Philippines, a must for #beachporn lovers

Philippines, a must for #beachporn lovers

My first visit to the Philippines finally came with 2 years of delay: last time I was travelling for 8 months between 2016 and 2017, I wanted to see what everyone was raving about. But a few articles about President Duterte’s war on drugs and child prostitution in Angeles City made me decide against it.

Philippines, the country everyone tells me to go visit because is Paradise on Earth. But only for the tourists - for the...

Posted by Monica Zaldivar on Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The news were too alarming and I really didn’t feel comfortable visiting. But in 2018 another winter came, and I choose the Philippines as my first destination on my 5 month long trip. I only had a Scoot Berlin - Singapore ticket in October, and after careful consideration, I accepted that everywhere I go as a tourist has a dark side. And even if the opinions or Mr. Duterte about rape made me hesitate yet another time before getting my flights, I pushed further and made it to Cebu on November 16.

Scoot has direct flights from Tegel to Singapore, mine was 260€, but it doesn’t include water. For real.

Scoot has direct flights from Tegel to Singapore, mine was 260€, but it doesn’t include water. For real.

Landing in the Philippines is definitely an experience. Suddenly, an island here and there, followed by bigger islands, until reaching either Cebu or Manila, whichever you chose for landing. And as you were told by everyone, you’ll leave both cities asap in the search for the best beaches in the world.

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In my case, I went straight to Moalboal, home of adventurous divers. As an experienced Asian traveller, I got a SIM card in the airport, visited the ATM, and fired Grab to get a taxi to the Cebu South Bus Terminal. Once there, Filipino reality hit me: no names or numbers for the buses, just ask the ticket collector in the bus for directions and fill in your lungs with hope and trust.

Jet lag finally got to me on the 4 hours bus ride until Moalboal, but I could still spot the most beautiful sunset on the ocean half way through the trip, which I took as my filipino wholeheartedly welcome despite my neglect and fear.

You must know something about Cebu in particular, compared to other main islands for tourists. It does look chaotic, dirty, broken and scary, the city and all the rest of smaller towns. Hopping off the bus, I could only see a dark road with lots of male drivers eager to take me through a smaller darker road 3kms down to my homestay.

In the low-budget traveller’s Bible Wikitravel I had read that the ride shouldn’t be more than 40PHP (locals pay 7PHP), so I was outraged when drivers kept asking me for 100PHP. At that point I was so hammered by jet lag, that I couldn’t even make the calculation. Only after one of the drivers said kindly that no driver was going to go under 100PHP because at that time of the day there were no other options and that if I were with someone else it would be 50PHP each, I relaxed. I couldn’t believe myself when I checked and actually I had been struggling to pay around 1,60€.

I must say I couldn’t have chosen a better place to stay than Bamboo Huts, in Pangsama Beach. It’s far away enough from the party spots to avoid the late night loud music, and close enough to be convenient. Plus, the amazing Dulce (meaning Sweet in Spanish) was the most incredible host. She was the first sample of how warm and hospitable Filipinos are <3.

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First day in Moalboal started with a huge storm all morning, but then at 1pm I headed to the Kawasan Falls. Following Dulce’s directions, I just went to the main road and looked for the sign “Bus Stop”, which now i know is exactly where the road bends to the left, and waited for “the yellow bus”. That’s the way indications work in Philippines, and specially around Cebu.

Soon enough, a yellow bus came, I just said Kawasan Falls, the guy said yes, I hopped on and later on he came around and charged me 20PHP. He then told me when to hop off and to follow the very well marked path to the waterfalls. After paying the 60PHP entrance, I just kept walking until I made it.

Most people take the canyoneering tour in the Kawasan Falls: they go with a guide to the top of the waterfall and, following their indications, they jump from pool to pool with the life vest and helmet. Once I saw the tours in action I was VERY happy of not having booked one: the jumps are pretty high and I wouldn’t have enjoyed it at all!

I explored as much as I could and went as high as my flip flops allowed me. If you visit the Kawasan Falls don’t make the same newbie mistake: bring good trekking shoes and go to the top!

