(Our) Philippines Experience
Planning the Trip
Because we decided to go over New Year's Eve, we thought it would be best to lay out a meticulous plan for the trip: pre-book every place to stay, research all transfer possibilities and means of transport. This is the busiest time of the year, many Filipinos are travelling themselves, visiting friends and family.
One major consideration for 15 days on the Philippines was whether we wanted to go to El Nido or not. It’s supposed to be one of the most beautiful places on this planet, so we really wanted to see it — but we wanted to travel the Central Visayas, too.
But soon we came to the conclusion that you either have to spend a lot of money for direct flights from Caticlan (approx. € 200), or fly to Puerto Princesa, which is slightly cheaper, and easier to reach by plane. From Puerto Princesa, you would have to go by bus North to El Nido, which is an 8 hour ride. We realised that in the two weeks we had to make a decision, so we went for the Visayas.
Balinghai Resort on Boracay
So we went for the other option, a trip through the Visayas. Stopping first on Boracay, then flying to Cebu, ferry to Siquijor, Bohol, and back to Cebu for two nights. Traveling from Vienna, Austria, we took a direct flight to Hong Kong. At each place, we planned to stay more than one day, which turned out to be a wise decision. Because you can't count on the weather!
Arriving at our first stop, Kalibo airport, from Hong Kong at 22:00, we had pre-booked a transfer from the airport by shuttle bus two hours to the port close to Caticlan, including the ferry and the transfer to the hotel. It was pricey, but considering the late arrival, we didn't give an F. We arrived at Balinghai resort at 2 a.m. In the morning, and the staff waited for us there. In the days following we saw what kind of place Boracay was, and we came to the conclusion that Balinghai is probably the best place to stay on the whole island (if you're not backpacking and looking for cheaper options, and if you don't want to go to Boracay to party).
Boracay is tourist hell, especially around peak times like Christmas and New Year.
The next day, we set off to explore the island and soon experienced the darker sides of paradise. The resorts are all located at the beach, surrounding the island. Behind, the ordinary people are living, and mostly working for the tourism industry. Most of the locals live in utter poverty, which is a stark contrast to the situation of the international travellers. Many of the resorts are behind gates, some even have walls enforced with barbed wire, and guarded 24 hours by security, which makes them look like 5 star prisons.
Fireworks on New Year’s Eve 2016
A local told us that the Filipino population of the island doubles during the season, with estimated 50,000 tourists on the island at the same time during high season like new years eve, like in our case. The masses are in fact pushing and shoving through Station one to three, which is how the sections of beach are called. Not a nice experience, I have to say. But in the end, we managed to make our way to the end of station 3, and spent New Year’s Eve 2016 on the beach with a wonderful view of the fireworks on station 1 and 2.
Hoping to find a less busy area the next days, we went to Puka Shell Beach in the north, but to no avail. The beach is divided into sections, each run buy a beach bar/restaurant. One of the owners told us that boats are bringing tourists to the beach, but they are asking for a commission from the restaurant owners. So tourism on the Philippines appeared to us like a smoothly running, perfectly tuned machine with little room for surprises.
Don't get me wrong: Everything works like a charm, and the Filipinos are perfectly organised, ready to walk miles to make their customers happy.
Don’t believe the airlines. Check real flight status on apps.
Trip to Moalboal
After having left the island, we were ready to board our Cebu Pacific flight from Caticlan to Cebu City. At the airport, they started to apologise for a delay... 30 minutes, then one hour. Then nothing. After checking the real status of the flight on flightradar24, we realised that the flight from Cebu had never departed.
We learned from a local that the airline (Cebu Pacific) has a reputation for cancelling flights if they're not fully booked. Thank God we were quick to realise, and are able to book a flight for hours later from Kalibo, two hours by car. They arranged a shuttle service to take us there, so we were able to continue the journey the same day. Many of our more unlucky co-travellers had to go to Manila and spend one night there before being able to continue.
Cars Turning in CSCR Tunnel
Having lost some time, we arrived at Cebu City. The transfer was already waiting for us, as we told them of our delay. Already being late, we left the airport and turned south on the Cebu South Coastal Rd, the CSCR. Traffic was dense, but moving smoothly, until we entered the tunnel. Then something unusual happened: initiated by a cab driver in front of us, the whole convoy of cars on three lanes started turning in the tunnel. After going back something like one kilometre, everything was stuck again, so everyone repeated the manoeuvre. Later we found out that they use an app called Waze, which shows traffic jams, accidents, and allows drivers to communicate with each other. Philippine cities, and especially Cebu, are notorious for their traffic problems, we even found an article in a local newspaper. So if you have to take a car through the city, prepare yourself, and plan a couple of extra hours for this.
One day is not enough, plan at least two at each stop.
After travelling for the whole day, we came late to our next destination, Moalboal. Located at the tip of a peninsula, we had just one night, and an amazing day at Blue Orchid resort, which we spent snorkelling. At this point, we already realised how important it was to plan more than one day and do also consider something unexpected to happen.
