5 must-see places in the Philippines: a beach lover's paradise
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
The Philippines, or "The Philippine Islands" as they are properly called, are a land of...well, not much land. Composed of over 7500 islands, the Philippines are basically a vast tract of the ocean, sprinkled with islands like chocolate crumbs on a cake. The downside of this is that internal travel is either quite expensive because you have to fly everywhere and tickets aren't cheap; or painstakingly slow if you opt for the ferries. Either way, the Phillippines are definitely worth the hassle (or the cost). Get ready to have your mind blown into hitherto unknown horizons of beauty and pick up your jaw from the glistening white sand after it drops there. Smiling faces of the "Pinoys" (as the people in the Philippines are sometimes referred to), breathtaking lagoons, beaches and sunsets, amazing diving, breaking waves, underground caves, tropical jungle and winding roads just waiting to be explored. The Philippines have a lot to offer. The best thing is that, wherever you go, you cannot really miss: all the islands are lovely, and there is something amazing to be found on each of them. Just pick one and pack your swimwear and sunscreen.
My brother and I flew in from Ho Chi Minh City to Manila in the late evening and caught a taxi from the airport to the hotel. It was about a 20-minute drive from the airport on empty roads, and our flight to Boracay was at 8:30 am the following morning, so we inquired with the taxi driver how long he reckons it will take to get to the airport in the morning. "Oh, in the morning it is rush hour and traffic jams, if you want to be there at 6:30, you will need at least one hour, maybe an hour and a half, yes sir", he said. This meant we would have to leave the hotel at 5 am. I thought this was somewhat early for there to be a rush hour, but he seemed very sure of himself. Maybe it is common in the Philippines to start working very early? Out of precaution, I asked the receptionist at the hotel the same question. And I got the same answer - approximately 1,5 hours of travel time, due to rush hour. Persuaded by this information, we woke up the next morning at 4:30 and, bleary-eyed and barely awake, called a taxi to pick us up at 5 am. The roads were completely empty and we arrived at the airport at 5:20, feeling utterly stupid and annoyed. To this day, I still don't know what the zark that taxi driver and receptionist were thinking.
Still yawning from lack of sleep, we arrived to Boracay island, one of the most "touristy" destinations in the Philippines, or at least that's what it was a while ago.
Boracay is a tiny island of pristine shores and dense jungle. Its west-facing "White beach" is one of the whitest and sexiest stretches of sand I've ever seen - the sand is so brightly white that, even in the blazing sun at noon, it is still pleasantly cool to walk on. The pure white of the beach is complemented by the turquoise blue sea and vivid green palms on either side. You could snap a photo and put it straight in a catalogue without any need for photoshop. Pure postcard material. And best of all: due to COVID19-induced fear of travelling, the beach was completely devoid of crowds.
Some 20 years ago, Boracay was an idyllic paradise. Sadly, its beauty caused it to become a victim of its own success. Millions of tourists begun to flock there every year. Overtourism, combined with lack of proper waste management and numerous environmental violations committed by local businesses, caused a serious degradation of Boracay's natural environment. Indeed, so extreme was this deterioration, that the authorities decided in 2018 to completely close down the island for six months and conduct a full rehabilitation and restoration of the island. Boracay reopened in 2019, with very stringent rules regulating the arrival and behavior of tourists, as well as strict regulation of hotels, restaurants and other businesses. No smoking anywhere but in the designated areas, ban on single-use plastic, no building of sandcastles (!), etc.
Despite the success of the rehabilitation efforts, there are still some very visible remnants of the past era. Boracay struck me is an island with two faces: sparkling clean beaches and turquoise waters, green forests and neatly maintained beachfront promenades are in stark contrast with ruined buildings, half-demolished facades, mud roads ridden with potholes and half-constructed abandoned resorts sticking out from the forest canopy. A muddy gravel road, full of puddles and potholes leads to a booming fancy night club. A row of neat hotel fronts is right next to a row of half-constructed buildings looking like in the aftermath of a tsunami.
Boracay is still beautiful. It is a great island to spend a few days, relax and put your feet up. The beaches are stunning. The sea is warm and clear, and the sun shines with some of the world's best tanning power. The restaurants are good. People are cool. If you are not too disturbed by the other, less pretty face of Boracay, you're going to have a great time.
