Unlike Bali, I will not write an article on how to prepare for a trip to the Philippines because I don’t have as many things to say. Maybe because we didn’t plan anything at all (and that was a mistake).
We actually didn’t do much there even though we stayed for about three weeks. Philippines requires much more logistics, therefore planning ahead is a good idea. However that’s not something we are used to anymore. On top of that, I’ve been sick for half of the trip.
That’s why I will write everything within the same article and let’s see how it goes.
We only visited three islands, among some of the 7,641 islands Philippines has: Cebu, Palawan and Manila. The ones we always hear about, that’s about right. And “visited” is not even correct since we explored just few areas on each island.
As for getting around on the islands, you can check on my partner Bookaway where you can find very fair prices. You can read here what I mean by partner.
Again, I would like to warn on some activities you shouldn’t do if you care about environmental and societal issues as Asia seems to be rich of those.
But of course I’m not going to only mention this, we saw some wonderful things out there!
I already mentioned it the article about how to prepare a trip in Bali, but that’s critically important as it is THE reason why people go to Cebu.
Shortly when you try to figure out what to do in Cebu, you’ll hear about Oslob. And why so? Because there, you can dive with whale sharks, among other things. Do NOT do it, please. Do not dive with whale sharks.
The reasons why you shouldn't dive with whale sharks
It broke my heart to read about the story because diving with such majestic, marvellous marine creatures was a dream for me. I am not kidding. Yet, Aurélie and I couldn’t wrap our head to do it and I believe we did the right thing. I think you understood so far that tourism is important for countries like Indonesia or Philippines to earn money. And I also think that you know about the danger of mass tourism. Here is another example (I could also mention Mount Batur in Bali), but an extremely selfish one and utterly sad.
If you don’t know what a whale shark is, try to see pictures on the internet, read their Wikipedia page or something, they are truly beautiful. However, as you can guess, they are endangered.
Philippines is lucky enough to have some of them migrating sometimes alongside their coastlines. I read on the internet that people should stay at least one meter away from them and it is forbidden to even touch them. Well, well, looks like the law stops where income begins.
What I will tell you is from a German guy we met who was encouraging us to go there, even insisting that not going was acting like stupid persons. First, we decided not to go there as we read on the web that if there actually were so many whale sharks there, it was because they were being fed. Being fed means they do not migrate anymore to seek food. If they don’t migrate, they don’t reproduce anymore. That guy was replying that they would not be dumb enough to let them die and at the same time was saying that if we had such an easy food supply we would be very happy and would do the same. Should we really try to control everything all the time?
He was also really happy to tell us that they were taking babies from their mothers at a young age to enclose in a “huge water enclosure” to quote these wise words just so that a tourist can have his selfie with one whale shark and say to his friends “I saw a whale shark in my life, and you, what did you do?” (these, of course, were not his words). Also, a lot of stress is induced to the animal as many boats are chasing them.
Moreover, I read on many reviews that even though there is this “hands-off/no touch” law, some companies even tell people to go ahead and try to swim as close as possible, and actually touch them. Or some tourists do it anyway, even after being explained not to do it. And that’s not something easily controllable under water.
Anyway, I think his best argument was “everyone is doing it, so why not me?”. But I am not talking about him, am I? How many times have I heard this statement for so many different things? I was extremely disappointed that someone from Europe, where I thought we were maybe more aware about animal welfare, would participate in such a disgusting activity. I realised that these issues were far from being resolved, that’s the reason why we ought to do something ourselves. Again, it is with “small” gestures (I would say that not diving with whale sharks is a big gesture) that we can change something.
Aurélie and I tried to find another ethical place, but very few exist (maybe none?), and for the islands we looked for, we couldn’t find anything completely ethical. There was one that seemed a bit better on Manila, but still not convincing enough to my opinion.
What else can we do, then?
