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My Journey Through the Philippines in Pictures

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This is my very last post about the Philippines – at least for now. My next trip to this gorgeous country is already in the works, and I can’t wait to visit all the places I didn’t make it to the first time around.bohol rice fieldsWhenever people ask me about my favorite places in South East Asia, I can’t stop gushing over the picture-perfect beaches I visited, the lush green islands with their scenic rice fields and softly swaying palm trees, a stark contrast to the urban sprawl of Manila which is rapidly turning into a modern, advanced city; rivaling Singapore and Bangkok with the number of skyscrapers and shopping malls that continue to emerge in the ever growing capital. When I sat in one of Manila’s third-wave coffee shops, located in one of the shiny fancy malls, after returning from Palawan, I couldn’t believe that a day earlier, I had shared the road with ox carts and that I didn’t even have cell phone reception in El Nido – now I was surrounded by people who were all glued to their smartphones again.bacuit archipelago boatsThe many faces of the Philippines were fascinating, the marine life breathtaking, the people welcoming and kind. But I’ll let the photos speak for themselves – follow my journey through the Philippines in pictures:flying into manila philippinesIt all started when I flew into Manila, and the capital couldn’t have been more surprising – I expected to hate it because everyone who had visited the city seemed to thoroughly dislike it. Read more about my time in Manila here: Living it up in Manila
bonifacio global city manilaFrom Manila, I flew to Boracay, because I was craving some beach time. I had been wanting to visit Boracay, famous for its ridiculously pretty White Beach, for years, and this travel dream finally came true.boracay island paradiseI spent hours just staring out at the water, listening to the sound of the softly clashing waves. For the first time in months, I was able to relax 100%.boracay white beach6As if a stunning 4-kilometer long beach with soft, powdery sand and crystal clear water weren’t enough, Boracay also boasts some of the most memorable sunsets I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Every single night! Read more about my time in Boracay here: Debauchery in Paradise: Letting loose in Boracayspider house boracay sunsetMy next stop was Bohol, a short flight from Boracay, which I added to my itinerary to meet these little guys:tarsier bohol philippinesTarsiers! The other attraction Bohol is famous for are the oddly shaped Chocolate Hills. I should have stayed longer to check out some of the beaches, but I was told there are nicer beaches in Siquijor, a nearby island reachable by ferry.chocolate hills boholYou can read more about my time in Bohol here: Tarsiers and chocolate hills in Bohol
bohol rice fields philippinesSiquijor was the one place in the Philippines that exceeded my expectations – by far!siquijor beachIt might have been the witchcraft (which Siquijor is famous for) that charmed me, or simply the incredible natural beauty of the island. Read more about this magical place here: Searching for magic in mystical Siquijorsiquijor waterfall philippinesFrom Siquijor, I took a ferry to Dumaguete, where I based myself to do what would be a highlight of my trip: Swimming with sea turtles in Apo Island!
sea turtle apo islandFor the stunning underwater life in all its glory, have a look at my Apo Island gallery on Flickr.

underwater world apo island philippines

The next island on my itinerary was sadly not just a quick ferry ride away – instead, it took me nearly 16 hours to get from Dumaguete to El Nido, and the trip there included buses, a ferry, a minivan, a plane and a taxi.

bacuit archipelago viewpointMy destination was worth the strenuous travel day though: Palawan, the crown jewel of the Philippines.island hopping el nidoI could go on and on about the incredibly picturesque beaches and lagoons of the Bacuit Archipelago off the coast of El Nido, but I let the pictures speak for themselves.el nido las cabanas beach

El Nido was indeed the grand finale to a fabulous journey, and you can read more about it (and marvel at more photos!) in these two posts:

bacuit archipelago boatFrom Palawan I flew back to Manila for a few days of city life after weeks of island and beach hopping, and got to know fancy speakeasy bars, indulged in scrumptious vegetarian food (a rare find on most of the islands I went to) and visited the historic district of Manila, Intramuros, before boarding my plane to Bangkok.intramuros manilaConsidering that the Philippines consist of more than 7,000 islands, I feel like I only got a small teaser of the country, but I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the country.siquijor palm treesIf you’re considering visiting the Philippines, check out my budget breakdown: How much does it cost to travel in the Philippines?, which also has some travel planning and money saving tips.el nido sunset

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The grand finale of my Philippines trip: El Nido (Part II)

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You can read more about my time in El Nido in Part I: The grand finale of my Philippines trip: El NidoEl Nido PhilippinesAfter a beach day, it was time to set off on my second island hopping trip – another day on a tiny Filipino fishing boat that would involve several stops at secluded beaches on small islets in the Bacuit Archipelago. For my second island hopping tour I had chosen tour C – after having heard mixed reviews about this one from other travelers who had done Tour C a couple of days earlier, I had shortly contemplated hopping on tour B (caves) or D (beaches) instead, but then C still looked the most interesting (there are photos of all the stops of each tour in the travel agencies around town) and the mixed reviews had resulted from a spell of bad weather that caused the boats to take another route and skip some of the best stops.bacuit archipelago philippines boatBy the time I boarded the boat, the bad weather had luckily moved on and we started with bright blue skies and lots of sun. The stops were similar to Tour A – first a snorkeling stop on a small beach (Helicopter Island), then a buffet lunch at stop two, followed by another gorgeous little beach, and an exhilarating swim to a small hole in the limestone rocks that led to a hidden beach in a tiny lagoon. This one was by far my favorite stop even though I was exhausted from swimming through the open sea (the waves were insane). But finding this little hidden oasis on the other side of the rocks made it totally worth it.bacuit archipelago beachThe next stop was a bit creepy – an abandoned catholic shrine built by a German guy who had married a Filipina, but in 2007 it was suddenly abandoned. Since then, people can visit the island and the various shrines, some of which are inside little caves. Even though the island felt a bit sinister to me, the vistas from a high up viewpoint were stunning.El Nido Cave IslandOur last stop for the day was star fish beach, aptly named for the many star fishes here. Another great snorkeling experience with colorful fish, coral and crystal clear water.El Nido Philippines underwaterWe were all still on a high from the marine life we’d just seen when we hit the open sea to return to El Nido and were hit by huge waves that got us soaked within minutes. Luckily we were able to put our belongings below deck, safe from the water, otherwise phones and cameras would have gotten soaked as well.bacuit archipelago philippinesNote: The stops on tour C were much further out in the open water than the stops in tour A. If you are trying to decide between those two tours and you get seasick easily, I recommend joining tour A. The waves on the stretch between stop 1 and 2 and between stop 5 and returning to El Nido were crazy high; I felt like I was on a roller coaster ride.. a really bumpy one.el nido bacuit archipelago boat tourAs soon as El Nido came into sight, I felt a wave of sadness come over me. My time at my last stop in the Philippines was coming to an end, and the next morning I’d be making way down to Puerto Princesa again to hop on a plane back to Manila. I wished I hadn’t booked my flight yet (but after the expensive lesson my short-term planning had taught me, I had no choice) so that I’d be able to visit Port Barton, another beach on Palawan everyone was raving about, or tour the underground river near Puerto Princesa, Palawan’s UNESCO site. But not having visited these places yet means I have a reason to go back to Palawan one day.palawan el nido

My travel tips for visiting El Nido:

How to get to El Nido

There is only a small airport near El Nido Town which caters mainly to the guests of the pricey, exquisite resorts on the islands around El Nido. If money doesn’t play a role I recommend flying straight into this airport, since it’ll save you the 5-6 hour van ride from Puerto Princesa up to El Nido (via winding roads). There are three daily flights from Manila, one way is PHP6,750 (US$151). You can book tickets via [email protected]cebu pacific planeThe main airport of Palawan is in Puerto Princesa, between 5 and 8 hours south of El Nido, depending on which mode of transportation you choose.

As soon as you exit the airport in Puerto Princesa, you’ll be welcomed by a bunch of yelling guys, all holding ‘El Nido’ signs, trying to sell you their minivan services. I had read that it was considerably faster than the public bus which takes 7 to 8 hours (because it stops for passengers everywhere along the way), and so I followed the next best guy to his little office, where they sold me a return ticket for PHP1,000 (US$22.50). The ride took 5 hours, but I frequently thought I might lose my life as the driver sped through the narrow, winding mountain roads, accelerating before every hair needle curve. I thought about taking the bus back, which is only about $2 cheaper, but when I heard a girl who’d taken it saying those were the most horrid 8 hours of her life, I decided to brave the van instead. The second time, the driver drove more responsible than on my way there.bacuit archipelago

Where to stay: 

I ended up at the OMP hostel by chance, and was forced to look at some other places the next day when the hostel was fully booked. Let’s just say that all the places I looked at were not pretty. Lonely Planet hits the nail on the head with its description of the accommodation situation in El Nido:

‘El Nido’s budget accommodation is generally substandard (don’t expect toilet seats), so consider splashing out on the mid-range hotels that line El Nido’s beach west of the pier.’el nido from the waterLater on I noticed that the further away from the beach you venture to find a hostel, the better the quality of the rooms, and the cheaper they get. There are lots of guest houses and hotels south of town towards Coron-Coron Beach.el nido cabanas beachI would recommend that if you’re a couple and don’t care too much about going out and socializing at night, stay further away from the town. If you’re a solo traveler looking to meet people and to go out at night though, stay in town close to the beach.

Would I recommend OMP?

