Philippines: everything you need to know

It was a dream to visit the Philippines, so my expectations couldn’t be any higher. I knew traveling alone there wouldn’t be as easy as it was in Thailand, but that did not prevent a deep feeling of frustration after my first impressions. I even texted my family telling how scared I was and how I was thinking of leaving on my very first day.

Imagined this: I arrived in Cebu and noticed that I was the only western girl there, attracting every stare at the airport. As if it wasn’t stressful enough, I found out my hostel was 3 hours away and I had no clue of how getting there (rookie mistake). Trying to choose the safest option, I picked a Grab that ended up costing me 46 dollars and forced me to endure a three-hour drive with a driver that made me feel uncomfortable the entire way.

So, as you can see, it wasn’t the best of first impressions…

The Philippines have, indeed, it’s highs and low points. The paradisiac beaches contrast with an extreme poverty and lack of basic conditions, such as water and waste treatment.

I also felt way more unsafe in the Philippines than in Thailand. I suffered a lot with staring, catcalling and got constantly asked lots of inappropriate questions from men. I still don’t know if they were really curious or just always harassing me.

I can only document what I felt, and although sometimes I felt simple curiosity, most times it felt very invasive and aggressive. In El Nido, I had dinner super early just so I could go back to the hostel before the sunset.

However, fortunately, I did not give up so easily. And in no time I was already falling in love with the country, despite all of its problems.

Truth is, it is a beautiful country with extremely happy people, despite the dirtiness and poverty. It is a reality that shakes you to your core and proves that you don’t need a lot to be happy. Traveling solo in the Philippines was an adventure that made me grow a lot, and I recommend 100%.

I left that beautiful country very exhausted but also feeling very fulfilled and planning to go back. I didn’t get to go to all of the places I was planning to visit, since moving between islands proved to be way more expensive than what I anticipated. Therefore, on my next visit, I want to visit Siquijor, Siargao and some other places that look absolutely stunning. Oh, and Boracay.

Now, to the guide I carefully wrote to help you prepare for the trip of a lifetime:

HOW TO GET TO THE PHILIPPINES

I bought my ticket from Bangkok straight to Cebu and paid way more than other flights inside Southeast Asia. It cost me a whopping 241 dollars.

My advice on finding tickets in SEA is to use websites that include low-cost companies such as Air Asia, Scoot and Lion Air. Usually, most known search engines only include big companies. I use Skyscanner and kiwi to find the best offers but usually buy it straight from the company’s website, for safety reasons.

Something really important to remember: to enter the Philippines you must have a ticket out. Unfortunately, I was only informed of that when I was checking-in at the airport in Bangkok. I had to buy a last minute ticket to Bali choosing the cheapest date, even though I was planning to stay in the Philippines for a longer time than 3 and a half weeks.

I also suggest that you avoid Manila at all costs. It is possible to book direct flights to Cebu, Palawan and some other islands. Manila was hands down the worst city I visited in Southeast Asia and I don’t want to go back there ever again.

TRANSPORT IN THE PHILIPPINES

Sadly, there are no tuk-tuks in the Philippines. However, there are a lot of tricycles, which are usually carrying a million people, and a pig, and two chickens and a fridge. For real.

It is not really the Nobel prize winner for safety but is usually the only option besides renting a scooter. They usually overprice the fares, so I advise you to ask the hostel beforehand about the usual price to your destination and then tell the driver that you are only gonna pay that amount.

It is also possible to use Grab on the Philippines, but it usually only works in bigger cities such as Cebu, Manila and Puerto Princesa. In the smaller cities, it does not work.

If you still don’t know, Grab is the Asian Uber and it is usually the best transportation option in most cities. Especially because it offers a set and fair price with the safety of a GPS and a great customer service.

To travel on the Filipino islands you can use vans, grab, buses or private cars. Locals are very open to helping and almost all of them speak in English, so don’t be afraid to ask for directions if you get lost.

