Backpacking the Philippines
We are currently waiting for our flight to Indonesia and I am taking some time to reflect on our travels in the Philippines. First thought, holey wow it’s already been a month of travels. Second thought, dang I wish I wrote down what we did everyday because doing this retrospectively is a bit challenging.
When we were packing to leave for our trip we were also packing up our lives in Kelowna, as such the amount of trip research we did was actually quite minimal. Our plan consisted of going to the spots our friends recommended and basing our schedule on affordable/logically-timed flights.
This is going to be a bit of a long post, so I’ll try to use lots of headings so that it’s skim-able, or feel free to just enjoy the photos which do the Philippines so much more justice than I can with words.
Getting to the Philippines
First question, to fly into Manila or Cebu? We flew in and out of Cebu for our Philippines trip and were glad we did so. You hear horrors about the Manila airport and the cities were really just a jumping off point for us, so Cebu made sense since we weren’t planning on visiting the north.
After a layover in Cebu we departed for our first island, Palawan. There are a couple of options getting there, to fly to Puerto Princesa and then take the bus to El Nido, or to fly directly into El Nido via Air Swift. To forgo the long bus ride and port city of Puerto Princesa we opted for the slightly more expensive option of flying right into El Nido. From the airport we took a tricycle (our main form of transport for the next month - similar to the tuk-tuks of Thailand) to our first hostel, Mad Monkey Nacpan Beach.
Nacpan Beach, Palawan
I was a bit worried about staying at Mad Monkey because they have a bit of a reputation for being wild party hostels and I am more of the glass-of-wine-in-bed-by-10 kind of person. This hostel ended up being one of our favourites in the Philippines. It was brand new, the beds were huge and the beach was stunning. There aren’t a ton of things to do in the area, but after a long couple days of transit, we were more than happy to sit on the beach. If you do go to this hostel AND El Nido, I would recommend doing you island hopping tour right out of El Nido as the distance to the stops in much closer to El Nido than Nacpan.
El Nido, Palawan
Next we stayed at the Outpost Hostel just south of El Nido in Corong-Corong Bay. This is an amazing hostel, unfortunately they lost our reservation and we had to pay extra for a private room (around $80 Canadian - probably the most we spent on a room in the Philippines) but it was lovely and very clean.
El Nido was one of my favourite places in the Philippines, for a small beach town there is so much going on. The island hopping was lovely - we did an A/C tour while we were at Nacpan and then did the A tour out of El Nido. The tour out of El Nido was far more enjoyable and we were joined by some fellow Canadians from Manitoba who provided consistent entertainment. For our last night we had to move because Outpost was full, so we relocated to Spin Designer Hostel. Spin Designer Hostel was not as social as The Outpost, but the facilities were pristine. The only downside for us was that we happened to be there during their annual music festival which went late into the evening and we had an early Coron-bound ferry to catch the following morning.
Favourite Places to Eat in El Nido
- The Falafel Stand all day long. We ate here at least once a day. If you go, falafel wrap with garlic and sutziki sauce is a must.
- Burgers at the Outpost Hostel. They said it was the best burger in town and I believe them.
- Trattoria Altrov'è for pizza. Go to Altrov'è Express if you don't want to wait in line.
- Glow Juice Box (see photo in the above thread for proof).
Coron is known as a heaven for wreck-divers, a head cold kept me from booking a few scuba trips but there were still many other beautiful islands, lagoons and reefs to visit. The actual village of Coron is located on Busuanga Island, not Coron Island, so the majority of the sights are a short boat ride from town. We opted to hire a private boat with out fellow Canadian friends and departed at 7am to beat the daily rush. This meant we had one of the most popular destinations, Twin Lagoon, entirely to ourselves. Our amazing guide was able to structure the day in a way that we did the opposite of all the public tour companies and had many stops all to ourselves.
The ferry from Coron to El Nido has to be one of the roughest I have ever been on (Lady Musgrave, Australia still takes the cake). We were surrounded by people throwing up, it was lovely. I will be taking extra strength Gravol with me for the next ferry.
Favourite Places to Eat in Coron
I’m pretty sure we only ate a two places while we were in a Coron, Levine’s and Altrove. Both of them were just so dang good. Altrove is an Italian chain that we were introduced to in El Nido, and Levine’s was a three-floor local joint with a menu about 15 pages long (which is usually a huge red flag), but everything we tried was delicious and under $5. We even stopped by at 6am before hopping on a boat tour to pick up our lunches for the day.
It was an interesting time to be in the Philippines, there are so many conversations happening in the country about tourism and they are reaching a critical point where actions need to be taken to remedy some of the poor (or lack there of) plans. Boracay has been all over the news over threats of an island closure due to over tourism and major upgrades that need to happen. We had heard mixed things about visiting Boracay, but decided that it was still a place that we wanted to see - especially since we might have been some of the last tourists to visit the island for some time. We were pleasantly surprised. Yes it is touristy, it's nuts, and yes it needs some major infrastructure upgrades (they were starting to rip up the sewage system while we were there), but the place has such an energy about it. Boracay is SO different than anything else we experienced in the Philippines. Boracay is definitely a place to party. A night with friends at Mad Monkey was the extent of our partying, but we still enjoyed the island all the same without attending one of their famous boat parties, pub crawls or sprawling clubs. We spent the majority of our time just walking up and down the beach people-watching. If you are there and are looking for genuine entertainment, sit on the beach at sunset and watch the day boat-party-goers get off of their boats. Hilarious.