Yes, but be aware that rooms are pretty basic. The single room with fan is the same price as a 6-bed dorm (PHP600/US$13.50), including breakfast, WiFi, free drinking water and discounted island tours (I paid PHP200/300 less than the advertised price for each tour I booked through them). You’ll definitely meet people here, there’s hot water at all times (and good water pressure!) and it’s centrally located. The staff is very friendly – overall, a good hostel even though some of the dorms seemed cramped. It was pretty much always fully booked, so if you’d like to stay here, make sure to book in advance. Take a look at the rooms here.el nido sunset

Where to eat & drink:

  • The happening place each and every night was the Reggae Bar right at the beach. The other busy spot is the hookah bar.
  • There are two decent Italian restaurants in town, Little Italy and Atrové. The latter is hugely popular with a line out to the street every night.
  • CasaAzul is now the place with the largest range of dishes for vegetarians, including pad thai, falafel burger, hummus and falafel plates.
  • Delinido is a little coffee shop with decent coffee and had the most reliable WiFi.
  • I found the Art Cafe, that everybody’s raving about, pretty pricey and only had breakfast there, so can’t really say how the rest of their food is.
  • v and v bagel is another popular breakfast spot, and the Mexican restaurant Carabao Lounge a few doors down also has plenty of breakfast options but the reviews (by Americans) I read about their Mexican food kept me from dining there.
  • The best deal for breakfast in town is Austria, a guesthouse that offers a breakfast buffet for only 99PHP (US$2.23).

el nido pizza

What to do

Tour the islands

Definitely take one of the island hopping tours – the islands are what El Nido really is about. If you’re strapped for time (and money), there’s a combo tour of A and C for PHP1,500 Pesos (US$33.75). I thought it would include the best of both tours, but a girl who went on this tour told me that it actually included ALL stops of both tours, just at a much faster pace.El Nido Tours PhilippinesVisit other beaches

The beach in El Nido town is not the prettiest (and cleanest) and you can’t even watch the sunset from here. Luckily there are other nearby beaches that are beautiful and better for sunset watching, such as Coron-Coron (about 10 min by tricycle from town), Las Cabañas beach (15 min tricycle ride from town) and sunset beach (20 mins from town). All of the beaches have beach bars that serve snacks and drinks.bacuit archipelago boatClimb, kayak or zipline

El Nido has a number of other activities to offer, such as diving, ziplining, wall climbing and kayaking – you can easily spend a week here and not get bored (just bring enough cash – see below!).Philippines El NidoBring enough cash!

All of the above activities require cash. There is one cash machine in town that gives cash advances, but at a hefty 10% fee. Make sure to take out enough cash before you go to El Nido – the next ATM is about five hours away. My van transfer from Puerto Princesa included a stop at an ATM for this precise reason. I met quite a few people who would have stayed longer had they not run out of cash – so bring more than you think you’ll spend to be on the safe side.El Nido FishI’d calculate 200 pesos for a cheap meal and 400 pesos for a pricier meal (pizza and a beer came to 420 pesos, breakfast usually cost me around 250 pesos in El Nido). The food available in the little stores around town was very limited, if you’re planning to self-cater.

Have you been to El Nido? Feel free to add any tips you might have (including decent places to stay!) in the comments below!
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The grand finale of my Philippines trip: El Nido (Part I)

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El Nido was one of the two places I was looking forward to the most on my Philippines trip (the other one was Boracay), as everyone who had been there was raving about the unspoiled beauty of the deserted islands off the coast of Palawan, the island El Nido is located on.El Nido PalawanAs I was holding on for my dear life in the van that took me up to El Nido from Puerto Princesa, Palawan’s main airport, I was praying that it would live up to my high expectations, but since Palawan had recently been declared the most beautiful island in the world, I was pretty confident that it wouldn’t disappoint.el nido beach viewWhen I booked my flight to Puerto Princesa, I wasn’t aware that it would take another 5-6 hours to get to El Nido from the airport, which would make this a 16-hour travel day starting in Dumaguete 6am in the morning and reaching El Nido 9pm at night. The hours in the van were some of the most horrible driving I’ve experienced so far, even beating the van driver from Laos to Chiang Mai who fell asleep halfway through, forcing one of us passengers to take over the wheel.bacuit archipelago shell philippinesThis driver surely saw the narrow winding mountain roads of Palawan as his own personal race track, and several times when he accelerated before a sharp turn I was convinced we’d shoot over the guardrail into the woods.el nido las cabanas beachAgainst all odds we made it to el Nido alive, and I realized mistake #2: not booking a hostel in advance. My driver took me to a number of places, all of which were full, and just when I was about to give up hope and thought I would have to spend the night on the beach, I lucked out and got the last single room in a hostel.el nido with boatsWhen I went to explore the town the next morning, I wasn’t all too impressed, to be honest. The beach seemed dirty, and while others might find the ramshackle buildings charming, I just found them.. ugly.el nido kayakBut nobody comes to El Nido for the town. People come here for the Bacuit Archipelago. The archipelago is made of 45 islets, most of them nothing more than limestone karst cliff outcrops surrounded by crystal clear water, some of them boasting secret beaches or hidden lagoons. What all of them have in common is that they offer some of the best snorkeling in the country.bacuit archipelago island hopping tourThe best way to see as many of them as possible? Go on an island hopping tour. There are four different tours which can be booked just about anywhere in town, creatively titled Tour A, B, C and D. The tours are all pretty similar: the boats leave El Nido around 9am and get back around 5pm, include a lunch and 4 to 5 snorkeling stops.bacuit archipelago boatWhen I researched the various tours to decide which ones to go on, I had found that most people were recommending A and C, so those were the ones I went on (I would have loved to hop on all four tours, but El Nido is not the cheapest place to hang around in, and it’s probably good that there is no ATM in town, forcing you to leave when you run out of money).bacuit archipelago boatsI decided to start with tour A and on a rather cloudy morning I hopped on a little Filipino fishing boat to cruise around the islands.seven comandments beach philippinesOur first stop was the 7 Commandment beach, a small sandy beach, fringed by palm trees. The snorkeling area was small and I almost didn’t go in the water because it was still overcast and I thought I might even be cold. But I am so glad I eventually did go in! There were already more fish in this little spot than I had seen in all four of my snorkeling stops in Apo Island. It was like a beautiful underwater plant garden, and I would have been satisfied staying here all day, laying out on the gorgeous beach and going for an occasional snorkeling dip, but this was only stop 1 of 5.Bacuit Archipelago underwaterThe second stop was already our lunch stop, and we spent well over an hour on a tiny strip of sand beach, and the crew was preparing lunch (lots of fresh fish, rice and fruit) while we were sunbathing and snorkeling. The snorkeling area was much bigger than on the first beach, and I loved the marine life here. You could snorkel all the way out to a massive limestone rock that stuck out of the ocean if you were a good swimmer and see plenty of fish everywhere around you.Bacuit Archipelago underwater PhilippinesAfter lunch (very filling if you’re not a vegetarian; leaving you starving if you’re a vegetarian), we moved on to our third stop, a hidden lagoon that we had to swim into, entering via a small hole in the rock. Getting there was a bit difficult because it was extremely rocky – we were all wearing our flip flops or water shoes and were still struggling. Here I could see why Alex Garland’s The Beach was apparently inspired by his time in the Philippines (even though the book is set in Thailand).bacuit archipelago lagoonHe was probably trying to keep the real beach a secret, but in this case, when five boats get there at the same time and fifty people try to make their way in there at once, it is a bit underwhelming. Only at the end, when everybody else had left and the lagoon was almost empty, I came to appreciate the stunning beauty of it with the towering limestone rocks towering high above me.bacuit archipelagoNext was an absolutely stunning stop: First we cruised in a big circle through the Big Lagoon, only open to the ocean on one side, and surrounded by massive limestone rocks on all sides. After that, we stopped outside the lagoon to snorkel in what is best described as a real-life aquarium. The coral, the plants, the fish – so so many fish – it truly felt as if someone had dropped me into an aquarium. I could’ve stayed there forever.Bacuit Archipelago underwater snorkelingThis was only my first island hopping trip in El Nido, and it didn’t disappoint. I was already looking forward to my next one!

For more impressions from Palawan and practical information on how to get to El Nido, where to stay, what to do and other things you should know before you go, check out Part II of this post: The grand finale of my Philippines trip: El Nido (Part II)bacuit archipelago lagoonbacuit archipelago beachbacuit archipelago philippines

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How much does it cost to travel in the Philippines

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Traveling in the Philippines can be pretty cheap if you plan your trip properly, which mainly means map out your route before you go and book your flights! If you’re like me who has a hard time planning anything in advance, you’ll have to fork out a lot for plane tickets for flights that leave a couple of days later. I will share some things to consider when planning a trip to the Philippines after my daily expense breakdown.

Note: I am using the currency exchange rate from Philippine Pesos to US Dollars from February 2015 – 1PHP = 0.02269 USD; the exchange rate might change slightly over time.philippines prices

Daily expenses

My daily expenses in the Philippines came to US$56.55, which include said pricey flights, but not my flights in and out of the country. If I leave out my costs for flights within the country, my daily expenses come down to US$43.45. It’s not necessarily cheap, especially for South East Asia, but it is still less than $50 a day. I am confident that you can travel the Philippines comfortably on $50 a day, including flights, if you book them in advance and get better prices on them than I did, and on $40 a day if you don’t plan on doing any pricey activities such as diving, boat trips or renting motorbikes – but you’d be missing out if you didn’t include at least some of these things.

