Philippines Round 2: La Union, Tagaytay, Puerto Galera, Boracay, Bohol and Apo Island
What can I say? The Philippines stole my heart the first time around and as soon as I could, I returned for a second round in a country made of the most impressive beaches in the world.
When I left after my first 3 weeks, I had a huge list of places other fellow travellers told me they were a must. So this time I booked the full 30 days that the free visa allowed me to stay and I went full speed, until my body broke. More on that if you really read this post until the end!
On Friday, February 1st, I landed again in Manila and the city gave me a warm welcome. I laughed at myself for having been so afraid the first time to spend time in Manila. While there are tons of areas that are dangerous and other travellers had shared some horror stories with me, my experience has always been really nice and safe. I did stay only around Makati and I took a Grab for most of my trips, which definitely helped. But I also walked around at night and I felt safe everywhere.
Once in Manila, I rushed to get to the bus station for buses departing to La Union, in the northwest coast. La Union is a surfer town and, in theory, the easiest getaway for my birthday weekend plans - I really wanted to spend it at the beach. I had read amazing stuff about it, but nothing prepared me for the ride: the earliest bus was departing at 8pm, so I reached my accommodation at around 2am. And it was not because it is that far from Manila, but because it was Friday night and it took us at least 90 minutes to leave the city because of the traffic jams. Typical Manila!
But it was worth it: I had a weekend of sunbathing, beach walks, sunsets and Halo-Halo for desert on my birthday. I couldn’t have asked for more, also because my real 35th birthday celebration will happen in Barcelona in April. Wanna join?
On Monday I went back to Manila and got stuck there for the Chinese New Year celebrations: suddenly cars disappear from the streets and nothing is really operational. But then next day, as soon as I could, I headed south and the adventure really started.
My goal was to make it to Tagaytay and to the famous Taal lake, which has a volcano in the middle and its crater has another small lake inside. So a lake within a lake. As far as I could find out, there are a few spots in Manila where the buses to Tagaytay stop, but what seemed most legit was the advice I got to go to Roxas Boulevard and wave there the buses going to Tagaytay. Well, that advice was wrong.
After 90 minutes seeing everyone else finding their correct bus except me, I started googling again. There was one lead, advising to go the Coastal Mall 15 minutes walking from where I was, and find there the buses leaving to Tagaytay. That was half good advice. The mall was basically in ruins, but when I approached it, the first thing I saw was a bus with the sign Tagaytay written in the front. So I hopped in and the 3 men inside looked at me a bit in disbelief. They told me that indeed they were going to Tagaytay and told me to just sit down.
I got a bit concerned, but then we stopped finally at the right place to get in a bus heading south: the PITX Terminal (Parañaque Integrated Terminal Exchange). I had seen so many buses in Roxas Boulevard with the sign PITX, but of course I couldn’t figure it out as a non-local! The terminal is brand new and modern, looking just like a train station in Europe. I went inside, got my ticket, and got back in the bus. Slowly it filled in and off we went to Tagaytay.
It took us around 2 hours to reach the town, plus over half an hour to actually find my hostel hidden behind buildings. The main road in Tagaytay ends in a roundabout practically in front of the lake and the road continues left and right surrounding the lake. You’ll find all the filipino fast food chains in that street, plus a huge mall with a big supermarket open 24/7.
The views were stunning from the town, so it was clear to me that it had been a great idea to visit. The challenging part though was to find a way to visit the Taal lake: the staff in the hostel was not really helpful and it took me a while to figure out how to make it there and how much would it cost. I was really lucky that other 3 guests wanted to go there next morning, so we could team up for the tricycles to the lake and to rent the boat to take us to the volcano (all in all was around 200 PHP per person for the tricycles and 600 PHP per person for the boat and park fees). It’s best if you organise that before arriving to the pier in the Taal Lake, because once you are there the people running the boats don’t let you create groups and the boat rental can get way too expensive, since they force you to pay the whole boat alone and that’s around 2000 PHP for the boat only.
So off we went at 7am next morning and this is what we got!
The trekking once we were on the volcano lasted around 40 minutes and I would call it a beginner trek, which made me wonder why so many people choose to ride a horse to the top. The town was really pretty and the views were stunning. Once at the top, there were different view points and also a few cafés where to order a fresh coconut (100 PHP) and enjoy the landscape.
By midday we were back in Tagaytay and decided to go explore other places: our first option was the People’s Park in The Sky, an impressive viewpoint where you can admire the Taal Lake, Mount Banahao, and even Manila if the sky is clear.
