As my bestfriend Bella was coming out to visit us for a month of fun and frollicks, we were seeking a new adventure to a place none of us had visited before that not only had gorgeous beaches but also great diving – the Philippines definitely ticked all of those boxes. Here are our highlights and lowlights.
Our Philippines highlights
We knew very little about the Philippines, other than there were many islands, many of which had fabulous beaches and the country was very backpacker-friendly (i.e. cheap). We had to decide which islands to visit and where the good dive spots were as Bella wanted to get her PADI Open Water certification and join us on some scuba diving action. We were not disappointed, we had a fantastic time on Alona Beach on the island of Bohol. The beach was clean, the sand a powder soft white, the water a stunning clear turquoise, it was the stuff dreams were made of. The next beach we ventured to was up in El Nido, on the very tip of Palawan island which had a totally different feel and had the most stunning karst formations jutting out of water. The island hopping and snorkeling tours around secret lagoons and secluded beaches were absolute heaven, costing only £6 for a day trip including a lovely lunch we really couldn’t complain! Sea kayaking was also brilliant fun, especially when we were the only ones on a small island with a private beach and fantastic snorkeling. Having only sampled a small handful of beaches in the Philippines, we can honestly say how gorgeous they are and how we are all itching to go back there to explore more.
We can’t talk about beaches without mentioning the stunning sunsets. The sunsets over El Nido were truly spectacular!
The diving for us was absolutely off the scale in terms of value (we paid £15 per boat dive from Alona Beach which included full equipment hire but no lunch). Around Alona Beach there was a huge diversity in marine life and the visibility was 50 meters! We dived in April so it was perfect dive season. We first dived Balicasag island near Alona Beach which boasted four amazing dive sites, we did the Cathedral and Diver’s Heaven (which it really was!) and for the first time saw huge sea turtles. Bella really enjoyed getting her PADI there as it was a great place to learn, only 5-10mins from the beach there was so much coral and fish. We then dived in the archipelago of El Nido within the huge marine park area and only paid £50 for three boat dives which included lunch too! Amazingly cheap! This turned out to be our favourite diving experience in Asia overall. We dived Helicopter island (aptly named as it resembled the shape of a helicopter), Paglugaban and Entalula, all of which were superb with beautiful and colourful coral, abundant marine life (macro and micro), stunning limestone formations and it was just like diving in a real-life aquarium (that was how good the visibility was). Still gives me tingles thinking about it. We wish we had an underwater camera or a GoPro or something to film it all – definitely next time! We recommend Submariner Diving Centre in El Nido, their equipment, staff and level of professionalism were fantastic.
We also volunteered on a coral conservation project called ‘Coral Rescue Project Panglao’ which was funded by the government. We spent 4 full hours in the water diving for and collecting live coral that had been damaged by typhoon Pablo that ravaged through parts of the Philippines and then replanted the coral in the deeper areas. It was an amazing experience and we hoped we helped! If anyone plans of going to Alona Beach then go to Bohol divers where you borrow the gear for free – contact Dominic first to let him know if you want to volunteer. His number is +639156414394.
The Filipino people were by far the cutest and nicest people we had met during our travels around Asia, not only were they exceedingly polite but also extremely friendly and helpful. Another reason why we can’t wait to go back to the Philippines! The Filipino vibe was so laid back, it was pure paradise really. We noticed that everyone LOVED music there, despite the frequent blasting of love ballads on every radio, we did come across some fantastic bands with amazing musicians and singers – anything from reggae to rock covers bands.
It’s great that tourism had not yet crippled the main beaches in the Philippines as is the case with some places in Asia. There were some hawkers on the beaches but mainly offering massages and they were dressed in proper spa gowns as opposed to the crusty old ladies hawking in Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia. We didn’t feel bothered at all on Alona Beach or in El Nido.
We also loved that there weren’t easy transport options to get around the Philippines either, it’s probably a nightmare for some people who prefer well-organised luxury tours or whatever, but we loved having to use nothing but public transport to get around (and not knowing where to go!), that sense of adventure is lost in many of the backpacker trails across Asia because it’s so well-trodden. For example it was a rather rough and bumpy ride in a rickety old local bus for 7 hours from Porto Princessa to El Nido, the roads weren’t sealed and the bus driver thought he was a NASCAR racing driver (a bit hairy when we are winding up the steep and narrow mountain pass) definitely not for the faint-hearted but a fun adventure nonetheless and definitely not one you would want to experience with a hangover on the way back (eh Bella?!). There were expensive private minivans that travelers could take to El Nido from Porto Princessa airport but they weren’t exactly better, only shaved maybe a couple of hours off the journey time but they tended to be old and buggered and cost more than five times the price so we figured what was the point?
The landscapes were amazing, riding through unkempt jungle and palm trees…there was a lot of unspoiled nature and it was beautiful to see so much of it. On the ride to El Nido we passed through so much stunning scenery. We even zip-lined over a valley! Best fun ever!
The Philippines were also very cheap, the price of hostels, activities, food, booze were all on backpacker-friendly budgets. There was also budget airlines flying between the major cities and local transport was more than affordable.
On the beaches were always fantastic BBQ’s, and the best slow-roasted spit-roast chicken we ever tasted. Ever. There was fresh seafood around the coast and an abundance of cheap fresh fruit and veggies too.
Our Philippines lowlights
To be honest there weren’t really any negative things to say about the Philippines, we’re just nit-picking. However I guess it would be worth mentioning that we didn’t really get to sample real Filipino cuisine, the places we went to really catered for tourists which only supplied a couple of breakfast dishes containing rice with fried eggs, Tapsilog, Buwad or Tocino which weren’t always cooked very well. We couldn’t find anywhere serving Sikwate or Puto or other delicious Filipino foods (though we did finally when we reached Cebu and Manila). The lowlight here would be lack of decent local cuisine around the tourist beaches, or just bad tourist food – it was really hit and miss.
Another lowlight which we only experienced in Manila were bad taxi drivers. Around Cebu, Palawan and Bohol we had no problems using jeepneys, tuk tuks or taxis. However when we got to Manila we found the taxi drivers would try and pull every scam in the book (probably because we were tourists) making excuses that the roads were closed, heavy traffic which meant an hour detour would be necessary, “sorry no English”…it was the only time we got seriously annoyed with the taxi drivers as normally Filipinos were smiley, friendly and the least likely to scam travelers in comparison to places like Thailand, China, Vietnam, India etc. We were warned that Manila in general was pretty bad in terms of crime (our friend had her bag stolen in a local cafe just across the road from our hostel) and that we needed to be careful, it didn’t help that our scumbag taxi driver insisted on driving through rather dodgy areas of the city before we got back to our hostel. Also, Lonely Planet claimed the areas of Makati and Malate were the ‘backpacker hotspots’ – they were not, they were horrible rundown areas of the city which didn’t seem like the safest places to stay. We recommend the newer business district Poblacion as it was a bit safer and less dodgy. The hostel we stayed at was new and run by some fantastic staff – we can definitely recommend MNL Boutique Hostel if you need a place to stay in Manila.
I feel sad that we still aren’t traveling around the Philppines…for an awesome beach holiday it’s the top of our list of places to go back to!
Places we visited: Cebu, Manila, Bohol – Alona Beach, Palawan – Porto Princessa and El Nido