Budget breakdown

For a better idea of what to expect with regards to cost of accommodation, tours, public transportation and food, read on for my budget breakdown.philippines el nido boat

Accommodation

The cost for accommodation differs quite a lot, depending on where you go. In Boracay the cheapest private room I could find (in high season) was PHP1,250/ US$28.32, a dorm room in Boracay was PHP600/ US$13.60. Dorms in a central location in Manila are also around PHP600, slightly cheaper in older hostels or hostels that aren’t located as conveniently as the hostels in Makati, for example. For a budget hotel, check out the Tune Hotel in Makati (Tune Hotels work similar to budget airlines: the earlier you book, the cheaper the room rate). Less touristy islands like Siquijor had private rooms for as little as PHP500 /US$11.33, and the cheapest dorm I came across in the Philippines was PHP250 /US$5.66. The cheapest private room I found in El Nido was PHP600 /US$13.60, dorms in a centrally located hostel were also around PHP600.

Average per night: PHP500 /US$11.33

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I don’t have a single picture of a place I stayed at because the accommodation in the Philippines is frankly nothing to write home, or to blog about!

Transportation

My flights were all around US$100 but you can easily get better deals than I did if you book in advance – much better deals, for as little as US$15 during flight sales, or around $30 if you book in advance. I share more tips on finding the cheapest flights below.

The other main transportation you’ll take will be ferries, which range from PHP25 /US$0.57 or PHP62 /US$1.40 for short rides to PHP395 /US$9 for longer rides (3-4 hours). On top of that, you’ll always pay a terminal fee (see below). The most expensive ferry fee I paid was PHP965 /US$22, which included the ferry ticket, a surcharge for my luggage and the terminal fee.

Other modes of transport you’ll encounter are buses, which range from very basic city buses to more comfortable long-distance coaches. A 4-hour bus ride on Cebu Island cost me PHP175 /US$3.95, a night bus from Manila is PHP470-530 / US$10.66-11.90. The 2-hr bus ride I took on Bohol was PHP30 /US$0.68.siquijor ferryMotorbike rentals start at PHP250 /US$5.66 per day.

A taxi from Manila airport into town was PHP200 /US$4.50, a shared tricycle from the ferry port in Boracay to White Beach was PHP20 /US$0.45 – just to give you an idea of what to expect.

Average: PHP1,780 /US$40 for a flight, PHP210 /US$4.70 for a ferry ride.

Tours

Island tours and sunset cruises on Boracay were PHP800 /US$18, a walking tour in Manila PHP1,200 /US$27, a snorkeling tour Apo Island PHP1,000 /US$22.50, island hopping tours in El Nido were between PHP1,200-1,400 / US$27-31.50; Sabang underground river PHP1,500 /US$33.72; a motorcycle island tour in Siquijor PHP700 /US$15.75.

Average: PHP1,000 /US$22.50

Philippines Island Hopping Tour
Island Hopping Tours in El Nido: A full day of snorkeling, a lunch buffet and island hopping for PHP1,200 /US$27

Food

A meal in Boracay cost me around PHP300 /US$6.75, up to PHP500/ US$11.25 for a nicer meal. Prices in Manila were about the same. Food from a street food stall is between PHP25-50 /US$0.56-1.12. In other places, I usually paid around PHP200 /US$4.50 for a cheaper vegetarian meal, dishes with fish or meat were usually around PHP300 /US$6.75. I usually paid PHP190 /US$4.30 for breakfast, but in touristy areas (El Nido or Boracay) up to PHP350 /US$8 and a fancy breakfast in Manila set me back at PHP650 /US$14.72.  A big bottle of water averaged PHP30-50 /US$0.68-1.13, a decent cup of coffee was between PHP100-125 /US$2.30-2.83; a fresh fruit shake cost around PHP110 /US$250.

Average: PHP200 /US$4.50 for a vegetarian meal & PHP300/US$6.75 for a non-vegetarian meal.Food in the Philippines

Entertainment

Let’s start with alcoholic drinks: Beer is usually between PHP40-60 /US$0.89-1.35, in some pricier places PHP80 /US$1.79. Cocktails were on average around PHP200 /US$4.50, but can be pricier in some bars in Manila and Boracay. I never paid entrance fee for nightclubs since I only went to clubs and bars that didn’t have a cover fee.

Average night out: PHP250 – 500 /US$5.66-$11.33, depending on your drink of choice.Philippines drinks

Things to consider when planning a trip to the Philippines

Have a return ticket!

Most countries require proof of a return ticket out of the country, but I’ve seen this rarely checked, especially in South East Asia. In the Philippines, however, I had to show my ticket and prove that I’d be leaving again. Luckily I bought a ticket from Manila to Bangkok the night before I boarded my flight to the Philippines, otherwise I wouldn’t have been allowed on the plane.

Plan in advance

My main recommendation is to plan your trip as detailed as possible – especially the flights you’ll be taking. Since you’re only issued a 28-day tourist visa in the Philippines anyway, you should know your dates for at least some of your flights already.cebu pacific plane

Factor in terminal fees

When you take a ferry or a plane, you usually have to pay a terminal fee in the Philippines. These vary considerably – from PHP100 (US$2.27) to PHP200 (US$4.54) at airports to as little as PHP14 (US$0.32) at ferry ports. While they are not outrageously high, it is still an expense you need to factor in. Sometimes they are included in the ferry ticket, other times they are not. When leaving the Philippines, I paid the highest terminal fee: PHP550 (US$12) at Manila Airport.

Compare airlines

I found that in the Philippines, it could make a huge difference which airline you took. Unfortunately, Cebu Pacific, the least reliable airline, often had the cheapest tickets (none of my flights was ever cancelled, but I was usually delayed – other travelers were less lucky), but sometimes PAL Express or AirAsia had better ticket prices. It pays off to compare prices on each individual website instead of using flight comparison websites because they usually don’t include all of the budget airlines and/or don’t factor in extra charges for luggage.

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Cheapest activity in the Philippines: Visiting these cute little tarsier guys in Bohol – PHP50, around US$1

Avoid high season if possible

This one might be obvious, but especially destinations like Boracay or Palawan, which are very popular with Filipino travelers and visitors from other Asian countries, fill up like crazy during local Holidays such as Holy Week or Christmas, and prices for accommodation sky rocket.

Planning around the seasonal weather is a good idea anyway, because you don’t want to cruise around the islands near El Nido when it’s raining or overcast, or get rained out during your beach vacation in Malapascua.

Htrail walletow I keep track of my expenses

I used my indispensable travel budget app Trail Wallet, which I highly recommend to track your expenses. You can read more about it here.

Have you been to the Philippines and got any tips to share on how to travel in the Philippines on a budget, or were you able to spend less than I did during your trip? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

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Swimming with sea turtles in Apo Island

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‘You can swim with turtles there.’ That sentence was all I needed to hear in order to change my travel plans once again and to include a detour to Apo Island in my Philippines island hopping trip. A short conversation with a girl from Canada who I had met on Siquijor Island had just returned from Apo Island and was telling me all about her amazing snorkeling excursion. I might not get the chance to swim with whale sharks on this trip, but how I could I turn down the chance to snorkel with turtles, especially since I was ‘right there’, just a short 45-minute ferry ride from Dumaguete from where you could do the snorkeling trip as a day excursion.apo island turtle3She had also recommended Harold’s Mansion hostel to me, and two days later I found myself checking in at Harold’s. The first thing I did there? I signed up for the next day’s Apo Island tour. For 1,000 Pesos (US$22.30), I would get to swim at three different snorkeling spots around the island, as well as food & drink on the boat (fruit, coffee, water and a sandwich for lunch.)apo island boatThe next morning we headed out bright and early at 7am and were on the boat thirty minutes later – Harold has a diving base in Dauin, a popular dive spot right on the beach a few miles outside of Dumaguete. Our group split in two in Dauin: some people went diving there, the rest came to Apo Island. That’s when I learned that two couples would actually stay on the island rather than just snorkel or dive with us, and as soon as the shore came in sight, I wished I had signed up to spend the night, too.apo island philippinesThere wasn’t much more than a few fishing huts right by the water, but the small sand beach next to them had some great looking bungalows which would’ve been perfect to combine snorkeling with sunbathing and enjoying the tranquility of this tiny island at night. The resort is the Apo beach resort (pictured above), by the way, and if you decide to visit Apo Island and spend the night there, I think this would be the perfect choice.apo island sea turtles philippinesThis snorkeling trip was the first time I got to try out my new underwater camera which I had specifically bought to document me swimming with whale sharks. A quick word on the whale sharks: while one of the two popular whale shark swimming spots in the Philippines, Oslob, was very close to Dumaguete, I was told that there, the whale sharks were more or less captivated, fed by the local tour operators in order to keep them there, interrupting their natural migration patterns. Donsol, the other popular whale shark spot in the country, is the place where this wasn’t the case. A heads up to Lonely Planet for mentioning that they weren’t endorsing the tours in Oslob. I didn’t have time to head up to Donsol (on Luzon Island) on this trip, but that’s just another excuse to return to the Philippines soon.underwater world apo island philippinesThe sea turtles totally made up for not swimming with the whale sharks, and I couldn’t believe how close I could get to them. I was just as close as I had been when I witnessed the turtle arribada in Costa Rica, only this time I was in the water with them instead of on the beach.sea turtle apo islandApo Island SnorkelingSwimming with them, watching them eat and occasionally swim up to the water surface to catch air was incredible, and definitively one of those moments where I had to pinch myself, thinking how lucky I was to experience things like this.sea turtle in apo islandIn this moment, I was also extremely happy that I had picked up the underwater camera at the very last minute – after regretting not having one when I was snorkeling in the Red Sea last year, I didn’t want to swim with whale sharks without being able to photograph it. Since I didn’t know how often I’d actually use it (I mean, how often do I really go snorkeling?) I didn’t invest in an expensive model but chose a Nikon Coolpix to get the hang of it, and to be able to upgrade to a better model if I think I need to.apo island eelFor a relatively inexpensive model I have to say that I am very pleased with the pictures it takes – what do you think?apo island underwater world philippinesI was lucky enough to be the only snorkeler on the trip – the other two people went on dives while I snorkeled – and so I ended up having the guide all to myself. He basically just swam with me, pointed out cool stuff and fish that weren’t visible at first or hiding under coral, and I was able to take in the underwater world without having to worry I might get too far away from the boat.apo island underwater world philippinesI am scared of diving, but I can’t get enough of gliding through the water and marveling at the coral formations, colorful fish and plants. There are over 650 species of fish and 400 different species of coral in the protected waters around Apo Island, which is why the island is such a popular dive spot – even included in the 100 best diving sites in the world.apo island underwater world philippinesThe marine life in our oceans with its reefs and underwater canyons and colorful oddly-shaped sponges and algae is just fascinating and I could spend hours swimming over the corals taking in unusual shapes and formations.underwater world apo island the philippinesunderwater world apo island philippinesapo island underwaterDuring our third and last snorkeling session, my guide showed me underwater volcanic rocks from which hundreds of little bubbles were emerging and slowly making their way to the surface. I had never seen a unique natural spectacle like this and was in awe as we swam through the bubbles and felt them touching my skin.volcanic bubbles apo islandI was still mesmerized by the wonders of Apo Island’s marine life when I got back to Dumaguete later that night, almost tempted to extend my stay to do the exact same tour again the next day, but I had to catch a flight to my second to last stop in the Philippines: Palawan, the island that had just been crowned The World’s Most Beautiful Island by Conde Nast Traveler.underwater apo island philippines