Kitesurfing: I've spent a super fun day kitesurfing on Boracay's Bulabog beach, where the coral reef creates a nice area of flat water, great for freeriding and freestyle. The wind was strong and constant, with an onshore direction. The beach is long and there is plenty of room for riding, so it doesn't get crowded and you can easily find enough space for jumps and tricks. The area for beginners is near the beach and advanced riders are further away, so they do not invade each other's space. Onshore wind makes launching and landing slightly more challenging because there is no margin for error - if something goes wrong close to the beach or at the beach, the kite might get blown into the palms and, well...nobody really wants to hear that heart-breaking <rrrrrip> sound, as the kite canopy bids farewell. Extra caution is advised.
Since I did not have my own gear with me, I rented it from Isla Kitesurfing. I can highly recommend them - their staff is super friendly and accommodating. The F-one gear they have for rent was the latest production year and in top condition. They also have a nice bar where a group of smiling, chattering, giggling and blushing Filipinas will serve you mouthwatering smoothies, bowls, and other treats to indulge in after a great session on the water.
Departing from Boracay, we first had to deal with the annoying and rigid baggage policy of the local airline, which would not even allow for payment of overweight bags. If it is not within the weight limit, it does not go on the plane. Period. Slightly frustrated, we had to improvise a bit. We stuffed all our pockets with heavy items and I swung my jacket over my arm. Te jacket must have weighed 5 kilos with all the crap stuffed in its pockets and sleeves. Even though it was more than obvious what we've done - at least to the attentive observer - this arrangement presented the airline staff with no problems, and the check-in went smoothly.
The next destination was the island of Palawan, more specifically, the town of El Nido. The Spanish word for "nest", El Nido is indeed nestled neatly between the surrounding cliffs and islands, like a bird's nest between the branches of a tree. The town itself is not much to look at, except if you want to watch fun basketball matches of the local league. The matches gather a large, cheering crowd of people. Filipinos are crazy about basketball, and there are improvised basketball fields everywhere - even in the jungle next to villages, you can often spot an improvised basketball field, which is esentially a sort-of-levelled patch of dry, hard soil and an improvised hoop.
El Nido is most famous for the boat tours among its many islands, bays and beaches. El Nido Bay and the neighbouring Bacuit Bay encompass a wide array of islands, islets, hidden lagoons, charming beaches, stunning cliffs and more. You can visit them in the context of an organized tour (between 10-15 people), but we opted for chartering of a private boat. We managed to get a phenomenally good price which meant that the cost per person was actually not significantly higher than if we went in a group. Having a private boat has some advantages: all group tours follow one of the pre-set itineraries and visit the locations in the same order. Having a private boat gives you more freedom in exploring individual locations and our captain suggested we reverse the order of visit of particular sights so we would encounter fewer crowds. He was right - at two out of five stops, we were completely alone. It was a fantastic one-day trip, including secret as well as not-so-secret lagoons, deserted beaches, some decent snorkeling, and chatting with our fearless Filipino captain and his crew.
Another "must-see" when visiting El Nido are the beaches to the north. Primarily Nacpan beach, but there are others as well. We rented motorbikes and went for a tour along the coastline road, making a large clockwise circle from El Nido, passing Nacpan Beach, then Bulang beach in the west side of the island; then turning to the south, passing through Sibaltan area and finally due west back to El Nido. It is a beautiful ride and the roads are (for the most part) excellent. Undulating hills, dense jungle and lovely beaches make for a lot of nice views. You pass through many villages on the way, which gives plenty of opportunities to chat with friendly locals or purchase some home-made products. Compared to the rest of Asia, or even the rest of the Philippines, Palawan is exceptionally clean. Unfortunately, it is a common occurrence in Asia to spot garbage dumped in nature, especially close to villages and cities. Palawan, however, did not have this problem.
If you are a bit of a thrill-seeker like me, you can spend a fun hour or two on the Taraw cliff - a seductive limestone wall which sides El Nido on its left flank like a stern guard. There is a built pathway going all the way to the top and you can hang around above the cliff in a big spider's web. Razor-sharp rocks and cracks provide for striking views and would make for an even more striking (and probably deadly) fall, especially if you decide to stand on the very ledge of the bouncy web with your safety line unhooked (like me) for a photo. Reckless and stupid, but hey, my guide seemed very relaxed about it. There is also a via ferratta leading to the top, but unfortunately, it was closed due to renovation, thus I could not get to know the Taraw cliff "up close and in person".
Las Cabanas beach: a beautiful long stretch of sand about 10 minute ride from El Nido - it spots a few chillout beach bars and some good places to grab a bite. I recommend the bar at Las Cabanas Beach Resort (nearest to the pathway to Depeldet Island) where you can watch a pretty damn amazing sunset and listen to some chill-out house beats. The Guapo (or Guapa, whichever way you prefer) at the bar mixes cocktails with great enthusiasm and rigour.
