Spoilt for Choice | The Philippines in a Turtle Shell
Crystal clear, turtle infested waters, your very own, picture-perfect beaches & seductive waterfalls hidden on every fun-filled island; must be the Philippines.
Having travelled around your more typical South East Asian destinations over the years, I was hoping that the Philippines would offer something more authentic & unspoilt than the (still stunning) islands of Thailand or enchanting coast of Vietnam. I am pleased to say that it did just that, the multitude of idyllic island life & attitude of the local people made this one of my favourite destinations to date.
I spent just over a month travelling the archipelago; taking 9 flights along the way, as well as endless ferries, buses, habal-habal & tricycles. I managed to visit 8 destinations across 7 islands and have summarised each below to help you construct the perfect itinerary – whether you’re a beach bum, diving aficionado or adventure seeker.
PALAWAN (EL NIDO & SIBULTAN)
Great for: Island hopping, beaches, wildlife, bars & waterfalls
| ISLAND HOPPING
I’m sure you’ve seen some spectacular photos of the islands off the coast of El Nido around the world wide web; I can assure you, it’s just as spectacular in real life!
We were based in Calaan Beach initially and then spent a few nights in Corong-Corong; both of which are within a stones throw of the more lively main town of El Nido. From there, we booked two full-day tours via a super friendly tour operator called Midnight Sun. The tours are standardised across El Nido and offered as Tours A, B, C & D – the prices are also reasonably well established, although there is a little room for manoeuvre as always.
To avoid the crowds (as El Nido is one of the most popular destinations in the Philippines) we opted for a private tour; just the two of us in a boat along with a captain and two crew. This enabled us to combine tour destinations and dictate the order of the itinerary as we wished. Such luxury cost us 5,000PHP ($130AUD) a day, well worth it in our opinion, as each tour is around 1,200PHP per person alone and the experience was just perfect.
Both days were incredible as we enjoyed the most stunning collection of secret beaches, hidden lagoons & castaway islands largely to ourselves and were treated to the most delicious fresh lunches.
| MOTORBIKE TOUR
The northern end of Palawan isn’t just about the islands, if you’re able to rent a motorbike and head up the coast, there are endless adventured to be had.
We did just that, renting a motorbike for the day for around 400PHP and making for Nagkalit-Kalit falls first thing. The base of the track to the falls is around 25 minutes North of El Nido and we were the first to arrive (at around 9.30am); you’re greeted by guides in the car park, who’ll take you up to the falls for a small fee, a trek which takes about 45 minutes.
We had the falls all to ourselves for a couple of hours, which was heaven; swarming with butterflies, frogs, lizards & birds, the falls are awesome to laze beside, swim in & jump into.
Next stop was Nacpan Beach, which is another 25 minutes on from the falls and makes for a pretty bumpy ride! You’ll soon forgive the sore bum on arrival, however, the sprawling white sands are only bettered by the sparkling turquoise waters of the beach. The beach isn’t deserted by any means, but far from crowded – great for a refreshing dip or a spot of lunch; you can also walk along the beach and up the headland to see the natural wonder from above, which is made all the more dramatic by the beach that mirrors Nacpan on the harbour side.
Our final stop was Duli Beach, a magical, wave blessed beach about 30 bumpy minutes north of Nacpan. The beach is easily missed, so keep an eye out when riding along the track, but is much quieter than Nacpan and as enchanting as Nacpan is stunning. There is a guest lodge on the beach, but nothing more, great for an afternoon swim in the waves; but beware the sandflies!
Located on the North East coast of Palawan, about 2 hours by road from El Nido, the village of Sibultan lives at its own pace. There are a few great options for beach-front accomodation, which are great for spending a few days with your feet up; we stayed in Tapik Beach Guest Houses and were treated to a beautiful beach-side cottage.
The village of Sibultan is a charming place where the locals are simply getting on with life, the school children were excited to see foreigners but the pigs in the mangroves were pretty unimpressed by us. Well worth a trip if you have the time and want to escape the more manic energy of El Nido.
| MUCH MORE
Although we didn’t have the time to explore further, Port Barton & Puerto Princessa are the other main attractions on the island. Puerto Princessa mainly operates as the gateway to the island whereas Port Barton is apparently stunning destination that escapes the heavy footfall of El Nido – definitely one for next time.
Top Tip: You can now fly directly to El Nido from Cebu & Manila with Swift Air – it’s more expensive that flying into Puerto Princessa but you save a day in travel between the two; so a great option if you’re time restricted!
Great for: Surfing, natural pools, beaches & island hopping
Along with Palawan, Siargao was my favourite island of all; an adventure to get to, incredible beaches, unparalleled surfing and awesome to explore by bike.
Getting there: I travelled to Siargao from Manila, which took just over 24 hours, with an over-night stay in Surigao City. Surigao is a short flight from Manila & reasonably well serviced, the trip on to Siargao is a little less straight forward, however. You’ll find few tourists in the city and few locals with any idea of the ‘timetable’ of ferries departing for the island of Siargao.