Tips for visiting Apo Island

  • The easiest way to get to Apo Island is from Dumaguete. You have to rent a boat at a little port outside of town, but it sounded complicated, (read the details here), which is why I recommend the easy way and opt for the daily boat service offered by Harold’s Mansion & Dive Shop. If you decide to spend a night on the island, your resort should be able to arrange the transfer from Dumaguete for you.
  • If you spend the night, you might want to leave your valuables (laptop!) in Dumaguete. The island is surrounded by a Maritime Conservation area which means you’ll be picked up from the boat by a small kayak. Pack your camera and phone in a wet bag.

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  • There are only three places to stay at on the island: Apo Island Resort, Liberty Resort and Mario’s (not right on the beach).
  • If you stay on Apo island, note that there’s only electricity on the afternoons and evenings. Bring a flashlight since electricity is turned off at 10pm.
  • You can rent snorkeling gear in the village, and there are two dive shops.
  • Harold’s Mansion in Dumaguete is a decent hostel, if you opt for the snorkeling day trip instead of an overnight stay. The rooms are basic and cost PHP250 (US$5.58) for a single sex dorm, PHP800 (US$17.85) for a double room and PHP1,300 (US$29) for a 4-person suite. The roof terrace had great Wi-Fi, good food and fruit shakes and is a good place to meet people.
  • Harold’s Mansion also offers tours to people who aren’t staying at the hostel, you can book them in the dive shop adjacent to the hostel. Harold also offers to store any luggage you don’t want to take to the island if you decide to spend the night.

apo island turtle philippinesapo island fishapo island underwater

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Searching for magic in mystical Siquijor

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Siquijor had not been in my original plans for my trip to the Philippines but what would I have missed had I not gone there!siquijor hammocksSee, travel planning in the Philippines is not easy. You have to plan well in advance, something that I’m just not good at. I prefer rocking up to a place, see if I like it, if so, I stay, if not, I move on. What if I fall in love with Palawan and four nights aren’t enough? But I have a plan ticket and am forced to leave?siquijor beachSince the Philippines are an island nation, you have to fly to most places. The islands that are close together are easy to hop around by ferry, which doesn’t cost that much, but plane tickets are a bit more pricey – unless you book them well in advance. Booking a plane ticket only a couple of days prior to your flight is expensive, as it turns out.siquijor sea shellI was supposed to fly from Cebu to Palawan and then back to Manila, but when I finally settled on a date to fly to Palawan, flights were outrageously expensive. So I had a few days to kill until there was a flight that was affordable, and luckily I was on Bohol at the time, just a short ferry ride from Siquijor, an island Carla had suggested I should check out.ferry to siquijorAs soon as I stepped off the boat, I was glad I came – it was the perfect island paradise. What a welcome!siquijor beach from the pierUpon researching what there was to do in Siquijor, I had come across several travel writers who were comparing Siquijor with Boracay before it became the crowded, touristy island it is these days. Wide deserted beaches, barely any tourists, only a few hotels scattered along the shore, no chain restaurant in sight.siquijor beachI teamed up with two Swiss guys to find a place to stay and a tricycle driver offered to take us to a few places. Each and every one had a backyard like this:siquijor beach with hammock philippinesIt was love at first sight. While the two boys lucked out and got the last bungalow in the beautiful Royal Cliff Resort, our driver dropped me off at Czars Place since my preferred choice, JJs (with a beachfront bar and hangout area) was fully booked. Czars was fine, and actually perfectly located across the street from the fabulous Baha Bar, a brand new restaurant that had only been open for three weeks when I was on the island, and quickly became my local hangout, thanks to the veggie-friendly and creative menu, real coffee and glorious ocean views (and it has beach access as well, it’s just a question of time until they add a couple of bungalows, I think).

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Vegetarian breakfast dish at Baha Bar: Fried aubergine with rice and soy sauce

Our tricycle driver Tata asked me if I wanted to tour the island with him the next day, offering me his tour guide and driver services. Since I was still too afraid to get back on a motorbike by myself (after a bad accident in Thailand a few years ago), I agreed. At first I was bummed that I couldn’t just rent a motorbike and set off on my own, which is much cheaper (daily motorbike rental rates are around 300 pesos/ US$6.68) and would give me the freedom to stop wherever I want, whenever I want and for how long I want, but I ended up appreciating having a local guide when we sped down the ring road around the island the following day.siquijor viewI was able to observe island life, not having to worry about directions and could take selfies of us (those are the situations selfie-sticks are for, right?). I also enjoyed the little insights he gave me on life in Siquijor, which is pretty much still a fishermen’s island. He told me about people’s priorities: everyone saves up for a TV (and pretty much everyone owns one), but a washing machine is a luxury that only wealthy people have. And indeed I saw many women doing their laundry the old-fashioned way: in the streams we passed, scrubbing their clothes on a rock.

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Coconut production is big on Siquijor

Tata doesn’t need a bank account and has no idea how an ATM works, and why would he need to know. Life is simple in Siquijor, an island known for its healing powers and witchcraft.siquijor fishing boatThere are still many mangkukulam (sorcerers) on the island today who brew traditional ointments for all sorts of sickness and people come here especially for them, and rumor has it that they don’t only cure pain and illnesses, but they are also able to fix heartbreak, and if necessary, take out a competitor, heal jealousy or use some magic to prevent a divorce, which is not legal in the strictly Catholic Philippines (but black magic on the other hand isn’t strictly Catholic, which is why it is not much talked about).siquijor beachI didn’t see a single healer but I healed my blistered feet in the fish spa right under the 400 year old ‘enchanted’ balete tree that is known as Siquijor’s most majestic landmark. And majestic it was, with its massive branches forming a canopy that offers shade for half of the man-made pools below the tree. Standing next to it made me feel tiny!siquijor treeThe pools are man-made, but the water is coming from a natural source under the tree, which is why the locals believe that the waters, coming from this special tree (the oldest one in the region), has mystical powers.Dani SiquijorI am not sure if its special powers enchanted me, but my feet sure felt good after the fish nibbled on them.siquijor fish spa philippinesFrom there, we went to the Cambugahay Falls which seems to be a favorite not only with tourists but with locals as well. At the waterfalls you have a series of pools in which you can swim and even swing-jump into the water from a long rope,, tarzan-style. I could have spent the rest of the day there, but Tata had some other sights he wanted me to see.siquijor waterfall funWe stopped at the nearby Lazi Church, a remnants of the Spanish who built this church (and adjoining convent) in 1884, which is now one of the very few remaining Baroque churches in the Philippines, and a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage site status.Siquijor Lazi Church and ConventTata took me to the hidden Kagusaan Bay where we only saw two other people, a hidden fishermen’s beach that is so secret that I can’t tell you the name of it.siquijor waterOur last stop for the day was Salagdoong Beach, an official government beach where we had to pay an entrance fee (PHP45 / US$1). I thought that it had been ruined with too much concrete everywhere, including two concrete water slides (that weren’t even working) and was my least favorite stop of the day. But when the least pretty stop looks like this, you know that you’ve had a very good day:siquijor island beachWe passed  goats, cows, banana plantations, small wooden houses on the side of the road, rice fields and only very few other motorbikes. Had I been brave enough to get back on a motorcycle, this island would have actually been the perfect place to do it and to slowly ease into it again.siquijor streetI spent my time on the island with walks on the beach, watching the local fishermen walk out to their boats in the afternoon so that the fish that’s grilled in front of every restaurant in the evening is as fresh as it gets.siquijor sunsetSunsets are best enjoyed with good company and a beer, so I headed over to JJs to mingle with other travelers, and it’s actually here where a girl suggests my next stop: Apo Island! This meant that I didn’t get to spend as much time on Siquijor as it deserves, but wait for my next post and you’ll see why I had to follow her recommendation.siquijor beach dogI didn’t leave the island without one big party though: Surprisingly, it turned out that Czars was the literal center of the party on Friday night when a stage was erected in the backyard, a live band was announced, and later that night half the island and seemingly all of the tourists who were around showed up for a massive dance party. The window of my room was facing the stage, so I basically had no chance but to join the party.. Sleeping with the music blaring would have been impossible – but I don’t think I ever need an excuse to dance 😉Siquijor Sunset ChillingThis dance party was a rare exception on the otherwise very quiet island – Siquijor is anything but a party island, and I loved the simple, laid back life there. I am still grateful for the overpriced flights to Palawan, because without them, I would have never gotten to know this island paradise.siquijor palm trees