The Nesting Table: a restaurant high up in the hill from Las Cabanas beach is only accessible via a steep bamboo-made stairway, but it is definitely worth it. The drinks are innovative and the food is tasty. Although the prices are not the lowest, an amazing view of the bay from the restaurant terrace makes up for it.
Sabang is a small village a few hours' drive from El Nido. It is super small and insignificant, but has a really relaxed and charming feel. The beach is made of super-soft sand and the swell provides an opportunity to play in the waves or even try some surfing. Sabang's main attraction, though, is the Subterranean River and cave system. With the official name "Puerto Princesa Subterranean River", the PPSP national park contains a thriving ecosystem in which the sea, the jungle and the mountains are intertwined, and as such is one of the most significant in Asia. You can launch a trip to PPSP from Puerto Princesa, but it is much more convenient to spend a couple of days chilling out in Sabang and visit the PPSP from here. You won't regret it. I don't know why, but I enjoyed Sabang so much I extended my stay from initially planned two days to five. Imagine a sunny afternoon, lying in a wicker hammock set between two palms at the beach, being slowly lulled to sleep by the sound of waves crashing and the gentle whisper of the wind. Not a worry in the world. You are unplugged. No phone signal, no internet. Your main concern is if you've put enough sunscreen on and which restaurant to go for dinner. If there is such a thing as the "ultimate relaxation", I think this comes pretty close.
Puerto Princesa: not much to see in Puerto - I've spent 2 days here because I had my flight to Dumaguete but I might as well just go straight to the airport. On the first night in Puerto, my travel buddy from Spain and I were searching for a party place to have a couple of drinks in the evening. We were walking down main street when we heard music blasting out from the red-lit windows of the top floor of a 4-story building at the side of the road. The building looked shady as fuck. The entrance was hidden behind a corner and looked like the entrance to a butcher's shop. Having partied in a lot of shady places, I was kind of dubious, but Sara wanted to check it out, so we went. When we paid the entrance fee to a lady standing behind the counter, we ascended 4 flights of stairs and entered into the "main room". You know the feeling when you enter a bar and in a split second, you know you're in the wrong place? It was kind of like that. There was a strange crowd of locals with age ranging from what looked like 15 to what was definitely over 60, dancing to an odd combination of old disco-house-rave music. Everyone was eyeing us. We were the only foreigners in the room. I was partying in places where I was the only or one of the very few foreigners before, but this was awkward on a whole new level - we didn't know whether to laugh or feel threatened. I wanted to have a drink, but the menu only had food on it, and there was no separate drinks menu. After a quick discussion between us, we turned on our heels and left. Fortunately, we found a much better and more relaxed place just minutes later.
Siquijor is a little gem of an island just a short ferry ride from its much larger neighbor, Negros. Siquijor is known to be an island of witches, shamans and voodoo. Do not be frightened, though. Siquijor is a charmer among islands, with beautiful scenery, cozy beachfront accommodation and some pretty decent snorkeling. I spent two days exploring the island on a motorbike. A 72 km long coastal road goes all around the island and passes a number of nice beaches, but it is definitely worthy to complement the circle with a couple of trips inland, discovering charming villages, stunning waterfalls and caves. Don't miss the Cambugahay falls for refreshment in the cascade waterfalls; dip your feet in the water for a natural fish spa treatment at the old Enchanted Balete Tree; and the Tubod Marine Sanctuary offers some very decent snorkeling - just make sure you get there at high tide, otherwise it is nearly impossible to swim over the coral reef.
Interestingly, Siquijor was not on my initial itinerary but when I was staying at a guest house in Puerto Princesa, my neighbor was a Serbian guy who was coming to the Philippines for many years. One evening we were chatting and he recommended Siquijor as a destination if I was going south. I followed his recommendation and I am glad I did - Siquijor was amazing, and since it was already around 10th March, there were almost no tourists coming anymore.
Apo Island, just off the coast of Negros, was supposed to be my last destination in the Philippines. Known as one of the best diving destinations, I was really looking forward to spending five days exploring the depths around this Robinson Crusoe-ish, tiny patch of rocks and jungle. Apo only has electricity for three hours a day. Mobile phone signal and wi-fi are scarce commodities. It is blissfully remote, yet very accessible.
Unfortunately, I never made it to Apo - I could only adorn it over a tract of sea, an hour's boat ride away. But it might as well be on the other side of the world. You can read about what happened, in the "Corona Diary" section of the blog :)