It took some serious legwork to get a rough idea of the departure time, which is 5.30am from the port (get there for 4.30am to be sure of a spot). My ferry took me to Del Carmen, as I was initially staying towards the north of the island, in Pacifico. The ferry takes 3 hours or so and the seating is cosy, but fun. If you’re staying in General Luna on the south of the island, you’ll want to get a similar ferry to Dapa or alternatively fly directly into Siargao, which is a possibility
Pacifico is beautifully laid back and picture perfect, with near empty beaches and a sparse crowd of surfers. I stayed in Bamboo Garden Resort and enjoyed a slice of luxury on the beach-front. My days were spent surfing (you’ll find a perfect spot regardless of ability); exploring the north of the island by bike; and on a day trip to Sugba Lagoon and an unnamed, flawless sand island.
You can hire boards and personal surf guide for the day from around 1,000 pesos – I’d highly recommend Glenn, who works at Jafas; he’s a chilled out local who used to boss the waves of Siargao!
| MAGPUPUNGKO TIDAL POOLS
Magpupungko Tidal Pools were a highlight of the trip and can be found just 25 minutes ride south of Bamboo Garden, they’re an amazing phenomenon whereby three-metre crystal clear pools are left behind by the falling tide, along with an array of colourful fish.
Incredible for snorkelling, rock jumping and exploring, the pools cost 10PHP to enter (make sure to arrive as the tide is almost out) and you’ll find reef fish, more urchins than you’d care for and even sea-snakes foraging amongst the rocks. There are a couple of stores to stock up with fresh Buko Juice or a more hearty Philippine lunch to keep you going.
| SUGBA LAGOON
Accessible as a tour from anywhere on the island, Sugba Lagoon is located amongst the mangroves off Del Carmen (the port on the west of the island). The mangrove forest is the biggest in the Philippines and makes for an enchanting boat trip out to the lagoon, which is nested mysteriously in their midst. There is a two-storey building standing strong in the middle of the lagoon, which acts as a base for snorkelling, paddle boarding and lunching! I arrived in late morning, before it gets bust and, as I understand it, the building becomes more of a club!
Our tour continued on to an unnamed island, about 30 minutes on from Sugba Lagoon, which boasted an absolutely breathtaking white sandy beach that was all ours to enjoy in the booming sunshine. The volleyball net, fresh coconuts and hermit crabs were all we had for company – if you can find out where it is, make sure you visit!
| GENERAL LUNA
All of that is before you get down to the main attraction, Cloud 9! The surfing around Pacifico is awesome (and quiet) but Cloud 9 in General Luna is the home of surfing in the Philippines and hosts the Cloud 9 Surfing Cup on the World League tour annually. There are a plethora of hostels/ hotels to choose from, lining the road between the town of General Luna and Cloud 9, meaning more bodies about, but the place is far from crowded.
Cloud 9 is about 3km from the town and easily accessible by motorbike or moto-taxi. There are markets to browse, great food to be eaten and surf breaks for all, as well as sensational islands to explore. I spent hours on the boardwalk alone at Cloud 9, watching the world go by, it’s a sizeable, four-storey structure overlooking the break.
| ISLAND HOPPING
Close to the shores of General Luna, which itself offers beautiful beaches and turquoise waters, you can take a short trip out to a trio of islands (Naked Island, Daku Island & Guyam Island), each magical in their own way. I managed to hire a private boat for the day to visit all three; Naked Island is a stunning sand-bar, great to swim from and lie in the sun; Daku Island is the biggest and only populated of the three, perfect to grab some fresh seafood for lunch and wash it down with a fresh coconut whilst watching the locals play on the beach; and Guyam is a picture perfect island with insanely clear waters to explore. If that wasn’t enough, there’s even a reef break in between Daku and Guyam!
A personal skipper and his boat cost me around 600 pesos for the day, be sure to haggle and head to down to the beach yourself to avoid the guest house commission.
Where to stay (Pacifico): I stayed in the wonderful Bamboo Garden Resort and enjoyed a slice of luxury on the beach-front, the food is great, the place peaceful and the staff super friendly!
Where to stay (General Luna): I went cheap, quiet and cheerful in GL and stayed at The Surfer’s Lodge. If you want something a bit more lively, there are numerous hostels in General Luna and some more fancy hotels out towards Cloud 9, I met some friends who were staying at Pagloam Hostel, which seems to be the pick of the bunch.
Top Tip: Get friendly with the locals! Whether surfers, hostel staff, boat owners or drivers, the locals are extraordinarily friendly on Siargao and will help show you the best of this magical island!
Great for: Scenery, waterfalls, beaches, diving & wildlife
Bohol is one of the more popular destinations with travellers, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an opportunity to do your own thing. The main activities advertised are:
- Chocolate Hills
- Loboc River Cruise
- Tarsier Sanctuaries
- Alona Beach
- Balicasag Island
While these spots are worth a visit, you’d be better doing them in your own time and with your own agenda – I’d advise getting hold of a moped/ motorbike and spending a couple of days cruising through the jungle, hills and coastal roads and paying for entry/ trips on arrival. For example, there is a less well known night time cruise on the river speckled with fireflies, which we would have undoubtedly preferred to our visit to the butterfly sanctuary, sadly we found this out too late.