INTERNET IN THE PHILIPPINES

This is a very important topic. If there is anything you need to book or solve online, it’s best that you do so before arriving in the Philippines because the internet sucks.

Just so you understand how deep is the issue: not even WhatsApp messages load. And it is not only a problem with phone providers, but even the wi-fi also doesn’t work. Not even in fancy hipster places.

A great tip so you don’t get lost when your Google Maps stop working is to download the app Maps Me. It downloads the maps of the place you are going so you can access them even offline.

After you download it, you should highlight the main locations you want to visit, your hostel and good restaurants (trust me, there are very few good ones, so highlight them to not starve).

Another tip: there are two big phone providers in the Philippines, Smart, and Globe. Both suck, but Globe definitely sucks less.

I found that out only after losing my mind with Smart a thousand times. The locals saved me by introducing me to Globe. I could at least tell my family I was alive.

It is important to understand that you will need to learn how to disconnect when you are there. Most places have absolutely no service. When you go already knowing that, it is way easier to not stress with the lack of internet. After all, you will be in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

TIPS DIVIDED BY DESTINATION

  • CEBU (OSLOB)

Oslob is famous for it’s two main attractions: swimming with whale sharks and visiting waterfalls (specially Kawasan Falls). And Cebu is a big city without any big attractions, so I recommend you to stay in Oslob or somewhere near.

Be prepared, because Oslob and the small towns near it are really remote. There are no options for restaurants and anything else besides the touristic attractions. I spent all of my free time in the hostel, where I would also eat all of my meals and have a drink with other travelers.

A crucial thing to remember is to withdraw all the money you can before going to Oslob. When I was there none of the atm machines were working, in all of the 4 small towns we tried. I was saved by very nice people who borrowed me some money, and the hostel, which accepted credit cards.

  • How to get there:

There are many flights to Cebu from Manila, but you can also book a direct flight to Cebu from other places in Asia. I booked mine from Bangkok.

If you are a solo female traveler, be prepared. I was the only western girl at the airport and that attracted a lot of stares. So much I actually got very scared. That’s why I ended up spending 46 dollars on a Grab.

The cheapest and best way to get to Oslob is by bus. You should get a grab from the airport to the bus station and from there catch a bus to Oslob. It will cost you less than 2 dollars.

And don’t worry, everyone speaks English, so if you need any information you can ask a local and they will help you. Usually with a big smile on their face.

Oh, it is important to highlight that the airports in the Philippines are very peculiar. You can only enter it if you have a ticket, so it is impossible to buy a ticket at the airport. You also have to show your ticket to security before entering.

  • Accommodation:

First of all, to find hostels in Asia I 100% recommend Agoda. Hostelworld is another good option, but Agoda was definitely the best option almost every time. It had the best options, prices and it was really easy to do everything with the app.

In Oslob, I stayed at Nordzee hostel, which was recommended to me by a girl I met at a cafe in Chiang Mai. It is in the middle of nowhere and it has a stunning private beach.

The beach at Nordzee

The hostel is wonderful. It has some low points, such as the quality of some of the rooms and bathrooms, but I highly recommend it. It is the best hostel in the area.

It is also very cheap: 6,5 dollars a night (through Agoda). The food is cheap, although not as cheap as most low-cost places in the Philippines. But considering they really have a monopoly over the food and drinks, it is incredible how the prices remained reasonable. I spent a total of 36 dollars on food and drinks on the 3 days there (including every meal and alcoholic beverages).

They have vegan and vegetarian options and the two bars work 24 hours. You won’t find any other options nearby, only great bakeries (you have to try the everlasting at Julie’s Bakeshop) and some bars with karaoke (Filipinos looove karaoke, and apparently most of them have great voices).

  • Main Attractions:

One of the main attractions of Oslob is to swim with whale sharks. However, the experience is far from what you would’ve imagined, and is really bad.

I am guilty of not doing my research since I was so overwhelmed with things to plan and book. I didn’t know how the whole thing worked, and I based my decision on going by the beautiful pictures I saw on Instagram. Most of them portraited a magical encounter with majestic animals. In a future post, I will tell you more about how it wasn’t anything near that.

