- Days 1-2: Exploring Manila
- Day 3: Hiking Mt. Pinatubo
- Day 4: Flight Manila to Puerto Princesa and bus to El Nido
- Days 5-10: El Nido
- Days 11-15: Tao Sailing Trip El Nido to Coron
- Days 16-18: Coron
- Day 19: Travel Coron to Cebu
- Day 20-22: Bohol
- Day 23: Flight Cebu to Manila
Dates: January 29 – February 18
Oli handed me a bucket of water, and like the 20 near-strangers standing with me on wet rocks beside a fresh water spring, I poured it over my head, startled by the shock of cold. I passed the bucket onto the next person, while Oli dumped bucket after bucket of clean water into the larger communal pale in the center of us. Water splashed in all directions as everyone used the buckets. The flutter of ducks in the nearby pond and the grunt of a pig in a stall a few meters away reminded me where we were: on a farm in a remote village on an island in the Philippines. Soon the bucket came back to me and, again, I poured it over my head. This routine continued among all of us until we were as clean as we could be, standing in our swimsuits, showering one pale at a time.
If you’re wondering how Tim and I got there, well, I’ll start at the very beginning.
We had arrived in the Philippines about two weeks prior. We had spent our first day exploring Manila on foot, wandering the streets of the historical colonial core of Intramuros (literally, “within the walls”) and the chaotic and cramped local neighborhoods alike. While gritty, dirty and bearing obvious signs of poverty, the city never felt unsafe during to us during our 10 mile romp all over that day. Instead, the locals exuded the same warmth we’d experienced years before when traveling through some of the Philippines’ southeast Asian neighbors on the Indochina peninsula.
Like other countries in the region, the Philippines has a complicated history of being colonized by other countries (first Spain, and then the US). Prior to Spain’s arrival in the region in the 16th century, there wasn’t even really an idea of a unified “Philippines” – with thousands of islands scattered long distances from each other, each pocket had developed its own culture and community. Even today, the sense of a Filipino national identity is weak. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that they successfully revolted against the Spanish, kicking out their colonizers and keeping their religion (Filipinos are by and large deeply Christian today), only for the US to take over. They weren’t their own nation until after WWII (during which they were occupied by Japan and Manila was utterly destroyed – interesting I never learned about that in school…).
The government today has a reputation of being corrupt and full of scandals. As a tourist there, however, it wasn’t something that ever impacted us. In fact, it seemed to us, especially once we visited some remote villages, that the government probably doesn’t have a huge impact on the daily lives of most rural Filipinos.
The larger impact on these communities is the natural disasters (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and typhoons) that happen seemingly often along the Pacific Ring of Fire.
Today, Mount Pinatubo is a beautiful place to hike, featuring a stunning turquoise crater lake. But only 27 years ago, in 1991, it was a volcano with a perfectly shaped dome. When the volcano erupted, most people had already evacuated the danger zone, but there still were a number of fatalities. The greater damage was caused by intense rains that followed, creating mudslides from the ash that coated the region. An estimated 722 people died and 200,000 left homeless in the eruption and its aftermath.
The destruction left a dusty valley surrounding the volcano, with a large crater in the caldera that has since filed with rain water, creating a crater lake. Today, you can visit this lake by an adventurous 4×4 ride and short hike.
This is what we did as a (long) day trip from Manila. Our driver picked us up at 3am and drove us 3 hours north to the base where our 4×4 ride and hike would begin. Another couple joined us in our vehicle with a local driver and a guide.
The hour and a half ride to the trail was rough, but so fun! We bounced over rocky terrain and through streams, all while surrounded by a totally Jurassic Park-like environment of tall cliffs topped with short trees. I half expected a pterodactyl to fly overhead.
When we arrived to the trail, a little sore from all the jostling and frankly glad to be out of the 4×4, we began the hike. It’s relatively flat, but rocky and crosses some streams. It’s a pretty easy hike though, and we loved finally getting into nature after 3 weeks of being in cities.
