03.06.2014 - 20.06.2014 32 °C
We caught a local bus from Cebu City up to the tip of the island, arriving at Maya dock where we were immediately approached and directed towards a boat for the small island of Malapascua, where we were heading. Being wary of such behaviour and aware of touts’ ability to extract cash from tourists, we asked them to confirm the 80PHP fee and had the expected tale of 'we only leave with 26 people, you will have long wait; we take you now for 1200PHP'. We told them we had plenty of time and little money and would wait until the next boat was ready to leave…
This should have been the end of the matter and we expected to be left to wait; however, this was not accepted by the boatmen. As we waited we were approached 3 times to ask if we had 'made our decision' and reminded that we would have 'very long wait' and may have to stay in a lodge at Maya until the next day (it was only 2pm). The guys were very unpleasant and a little aggressive, we did not feel happy being stuck there with no options. After a short while some local teenagers arrived and an elderly lady with shopping bags, all confirmed they were going to Malapascua and that we would be on the next boat with them. However, as they were all called to a boat, we followed only to be told that we could not travel as this was not a passenger boat - despite it taking all of the local passengers! The boatmen simply would not let us board and this boat left without us as the guys on the dock laughed and talked about us while we continued to wait. A while later we saw some other western tourists approaching, and before they could reach the pier where we were waiting they were led off to boats out of sight, no doubt to try to prevent them from seeing us waiting and to receive the same tale (cheeky bastards). After Rach ran over and spoke with the new tourists they joined us and not too long later we were all told that the next 'scheduled boat' would leave in half an hour but it was insisted that the fee was 100PHP, not 80PHP. We all agreed that, if that was the new price, then fine we would pay that. A big show was made of Filipinos handing over 100 Pisos on the boat but we did indeed see them being (discretely, but not enough) handed 20PHP change as they got off. Tsk. This whole episode really put us off visiting the island, not a pleasant experience at all.
Once we finally left on a boat (or Bangka as they call them in these parts), we reached the island in around half an hour and were then actually quite disappointed with the place, perhaps this was emphasised by our bad mood after the ferry dock incident. The tourist area around ‘Bounty Beach’ was poor by SE Asian beach standards, very gravelly, not good for swimming, the island is not nearly the beautiful, tropical island described. It was however hit quite badly by Typhoon Haiyan in late 2013; there is still damage visible and various fallen trees or trees missing their tops, plus on a walk around the island we found the villages at the opposite end to the tourist beach were very much shanty towns largely held together with Red Cross sheeting. In all it was quite interesting to visit the island, but note that there is nothing much to do for non-divers. For us though, the diving was good, we saw thresher sharks (worth getting up at 430 am for) plus white-tip sharks on a really amazing ‘tunnel’ dive by Gato Island. We were also amused to learn that the island’s name, which means ‘Bad Easter’ in Spanish, actually arose when the country was under Spanish rule, some officials spent Easter on the island and had a bad time, it was henceforth referred to as Malapascua (the locals meanwhile continue to call it by its original name – Logon), how funny.
After 3 days there we headed back to Cebu; it was easy getting back to mainland this time - two boatmen on the main beach saw us with our bags and offered to take us over straight away for 80PHP as they were going to the main island to get supplies anyway, so we were jolly happy with this. At Maya we waited only 5 minutes until a bus arrived and off we set back to Cebu city. From there we boarded a speedy catamaran to Bohol. It was a little disconcerting that before the ferry set off, the TV screens showed a prayer for a safe journey and all the locals started praying and doing the sign of the cross…but deciding that the sea looked remarkably calm and there were certainly no icebergs around we settled ourselves for what turned out to be a very easy and comfortable 2 hour hop to Bohol.
At the port we got a motor-trike for the 40min journey to Alona Beach. The driver took us to a very decent and inexpensive place to stay, 50m from the beach, ideal. Alona is a bit of holiday spot, unlike Malapascua there is more to do here than diving, both around the beach and around the much larger island of Bohol. So it was filled with a variety of people, from divers, to scruffy backpackers to holidaying families and older couples, a good mix. We were here to dive nearby Balicasag Island and the diving was the best we have done so far, amazing visibility, a fantastic wall of corals and a remarkable variety of sea-life including many many turtles, awesome. In the evenings we treated ourselves to a few happy hour beers and yummy BBQ dinners. Other than diving we also took a jeepney inland to visit the Tarsier Sanctuary, one of the world’s smallest primates and known to live only on a few Philippine islands and on nearby Borneo. A guide took us through a small jungle area and pointed out some of the tiny primates to us, despite them being nocturnal we managed to see 3 and all with their eyes open, if only briefly. They are extremely cute, if a little odd looking, with eyes bigger than their brains! All in all our time on Bohol was fun and relaxing, both the place and the diving was tonnes better than Malapascua.
