can grab a tricycle (which I quickly learned are pervasive in the Philippines) to your accommodation for about $2.
I stayed at Frendz Hostel and hightly recommend it. There’s a big common area, frend-ly people all around, organized cheap island hopping trips to meet people, and free “pasta night” two times per week.
It was at Frendz that I was introduced to Red Horse. Red Horse is a lager that eagerly advertises its “Extra Strong” 7% ABV, but it’s also got some real taste, and it’s one of the better beers I’ve encountered while traveling in Asia, though the competition is very weak.
After my welcome drink Red Horse, I quickly set out to see how great the beach really was. And it didn’t let me down. Gorgeous. Somewhere you’ll want to just stroll up and down every day. Heads up, it does get pretty crowded at times on the weekends and sunset. But it shouldn’t be a surprise that paradise is in high demand.
Up and down White Beach for several kilometers, there are bars and restaurants with tables or beanbags right on the water. At night, many have fire poi performers (who are quite talented). Usually there are a few kids nearby practicing with cheap LED poi, ostensibly practicing so they can one day to it professionally.
Similarly, lots of little kids are making elaborate “Boracay 2017” sandcastles all day. At night, they light them up with little torches, and charge tourists to take pictures with them.
The island is only 500m wide, so it’s just a 10 minute walk to the East side of the island, which has some of the best Kitesurfing in Asia. Bulabog beach has a big bay that’s guarded by a reef quite a ways out, so there are almost no waves. And the water is shallow all the way out to the reef, so no treading water as you catch your wind. I tried my hand at Kitesurfing for a 4hr lesson. The kite is powerful, and fun to work with. They start you off on a little training kite, and then you get a big one. I tried to get up on the board a few times when they finally gave me it in the last 45m or so. But I aggravated a knee injury and had to stop. :/
After a few days solo, my friends from San Francisco showed up. And thus I spent a few days divorced from my normal backpacker budget (buying the cheapest food I can find). We splurged, and it tasted good.
The Lechon Kawali (spit-roasted pork) at Mayas was so good I went back a second time. The skin is so well cooked and chewy it’s basically like candy. The second time I tried to eat a whole serving by myself, and my body was like “Nooooooo” afterward. So… it’s probably not very good for you. Great to share though.
Jonah’s Fruit Shake & Snack Bar was also somewhere I visited several times. It’s right on the beach. Banana peanut butter shakes are a weakness of mine.
On the last night we also had a “Boodle fight” dinner. This is basically a big heap of food serve don banana leaves, and you have to eat it with your hands. Squid, pork several ways, chicken, rice, eggplant– SO MUCH FOOD. We couldn’t eat it all, but it was so good. It’s a tradition that supposedly started in the Filipino military where soldiers would eat with their officers all as one.
Throughout my stay at the hostel in Boracay, everyone kept talking about this place called “Palawan”. They had just come from there, or were planning on going there next. A Filipino in my dorm said it was “the last frontier” of undeveloped Philippines. Since I had mostly come to the Philippines to visit my friends, I hadn’t really decided where to go next. So why not?
It’s a little bit pricey to fly from Kalibo through Manila to Puerto Princesa, Palawan. But I did it anyway. I later learned that it’s possible to take long ferry back toward Manila on Luzon, and then another ferry to Coron in North Palawan. Total traveling time would probably be 2 days or so. If you’re cost sensitive, check the 2Go ferry schedules from Caticlan.
Palawan is a long and skinny island in the far Southwest of the Philippines, stretching nearly all the way to Borneo.
I flew into here from Boracay (via Manila). It was definitely very different than resortish Boracay. It’s a dusty, blue collar city, as far as I could see. I walked from the airport to a guesthouse on the West end of town.
I do recommend the Chaolong at Bona’s. It’s basically like Vietnamese Pho but with much more greasy stewed beefy broth. I ate this for 3 meals because it tasted so good. And garlic bread on the side. Such comfort food.
I was only here for overnight and a day, so I’m sure I didn’t see it all. But there didn’t seem to be much to do in the city proper. If, like me, you need to kill time there, I can recommend walking down near the port to the Bayside area. There are some nice views of military ships and fishing boats. Some locals were practicing a dance routine nearby. A good place to take a nap in the sun.
For me Puerto was really just a transit stop. My first target was really El Nido, so after one day I took a jeepney ($0.34 lol) to the North Bus Station and boarded an overnight Cherry bus to El Nido.