Practical information

  • If you’re visiting Siquijor and would use the lovely Tata as your driver, you can call him at 09351927656. He has a motorbdani and tataike and a tuktuk (which fits for) and can organize motorbike rentals, too. A motorbike tour with him is PHP700 (US$15.86), tuktuk tour is PHP1,000 (US$22.23).
  • You can get to Siquijor via ferry (45 minutes, PHP210 / US$4.76) from Dumaguete on nearby Negros Oriental. Dumaguete has an airport with regular flights to Manila, or you can take a ferry to Cebu or Bohol from here.
  • Rooms start at 400 PHP / in the basic guesthouses. Casa Miranda near San Juan seems to be the cheapest option with rooms starting at PHP250 / US$5.60 and rooms with kitchen facilities & fridge for PHP50., JJs is PHP350 / US$7.80 for a dorm (they have private rooms, too). Bruce’s, one of the places I looked at, seemed very nice and had a 4-person room for PHP1,800. Czars is PHP500 / US$11.33 per night.

Special thanks also to Carla for suggesting Siquijor to me.siquijor beach***

It seems like little tarsiers don’t like being talked about and didn’t allow comments on my post about them. You can now share your thoughts on tiny gremlin-like creatures and breast-shaped hills.

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Tarsiers and chocolate hills in Bohol | The Philippines

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I went to Bohol for precisely one reason. This:tarsier in boholI mean.. Look at this little guy! Can you see why? They remind me of mini-gremlins, but apparently they inspired Stephen Spielberg to make E.T. look the way he looks.

It was a quick detour for me, because even though there are some beaches and smaller islands like Panglao Island around Bohol, the main attractions are the tarsiers and the Chocolate Hills. The beaches seem nice but I didn’t meet anyone who was raving about them, which is why I saved my beach time for Siquijor, my next stop.chocolate hillsBohol is the 10th largest islands in the Philippines, and despite the beaches, beautiful scenery and tarsiers (!), it is somehow not part of the main tourist circuit. For me, Bohol was the first island where I got to see what life in the Philippines is like – not a party island that caters primarily to tourists, and my first Filipino city that is not the capital (Manila seems like a completely different world compared to Tagbilaran, the main city on Bohol).bohol tricyclesIn addition to the tarsiers, I wanted to see the Chocolate Hills in Bohol, a bizarre and equally beautiful creation of nature. Ideally I wanted to join a tour to combine both, but the tours at the guesthouse I was staying at were 2,500 Pesos (US$56) and included a bunch of stops that I didn’t care about. And so I decided to visit both on my own, which didn’t seem too hard according to the Lonely Planet: a jeepney to the tarsiers, and then a bus to the Chocolate Hills.bohol sceneryI had just sat down in the jeepney (the most common type of public transportation in the Philippines, basically a jeep with a longer back part in which two each other facing benches are placed, with room for 20 to 30 people) when a guy walked up to me and asked ‘You want to go to the tarsier sanctuary? I’ll take you with my motorbike. 100 Pesos’. It was one of those moments where I just wished I was a guy, because I am pretty sure none of my male traveler friends would have thought about that offer twice. For me as a solo female traveler, I was too fearful to accept his offer and waited for the Jeepney to fill up instead (they leave when they are full). Little did I know then that I’d end up on the back of some guy’s motorcycle later that day anyway.bohol rainforestThe jeepney made the journey longer as people were hopping on and off the vehicle every few minutes, but 45 minutes later I finally walked through the gates of the Philippine tarsier sanctuary, located in a jungle near the town of Corella. Tarsiers are some of the world’s smallest primates and can only be found in four island states: Sumatra, Sulawesi, Borneo and the Philippines, Bohol in particular.

While there used to be hundreds of them fifty years ago and before that, there are only very few left these days, because of deforestation and the resulting loss of their habitat. In Bohol, there are two tarsier sanctuaries were visitors can still see some of these incredibly cute animals.Bohol TarsiersI learned that they are nocturnal animals, so they’re not really waiting for visitors to come by, instead you’ll see them snooze high above you in the trees. Well, you wouldn’t even see them, that’s how tiny they are, but there is a guide who takes you on a short walk through the forest and shows you where they hang out. Two little guys were sitting on branches low enough for me to have a close-up encounter, and when he looked at me with these big round eyes I had a hard time not to squeal with joy and excitement. All I could think was: how do I get him out of here without anyone noticing?! Sadly the guide who had showed me some of the resident tarsiers in the forest made sure that only what entered the forest got out of there. But jokes aside, as much as I’d like to cuddle a tarsier and have one as a mascot, tarsiers don’t do well in captivity and commit suicide when they are kept in cages (usually by banging their head against the cage).

I also learned that their eyes are the largest in relation to their body of any mammal, and their eyes are even heavier than their brains. Another fun fact: tarsiers can climb a tree within only one day of being born!tarsier bohol philippinesOverall, the experience was pretty rushed, my visit lasted maybe 15 minutes. I was the only one, and I felt like the guide wanted to rush me out so that he could go for lunch, or maybe he just didn’t think someone could want to stare at the tarsier for an hour or longer. Don’t get me wrong – I still think it was worth making the trip out there, it just felt a bit anticlimactic after building up so much excitement about finally ‘meeting’ a tarsier beforehand.

So I hopped on a jeepney back to Tagbilaran and took a bus to Carmen from the terminal to see the Chocolate Hills. It would be a long drive – 2.5 hours according to my guidebook, and so I settled in with a podcast. The ride turned out to be more enjoyable than expected – I loved the lush green scenery we passed through, the rain forests, rice fields and the little villages where people were going about their day (which means wandering around with their cows or goats).bohol rice fieldsThe ride was also shorter than expected: 90 minutes after boarding the bus I was told to get off by the conductor. I had already seen the first hills from the bus and couldn’t help but giggle about their shape. All my lesbian mind could see was a sea of boobs (apologies for my adolescent behavior ;-)).chocolate hills boholAs soon as I got off the bus I was approached by a guy who offered ATV and motorbike tours through the hills. It wasn’t like I had much of a choice: the hills are spread out over a large terrain and unless I wanted to set off on a random hike across the fields, I would have to choose either one. The only other option I had was to walk up to the nearby viewpoint on top of a hill to enjoy the views over the hills, but I hadn’t just spent 90 minutes on a bus to only get some views. I wanted to get right inside boobie chocolate hill country, and the guy had mentioned a climb up one of the hills.

Dani selfies
Someone had fun with her new selfie stick!

Not even three minutes after getting off the bus I was on the back of some random guy’s motorcycle and off we went. The thought that nobody even knew where I was that day crossed my mind briefly when we sped down the dirt road towards the hills, but no risk, no fun, right?bohol chocolate hills with street philippinesI relaxed a little more when we passed two other motorcycles, each with a young blonde in the back, and when I climbed up the steep slopes of a chocolate hill I was glad I had decided to pay for the guide (300 Pesos / US$6.75) – these views alone were totally worth it, and it was just the beginning of the private tour. After my short hike, he stopped at several scenic spots and eventually we went to the main Chocolate Hills viewpoint, which was packed with tour groups – apparently late afternoon was a good time to visit because of the good light conditions at that time of day.chocolate hills and flowersIn total, there are over 1,300 of these hills spread out over 50sq km (20 sq miles), making the landscape look as if a giant mole has wreaked havoc here. While the 100 to 165 feet (30 and 50 meters) high hills were bright green during my visit in February, they look brown when the grass dries up during dry season, hence the name.chocolate hills boholThere is no clear scientific explanation on how these hills were created which is why there are a number of folk tales explaining how these oddly shaped cones came about: The first one says that two giants who didn’t like each other threw stone and rocks at each other until they made up after a few days, leaving behind a big mess. The second story says that a giant was desperately in love with a mortal girl, crying bitterly after she died, and turning his tears into hills to show his eternal love. The third story is about a giant buffalo who ate all the crops in the area, and the farmers decided to leave out spoiled food for him to eat and get sick. And sick he got – leaving behind a trail of feces which turned into the Chocolate Hills when they dried.bohol chocolate hillsNo matter which story is true, I loved what Mother Nature did there, and the hundreds of hills scattered across the otherwise flat landscape were a spectacular sight.

