Despite the warnings about needing a detailed plan or schedule for the Philippines, we found ourselves scrambling a couple of weeks prior to landing in Cebu. We've become quite laid-back travelers and often make decisions spur-of-the-moment. We've been pretty lucky so far, but things took a turn for the worse. The Philippines is composed of 7,641 islands, which can result in travel hell. After researching the islands and narrowing our options down, we decided we wanted to visit Siargao and Bohol. Booking flights was tricky enough -- so once we pieced together a flight path to Siargao and found decent prices, we booked those. One step down and one mistake deep. Siargao is often the number one recommended island for cliff jumping, clear blue waters, and a laid-back vibe. After booking our flights, we suddenly realized that we were only left with outrageously expensive accommodations or a run-down shack on the beach. Also, we discovered that Siargao lacks internet all over the island. Because we teach English online, we unfortunately had to bail on Siargao. One non-refundable flight later, we decided that our best strategy was to stick with Bohol and rent an apartment for the month.
On the way in or out of Bohol, it's likely that you'll stay in Cebu for one night. The ferry from Cebu to Bohol is quick, easy, and inexpensive. If you're looking for a place to stay near the ferry terminal, look no further than Bai Hotel Cebu. This hotel is much larger than we're used to staying in, so that was a fun change! Although this may sound weird, our favorite feature of the hotel was the well-equipped gym. It's been too many months since we've been able to properly lift some weights. Another highlight of Bai is the rooftop infinity pool overlooking Cebu. There is an adult pool, a kid pool, many lounge options, and a bar. A perfect place to grab a drink and watch the sunset. The breakfast buffet was endless in terms of choices. The hotel is very well organized, well-managed, and a luxurious stop for a night or two.
After our night in Cebu, we hopped on a morning ferry to our home for the next month -- Panglao Island. Alona Beach was the perfect place to settle in for a month and catch up on work. We spent the month swimming (like 7 times/day minimum), motorbike adventuring, lazing on the beach, eating ice cream, visiting a million waterfalls, and sweating endlessly in our non air-conditioned apartment. Our Canadian friends Derek and Carine (We Did It Our Way) even joined us for the last couple of weeks. The locals on the island thought we were crazy for staying for an entire month, since the majority of travelers stay only a couple of days. Having a month in Bohol allowed us to know the island very well and even visit our favorite destinations twice.
what to do
Alona Beach: The most obvious choice when staying in the town of Alona Beach is to visit the beach. The beach is easily accessible from the main road and has white sand and fresh fruit vendors lining the beach. If you're looking for great swimming, head left once you hit the beach. If you're hoping to lay out, read a book, and work on your tan, head to the far right end of the beach. Eco tip: bring a plastic bag with you to the beach and pick up a few pieces of trash. The unfortunate reality in SE Asia is that the pristine landscapes are often not cared for in the way they deserve.
Camugao Falls: A quick hour drive off of Panglao and onto the mainland of Bohol is Camugao Falls. These falls are easy to get to and essentially free, although it's advisable to leave a small donation. The "guide" will try to convince you that you need his guidance hiking down to the falls, but don't listen. It's only a 10 minute walk down to the waterfall. Make sure you bring water, snacks, and sunscreen! We loved floating around in the black tubes provided. Bre and I visited twice and were the only ones there the second time!
Secret Falls: These "unnamed" falls are a locals' secret. Bre scoured the internet after seeing a photo of a man on a rope swing above crystal blue water. Finally, we found the location! If you're lucky enough to discover the falls, use maps.me to navigate there (not Google maps). The locals charge you 10 pesos/person to enter, although we weren't charged the first time we visited. There is a rope swing halfway up a waterfall that allows you to release the inner Tarzan inside of you! Also, you can climb the side wall and jump off a 15 foot cliff. The locals are aiming to keep this location a secret but I'll give you one hint: it's not far from Twin Falls.
Twin Falls: Although Twin Falls (or Pahangog Falls) are listed as a popular tourist destination on Bohol, Carine, Derek, Bre, and I were the only people there! The road leading to the falls is wild! Even on motorbikes, we were a little hesitant navigating through the small path, over rocks, and dodging large potholes. Once we arrived and walked down to the falls, we were in absolute awe. We spent hours swimming, jumping off a large rock, and taking goofy pictures.
Chocolate Hills: One morning, we rented a van and driver and left Alona Beach at 4:00 AM. Our first stop of the day was catching sunrise at the Chocolate Hills. Immediately when we pulled up, there was a rope and sign that claimed the viewpoint was closed until 6:00 AM. We disregarded this sign and climbed the stairs up -- because why not? As the sun rose above the skyline, we were welcomed with golden light and fog hovering in the valley below. The 1,300 grassy hills look like mounds of chocolate, especially in the dry season when they turn brown (hence the name). As we headed down around 6:30 AM, tourists began flooding up to the viewpoint. We all agreed that this wouldn't have been worth the hype had we not arrived just before sunrise.
Cabagnow Cave pool: After our sunrise adventure, we drove east to Anda. We walked a few minutes until we saw a large hole in the ground. The water in the Cabagnow Cave Pool is about 25 feet deep with a 15 foot drop from land to water. The ocean water slowly filters through the limestone as it enters the cave. This results in the clearest water we've seen! If it weren't so far from Alona Beach, we'd probably be here every few days jumping off the edge and swimming in the turquoise water. The cave is located on private property but only 10 pesos/person to swim. Tip: If your driver demands a parking fee (like our greedy driver did) don't pay it! There is no parking fee.
