Our time in the Philippines – the good and the bad
We decided to fly into Cebu-Mactan Airport instead of Manila because it is in closer proximity to the natural wonders of the Philippines we were eager to explore. After doing much research on which towns to explore, things to do, and how to get there we settled on two places: Moalboal (Moh-all-Boh-all) and Siargao (Shee-arr-gaow). If you are into Youtube travelers, you may be aware that these two places are hotspots for young people trying to explore the most beautiful landscapes (and waterscapes?) of all the Philippines, because not only is the Philippines beautifully landscaped with coconut trees and both rocky and sandy shores, but its true magic is held in the cerulean blue waters that embrace each island.
We were unsure what to expect from the Philippines. Having spent so much time in Southeast Asia, I suppose we were expecting it to be similar to Thailand’s southern peninsula. We arrived in Cebu City and stayed for just one night near the southern bus station so we could hop on an early bus to Moalboal. We read that Cebu City isn’t the nicest place to be and since we only had 11 days to explore we skipped the city and hopped on an early bus across the island to Moalboal. At this point we could tell this place was not like Thailand, or at least not to us. The three things that stuck out were:
1. The people are EXTREMELY NICE. — Thai people are just as nice, this is not a comparison, but Filipino’s are like… super-duper nice.
2. Vegetables are in short supply… just something we noticed, not that it was a big deal. However, after every meal, we were left longing for something that wasn’t rice and meat.
3. The infrastructure is not as good. — Cebu City is the 2nd largest city in the Philippines. We completely understand that not all small Filipino towns will have paved roads, etc. but it is worth pointing out that the ways of travel are limited and for the… “adventurous.”
If you are looking for glamorous travel (unless you are strictly flying from place to place and going nowhere in-between), the Philippines is not for you.
At this point in our journey, it is hard to scare or discourage us. We’ve been all over Asia in the junkiest vehicles, the scariest roads, and without the certainty of our destination, we don’t scare easily now. However, we did not expect to find such “adventurous” travel while in the Philippines solely on the fact that the US occupied the country for nearly 50 years and certainly would have upgraded some of its infrastructure for its own needs. It was interesting to us that it felt like whatever the US did leave behind is still there, but stuck in time without being improved upon. However, we completely understand that because of the Philippines geography it makes it hard to transport and improve roads, cities, and towns. Each island has its own small government, needs, wants, and priorities. And again, not saying that this is anything bad, it is just not what we expected knowing that our home country had such an influence in such a remote place in the world.
However, what we found to be quite easy was the ability to communicate in English. It was strange to communicate where you need to go and have nearly everyone understand! People were very helpful in getting us on the right bus to Moalboal, but the journey itself took a long time to get there. It’s a free-for-all! *Side note – if you’re in Cebu City between the hours of 2-6pm, don’t expect to get where you’re going fast. The traffic is awful.
Now on to Moalboal –
The town of Moalboal is small. There is a more local section near the port and along the main road, and a separate part of town more designated for tourists located about a 7-10 minute drive northwest. We advise renting a motorbike to transport yourself around this area. The “tuk-tuks” (I know they are called something different I just don’t know what right now) are plentiful but they will try to charge you too much (understandably), and yes the buses are quite frequent along the main road but will only get you to the town your destination is closest to, not quite all the way. So that is why we suggest renting a motorbike! Not always the safest option, but if you’re comfortable on a bike and have a helmet this is the easiest way to get yourself where you want to go, which is often times off the beaten path! We rented a bike from our homestay (practically an AirBnB situation) for 400 pesos (=$8) a day and we definitely got our money’s worth. We drove to the now Youtube-famous Kawasan Falls and Osmena Peak, about a 1.5-2 hour journey each way up a mountain. Buses will not take you to these places, thank you, motorbike!
