Firstly, you have to understand that this was our one experience of the Philippines and yours may be very different. I just think it’s important to be real and honest… we all see the endless #travelgram snaps on our IG feed and get major FOMO.
When we’d researched the islands and best places to visit, Google had greeted us with images of glorious white sand beaches and stunning scenery. We began plotting our island hopping experience for our gap year abroad.
Where: Manila, Puerto Princesa, El Nido, Coron, Boracay, and Carabao.
Duration: One Month
Time of Year: July/August (some rain, some sun)
Hotel budget: Maximum £40 per night
Food budget: £8 per person per day
Overall Rating: We didn’t have a great experience. Wouldn’t rush back.
The day before we were due to fly into Manila, the headlines announced a deadly epidemic of dengue fever across the Philippines and South East Asia. Fab. Off to a great start. We listed pros and cons and decided to continue on with our plan, armed with copious amounts of mosquito repellent.
As we drove into Manila, we weren’t sure what to make of it. Look out of the window to the right to see tall office buildings and homes, to the left, debris and decaying old structures. I suddenly felt like a bit of a d*ck to be vacationing in a place with seemingly so much poverty.
There were stray dogs everywhere. In England, I feel like that would be dreamy. Unfortunately, they were not the loving, friendly dogs we’re used to. Most were fighting other dogs in the street or visibly suffering from some horrible illness.
It seemed rare to see anyone smiling except your hotel staff/waiter. Most shops omitted to include prices on shelves/items so it felt like prices were dependent on who’s asking.
Puerto Princesa had similar vibes on a smaller scale. Picture this: the humidity clings to you and the smell of raw sewage invades your nostrils as you weave through the people, the traffic, and the motorbikes. Roads, streets, pavement – it’s all indistinguishable as you totter over rocky paths avoiding stagnant puddles and gaping holes in the concrete; something akin to that childhood game where the floor is lava. You navigate through step by step, trying not to get mowed down on your way. Not entirely the picturesque paradise we’d envisioned but, you know, some good shopping malls to hang out in.
EL NIDO, PALAWAN
A 6 hour Cherry Bus (with A/C) took us from Puerto Princesa to El Nido. The bus was comfortable but horns are used excessively in the Philippines, almost in place of indicators… and breathing, so it can be a noisy ride. We made stops to buy snacks at stalls/have a toilet break. These toilets are essentially a seatless bowl which you flush by ladling in water from a bucket. It’s BYO-toilet paper, obviously. We carried lots of hand sanitiser… I suggest you add that to your packing list.
Checking into our budget hotel in El Nido, we were greeted with the headache-inducing stench of urine but at least we had a mosquito net over the bed (with a large gaping hole in it that we decided to sew up). The area itself was fairly dirty but had some little shops, restaurants, and water sports companies. We lasted one night in that room before moving to a resort in Lio Tourism Estate. We got an amazing rate because the hotel had only just opened and didn’t have any reviews yet. Lio Beach was a lovely retreat lined with a few restaurants, bars, and shops. The area is very new and up-and-coming – I imagine in years to come it will become more popular with tourists.
The ferry to Coron was £27 with a ₱20 terminal fee paid on departure. There was storage for big luggage, comfy enough seating, and a toilet. The boat was SO COLD inside, so I’d recommend bringing something to cover up with (my big scarf/shawl was the most useful thing I packed). As you disembark at the port, you will be met with a paparazzi-type crowd thrusting leaflets and papers into your hands followed by a crowd of taxi (tricycle) drivers trying to get your business. You might feel famous for a moment… and then realise you don’t ever want to be famous. We were constantly getting bad quotes on tricycle rides so feel free to haggle or tell someone ‘no’. The novelty of people trying to rip you off starts to lose its charm in the Philippines.
Coron was fun – full of bars and restaurants. Buzzwas our go-to when we missed western food, and Lolo Nonoyswas our favourite spot for local food. It’s a good sign if there’s lots of locals at a restaurant. Convenience stores and gelato/crepe stalls wait for you at the edge of the streets. You can grab a beer for as little as 75p so it’s worth a visit.
Oh the journey to Boracay. Oh dear. Strap yourself in for a long story. We took a ferry from Coron to Mindoro. The assigned seating was a bunch of surprisingly comfy bunk beds. Lunch is included in the ticket (rice and meat dish) but we thought it might be fish so we brought our own pizza! Everyone else seemed to enjoy lunch.
We then took a van to Bulalacao but it was chaotic and stressful. It felt like the price was invented on a person by person basis with tourists paying more than locals. We paid ₱100 each but others we know paid ₱70 each so do haggle. There were four of us squashed into a row of three seats with suitcases and bags wedged up against us.
After spending the night in a small hotel by Bulalacao port, we made our way to catch the ferry heading to Caticlan. Well, this 10am ferry was cancelled due to maintenance and so we were told to wait until the next one. The next one was at 10pm! It was a long wait in the port trying to get comfortable on wooden benches, with scarce but cheap food options. The boat was very comfortable with TVs and a small cafe with snacks and hot/cold drinks.
If you follow those steps and eventually make it to Caticlan (I told you this was a long one), take a tricycle over to the next port (advisable over walking). The boat to Boracay is ₱25 5am-5pm and ₱50 outside of those times; Boracay also requires an environmental fee and terminal fee (₱25 and ₱75). Boats leave every 10 minutes and will go as frequently as there is need for them. The journey takes about 15mins. Phew.
After being closed to tourists for an environmental clean up, Boracay is now very touristy with its lovely beaches, bars, and restaurants. There are two extremes when it comes to people selling things: the aggressive salesperson shouting from their restaurant doorway or following you along the beach insisting you part with your cash, and the apathetic, rude staff who ignore you in favour of texting and couldn’t care less whether you give them your business or not.
There aren’t many useful shops – most sell junk food snacks almost exclusively but it would be fine for a party-type holiday. The beaches are beautiful but it’s difficult to get to different places as there’s just one main road and plenty of traffic. Lots of good options for food, and you can find some decent prices if you look around (we even found an ice cream stand selling cones for ₱13 – magical!)
I cannot stress enough how much this island was a bad idea. Things it’s good for: a digital detox, people with unlimited money, and people who don’t care how long they stay or when they leave. This was a luxury hotel (a bit more than our usual budget, as a treat) but was very secluded with no phone signal and about one hour of Wi-fi per day (#FirstWorldProblems). There weren’t many shops or food options… not much of anything really. It rained almost the entire time; we probably would have enjoyed the digital detox had we seen the sun.
We got stranded on this island when the Coastguard announced no boats were allowed to leave while a typhoon travelled past. We then had to change to a budget hotel on the main part of the island. The main island only has power from 2pm-6am (brutal when it comes to needing air con). Half the island gets Globe phone service, the other half gets Smart (to keep in mind if you’re going and want to stay in contact with the world). People stared at us a lot, someone took a low-key photograph of us, and some children ‘joked’ about us giving them our money. Unluckily for them, we didn’t have any.
We made our way back (eventually) to Boracay, then went on to Cebu for one night, and finally, Manila where we flew to our next country – Vietnam.
Finally… (if you made it this far and still want to go )
Tricycle is the best way to get around and is very cheap… but always haggle if you think you’re being ripped off. (Some tricycles have a list of standard fare prices in their window, and the price is usually per person.)
Cash is used everywhere – far more than cards, and some places will not get good enough signal on their card machine so always have some pesos as a back up.
All my individual hotel reviews are on my Trip Advisor pageif you need to know any specific spots to try or avoid.
If you decide to embark on a trip to the Philippines, I’d recommend Coron and Boracay as your destinations. I hope you have more luck and better weather than we did!