THE PHILIPPINES: THE FINAL FRONTIER

Now that we’re back in Europe and the big trip has finished, we, of course, get asked questions about our favourite experiences from the travels, foods that we tried and destinations that we would like to go back to. It is always too difficult to answer such questions in one straightforward response but whenever I am asked to list some of my favourite countries, the Philippines almost always comes to the top of that list. We had the most incredible time there – perhaps because we had some of our best friends visiting and we’d missed them so much that just having them around made every day even more enjoyable, perhaps because I turned 27 whilst we were there, maybe it was the indescribable beauty of the country’s marine life that I’ve never experienced before or maybe because it was the last South East Asian country on our list and it absolutely finished that chapter with a bang. I don’t know what exactly made it but it is definitely one of those countries that I will always remember looking back, and one that I would without a doubt like to visit again. 

The country consists of just below 8,000 islands in total, and we only visited three – Bohol, Cebu and Palawan in just under a month (we also spent a night in the capital Manila on Luzon island but ran out of time to explore further), and some parts of our time there definitely felt like a rush. Each island, no matter how small, has so much to offer in terms of its natural beauty that you can end up living there for months and still find new things to explore. 

Furthermore, many islands and connecting transport means between them are still very underdeveloped making it more challenging to travel around, especially under a time constraint. Even where there are ferries or new flight routes, timetables are often unreliable and so are the weather conditions. We visited some of the more well known islands for their growing tourism industries and even then encountered enough challenged along the way (which also added to the adventure!). The Philippines has the worst WiFi connection in the whole of South East Asia (which most often means no connectivity at all!), and especially Palawan, which is the least developed (but most beautiful) out of the islands we visited, can be frustrating and thus expensive at times. Once you leave El Nido at the north of the island and with the exception of the capital Puerta Princesa, there are absolutely no ATMs available. We somehow missed this very valuable piece of information when we headed south to spend a few days in TayTay and then Port Barton, and only realised when we ran out of cash the day before my birthday hours of driving from either town. What followed was a very long journey through narrow hilly roads and dirt tracks on a rented scooter to a small town San Vincente where some locals told us there was an ATM in a petrol station. What we found was a very entrepreneurial gentleman charging an extortionate amount of money to receive cash by paying into his bank account using a card payment machine. Let’s just say my birthday dinner cost us less than this adventure… 

Another reason for perhaps less tourism in the Philippines than many other Asian countries in the recent years has been the notorious president Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs”. Since coming into power in 2016, he has taken a controversial approach to dealing with a country’s drug problem by officially and unofficially incarcerating and killing many drug users and sellers which in the recent days has put the Philippines as the fourth most dangerous place in the world for civilian-targeted violence after India, Syria and Yemen.

As most of this unrest have taken place in the very northern areas of the Philippines and some in the capital, it honestly couldn’t have felt further when we were enjoying sunsets and eating deliciously fresh seafood on the calm beaches of Bohol, Cebu and Palawan. It’s of course in the government’s interest to keep it that way, and luckily these atrocities had no impact whatsoever on our experience of the country.

On a brighter note, the Philippines always sounded to me very exotic and hard to reach (which it is) just like places such as the Maldives, the Seychelles or Bora Bora… I imagined blue waters and white beaches, colourful fishes and cute fishing boats – and quite frankly, that is what I saw! 

Instead of taking you through our time in the Philippines step by step, I decided to share some of the most exciting things we did throughout our time – so here it is! 

THE PHILIPPINES’ TOP 10 ACTIVITIES 

  1. Swimming with Whale Sharks

Although controversial, this selfishly has to be my number one experience just because of the magnitude and grandness of what we saw. Before I get into the actual activity, I want to say that in hindsight I should not have supported such an attraction and I would never do it again (just like I would never visit an elephant sanctuary again which we did in northern Thailand). Whilst there’s surely much more cruel ways that animals get treated, the whale sharks in the Philippines can be enjoyed by many tourists because they have been over time conditioned to come to particular places where people feed them for a few hours a day. This does not only translate into their growing dependency on this food supply and therefore losing of their natural hunting skill, but also sometimes cause injuries by the fishing boats they are being fed from. If you want to experience this in a more sustainable way, multi-day trips are now organised in Indonesia and the Philippines to travel by boat with fishermen looking for whale sharks in their natural habitat – with higher costs and risks attached, of course.

However, putting these concerns aside, it was one of the few most memorable experiences of the whole 8 months of travelling for me. To be able to swim and snorkel surrounded by such magnificent and large animals was surreal to say the least. We lucked out with our tour which had some of the first boats out as early as 6am in the morning and caught glimpses of the sunrise over the sea before we reached our spot. 

We were in a small canoe-shaped boat and once we reached the location where whale sharks had already started to feed, I could not believe what I saw – looking over the side of the boat, I observed massive shadows of movement under water, reminding me of some of the shots in the David Attenborough documentaries! We were then allowed to get into the water and snorkel around for a while whilst these beautiful beasts dove around us enjoying their breakfast. Incredible!!! 