Tropical storms are frequent on the Philippines. They might change your plans.
Really can recommend the yellow bus on Cebu. It took us from Moalboal south to Santander. For the last mile to the resort, we took a tricycle. From there, we decided to go on an early morning trip to Aguinid falls. And boy, that was the right decision! Arriving at 8 in the morning, there was nobody except the guides. The falls stretch over five or more levels and involve a little climbing, so it really makes sense to rent a pair of trekking shoes there.
Our next destination was Siquijor, the witch Island. From Liloan port, we took a ferry to Dumaguete. If you consider doing this, note that the ferry drops you off at Sibulan, north of the city. We took a Jeepney to Dumaguete ferry terminal. There, you can buy a ferry ticket to Siquijor. The transfer with Montenegro ferries was pretty easy, and we took a tricycle from the port to the resort. Meanwhile, we learned of a tropical depression with the name of Auring heading our way (starts with an A because it was the first in the year). The Philippine coast guard immediately called out signal one, a storm alert, and the ferry companies followed, suspending all traffic between the islands in the Visayas, and leaving us stuck on the island.
We had to spend three more nights there before the ferries resumed service, so we had plenty of time to explore: we saw a ghost healer and her family living in the forest, visited the butterfly sanctuary, waterfalls, and pristine beaches on the island. You can hire a tricycle driver for the entire day to take you around the island for some reasonable price. At the beach, we started talking to the fishermen living in some houses next to the resort, and had a lot of fun with them. In this case, the resort was not gated like many other ones. The staff did their best to help us get off the island, and finally, after 7 days we managed to take the ferry. In general, Siquijor was one of the less touristic places of our trip, I guess because it is harder to reach. And it can be harder to leave, as it happened to us.
Panglao and Bohol
Panglao is an island right next to Bohol, and it’s connected with a bridge. Arriving with the ferry from Siquijor, via Dumaguete, at Tagbilaran port, we went to the north of the island by cab. Most of the tourism happens in the south around Alona Beach, so we were happy to be far from the crowds. Still, Panglao seemed quieter than Boracay, so we really enjoyed the island. The other day, we decided to rent a boat to go on a day trip to the smaller islands around Panglao. Our guides took us to Balicasag island, which is especially known for its turtles. When we approached the island, we were greeted by some dozens of tourist boats of all sizes, anchoring close to the beach. The experience on the island was already familiar: our boat went to a specific section of the beach, and took us to the restaurant where we rented some overpriced, worn down snorkeling gear. They expect you to also have lunch, and buy stuff, but we didn’t.
Mass tourism will show you the fine line between experience and ecology
The restaurant owner’s husband, a great and friendly guy, took us in a small rowing boat to see the turtles. It's somehow difficult to navigate between all the other the tourist boats, but the turtles are actually there. We saw a huge one, more than 2 metres in size, and couple of smaller ones. I guess they’re really pissed off about the engine noise.
Tarsier on Bohol
Oh, you read about the whale sharks? On Cebu, there are several places offering this unique experience. After doing some research, and talking to some people at a local diving school we decided not to see them. I understood that the locals feed these nomadic animals to stay in the same place for longer periods. So what happens is that the sharks stay close to the surface to feed, so they don't move or swim around much. This type of tourism changes these animals' natural behaviour, with some species staying at one place for more than one year, which is very unusual for them.
Zipline in Bohol Adventure Park
On Bohol, we went for the zipline in Bohol's adventure park near Loboc River. Clean, fun, safe — everybody happy. It's a good example on how to make tourism and ecology work together.
Returning for our last night to Cebu City, the second biggest of the Philippines, we got an impression that something big is going on there — we had the feeling they want to turn it into Asia’s next megacity. From the airport, you can take direct flights to Los Angeles, it also acts as a transport hub for the entire country, so it’s very likely that one of your flights will lead you past Cebu. We saw a lot of newly built condominiums, and several huge malls, and a lot of projects being under construction. The city has seen massive growth in the past 20 years, and expects its population to double in the next years.
A word on safety on the Philippines: We avoided the areas known to be dangerous (Mindanao, the North, Manila) after doing some research beforehand. I can only say that we had a very safe experience, and never felt threatened. Bohol hasn't been listed in no-go areas before, but as you might have heard, government clashed with members of the radical militia, killing four of their members. I'd like to cite a Filipino, a Davao native: "You can even be safe in the cities in the South, like Davao. As long as you don't go into the jungle, nothing will happen."
The country left us with a multitude of experiences, and a number of mixed emotions. We saw massive poverty, gated luxury resorts, masses of tourists all looking for their unique holiday experience, pollution, smog, waste on land and sea, all embedded in an overwhelmingly beautiful nature, foggy mountain forests, rice fields, and inhabitated by very friendly, very smart people.
Would we go back? Definitely. The next time I think we would leave the trodden paths of Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet, and avoid places like Boracay, where all hell breaks loose at peak times like New Year’s Eve. And go to El Nido!