For the next day I signed up for 3 dives in Moalboal at Neptune Diving Adventure for around 4.000 PHP (around 65€): they took me to Pescador Island, Talisay Point and the famous Sardine Run. The last one is the reason why most divers come to Moalboal: right in front of Pangsama Beach, there is a big bank of sardines that one can visit every day.

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While snorkelling is accessible and free for anyone to do, I was really happy to see it from below: it’s the only way to truly understand the size of the bank and I think it makes for a mesmerising experience. It was also one of my most challenging dives until then, because you are so distracted with the sardines, that you really lose sight of your fellow divers and your sense of orientation. Still, by day 3 in Philippines, I was absolutely sold!

Sadly I had not planned enough days for Moalboal and next day I took off to Bohol. Dulce was kind enough to teach me how to make it to Bohol without going all the way back to Cebu. She told me to get on the bus to Carcar and draw me a map to switch once there to the bus going to Argao, and there ask the guy controlling the tickets to drop me in the ferry station direction Bohol. I actually figured out how to make it to the ferry terminal, and everyone was so helpful along the way that I was in awe.

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Sadly, a typhoon slash tropical storm — depending on who you talked with — meant that the ferries to Bohol were all cancelled for the next three days. I got the news half an hour before the ferry near Argao was supposed to depart, and I had no other choice than to go back to rainy Cebu, where I unsuccessfully tried going to Bohol two more times.

My time in Cebu was truly frustrating. It was raining, there are literally no decent sidewalks for pedestrians to walk around the city, and only malls seemed an option. After trying to discover the city by foot, I entered the Ayala Mall with such dirty legs that a lady had to stop me and offer me wet wipes to clean myself.

So I decided to just grab lunch at the most filipino fast food chain, Jollibee, and later stay in my hostel until I could take my next flight to the filipino forbidden city: Davao.

Everywhere you research Philippines as your next destination, one thing is clear: don’t go to the Mindanao province and don’t go to Davao. There have been lots of fights between muslim militias and the Filipino Army, even a bomb explosion in the Davao Night Market in 2016. But I happen to have a few friends in Philippines from my Twinity days and one of them invited me to visit her in Davao. And I’m so happy I did!

For sure Mindanao has its dangers, but you don’t see them when in Davao: even if the city is currently under martial law, what I found there reminded me of organised Germany. In contrast with Cebu, where it seemed like bulldozers had pushed houses to each other from each side of the street, in Davao there were wooden fences and plenty of space between houses and buildings. There are designated stops for buses and police patrols enforcing them, you get fined for jaywalking and tricycles are painted all in yellow, so you know they are similar to taxis.

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On my first day, we walked around the city, saw the free exhibition about Davao in the Museo Dabawenyo, had a delicious Haro-Haro at Mr. Chow, visited a few markets, hopped on plenty of jeepneys and we even got a massage. Next day, my friend Gracy took me to General Santos City (aka Gensan), to visit another Twinity friend. There I saw a pineapple plantation for the first time and had the most amazing food - Kinilaw, the Filipino ceviche, is a dream!

And of course, this being Philippines, it was time for the first of many island hopping tours I had during the month: definitely the cheapest and most local one of them all!

On my last night in Davao, I had a long walk around the night market, that is divided between food stalls, souvenirs and a huge section of second hand clothes and shoes. I sat down for a last kinilaw in Davao, and just in case, I got my first ever charcoal icecream, which should be good to prevent indigestion!

My next stop was Palawan via Cebu, and this is the part of the trip most of you will recognise. I planned two weeks in Palawan to be spent between Sabang in the Puerto Princesa region, Port Barton in San Vicente region, El Nido and Coron.

The more you travel around the Philippines, the more you realise that no matter how many places you are visiting, you are just scratching the surface. In every stop of the way you hear for the first time about this other place you didn’t go to and it is a must for you as a diver or as a beach lover. So even if I’m going to tell you how amazing Palawan was for me, that doesn’t mean that all other corners of Philippines are not as good.