Besides the whale sharks, another famous attraction is to visit the Waterfalls. The most famous is Kawasan Falls, which I didn’t visit because a lot of people at the hostel told me it wasn’t worth it. Apparently, it became one of those places ruined by the number of visitors.

Instead, I did a private waterfall tour with an amazing group of people I met at the hostel. Our guide at the whale sharks, Tummy, took us to three waterfalls for a very cheap price. He also introduced us to his family and took us to all of the ATMs nearby, without charging more for that.

If you go to Oslob, his phone number is +93 27398854. I promise it will be worth it and you will help a local family that really needs it. He does all sorts of tours, including Kawasan Falls.

 

  • EL NIDO

El Nido is Philippine’s most famous destination, compared only to Boracay. It is located at the extreme north of Palawan Island, and it is a very small city with very bad infrastructure. The consequences of exploratory tourism are very visible and the poverty of the locals is shocking. The contrast with the natural beauty of the place is astonishing.

As soon as I arrived I was surprised by the reality I was seeing since it was never shown in the beautiful youtube videos that inspired me to go. I felt scared to walk alone on the streets going back to the hostel since the streets were very dark and men were very invasive.

Despite that, my strongest memory of El Nido is the emotion I felt entering the Big Lagoon. My eyes were filled with tears and I still haven’t seen anything that compares to the beauty of that place. It feels like you are entering a parallel universe. It’s an indescribable feeling.

  • How to get there:

Ok, that’s the hardest part. Arriving and Leaving El Nido usually involves a true journey. I flew from Cebu to Puerto Princesa, Palawan’s capital (the flight cost me 69 dollars). There are direct flights to El Nido, but they were too expensive.

From Puerto Princesa to El Nido it takes, at least, 5 hours by van. You can pay a fortune to go by taxi or 500 pesos to go in a shared van. I used the van twice and it was very nice.

The van leaves you in the station at El Nido and from there you can either take a tricycle or walk to your hostel since everything is pretty close. I walked everywhere.

  • Accommodation

El Nido has accommodation options for every type of traveler. If you are looking to party the main hostels for you are Outpost Beach Hostel and Mad Monkeys.

Both of them are right at the beach, but Outpost is in the central part of El Nido while Mad Monkeys is in Nacpan Beach, which is 20 minutes away from El Nido and has literally nothing to do except for the hostel.

And that’s actually a good thing because it allows the parties to go longer and louder, while in Outpost they are obligated to quiet down after 10 pm. Also, at Mad Monkeys they serve free shots every hour (I was there at 10 am and they were giving shots already… or still).

I wasn’t feeling like staying in a party hostel, because I prefer not to party where I sleep. So I ended up staying in a great little hostel The Cavern. It was very clean, modern and had decent wi-fi (for Filipino standards). The food was great as well as the shower, and the staff was one of the greatest. I recommend 10/10.

Oh, and it was very close to the main restaurants, bars and the dock from where the tours leave every day. The price is a little higher than at Nordzee, but it is also not expensive. I paid 13 dollars a night (through Agoda).

  • Attractions

Without a doubt, the main attractions at El Nido are the tours. You can choose from 4 different ones (A, B, C, and D) and they cost around 23 dollars (1200 pesos), including lunch in one of the islands.

I didn’t do any of the tours, because I was very lucky and met a group of girls on my first night who invited me to go with them on a private tour.

This tour included whatever islands we wanted and some of recommended by the captain. We went to a completely empty island where we had the beach to ourselves and went to the main ones at the best hours, so they were not crowded at all. We had Big Lagoon to ourselves, it was amazing.

I guarantee you can find people to share a private tour with you if you ask random people at your hostel. I did that in Coron and it worked every time. The official tours are cool too, but private ones can cost less and allow way more freedom regarding schedules and attractions.

The city itself doesn’t have a lot of options, so during the day, it feels like a ghost town. Everyone is out on tours or visiting one of the beaches nearby: Nacpan and Las Cabanas.

