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Travel Guide: One month around the Philippines

Travel Guide: One month around the Philippines

The Philippines

Before we get down to details, I feel I need to start this post by saying go, go, go on the next available flight!

An archipelago made up of more than 7,500 islands, this otherworldly oceanic nation nestled in the South China Sea is on the fast track to becoming one of the world's most sought after travel destinations - my advice is to see it in all its glory before this happens, when tourism and associated construction will explode.

Overflowing with biodiversity and some of the richest marine life on earth, the Philippines is an unspoiled paradise for anyone looking for adventure, breathtaking nature and underwater escapism. The Filipino people are among the kindest you will ever meet, unbelievably genuine and interested in getting to know you.

(They were particularly interested in my snow white skin, which led to groups of people eagerly following me around shops and tourist attractions because they thought, to quote one of our tour guides, I was 'made of milk'.)

 White Beach in Port Barton, western Palawan

White Beach in Port Barton, western Palawan

The Philippines is hands down the most beautiful country we have ever been to, so much so that we're already planning a return trip which means a lot because we are so excited to see every corner of the world.

This post is long and includes everything and anything I jotted down from our time in PH. It's not curated or concise because it comes straight from the travel journal I keep everywhere we go, transcribed here exactly as I first scribbled it on boats, on buses and in the back of vans crammed with seventeen people to give you a taste of travel writing on the road in all its authentic glory.

I try to avoid negatively reviewing small businesses in my posts as I'm conscious that while I may have had a bad experience, this could be due to a variety of reasons and sometimes just personal taste. Where we had a genuinely awful meal or stay, I'll be sure to warn you!

As always, if you have any questions or want to ask any advice before your trip to the Philippines, just drop me an email or a DM on Insta and I'll help in anyway I can. Alice x

 Matinloc Island off the coast of El Nido, Palawan

Matinloc Island off the coast of El Nido, Palawan

Budget

For one month of what you might call frivolous spending (read: absolute notions), internal flights, accommodation (including one five star hotel), breakfast, lunch and dinner out, drinks, more than twenty excursions, buses, vans, tricycles, moped rentals and a few minor clothing purchases, we spent roughly five and a half thousand euro - that’s between two of us.

Not included in this figure were our flights to Manila from Dublin, for which we paid four hundred and eighty euro per person one way because we were connecting on to Sydney afterwards.

You could 100% do this trip on a tighter budget, and you could also spend a lot more - it really depends what standard of accommodation you’re after, the food you like to eat and what type of travel you enjoy.

Travelling in Asia means you can afford a few nights in places you simply couldn’t in Europe, so give it a go - the most luxurious hotel we stayed didn't turn out to be our favourite, but it was an experience and that’s what travel is all about.

It’s hard to advise people about costings for a trip but my suggestion would be to do your research and have a vague estimate of what you’re willing to spend on any trip. See and do as much as you possibly can - money can always be made but you may never have the chance to go back to these wonderful places!

Travel Route

Manila (just to fly into for a connection, fly direct to Mactan Airport in Cebu if you can!)

Cebu City

Bohol & Panglao

Siquijor

Cebu City

Puerto Princesa

Port Barton

El Nido

Coron

El Nido

Puerto Princesa

Manila

In hindsight, we could have utilised our time slightly better and seen one if not two more places. Every blog I read before we travelled recommended spending more time in Palawan than Cebu province - we disagreed with this completely, and while we loved Palawan there were some things we wish we had seen in Cebu which we easily could have if we'd left more time for ourselves there.

 A view of the Loboc river in Bohol, one of the most environmentally diverse and unique locations on the planet. The exclusive earthly home of the Tarsier species,  this Visayan island is a must see stop in PH!  

A view of the Loboc river in Bohol, one of the most environmentally diverse and unique locations on the planet. The exclusive earthly home of the Tarsier species,  this Visayan island is a must see stop in PH!  

Cebu City

Where to stay

Montebello Villa Garden Hotel - if you really want to indulge in the utmost of notions, book a two night stay at Montebello. We were upgraded to a suite, free of charge, and it was hands down the most incredible hotel I have ever stayed in abroad. Flying Dublin - Heathrow - Manila - Cebu on connections one after another will leave you exhausted, bedraggled and wanting nothing but a comfortable bed; treating yourself to a couple of nights at Montebello is the perfect antidote for the weariest of travellers!

