What are the Philippines?
The Philippines are made up of a group of 7,100 islands in Southeast Asia.The country has a long and interesting history of colonization. What this means for you is that many people there speak English. But it also means that the government can be unstable at times. The current president, Duterte, (who won the election while I was in the Philippines) has started an actual war on drugs with an estimated 2,000 Filipinos who have been killed. Despite this, I found the Philippines a safe place to travel (just stay out of Mindanao- south most islands). There are a lot of tourists, which also helps to create the feeling of safety. The people are also incredibly warm and friendly.
I started my trip in the Philippines on a medical mission trip, and I ended solo. Between I travelled with two friends who I met on the mission trip: Zane, and Will. While traveling with Will and Zane we had no plans other than plane tickets. We flew by the seat of our pants! If we planned anything, it happened at most the night before. This freedom meant we could follow fellow travelers recommendations. It also meant most of the time we never knew our housing until that day, so I forget many of hotel/resort names. This was my first time traveling like this. Though it was fun and freeing, my inner type-A had a hard time. This experience has given me the confidence to do it again, but also the knowledge that I like my trips a little more planned.
(Will and Zane at the Chocolate Hills, Bohol)
I flew in the morning from Manila to Bohol. The Manila airport is very busy so they recommend getting there at least two hours early for domestic flights. From the airport, we hired a private car to drive us around Bohol. The driver took us to various sights like the Bohol Bee Farm, HInagdana cave, and the Nova Shell Museum. At the bee farm we had a chance to hold bees – crazy! These sights were nice, but in comparison with the rest of my trip unimpressive. At the end the driver also took us to various hotels/resorts to find one to stay at. I can’t remember the name of the one we finally choose, but it was very nice and right on the beach. At the resort we relaxed and had a few drinks on the beach. The beach was gorgeous – there were so many starfish! I had never seen a wild starfish before so I could have spent all day out in the ocean watching them. Through the resort we were able to book a half day snorkeling tour for the next day.
Luckily since we had no solid plans, we didn’t have to make a decision about staying another night at the resort until after our tour, so on our way to Pamilacan Island we discussed our plans. After our snorkeling tour, we asked the crew if they had any recommendations from a hotel on Alona Beach, rather than out in the resort area. They recommended us a new place, and we were able to book a room for the night before heading back to the resort. When we got back from the boat tour we checked out of the resort and had the same driver from the day before (I had gotten his phone number) take us to a new hotel on Alona Beach, Panglao Island . Once we (quickly) settled into our new hotel, the same driver took us to the Chocolate Hills and to check out the Tarsier Sanctuary. Tarsiers are the world’s smallest primate and can only be found in Southeast Asia.
After a long day of sightseeing we headed back to Alona Beach, did some window shopping, and grabbed dinner. After dinner we bought some wine and filipino rum (insert name) and drank on the beach. There are no open liquor laws, you can drink anywhere! . Many of my favorite Philippines memories involve good company, not so good alcohol, and a beautiful beach.
The next morning Zane, Will and I took a taxi to the port in Tagbilaran to the Dumaguete, Negros Island. We booked our tickets at the port so we had to get there early and had to wait a bit for our ferry. I don’t’ remember how long the ride was, but what I do remember is that there was no AC and the boat was packed! I was sweatier and smellier than I ever wanted to be. Over my trip, I would learn this is true for most ferries in the Philippines.
We arrived to Dumaguete, a southern city on the Negros Island, around noonish. From the port we grabbed a tricycle-taxi and had them take us to a hotel. The driver took us outside the city, where he said the beaches were better, to a small resort/hotel (most drivers were trustworthy and brought you to good places- like this one). We spent the afternoon relaxing at the pool of the resort (the beach was small and very windy) and planning the next steps of our trip. This resort offered a snorkeling trip to Apo Island. I had read that Apo Island was a must for the Dumaguete area so I pushed for this trip. We signed up for the trip the next morning and, like the previous hotel, planned on checking out after the trip.
The next morning we packed up our stuff and checked out of the resort (the hotel staff secured our belongings while we were out). Then we got on a balangay (boat) and headed to Apo Island. The snorkeling there was incredible! I wish we could have stayed longer! So many beautiful fish, coral and sea turtles. Apparently Apo Island snorkeling used to be better, but a recent tsunami had destroyed a bunch of the coral. *Recommendation: remember to reapply sun block! I forgot and was burnt pretty badly. It made the next couple of days traveling a bit uncomfortable*
We arrived back at the resort in the afternoon and then walked to the main road and caught a bus/jeepy into the city. The night before I had booked us a hostel (Bungalow Hostel) which was in the city. The bus took us into the city area of Dumaguete and from there we caught took a tricycle to the hostel. The only problem was the driver didn’t know where it was and it didn’t have a street number (apparently this is not unusual in Dumaguete) so we had to make frequent stops to ask people where is was.