We stayed at Frendz Hostel in Boracay. No hostel has ever made me feel so old haha... It's a young crowd (at least while we were there), but they had free pasta so that was a plus.
*Update* Boracay is set to close on April 26th.
Ah Siargao.... I'm hesitant to even mention this paradise because I selfishly don't want it to ever change. But, it is changing and at a very rapid pace. Prior to the release of Siargao (2017) a Philippines surf romance film, the island was mainly visited by surf-loving internationals (Siargao is the "surf capital" of the Philippines). After the release of the movie, domestic tourism increased exponentially which has resulted in some growing pains, especially during national holidays. We messaged between 40 and 50 accommodations before finding one with availability - Paglaom Hostel.
Paglaom Hostel was our favourite spot, nothing beats the vibe of this laid-back and secluded backpacker hangout that has a max of 18 residents ($8 CAD /night). Because of this, you know everyone who is staying there and everything from 5am surf sessions to dinners are done as a team. Paglaom is truly a family. This spot is owned by the wonderful Koi and Sunny and managed by Kyra (love you/miss you Kyra). It's definitely not for everyone - it's basic and the accommodations are open-air bunk beds - but for us, it was perfect.
Had we visited Siargao first on our Philippines trip, I'm quite confident we would have cancelled our flights and stayed a while, but our expiring visas meant we only had a week. We rented a scooter, read about 10 blogs on "How to Ride Scooters in Asia" and off we went. There was only one hiccup when Nic realized the tank was empty and didn't know where the tank was located or that the litre coke bottles on the side of the road were indeed filled with gasoline not red cola. He didn't have my blog-educated scooter expertise with him to advise. We now had 7 days to make the most of this paradise and we quickly got into a routine of 5am surf, 8am smoothie bowl, noon burrito, afternoon scooter ride to explore, and 4pm surf until sunset.
There are so many delicious expat and locally-run restaurants, cafes and surf shops to explore. Luckily for Nic, he had the joy of visiting almost every single one with me to find the perfect souvenirs 💁🏻♀️.
Surfing in Siargao
Surfing in the Philippines is a far cry from the forgiving beach breaks in Tofino. You just have to walk around town and look at peoples feet to realize how harsh surfing on a reef break can be. Luckily I brought a pair of cute water-shoes from Coron with me 💃🏻. We took a lesson on our first day there to get our bearings and learn about surfing on the reef, tides, priority and the best spots. I will be honest, for me, surfing in Siargao was a frustrating experience. There were SO many people in the water (granted it was a holiday week) and competing for a wave with locals is not really something that I have the confidence for. To remedy this, we followed Kyra at sunrise to surf before the crowds arrived at about 8am. The two spots we frequented were Paradise and Secret Spot, both located South of General Luna.
Our Favourite Places to Eat
So many yummy places to eat!! Some of my favourites include:
- Shaka Siargao for smoothie bowls
- Bravo Beach Resort for pretty much anything
- Cocosurf for granola and yogurt
- Miguels Tacos & Burritos (extra green sauce please)
- Fat Lips taco stand
- Kermit for pizza *we sadly never got to try the famous pizza as the line was always too long for dinner*
Siargao, I love you and I will be back.
Our last stop in the Philippines was the island of Bohol. We took the ferry there from Cebu because we had a couple of days to fill before we head to Bali. We stayed at Natura Vista on Panglao Island. It was a lovely little hotel in a local community and had the most wonderful staff. We rented a scooter and embarked on a loop to visit the Tarsier Santuary, Man-made Forest, Chocolate Hills, Loboc River Cruise and Alona Beach.
That concludes our travels in the Philippines. Next stop Bali and then maybe Vietnam? Sri Lanka? Who knows ☺️.
What will I miss most about the Philippines? The mangoes. No other Canadian-supermarket-bought mango will ever compare.
Trip Planning Tips for the Philippines
I tend to like to keep travel plans loose, but when we went to look at Hostelworld a couple of weeks before we left, the majority of the top places were full. We actually ended up booking all of our flights ahead of time and probably 90% of our accommodation. The Philippines has such poor wifi/data that is was hard to book anything on the go so we were quite glad that we had done this. Because of poor connectivity, many places to stay do not have an online presence. Some destinations in the Philippines you would be fine to walk into without a reservation, but many of them it would be a risk. For example, when we were in Siargao during Holy Week/Easter many travellers did not have a place to stay and we heard stories of stranded backpackers knocking on the doors or residential neighbourhoods because they couldn’t find a single hotel on the island with availability. This is an extreme example because it was a holiday, but nevertheless we did not regret having booked ahead. We used Hostelworld to find the best hostels and Agoda to find great deals.