Nacpan Beach: a hidden gem 

Nacpan was one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever visited. It is relatively distant from the central part of El Nido, 20-30 minutes by van or tricycle, and it has very few restaurants. There is no signal and you are obligated to enjoy nature and connect with other people.

I went by myself and made the mistake of not researching the price of transportation beforehand, so I ended up paying almost 700 pesos for one way, even though vans offer the round trip for 600 pesos. I was lucky enough to find a ride home, so it wasn’t that much of a difference.

In Nacpan you find the famous Mad Monkeys Hostel, which provides parties all day long and shots every hour. As you can imagine it is a very social place and, considering I was alone, I decided to have breakfast there, although the scenery was not the best, with people passed out drunk at 10 am.

Right by the hostel, there is a small tent with a lot of vegan options. I recommend you stop there and try a banana-mango shake. It is the shake ever, I swear (it is great almost everywhere in the Philippines).

There is an even more secluded part of Nacpan, at the left end of the sand strip, after Mad Monkeys and through a local village. You end up on a beach where local kids are playing, with no loud music and an amazing energy. I watched the sunset there with my new friends and it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I tear up just thinking about it.

Sunset in Nacpan, no filter needed

El Nido also has a second beach, closer to its center, called Las Cabañas. It is not as beautiful as Nacpan, but it’s also amazing.

The entrance to the beach is through a narrow set of stairs, which are not really noticeable. You have to either guess or ask the locals how to get there. After the first time, it gets easier. It is very close to the Outpost Hostel, and you can get there by tricycle, walking or with a scooter.

The first part of the beach is crowded, with very nice restaurants and a lot of places to lay down and enjoy the sun. The sea is very calm, as it is in Nacpan, and the temperature of the water is very nice.

I recommend you keep walking to the end of the beach and turn left when it’s over. There you gonna find another part of Las Cabanas with no commerce, only local homes. The sunset there is amazing and you have the beach almost to yourself.

 

Sunset at Las Cabanas

A great hidden spot I found at Las Cabanas was The Bird House, a glamping site that is also a vegan café that offers daily yoga classes at sunset.

I saw a small little sign saying “yoga classes at sunset” and I had to check it out. It was worth it. After many steps, I arrived in one of the most amazing views of El Nido, ate a vegan burger and practiced yoga. It was an experience I hope to do again.

View at Birdhouse

Lastly, let’s talk about the nightlife. The nights almost always start at Outpost, that also randomly offers free shots, and promotes thematic to socialize the guests and visitors. In some days it is so crowded you can barely walk.

For legal reasons, the music and the noise must stop at 10 pm. So from there, everyone goes to some bar in the center, and the afterparty is at the only nightclub in town. It is fun, but please be careful if you are alone. El Nido is not the safest place for women, so it is not wise to get drunk or go back to the hostel by yourself.

  • Important Tip:

El Nido is on the extreme north of Palawan Island and it is a city with basically no infrastructure, so the waste management is really compromised. The same happened in Boracay and that’s why they closed it for tourist visitation for 6 months.

The consequences of the astonishing increase of tourists without due structural changes are visible, it affected water distribution and waste management (which basically doesn’t exist, locals gather the trash and burn it on the street). So one of the problems locals face is the lack of water and it’s contamination.

A reality that no one shows: locals burning trash in front of their houses

A lot of people I met got really sick (practically everyone who went to El Nido), all of them with food poisoning symptoms. I only escaped because I was really careful. I suggest you do the same.

Brush your teeth and wash your face with filtered water (you can get it from the hostel’s filter or use the bottled ones), wash your hands with hand sanitizer, don’t consume ice from dubious places (the trustworthy ones usually have a hole in the middle) and be very careful with the places where you eat.

Besides, don’t contribute to the issue. Save water and don’t litter. Even when the locals won’t do it, we should be responsible and preserve the paradises left in the world.