The staff are beyond helpful, the breakfast is fantastic (I think James had three breakfasts each morning), the selection of pools to choose from are second to none, and the gardens are the ideal escape from the sticky heat and noise of Cebu City itself.

Maayo Hotel- We stayed at the Maayo for two nights on a layover in Cebu City to wait for the next available flight to Palawan. Towering above the city nine floors above ground level with an illuminated infinity pool on the 15th floor roof terrace, the hotel is breathtakingly fabulous - in fact, we felt pretty out of place with our grubby backpacks and Birkenstocks! 

Staff are extremely facilitating, the food from Ani rooftop restaurant is second to none (try the lobster thermidor for the equivalent of about 9 euro and the squid ink risotto) and the minimalist decor oh-is so stylish.

What to do

To get the most of our unintended extra time in Cebu City, we arranged a driver through the Maayo to take us around the sights surrounding the chaotic metropolis (the Temple of Leah in the Cebu hills, the Taoist Temple in Cebu’s ‘Beverley Hills’ elite district and Top’s Lookout, a 180 degree panoramic viewpoint overlooking the city and ocean).

At 2,500 PHP, it was one of the most expensive excursions we did in the Philippines and while we enjoyed it, it was probably the least impressive overall - my advice would be to keep an eye on flights, make sure to book in advance and get out of Cebu City to the islands instead!

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A personal note

For us personally, it felt wrong to be staying at the Maayo in lavish luxury and privilege because the hotel is situated in a high rise building overlooking one of the poorest districts of the city. Driving from the port to our accommodation we passed through what I can only describe as ghettoised slums, places that are screaming out for government funding and social assistance, and the Maayo Hotel is almost painful in how it juxtaposes the two worlds of rich and poor in the Philippines.

No doubt an excellent hotel with fantastic facilities and services, but one which jars with its surroundings to the extent that we pent the majority of our two nights here investigating what we could do to contribute to the economy struggling along below us.

Bohol / Panglao

After a 90 minute ferry from Cebu port to Tagbilaran City on the vibrant green island of Bohol, we shared a Jeepney with two British girls to the archipelago of Pangalo, the main tourist area which is attached to mainland Bohol by bridge.

My main advice for Bohol and Panglao would be to rent a motorbike as soon as you arrive; this is the best way of exploring anywhere in South East Asia and the roads in Bohol are extremely safe and well finished from what we saw.

Where to stay

Panglao is packed full of hostel and hotel options depending on your budget; we stayed at Scent of Green Papaya and Nora’s Place (due to a missed ferry to our next destination), both of which I would recommend as being good value for money, clean, comfortable and with nice pools.

Nora's Place was better value and also provided a free moped to use during our stay.

 ATV driving across the world famous Chocolate Hills in central Bohol

ATV driving across the world famous Chocolate Hills in central Bohol

What to do

The Chocolate Hills – rent ATVs and go on a guided tour of the world famous natural phenomenon. Drive to the viewpoint afterwards for the full experience!

Bohol Butterfly Sanctuary – a short but sweet experience, this tiny conservation area was where we laid eyes on the largest spider on earth which is only found on Bohol (thankfully – still traumatised).

Zipline through the Loboc Jungle – one of the best things we did in the Philippines (despite my repeated screams of terror).

Tarsier Conservation Sanctuary - not sure I would 100% recommend this as a lot of people seem to disregard the rules of the conservation zone and we hated the thought of this distressing the tiny creatures living there.

Baclayon Church - built by Spanish invaders in 1595, the church remained intact until a massive earthquake hit Bohol in 2013 and damaged much of the original structure.

 Dumaluan Beach  about fifteen minutes drive from the main strip of Alona, Panglao

Dumaluan Beach  about fifteen minutes drive from the main strip of Alona, Panglao

We chose to pay for a private tour around Bohol as it takes a whole day (8am - 5pm roughly) to get around all the activities listed above - the drive is far too long for a moped to handle so I wouldn’t even attempt it unless you want to break down or turn back with exhaustion! Excluding entrance fees (which are embarrassingly cheap), we paid 2,500 PHP to Emilio, our driver for the day who we booked through Green Papaya.