After about a half hour we arrived at the lake. It’s stunning, serene and quiet; it’s a stark contrast from the chaos and destruction that created it not so long ago. The world is amazing like that.
We sat at the overlook, just admiring how the color of the water changed as clouds and sunlight shifted across the sky.
After a while we had lunch, a typical Filipino meal of chicken and rice with adobo sauce. We then followed the steep stairs down from the overlook to the shore, to get a different perspective on the lake. We were within the caldera with its tall walls holding us and the lake together, as if in the palm of its hand.
Eventually it was time for us to make our way back the way we came, with a hike, a long 4×4 ride and a longer car ride to Manila. But Tim and I agreed this was one of our favorite days on the trip so far.
The next morning we flew from Manila to Puerto Princesa, the main airport in Palawan. From there we took a 6 hour van ride to El Nido, a cute beach town catering to expats. Note: we were quickly learning that it takes a while to get from place to place in the Philippines.
We stayed in a nice villa apartment about 15 minutes walking outside of town. It was close enough to enjoy the town, but far enough away to give us that sleepy, lazy island vibe we were craving after being so busy the last month. We spent about a week in El Nido and honestly we didn’t do much. We did one island hopping tour on my birthday. It was nice and we saw some beautiful spots, but honestly it wasn’t “like, amazing” or anything. The water was really choppy (and so tours the following 3 days were canceled as a result), you had to swim (with your day bags) into the ocean to get on the boat, and each spot was crowded. It was nice, but it was a lot of work.
While in El Nido we ate at the same restaurant, Happiness Beach Bar, every other day, and hit up happy hour spots most afternoons. It was pretty lazy and uneventful, but we got to know the locals who worked at the places we frequented. We also made the “El Nido Plastic Battle” Facebook page because of our hydration packs in our bags – we became a PSA for not using plastic bottles! This was pretty cool, and fits in with our goal of picking up a little bit of trash wherever we go!
After six nights of this, we finally left El Nido for what would become the highlight of our time in the Philippines: island hopping for 5 days to Coron with an amazing company called Tao Philippines.
And, finally, this is how we ended up in a bucket shower with so many other people. The near-strangers were the other passengers, and Oli was our amazing expedition leader. The island farming village was our base camp for our first night after a day on and in the water. Our beds for the night were mattresses in bamboo huts, and our dinner was 7 courses of Filipino decadence.
The culinary team with Tao uses traditional and locally-sourced ingredients to craft Filipino-inspired meals with a twist. We had soup, and spring rolls, and fish, and ribs and many things using plantains. At each course, the chef explained the dish, its ingredients and how the team made it. It was one of the best culinary experiences I’ve ever had.
Each day we stopped at various beaches, snorkeling sites and islands. Between stops, we lazed away napping, talking or reading on the boat. In the evenings we ate incredible food, drank beer and jungle juice, and talked or played group games with our fellow travelers. Without any internet to distract us, we got to know each other very well, and this group from all over the world was comprised of some of the most open-hearted people I’ve met. I’m so excited to cross paths with them again.
On the second day, we visited a small uninhabited island (Takling Island) with a perfect white sand beach and beautiful aqua blue and turquoise water all around it. It was our first island stop, but I knew this was the one where I wanted to leave some of my dad’s ashes. I’d been traveling with them from the US to Japan to South Korea and now to this small island in the Philippines. My dad loved the beach, and as a kid I remember he made us walk SO FAR from our hotel to find the most secluded patch of sand to lay out our towels. I think I found the most secluded beach he’s ever been on.
After I left his ashes, now mixed in seamlessly with the sand and bits of coral on the beach, Tim and I snorkeled around the island. We saw fish and coral, but most notably we saw dozens of purple starfish. Purple was my dad’s favorite color. We didn’t see a single purple starfish the rest of the trip.