Next morning I decided to head to Puerto Galera via Batangas, the port that connects Luzon island with Mindoro island. What in the map seemed like a pretty straight forward trip quickly developed in the most nonsense itinerary ever. For what I could gather, most buses go straight from Manila to Batangas, so there are no buses that take you from Tagaytay to Batangas. People told me later that there are private vans available for the locals, but no one mentioned it during my trip. The only option the bus driver could give me was to take the bust to Nusugbu and from there taking another one to Batangas, which meant that, instead of driving 65 kms surrounding the lake, I was going to get 40kms further west and drive that back. End result was: it took me 4 hours to make it to Batangas.
Once there though, it was pretty straight forward: I dealt with the filipino ferry choreography of first figuring out in the ferry terminal which company was offering the Batangas - Puerto Galera route, which offered the cheaper price, and which one was departing sooner. After the rounds in each counter, you purchase the ticket and the second step is to pay the terminal fees in another counter. With your ticket and terminal fees ticket in hand, you are allowed to enter the terminal building and pass the security control. When you think you are done, well, you are not: still you need to enter the terminal and “check-in” with the company you are travelling. And only then, you can sit down and wait.
As expected, the ferry was 40 minutes late. But once I arrived to Puerto Galera’s Muelle (pier in Spanish), everything started to fall into place. I walked 10 minutes to my hostel, the amazing Happy Buddha Inn, and a lady with a huge smile welcomed me. She showed me an extremely clean and empty dorm and started informing me about the options I had for exploring the town. I was mostly interested in diving, since friends had told me it was excellent, especially the Canyons dive spot. At that moment, her husband interrupted and told me about their partner diving shop, BadLadz. As we were talking about it, the owner of the diving shop Sean showed up and I could ask him all my questions plus hear all their stories after 25 years living in the Philippines as foreigners.
Next morning at 8am I was at BadLadz waiting to talk to Christian, the manager of the shop. He was so nice and patient and told me I could join right away a group of Hong Kong divers who were having 3 dives that day and we were going to go to Canyons. He gave us the most amazing briefing of the dive site (including a drawing of it in a chalkboard!) and next thing you know, I was diving the healthiest, most colourful and vibrant coral I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been diving in Borneo, including Sipadan!
Sadly I have no pictures of the beauties I saw underwater. But if you ever have the chance to dive in Puerto Galera, do so - here’s a video to show you why!
While we were diving, I found out that there was an option to go in the evening for a night dive. I hadn’t done any in over 10 years, but I had great memories from it, so I was in. At the end of the day we saw the sunset from the opposite shore in front of Muelle, where locals have their modest houses in dreamy spots, and as soon as the sun was gone, we went for our last dive of the day. And oh my, the secrets of the water world at night!
Next day, the group of Hong Kong divers had booked a trip to Isla Verde and they invited me to go along with them. So I went for the 2 most amazing dives of my life after the ones I took in Sipadan. Here’s a video so you get an idea:
I cannot stress enough how healthy the reefs are in Isla Verde, with huge extensions of intense pink, red, green, blue coral and with an incredible density of things to see. There is no empty spot or patches here and there, it is 110% full everywhere you look!
By lunch time I was done with the diving and I decided to explore the White Beach in Puerto Galera. I grabbed a Halo Halo and took a tricycle there: it was sunny at start, but soon clouds came and then the rain. I got the most perfect rainbow while sitting on the beach, trying to decide what to do. I ended up spending my whole afternoon and evening there, just enough time to lose my raincoat and only realising about it exactly when I mostly needed it… when the rain hit me hard on my way to the hostel!
My time in Puerto Galera was over and I asked Steve, the owner of the hostel, how to make it to Boracay without having to go back to Batangas. Of course he had a way, it was only a challenging one: going with a jeepney to Calapan, taking there a shared minivan to Roxas and get on the 2pm ferry to Caticlan, the getaway to Boracay. He advised to leave as early as possible and so I did: at 7am I was on the road already! Leaving Puerto Galera was truly bittersweet: taking the road out, I saw the most stunning scenery with every turn we took and I wanted to stop everywhere for a picture or to stay there the rest of my life. Just amazing.
One negative thing though: my whole body was itching. I had bites all over and two big rashes in my arm. I was getting paranoid, thinking about bed bugs or an allergy to the detergent used for my laundry. It was maddening, the itching was so intense and I was feeling miserable. Only a few days later a traveller told me it was probably plankton jelly fish, the ones that are so tiny you can only feel. The reaction is not immediate and takes a day or two for the bites to show. That morning though I was quite in despair and going a bit crazy.