Unfortunately, we were unable to go diving during our time in this scuba-haven due to my sinuses acting up… which is a no-go when it comes to diving. Who is trying to risk sinus-squeeze on a happy vacation? Not me! However, this did allow us to save about $80 a person by not going. Diving is amazing… but expensive. Although we didn’t go diving we did have some fun snorkeling at White beach a few times. This is a great beach just north of Moalboal and cost only 15 pesos (=$0.26) for each person to enter. The sand is beautiful thanks to the locals keeping it clean and the water is BLUE. Just a few meters off the shore is a dramatic drop off that hosts some really fun sea-life including bannerfish and bright blue starfish! You can even spot some large sardines swimming through this area as well.
After our short stay in Moalboal, we made our way back to Cebu City to catch an overnight ferry to Siargao. Well, an overnight ferry to Surigao (notice the slight difference in spelling), then a 2-hour ferry at 6 AM from Surigao to Siargao.
Siargao is a rather new favorite place for young people visiting or expat-ing in the Philippines. This island is known for having some of the best surfing conditions in all the Philippines and attracts many with its surfing competitions. As soon as you arrive on this tiny island it is clear that the surf culture is king. I have never seen so many surf shops or shirtless surfer “bros” in my life, and I come from a community known for beach culture. (Ever heard of Ocean City, Maryland? I’m not from there.. but close!) Anyway, it is a beautiful place with crystal clear waters, tons of hip restaurants and gorgeous beach resorts that seem to transport you out of the Philippines and to LA.
A lot of the establishments in the main city of General Luna seem not to be for their own citizens, but for the hip tourist that are without a doubt more affluent than the people who actually live there. Can you tell we didn’t necessarily love it?
If you stray away from the establishments meant for tourists, you can find a more realistic view into life for Siargao citizens, but we found that most people didn’t. On our first night in Siargao, we were on the hunt for halo-halo (HA-low HA-low) and we stumbled into the neighborhood next to the pier. We were met with staring eyes, in a “what are you doing here at night?” kind of way, but we soon came across a small stand that said, “Halohalo 20 pesos” so we stopped. The little lady behind the stand called into her home and a young woman appeared who spoke great English. We ordered our dessert and she invited us to sit down on their porch while she made it.
Side note – Halo-halo is a shaved ice dessert with lots of toppings. Most have sweet corn, corn flakes, different colored gelatin pieces, lots of sugar, evaporated milk, some type of sweetened purple yam paste, and shaved coconut. This seems like a strange combination, but when stirred together it makes a refreshing treat!
We made friendly conversation while she was assembling the halo-halo, and suddenly it started to downpour rain. We laughed at the bad timing of our small excursion to try and explore the island, and with no end of the downpour in sight, her family invited us inside their home to keep dry. We talked about the island, the influx of tourism, the coming political election across the Philippines, and some of their family who happened to be living in parts of Texas, California, and Las Vegas. We were met with such hospitality that we even became friends on Facebook, and she told us that her brother-in-law could take us on an island-hopping tour for literally half the price as other tours advertised to the affluent tourist. Not having much of a plan during our stay, we agreed to have her brother-in-law take us out on a boating trip the next day. The rain finally stopped and we made our way back to our little house in the wilderness (*that we shared with some huge lizards and frogs!)
Our island hopping adventure was a great success minus the astounding sunburn we both received. No amount of sunscreen in the world could have helped us, and although we came out of that day looking like two freshly steamed lobsters we loved every minute of it. Our captain, brother-in-law David, and his little vessel were so adorable and kind. He took us to Naked, Daku, and Guyam Island, all of which are less than 20 minutes from General Luna Pier. The water is absolutely gorgeous, some of the clearest water we’ve ever seen, and we even got to see some fun marine life to include bright orange coral!
After a few days of exploring Siargao, we made our way back to Cebu City via overnight ferry and left the Philippines with some great memories and a rockin’ sunburn. Will we be back to the Philippines? Maybe one day.
Thanks for reading!
-Leah & Zach