Things like this make me feel very strongly that our universe and those who died before us are all still connected with us in tangible, earthly ways. I would have been skeptical a few years ago, but my dad’s energy is too strong for me to have any doubts now.
The next day we stopped at a small village to pick up a pig for dinner that night. When we arrived, some local men were pulling intestines out of the pig, which was painted in red blood, attracting flies all over the body. It was an extremely confronting image. When we buy our meat all packaged and pretty, it’s easy to keep ourselves removed from the life of the animal. When you’re picking up a freshly slaughtered pig from a village, you have no choice but to fully acknowledge from where your food comes.
On the fourth day (which was our last full day together as a group, as some had to depart early before the fifth day due to our departure date being pushed back a day from weather), we stayed all day at Tao’s new Camp Ngey Ngey, where they’ve taken over a private island resort that was destroyed in Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. Now the ruins were our playground. We kayaked, drank beers while floating in life vest “diapers”, and ate fresh caught fish prepared ceviche and sashimi style. This was an unparalleled experience elsewhere in my travels, to be the only group on a private island, and to be a bunch of backpacking campers crashing the fancy resort, at that! It made me think of the Jimmy Buffett song “Gypsies in the Palace.”
The last day (the fifth), we had a smaller group since some folks had to leave early, but it was still great. We snorkeled through a coral garden towards a WWII Japanese shipwreck, and shortly after jumping in the water, Tim spotted a sea turtle. This sea turtle swam with us for 15 minutes before heading out to sea. It was incredible. Naturally this made the shipwreck a little underwhelming, because nothing can top communing with a sea turtle.
Before docking in Coron, our guide, Oli, took us to the village he grew up in, near Coron. He told us about the challenges living there (frequent flooding, vulnerable to typhoons, and limited opportunities). He left when he was 14 to pursue a life fishing, but it’s a difficult job that wasn’t fulfilling him. He met the founders of Tao, who didn’t have much other than a dream to help others escape the beaten path and enjoy the Philippine Islands more intimately. Eleven years later, Oli said he’s made his dreams come true. He even owns the boat we sailed on. He leases it to Tao for the trips.
Oli’s family still lives in the village and we met a lot of them! We went to his mom’s house, where he met his infant niece for the first time. “My sister had a baby and I didn’t even know!” he exclaimed with the biggest smile.
It was interesting seeing his rapport with his family. He hasn’t seen them in a year, yet his visit seemed very quotidian. Everyone was pleased to see him, but they also just carried on going about their daily lives.
Shortly after leaving the village, we arrived to the Coron pier. After being in remote and empty places for 5 days, I found the city (although small) overwhelming. It felt odd seeing so many other people walking around!
That night we got one last dinner with our friends from Tao. The next day, Tim and I didn’t have anything planned aside from catching up on rest and organizing a private boat and crew to take us around Coron Island (the island across the water from Coron Town) the following day. We had heard from others that it was only 3000 pesos (about $60) for the full day, whereas booking a tour boat with 20 other tourists is 1600 pesos per person. This makes a private trip all to yourself absolutely the best option.
The next morning we headed over to the shop we booked at and learned that due to expected storm surge, the coast guard had canceled all boats and tours from going out. Just as we started to walk away, an announcement was made overhead and the man running the shop we booked through called after us. “It’s back on!”
We ended up having amazing luck all day. Because all of the group tours had been officially canceled, it was only the private tours that made it out. This meant that we had most stops to ourselves. Our favorites were the Twin Lagoon (a lagoon surrounded by tall limestone cliffs, where saltwater and freshwater meet, creating an interesting mix of cold and warm water as well as blurry visibility from the briny mix); Skeleton Wreck (another WWII Japanese shipwreck you can snorkel around – we saw a ton of beautiful colorful fish while we were there!); and the Coral Garden (a snorkeling site with beautiful colorful coral and lots of fish).