Other than that, things were pretty smooth in Calapan and until Roxas Ferry Terminal. But once I was in Roxas at 12pm, things went south: the company selling the 2pm ferry tickets was closed, and the other company around offered only tickets to a ferry at 4pm to Buruanga, 40 minutes away of Caticlan by tricycle. I waited to see if the first agency would open their ticket office a bit later, and they did, but turns out the 2pm boat was non-existent and they were only offering one at 6pm. Which completely contradicted their post on Facebook from a few days back, so as you can imagine, I was very, very frustrated.
I bought the ticket for the ferry at 4pm and decided to take advantage of the empty Roxas Ferry Terminal, which had fantastic charging stations. I charged all my devices and killed time watching “Broadwalk Empire”. Finally at 4pm we boarded a huge ferry, that of course didn’t depart until 5pm…
Four hours later we arrived finally to Buruanga. With other travellers we took the tricycle to Caticlan and then another boat to Boracay. We were really worried that arriving there at 10pm would mean that no boats would be available, but luckily Boracay is pretty touristy and they run boats every half an hour at all times. I made it finally to my hostel at 1am and I just couldn’t believe I left my hostel at 7am! I tell you this: next time I visit Boracay, I’ll fly directly to Caticlan!
Next morning I spent it re-washing all my clothes and other logistical errands. I finally made it to the beach in the afternoon and I couldn’t believe my eyes. As touristy and busy as it is, Boracay is looking incredible these days. The sand cannot be whiter or cleaner, and the colour of the water is out of this world. The first day was a bit cloudy and maybe you cannot appreciate it in the pics, but the next day was sunny and OMG.
On my second day in Boracay, I couldn’t resist and went for a morning run. I left a bit too late the hostel and it proved to be a big mistake: at 8am the sun was so intense, I could barely finish at 7kms, when I usually run 10-12kms. Still, it gave me the opportunity to explore the whole White Beach from end to end and snap really nice pictures. And then I decided to do something a bit crazy…
I had seen in the map that I could reach the north beach of the island, Puka beach, swimming from beach to beach. I had with me the water bag and the bikini, so I just had to dare to do it. So I headed to the northern end of White Beach, walked through the rocks and swam in between beaches all I could. I won’t lie, it was scary even to me, an experienced swimmer. But also really exciting. The more beaches I swam by, the fancier things got, until it got too fancy: I hit the “capitalism wall” in Mövenpick Resort & Spa Boracay, when the map was telling me that I was really close to Puka Beach but the last stretch was going to be a 20 minute swim. I tried to see if I could go through the resort to the next beach, but this is where the security staff stopped me and told me I could only go further by land and I definitely had to leave the premises.
So I did. The lady at the exit asked me how come I didn’t have the bracelet with me and I explained my adventure. She was not amused and told me that next time if I wanted to be in the resort I had to book a room. And I only said out loud that I just wanted to explore the beaches, I wasn’t interested in the resort. I kept to myself all the rest I had in my mind while walking through the resort on my way out.
I finally found the road outside and of course the surrounding area was not nice and the contrast stark. The longer I walked, the more authentic it got. After half an hour walking, I found a fruit stall and got my lunch. And then, Puka Beach was there, all for me.
I wish I could have stayed longer in Puka, but I had extended one night more in Boracay but not in the first hostel I was but on a second one. I headed back and went through Boracay town: telling you it is under construction doesn’t capture how the town looks like at the moment. I hope the pictures speak for themselves.
After I checked-in in my new hostel, I headed to the Bulabog beach, exactly on the parallel shore of White Beach. It is mostly famous for the crazy winds propelling kite surfers from all over the world, and it is really impressive to go watch them in action.
I was getting really hungry so I decided to go back to the White Beach for dinner and sunset. I had spotted an Army Navy (Mexican food chain), and just like in Manila two months before, I had a blast.
I topped my dinner with a tea and Calamanci muffins at the “Real Coffee & Tea Cafe”, a must for all visitors to Boracay. Not only because everything is delicious, also because the views to the sunset over the White Beach are pretty spectacular.
