Adventures In The Philippines
With so many places on my bucket list the decision on where to go next is never easy! My Instagram feed teases me daily with an endless stream of ideas. This was my dilemma earlier this year, I had 3 weeks leave and I wanted an adventure.
Eventually I decided on The Philippines and I wanted to pack in as much as I could. After a lot of recommendations and research I figured out a plan but of course each of the things I wanted to do were in completely different provinces so my trusty backpack and I were to cover some ground.
I set off first to Donsol, flying into Legazpi via a 6 hour stopover at Manila. One of the Philippines main draw cards is swimming with whale sharks with most people going to Oslob in Cebu as it's a simpler route for international flights. However, I had read up a bit first and wasn't happy with the way in which they operate the whale shark interactions there, feeding them and therefore disturbing their natural migration. I wanted to swim with these majestic fish but not to the detriment of their future. Donsol on the other hand has a much better reputation, having worked with WWF it is now a protected area.
I booked up for a whale shark tour as soon as I arrived through the Butanding Interaction Centre at the Tourist Office in Donsol and also booked for a dive trip to Manta Bowl for the following day through the dive centre at Giddy’s Place. Swimming with the whale sharks for the first time was an incredible experience although it was very busy and despite the briefing some people still went too close or tried to touch them.
The following day however on my trip to dive the Manta Bowl I was fortunate enough to get another chance to swim with these big fish. As we sat on the boat between dives a whale shark appeared and we got to enjoy swimming with it for a good 20 minutes as it casually looped our boat. This time there was just a few of us in the water making it a much more intimate experience and as we all respected it’s space it stayed up near the surface for much longer than the previous days encounters. Hyped from this experience four of us descended again in search of the illusive Manta Rays and finally toward the end of our last dive a lone ray approached us. As the ray came towards us we could see that it had fishing wire caught all around it. Our dive master slowly swam towards it, knife in hand, and surprisingly the ray allowed him to hover just above it so he could remove the wire.
I’ve had many experiences of observing wild animals but never seen such a tender interaction between human and wild animal, there is no doubt in my mind the ray came there for help. This was probably the most incredible day of my trip, swimming with whale sharks and diving with manta rays had been on my bucket list for some time so ticking two off in such epic fashion made my day. My boat crew topped off this perfect day by throwing me an inpromptu birthday dinner that evening, so thoughtful for a group of people I'd just met a day earlier.
I had hoped to explore the Mayon volcano on a quad biking tour while in the area but unfortunately my visit came a week after an eruption so the Mayon area had been evacuated and all tours cancelled indefinitely. Observing the smoking peak and a fiery red glow at night was a reminder how volatile nature can be.
My next stop after Donsol was Cebu, just a short flight from Legazpi on Cebu Air. The waters here offered exceptional snorkelling, and I managed to get a good deal by asking around and getting some local fisherman recommended by the security at my hotel to take me out for the day. I had all my own gear and while my hotel was lovely the hotel tour prices were just so over inflated I refused to buy into it, preferring to give my money direct to a local boat crew.
They took me to several great snorkel spots around Mactan island and happily just chilled on the boat leaving me alone to explore the abundance of life beneath the waters surface for as long as I wanted.
While I loved snorkelling and kayaking around Mactan my main visit to Cebu was actually Kawasan Falls or more specifically canyoning down to it. I'd never tried canyoning before but it looked like the perfect mix of beauty, water and adventure and I wasn’t disappointed. The journey down the canyon was an exhilerating combination of swimming, walking, jumping and sliding. Starting with a nervous 4 metre jump I continued to test my nerve on bigger and bigger jumps before finishing on a decent 20+ metre jump into level 2 of the Kawasan waterfall. The adrenaline was pumping after that jump! The day finished with a relaxing dip in the lush, picture perfect pool at the bottom of the Kawasan cascades.
It's definitely something that I'll do again and it was an awesome way to see a different part of the country. I would have loved more time in Cebu, there's thresher shark diving in Malapascua in the West and the salmon run in the South not far from Kawasan Falls but it was time to move on again
The Philippines is renowned for its islands and beaches so I wanted to experience a bit more of this side, I knew Boracay was not for me and a friend had recommended a boat trip from El Nido to Coron in Palawan. I'd also been wanting to visit the subterranean river in Palawan so this became the third and final part of my adventure. I flew to Puerta Princesa from Cebu and stayed 2 nights there as I had a round trip tour to the river booked from there the following day. It's a noisy, busy city with not a great deal to see and do so I actually wouldn't recommend staying there any longer than you have to. It's a couple of hours drive from Puerta to the UNESCO heritage site of the subterranean river park. You can also expect to wait quite a while once you arrive there for one of the boats to first take you over to the jumping off point for the river. We waited about 90 minutes and we arrived early on a weekday so I can only imagine how long it might be on a weekend.
The short boat trip over to the beach in the Park is a fun, bumpy and wet ride so be mindful of any electronics that could get wet. You arrive to a beautiful beach with dozens of colourful boats floating offshore waiting for their passengers to return. From the beach it's a short walk through the bush to a small beach inlet where you can see the entrance to the cave system. Around the area and along the bush track keep your eyes peeled for macaques and monitor lizards. These cheeky monkeys can, and do, steal so don't leave anything unattended.