On my way back to Tigbalaran I did the math and calculated how much I spent on my day instead of the 2,500PHP tour:

  • Tricycle to the bus terminal: PHP30 / US$0.68
  • Jeepney to the tarsier sanctuary: PHP20 / US$0.45
  • Admission: PHP50 / US$1.13
  • Jeepney back to Tagbilaran: PHP20 / US$0.45
  • Bus to Carmen: PHP55 / US$1.24
  • Motorcycle ride: PHP300 / US$6.75
  • Admission to viewpoint: PHP50 / US$1.13
  • Bus back to Tigbalaran: PHP55 / US$1.24

Total: PHP580 / US$13.07dani chocolate hills bohol

Practical information:

  • I stayed at Nisa’s Travelers in Tigbalaran, single rooms (shared bathroom, fan) are PHP500 (US$11.30), Wi-Fi and breakfast included. I wouldn’t stick around Tigbalaran if you’re planning to go to Panglao Island or visit a beach on Bohol. If you only come here for the Chocolate Hills and tarsiers though Tagbilaran is a convenient base.

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  • Don’t visit the Tarsier Sanctuary in Loboc, even though it is conveniently located on the road from Tagbilaran to the Chocolate Hills. Here, the tarsiers are kept in insufficient conditions and die from stress, poor care, and noise from the tour groups who stop here. The tarsiers are regularly replaced with illegally captured ones, posing another thread on the already declining tarsier population. Go to the one in Corella instead, about 20 minutes outside of Tagbilaran.
  • You can rent motorbikes in Tagbilaran and explore the island by yourself which is the cheapest option. Nisa’s can arrange motorbike rentals and I assume other guesthouses offer the same service.
  • If you go to the Chocolate Hills by public bus and don’t want to hop onto a stranger’s motorbike, you can walk to the main viewpoint which is close to the main road. The walk takes about 20 minutes.. and includes 214 steps. Bring water!
  • I flew from Boracay to Cebu to get to Bohol. From Cebu Airport, I took a cab straight to the ferry port and after two hours on a comfortable ferry, I arrived in Tagbilaran, the main city on Bohol. There is an airport in Tagbilaran with direct flights from Manila, but most people arrive by ferry.

bohol sunset philippinesWhich one do you like better, the tarsiers or the Chocolate Hills?

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Debauchery in paradise: Letting loose in Boracay

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Oh, Boracay. I don’t even know where to start..

Debauchery: excessive indulgence in sensual pleasures.

This pretty much sums up my time in Boracay. When I first set foot on the white sand that made Boracay famous, I had no idea that my stay there (or should I say: my behavior?) would be rather scandalous, but if you’re hoping for some juicy stories, I have to disappoint you. I decided to adopt the good ol’ Vegas slogan for this party island paradise: What happens in Boracay stays in Boracay. It will remain on top of my unforgettable travel experiences for a while, that’s for sure.boracay white beachAdmittedly though, Boracay and I were off to a bit of a rough start. For the first couple of days on the island, I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not. You might think ‘Look at this view, what’s not to like?‘.boracay island paradiseBoracay was one of these places where I had a certain image in my head of what it would be like, and this little island was just so different from what I had pictured. I’d been wanting to visit Boracay ever since I first saw photos of this incredible white beach and the stunning colorful sunsets. Posts like this and this that made me add Boracay to list of my dream destinations. The photos I had seen of Boracay evoked a feeling of a tranquil, serene island paradise like I had experienced in Koh Rong or Little Corn Island.

boracay white beachSo when I arrived in Boracay on a hot night at the end of January, I quickly checked into my hotel and headed straight to the beach, overjoyed to finally be there.

What I saw was just not what I had expected. Hundreds of people were strolling up and down a narrow sandy path, lined with restaurant, bars and shops. I was completely unprepared for how busy it was. I am not sure if there is ever a time when Boracay is not busy, or at least less busy, but at the end of January it was crazy how many people there were. It was overwhelming.boracay beach crowds philippinesAfter recovering from this initial shock, I started my quest to find something to eat, not sure if I should turn right or left. To my left, I saw the huge yellow M sign which belonged to a shiny new and giant McDonald’s. So I headed left (south) instead. Here, I walked by a Subway, and later that night I discovered Johnny Rocket’s, Sbarro, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and other well-known fast food jaunts. I had just never been to a tropical island with so many fast food chains right on the beach, and found it a bit off-putting.Boracay chainsThe next morning when I woke up and walked down to the beach and I saw this:boracay water philippinesAnd I couldn’t help but relax immediately. White Beach is the most famous beach in the Philippines for a reason after all, four kilometers of white sand so soft and powdery that I wouldn’t mind feeling it under my feet every day for the rest of my life.

The beach is separated in three divisions, Station 3 in the south, Station 2 in the middle and Station 1 in the north. I knew that the further south or north I would walk, the quieter it would get and the less people I’d encounter. So I started walking towards the northern end and soon enough the beach felt less crowded. This was much more what I had in mind for my beach getaway in Boracay.boracay white beach7I had two choices: I could be upset about the crowds or I could simply accept it for what it was and make the best of it. And how can I blame all the people from Taiwan, Korea and China who have such a glorious beach paradise only a short flight away for wanting to enjoy what’s the definition of the perfect tropical beach?boracay beach path philippinesWhen you visit Boracay, you can make it exactly what you want it to be. If you’re looking for solitude and quiet beach time, stay in one of the hotels at the far north end of station 1. If you want to party and be right in the middle of it all, stay in station 2. If you want to do kitesurfing, don’t stay in White Beach at all, but stay on the other side of the island on Bulabog Beach (Boracay is still small enough to get from one side of it to the other it on foot, at least on its narrowest part in the middle of the island).beach fun boracaySpeaking of party: I must be the only person in the world who didn’t get the memo that Boracay was a party island! Whenever I mentioned I’d been in Boracay after leaving the island, the first question was: ‘Did you party a lot?’. Apparently, Boracay is the Philippine’s party destination, but I was blissfully unaware of that (until I got there).boracay fire dancersDuring my stay right in the middle of it all in Station 2, I had all the parties right around me but no one to party with. So I decided to move out of my hotel into a hostel further north towards Station 1. Station 1 meant an emptier beach during day, the hostel meant partying at night. Because I was in the mood to dance and let loose. The beach parties reminded me of my early 20s when I danced until the sun came up on the beaches of Ibiza and I remembered how much I loved these beach parties.

Moving hotels was the best decision I could have made because my hostel was exactly the social place I needed to meet new people after the anonymity of my hotel. I stayed at the Frendz resort, which has a big open bar and restaurant area (with super cheap drinks) in the center and bungalows based around that, only 2 minutes from White Beach. The resort even has free sun chairs at the beach.boracay white beach6Every night, a group of party-hungry travelers would gather at the hostel bar and drink until they’d kick us out, and we would make our way down to the beach bars where we danced in the sand until the early hours. Or until everyone disappeared with their boyfriend / girlfriend for the night. Yes, that’s the kind of place Boracay is 😉boracay sunsetLike I said though: It is completely up to you what you make of your stay on the island. If you are not into partying, just stay further north or south on the beach. If you don’t like crowds, stay away in January and February, when Boracay is the busiest.boracay beach palm treesEven though the (over?)development on White Beach can be hard to take, there are still places on the island where you can find tranquility, for example on Puka Beach (Shell Beach) at the northern end of Boracay or Ilig-Iligan Beach in the northeast. (Check out this comprehensive guide for Puka Beach).

In the end, I had a hard time leaving Boracay. It is just so easy to get sucked into this lazy life of beach, work, beach, and dancing the night away.boracay sunset with boat1While it might not be the serene island experience that I was hoping for, and overwhelmed me at first, it turned out that Boracay was exactly what I had needed.boracay beach bar philippinesLooking back now, my time on the island was the favorite part of my Philippines trip and I can’t wait to go back. And speaking of going back: I’ve mentioned a few times already that I will go back to the Philippines, but mainly to visit places I didn’t make it to this year. Boracay, however, is the #1 place I want to return to.Boracay collage

Practical information

Best time to visit: During dry season, between November and May. That’s when the water is calm and nice.boracay water funHow to get there

From Kaliko:

Don’t buy the transfer tickets (van/bus) on the plane if you arrive on an AirAsia flight. They are selling them for PHP500, but they’re half the price if you buy the tickets right at the van.

The terminal is tiny – walk outside and you see half a dozen of minivans that are waiting to bring passengers to Boracay. They are selling tickets for PHP200-PHP250. Look out for the guys whose sign say 200. The ride to the ferry terminal takes about 90 minutes.

While the ferry ticket is included in the van ticket, you still have to pay a PHP75 environmental fee and a PHP100 terminal fee. The ferry ride takes about ten minutes. (Note that you have to pay these fees also when leaving Boracay).

At the terminal in Boracay, there are tricycles waiting to bring passengers to White Beach. They’re either PHP00 for a single person motorbike tricycle or PHP20 for a bigger one shares between 5 people.sunset boracay philippines1From Caticlan:

If you fly into Caticlan, you can actually walk to the ferry terminal (5-10min walk), or take a tricycle for 50PHP.

Note: Flying into Kalibo is usually cheaper, since it is a bigger airport than Caticlan. Caticlan can only be served by smaller planes that only allow 15 kilos of luggage. Kalibo also offers international destinations such as Seoul, Busan, Taipei, Shanghai, Chengdu, Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

Money: There are plenty of ATMs along the beach.boracay hostelsWhere to stay: I enjoyed my stay at the Frendz resort and would definitely recommend it, especially if you’re traveling alone. There are bungalows that house dorm rooms (divided male / female) for PHP600 /US$13.60), private bungalows with fan (PHP900 / US$20.50) and deluxe bungalows with AC (PHP1,000 /US$22.70). There is free WiFi throughout the resort.