Anyway, of course Cebu has a lot more to offer! If you are willing to pay… That’s for me one of the major drawback of the Philippines, anything you wanna do, you gotta pay. Do you want to visit a waterfall? An entrance fee is not enough, most of them require a guide, even though the path is safe and secure (unless you have a special power to get lost on a paved path).
It makes everything really complicated for people seeking freedom.
Yet, we managed to find a beautiful waterfall where I’ve never seen such an amazing blue (which is caused by the minerals in the water) in Inambakan, not so touristy yet really nice for swimming! The entrance costs about 57.7 Philippines pesos (PHP) or about 1€.
The other one we did is by far the most famous one on Cebu: Kawasan falls (45PHP or about 0.8€). While the trail to go there is great, this spot is so overloaded that it’s barely bearable to stay there. You can swim, but only if you rent a lifejacket…That’s about the amount of people there is, as they cannot guard everyone.
Canyoning in Alegria
One of the highlight is canyoning! There are plenty of companies proposing this activity, but did ours around Alegria (the Spanish influence is pretty obvious in the names in Philippines), which was more than great. I had a lot of fun, surrounded by some stunning canyons. Aurélie fought her fear of heights, which was a very brave thing to witness. Plus, the staff was caring yet not so invasive: perfect day!
That activity was a tad more expensive, 1 500 PHP, which is about 26€, but definitely worth it.
Moalboal is another “must-go” places, wonderful for snorkelling. The marine life is so rich and the corals are awesome! Also, the white sand beach gives a really nice vibe and you will find locals enjoying the beach as well, not only tourists (unlike most beaches in Bali).
We must’ve spent something like two hours in the water, actually time flew so fast that I couldn’t really tell. All I know is that we spent so long underwater that the masks were really painful at one point, which is the reason why we went back to the shore.
Yet again, you’ll need to pay an entrance fee of 5 PHP (~0.08€).
However, snorkelling is not good anywhere in Cebu, at our guesthouse for example, tiny jellyfish made it really hard to even swim as it was extremely itchy even when entering the water. But, nothing beat the sunsets there, so let’s call it a tie.
Yet because of the fact that we have to pay for any kind of activity, for a guide especially, that’s “all” we did for one week. However, I am absolutely sure that with more time and more dedication, Cebu has a very wide range of awesome nature related things to do!
In Palawan, the main city is Puerto Princesa. This city is pretty empty activity-wise, therefore you will always the same few activities offered: the main one is the Underground River, newly on the world’s 7 wonders list, which we didn’t do. Therefore, obviously I cannot write about that. As for why we didn’t go… Well, again we read the terrible reviews (it does have a powerful impact on tourism, to be honest, when I worked in a tour operator, we very often used internet to find activities when we didn’t know the destinations well. Sometimes it has an unfortunate impact but it was pretty accurate so far). They were saying that you have to wait a veeery long time (think 2 to 4 hours) to get in a boat that enters the 8 kilmoters cave for only half an hour.
But, on the contrary, somewhere not to go for the ones who cares about animal, a place presented as a sanctuary: the crocodile farm. We didn’t go there, but -again, that’s one thing Mount Batur taught me- read the horrendous reviews and we quickly got the picture. At the end of the farm, when you finished understanding on how important it is to protect the crocodiles (in apparently way too small enclosures, with almost no water), you can enjoy crocodile meat at the restaurant.
If you really want to see crocodiles, most likely you can have a better approach of crocodiles anywhere else (walk around Cairns in Australia and try not to get yourself killed, that’ll do a better adventure). It has absolutely nothing to do with a sanctuary. Imagine a orangutan sanctuary where at the end you eat a steak of a baby orangutan? Nope.
So what did we do in Puerto Princesa then? Mostly, walking around the city, which is not really pretty.
Just so you know, the authorities advised strongly going to the South of Palawan, but a week in the North should keep you busy already.
Apparently some beaches are nice around, but frankly I wouldn’t waste too much time as the nice beaches are in El Nido, and that’s where everyone is heading anyway (for a reason!).
Then what about it?