Dumaluan Beach - Take a moped to Dumaluan, which in my opinion is the nicest beach on Panglao - infinitely more beautiful than Alona (it's a bit cluttered with restaurants and beach side bars).

Dolphin watching and snorkelling tour - Get up at 5.30am for a wonderfully varied day of ocean fun (more details below).

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A note on the Virgin Island Sandbar

This tour includes a visit to the Virgin island sandbar which is absolutely stunning, sort of like a postcard from the Maldives. When we arrived, the tide was in and had engulfed most of the area where vendors sell sweet sugary potatoes on skewers and fresh fish - instead of calling it a day and heading home to dry off, the stall owners kept on cooking and selling their unusual cuisine with water past their waists! Eating this questionable lunch while sitting on chairs completely submerged in sea water in the middle of the ocean was one of the most memorable experiences of my life to date.

Where to eat and drink

Alia Hailey Reggae Bar on Alona Beach - go for the craic with Arnell the bartender, too many bottles of San Mig light and heartwarming reggae tunes that will have you hugging strangers from all over the world like old friends by the end of the night.

Giuseppe’s - an authentic Sicilian (well, as authentic as you can get in the middle of a Filipino island); go for the seafood pasta and excellent calzone.

Noah’s Pizza near the strip to Alona Beach - this looks like a complete greasy spoon from the outside but they do a surprisingly good pesto tagliatelle (go for this if you’re stuck for food late at night like we were).  

Shaka - Panglao’s healthy diamond. Go for the delicious acai power bowls or apple/cinnamon french toast at breakfast time, and the succulent veggie burgers for lunch.

Paprika at the Donatela Hotel - if you really want to splash out and pretend you’re a millionaire for one night only, Paprika is the place to eat. Go for the ambiance, the seaview from the terrace, a plate of baby back ribs and a Paprika House Cocktail.

Siquijor

Although Siquijor is not a staple on generic Filipino travel guides, I cannot urge you to include this tiny island in your itinerary enough. It was the most magical four days we have ever spent anywhere on earth, and I hope my recommendations and photographs do its' beauty justice.

Where to stay

Cliff Gardens - authentic Filipino huts with a little veranda at the front where you can chill out in a hammock. Great value for money - we only moved accommodation because the Gardens were booked out and we decided to stay longer in Siquijor!

Infinity Sands Resort - lovely hotel opening onto the beach, little pricier than Cliff Gardens as it is a westernised brand and just a word of warning - half of it is still a building site which booking.com does not tell you!

 James swinging into the piercing turquoise of Cambugahay Falls

James swinging into the piercing turquoise of Cambugahay Falls

What to do

Rent a motorbike - motorbike as opposed to moped - once you veer off the main Circumferential road looping around the coast, Siquijor’s roads become seriously primitive. You’ll need a decent bike and a good driver, more importantly.

Paliton Beach - Switch off with beers while sitting in the sea watching the most idyllic sunset.

Visit the Balete Tree - Visit this ancient structure and treat your feet to the all natural foot spa beneath it - a pool filled with tiny skin nibbling fish that locals say possesses healing properties.

Locong

Off the beaten track

Drive up mountainous terrain to Locong Falls, which was one of the most magical mornings I have ever experienced - after coming upon a tiny village in the hills of Siquijor and receiving a warm welcome from the local women sitting on the side of the road, you will be escorted down a rugged pathway through this remote outpost, past baby calves, families of chickens, goats and beaming children waving from their bamboo huts, all the way down into the jungle to a scene straight from the pages of Tarzan. It was just us, our shy but friendly guide Nora and the most stunning waterfall oasis complete with a rope for swinging into the crystal clear water. We swam and relaxed on bamboo chairs at the edge of the falls, a morning I will remember forever!

Cambugahay Falls - Spend a few hours in this naturist paradise, a three tier falls system in the jungle with mystically aquamarine water like nothing I have ever seen before.  

