Four months of weekends, well spent in the Philippines
As my time in the Philippines draws to a close, I want to take some time to reflect on the places I have had the opportunity to visit. I would like to preface this post by saying that during the week, I was actually working - I promise. However, those 48 hours in between Friday and Monday were just enough time to head out to the beach, scale a volcano, practice my karaoke, or visit nearby historical sites.
The common question seems to be "which place was your favorite"....well, that question is rather impossible to answer without two or three caveats, so the below list of 'must-dos' is in no particular order. In the words of General MacArthur, "I shall return" to the Philippines, as four months was not nearly enough to experience all this wonderful country has to offer.
Panglao Island, Bohol, Visayas
Easily accessible from Cebu City or Tagbilaran, the small island of Panglao is well-known for it's white-sandy beaches and incredible diving. A major plus of Panglao is that it doesn't typically have the crowds of tourists that Boracay attracts, which makes it easier to get around and quite a bit cheaper as well. The diving is suppose to be some of the best in the world.
Here, I did my open water diving certification course, swam in the ocean (a lot), barbecued on the beach with friends, and cruised around on a motorbike. The island is small enough to circle in less than an hour, and it's a beautiful ride! If you have never ridden a motorbike, a) don't tell that to whoever you are renting from and b) go to Panglao to figure it out - the traffic is light and the sides of the road have lots of bushes which will make for a softer landing.
Batad, Banaue, Northern Luzon
I decided to visit Sagada, Banaue, and Batad in one long weekend, but you can easily spend much more time at each without getting the least bit bored or sick of looking at the beautiful mountainous scenery. Getting up north is more straight forward from Manila via overnight bus, but if you don't mind taking a van, then a tricycle, a couple buses, and then various jeepneys to get to and from wherever you are in Luzon, it can be done :) It wouldn't be an adventure without getting lost at least 3 or 4 times, right?
Batad is home to the famous amphitheater rice terraces, which are as spectacular as the legends will have you believe. A big plus to Batad is that it's only accessible by foot, which deters many tourists leaving them behind in vehicle-accessible Banaue. Arrive in the morning and spend at least one night here - there are some phenomenal hikes around the terraces as well as straight up the steep face of them. Sleep in the actual village, a room with a one-inch pad on top of a piece of plywood will run you about 4 dollars. Accommodations in the village also have a place to bath yourself using rainwater collected in a large barrel. I'd call it a shower but you use a pail to pour the frigid water all over yourself. Not really effective nor is it enjoyable....maybe just shower before you head to Batad.
Around back of the terraces is a beautiful waterfall with a pool you can swim in...the waterfall is pretty big which makes the water a bit turbulent, but its plenty safe. It feels fantastic after hiking around in the heat. If you forget your bathing suit, I can attest that it's perfectly fine to just swim in your underwear...at least the German dudes having lunch nearby didn't seem to mind.
Puerto Princessa, Palawan
The island of Palawan, and specifically the city of 'Puerto' is known as the eco-tourism capital of the Philippines. It's clean, relatively uncongested, and has tons to offer for a long weekend. There are plenty of organized tours to keep you busy, or it's even easy enough to explore by yourself.
I did a tour of Puerto which included visits to a beautiful beachfront boardwalk, crocodile farm, and Baker's Hill where they have tamilok...a long disgusting-looking woodworm for you to try. There are two more must-dos: 1) a day trip up north to the underground river, which is one of the seven wonders of nature. 2) Also sign up for an island hopping tour in Honda Bay. This will usually include a ride from your hotel, snorkeling gear, an awesome lunch, and visits to 3-4 beaches, one of which has a diving board and cheap beer. How could you go wrong with that combination?
Sagada, Northern Luzon
When people talk about cities up north, Baguio seems to always be the first place people recommend. However, Baguio has been built up quite a bit and is home to many major hotels, massive apartment buildings, and a perpetual traffic jam. I am not knocking it - if you're into that, a lot of people absolutely love it there! For a quieter getaway, Sagada is where you will want to go. The town itself is tiny and hotels/hostels are very cheap. There are peaks to scale and trails to guide you, you just need to set out and remember which direction you walked to make the return a little more straight-forward. There are also numerous waterfalls to hike to - the two I visited have pools at the bottom fit for swimming. Special thanks also to my adventure companions and new friends for making my stop here an awesome time.
If you don't want to travel so far north, you can check out Mt. Pinatubo near the Clark Freeport Zone. While the logistics for getting to Mt. Pinatubo by public transport are a bit challenging, the beautiful 14km round-trip hike is well worth the trouble and they even sell cold beer at the top for you to enjoy while you soak in the scenery! Thank you JM for the early-morning lift to the trail-head and to Russ for always being up for an adventure.
When you visit the Philippines, you have to visit Boracay, it's required. It's white sandy beaches and endless nightlife draw tourists from all over the world. Given that I visited by myself, I chose to lay on the beach, sneak into resorts with nice pools, run in the sand, and go to bed at 830pm every night...and it was awesome. This place is the perfect getaway from Manila and is close enough that coming for a weekend is still well worth the trip. There are lots of activities to chose from - paragliding, sailing, cliff diving - but a must do is grabbing 3-4 beers from the store and strolling along the beach during the sunset.
Island of Negros, Visayas
My visit to Bacolod and its many nearby cities throughout Negros was made spectacular by my hosts at NWTF, so when you visit be sure to look them up and ask them to take you around :) Thank you, all of you, for making my time in Negros (and the Philippines, for that matter) truly unforgettable.
Bacolod was my first stop upon arriving in the Philippines, and I was based here for about 6 weeks. The first thing I noticed was that there were restaurants everywhere. The second thing I noticed was that everyone kept telling me how amazing the food was in Bacolod compared to everywhere else in the Philippines. While I was skeptical, I can confirm that they absolutely know their food. Grilled chicken, lechon, chop suey, halo-halo, and deserts for days. I can also say that Bacolod is not a great place to visit if you intend to lose, or even maintain, your body weight. Budget about 2-3 kilos per week.
