THE PHILIPPINES: Part 1
Phew, what a two weeks it has been. I'm writing this on the plane from Bejing to JFK because I know once my post-vacation clarity wears off it will be much harder to remember the details of this little slice of paradise. And it's a good way to spend 14 hours.
Below I break down our itinerary with locations and prices where possible. Keep in mind we had a group of six for the majority of week one, and Brian and I continued on for week two. We also had the benefit of traveling with friends that had been living there for the past few months which made for less of a learning curve. Shout out to Melissa & Nate's amazing planning skills, Ate Margie's endless helpfulness, and Tita Yosa's delicious cooking. You guys are seriously the best!
DAY 1: MANILA TO BALER
After about 24 hours of travel, Lauren and I arrived at the Manila International Airport just before midnight. Though exhausted, we were overjoyed to stretch our legs and meet up with Melissa, Nate, and Marc, the other half of our crew. Ate Margie (bless her heart) was kind enough to pick us up from the airport, brave the parking lot traffic, and shuttle us to the JoyBus terminal. Here we took the 1:30am bus north to Baler (approximately 5 hours at 700 pesos per person). The bus was by far the nicest we encountered in the Philippines, with reclining seats, a blanket and snacks on each. They blast the aircon, so I recommend bringing a jacket. It gets COLD.
When we arrived in Baler we squeezed into two tricycles to take us to the hotel. I think Lauren described these best as "a little sidecar attached to a motorbike [that] functions as a taxi." Though prices can vary, we made a habit of agreeing on the fare beforehand to avoid being scammed.
We checked in at Aliya Surf Camp & Resort, where we had a room on the third floor that slept the five of us. It was cozy with two bunk beds, both with a wider bottom bunk to sleep two. It was a pleasant stay with hot water and aircon in the room.
After settling in, we took a tricycle to the base of the Ditumabo Falls (aka Mother Falls) hike. The hike was leisurely but winded across the river at times so I recommend wearing sandals or sneakers that you don't mind getting wet. Mine were soaked! The waterfall itself was worth the trip, but our awe of nature was not enough to distract us from the freezing water that we enjoyed nonetheless. As we headed back out, we picked up some "buko juice," the liquid inside a young coconut that had been macheted open, complete with a straw. It doesn't get any fresher than that. We continued to Diguisit Beach via tricycle. It was beginning to rain more steadily, so we made it a quick trip before heading back to the hotel. Traveling to both of these sights should cost about 500–700 pesos.
DAY 2: BALER
Thanks to Typhoon Gillian it had been raining since the day before. Normally we'd be taking surf lessons which is the main draw in Baler, but instead we were going a little stir-crazy. The ocean had turned a muddy brown color and was too choppy to swim.
Thus we made a joint decision to brave the elements and go for a run on the beach. We were a smiling, soaking-wet mess but it helped our moods considerably. Vacation is a mindset ya know.
DAY 3: BALER TO MANILA
We finally saw the sun today, just in time to depart for our next destination. We also learned firsthand the importance of showing up early for the bus. The plan was to take an early morning bus back to Manila, but it was full and pulling out when we arrived, leaving us searching for a plan B. I found that there is rarely a posted schedule in the Philippines. Usually the locals know the best way to get somewhere, so the best bet is just to ask. English is widely spoken here.
In this case, plan B involved taking a local bus to somewhere (I really can't remember) where we could connect with a bus to Manila. The road out was through the mountains which made for a very bumpy ride. Our first mistake was sitting in the last row, where we felt every last bump and turn. Even with motion sickness medication, I was uncomfortable to say the least. Luckily they stopped about every hour at roadside snack stands so we could stretch our legs and use the facilities.
Which leads me to a side note on toilet paper (yes, toilet paper). If you want it, you should bring it. It is hardly ever provided and if used should be deposited in the wastebasket next to the toilet. Most of the plumbing here can't handle it. The bathrooms usually also feature a bucket of water and a ladle, which we used to "flush" the toilet. This seemed odd at first but I grew used to it since it's so common.