For my first stop in Puerto Princesa (PP), I chose Sabang because it is close to the Underground River and because everywhere it was said that Puerto Princesa was not worth my time. What I didn’t plan so smartly was choosing a resort that was only reachable by boat. I landed in PP at 3pm and I only had until 3:30pm to catch the bus to Sabang: I desperately looked for a tricycle to get to the New Market Bus Terminal on time. I actually made it at 3:33pm and luckily the van left at 3:44pm that day.

But the rush was not over: I had to make it by 5:30pm to the Sabang pier for the last boat to my resort, since they cannot depart later because they are not allowed to navigate after sunset and the boat ride is 30 minutes (and they need to go back to Sabang with enough light). After a nerve-wracking ride, I made it on time to see the sunset from the boat, only to be dropped off at the end of a 2kms beach at dark. So I had to walk with my 13kg bag until finally finding Arkadia Beach Resort.

I couldn’t appreciate the sheer beauty of the place until next morning, when I was blown away. We were 3 people staying in a place with capacity for 30 travellers, and there were only 3 more houses from locals at that beach. There was no electricity and WiFi during the day, only between 6pm-10pm when the generators were on. And breakfast, lunch and dinner were prepared in the local fashion, almost always fresh fish based. A dream come true.

I did have one small big problem: I was staying at the dorm and I had to walk at night 20 meters to the toilet outside surrounded by a field of frogs, which I discovered once I turned my phone torch on. After a scare I had in a camping in Australia, where frogs jumped on me as soon as I opened the toilet door, well, it was scary as hell.

The last morning in Sabang I went to visit the Underground River, which is one of the New7Wonders of Nature. The price to enter varies drastically if you book it through your accommodation or if you just go to the Sabang pier to get your ticket yourself: 1.200PHP vs 600PHP. Sadly, I only found out afterwards, along with the possibility to book a guide in the Underground River National Park who would take you back to Sabang through a jungle trekking instead of by boat.

The tour inside the Underground River lasts around 45 minutes and it is really impressive. But do close your mouth when looking around, especially when looking up: there’s bats everywhere!

After the tour, I took the bus in Sabang direction Port Barton. There’s no direct connection, so the first van took me from Sabang to almost Puerto Princesa, to the road intersection that heads to Port Barton. There I had to wait 2 hours until the van to Port Barton came, and then spend 2 hours praying for my life: the driver was insane!

Once in Port Barton, I was lucky to have chosen one of the best hostels to stay in the area: Russell Place. For the first time in Philippines, I had structures made of concrete instead of bamboo (which is a lovely material, but not the best to build floors for bedrooms, toilets and showers), western toilets and a shower with real pressure and non-smelly water. And, unlike other hostels, it had electricity and WiFi almost 24/7.

My first morning in Port Barton started getting ready to discover the Pamuayan Waterfall but ending up joining an island hopping tour with other German travellers instead. I had seen so far beautiful beaches in Philippines, but what Port Barton offers is incredible beaches with a tiny fraction of the people you see everywhere else.

We had a great time with the turtles, plus an amazing lunch, plus excellent snorkelling and the most amazing weather. Port Barton stole my heart and I’m still sad for not staying longer there.

Next day, I decided to actually go to the Pamuayan Waterfall, but instead of walking for 40 minutes, I decided to hire a motorbike taxi. It was a full on adventure, since the road to the falls is now under construction…

Once there I met some new Spanish friends. I convinced them to have a look at the Pamuayan Beach, as Wikitravel suggested. What an excellent decision: while the waterfalls are not as impressive, the beach was insane. It’s not easy to reach, since both places involve a lot of walking, but the Pamuayan Beach was huge and with only one small hotel with 6 bungalows and a kitchen. We had the whole place for ourselves to share it with hundreds of crabs and with the lovely lady who owned the hotel that fed us lunch and provided us with the means for our next adventure.