For more accommodation options, check out all 236 Boracay hostels and hotels on Booking.com.boracay boat philippinesWhere to eat: My favorite places True Food, an Indian restaurant with lots of vegetarian options, Jony’s Shakes right on the beach in Station 1 (the avocado banana shake is to die for), and TiBraz Sunday Crepes Happy Hour (50% off!), Fuel vegan restaurant (they share a space with TiBraz). Zucchero Cafe in Station 2 has good coffee and an upstairs with great views over the beach. The cheapest Happy Hour beer I could find was Kurt’s at Station 3 where a Happy Hour beer was only 35PHP (US$0.80). There are several other cheap (and quieter) sunset bars in Station 1.jonys shakesBest sunset spot: The Spiderhouse, a bar perched onto the side of a cliff on the far end of Station 1 (you can walk there from White Beach – about 30 minutes – or take a tricycle. The Spiderhouse is also a resort; rooms start at PHP2,980 (US$67).spider house boracay sunsetHave you been to Boracay? What did you think about the Philippines’ most popular island?

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Life lately and upcoming travels: February 2015 Edition

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In my monthly round-ups, I am looking back at my travels over the past four weeks, what went well and what didn’t, what’s new with Globetrottergirls.com, what’s next for me and the most popular posts of the last month.

Where I’ve been

I spent February in the Philippines and in Thailand, and with the exception of short city breaks in Manila, Bangkok and Chiang Mai, I’ve been island hopping pretty much the entire time!

I promised myself that I’d slow down after my hectic six-countries-in-one-month January and that’s exactly what I did. Still, when I count all the places I visited this month, it seems I got around quite a bit: Boracay, Siquijor, Apo Island, Palawan, Manila, Bangkok, Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, Chiang Mai.February Highlights 2015On one hand, I wasn’t ready to leave the Philippines at all, on the other hand I was so ready to leave. This trip to the Philippines was one of the occasions when working while traveling weighed on me (I’ll touch more on that in ‘What went wrong’), and I found myself wishing I could just travel without any work commitments several times during my time there, since sticking to work commitments turned out way more difficult than expected – due to the terrible internet connection on most of the islands I visited.

The responsible part of me was dying to get to a country with better WiFi, the other part of me was longing to see more of this beautiful island nation. The Philippines are an absolute paradise and I was dying to see more. When I boarded my plane to Bangkok, I didn’t say ‘Goodbye’ to the Philippines, I said ‘See you soon’, and I mean it. (Next time I make sure I don’t have any urgent deadlines though).

Philippines
The Philippines

Arriving in Bangkok felt like coming home, and even though I still don’t love the city, I can appreciate it for the many good food options and some big city amenities. Hopping around islands for nearly a month was fabulous, but in my heart I am a city girl, and I couldn’t wait to indulge in some yummy Thai food (the Philippines are not very vegetarian-friendly) and good coffee (which is surprisingly hard to come by in most places in the Philippines, but then again I was hanging out on tropical islands most of the time where people don’t really care about their caffeine fix. Manila of course has great coffee), go see a movie and shop for some gadgets at MBK.

bangkok hotel u sukhumvit
This might have been the real reason why I was looking forward to Bangkok so much?

After a couple of days of getting my city fix I was ready for some beach time again and I already mentioned that I’d be showing several people around South East Asia this winter, so I was ecstatic to start in Thailand (the next visitor is already waiting for me in Bali), and combine island hopping with temple hopping.

I finally visited Koh Tao, an island that I’d been wanting to visit for years because everyone who visits this tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand seems to fall hard for it. And would be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to just stay there for a couple of months and enjoy the laid-back island life instead of moving on to Koh Phangan and Chiang Mai.

Koh Tao
Koh Tao

What went well

Manila
I have to mention Manila here because I thought I’d hate the city, based on the stories I had heard from other people. I love it when a city surprises me and Manila did exactly that – I had a great time there!

The Philippines in general
I had seen the photos of the glorious islands in the Philippines, so I knew that I was in for a treat, but I just didn’t expect to like the country as much as I did. And I am saying this in spite of lack of good coffee, food and WiFi, the only three things I need to be fully content, so you know this must mean something! I am already planning my next trip to the Philippines.

The beautiful Philippines
Can you see why I fell for the Philippines?

Meeting new people
If you’re subscribed to my newsletter, you already know that my first solo trip went exceptionally well and that I never had the chance to feel lonely – in fact, I had to escape people sometimes because I am easily distractible, meaning if I’m hanging out with other travelers and they’re going out while I have to stay in to work, FOMO kicks in and I might neglect my work commitments in favor of a fun night out.

What went wrong

Lack of wifi
Like I said, the WiFi is something that is left to be desired in the Philippines – and while I knew that it would be slow, I just didn’t expect it to be that slow. I hard a hard time posting articles because I could barely upload photos, and it took forever for my emails to load every time I connected to the internet.

I ended up being unreliable towards clients, missing out on some opportunities because my inbox was overflowing and I consequently didn’t earn as much money as I would’ve liked. I had several meltdowns because of the WiFi in the Philippines, especially in my last week in El Nido where not even the 3G on my phone worked, and so I was almost completely offline during my stay there.

When I finally arrived in Bangkok and discovered that the WiFi in my hotel room wasn’t working, I burst into tears because I had been waiting for high speed internet for weeks. Luckily the WiFi situation improved considerably after that incident.

koh tao office
How a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand can have faster WiFi than the entire Philippines is beyond me.

Planning fail in the Philippines
I had many more destinations on my Places I Have To See list for the Philippines, but I learned the hard way that you actually have to plan in advance there. While I prefer getting to a place, see if I like it, and then decide when I’d like to move on to the next place, this is often not possible in the Philippines because you have to take flights between most of the islands. While I’m usually good at finding cheap flights, booking a flight a couple of days in advance will cost you, even in the Philippines where you have several budget airlines. Some flights ended up being just too pricey, forcing me to stay longer in some places and having to skip some destinations completely, but on the upside: I now have am excuse to return to the Philippines and I ended up making a detour to some places I might have skipped but ended up loving, like Apo Island (see pictures below).Apo Island PhilippinesInjuries
I severely burned myself on my first snorkeling trip in the Philippines. I thought I was being super careful applying sun protection over and over again, but apparently I missed some spots above and below my butt every time. 13-hour transportation days with a burned butt are no fun.

On another snorkeling trip I cut my foot on some coral which caused me to limp for several days. I was lucky both time that it wasn’t worse and I didn’t need to see a doctor (the day before my snorkeling trip a tourist on Apo Island had to be flown to a hospital because he stepped into a sea urchin), but traveling with injuries is something I can do without.

Breakdown at the ATM
In Siquijor, I had a great day touring the island with a local and asked him if we could stop at an ATM somewhere along the way. I had seen several ATMs but learned then that they don’t accept foreign cards – the only one that worked for foreigners was a one-hour detour away. When I finally got there, I let a British girl skip the line and get in front of me – that girl ended up being the last one to get money. After that, the ATM was out of service. A bank clerk told us to wait, and I had no other chance because I wanted to leave the island the next morning and needed money for my guesthouse and for the ferry. Two hours later, I was still in line. The bank had tried to reboot the machine several times, so far without success. It was then when I started to think that I might not get any cash out and felt absolutely helpless. I was just about to freak out when the ATM magically came back to life.siquijor atm

Side note: Reading through this, I just noticed that quite a few things went wrong this month. Despite these travel fails, this has been one of the best months in a while!

What’s new on Globetrottergirls

You might have noticed that I’ve started posting about my current trip beyond my weekly Polaroid, and I am going to continue to mix in new stories with my posts about previous trips. At this point, my backlog has gotten so large that if I post chronologically and wait to share my new travel adventures, you won’t get to read them until the summer (or even later than that), so I’ve decided to mix up the stories of my recent travels. That way, you’ll get to read some more diverse content as well.

Flight Voucher Giveaway!

Have you seen my latest giveaway? I partnered up with Norwegian Air who were generous enough to offer a $150 flight voucher to one lucky reader. You still have until 24 March to enter the giveaway. Click here to for your chance to win!flight voucher

What’s next for me

I still have another week of touring some of my favorite spots in Thailand with someone special before flying to Indonesia – another new country for me! chiang mai wat with buddha

Most popular posts of the month

February 2015

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Living it up in Manila

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‘Skip Manila if you can, fly straight to Boracay!’ .. ‘Don’t spend time in Manila, it’s a shithole..’ Warnings like these were what I kept hearing when I told people I was starting my South East Asia trip with a stint in the Philippines.

