My journey to The Philippines started on a plane sitting next to an ex-convict who proudly told me he had been in jail six times, worked as a private investigator, pressed me multiple times to show him my passport/driving licence, talked incessantly for eight hours and tried to insist that I sleep on his shoulder. Seriously. And that is only half of it!
After that painful experience, I wearily sat down at the restaurant of the Manila airport motel that I was staying in and ordered the first thing I saw on the menu that contained ice cream, without properly reading the description. I mean, it contains ice cream…How wrong can you go, right? I excitedly tucked into what looked like an innocent bowl of cereal and ice cream, only to discover that it was laced with…Sweetcorn!?! No disrespect meant to Filipino cuisine, but it was genuinely the most disgusting thing I have ever tasted. I’m still trying to work out which was more traumatising: the plane ride with the ex-convict or that dessert.
The following morning, I headed straight to an island called Siargao, only to discover that I hadn’t paid the deposit of the place I was meant to be staying in for the next four nights (oops!) and that they were full. Fortunately, June/July is low season in The Philippines, so after a little bit of wandering around town, I found a very simple (aka budget) beach shack to stay in. One of my closest friends who I know from Sydney, Fiona, joined me the following day and the trip went much more smoothly from that moment onwards. I won’t pretend that that was a coincidence. I couldn’t wait to spend quality time with her. She is one of the most loyal and considerate people I know, is always up for an adventure, and is a 100% dedicated photographer. What more could you want in a travel companion!?
Siargao is one of the less touristy Filipino islands. Most people rent motorbikes to get around, but neither of us was keen to accept responsibility for driving one, so we hired a Tuk Tuk with a driver for the day, which cost £20. We first visited Sugba Lagoon, which is a beautiful turquoise lagoon, complete with a dive board that you can jump off into the water. We then headed to Magpupungko Rock Pools, that can only be accessed at low tide. It was super busy when we went so we didn’t stay long. Whilst eating lunch at a little market by the rock pools, we spotted some Filipino children eating fresh mango with some tasty looking purple sauce on top (it looked like it could have been crushed purple skittles). Intrigued, I wandered over to buy myself a healthy little dessert. The lady at the stall looked surprised when I requested the mango/purple sauce combination, but I confidently ignored her discouraging murmurs and insisted that that was what I wanted. Oh wow. It turned out to be some kind of salty fermented fish paste, which my post-consumption research indicated is called Bagoong. I don’t like fish on the best of days, let alone on top of mango and mixed 50/50 with salt. I couldn’t even describe to Fiona at the time what it tasted like, because I knew if I talked about it, I would throw up.
Our last stop with our driver on Siargao was at the Tayangban Cave Pool. We totally didn’t know what we were letting ourselves in for with this one. Just going by the name, we assumed it would be a nice little pool by a cave that you could swim in. We actually ended up scrambling and swimming through what felt like miles and miles of pitch-black, slippery caves, led by a guide with a dimly lit torch. Halfway through the caving experience, Fiona wisely questioned whether our travel insurance would cover such an activity. After looking at the guy in front of us who had just slipped off a large boulder and the swarm of bats above our heads, we concluded almost definitely not.
We stayed in General Luna on Siargao and ate most meals out. It probably goes without saying, but The Philippines is so much cheaper than Australia/New Zealand/the UK. The Pleasure Point Cafe was our favourite for breakfast. Kermit does amazing pizzas and had a fun atmosphere. Another of our dinner favourites was Trattoria Altrove, which serves lethal margaritas, great pasta and had a no-shoes policy…Definitely a winning combo.
Siargao is famous for surfing. The most popular surf spot seemed to be Cloud 9. We headed there on our last morning on the island to watch the surfers. I’d read about ten foot waves, so had zero intention of surfing myself. However, when we got there, the waves were tiny (around one to two foot). Perfect for me! So I grabbed a board and jumped in. I caught a lot of good waves, but only after being helped by the local surfers who saw me struggling and took me under their wing.
Our next stop after Siargao was Cebu. We got a flight to Cebu City, a taxi from the airport to Cebu South Bus Station, a three and a half hour bus to Moalboal and then a 15 minute Tuk Tuk to where we were staying. So it was quite the journey. However, seeing Kawasan Falls made it all worthwhile (see photos below). I thought it was just going to be one or two bright blue waterfalls, but it was a whole extensive area of waterfalls and natural pools. We got up at 5:30am, got a Tuk Tuk to Moalboal bus station and then flagged down a passing bus going in the direction of the falls. We ended up arriving at 7am, which was perfect, as we had the whole area almost to ourselves. However, when we were on our way out a few hours later, there were swarms of people going in, so it is definitely worth getting there early. One of the other key attractions in Moalboal is swimming with the shoals of sardines. You can do it right off the beach and we found them only ten metres from the shore.
Ven’z restaurant in Moalboal offered a number of vegetarian and vegan options, which was a nice change. They did the most amazing mango floats for dessert, which I would describe as somewhere between mango banoffee pie and cheesecake. They were so good, we went straight back there the following night for more. Three Bears restaurant was fun. You can play boardgames and we got a free cartwheel and handstand performance with our dinner by a very energetic nine-year old girl who had dubbed herself ‘Ayra the entertainer’.
We then headed to El Nido, for which our experience is best summed up by: rain, rain and more rain. I guess it’s a chance you take when heading to The Philippines in monsoon season. It wasn’t the kind of rain that lasted a couple of hours and then cleared up for the rest of the day. This was the kind of rain that continued non-stop for literally days on end. We passed the time mostly by eating and drinking. Happiness Express was our favourite dinner restaurant/bar in El Nido. They do the best frozen margaritas and instead of bar stools, they have swings hanging from the ceiling. Delinido Coffeehouse did the best burgers I’ve ever tasted. And for dessert, Gusto did really good ice cream.
We were due to do a three day remote island boat trip from El Nido to Coron with a company called Buhay Isla. However, a typhoon was entering The Philippines on the day we were due to leave. After hours of debating and remembering the time that I almost died on a boat in Belize ten years ago (that might sound melodramatic, but I can assure you that actually happened), we decided to skip it and loose the 50% deposit we’d paid. We still headed to Coron, but opted for the fast boat that took three hours instead of spending three days at sea during a typhoon.