Philippines: everything you need to know

I had dreamed for a long time about visiting 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. However, my first impressions couldn’t have been any worse. As soon as I arrived I was ready to leave.

Picture 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 has great and terrible features. The paradisiac beaches are a deep contrast to the 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 my own story 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 and avoid feeling terrified walking back to the hostel.

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 it 100%.

I left that beautiful country very exhausted but also feeling very fulfilled and planning to go back. That is why I feel very comfortable recommending the Phillippines to everyone. Just highlighting the special safety tips for women.

Below you are gonna find a summary of everything I believe you should know before landing in the Philippines. I hope it is helpful.

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 only found out about that when I was checking-in at the airport in Bangkok. As a consequence, I had to buy a last minute ticket to Bali and choose the cheapest date, even though I was planning on staying as long as I felt in my heart.

Finally, I suggest that you avoid Manila at all costs. It is possible to book direct flights to Cebu, Palawan and some other islands, so I would recommend you to do that. 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 only in larger cities such as Cebu, Manila and Puerto Princesa. It doesn’t work at all in smaller towns.

By the way, if you are still not familiar with Grab, it is basically an Asian version of Uber and it is usually the best transportation option in big cities. Especially because it offers a set and fair price with the safety of a GPS and a great customer service.

To travel within the Filipino islands you can use vans, grab, buses or private cars. Locals are very open to helping and almost all of them speak 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, the wi-fi also doesn’t work. Not even in fancy hipster coffee shops.

Therefore, it is better to arrive prepared. For example, a great tip to not get lost when your Google Maps stop working is to get the app Maps Me. It downloads the maps of the place you are going so you can access them even offline. It is also 100% free.

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.

The reality is you will need to learn to survive disconnected when you are there. Most places have absolutely no service. So just be open to relearning how to be a human without the internet and don’t really stress about it. It is not hard at all. 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 really interesting attractions. Therefore, the best move is to get accommodation in Oslob or somewhere near.

However, be prepared. Oslob and the small towns near it are really remote. There are no options for restaurants or 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, not even in all of the 4 near 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 through the app.

In Oslob, I stayed at Nordzee hostel. It was recommended to me by a girl I met at a cafe in Chiang Mai. It is in the middle of nowhere and 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 USD 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 food and drinks, it is incredible how the prices remained reasonable. I spent a total of 36 USD on food and drinks for the 3 days there (including every meal and alcoholic beverages).

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

  • 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. It is actually really awful.

I am guilty of not doing proper research. In my defense, I was overwhelmed with many things to plan and book. So when I got there, I didn’t know how the whole thing worked and was pretty disappointed and heartbroken.

Besides swimming with 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 and the poverty of the locals are 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. For obvious reasons, it was never shown in the beautiful youtube videos that inspired my visit. The streets were extremely dark, dirty, and the men were very invasive. Therefore, I was in a constant state of fear.

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.

It really inspired me to study and understand more about exploratory tourism and how to develop ideas for more sustainable options. Such incredible sites have to be protected and preserved, at all costs.

  • 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, and the flight cost me 69 dollars. There are direct flights to El Nido, but they were too expensive.

To go 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 hard 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.

That’s actually a good thing (if you are a party lover). 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 usually prefer not to party where I sleep. So I ended up staying in a great little hostel called The Cavern. It was very clean, modern and had decent wi-fi (for Filipino standards). The food was great and so was the shower, and the staff was one of the greatest. I recommend it 10/10.

It was also 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 USD 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 USD (1200 pesos), including lunch in one of the islands.

I haven’t gone in any of the tours. Luckily, I met a group of girls on my first night who invited me to go with them on a private tour.

The tour included all the islands we wanted and some recommended by the captain. We went to a completely empty island where we had the beach to ourselves and later went to the famous sites. The captain knew exactly when they would be empty, so we ended up having them to ourselves. Even Big Lagoon.

Philippines travel guide
Big Lagoon, the most wonderful place I’ve ever been to.

I guarantee you can find people to share a private tour with you if you ask random people at your hostel. I’ve done that in Coron and it worked every time. The official tours are cool too (I was told), but private ones can cost you 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
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 phone 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, then again, ended up paying way more than I had to. Almost 700 pesos for one way, even though vans offered the round trip for 600 pesos. Luckily, I was able to find a ride home, so it wasn’t that much of a difference.

In Nacpan you find the infamous Mad Monkeys Hostel. A hostel that provides parties all day long and shots every hour. As you can imagine it is a very social place. So considering I was alone, I decided to have breakfast there, even though 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 best shake ever, I promise. It is great almost everywhere in the Philippines because the fruits are incredibly tasty. You are gonna become addicted, just like I did.

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 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
– Las Cabañas

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

The entrance to the beach is through a narrow set of stairs, which are not really noticeable. You have to either guess where they are or just 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 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 at the end. There, you gonna find another part of Las Cabanas with no commerce, only local homes. The sunset from there is amazing and you will 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 with a delicious vegan café and daily yoga classes at sunset.

I found it after I saw a small little sign saying “yoga classes at sunset”. Obviously, I had to check it out. It was so 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
– Nightlife

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

For legal reasons, the music and the noise have to stop at 10 pm. So from there, everyone goes to some bar downtown, and the afterparty is usually at the only nightclub in town. It is fun, but please be careful if you are alone. El Nido is definitely not the safest place for women. Therefore, it is not wise to get too 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 in 2017.

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 many 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 try to be as careful as possible with the places where you eat.

Above all, don’t contribute to the issue. Do your best to save water and don’t litter. You can also help by volunteering or donating to a local NGO.

  • 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 very remote (4 hours from El Nido, 14 hours by ferry from Manila), but it is sooo worthy.

The town 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, also known as the best hostel I ever stayed at.

An important tip: withdraw enough money for your stay beforehand, in El Nido or Manila. 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. It was a relatively long and tiring journey (a 5-hour ferry to El Nido and a 6-hour van to Puerto Princesa), but it was not too uncomfortable to bare.

Another option available is a direct ferry to Manila. It usually takes around 14 hours, but considering is overnight the time goes by pretty fast (according to friends who have done the trip). However, make sure to choose first class tickets (not fancy or expensive at all). The economy class does not have AC and the weather is extremely hot, so you can prevent a lot of suffering for a cheap price.

  • Accommodation

It would be impossible for me to recommend anything but the HOP Hostel Coron. It was 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.

Above all, 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. Therefore, the view from the rooftop and dining room are the most beautiful things you will ever see.

My daily view from HOP

It is important to make a reservation as early as possible: 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 Coron are the tours. Especially because there aren’t any beaches worth visiting in the surroundings.

I stayed almost 10 days in Coron and only went on one agency tour. That’s because we always arranged a group of people to share a private tour. It only took waking up in the morning and asking people around the hostel. It worked every time.

Those were the best days ever. My days were basically snorkeling, tanning, playing drinking games, and creating bonds. I spent the entire day on my bikini and had the best mangoes ever.

Therefore, it was an amazing opportunity to disconnect and enjoy the simple things in life. That was the truly magical thing about Coron.

  • VISIT AND TAKE CARE OF THE PHILIPPINES

The Philippines is an amazing country, for real. I am already desperate to go back and planning to do so in 2019.

However, the increasing number of tourists has deeply affected this paradise. For that reason, if you decide to visit please 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. Tourism there has a deep imbalance: it explores at the same time as 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). Therefore, 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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