Although not advertised, there are also numerous waterfalls around the island that are not easy to come by (we should know!), as well as a much quieter white sandy beach (Dumaluan Beach) and an eery underwater pool (Hinagdanan Cave).
We stayed on Panglao Island, which allowed us to scoot to the beach easily & we maintained reasonably easy access to Loboc. If you have the time, it would make sense to stay up near Loboc River so you can explore inland more thoroughly.
Top Tip: Treat yourself to a secluded beach by heading for the Dumaluan Beach Resort, which is away from the hustle and bustle of Alona on Panglao, cheap and friendly.
Great for: Waterfalls, culture & wildlife
Getting there: Fly to Dumaguete from Cebu (under $100) > moto-taxi from the airport to the ferry port (100-150PHP) > ferry over to Siquijor (30PHP + 15PHP terminal fee) > moto-taxi from Siquijor port to San Juan (100-200PHP)
Getting away (I took a more hectic approach on the way back, as I was headed to Badian (Kawasan Falls)): Tricycle to Port (100PHP) > Ferry to Dumaguete (100PHP) > tricycle to Sibulan Port (100PHP) > ferry from Sibulan to Liloan (62PHP) > moto-taxi to Batu (50PHP) > bus from Batu to Badian (60PHP)
Easily accessible from the city of Dumaguete, Siquijor has a reputation with Filipinos for being spooky due to its links with mystical healing and witchcraft. The island is fairly heavily populated but a wonderful place to adventure as many of the tourists keep themselves within the borders of their luxury accomodation and once you’re away from the port, its smiling locals that you’re much more likely to encounter.
Staying away from the port, in San Juan (Tori’s Bakpacker Paradise) gave me the pleasure of cheap beach-front accomodation with awesome snorkelling out the front of the hostel and a day’s trip around the island on a motorbike will take you to more great spots, and some average ones (note the names) including:
- Cambugahay Falls
- Lugnason Falls
- Gaay Waterfall
- 'Murder’ Beach
- Salangdong Beach
Cambugahay Falls was the highlight of the island for me, the perfect waterfall to swing and jump into to your hearts content. The water is an amazing chalky turquoise and the falls dramatic in the extreme, all beautifully set amongst dense jungle. Murder Beach was as dodgy as it sounds and I’d advise against a visit, whilst Salangdong Beach is, in my opinion, overrated – there are far better (and more natural) beaches to behold.
Gaay Falls had just been opened to the public when I visited in November 2016, and were an awesome place to interact with the locals as they swam, tumbled and flipped into the plunge pool. A note on Lugnason Falls; they were non-existent when I visited, but I’m assuming that isn’t always the case! They’re not far from San Juan, so worth a visit if you have time.
Apo Island was on my list, as it appears to be home to hundreds of huge turtles, but the weather was against me. I did later hear, however, that the island and it’s waters are swarming with tourists and the experience impacted as a result.
Where to stay: I stayed at Tori’s Bakpacker Paradise | Verdict: great accomodation for backpackers; plenty of like minded people, good value for money and in the perfect location.
Top tip: take care when on your motorbike, the roads can be dusty and gravelly, a nightmare for the knees and elbows of easy-going travellers (such as the two lovely girls I met out there!)
Great for: Diving, island hopping, snorkelling & beaches
Getting there: I travelled to Malapascua from Badian (via Cebu); provided you’re comfortable getting the bus, you can get up from Cebu bus station in relative comfort for only 200PHP. Head for Maya on the bus and fetch the boat across to Malapscua from there, the bus takes about 8 hours all in. I had to spend a night in Maya, right next to the port, as I arrived in the evening – there are a number of hostels/ hotels around, the expectation being you’ll stay one night before heading to the island.
Bare footed simplicity in paradise, Malapascua is a picture perfect island located off the north coast of Cebu. Renowned for its diving, Malapascua offers the rare opportunity to dive with the beautiful Thresher Shark but boasts so much more.
The island is very small, you can walk around it in an hour or two and buzzing with backpackers and locals alike. The beaches are beautiful, the water crystal clear and the dive shops offer a multitude of trips. As I’m unable to dive, I signed up for a trip out to Kalangamman Island, which I’d seen glimpses of on Instagram and was extremely excited about. The giant sand-bar of an island didn’t disappoint, we enjoyed snorkelling with turtles, moray eels and barracuda before tucking into the most delicious lunch on the pristine sands. Kalangamman Island is a must visit if you make it to Malapascua!
The other trip took me to various snorkelling spots around the shallows as well as a cliff jumping spot, which was right up my street! The whole island is well worth a visit if you’re in the Central Visayas and love island life and/ or diving.
Where to stay: I splashed out on a private room in the Little Mermaid Dive Resort as this was my last stop, which was lovely, but a bit pricey for a backpacker. There are a few hostels on the island and Village Sandra seemed to be the pick of them, having talked to a few fellow travellers.
Top tip: BRING CASH! There are no ATMs or opportunities to get cash without a boat trip back to the mainland otherwise.