Anda Beach: Just minutes from the cave pool is Anda Beach. This beach was far cleaner than those in Panglao. There were only a few locals on this vast beach. Well worth the visit if you're in the area.
Molave Cliff Dive Resort: A must-do in the Philippines, if you're up for the thrill, is cliff jumping. Sure, we jumped at some waterfalls and at the cave pool, but nothing prepared us for the Molave Cliff Dive Resort. We paid 30 pesos/person to enter and immediately got weak knees as we looked over the concrete platform perched 30 feet above the ocean. Our friend Derek was the first one to run and take a leap of faith into the sea below. After watching Derek survive happily, Bre worked up the courage to jump. The ocean was plenty deep, the board was secure...what could possibly go wrong? Turns out, jumping wasn't so bad! It didn't feel much higher than any of the jumps we'd done previously. Daniel's not such a big fan of water, so he opted to take the stairs down to swim. Afterwards, we headed next door to Alexis Cliff Dive Resort for some lunch. Don't be fooled -- you can't actually cliff dive at Alexis. Not sure why it's named that.
where to eat
Shaka Bohol: This health-conscious cafe has amazing smoothie bowls and vegan burgers. We couldn't keep ourselves away more than a few days at a time! It's a bit pricey for SE Asia standards, but the flavor was so worth the extra pennies.
Bohol Bee Farm: A 15 minute drive from Alona Beach is the quirky and strange village known as the Bohol Bee Farm. There are multiple restaurants here serving organic food grown on their own property. We visited for lunch and spent a few hours wandering around the dock, watching the locals produce various craft products, enjoying some coconut-based ice cream, and admiring the gardens.
Luna Rossa Italian Vegetarian: Aside from Shaka, this is the only vegetarian-specific restaurant in Alona Beach. The female owner is a sweet Italian chef who grew up in Rome. The food was a bit more expensive, but we were lucky enough to be given a free appetizer and dessert. It's evident that all the ingredients are fresh and high quality.
Graziella: Since this was next door to our apartment, we found ourselves here a good handful of times. We recommend the pizza and garlic bruschetta. Sometimes they are a little light on the pizza sauce, so we always asked for extra sauce and a healthy dose of spicy olive oil. The Italian owner will likely offer you limoncello if he's around!
what to skip
As always, not all of the tourist destinations are worth visiting. Bre and I try our hardest to be thorough about researching an activity before partaking in it. Many popular destinations will be crowded with busloads of Asian tourists, filled with trash, and often utilizing unethical practices. Here are a few popular destinations we recommend skipping.
Hinagdanan Cave: We visited this cave with our friends one afternoon hoping for a magical cave to swim in. What we were greeted with were multiple entrance fees (parking fee, extra swimming fee, etc.) and waaaaaay too many tour groups inside. The tour guides were yelling inside of the cave and taking hundreds of group photos. This really created an unpleasant atmosphere for all. We decided against swimming and left almost immediately after entering. Although the cave itself was naturally beautiful, we'd recommend the Cabagnow Cave Pool over this any day.
Loon Coral Garden: One afternoon, Bre and I rented a scooter and ventured to Loon to check out the coral garden. Long story short, the "coral" is actually small succulents covering the ground that may not actually appear a red-orange color. The pictures we'd seen of this place were incredible, but we were less than thrilled. We wandered around for 15 minutes and left disappointed. Not worth the journey.
Loboc Tarsier Conservation Area: This sounds like a wonderful sanctuary to see the small monkey-like, big-eyed adorable little creature in its natural habitat. In fact, this conservation is included in most package deals taking tourists to the chocolate hills. Tarsiers are on the endangered species list due to the destruction of their habitats, predators, and human hunters. Unfortunately, the Loboc Tarsier Conservation isn't an official sanctuary area supported by the Philippine Tarsier Foundation. The nocturnal animals are held captive each day in small cages in order to be observed by tourists. Tarsiers are incredibly sensitive to human contact, daylight, and noise. They are so sensitive that even a camera flash can cause the animal to purposely bash its skull into a tree to commit suicide. We didn't visit this "sanctuary" and we highly recommend you do the same.
Swimming with Oslob Whale Sharks: Swimming with whale sharks has been controversial for quite some time now. Tour companies all over The Philippines will take hundreds of boats filled with tourists out in the ocean to swim with the beautiful creatures. The boats continue to feed the sharks, which encourages the animals to stick around. What they don't mention is that continually feeding the gentle whale sharks is teaching them that boats and humans equal food. Instead of peacefully swimming past boats as they used to do, the sharks are actively approaching boats in search of food. This feeding is impacting migratory patterns and slowly reducing the natural breeding cycles. We've also heard that you have to wait hours for the hundreds of other tourists to take their photo with the shark before it's your turn.
Virgin Island/Balicasag Island Hopping: We didn't go to Virgin Island or Balicasag Island, but every man on Bohol will offer to take you there. We've heard it's overrun with tourists and once you get to the islands, there's really nothing to do. There's some political drama with the owner (the former mayor of Panglao) of Virgin Island....it sounds bizarre and complicated. We don't claim to know anything about this, but we were victims of a rant from the taco shop owner one night. Spending our pennies on a tourist scam isn't our thing, so we don't suggest this tour.
Next stop: Gold Coast, Australia.
For the love & adventure,
b & d