On to El Nido now (finally). To be honest, we were a bit far from El Nido itself, but our place was amazing. The village is called Sibaltan. We had an awesome room, among coconut trees, where we could sometimes hear some coconut falling, heaps of dogs (and pigs!) and great beaches. Just walking there was really relaxing…When it was not raining. Because yes, my amoebiasis was not enough, it probably rained for the other half of the time we were there.
Well, as I said at the beginning of the article, I’ve been sick the whole time I was there, so unfortunately we couldn’t do much…again! I had amoebiasis. Sounds almost poetic. Almost. Yet, it’s faeces related. It could be that I ate or drank something which had contaminated faeces in it. Lovely. Anyway, after Aurelie’s Bali belly, here I am with what the locals call with some eccentricity: Philippines’ belly.
It’s actually pretty bad (I could’ve died if my stubbornness didn’t end thanks to Aurélie and Dante). It’s also not so common but to avoid it, here are some advices:
Don’t eat raw vegetables as they often are at risk.
As you already know, wash your hands before eating (don’t be as dumb as I am, do it).
I would say don’t pet the stray dogs, because that’s the exact thing I did and stray dogs’ hygiene is not the best, or if you do (because I told you, I am that dumb: I still do it), wash your hands right after. They may carry rabies, which is a virus that make the animal aggressive in order to propagate.
Carry some wet wipes or anything more ecological with you at all time or hydroalcoholic gel (we know it well by now thanks to the COVID)
I could have gotten that bacteria from that doubtful water (well, doubtful is an euphemism when you see some orange/brown water going out of the sink). Therefore, watch out when brushing your teeth, only use bottled water.
Ask for beverages without ice cubes as they sometimes use tap water (non drinkable) to save money.
Oh and, more importantly: get a travel insurance. No economy here, that’s probably the most important point actually. You’ll be more than happy if you ever need it.
Believe me, it is painful and going to the hospital when you have such a small amount of time is no fun.
So except walking along the beach and going to the small but lovely village of Sibaltan, that’s all we did there. And drinking a lot of juices, that was good enough. Unlike the food. Let’s take a moment to talk about the food out there. I am sorry to every Filipino that I may upset, especially to you Ali, but the food in Philippines is terrible. Way too salty, very fat and greasy, few flavours, it was a complete disappointment, to the point that eating was not a pleasure anymore, it only became a necessity. I want to talk about the salt again. Yikes, salt!
On a brighter note, and these two points are not related to Palawan only, Filipinos people are mostly very welcoming and friendly! I also got to talk with two guys that were pretty open to discuss about the situation now in their country, which doesn’t happen so often abroad.
Our last stop was Manila, in Luzon region. Therefore it holds a special place for me as I live nearby a town called Luzon itself. So every time as a kid I was looking at a map and saw “Luzon” in Philippines, I always thought that I wanted to go there because of that town. Well, there I was… But clearly not enough. We maybe only had less than a week on this island, and couldn’t travel because of…the rain!
So I have basically nothing to say about Manila, except that the city is completely disgusting, a core of pollution and really ugly… But I am not doing justice to this island which seemed to have great nature spots. I’ve heard that hikers should go to the North.
My main advice for the optimal visit of the country: plan your trip beforehand! Philippines is not one of those countries where you can just land in Manila and decide almost day after day what to do: plane tickets are quickly expensive and free places are not so easy to find (money and feeling wise…try on maps.me for some tips, but that’s surely not enough). Renting a scooter is also the way to go, as public transportation is not really developed.
You won’t go there for the food but its people is great, even if like many countries in South East Asia, they try to scam you about prices. One advice that has been given by a local himself is to NEVER say it’s the first time you come to Philippines. Hence, people will assume that you know the range of prices.
Also, if you like to sing, they seem to have a huge love for karaoke, available in every town apparently.
I guess that I will have to come back to really enjoy the hidden secrets of Philippines, and take my revenge of not doing much for three weeks.