Aside from the food, Negros (like most of the Philippines) has a great bus system and lots of easily accessible cities. Take a bus trip down the coast from Bacolod, through Bago, Kabankalan, and Bais toward the more well-known Dumaguete City. Try the banana chips on the bus, some fresh fish grilled on the beach, and bulalo on a piping hot skillet. Better make that 3-4 kilos per week...
Island of Bohol, Visayas
I already talked a bit about Panglao, which is adjacent to Bohol, but they really deserve to be discussed separately. Bohol is advertised (almost) exclusively as the island that has the 'chocolate hills' and is home to the tiny primates they call 'tarsiers'. Yes, it's important that you see these things. However, there is so much more to Bohol that many people likely miss because they don't spend enough time here.
For starters, Bohol is probably the most affordable place I visited during my four months in the Philippines. A good way to go is to base yourself in Tagbilaran, the main city on the island, and spend a couple of days doing day trips from there. Bohol itself is small enough that it allows you to travel all the way around in a matter of hours. The traffic is light and the views of the ocean are beautiful. Once you rent your motorbike, you will just need to decide whether you want to ride with the ocean on your left, or on your right. And yes, there is ziplining which you should definitely try. Thanks to the CEVI family for making sure there were no dull moments during my four weeks here :)
Island of Cebu, Visayas
Just east of Negros, Cebu City is easily accessible by sea or air. There really is so much to do here, and I can't begin to speak to it all as I only spent about 8 days in total here. However, the primary city is lively and is often referred to as 'the second Manila'. Head down south and you will find quieter towns with friendly people and nice beaches. If you head all the way to the south tip (Oslob) you can spend some time swimming around while sharks the size of a small bus, which is a pretty good time.
Oh, and don't forget to karaoke at one of the many 'party huts' along the side of the road. These will usually have a canopy to keep you dry, a cooler to keep you hydrated, and a videoke or karaoke machine to keep the party going. Don't ask why, but don't sing 'My Way' by Frank Sinatra...just don't do it, trust me.
Manila & Makati, Metro Manila, Luzon
Given that it is the nation's capital city and the world's most densely populated city, experiencing Manila is a must during any Pinoy immersion. If you don't mind walking, stick your wallet in your front pocket, memorize know the name of your residence and some nearby landmarks (you will get lost), and head out. Stop at a food cart when your hungry, look both ways before you cross the street (always), and soak up the energy of the city.
Makati is the business and financial hub of the Philippines, and is home to tall buildings, beautiful parks, and lots and lots of malls. It may sound silly, but Manila is famous for it's traffic. It does not matter what time of day it is, where in the city you are, and which direction you are headed - there will be traffic. Other highlights include the boardwalk along Manila Bay, Chinatown, the Mall of Asia, bargaining for cheap souvenirs at Divisoria 168, and the sweet street corn.
One of my favorite experiences was a day-long tour to the strategically important war island of Corregidor. While it's a little pricey, it includes 90-minute boatrides to and from the island, an entertaining (and slightly inappropriate) English-speaking tour guide, a bus with driver, all you can eat buffet lunch, and a chance to walk through some of the most historically-significant sites of the Philippines. Best done on a nice day, but the island itself is typically more humid than Manila! Wear shorts and don't forget your camera.
One thing to avoid back in Manila is the LRT/MRT system during rush hour. If you do chose to ride, prepare to wait in long lines and to have your personal bubble violated for the entirety of the experience. Also, make sure you know when your stop is coming and that you are on the correct side of the train to exit. If you don't exit the train within the first .5 seconds that the door is open, chances are that a mob of people will be pushing themselves aboard making your exit efforts completely useless. Best practice is to plan your day around not having to commute while the rest of Metro Manila's 12 million residents are doing so, but it's up to you.
Be a savvy tourist and know how much your cab is suppose to cost. My most-recent trip back from the airport, I noticed that the meter was going up suspiciously fast. When I asked about it, of course the response was that the meter was broken....some (certainly not all) taxi drivers rig their meters with a button they press on the steering wheel which causes the meter to advance more quickly than the typical 3.5 pesos per 300 meters. If you catch them, they will be nervous that you will report them (which you should do) but most importantly, you can decide how much the ride is going to cost :) Keep karma on your side and pay them what the ride should have cost....then flex your muscles while exiting the cab and report them...either a little intimidation or attempted legal enforcement is bound to save some future unbeknownst tourists from being overcharged.
Manila is a city that has so much to offer but experiencing it all requires an open mind, a willingness to sweat profusely, and possibly some really strong diarrhea medication. The sights, food, and people of Manila are what make this place so different, and so fun, to visit!
Samar & Leyte, Eastern Visayas
These two large islands are well off the tourist track, but boast some moving historical sights, beautiful scenery, and lively festivals. All of the cities I visited here had been kept relatively clean and were mostly uncongested. We traveled mostly by bus and van, which is a great way to see the many villages as you hug the coast of the pacific ocean.
At some point, be sure to cross the impressive San Juanico bridge, which serves as the connection between these two provinces and is allegedly the longest bridge in the Philippines. Be sure to park yourself in Tacloban for at least a night to experience the lively nightlife. From here, the city of Palo, on Leyte, is just a quick jeepney ride away where you can pose alongside General MacArthur and his commanders. The memorial itself is beautiful and is meant to show appreciation for the significant role he played in the liberation of the Philippines during World War II.
Thanks again to everyone who made this amazing trip possible - friends, family, supporters, co-workers, and the many new friends I have gained during these past four months. I shall return!