Back to the bus... This detour made for an incredibly long day, and while we all giggled at the Lifetime-channel-like movie in Tagalog playing on the bus, we were ecstatic to reach the end of what turned out to be an entire day of travel. We met up with Brian later that night, rounding out our group to an even 6. His first words to me were, "You look frazzled," which he quickly followed with a kiss. Yes I did. It had been just that kind of day.
DAY 4: MANILA TO PALAWAN
We departed on an early morning flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa Airport in Palawan. Upon arrival there were several offers to take us to our destination of El Nido, but we agreed on a van willing to take us for 550 pesos per person. Transportation rarely leaves until it is filled to capacity, which made for a very unhappy driver when only two more passengers joined us instead of the van capacity of ten. He frequently stopped at towns along the way and tried to pick up more people to no avail.
We were pleasantly surprised by our accommodations at El Nido Bay Inn, which is situated mere feet from the beach and has a gorgeous view of the harbor from its open patio. We were so happy to arrive at this island paradise after days of rain.
The rooms were simple but again had hot water, aircon, and WiFi. The room rate included a simple Filipino breakfast, for which we arranged timing with the front desk each day. I have to hand it to them, the staff was on-the-ball, never forgetting what time we had scheduled, bringing more 3 in 1 coffee before we even had time to ask.
Note: There is no electricity in El Nido from 6am to 2pm, so plan accordingly.
DAY 5: PALAWAN ISLAND HOPPING
It's virtually impossible to miss the tour packages available here. El Nido is known for its island hopping, each tour featuring a different selection. We opted for Tour C, which if my memory serves me, was about 1,200 pesos per person. This was an entire day of sun and snorkeling which did not disappoint. But the highlight was truly lunch, which was prepared beachside by the crew. The selection of pork, fish, and fruits were so fresh it was incredible.
Diverting from the usual Filipino food that night, we ate at Lonesome Carabao Lounge. The Mexican food impressed us despite our western standards, so I highly recommend it. It's hard to beat their two-for-one happy hour — just stay away from the drink called "The Iguana."
DAY 6: ADVENTURE TO NACPAN BEACH
After touring the day before, we were all hankering to get off the beaten track. We had been tossing around the idea of renting motorbikes and, after a little practice, were confident the guys could safely ride with us ladies on the back. The destination? Nacpan Beach.
More secluded than the harbor our hotel was situated on, and vaster than our island hopping beaches the day before, this was the perfect escape. The ride there was comfortable, mostly on paved and winding roads but later turning to wide dirt paths. We spent the day swimming, tossing around a frisbee, lunching, and exploring the hills.
We met a few local children who were enamored by the battery operated fan on Melissa's backpack, repeating "Aircon! Aircon! Masarap!" (The Tagalog equivalent to how we would say "Sweet!" or "Nice!) The walk back to our bikes even featured a group of locals dragging in their fishing nets. They smiled and motioned for us to join. It's moments like these that I felt I was having an authentic travel experience.
Dinner that night was at Marber's Restaurant whose menu featured a variety of German and Filipino food. The hope was to have their Mango Graham Cake dessert again, which our group had enjoyed the day before. There was disappointment all around when they didn't have the proper ingredients. Not to fear. We returned the next day for it, because yes, it really was that good.
DAY 7: PALAWAN SEA KAYAKING
Being the adventurous folk that we are, we decided to spend our last day in Palawan sea kayaking. While 700 pesos seems to be the going rate, we were able to talk a nearby B&B down to 600. After renting masks and snorkels for 100 pesos each, we were ready for the open ocean.
Our journey took us to 3 different beaches along Cadlao Island, each with something different to offer. My favorite by far was our last stop: an inlet appropriately named Secret Lagoon, with a beautiful coral reef. We dragged our kayaks to a tiny beach away from the more popular one, waded through the seaweed, and took a look around. Its calm water, clear visibility, and shallow depth were the perfect ingredients for what was possibly the best snorkeling I've ever experienced.
The trip back took us an admirable 1.5 hours of paddling against the current. I think we were all happy for the burn in our arms to subside once reaching shore. All in all, we figured we kayaked a total of 14 kilometers that day — no small feat for a group that hasn't kayaked a lot in the past.
photos by Amanda Dennelly unless otherwise noted