Other than the difficulty in finding the hostel, it was GREAT! (sadly I have learned it closed due to slow business). The owner (Joe) was so warm and welcoming. He provided us lots of insight and tips for our time. We were the only people staying at the hostel that night so Joe tooks us out: first we went to a local bar, Hayahay, with live music to have some drinks, then we went to a night market (by the port) and tried balut (a cooked fertilized egg at varying levels of gestation). Apparently it is a favorite among filipinos. I found it disgusting: it was like eating an eraser, you couldn’t stop chewing! After balut we did some karaoke (a Philippines must) at a local karaoke bar. It was a blast!
The next day we did a day trip to Siquijor, also called Voodoo Island. Once again we had to take a hot, packed ferry to and from the island. When we landed on the island we paid a private driver to takes us to some of the major sights. This time we were on one of the tricycles: two people in the side car, and one behind the driver. The driver took us, quite literally, around the island seeing sight such as Cambugahay Falls and Salagdoong beach. The falls were gorgeous, and the water was warm. There was also a rope so you could swing into the water if you wanted. At the beach there was a cliff that people were jumping off. I personally have a fear of heights so I did not jump off the cliff, but everyone seemed to be having a blast. After the tour around the island we headed back to Dumaguete. We had bought our return tickets when we arrived- they sell out quickly so don’t try to purchase them that evening or you may be stuck on the island!
We spent that night at Bungalow Hostel once again. This time there were a few more guest so we got a chance to talk to them about their travels and recommendations. Joe took us all out to an amazing Jamaican restaurant (True Love Cafe) run by a guy from Jamaica. He does a lot for the rural communities: donating his time and supplies to local schools. He was incredible person and made great food! I highly recommend going to eat there. We ended the night early due to most people, including us, having early morning travel plans.
In the morning we caught a ferry to Cebu Island. The ferry takes you to Liloan Port, which is just south of Oslob. At the port you can catch a bus to Oslob (there will be a ton of tourist, so you know you are in the right spot). There are many companies that offer whale shark experiences, but from what I observed they are all the same. We picked the first one we saw.
The tour company had us change into our swimsuits (they watched our luggage while we were gone too), then we walked up the street to the loading area. We had to watch a short video about how to be safe around the whale sharks (don’t touch them!) then we were taken out in a small boat, just a few feet off the shore. The whale sharks were then pretty much towed in front us for photo opportunities. It was completely unnatural and I strongly do not recommend doing this!
After the whale sharks we had two drivers take us on motorcycles to Kawasan Falls. This was my first time on a motorcycle, and it was incredible!!!! The scenery was beautiful and to be that close to it was amazing.
We went to Kawasan Falls because my friend really wanted to do the canyoneering tour at the falls that is supposed to be incredible. I personally did not partake because I was still sore from my sunburns and did not want to be jumping in and out of water with them. I stayed at the bottom of the falls and waited for him. He raved about the experience, saying it was both beautiful and exciting. I personally just enjoyed the peace of relaxing by the water. My friend was transported by four wheeler to the start of his tour, while I walked about one mile through the wood (big and open path) to the bottom of the falls.
After the falls, our motorcycle drives took us back to the whale shark tour base. We grabbed our luggage and caught a bus to Cebu City. The bus was actually the same line that took us from the port to Oslob. The bus was air conditioned and quite nice. We did hit some bad traffic near Cebu City, so what should have been a three hour bus ride became a 4-5 hour ride.
From the bus terminal we asked where a nearby hotel was and spent the night there. My only experience of Cebu City was the short walk to the hotel and an even shorter walk to get dinner that night.
Palawan: Puerto Princesa
In the morning I flew from Cebu City to Puerto Princesa on Palawan Island. My flight was scheduled about 2 hours before my friend’s, however my flight was delayed (to be honest all except two of my flights in the Philippines had some sort of delay) so I only arrived in Puerto Princesa about an hour before him. I just waited at the airport. *again I arrived to the Cebu airport about 2 hours before my flight to be able to get thru security*
When Zane arrived, we took a taxi, aka tricycle and had them takes us to cheap hotels. To be completely honest we asked for hostels, but the driver took us to hotels (probably because we were tourist). We found a cheap one and got a room for the night. The driver also offered to take us to El Nido for a discounted price. Since I had been waiting at the airport, I knew what he was offering us was in fact discounted. I had heard other drivers offer higher prices.
