Google the Philippines (or better yet, Palawan) and you’ll find mouth-watering images of green palm trees, turquoise bays, spider-legged fishing boats and empty beige sand beaches.
When I flew to the Philippines in December, I discovered something even better: those pictures barely came close to its real-life beauty.
Jared and I spent two weeks travelling through Palawan, Cebu and Bohol. To be honest, it was barely enough time to see it all. We spent the majority of our days motorcycling from dazzling attraction to attraction.
If you’re going to the Philippines, my advice is to choose between the stunning, sandy beaches of Palawan and the natural waterfalls hidden in the jungle in Southern Cebu. Or, if you’re like me and Jared and FOMO makes you have to see it all, follow our way-too-rushed itinerary:
Give yourself a full day to get from your POD to Manila and on to Puerto Princesa. We spent the night in The Bamboo Nest, which was the best place we stayed in the entire country. Picture this: hammocks strung between hand-bent bamboo rooms, adorned with local art. Literally my idea of heaven.
Rent a motorcycle from your host and head to Nagtabon Beach. We were lucky enough to spend Christmas Day here with a bunch of locals and even made a sandman with some long-term expats. Of course I brought my banjolele to serenade the waves.
Order a cozy air-conditioned van to El Nido. The drive is long, windy and squishy – you’ll share with 4-6 other travellers. When you arrive, you’ll find a seaside town that attracts beach-bum tourists, without the usual high-rise resorts that tend to overtake beautiful islands like this.
We checked in to our quaint cabin at Eco Sommer Residence. It’s a little ways from town in Corong-Corong, but if you’re looking for a secluded, romantic spot, this is it.
Get to know El Nido! Wander the touristy core, order a fresh mango smoothie, use the free wifi at Artcafe, haggle for new sunglasses at the pop-up market stalls and browse the cute boutiques for unique souvenirs.
Head out on a boat tour! We took Tour A, which had several fantastic snorkeling spots. We stopped at the most gorgeous beach for a swim, bought beers and coconuts from a man in a kayak and climbed through a little cave to a warm-water pool. Lunch was included and served on the beach next to a Komodo dragon (seriously). Our boat broke down half-way through the day, which (honestly) just made for a better adventure.
Once we arrived back to town, we went to a restaurant where we could pick which fish we’d like fried for our dinner. We ate buttery garlic shrimp and fish with our feet in the sand (and ocean, once the tide crept in).
You’re probably sick of the other tourists by now, so rent a scooter and get the heck out of El Nido. Drive up to Nacpan Beach (voted the best in the world, so you have to see it) but then keep driving. There is a plethora of stunning sand beaches along the coast, some of them with ZERO OTHER PEOPLE. Go find your own little slice of paradise. (You won’t need to look far.)
Say goodbye to El Nido and hop in a van back to Puerto Princesa. We spent the night (which happened to be New Year’s Eve) in a gorgeous hotel with an outdoor pool, sipping rum and pineapple juice.
Island life is tough.
Fly out of Puerto Princesa and arrive in Cebu city. Grab some grub and check into your hotel.
Cebu city is big, bustling and pretty grungy. We opted to spend minimal time in the cities and get back to island paradise.
Explore the (random) massive assortment of huge shopping centers and indulge in a Starbucks drink (if you’re like me, you’re craving actual coffee after days of instant) before hopping on a bus that will take you south. Tell the bus driver to drop you off at Noordzee Hostel.
Wake up for sunrise across the ocean. Since the beaches are pebbly here, it’s time to venture into the jungle.
Rent a scooter and drive around the southern tip of the island, following signs to nearby waterfalls. The major ones are must-sees, but our favourites were the lesser-known waterfalls. Just as majestic as the popular falls, these ones come with a smaller price tag and literally no one else. Bamboo raft all to myself? Don’t mind if I do.
Take the ferry over to Bohol. We stayed in the Tower (find it on AirBNB). We were tired after so much travelling, so we stayed close to home the first day and went snorkeling at the beach just down the road. Sadly, it wasn’t very vibrant – it seems like a lot of the marine life here has died. On our way back, Jared ate chicken intestine cooked over coals by some 10-year-old girls. Then we went into town for an actual dinner.
Rent a motorcycle and go to White Beach and Dumaluan Beach for snorkeling. When night falls, head to Alona Beach for Pina Coladas and the best nightlife on the island.
Take the ferry back to Cebu island and catch the bus up to Cebu City. Spend the night if necessary, and if not, head straight to the airport for the long flight home.
There you have it – an amazing two weeks in the Philippines. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to the Chocolate Hills, and we didn’t go whale shark diving because the animals are baited (which is never a good thing!).
But we did do a lot. We ate really weird and delicious dishes at somewhat sketchy roadside stalls, got a flat tire and spent the afternoon with eight families living in a few bamboo huts, found ourselves on random empty beaches, swam in mindblowingly beautiful waterfalls, got lost down dirt roads and drank a lot of local beer.
We had a fantastic trip to the Philippines. Because we were constantly on-the-go, I feel like I spent the majority of my time on the back of a motorcycle, holding a cold beer while zipping past the ocean.
But hey – that’s definitely not a bad way to spend two weeks.