We hadn’t planned to go to the Philippines, but after spending a few days in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, it was time to decide on our next destination. Guy and Cheryl were going to be in Manila for a few days and that was a good enough reason to buy a ticket and catch up with them. We still had the same issue of trying to avoid the monsoon and were hoping to get lucky again with the weather.
Our first few days were mostly lucky (apart from the occasional tropical downpour) and we were tempted to explore a bit more on some of the islands as Manila is ginormous and the traffic issues mean you can’t use it as a base for day trips (they would take too long). We opted for a flight to Puerto Princessa on Palawan, one of the larger islands. Research told us there was an underground river, that the island is a biodiversity hotpot and has stunning beaches and scenery.
We rented a car and zoomed to the location of the underground river. It was stunning, but it was so busy that the whole experience felt like a manmade attraction in a theme park. It took away the shine of the beautiful surroundings. We drove further north to El Nido, recommended by several of our friends for its stunning scenery and amazing beaches. They were right, it was a feast for the eyes. But when we booked a cruise to explore the surrounding islands and beaches we were absolutely horrified. This was even worse than the underground river, and we were in the low season! None of its natural beauty could persuade us to stay any longer and we hightailed it to the middle of the island. Jon had read about Port Barton and as we had a car and nothing booked, we drove over.
Bliss. Port Barton was where the natural beauty was not overshadowed by hordes of people. It was relatively quiet (by no means were we the only ones here either!), and we were finally enjoying the Philippines. Our guesthouse was empty apart from us and the caretaker made delicious meals, some of the best we had in the Philippines. We imagined this was how El Nido and other more popular areas must have looked before the tourism industry boomed.
We relaxed in Port Barton for a week before it was time to do some more exploring. The Philippines consist of 7,641 islands, about 2,000 inhabited, and another 5,000 or so with nobody living on it and with no name, and we had only been to two of them… Time to do another island hop. We went to Bohol, a short flight away and luckily you can fly there direct from Palawan. We rented a scooter and explored the sights. We loved learning about tarsiers at the small sanctuary. We were one of the first to arrive so we were lucky to see one of the tarsiers jump from branch to branch as he was nervous about the wind and was trying to find a good spot to sleep. They are nocturnal so you normally don’t see them moving around as they sleep during the day. They are tiny and look incredibly cute with their huge eyes.
We weren’t quite sure what to make of the popularity of the manmade forest…. People risk their lives sitting in the middle of the road to get their Instagram picture, but other (primary, not manmade) forests are ignored and not worthy of a picture? Very confusing and we just didn’t get it.
We island-hopped again, this time by ferry, and found ourselves on Cebu, another island. Here we donned some snorkeling masks to check out the sardines and turtles right off the beach. It was pretty cool to see, but we were happy we went very early in the morning as it very quickly becomes a zoo with guides pulling tourists along on floaties and freediving down to capture the best footage of their cargo.
Jude did two dives in Cebu and was lucky with her local dive master buddy Amel who turned out to be an excellent spotter. He found several nudibranchs, crabs, turtles, tiny shrimp, a frogfish and even an ornate ghost pipefish. A red one, magnificent. First one ever.
On the way back to the airport on Cebu we decided to create our own little adventure, using only the jeepney to get us, including our luggage, there. A jeepney is the name for the colourful, local buses in the Philippines. They are awesome. We managed to get pretty close, using three different jeepneys with the assistance of very helpful and friendly locals to determine which jeepney we had to take next to get us one step closer to the airport. We loved it, they thought we were mad.
The local food we tried was excellent, but in the little tiny places where all the locals go for their lunches and dinners it was hard to get food suitable for a vegetarian (even though Jude eats fish). From the street food bibingka was probably our favourite. Very hot work for the ladies making them with their ovens on wheels, impressive.
The Philippines are stunning and well worth a visit, but we wished we had done our homework before going. This is a place where you need to do some digging to find the places not yet overrun by tourists, as even in the low season when we were there it felt crazily busy in a lot of places. But, the people are super friendly, you can find great food here, great scenery and beaches and no doubt some world-class diving as well as bird watching (you probably just need to get out there a bit further away from the tourist trails….).