Backpacker Pro Tip: The night bus leaves at 9pm and arrives around 3:30am, which is kind of an awkward time to check into a hostel. I read somewhere else that you can just sleep on the bus once you arrive. You don’t really have to get out. So I tried that, and it worked, and I wasn’t the only one to do it. They drive you 10minutes from the bus station to the place they park the bus, and then you can sleep there till sunrise. Saves you $15+ on a night of accomodation that you wouldn’t really get the full value of.
The heat of the sun woke me up at 6am as my legs were stretched across the aisle in the bus. My back hurt. The whole sleeping-on-the-bus thing was a little bit more embarrassing in the light of day, so I figured I better get out of there.
In general, almost all the hostel-like lodging in El Nido was full online when I looked a day or two before arriving. So if you want to stay in one of the more popular/sociable places, book well ahead of time. But I did manage to book a place online ahead of time that it had it’s own website but wasn’t on the popular aggregators. And even if you can’t find one, there were plenty of signs for rooms around town. I wouldn’t hesitate to show up without a bed booked. You’ll find one.
El Nido is a small town, but instantly charming. There are just a few main streets that run parallel to the beach, and they’re full of cafes, bars, and shops catering to tourists.
But people come here for the beaches, I think. So that’s where I headed. The town is on a crescent bay, with a wide enough beach to hang out on and read for awhile, though not as impressive as Boracay. There are a couple restaurants on the beach, and at high tide the waves will attack your feet, which is fun, just make sure your bag doesn’t wash away.
For cheap meals (< $2), hit up Beef Stew Hauz And Grill. I ate there several times and did not have Beef Stew at all. It’s a great example of a type of restaurant I came to love in the Philippines, a toro-toro (“look-look”), where a bunch of dishes are pre-made and sitting out in a window at the storefront. You look look and point point at whever you want, get a couple small plates of each, and mix it all together yourself with some rice and soy sauce or vinegar. And a yummy big meal is always about 75P ($1.50). Totally my style. Dishes I got a lot were Pinkabet (mixed veggies), seasoned ground beef, pork bits. Sometimes I got a surprise… like I thought I ordered some beef in brown sauce, but 100% of the meat in that dish was liver. Another dish was I think some sort of pork guts. I like these edible adventures, but you may not.
Late at night, the falafel stand is also really yummy, if a bit pricy.
To be honest, other than just chilling on the beach, reading, eating, and relaxing, I kind of underdid El Nido. You can (and probably should) rent a motorcycle and visit the surrounding areas and hidden beaches. There are also many choices of island hopping trips. I usually like this sort of thing, but was too lazy. I was in a mysteriously meh mood during this time, maybe because I was recalibrating to solo travel for the first time in a couple months. Either way, I figured if I moved onward physically, I’d move onward mentally. So I set off to my next stop: Coron.
On The Slow Boat from El Nido to Coron
There is a fast boat to Coron (Montenegro Lines) and a slow boat. You can book them in person in several different places in El Nido– ask around. The fast boat is negligibly more expensive, and gets you there in half the time (3hr vs 6hr). A no brainer, I thought. Unfortunately it was booked up for a few days when I inquired (lesson: book ahead right when you get to town). So I opted for the slow boat. How bad could it be?
Okay. Pretty bad. It’s not the operator’s fault, it’s just that the waves are big and the boat is small. As I walked onto the boat (inside is just a bunch of benches), there was an open seat front-and-center. I figured this would be a good choice so I wasn’t too crowded and hot in the middle seats. Little did I realize that this is also the “splash zone”. Waves crash up and over the front of the boat, and into the door to the inside, and you get drenched. Only after about an hour did the crew close the door… why didn’t I think of that? and why didn’t they close it sooner?
As the waves get bigger and the sun gets hotter, the seasickness begins (lesson: buy pills and take them, or skip breakfast. I had some meds but couldn’t find them, and usually don’t need them. Hubris strikes again). The first time I felt this, I managed to get out the front door of the boat in time to yak over the edge, after which you do feel better.
And it felt nice lying down at the front of the boat in the sun, so I napped. But again, the splash zone. Every 10m or so I’d get a big wave crashing over me. But that’s not that often… and one I was that wet it seemed pointless to avoid further submersion, and at least the fresh air helped with the seasickness. I spent an hour or two out there napping.
I went back inside to lunch waiting for me. Since my stomach was empty… I was ravenous. I ate the rice and veggies fast. Bad idea. It came back up in an hour. Probably best just so skip eating everyone.
But eventually, finally, the boat arrived in Coron Town.