But coming from Hong Kong, Manila was still the most convenient starting point, and I wanted to head north to the Banaue rice terraces and the Hanging Coffins in Sagada from there. So Manila would definitely be part of my trip to the Philippines. I expected to hate Manila though, to be honest.

flying into manila
Flying into Manila

I had booked myself into a hostel near Bonifacio Global City, which is the new business district of Manila that is currently still being developed, while there are dozens of brand new condo towers, office high rises, malls and well-manicured little parks already finished, there are more high rises – mainly luxurious condo towers – being built right now. Global City is the place where you find Manila’s upper class and wealthy expat community. It is hard to believe that ten years ago, this very place was a swamp. On my first stroll through the neighborhood I was shocked to see a Lamborghini and a Ferrari car dealership, and more fine eateries and home design shops that I would find in a comparable neighborhood in Berlin. This was definitely not how I had pictured Manila.bonifacio global city manila philippines‘This is supposed to be a third world country’, I kept thinking to myself, and yet this part of town was nicer than most of the downtown areas of major cites I’d visited in the US. I was stunned.

bonifacio global city manila
Global City skyscrapers on the right side

A stark contrast to the modern new-builds was the small neighborhood behind my hostel (which was separated from Global City through a huge golf court) which reminded me a lot of Thailand. Little alleyways were full of plants in front of the houses to bring at least a little green into the concrete jungle that is Manila, cats were lazing around, laundry was drying in the streets, flying vendors were selling snacks and little street food stalls were frying up meat. This neighborhood wasn’t necessarily what I’d call a shithole either, and people were always very friendly when I was passing through. Manila turned out to be quite different than expected.manila old neighborhoodA couple of days later a reader of mine, Carla, offered to show me around town, an offer which I happily accepted. In a city of nearly 12 million people, it can be hard to figure out what the best places to see are, so a local guide is always a plus, especially when it’s such a charming and funny one like Carla.

We started our night at the Corner Tree Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant in Makati, which can be described as Manila’s downtown and the financial center of the Philippines. I had heard horror stories about how vegetarian-unfriendly the food was in the Philippines, and had been a bit worried I might not find any good food. But so far, everything I’d eaten was absolutely delicious and vegetarian options were abound. I even found a vegan hole in the wall, complete with green smoothies, near Global City.filipino food vegetarian manila philippinesAfter dinner, we drove through Makati, and I marveled at high rises and fancy malls, and again: this wasn’t anything like I’d pictured Manila! We stopped at the Greenbelt, a giant outdoor shopping mall with cafes, restaurants and shops. Everything was super fancy, and the restaurants and cafes had a funkier decor than most cafes in Europe. I could see why this mall had won several awards for design.earlybird manilaThe only place I disliked was Cafe Havana, apparently a popular pick-up place for Western guys to pick up Filipinas. The many single, middle-aged Western men at the outdoor tables who were leering at the young, lightly-dressed Filipinas confirmed this rumor.

The night was still young, and Carla asked me if I wanted to have a drink in a speakeasy bar. A speakeasy in Manila?! This city kept surprising me. Of course I had to see it! When we walked through the doors of the unassuming Space Cafe, I would’ve never known that there was a bar in here, but sure enough, at the back end of the cafe there was an ‘Exit’ door which turned out to be the entrance to a dimly lit speakeasy bar. My favorite part? All the fancy cocktails were around PHP190 – US$4.30!manila speakeasy exit barAfter this pleasant surprise, I was ready for another bar experience, but first I got a surprise that made me even giddier with excitement than $2 cocktails: a Toby’s Estate Coffee Shop! My go-to coffee shop in Brooklyn, which I visit on a regular basis when I am in New York, and you can imagine my surprise to see this Brooklyn hipster hangout in Manila. To be fair though- Toby’s was founded in Australia, so I shouldn’t have been too surprised. But again: not exactly how I pictured Manila.manila tobys estate philippinesOur next stop was just a few doors down from Toby’s, a chic bar named Hooch that was buzzing with atmosphere and filled with locals and expats alike. Drinks here were a bit more on the pricey side, but the unique cocktail creations were worth the splurge, like this upside down cocktail.hooch cocktail manilaSo far, I enjoyed Manila way more than I had expected, and I had yet to see the historic part of town, Intramuros, the walled neighborhood established by the Spanish when thy came to the Philippines in 1571. Prior to my arrival, I had come across several raving reviews of Carlos Celtran’s Intramuros walking tour and decided to join it. Lucky for me, Carla had also heard about Carlos and was interested in checking out the tour as well, and so we met again on a sunny Sunday afternoon to get a tour of Intramuros.intramuros manilaIt turned out that this tour is much more popular than I had anticipated – when we arrived at the meeting port at Fort Santiago, there were about fifty people waiting for Carlos, who is quite a character. Apparently he finished an acting degree but didn’t find work as an actor, and ended up running tours in Manila instead – and trust me, these tours are more like a performance than anything else. He had several props on him, costumes, sweets to keep us entertained, and acted out most of the historical events rather than just telling us about them. The tour was well worth the steep price tag and I learned so much more about Manila’s history (including why the city has become a city that people say visitors to the Philippines should skip) than I would have had I just wandered around Intramuros with my guidebook in hand.

carlos celdran manila
Carlos Celdran

Intramuros itself was refreshingly different from the skyscrapers, malls and modern office towers in Makati. Old Spanish-colonial houses, historic churches, a stunning cathedral and horse-drawn carriages made me think of Casco Viejo in Panama, which felt similarly remote to the glitzy skyscrapers of Panama City’s New Town.intramuros street manilaThe tour ended with a sample of Halo-halo, a popular Filipino dessert made of shaved ice and evaporated milk to which various boiled sweet beans (like kidney beans), jello and fruits (jack fruit, tapioca, sweet potato) are added.halo halo manilaAfter the tour, we stayed in Intramuros for some sunset drinks at the Skydeck rooftop bar on top of the Bayleaf Hotel – sadly, the sun didn’t cooperate that evening with rainclouds moving in, but I could see that this would be the perfect spot to watch the sunset over the bay on a sunny day. Carla had yet another surprise in store for me when she took me to The Wholesome Table, an organic restaurant in Global City that looked just as chic as the organic restaurants I’ve visited in the U.S. or elsewhere.the wholesome table manilaWe ended my visit to Manila with a visit to another speakeasy bar, this one even better hidden than Exit, a black iron door at the ground floor of what looked like an office building, and inside a small dark bar hidden from the outside world.

I left Manila with a smile on my face, still in disbelief about how different the city was from the image I’d had in my mind before I got there. Good company, excellent vegetarian food and fancy drinks – if those were signs for things to come, I’d have an amazing time in the Philippines.bonifacio global city skyscrapers manila

Practical information

 Where to stay in Manila

Most hostels are located in Makati, which is the downtown part of Manila with several malls, plenty of places to eat, movie theaters and other amenities. Our Melting Pot and Hilik Boutique Hostel (both in the same building) are popular hostels and good places to meet other travelers. There are also some hostels (and high-end hotels) in Bonifacio Global City, the brand new part of town where you find lots of fancy eateries on the High Street, as well as some nicer clubs. I felt very safe there, but it’s quite far from downtown and from Intramuros.manila skyscrapers philippines

Where to eat in Manila

Some of the places I loved are:

  • The Corner Tree Café, 150 Jupiter, Makati (vegetarian restaurant, both Filipino and Western dishes)
  • The Wholesome Table, 30th Taguig, Global City (organic restaurant in Bonifacio Global City, good vegetarian options and healthy smoothies)
  • Juicesabel, 3800 Kalayaan Avenue, Makati (a small hole-in-the-wall vegan café and detox juice bar near Global City)
  • Early Bird Breakfast Club, GF Fort Pointe 2 Building, The Fort Complex, 28th St – there are more branches around the city (fantastic breakfast place (all-day breakfasts) with several branches around the city
  • Toby’s Estate (best coffee in Manila, several branches around the city, the one on L.P. Leviste Street in Makati seems to be the largest one)

If you stay in Makati, head to the Greenbelt outdoor mall for a number of restaurants, cafes and bars.Manila Food and Drinks

Where to drink in Manila

  • The Blind Pig, 227 Salcedo St. Corner Gamboa (a cozy speakeasy with fantastic cocktails – you won’t see much of a sign though, only the black door – knock to be let in)
  • Exit, Corinthian Plaza 121 Paseo de Roxas corner Legaspi Street (a speakeasy bar in the back of Space Café)
  • Hooch, 125 LP Leviste St Salcedo Village, Makati (fancy cocktail bar, a bit pricier but worth it)

hooch cocktails philippines

What to do in Manila

There’s not much sightseeing per se to do in Manila; I did a lot of walking around and just took in the city. Intramuros is the most picturesque part of Manila and if you’re interested in learning more about Manila’s history and Filipino culture, I highly recommend taking Carlos Celdran walking tour. He runs it on weekends only, and promises ‘illusions, candy, flowers, and carriage rides‘. I can confirm that all of this is true. Reservation by email essential, price: PHP1,100 (US$25).

I later found out that Manila has quite an art scene, including a contemporary art museum and a photography gallery, both of which I can’t wait to check out when I return to the Philippines. Here are Time Magazine’s Top Ten things to do in Manila.

Other useful information

Airport

Note that the four terminals of Ninoy Aquino International Airport are not in one building, but scattered around town. If you fly in internationally and plan to fly to another destination domestically, it’s likely that you’ll be leaving from a different terminal. Look up beforehand which terminal your flight leaves from or you might end up at the wrong terminal. Also leave enough time between flights if you have to change terminals because traffic in Manila is insane.manila sunset philippines

Getting around

  • The easiest way to get around is by taxi, make sure that the driver turns on his meter.
  • There are also jeepneys (shared pick-up trucks) but I couldn’t figure out their routes.
  • The MRT (elevated railway) is a good option if you happen to stay near it. The network isn’t great and doesn’t connect all of Metro Manila.

Safety

Manila tends to get quite a bad rap, but I never felt unsafe. There are quite a few scammers out to get you, but you’ll be fine if you know their spiel – read up on the common scams, how to avoid being scammed or conned in Manila, and find some more tips on staying safe in Manila here.manila philippines street art

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