My new friends had heard that White Beach was the best place to see the sunset, more specifically from the Sunset Bar on top of the mountain. The lady at the beach told us that her husband could take us with his boat to the White Beach and off we went. Another great decision that day: the boat ride took us around the most beautiful places in the area — we saw the amazing Coconut Beach from afar and of course the Sunset Bar didn’t disappoint!

Again we couldn’t stay longer than 6pm so the boat driver could still navigate with a bit of light and we returned to town for dinner. It was my last night in Port Barton and I hated myself for it: I couldn't spend more time in what I truly think will become the next El Nido, and worse, I couldn’t go visit the Long Beach in San Vicente, an undeveloped 14kms beach, which won’t stay empty for long “thanks” to the new San Vicente airport.

Just a few remarks about Port Barton’s town: it’s tiny, there are no supermarkets, the tiny stores don’t even have shampoo at reasonable prices, there are no ATMs and your only choice when running out of cash is to exchange euros in the Palawan Pawn Shop or send yourself online some cash to be picked up there via Western Union or similar (don’t ask me how to, I just know it is possible).

Luckily I had some € with me that I could exchange and pay my van ticket to El Nido. The road was again full of turns, but luckily this time our driver had a dash cam recording him and the road (I assume as a controlling device from his boss) and the ride was much more relaxed. I shared it with a couple of Catalans who I had shortly met in the previous trip from Sabang to Port Barton, so we decided to team up for our El Nido experience.

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I chose this time King’s Landing hostel (WiFi Password Y0uKn0wN0thing!) and again it was a great decision: they even had hot water for the showers! I dropped my stuff and with my new Andorran roomie we headed to Las Cabanas, a stunning small beach near El Nido. The Catalans came over, and then we met the Spanish friends from Port Barton by coincidence. The afternoon went by slowly and peacefully, the sunset came and we kept talking and talking until late at night.

For the next morning, the Tour A was a go: everyone will tell you that in El Nido, you must do the island hopping tours A and C, which is true. What most people won’t tell you is that your best bet is to gather around 6 travellers from your hostel or your van trips and organise a private tour. You’ll pay less than the standard 1200PHP fare, you’ll be under 10 people in the boat (I’ve seen tours with 25 people onboard), you can make sure you’ll visit what’s important to your group, you can tell the captain to leave earlier than 9am and beat the crowds, and you can also choose what’s more interesting for you to see first thing without hundreds of other tourists. Plus, food tends to be better.

All this is important because El Nido is just stunning, but it is also really crowded. You’ll be in insane lakes and beaches, but it will be really busy and lose its charm real quick. I was really lucky on my tour A: we were only 7 people in the boat and half were locals, so it was a really fun and insightful trip. We started at the 7 Commando Beach, then we went to Hidden Beach, and afterwards, even if were told in the hostel that we will go to the Big Lagoon, in the end they took us to the Small Lagoon. I cannot judge if one is better than the other, but I really liked the Small Lagoon. I didn’t love that to make the most of it you had to pay extra for a kayak, and that once there, it felt like being in a pool of bumper cars. But it was everything they had told us.

(Las picture is us approaching El Nido on our way back to land. Just to show you how unimpressive and small El Nido is. But still is the most important place in Palawan, bustling with activity and most importantly, one can buy shampoo in there… you feel back to civilisation when you arrive!)

Next morning I decided to get on a van and pay a visit to Nacpan Beach, considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. I haven’t been everywhere, but I’d say Nacpan Beach is a big contender, just because it’s huge, the water is amazing, there are just around 20 shops-hostels-restaurants along the shore (no big hotels) and on that day, there were at max 50 other people hanging around. And the beach is 4kms long, so imagine.

During the day some of my new friends were arriving to Nacpan and we had time to explore it and enjoy it. So I actually arrived at Nacpan at 10am and came back to the hostel at 7pm. My Andorran roomie had rented a motorbike and explored 2 beaches further up from Nacpan and told me that he had been there with a friend completely alone all day. So if you dare to ride a motorbike on dirt roads, definitely get one and go explore!