Learning my lesson from missing the fast boat, I immediately stopped at the 2go ferry office by the port to book my ferry from Coron back to Manila in a few days time.
The port is about a 30 minute walk from the part of town where most tourists stay, so I walked that way. Several times a tricycle man asked if I wanted a ride, but I waived him off. I like walking, and was used to the trikes being $3 like in Boracay. I only learned later that here in Coron the going rate is more like 10% of that, $0.30 (20P). So don’t hesitate to take a break and hire someone else’s legs.
In 1944, the US bombed and sunk a bunch of Japanese military ships near Coron. I’ve never seen a shipwreck before, so I walked up to Reggae Dive Center (RDC) and signed up for a trip the next day. The guy said you’re really supposed to have like 25+ dives, but he’d let me do it anyway. I showed up the next day at 7am, eager.
Only once we were on the boat out there did I realize something. I thought we would just be like diving near shipwrecks. Y’know, like looking at them and stuff. That would have been perfectly enjoyable for me. But I learned that we were going to go all up inside the shipwrecks. Awesome. It sounds obvious in hindsight, but I was excited. And nervous.
The first wreck we went down around 25m on a line. The ship is huge, and has been taken over by sea life, so all the clean straight lines a ship might have are now jagged, covered with coral and muck. We had to hide behind this big tank on the deck so the current wouldn’t take us away. Once we were all down, we all dropped into this porthole thing that went below deck. I felt sort of like a spy or commando or something, sneaking around this military ship that I had no business being inside.
It’s dark and disorienting. For the first ten seconds I couldn’t really see anything. I thought maybe this is where I’d learn that I’m claustrophobic, and momentarily freaked out. But then my eyes adjusted, I used my torch (flashlight), and followed the dive master. It was hard to tell which way was up and get a feel for the layout of the ship. We went through a bunch of really tight spaces, and I’m not sure which were hallways, doors, windows, or aircon ducts. Some were barely bigger than your shoulders/ribcage, and you’d really have to squeeze through, sometimes scraping against the barnacles. Buoyancy is important too. More than once I conked my head on something.
My favorite views were occasionally swimming past a window or big doorway so you could see outside. It’s pitch black inside, but you can look out through the windows to the stark blue of the ocean, with the sun lighting it up from behind.
The second dive was more of the same, but at a new ship. This one was cool because it was an oil tanker, so you could swim into the main chamber that was 4 stories tall. Apparently lots of turtles get lost in there and die, and you could see the bones they left behind.
The third dive was mostly a normal dive, just near a boat that sank quite at quite shallow depth– at low tide sometimes it peeks through the surface. Here we saw a huge cuttlefish and some other fun stuff. But this dive was notable because my buddy almost died. Sort of. When you’re getting scuba certified, they teach you what to do if you run out of air, or if your buddy does. But usually things go well and by now I sort of figured I’d never need to know that stuff.
We’re swimming around and enjoying the view, but all of a sudden my buddy starts swimming my way. At a normal pace, I’d say. But then I look at his face and he’s clearly alarmed. He wasn’t making any hand signals, but still was headed my way. It was only when he started reaching for my regulator that I realized he couldn’t breathe! I gave him mine and started breathing on my secondary.
“Shit shit. What are you supposed to do now? Do we go straight up?! Do we need to do a safety stop?! Will we die from the bends?” It was intense. This was serious business, and I had to remain calm, remember my training, and save this guy’s life. First, I decided to take a look at our surroundings. Our team was nowhere in sight.
Then I looked up. Were were only at like 5m anyway. So… we just surfaced. That was pretty anticlimactic.
We had a good laugh. At least, everyone but the guy it happened to. I guess his primary’s front had like untwisted off. And when he reached for his second, the mouthpiece just came right off in his mouth. Our dive leader said he’d been there for years and never seen anything malfunction. Bad luck. But we were all relieved it hadn’t happened in the tight confines of one of the wrecks. It would have been really hard to pair-breathe and get to the surface through all those tight spaces and current. Phew.
Island Hopping and Camping
I met some other backpackers on the dive trip who were all really nice. One of them suggested we meet up the next day for a private island hopping trip. If you book a boat as a group you can save some money and set your own itinerary. You can also leave earlier than the main tours and go everywhere before they’re too crowded. As we planned this, someone else threw out the idea of getting dropped at random island and staying there overnight. One guy insisted he would be able to catch some food to eat, fish or rats or something. Sure dude.
So we met up the next morning at 6am to beat the rush, armed with a bunch of cans of tuna and several bottles of $3/bottle Tanduay rum, which was about as tasty as you’d expect for that price (Nyquil-esque, I’d say).