We settled into our hotel room (single room with separate beds was surprisingly cheap). When then wandered down the main road in search of dinner. We made a reservation at a restaurant (will fill in name later) that was recommended by my travel book. We had about an hour before the reservation so we went to a nearby bar for a few drinks. At the bar we met an incredible man who was currently sailing around the world. He had been slowly making his way around for about four years by the time we met him. Very cool!
After dinner at (restaurant name) we went to another bar/club for more drinks. The club was a little slow, and the drinks expensive for Filipino standards so we decided to check out the Baywalk. The inflight magazine had said there was supposed to be some outdoor music festival there.
The Baywalk area was very busy, smalls booths selling food and goods and a happening music concert. Before we entered the concert we walked along the waterfront. We saw that people were riding pedal bike versions of the tricycle. I was drunk and intrigued. At the end of the Baywalk we saw where we could rent a bike for about 50 pesos (just a couple US dollars). We did it! We ended up attracting a few kids who helped us pedal the bike and who rode along with us! I was a blast! One of those moments you could not recreate. Eventually Zane and I got exhausted and returned the bike. Our buzz was also wearing off. That was when we decided to enter the concert.
The entrance fee was minimal and the alcohol was cheap, especially Red Horse, Philippine’s beer. We met some other awesome travellers at the concert and generally had a drunk good time!
Palawan: El Nido
Zane and I discussed doing the underground river but decided not to. We wanted to go to El Nido and see what all the fuss was about. In the am we took the “private” van to El Nido. The van picked up about 6-8 other people. The drive was about six hours to El Nido and we got only one rest break.
By the time we got to El Nido we were both tired and cranky (we did not get good sleep on the ride). There were taxis/tricycles waiting at the bus stop where we were dropped off. We grabbed one and asked them to take us to hostels to find one for the night. The driver initially took us to hotels but once we got cranky with him (and listed some hostels by name) he finally took us to one. We were able to get two bunks at Our Melting Pot (hostel).
While we were checking in another group of traveller were also checking in. We got talking and they mentioned they were trying to plan an overnight trip on a private island. One of the guys had done an overnight tour, but thought he could organize it himself for even cheaper. We jumped on this opportunity! Why not spend a night on an island in the Philippines, that’s not the start to a horror movie. 😛
The next day we met up with group and started gathering supplies. By about 4pm we were on our boat (that we had to swim out to!). It only took us about 45 minutes to get to the island: Pinagbuyutan.
We started this adventure as strangers, after a night of drinking and sleeping under the stars we left as friends. This was one of the best parts of my trip! I will remember it forever. If you have an opportunity to do this, or some version like it, I highly recommend it. In another post I mentioned a kayak tour by El Gordo tours. I seriously thought about doing it, but it sadly didn’t fit my schedule. One reason I recommend it is that it would (in theory) be an opportunity for more island camping. From what I have read about the tour you get to camp out on a private island every night! This is something I want to do soo bad!
The next morning was a bit heart breaking. By noon most of the friends I had just made were leaving, including my final travel partner, Zane. Only 5 out of the 11 people who did the camping trip were left in El Nido. We tentatively planned to go to a beach together, but we were all exhausted and just crashed. I had checked into my hostel that I had booked at home (this was supposed to be my first day in El Nido). I napped, had dinner, then went to bed. Not a thrilling day.
Day four at El Nido, I did island hopping tour A. There are a total of 4 island hopping tours. Various companies offer the tours at various prices. The tours are all day and lunch is included. I booked tour A with El Nido Boutique and Art Cafe (kinda a hub for food, info and tours). The tour was nice, but I was still a little heart broken about my friends leaving. Plus I never got the numbers of the other people still at El Nido, I had now way of contacting them to make plans…
Day five on El Nido, I did island hopping tour C. This tour I booked through Our Melting Pot Hostel. This ended up being the better deal, and I would recommend booking through them. They had a cheaper price and they also had cookies at the end of the tour!
By sheer luck one of the girls from the private island was also on this tour! I also met a ton of other interesting and fun travellers. Some of them brought rum and coke – a lot of it! Long story short we had a blast on our tour!