Next morning I went to the El Nido Island Tour C, and I spent another day in incredibly beautiful beaches and hidden coast spots surrounded by hundreds of other tourists. First one was Secret Beach, or Hidden Beach - I don’t know anymore at this time, and you’d lose count of beaches as well after 4 island hopping tours. It was around Mantiloc Island, that’s for sure. Then Secret or Hidden Lagoon, Tapiutan Island as our lunch spot, and finally Helicopter Island.

We ended the day at the beautiful Republica Sunset Bar, which has a great view of the Corong Corong beach at sunset and also serves tapas. I got so excited, I ordered the pa amb tomàquet (Catalan bread with tomatoe, the Catalan take on Italian bruschetta), which wasn’t exactly what I expected. I also had a ceviche that I would regret 30 minutes later, when I arrived in the hostel just in time to puke it. So… stick to drinks there?

It wasn’t the first time in Philippines that I had an upset tummy after eating out. Most days I could notice something along the day wasn’t that good for me. This is something that happened regularly to me while travelling in Indonesia and also I had a few bad days in Myanmar. I wouldn’t say Philippines is not safe regarding food, but be cautious!

Next morning it was time to leave El Nido and head to Coron for 6 days of diving. I was torn between taking the ferry or the plane, because I had been told that El Nido airport was a fun experience. It is operated solely by AirSWIFT and plane tickets were the same price as the ferry. But I ended up in the ferry because then I could take the ride with my Catalan friends.

I was a bit annoyed at myself for having spent only 3 days in Port Barton and then having 6 days in Coron, which at the time seemed like a lot. But for divers, there’s not “too many days” to spend in Coron. Your budget will take a hit after so much diving, but it will definitely be worth it.

Coron is mostly famous because there is a whole fleet of Japanese WWII boats sunk by the US Navy. Most of them are at more than 18m depth, which means you can only explore them once you have gotten your PADI Advanced Certification or similar. Having only my Open Water, I decided to do my Advanced in Coron at the Reggae Dive Center, formerly known as Rocksteady Dive Center. I had researched them online and I had exchanged a few emails with them, so first thing I did was to go pay for my course. In exchange, they gave me a big book to study for the next day.

Right after, I met my Catalan friends and we decided to go up the main hill of Coron, Mount Tapyas, a climb of 700 steps towards the Hollywood-like sign. I did suffer those steps under the sun, but we were rewarded with a really beautiful sunset and views to the bay. I couldn’t stay much longer because I had to study hard, so I headed to my hostel.

I found not so nice and really nice budget accommodation in Philippines, but I have to say that when I entered the toilets of the Happy Camper Hostel, I almost cried. You won’t understand why until you spend a few weeks in budget places around the Philippines though. In any case, the owner of Happy Camper has created so far an oasis in Coron, and I was extremely happy to have stumbled upon it. One of the nice things about Filipinos speaking fairly good English is that you get to hear their stories and exchange opinions on lots of topics. I had to ask Jun who had designed the space and he proudly told me he had taken care of everything: he had envisioned it, had gone to Manila to pick up the materials and worked closely with the builders to make sure everything looked so good. He also shared his vision for future developments, and if he makes it happen, I’m sure Happy Camper Hostel will be an even better place to stay in a few years.

I had to finally study but I couldn’t keep my eyes open half way all the theory I had to learn for my PADI Advanced course. So I went to bed and woke up at 5am to finish my lessons and make it to the pier by 8am.

The day didn’t really start nicely for me: instead of the 3 Advanced Course dives, I had to take a fun dive to start while my buddy had a refresher class, which later on I wished I had taken as well. That meant that instead of having a fun dive in a wreck, I had it on a subpar reef. The most upsetting part I guess was having a conversation with the diving instructor in which he was trying to convince me that it didn’t matter when I took my fun dive. The whole conversation was the definition of gaslighting and it really angered me.