Coron Island is the island across a bay from Coron Town, which is on the much larger Busuanga Island. But Coron Island is relatively uninhabited, since it’s basically one huge mountain of limestone. My travel guide had described it as looking like a place King Kong would live, and that’s about right. But there are some beautiful lakes hidden away from view of the water. And the most popular one to visit is Kayangan Lake. That’s where we went first, hoping to get it all to ourselves before the other tours arrived. And we did! We had a great swim in the (brackish) freshwater. There were tons schools of minnows that we jokingly tried to catch for dinner, but they were too fast for us.
After that we headed to a few more lagoons. There are bunch tucked away in the winding coast of Coron Island. And we spent some time on various beaches, where one guy found some bamboo to make a couple fishing spears. After that, we snorkeled for an hour at a really great reef, and some of the guys tried to spear some fish. The boatman was pretty confused. I think it’s illegal to try to kill those fish, and he knew that, but he also knew we wouldn’t catch any so he didn’t say anything.
Before long we were ready to find our deserted island for the night. But then we learned it wasn’t really deserted. We showed up to our tiny island and it was covered with probalby 50 people, mostly locals. We’d have company. But as we walked around and talked to them, we realized this would be cool. They were all friedly. Most were actually going to leave around sunset. But a few were staying all night as well. We decided to share firewood.
As the sun was setting behind the horizon, we built a fire and opened the rum. We shared traveling stories, someone turned on some music. We got to know the Filipino guys, who were like 16 or something (oh, that’s why you don’t want any rum…). We opened the second bottle of rum. They taught us some songs. We went for a midnight swim. Some more blurry stuff I don’t remember.
And then I woke up with my face in the sand, and some blurry photos on my phone. A fun island party night. Check.
Our boat picked us up around 8am (we had our doubts he would ever come back) and took us home. After some coffee and lunch, I had to catch the ferry home. One of my new buddies was taking the same one. 18hrs overnight from Coron Town to Manila. It actually turned out to be a lot of fun. On the top deck there is a bar, dance floor, and karaoke bar (Filipinos love videoke, I’ve learned). I definitely recommend taking the ferries for the experience and to save some money on the flights between islands, which aren’t cheap and quickly add up.
Manila, briefly and awkwardly
In Manila I walked from the port through some quite impoverished neighborhoods. I was a little worried I would be unsafe, but then several times someone would smile and say Hello. Or I’d here a yell behind me, and turn around startled, only to see some guy waving. I walked to the Intramuros, the old town, and saw some old Spanish cathedrals.
I hung out and read it the beautiful Rizal park, before I was interrupted by an obviously-steroid-consuming, jacked 42-year-old Australian guy who smelled like BO. “Are you what they would call a ‘solo traveler’?”. “Uh… ya”. I thought he was just being friendly and wanted some conversation. Once he waved over his ‘friends’, two filipina women around 20 years old, that’s when I realized he was a pimp. Several times, with only a little subtlety, I mentioned I wasn’t interested. But he kept on talking and talking and talking, steering the conversation toward how great the girls in the Philippines are. Eventually I think he took the hint, but started talking about debit cards or something, and how when traveling you never know if your card will get rejected. He showed me some debit cards he had with local banks. I noticed the name on the card was different than the one he had used when introducing himself.
The whole situation was super awkward, and so I excused myself to catch a taxi to the airport, where I had a flight to Cebu in a few hours. He said “maybe we should exchange facebook details”, but then pointed me to one of the girls who “handles his computer stuff”. I added myself on her account.
As I walked away I felt totally creeped out for these girls. I deleted the friend request immediately. But later I sort of regretted it. Maybe I should have messaged her and asked if she needed help or was in trouble? Maybe I should have called the cops and given her name. I don’t really know. But wow…. the world is a crazy place.
Cebu is an island in the Eastern Visayas region.
I flew to Cebu City. It’s sort of the main hub of the East in the Philippines. I’d never heard of it, but it’s pretty booming. I knew there were some coworking places there with stable internet (which Palawan definitely didn’t have), so I planned to work for a few days there. And I did, but I didn’t really try to sightsee or anything. I stayed near Ayala Mall, which is nice and well-architected. I saw a movie there, ate at the food court, and hung out in the grassy space.