Salagdoong Beach -  Unwind, eat lunch and play on the swings in the middle of the ocean for a blissfully content afternoon.

Apo Island - For all ocean lovers, a visit to Siquijor is not complete without a day trip to Apo Island to swim with giant sea turtles and dive in coral gardens - I cannot recommend this enough. Go to CoCo Grove Resort near San Juan town to reserve a spot on the tour for 1,900 PHP (7.30am - 5pm).

 Siquijor is thought to have healing properties and mystical remedies in its water and mountains by many Filipinos from other parts of the country

Siquijor is thought to have healing properties and mystical remedies in its water and mountains by many Filipinos from other parts of the country

Where to eat and drink

Baha Bar - for the buffet dinner, live music and Mai Tais.

Czar’s Place - where do I even begin about our Friday night at Czar’s. Old, toothless women on the side of the road and young teenagers alike were asking us for days beforehand if we were going to the ‘big party at Czar’s on Friday’. So many people mentioned it that we decided we had to see what all the fuss was about - Czar’s did not disappoint.

A true experience of being fully immersed in Filipino island culture, the entire population of Siquijor congregated in the field behind a small bar and hostel (Czar’s) for a night of music, dance and drinking. It was something neither of us will ever forget, and it was so unusual to see people of all ages (literally two year olds on their Mam’s knees all the way up to the geriatric grannies with no teeth) enjoying the party.

It was such a spectacle, we couldn't believe how lucky we were to have been on Siqujior for such a big party.. That was until one of the locals told us they do this every Friday! If you go to the Philippines, you can’t leave without a few days on this perfect, spiritual island (and having a dance at Czar’s).
 

Puerto Princesa

Puerto Princesa is the provincial capital of Palawan province and the main airline hub for all travellers eager to explore the region.

The city itself is fairly underwhelming, as I've found with a lot of South East Asian urban sprawls, but it's a necessary stop on your way to the incredible beauty of Port Barton, El Nido and Coron in the north.

Spend a night here to catch your breath, but no more unless you're keen on the Underground River excursion to Puerto Princesa's Subterranean National Park. This naturally occurring cave network 80km south of the city was named as an UNESCO modern 'Wonder of the World' but for us, it was a little underwhelming - I've heard mixed reviews from travellers we've met so do some research to decide if a full day trip is worth it for you.

 Puerto Princesa's Underground River

Puerto Princesa's Underground River

Where to stay

Acacia Tree Garden Hotel – we stayed here for one night when we landed in PP before catching a van transfer to Port Barton the next day. The hotel is rated three stars, and we chose it based on Booking.com pictures/reviews and because it was ten minutes from the airport.

I can honestly say the Acacia was the only place in the Philippines where the staff were unfriendly, the room was quite run down and grubby for the amount we paid and (what bothered us most), the pool clearly hadn’t been cleaned out in a long, long time.

Canvas Boutique Hotel – situated in the centre of PP city, we used this as a base for our last night in Palawan before flying back to Manila. The outdoor pool was shaded and a welcome respite from the heat, and the hotel is decorated in a funky, warehouse style fashion with a varied selection of breakfast options to choose from.

That said, it wasn’t our favourite place to stay despite being on the pricier side of Filipino accommodation – the dinner was extremely average for the cost, and when we arrived there were ants crawling all over our bed. We had no issue changing rooms and the staff were very helpful, just not sure I’d be rushing back or fully recommending.

 A deserted island off the coast of El Nido where we stopped during a day tour

A deserted island off the coast of El Nido where we stopped during a day tour

Where to eat

La Terrasse on Rizal Avenue - go for the Hong Kong style half chicken and a San Mig light. Rated one of PP's best eateries on TripAdvisor, you'll leave ready to go back for more (we did, twice).

Kataboom - go for a Mai Tai or a bottle of San Mig light and world class reggae, folk and ballad songs sung live by locals.

Port Barton

The journey to Port Barton is like the road to El Dorado - winding and rattling up, up, up barely drive-able paving, the luscious green jungle heaves with the sound of life around you.

On arrival at the outskirts of the town, you will be asked to pay a small entrance fee and sign a declaration promising to respect the local environment and to leave nothing behind you except footprints. We spent two nights and three days here, switched off from the rest of the world.