Luckily, the second and third dives were both on a wreck and OH MY! It was my first time ever diving in a wreck and it was just everything I had ever dreamt. East Tangat and Morazan Maru are just amazing: for me, Morazan was specially mind-blowing, and I will never forget the family of 5 lion fish I saw there. But in general the wrecks in Coron are full of life, nothing to do with the frustrating experience of going through a reef that has destroyed patches scattered around. East Tangat was kinda special as well, since it was the fist time I was one full hour underwater.

On the second day of the Advanced Course we went to Kogyo Maru, where I dived below 30m for the first time in my life and saw a few crocodile fishes. After, we dived the Olympia Maru, where I used Nitrox for the first time and saw my very first seahorse! To end the course, I completed my skills to become certified PADI Advanced Diver at Malpadon Reef, where I saw tons of calamaris, and yes, they do have those crazy eyes!

After two full days diving, I decided to “take a day off” and spend it doing the Coron island hopping ultimate tour. Even if this time I really, really tried to organise it privately, I ended up booking it through the hostel. Which turned out to be a huge mistake: the ultimate tour is the most expensive because it covers lots of spots, but most importantly, it’s the only one taking you to “Siete Pecados” (Seven Sins), one of the highlights for snorkelling lovers like me.

When we were in the boat, we were around 15 people and we left 90 minutes after we first boarded the boat, which killed most of our good mood. So much, that none of us noticed that the guide didn’t mention Siete Pecados when he briefed us with the itinerary. Big, big mistake.

Our fist stop was the extremely beautiful Kayangan Lake: I had a bit of a bad time because the pier is rather challenging for vertigo sufferers wearing flip flops, but everything was fine again when we saw the beautiful scenery. Again, the view was spoilt by the quantity of people, but still, the lake was just amazing.

Right after that we went to the Twin Lagoon, and then it was already time for lunch. When we were fishing our food, the crew told us our next stop was the Coral Garden. I just casually asked when were we going to Siete Pecados, and that’s when we found out we were not going: hell broke lose, because that’s exactly why you pay more to take the Ultimate tour and not go for the cheaper ones. After much arguing with the crew, nothing was achieved: I was really grumpy for the whole afternoon, because I was really excited about what I had read about Siete Pecados.

Don’t get me wrong: Coral Garden was stunning, it’s where I saw blue coral for the first time, and probably if it had been sunny and the current wouldn’t have been so strong, we would have enjoyed it as much as Siete Pecados. But I was really tired of the filipino experience of being told one thing and then having your expectations crushed. I’m too German already, I know!

To make things worse, when we got onboard again after Coral Garden, they told us that when parking one hour before, the huge noise we heard was because they had rammed the boat into the corals and now the boat was sinking. While we had been snorkelling, they had already arranged another smaller boat to take us to complete the rest of the tour. True story. It didn’t top the one I had heard in the hostel about a tour boat having been tolled by another for the whole tour day, but it was pretty close.

Last stops of the tour were the Skeleton wreck, where you can free dive on a small wreck at around 12m depth, and the CYC beach, which was really pretty and where we got to play around with a lovely puppy. On our way back to land, Coron gave us a beautiful sunset and the crew made for us a sweet pastry with cooked banana, but we were all still mad about the Siete Pecados incident. So much, that we went to complaint at the office of the tour operator: we got a bit of the money back, but not enough to shake off the feeling of being cheated on.

Next day I decided to go diving again and we did 3 immersions on the deepest wrecks in Coron: Akitsushima, where I went 35 meters deep, Okikawa Maru, and the Lusong Gunboat. On this day, Okikawa was definitely the most impressive dive, not only because the wreck is 160 meters long, but also because it tested my limits.

I was at my 30th dive ever, and for the first time, I got close to get in panic mode. We entered the wreck as a party of 5, we got into what it felt a truly labyrinthic path, most rooms were pitch black and at some point things got tight and claustrophobic. I’m so glad I kept breathing and pushing through, and I could enjoy the adventure inside the wreck and later on exploring the outside. But I would not recommend anyone to go inside unless they feel really confident when diving.