The next day we flew from Busuanga Airport (which serves Coron Town and is THE smallest little airport) to Cebu City, which is the Philippines’ “second city” and considered the hub of culture in the country. We were only staying there for the night as a transit point on our way to Bohol island, for some time in the Philippine countryside. (Note: it takes a long time to get around the Philippines, in case you still haven’t caught on).
We got to Bohol via ferry the next day from Cebu, and what followed was a bit of an adventure. Once we arrived at the ferry port in Tubigon (the one closest to our Airbnb in the middle of the island, but the one few tourists use), we took a tricycle to the “bus terminal”. This alleged bus station is just a small chunk of asphalt next to a few market stalls. Old busses (similar to American school busses) sit there waiting to be filled up taking people to various destinations around the island. As soon as we got there, guys working for the busses swarmed us trying to get us to on their bus. We found the one headed for Carmen, our destination, and got on. The seats were wooden planks, and the space where windows should be were just open squares. We were the only tourists on the bus. Heading down the road, it started to rain. With the open air concept, this meant I was getting pretty wet – but then I saw the people in the seat in front of me push up on a piece of wood sitting between them and the window space. Ahh, so this was how to close the “window”. I followed suit, pleased with how I certainly looked like an expert at local Philippine travel. When we arrived at the Carmen Public Market, we found another tricycle to take us to our Airbnb. Finally, we’d arrived, after an Uber, a flight, another Uber, a ferry, a tricycle, a bus, and lastly another tricycle.
Our Airbnb was perfect – a spacious and beautiful wooden cabin beside the owners’ main home. Our hosts were a kind and generous family. The spoke little English but were always smiling and seeking to understand and answer any questions we had.
After we checked in and washed a lot of laundry, Tim and I rented a motorbike from the family to ride up to the nearby Chocolate Hills before sunset. The Chocolate Hills are these interesting mounds of dirt and grass all around the central countryside of Bohol island. They look like giant chocolate truffles (hence the name), but are actually most likely ancient coral pushed up from underneath. Legend has it, however, that they are tears from a giant.
The next day, our hostess greeted us in the morning with an elaborate breakfast on the porch of our house. She had cucumber salad, bread, rice, pork, eggs and more. It was such a surprise and so delicious. During our breakfast the sweet little housecat came around, politely mewing for scraps.
After breakfast, our top priority was finding some cash. We were seriously low on pesos and wouldn’t even be able to get back to Cebu for our flight back to Manila the following day unless we found some more. We decided to take the motorbike out again to head in the direction of the main town, Tagbilaran, in search of an ATM (the one in Carmen only accepts Philippine cards). Thankfully, after about an hour winding through the rural roads, we made our way to the city and found an ATM (on the third try) and some cash! Yay! We celebrated with a cheeseburger and fries from McDonalds (don’t judge, we were craving the familiar after all the pork and rice). On our route back to Carmen, we stopped at the Philippines Tarsier Sanctuary. The tarsier, for those who don’t know, are tiny primates with giant eyes, who only live on a few islands in south east Asia, including Bohol. They are endangered, and the sanctuary seeks to give them a safe place to live in their natural habitat.
Because the tarsiers in the sanctuary are not caged or handled by humans (unlike at the so-called Tarsier Conservation Area), this is the most natural and ethical way to view these little animals. Previously, tarsiers were kept in captivity for tourist enjoyment in the Philippines. This was disastrous for them and caused traumatic emotional distress – some even committed suicide. Thankfully they are handled better across the board in the Philippines now, but the Conservation Area still handles them and allows them to be fed and pet (which is still not good for them). This is why we advocate for the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary instead.
The next morning, we checked out of our Airbnb early to start the journey back to Manila. Our host’s son drove us to town, where we took a minivan (as opposed to a bus) to Tubigon, where we once again caught a ferry to Cebu. Once in Cebu we took an Uber to the airport, where we got our flight to Manila. And this was all before our 20+ hours of travel getting from Manila to our next destination – Auckland, New Zealand. Did I mention it takes a lot of time to get around in the Philippines?