2. Sunset over Chocolate Hills

The main reason anyone goes to Bohol (and so did we) is to see the famous Chocolate Hills – the beautifully shaped light brown cones that take up many square kilometres of the centre of the island and provide for a breath-taking view. It is exactly what it says on the tin and we thoroughly enjoyed it! 

However, more and more travellers choose to spend longer on the island and explore its untouched coasts and jungles. Whilst the southern Panglao area is the most popular amongst tourists, many other places have not received much attention just yet. For this exact reason, we were lucky that we chose to ride a scooter to Carmen (where the Chocolate Hills are) instead of hiring a driver. I do have to say, however, that it is not an easy journey – at least 2 hours of driving one way may become tiring and frustrating, even though the roads in Bohol are pretty good. What makes it worth the effort is the beautiful ever-changing surroundings you are able to observe. From pine tree forests to jungles to rice fields, the endless shades of green pass by as you zoom through the countryside. We rode in the afternoon and so handfuls of school children were walking home after lessons and everyone – and I mean everyone – would turn to cheer and wave at us! The ride back in the dark was a little less euphoric but a great part of the experience nonetheless.

3. Boat Tour in El Nido

If you have seen anyone go to the Philippines in the recent years, most likely you would have seen photos of people in canoes or perhaps swimming in beautiful lagoons surrounded by steep rock side. El Nido has become a top destination in the country not just for its outstanding natural beauty but also the choice of most luxurious and eco resorts for those conscious travellers. As a result, you are most likely to experience higher prices here than anywhere else in the country. Arguably, it’s totally worth it and is paid back by a daily dose of stunning views wherever you go. 

The best way to explore El Nido and the surrounding waters is by boat and there are four (A, B, C and D – yes, someone got very creative) main tours that take you to different islands, lagoons and secret beaches. Everyone seems to argue about which tour is the best however after all they’re all pretty similar in structure and there’s so much difference between one beautiful beach and the next! 

Some tours provide for canoeing opportunities but all stop to snorkel multiple times and it is most likely that is when you will see most of the beauty – we saw glowing jellyfish, bright yellow starfish and loads of other different types of fish I never imagined to exist. Most of the coral is still alive and provides habitant for the sea life however you have to be most careful not to touch it! 

Overall a boat trip provides for a full day of fun and relaxation as we also spent a few hours lazying around some beautiful beaches and enjoying a local lunch. 

4. Exploring Port Barton

Tired of the crowds in El Nido (trust me, they are nothing compared to most South East Asia) and looking for cheaper options, most backpackers tend to head south on Palawan island to the quieter yet as stunning Port Barton area. They say it is what El Nido used to be 10 years ago and there is certainly some truth to it – with no ATMs and barely any WiFi, Port Barton must be the most rural but beautiful village we stayed at. There are no paved roads, only a couple of corner shops, however plenty of bars at the beach to enjoy a sunset drink! 

We spent a few days in Port Barton for my birthday and because the beach at the village was experiencing a jellyfish problem, we ended up renting a scooter each day and exploring the surrounding coast. I already mentioned our adventure looking for an ATM, but a similar (thankfully shorter!) dirt road trek was part of every day in Port Barton.

And I absolutely loved it – without much clear direction, available maps or recommendations, we would head off after breakfast and spend the whole day soaking in the countryside. To the north, there’s a couple of small waterfalls that locals like to go to, and even though the second one (Bigaho Falls) is only 11 kilometres away, thanks to the confusing tracks, you end up driving for at least an hour! 

We were hoping to spend the remainder of our day soaking in the sun on the long and sandy Nao Nao beach which our guest house owner recommended but as soon as we reached it following a small gap in between the jungle trees, it started pouring! Desperate to keep at least some of our belongings dry for the trip home, we ran into what seemed like someone’s large garden and found some cover in their outhouse. Soon enough a lovely Belgian lady came from the main house and told us her family were building a hotel there but for now she could offer some curry and beer! What lovely lunch we had following a swim in the rain!

However, most travellers tend to head south from Port Barton where two of the most popular beaches can be found within a half an hour drive away – Coconut beach and White beach. Whilst the former provides for some beautiful views of palm trees swinging above the small strip of sand, White beach is by far more popular due to its spaciousness and, well, the white sand. 

It was without a doubt one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever been to (I could have been a bit swayed by the fact it was my birthday when we visited)! And, as a bonus, a couple kilometres further south there is a jungle bar up the hill from which you can enjoy the view of the sea with a (birthday) cocktail in hand! 

5. Sardine Run in Moalboal

On Cebu island, Moalboal sits on the west coast pretty much in the middle of the island. Its perfect location provides for some of the most stunning sunsets but it also has a significant feature underwater – where the coastal reef meets the depths of the sea, there is a natural sardine run due to the undercurrent of the ocean. And so without much effort and interfering their natural behaviour, we swam out a few metres of the coast to observe this phenomenon. Whilst the fish themselves are not particularly pretty (sardines are sardines: grey, blue, fish-shaped…), it’s the amounts of them that’s extraordinary – hundreds and thousands of them pass by as you dive and swim in between them.