There's a short wait again before a boat is available to enter the cave as each holds around 10 people plus your guide and they limit how many can operate to ensure the protection of the site. While you can't swim in this area it is a beautiful spot to enjoy while you wait. Once your boat is ready you'll be handed a helmet, life jacket and a headset which will give you an audio guide as go through the underground river. The guide navigates slowly, using a torch to bring your attention to the highlights described on your headset.
Stalactites hang from the roof of the cave as well as a whole host of strangely shaped formations and centuries old carvings. It feels as if you are in some other worldly, Goonies style scene as you slowly paddle through, with each quiet word spoken echoing around you.
The ride through the river cave takes just around 40 minutes as only a small portion is open and navigable to the public but it is worth experiencing.
As part of many of the day tours there are often add-ons to other local activities which is worthwhile especially if you are coming from Puerta Princesa. I opted for a tour that also included ziplining which was awesome fun. There were 2 options for the zipline, sitting position or head first superman style, I figured I may as well dive into it head first! As you dangle there suspended waiting to be released, you suddenly feel very high and very vulnerable!
The adrenaline starts to pump and then you're released. Speeding through the air 100 ft off the ground, looking around at the lush scenery below, I couldn't take the smile off my face, that was until I saw the platform at the end fast approaching! I was far from slowing down and I was convinced I was going to crash straight through the wooden platform! But no, the line came to an abrupt stop, sending me swinging (and swearing) across the platform!
From here we travelled back to Puerta Princesa, however one couple in our group had the foresight to arrange to switch buses on the way back to go onto El Nido. In hindsight that would've been the best option for me too, so if you are planning a similar route do try to arrange this as it allows you an extra night in El Nido and to join one of the morning trips.
I travelled to El Nido the following day and arrived in the afternoon, having missed the chance to join any of the day trips I took a wander around to familiarise myself with the area before heading to Las Cabanas beach to enjoy a few cocktails and great sunset views.
There's plenty of restaurants and bars to choose from in El Nido as well as live music and fire dancing entertainers at the beachfront venues but it all closes quite early which is actually a blessing as most tours leave by 9am.
Rather than do the day tours (originally named A, B, C & D) I opted for a 4 day boat trip to Coron. There are a few operators that do this tour however due to my dates I went with the Ultimate Adventure Tour from El Nido Paradise.
We saw one of the other tours several times along the way and they all do very similar routes, even staying on the same islands some nights. While I can't speak for the others, I would thoroughly recommend the Ultimate Adventure. While it took a little while to set off that first morning, once we set sail it was incredible. The staff were super friendly especially our guide Vanessa and the chef Jessie who somehow managed to create the most delicious and beautifully presented feasts from a tiny 2x1M kitchen on board our Bangka!
The scenery from the moment we set sail was simply breath-taking. As we cruised through the Bacuit Archipelago the water became more blue and the islands more varied, some sharp tall stacks, others small and lush.
The group was a wide mix of ages and nationalities, some like myself travelling alone, some with friends and partners but our mutual desire to travel plus unlimited free beer and rum on board saw us all get on well.
Each day we had a couple of stops to swim, snorkel and explore what lives beneath the surface. Being far from the usual tourist run these snorkelling spots are pristine, with technicolour coral, an abundance of fish and turtles and rays can be spotted too if you’re lucky.
Each night you stay on a different island, most of which are uninhabited. After a swim and a quick bucket shower there’s time to watch the stunning sunsets before another delicious meal and drinks. Our third night was a little different, instead of a quiet campfire we had a karaoke machine and a new level of bonding was formed with a little help from Aretha Franklin!
The accommodation is rustic to say the least, from tents to beach huts and this is all part of the adventure and what keeps these places special and unspoilt.
Our third day after cliff jumping at Linapacan island we visited an island community on Inapupuan island to see their way of life. We were greeted with a sea of excited smiling faces from the islands children and were taken on a quick tour of their school, playground areas and one of their homes before they sang a few of the songs they had learned. Hearing their little voices and watching their dancing was incredibly cute!
Our final day as we neared Coron we came across more and more tourist boats first at Skeleton Island shipwreck site and then at Barracuda Lake, both of which were great spots but the number of people there was a stark contrast to the three days previous where we had the privilege of enjoying the archipelago to ourselves! I would definitely recommend the 4 day trip if you want to explore beautiful Philippines islands without the crowds.
Coron is famed for it’s shipwrecks, a fleet of 7 vessels were bombed in 1944 and now play host to world-class wreck diving, while I didn’t get a chance to experience this first hand, a couple from my trip did 2 days of diving and recommended it. I on the other hand just had a day to explore Coron and enjoyed relaxing afternoon at the hot springs before walking up to the summit to watch the stunning sunset.
My journey back was to be a long one, so I broke it up with a day back in El Nido, I got the fast ferry back and hired a kayak to explore the islands closest and simply paddled around for the afternoon taking in the exquisite scenes of these beautiful islands.
While I feel I did a lot on this trip and got to see more of the Philippines than most, I barely scratched the surface of these 7107 islands and would recommend a trip to anyone who, like me, loves the water.