  • CORON

So much blue…  

Coron was my favorite part of the Philippines. Mostly because of the people I met. I lived the most incredible days of my life, explored paradisiac island almost untouched by human hands and created friendship bonds that will last a lifetime.

It is far (4 hours from El Nido, 14 hours by ferry from Manila), but it is sooo worthy.

The city is more organized and clean than El Nido, people are also nicer. Night options are even more limited, but that won’t stop your nights from being memorable, especially if you stay in HOP, the best hostel I ever stayed at.

An important tip: come with cash with you from El Nido. The ATM machines don’t always work (especially during weekends and holidays), so you might end up without cash and most places don’t accept credit cards.

  • How to get there:

You have two options to get in Coron: a direct flight (usually expensive), or by ferry (from Manila or El Nido).

I went by ferry from El Nido and went back the same way since my ticket to Bali was from Manila, and my ticket to Manila was from Puerto Princesa. It was a little bit long and tiring (an almost 5-hour ferry to El Nido and a 6-hour van to Puerto Princesa), but it was not uncomfortable.

There is also a direct ferry to Manila, it usually takes around 14 hours, but since is overnight it goes pretty fast (according to friends who did the trip). However, choose first class, cause the lower class does not have AC and the weather is extremely hot.

  • Accommodation

It would be impossible for me to recommend anything but the HOP Hostel Coron. It was, indeed, the best hostel I have ever stayed in.

The dorms have double size mattresses which are so comfortable. I had never stayed in a bunk double bed, so I was super happy to finally be able to roll around all night even in a hostel.

The bunk beds are all sealed with curtains, so you have a lot of privacy. They also have lockers for your stuff, clean bathrooms with great showers, hair dryers, and everything you might need.

However, the best thing about HOP (besides the surreal view), is the social atmosphere. Everything in the hostel is organized to help guests to socialize. Besides the big kitchen, there is a movie room and a breathtaking rooftop, where they throw different events every night. The hostel even organizes its own tours with the hostel guests.

It is almost impossible not to make friends at HOP, the place is so cool that even non-guests spend most of their time there.

Oh, and the hostel is located by the sea and the view from the rooftop and dining room are the most beautiful things you will ever see.

My daily view from HOP

You should make a reservation as early as possible because they usually run out of beds pretty quickly. Especially if it is high season.

The price is really reasonable, I paid 13 USD a night through Agoda. They also have cheaper options for rooms with no AC and with single beds.

  • Attractions:

View from the top of the Twin Lagoons

Just like El Nido, the main attractions in El Nido are the tours, since near the town there are not nice beaches worth visiting. Only the islands near the city.

I stayed almost 10 days in Coron and only did one agency tour. All of the others were private ones. We would wake up in the morning and ask around the hostel who would like to share a private tour to some of the islands. We always arranged a group of more than 7 people.

Those were the best days ever, and to describe each of the islands would require its own post. However, I can already tell you for sure that a private tour is way better than an agency one. It allows you to experience Coron from a whole new perspective.

Prepare yourself, days in Coron are basically snorkeling and tanning. You spend the entire day wet, and it is incredible, but it comes a time when you are a little tired of it. Even the paradisiac views become sort of ordinary once you get used to them.

However, it is an amazing opportunity to disconnect and enjoy the simple things in life. That’s my favorite thing about Coron.

  • VISIT AND TAKE CARE OF THE PHILIPPINES

This is an amazing country, for real. I am already desperate to go back, and I’m planning to do so in 2019. But the increasing number of tourists has affected this paradise. So if you go there, be conscious. It is a place that must be preserved and taken care of.

I feel a lot of responsibility for writing about the Philippines because I know tourism there has two main aspects: it explores at the same time it brings development. Apart from environmental issues, there are other serious issues such as child prostitution and sexual tourism (which I talk about in this post). So, don’t try to be the type of tourist that cooperates with the perpetuation of this reality.

The Philippines has a very special space in my heart, and I hope you also fall in love with these islands and these people. One thing is for certain: after you visit the Philippines you will never be the same.

 

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