The experience diving Coron had been so good that I still tried to squeeze another diving day on my last day there. I had still one big highlight pending: the Barracuda Lake, which is a must for diving because of the different water temperatures oscillating between 28°C and 38°C until you reach the bottom at 35m depth. But when I asked about it, the trip to Barracuda next day was going to be with mostly Open Water divers, so it would not be possible to go down more than 14 meters. So no Barracuda Lake for me, a good reason to come back to Coron though!

I was really bummed, but I though then I could just try to find a way to go to Siete Pecados by myself. And with that in mind, I decided to finally visit the Maquinit Hot Springs that Wikitravel so much praised. Because I was on my own, the adventure got a bit expensive: I paid 400PHP to ride until there and 200PHP to enjoy the last hour of the evening in the boiling pool. On top, the road leading to the hot springs is unpaved and really, really bumpy. Still, I’m so glad I went for it, because the place is just amazing. The hot springs empty into the sea and are surrounded by a mangrove, and you bathe under the stars.

My last day in Coron was a full adventure. I woke up determined to make it to Siete Pecados - problem was, nobody could tell me how to make it there without booking an island hopping tour. But I could see that it was very near the coast of Coron Town, so there must be a way, right? I hopped on a tricycle and the driver asked again for 400PHP. I just shut down my Catalan inner voice and just went for it: turns out Siete Pecados is right next to the Maquinit Hot Springs… so I had to suffer again the crazy road until arriving to the Siete Pecados town.

The driver had said it was possible to hire a boat in the town but in true filipino style, the driver that day didn’t feel like taking someone there. So he offered me another option: I could hire a kayak and go there on my own.

I had made it until there, so even if the idea was not appealing to me, I just did it. The problem with being on a kayak on your own is that you cannot really take anything with you. Specially not your phone unless you had a water cover for it… which I didn’t. Also, even if the kayak guy explained me on a map where to look for barracudas and beautiful coral, once you are surrounded by seven small islands, it’s really hard to locate the spots.

Anyway, I made it to Siete Pecados. The sun was not shinning so the snorkelling was not as impressive as it could have been BUT it was incredible. I do think it’s the best coral I’ve seen, with not one single “lifeless” patch. I circled around 4 of the islands swimming, and hopped off and back on the kayak only twice. It was a tiring and humiliating way to see Siete Pecados (ever tried to get on an empty kayak while on the water?), but it is one of the greatest moments of my time in Philippines.

When I reached back the shore after getting lost because I had not register mentally any point of reference for the kayak shop and there was of course no sign about it, I asked the driver to take me to the Maquinit Hot Springs again. I wanted to take pictures on daylight and I had the idea to ask for permission at the entrance to just get inside a few minutes to do so. It worked!

By early afternoon I was back to the hostel in time to get a shower, have a relaxed last lunch in Coron, say goodbye to the town and pack my bag to go into my next adventure: the 12 hour overnight ferry ride from Coron to Manila.

When I first planned my trip to Philippines, I had booked flights to Puerto Princesa and then another from Puerto Princesa to Manila. The problem was that in order to go back from Coron to Puerto Princesa via El Nido I could easily need a full day. So once in Coron I realised I could go on a huge local ferry to Manila, and I basically booked the tourist ticket for it: a common room with around 100 bunk beds that is what most locals choose.

One of my roomies in the hostel had booked the same ferry, so we went together to the pier a bit more than one hour ahead of departure (the ticket says you have to be there 4 hours before, but one hour ahead is more than enough). Every time you get a ferry, you have to pay 20PHP tax fare in the pier, and only then you can access the waiting area.

The ferry was more like a cruise ship and as such had a city inside its walls: there were food courts, karaoke club, bars and lots of other amenities I didn’t explore. My priority was to find a bunk bed where I felt protected, even more after I got a few obscene gestures from a fellow male passenger inviting me to sleep next to him, the first and only incident I had in Philippines traveling alone.