Two of the people from tour C, an Irish man and German girl, decided to get a tattoo while in El Nido. The combination of a sexy Irish accent and phrase”the worst thing is that you will regret not doing this” ended with me in a tattoo parlor with these two waiting to get a tattoo. Sadly the power went out (twice) so I was unable to get my tattoo before the shop closed. However by that point I was bound and determined to get one. My two new friends were leaving the next morning so they wouldn’t be there when I got it, but I promised to send them pictures. (I also want to mention that I was sleep deprived: the hostel I had booked had bed bugs! And I had gotten little sleep while I stressed and waited for the am to check out)
Day six on El Nido I took my time in the morning. I ate a big breakfast and took my time in the warm shower (the hostel I was staying at (Spin) is a luxury hostel and well worth the extra money). The tattoo parlor opened at 10am, I got there by 11. I got my tattoo! It’s of the southern cross, a constellation you can only see in the southern hemisphere. A constellation I fell in love with while in the Australian Outback. I LOVE my tattoo and love the story behind almost as much.
With the adrenaline rush from the tattoo I decided to rent a moped. The owner of the tattoo parlor knew someone and had them drop off a moped for me. I have never driven and moped and if you remember from earlier I had just ridden one for the first time…. I don’t know why the owner let me rent one, I did tell him about my lack of experience…. Within the first 10 minutes of driving I managed to crash into a storefront ( luckily nothing was broken). The owner of the moped still let me drive it… Really what was he thinking!?!?
After shaking my nerves off, I got back on and drove to Nacpan Beach. The roads are not like the US or any other developed country. I was driving on pavement, then gravel/rocks, then pavement again. To get to the beach you have to turn off the main road and drive on gravel/mud for a couple of miles on a narrow but busy road. Then finally I had to drive on sand. Overall the drive took me about 2 hours to get there (I was driving VERY slow) and probably about an hour back. By the time I returned the moped I felt like a pro! A pro who drove a may of 50 kilometers per hour, but a pro none the less. I had survived! I had nearly hit a cow, a couple chickens and a dog, but I survived! Also I didn’t crash the bike a second time!
El Nido will always hold a place in my heart for the incredible people I met and the adventures I went on. Many travellers I met said that Coron was more beautiful, but El Nido will always be special to me!
Day seven I took a morning van back to Puerto Princesa.
Palawan: Puerto Princesa
Again the van ride from El Nido to Puerto Princesa took about six hours. The van took me directly to my hotel: Palo Alto Bed and Breakfast. I had read in another travel blog and in my travel guide that the Palo Alto was a nice place to stay and was reasonably priced (cheap by US standards and expensive by Philippines standards). I wanted my last hotel to be an actual hotel, not a hostel where I had to share the room with other people. The hotel was great! It was a relaxing place to spend my last couple days in the Philippines. There was a pool that was empty most of the time. I spent many hours at the pool side sunbathing and reading. The hotel also offered various tours, which I took advantage of. I can only sunbath for so long before I get bored.
The next day took an island hopping tour of Puerto Princesa. Compared to El Nido it was pitiful. I was still feeling a bit lonely which probably clouded my opinion. I did get to meet some nice Filipinos who warmly invited me into their friend group. They were also on vacation. Like most of the Filipinos I met they hid their skin from the sun- pale skins is sought after- and thought it was crazy that I wanted a tan. Unfortunately, like most of the people I meet on trips, my friendship with them was brief, as we all had different travelling plans.
The next day I took a morning dolphin watching tour. The tour was fun and we saw some large pods of dolphins. I had ridden in enough filipino boats to be very comfortable on them. (filipino boats have two out riggings that keep the narrow body of the boat from tipping over). Everyone else on the tour stayed on the main part of the boat, while I sat on the out rigging. This gave me an unobstructed view of the dolphins. It was relaxing and breathtakingly beautiful. The rest of the day I spent at the poolside. Enjoying the warmth that I knew I wouldn’t find at home.
I left for Manila on day ten. My flight was at 3:10pm so I spent the day at the hotel, or to be more honest at the poolside. Like most of my flights, this one was delayed for who knows what reason, so I ended up being at the tiny airport for hours (I got there two hours early). It was late by the time I got to Manila, the hotel I was staying at picked me up at the airport and I went straight to bed once I was checked in. I stayed at Nichols Airport Hotel, because this was where the medical mission group stayed. It is a clean hotel, with friendly staff. There is also a rooftop bar with a great sunset view. (side note- this was election day)
I had a 10pm flight home so I had most of the day free. Since there was still some unrest from the election, and I was a female travelling alone I decided to play it safe and got the Mall of Asia, supposedly the largest mall in Asia. As I had thought, the mall was very safe, but it was also a mall- not that different from any mall in America. There were even the exact same shops. I mainly just window shopped and did a lot of walking, that mall was big! I then went back to the hotel (had the hotel drive me) and had a slow dinner on the roof top. I spent that time soaking in the warmth and reflecting on the incredible trip. It really was a unique experience! I can’t wait to return and see more of this breath taking country.