Take a deep breath and plunge back in time to a place where there is no electricity or hot water during daylight hours (and hardly any at night time either), a coastal paradise that WiFi connection has not touched yet.

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A word of warning

If you are travelling the Philippines in late April and May, you are hitting paradise during the height of jellyfish season. In addition to hosting the largest population of poisonous fish on earth, PH (particularly Port Barton and parts of El Nido) is also home to swarms of box jellyfish, aka the most dangerous jellies in the world - one sting (particularly across your torso) is enough to shut down your nervous system and cause death within 30 minutes. One of the saddest facts I learned while exploring the Philippines is one that highlights the disparity in medical equality that exists between the so called ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ world; just eight hours flying time south of PH in Australia, a vaccine antidote for box jellyfish venom is readily available along the entire coastal region. In Palawan, the inoculation can be found only in the hospital of the provincial capital, Puerto Princesa, leaving the remaining coastal towns constantly vulnerable to needless death.

What to do

White Beach - Take the boat ten minutes across the water to a deserted stretch of sand and switch off from the world for a day by relaxing in one of the free ocean side hammocks (big enough for two).

King Dong's island hopping day tour - Snorkelling on this expedition was by no means the best of what we experienced in the Philippines, but the deserted islands, sandbars and beach-cooked lunch alone make the trip worthwhile. 

Where to eat

Mabuti - go for the nicest veggie burgers we’d ever tasted, great selection of cocktails and the upper balcony filled with hammocks boasting the only working WiFi in Port Barton!

Gorgonzola - Organic Italian pizzeria with plenty of health conscious options filled with flavour for those still thinking about the next bikini selfie - go for breakfast or dinner, both equally delicious.

 On the road across Palawan

On the road across Palawan

El Nido

What to do

Las Cabanas - an otherworldly sunset experience, one that words cannot do justice - just get yourself there, order a pina colada and treasure the memories forever!

Nacpan Beach - of all the water and all the beaches in all the world, nothing quite compares to the sands of Nacpan. About 40 minutes on a moped from El Nido town (which has no real beach), Nacpan is only now gaining traction among tourists which is evident from the growing number of beach bars and parasols lining the shore. You could easily spend a whole day here (we spent two) completely tuned out from the hectic buzz of life. With no WiFi to be had, you are free to be fully present and actually chat to other humans (terrifying, I know).

Lio Beach - sister of Nacpan, Lio Beach is beautiful in a different way. The sand is less crowded than Nacpan, and more suited to older (read: wealthier with more cash to splash) travellers. There is a selection of upmarket beach side eateries and chic surfer boutiques at Lio – don’t leave without eating at the Taiwanese restaurant Fat Choy, it’s healthy food will blow you away. One of the best meals we had in PH!

Nagkalit-kalit Falls - you’ll need a local guide to escort you on the 45 minute trek to the falls, which lie inland close to Nacpan and Lio. We met Nora who lives at the edge of the jungle, and took a mini trek with her through fields of large pigs, carabaos and baby calves to wade across forest streams and steep, tree crossed hills in sweltering, sweaty humidity before reaching the welcome cooling waters of Nagkalit-kalit. It felt as if we were the last three people on earth, lost in the middle of the Palawan jungle, and Nora took pictures for us while we swam in the falls. Nora told us that one area of the pools had only been discovered one month before we arrived, which made the day extra special.

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Tour A/B Combo with Outpost - an island and diving tour absolutely worth doing; we took tour A and B combined and had one of our favourite days of the entire trip with the hostel group.

Tour Z or Tour K - we didn’t get around to doing either of these because there is simply so much to cover in El Nido, but we heard great things and will definitely try them out if we end up back in the north of Palawan someday.

Mad Monkey Hostel - definitely more off the beaten track than Outpost, Mad Monkey enjoys one of the best views on earth: the jaw dropping sands and ocean of Nacpan Beach which lies about 40 minutes moped drive from the centre of El Nido town. Stay here for a WiFi free, total disconnection-from-reality-style adventure and enjoy the themed parties that take place every night. I'd highly recommend Mad Monkey for groups of friends or couples after a good time, big party hostels aren't really the norm in the Philippines but this will do the job nicely.