The most amazing part of the trip was that this specific area had no windows, so we were basically sleeping “outdoors”. You could feel the wind and hear the waves, and still I got a half-decent sleep covered in my clothes because unlike other passengers, I didn’t bring sheets with me. I woke up right for sunrise, and while watching the sun come up while laying on my bed, I felt like being in first class.

So many people had told me to avoid Manila at all cost. I tried, but all connections to Thailand were through Manila. I had only booked 2 nights to stay in Makati, the unofficial expat neighbourhood. I made it to the hostel at around 8am, and I was so tired I slept until midday. I woke up so hungry, I just checked what was the closest nice food around the corner. I ended up in a place called Army Navy that fulfilled all my needs: I had a huge burrito AND churros con chocolate, what a dreamy combo!

I could barely move after my Army Navy feast, but I still found the strength to walk around the city (and see the Trump Tower in Manila). Other travellers had told me to check out the Ayala Triangle Gardens and the Ayala Museum, so I went there while being amazed at the concrete jungle that Manila is. Sadly, it was Monday and the museum was closed, so I just went from mall to mall in an attempt to beat the heat.

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In the evening I was meeting my Berlin friend Francis, who now lives in Manila, and he took me to one of the newest parts of the city: BGC (Bonifacio Global City) Highstreet, featuring a huge Christmas light show, lots of shops, and most importantly, the Manila Din Tai Fung. Those who love Asian food and Taiwanese in particular know what I’m talking about: the London shop for example experiences hour long queues and one of the Hong Kong branches has been awarded a Michelin star. We didn’t have to wait this time, and I got the second feast of the day, this time though it was truly special.

And when I thought the eating was over, turns out that a block away from Din Tai Fung there’s a branch of the New York’s Magnolia Bakery, named in Philippines just M Bakery. For the fans of “Sex and the City”, yes, those are the cupcakes! We had the amazing Banana Pudding: at that point I wished I had not eaten the last chocolate xiao long bao so I could truly enjoy it!

We had to sit down for a while after so much eating and that gave us time to enjoy the kitties around BGC. The night ended at a fancy and very hidden bar in Manila that truly made me feel somehow like in Berlin, where the best stuff is only found when an insider takes you there. So I won’t tell you much about it!

Next day I was meeting another Twinity friend who lives in Manila. I took the elevated metro train to meet him, and while waiting for him, I had another incredible Haro-Haro in Mr. Chow. Ronald was, as all my filipino friends, the perfect host. We jumped on his motorbike and he took me literally everywhere: we started in Intramuros with the Cathedral and exploring the old city wall and then we passed the Rizal Monument on the Jose Rizal Park.

After that we drove past the impressive US Embassy on the way to the Manila Baywalk, headed to Sampaloc to grab lunch, to New Manila to grab coffee (well, iced matcha lattes) in the cute 4th Street Cafe, and ended up the day right on time for sunset at the Quezon Memorial Circle.

All this was only possible because we were on his motorbike: the traffic in Manila is insane and without his skills going in between cars, we would have never made it. I didn’t want him to drive all the way to Makati, so I went back by metro to end the night in the terrace of the Z Hostel, that has spectacular views to the city and happened to be just around the corner from my hostel. The vibe in Z Hostel is so good that I would definitely stay there when back again in Manila.

And with that December 12 arrived and my time in Philippines was over. Three and a half weeks had passed and I left the country feeling that I had not even scratched the surface. Every conversation with a traveller left me with a longer list of must-dos in a broken up country full of #beachporn for divers, snorkelers, surfers and sun addicts.

Yes, food in Philippines is not as delicious as other Asian countries. Yes, their President is crazy. Yes, it’s more expensive than other destinations in South East Asia. But still, Philippines is going to become a never ending love story as Thailand has been for me so far.

I’ve gone from skeptical non-visitor to die hard fan: proof of it is that I already booked my flight back and I’ll be landing in Manila 7 weeks after I left for another month of discovering… This is what #beachporn junkies do!

To Burma or not to Burma: how Myanmar is jumping straight to the future

To Burma or not to Burma: how Myanmar is jumping straight to the future