Next we took a flight to Palawan Island (‘the last frontier’ of The Philippines as it’s stuck out on the very west of the archipelago). Landing in the capital, Puerto Princessa (PP as it’s generally called), it was not at all as we expected… Descriptions we have read say it is an eco-friendly town, with high green credentials and very clean streets and generally made it sound really lovely and interesting. Sure, it was cleaner than many Asian cities but definitely it doesn’t look anything special, just a couple of busy streets with not much of interest to see. In fact, the main street was so congested with traffic that crossing the road was a mission at times. However, we spent a couple of nights here, just wandering around, eating at local street stalls and getting to know our way around.
We made sure to get out plenty of cash as Palawan has no ATMs on the island, except here. This is slightly baffling as the island is actually very big and many international tourists come specifically to head up north to El Nido, a place so frequented by tourists should surely invest in an ATM, apparently many people have to leave early as they run out of cash, unaware that they could not take any out there… (Someone did tell us there may be one open by 2015).
So from PP we took a minivan up to El Nido, famous for limestone karsts and small islands in Bacuit Bay Archipelego. The journey there was somewhat frustrating – we booked a 9am minivan to take us as we wanted to arrive in the afternoon, it picked us up on time and went as far as the airport (5min down the road) where the driver told us to get out as he was waiting for the next flight to arrive (which was delayed) to pick up more passengers. Two hours later, all due passengers were ready and we set off, only for the driver to go to a nearby hotel and pick up a large family of Korean tourists who had (we think) booked tickets for the 11am trip, but we waited further while they and all their luggage were squeezed into our van. Finally we were on the way, so we thought, but then the driver goes past the turn off out of town and drives to a McDonalds Drive-Thru to get food for some of the passengers! He didn’t even as if we wanted any, (we didn’t but still!) This just added to our annoyance and we spent the first half of the journey in a grump.
As soon as the 5.5hr journey was over we were keen to get to the beach of El Nido to find a place to stay. On a hunch we walked up some fishy smelling wooden stairs by the beachfront to check prices and condition of rooms at a place called Casa Buenavista (it certainly did have a fantastic view of the bay and karsts, too) despite the unappealing staircase, it was a really nice little place. We were very happy with our find and booked 4 nights. It was run by a Dutch guy and his Filipino girlfriend and we bonded over football – with the World Cup just beginning he invited us to watch the Netherlands v Spain game at 3am at a local bar. We had a couple of beers with him on the balcony and then went out for food and a few more drinks determined to stay up till KO. This we did and were stunned to watch the Spanish team get thrashed by 5-1 by Holland - at least one of us was very happy!
Rain stopped play for a couple of days after this so we relaxed reading our books and arranged a diving trip for the end of the weekend, hoping the weather was going to improve (but we have come here at the start of monsoon season, so can’t complain). One day we kayaked 40 minutes or so to an island in the bay and had a private beach here for a while, except for dogs and mozzies. Then some English blokes who swam (!) over invaded our island, so we made friends and ended up arranging to meet them next day for the England match (we won’t say any more about that!). Our diving day was great, since our boat went right into the bay, all around the islands and took us into one of the lagoons to eat our lunch on the boat, we found it was not worth bothering with the boat ‘tours’ that were on offer in virtually every place in town as by doing a dive trip as you see a lot of the same stuff. We finished off our dive day meeting the boys we had watched the football with and had a night going from happy-hour to happy-hour along the beachfront bars, good fun.
Last stop was Port Barton, which is part-way back to PP but still on the West Coast, like El Nido. This was actually the nicest beach we have visited in whole of Philippines, a couple of km long curving beach with leaning palms and lovely soft sand. We also got a lovely beach hut for just 400 Piso (around £5), it was probably such a good deal as this is the off-season. PB itself is a tiny, quiet town with just two muddy streets running parallel to the beach. We managed to fit in some jogging here, hard work in the 35C heat, and causing much amusement to the local schoolkids. We cooled off with swims in the sea which was good for ‘lengths’ as it was flat as a lake. Our 2nd day here we had a private boat trip visiting a few small islands and stopping at some excellent snorkeling points with yummy lunch on a ‘desert island’, all for half the price of similar tours in El Nido. We had only 2 days in Port Barton but this was a great, relaxing end to our Philippine journey. From PB we took a slightly comedy, very uncomfortable bus back to PP for one final night then off we fly to Borneo.