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As we’d had enough of the sardines and were swimming back to the shore, we came across yet another surprise – a wild turtle foraging by the coast right where we were snorkelling! Who needs a turtle spotting tour! 

6. Sand Bar in Sumilon Island

Whilst the tiny Sumilon island is fully privatised and owned by a luxurious resort, its small yet stunning sand bar can be accessed by paying a small fee for a boat ride to local fishermen in Oslob in southern Cebu. 

There’s only enough space for perhaps 20 people on the sand bar and it becomes cosier in the afternoon when the tide comes in making it even narrower but when we visited, there were only a few more people around us. The most curious thing about it is that because of the undercurrent, one side of the sand bar is very shallow and the other is deep as soon as you enter the water providing for some fun jumping opportunities! 

7. Sunsets in Marimegmeg Beach 

When in El Nido, if you are not on a boat tour, you will most likely go to the Marimegmeg / Las Cabanas beach (they’re pretty much the same beach as at some point one becomes another) that’s a 5-minute ride from town. It’s a perfect beach for swimming but it’s almost better for watching the day end – its great location means you can enjoy a long beautiful sunset whilst swimming in the warm water or from one of its beach bars. The Marimegmeg Beach Bar have a sundowner with a DJ every day! 

8. Kawasan Falls

A short scooter ride away from Panagsama beach in Moalboal where most hotels and hostels are located, the biggest and the most popular set of waterfalls on Cebu island can be found – the trio of Kawasan Falls. Quoted by some as the most beautiful waterfall in the worlf, they are especially popular for canyoneering (climbing up the waterfall using safety gear) but for those less extreme, the three layers are perfect for swimming and just enjoying the clear blue waters. 

The beautiful walk to the falls only takes up to 20 minutes to the last pool and goes through lush jungle.

The second and third pools are the biggest and most magnificent, and this is where many of the locals and tourists will set up their picnics and swim around to get away from the incredible heat. Most wonderful falls we have ever seen, too! 

9. White Beach in Moalboal

As mentioned before, most travellers will reside on Panagsama beach in Moalboal where most of the action happens. Whilst this beach is lined with lovely bars where you can watch sunsets with a mojito in hand, it’s mostly used for boats and only have a small strip for sunbathing and snorkelling to observe the sardine run, like I described earlier. For spacious white sand beach lovers like me, White Beach is a 10 minute tuk tuk drive away and can offer exactly that – plus a beautiful sunset at the end of the tanning session! 

Even though a little bit crowded at times, it absolutely hits the spot after an adventure-filled day in Moalboal. We enjoyed it so much I didn’t even take one photo of it!

10. Canoeing in El Nido

When you’re in El Nido, “tired” of boat trips but don’t want to spend the whole day laying on the Las Cabanas beach, you can rent a canoe for a funny little amount of money and explore the surrounding beaches (and islands!) whilst working on those Michelle Obama arms. Rhys and I, as per usual, chose the windiest day there was to take on this adventure and set off on a 4 hour round trip (we did not know that!) to a nearby 7 Commandos beach, which is usually included in one of the boat tours. 

Energised by our early breakfast and keen for adventure, we went out straight into the blue sea not sensing the wind that helped us (a lot!) to move forwards. Only when we came near the next island did we realise how windy the day had been. The beach must have been in the very centre of it all as when we stopped to rest, we could barely sit and enjoy the sand as it was being blown around into our eyes and ears.

Needless to say, the journey back was one of the most difficult work outs of the whole trip and when the waves were bashing against the front of our little canoe (and of course we didn’t have life vests because why would you), I was ready to wave at any of the passing fishing boats for help. Rhys wasn’t fond of the idea…. After all, you can’t complain too much surrounded by such beauty!

RHYS AND GABS’ PHILIPPINES HIGHLIGHTS

  RHYS GABS
Food Lechon. The never ending Filipino hog roast  Lechon, for sure – the best pork I have ever had
Drink  San Miguel. It’s everywhere, and goes down well in the sun on a beach Buko Rum (fresh coconut with a generous dash of local rum inside)
People   Rohan! Tarika is so-so… 😉 Tarika and Rohan who visited!
Place   Marimegmeg Beach. Every sunset is beautiful, and every sundown is a party Sand bar in Sumilon Island
Experience   Driving scooters round the islands Swimming with the whale sharks
Culture shock   It’s too expensive for most Filipinos to travel much between islands. We spoke to locals who sadly could not see much of their beautifully divided country. I have never been to a country that loves to sing so much – there wasn’t one place that we stayed the whole trip that did not have a karaoke bar next door!
Any other   When you think of an Island Paradise, you are thinking of the Philippines. Ready to return whenever The beauty of the underwater life in the Philippines is out of this world

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