 Lio Beach, El Nido

Lio Beach, El Nido

Where to eat

Art Café - (sometimes) decent WiFi, sustainable straws, the best info on off the beaten track activities in town and the banana pancakes for breakfast.

Altrov’é - the best pizza east of Naples! There are two Altrov’é restaurants in El Nido, one in the main town and one a little out the road closer to Las Cabanas. There is a permanent queue outside the main town outlet, but if you’re in a rush, pop around the corner to Altrov’é Express which offers a more limited (but equally mouth watering) selection of Italian favourites.

SAVA - El Nido’s one stop shop for late night partying (and even then, it’s pretty laid back). If you’re looking to splash out a little, go for their signature Twister cocktail; the most expensive drink I had in the Philippines but definitely worth it!

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A night at SAVA

On our first night in El Nido, we accidentally found ourselves in a reserved area at SAVA as the guests of honour of a flashy couple from Kentucky who were holidaying with their American-Filipino friends. They introduced us to ‘the owner’, a Filipino man in dark sunglasses and the worst shirt I’ve ever seen, and kept us entertained with painfully obnoxious stories about their days partying with the Chainsmoker, Avicii et al in LA (a sort of we're laughing at you, not with you scenario). A few nights later back at SAVA, James and I got chatting to an elegant, peroxide Brit with a pixie cut dancing beside the DJ booth. Her name was Sara, she introduced us to her partner Anthony who was DJing next to us, and told us that this was THEIR club which they had opened with their two best friends Aimee and Vicky from another part of Palawan. Sara, Anthony, Vicky, Aimee… SAVA. I’m beginning to think our friends from Kentucky may not have been best friends with Justin Bieber after all...

Happiness - a cool, beach style Israeli bar with bamboo interior and swings for seats.The breakfast is a little underwhelming but the dinner was one of the nicest (and healthiest) we had in El Nido. Go for a calamansi juice and a middle eastern sharing plate!

Big Bad Thai - owned by the same lovely individuals who run Outpost Hostel, Big Bad Thai offers quick, tasty grub that goes easy on your bank account.

Rooftop - quirky, laid back bamboo bar overlooking the main thoroughfare of El Nido town. Do some shopping downstairs in the handcrafted boutique which offers cute crochet crop tops and bikinis as well as t-shirts and harem pants for the boys. You're guaranteed to find a group of friendly, chilled out travellers getting drunk well into the night here, great place to get chatting and for mingling especially for solo voyagers.

Outpost Hostel - THE place to be for drinks before the night really kicks off down in El Nido town proper. You are guaranteed to meet friends for life at Outpost, and even if you aren’t staying there, head along around sunset for nightly shots on the beach and drinking games.

Coron

What to do

Lake Kayangan - go here to swim and for the best view in Coron.

Twin Lagoon - Swim in the hidden water of this secret paradise off the coast of Coron which you can reach on a day tour. During low tide, you can swim underneath a rock shelf into the lagoon. The peaceful silence is stunning.

Horse riding - drive inland to Busuanga for an 'old west' style horse riding experience.

Hike Mt Tapyas - only if you get up before dawn - otherwise it's far too hot.

Maquinit Hot Springs - Warm up here (not that you'd ever need to) as a treat for your adventure-worn joints.

Skeleton Wreck - free diving to this World War II Japanese ship wreck was one of the best experiences of our trip. The stern of the boat lies just 5 metres deep and is easily visible when snorkelling if diving isn't for you.

Barracuda Lake - dive these deep, cavernous waters to see submerged mountains at the bottom. We didn't have time to make it to Barracuda but I've only heard great things.

 Lake Kayangan, the best view in Coron

Lake Kayangan, the best view in Coron

Where to eat

The Fat Lion Hotel -  the best meal we had in the entire Philippines. No contest.

Le Voyage - energising juices and beautiful fresh food from the Busuanga region. Go for the revitalising ginger and apple mix, the prawn linguine or any of the breakfasts.

The Secret to Planning the Perfect Road Trip

The Secret to Planning the Perfect Road Trip