I had to say goodbye to Boracay: next morning I was on a flight to Cebu to finally make it to Bohol (the previous time I tried a storm made it impossible). As you could expect, the views from the plane were dreamy…
Right from Cebu airport I went to the Ferry Terminal 1 to get on a ferry to Tagbilaran. I had yet another lousy lunch in the Terminal (if you have to go there, get your food outside!) and soon enough I was in Tagbilaran. I got in a shared van for 200PHP to my accommodation, which turn out to be a huge place with tons of units and dorms 10 minutes away by walking from Bohol’s White Beach. Next morning, first thing I did was to head to a more unspoiled version of Boracay’s White Beach.
The day was cloudy, a storm seemed to be closing in for a few hours, so I took shelter in one of the very few restaurants along the beach. I had a great lunch, tons of green tea and, for once, I spent my afternoon with my e-reader (reading The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself if you are wondering).
Next morning I was planning to do exactly the same but once I was on the beach, something happened: I started to feel colder and colder and when I snapped a selfie I saw it clearly: I was getting reaaaally sick.
I checked mentally and yes, the aircon in our dorm was really strong and I had been two nights sleeping with my sweater on. I thought I was getting a cold and kept ahead with my plans for the next morning: visiting the Chocolate Hills (which only reflect their name in dry season when they are brown) and meeting the Tarsier, the smallest mammal in the world (and inspiration for the creation of Yoda).
Unluckily for me, the fever hit me hard sitting on the minivan while doing the tour, and of course the aircon was set at max. I couldn’t stop shaking, coughing, sneezing, and I could barely leave the van for the 2 highlights of the trip. I skipped the rest of activities and stayed in the van sleeping as much as I could.
I arrived back to my hostel at around 6pm and I could barely walk to my room. Reality hit me when I made it to bed. Without food and without water and travelling alone, I was in real trouble.
I asked a couple sharing my dorm if they could sell me one of their water bottles and I fell asleep. Next morning my throat showed me a very obvious tonsil infection so I started taking the antibiotics I had with me. Still, I didn’t have strength to stand up but I had to go get some food. I crawled out of bed and however I could I made it to the nearest shop to buy water, some fruits, veggies and noodle soups. And 2 days in bed went by.
I thought I was stronger and decided to keep pushing towards Apo Island in Dumaguete, one of the must diving sites I had on my list. I barely made it to my next dorm, were finally I slept without aircon. The place was so beautiful, was by the beach, had a great pool, and the restaurant, even if a bit expensive, offered salads. But I spent 4 more days stuck in bed so I didn’t enjoy any of it, and of course, I couldn’t dive. The fever, the coughing, the sneezing, the body pain, everything kept me away from Apo Island, which I could only see from afar.
I decided to move to a cheaper place with a diving shop a bit closer to Apo Island and keep being patient with my body. I was running out of time and the antibiotics were not being really effective after a week of treatment. I went to the hospital in Dumaguete, where I was charged 38€ for another antibiotic and a gargling solution, and I was cleared for diving. So after 10 days struggling with a tonsil infection, I finally could go to Apo Island.
Apo Island didn’t disappoint: I saw so, so, so many turtles and other fun, beautiful creatures. I was really sad that I didn’t stay any night in Apo Island, but considering how my last 10 days had been, there was no way I could have stayed in such an isolated place.
For my last morning in Dumaguete I had 2 more dives in store, this time at the shore in Dauin. This was the first time I was doing muck diving and it was simply amazing! I saw my second and third sea horse ever (I guess I’m not lucky with that one!), tiny shrimps, lion fishes (which are my absolute fav) and many more. Here’s a taste:
This was the perfect goodbye to a place I spent over a week watching from afar and not being able to dive in. I was a bit heartbroken for missing my opportunity to go to Malapascua, Bantayan Island, Siargao and many more other beautiful places in the Philippines, but I’m very thankful that even if I was sick in bed for 10 days, I still could cross most of my desired spots.
At midday after my dives I headed to Dumaguete to catch my ferry to Cebu, which stopped in Bohol - Tagbilaran and was probably the most expensive ferry I took in the whole month. I spent a night in Cebu near the airport and next morning I left Philippines to make a big dream come true: diving Sipadan. The flight connection was Manila - Kota Kinabalu - Tawau and it was not an easy ride. But that’s another story!
Departing Manila was really hard. The airport had a big picture of my first diving experience in the country: the sardine run in Moalboal. The final Haro Haro was there to keep me company, the Smart airport charging station booth made me laugh, and the city and then the sky over Manila gave me a glorious farewell.
I guess there is not much more to add: the Philippines has been so kind to me in both of my trips and I cannot believe I neglected it for so long. I can only say that if life allows me, I will be back many more times, and I will always tell you all about it!