The Philippines was my first international travel destination (besides Mexico) and is still near the top of my list of my favorite countries. Beginning my gap year in March 2017, the weather could not have been better for a visit to the white sandy beaches of the Philippines. When we first arrived we planned two nights In Manila to relax from our long flight but did not like Manila at all. With only two nights and nobody to show us around the city we didn’t know the area and otherwise, what areas to avoid. We walked around Makati for a bit and got a massage but otherwise didn’t find anything really worth sharing. If there’s anything to suggest for a westerner like myself I would suggest the Newport Mall just outside the airport terminal. It’s got high quality shops where you can get anything you forgot from home, otherwise avoid Manila like the plague. One experience in Manila that is worth sharing, which we found out about later, is going to see a live cockfight. Manila itself is a huge city so there’s no way you could explore the entire city but unless you go to see a live cockfight, avoid.
Our next destination was to get to El Nido on the island of Palawan. We spent a night or two in Palawan’s main city, Puerto Princesa and found it to be somewhat expat friendly. There were westernized restaurants and it was easy to navigate. We got taken to a beach club by a local one night and enjoyed a fire-dance on a rather slow night at the venue. I can’t remember the name of the place or else I’d share it but it was a nice venue that I’d go to again.
The next morning we left on a 14-seat van packed in like sardines for the 6 hour journey. I can tell you as a man who’s no stranger to the gym that the seats are not meant for western men with broad shoulders. These vans are everywhere too, whenever you go somewhere in the Philippines they pack you into these vans. Along the way we stopped at a UNESCO World Heritage Site, called Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park and was one of the most touristy things we did but I can definitely recommend this experience. The cave goes for 15 miles into the limestone cliffs and is home to millions of bats who’ll shit into your mouth if you leave it open. The cave goes so deep that there is no oxygen at the deepest parts although you don’t make it even a half mile into the cave. It was a great experience and one that I would recommend to anyone who’s visiting Palawan.
We didn’t arrive in El Nido until after the sun went down and then got a tricycle ride into town.
The next morning we awoke to a beautiful beach facing a northern limestone cliff out at sea. We had arrived. It was even more gorgeous than the vlogs and pictures that I’d seen previously. It’s really a terrific place and one that is getting more and more popular amongst travelers so go here before it turns into a commercial mess with massive skyscraper hotels blocking the view.
There’s so many activities to do in the area, the most popular of which is an island hopping tour. Make sure you at least do Tour A, the most popular. There’s tours A, B, C, D to choose from and I’m pretty sure they’re all awesome. Price, as always in SE Asia, is negotiable so don’t pay the advertised price, instead negotiate a little and knock off ¼ of the price, if at least not half.
Another great activity from El Nido is to rent a scooter and go to Nacpan beach. Hand’s down the most beautiful beach I’ve ever been to in my life. Nacpan and Calitang, or as it’s commonly called, Twin Beaches are a double crescent beach with fine white powder sand and water warm enough to melt your inhibitions. Nobody is hanging out on the smaller brother Calitang beach and all the action is on Nacpan. The road to Nacpan is not entirely paved so it’s best to take caution. Take your scooter slowly and you’ll be fine. There are some kids in the parking lot that offered my friend and I some “security” for our scooters for a few pesos. I obliged the kid because I didn’t want to get the fuel siphoned out of my gas tank or have a flat tire or something that could ruin our trip. It was only a few pesos for some peace of mind, plus the kid was being an entrepreneur and hustling providing such a great service!
When we eventually needed a break from the sun, there is a little restaurant that serves food and drink right on the beach. Afterwards we decided to climb up the small hill to get the best view of the entire place but sadly there’s a no trespassing sign right at the base of the hill with some barbed wire and spiky plants blocking the path to the top, not to mention the ARMED GUARD watching the entire time from a high chair. We snuck past the fence and as we got to the top of the hill we noticed the armed guard coming our way waving at us to get down so we ditched that plan and went down as soon as possible. Apparently, the land was purchased by a private party in 2016 looking to build a luxury resort there and the armed guard is there to enforce that so no going up the hill anymore.
Legazpi and Donsol
That’s about all we did in El Nido, the next spot we ended up was Lagazpi City and then after to Donsol to swim with whale sharks. If I were to go back to the Philippines I would skip Legazpi altogether. The only things to do in the city that we found was walk along the Legazpi Boulevard to have dinner, drinks, and karaoke and hike up the volcano, Mount Mayon. The active volcano is a perfect cone shape and it’s too steep near the top so you can’t hike all the way up. It erupts every few years or so where it spits lava down the steep slopes, probably pretty cool to see, it last erupted January 2018.
Donsol was at least a day trip away from Legazpi where we planned to go swimming with the whale sharks. We went down to the bus station and finally found the right bus but had to wait an hour for the bus to fill completely up. It was the cheapest bus ride I’ve ever been on but it was also the worst. It still makes me queasy thinking about it. Sitting in a packed 14-seat van without air conditioning on an extremely windy and bumpy road is not my idea of a good time. We arrived just in time before I was about to throw up into the back of some guy’s head. Thankfully I don’t get seasick on the Filipino boats because we spent the next few hours searching for whale sharks.
We went to the Donsol Whale Shark Interaction Center to swim with whale sharks because it’s a sanctuary, meaning they don’t artificially feed the sharks and instead is a natural habitat for feeding. Whale sharks are also called Butanding in the Philippines and in 3 hours of searching we only saw one but it was amazing. It really gives you a feeling of how small we are and that there are creatures much larger than us in the ocean. It was worth the effort of going to the sanctuary but I heard from other travellers that you can see whale sharks in Cebu where they feed them and you can get some amazing pictures there. I was a little jealous of some of shots other people got in the crystal clear water but at least we didn’t support the unnatural feeding. You’ll have to decide for yourself and if it’s inline with your morals or not.
Would you swim with whale sharks in the Philippines? Or go into a subterranean cave? Let me know in the comments below!