It was interesting to work there and have a bit of a daily routine for a few days. I was working EST hours, so was actually working 10pm-6am at a rented desk in the Business Park. Every night on the way to ‘my office’, I’d eat at a toro-toro nearby. And every morning after sunrise, I’d eat breakfast at the same place. The lady who cooked all the food was really nice, but she was confused why I was eating there. She asked if I was in town to ‘look for a girlfriend’. When I said no, she asked if I was a missionary. No, ma’am, I just like cheap food.
After my contract was up, I figured I should get out of the city and explore again. There were so many choices, though. Bohol, the island to the East, is famous amongst tourists for Chocolate Hills and Tarsiers (tiny monkeys). Moalboal to the South on Cebu has some good diving with tons of sardine swarms. But, somewhat arbitrarily, I decided to go North to an island that one of my Palawan island buddies had recommended.
From the North bus station in Cebu, you can catch a 5 hour bus to Maya on the northern tip of Cebu. I arrived too late to catch the boat to Malapascua, so I stayed in the D&N Lodge near the jetty, sharing a room with a friendly deaf guy named Peter. The owners (whose names start with, you guessed it, D&N) were super friendly.
In the morning I caught the 30m boat to Malapascua, sharing it with a big Filipino family. One of them had lived for 20 years in South San Francisco. Small world.
Malapascua is probably the most laid back island I’ve been to on this trip. It’s really only a destination for divers, who come to see the Thresher Sharks that congegate every dawn at Monad Shoal. But there’s not much else: no gaudy bars or nightlife. No shops or tourist traps. Other than the guesthouses and dive shops, the local economy caters more to the locals than the tourists. It was relaxing.
I had booked a $10 room at Thresher Cove Dive Resort, mostly because it was cheap. As I arrived, I looked on the map to see where I needed to go. It was basically on the other side of the island, a 30m or so walk. When I arrived I was really pleasantly surprised. This really was a ‘resort’ compound, if a modest one. It had a private beach, little cabanas all around, a restaurant. There was even a ‘gym’, i.e. a bunch of gym equipment sitting outside with some vines and moss growing up around them. It was cute! And it added to the whole ‘remote getaway’ vibe.
The diving was also as cheap as anywhere else on the island, so I just booked there. I skipped the popular Monad Shoal site, and instead booked a trip that had been cancelled due to weather each of the few days before: Gato Island. This is an island about an hour boatride from Malapascua, but it stood out to me when I heard about it because there’s a big cave underneath it. Well it’s actually a tunnel. So you can dive underneath the island, and come out the other side. And there are (reef) sharks and poisonous sea snakes down there!
They were good dives. Definitely the biggest sea snakes I’ve seen yet. And the firs time I’ve been that close to 5 or so sharks, about 7-ft each, who were swimming around back and forth coming right at you until they turn around and head the other way. There are lots of pufferfish, nudibranchs, and seashores as well.
I stayed the next night at a hostel, La Terasse, that was really cute and had a good atmostphere. A lot of folks were trading volunteering for a place to sleep, so people were maintain murals, gardening, stuff like that. Some folks had been there for weeks.
I, however, was already feeling restless and ready to see more. But now I only had about 5 days left before my visa expired. I read about all these other places I could go: Leyte, Dumaguete, southern Cebu. In particular, I had felt really drawn to the island of Siargao. But ultimately I realized I didn’t have time to go very far. It’s not worth traveling for a day and a half each way just to spend a day somewhere. At the beginning of the trip I had decided to leave all the cool-sounding things North of Manila for another trip. And now I was doing the same for about half the country East of Cebu.
That’s the thing about this country. It’s SO BIG. It would take years to even begin to explore all it has to offer, let alone really settle in. I can see why even Filipinos are always backpacking their own country. It’s such a big and diverse and interesting place.
Overwhelmed and resigned, I decided (boringly) to just head back to Cebu City and spend my last few days coding a bit. I spent them at a coworking space, the first I’ve checked out on this trip. A Space Cebu was comfortable and the staff were friendly. One of the nights, they hosted a Pecha Kucha 20×20 night, and there were some awesome local speakers who gave creative presentations. I’d definitely recommend checking it out.
Lessons Learned in the Philippines
- A little bit of Kitesurfing
- Red Horse Extra Strong – Drink it
- Free pasta night is always a good idea
- Eat at the toro-toros
- Book lodging in El Nido ahead of time
- Diving trips (and hostel-organized trips) are a good way to make friends while solo traveling
- Take the ferries around the Philippines (e.g. via 2go), but book as early as you can
- Coworking spaces are great
- the Philippines is far too big to see in one trip. Don’t even try. Take your time. And come back another trip. I know I will.