The Philippines: A mind blowing island hopping adventure in paradise

Friday, May 31, 2019

I have just returned from the Philippines which turned out to be one of the most awe inspiring trips in up to 8 years. I have travelled far and wide to 6 continents and 70 countries so it's getting a little harder these days to impress upon me and top previous adventures, but the Philippines has entered my top five destinations. I hope my photos and words illustrate and explain why.  This archipeligo of 7000 islands sits out on the outer edge of Southeast Asia and contains a variety of land and seascape which I never knew it had, until I researched it and actually got there to witness it myself. Picture the most stunning beaches, cyan sea, lush green rainforests, quaint little villages under blue skies and scorching sun, and you think you're in the true meaning of paradise. But first I had to get there!

The one snag for many travellers regarding to the Philippines is that it is a heck of a distance to even get there. However, I am an absolute aeroplane junkie and fanatic and so 16 hours of flying time was no problem for me, a chance to stare at the views, watch back to back movies, listen to music and chat to the friendly Indian bloke next to me, who was doing his masters in in the UK, and going back to Mumbai to see his wife and family. I broke the journey up with a look around Bahrain for half a day. It represented an extra stamp in the passport and it was a free stop over. However, it was no great shakes, or should I say 'sheikhs' (get it?!)

Bahrain is one of the many Gulf States that if it wasn't for oil and gas wouldn't have become so developed. It has only 250,000 people and I wandered around Manama to say I'd seen it. The city was a mix of old and new buildings, but despite being pretty clean, it was fairly bland if I am really honest. 

I visited Bahrain's largest mosque and the National Museum which did contain a good potted history of the Arab kingdom from way back to the times of the Dilmun tribes of 4000 years ago. Back to the airport and 9 more hours of over night flying. Next stop Manila, capital of the Philippines!

My Gulf Air Boeing 787 Dreamliner made it's final descent over the western neighbourhoods of Manila. Despite 2 night flights over a distance of over 8000 miles I was still fairly bright eyed, though not so bushy tailed. I loved seeing the multicoloured buildings of this thriving Asian city on landing. I had a loud and nutty taxi driver get me to the Malate district which is fairly central. I pre-booked an apartment room close to the centre of the old colonial part of the city called Intramuros, and after a couple of hours of 'shut eye' I was eager to get out and explore. I first discovered Rizal Park (photo below). 

When you're in a bustling city of 13 million people and dodging the traffic and people, it is welcome break to reach a little bit of green space. Rizal Park is a long rectangular park named after Jose Rizal, a man who is a national hero from the late 1800s when the Philippines was in the throws of seeking independence from Spain. Everyone loves a good revolutionary hero such as Che Guevara, well Rizal was your man for the job. An eye surgeon by trade, he was fluent in many languages and talented at so many things from martial arts to writing. However, he was executed aged 35 in the old Santiago Fort in Manila.  I wandered through the giant thick city walls of Intramuros, the old Spanish colonial heart of Manila. I found a great vantage point to over look the city at sundown and twilight, the Green leaf Sky Bar. Admittedly, the Sky bar had 'sky high' drink prices but I was willing to pay it in order to get wonderful views across the city. In the photo below is the old Manila Cathedral that has been damaged by earthquakes and war no less than 7 times.

I spent a good couple of hours enjoying my one and only beer (4 quid a bottle) but was now happy I had got to see Manila from high up. I always tell people if you want to get your bearings of a place, head up high into a tall building or hill overlooking a city. Back down in the streets of Intramuros I was blessed to see an Easter procession go by me. It contain 50 or so 'floats' with Jesus bearing the cross and many locals clutching holy scriptures. I was reminded that the Philippines is a strongly Catholic country due to it's Spanish colonial heritage.  

I wandered back to my apartment block and got the lift to the 37th floor room which cost me around $25USD for a night. I marvelled at the twinkling lights below. Having spent my first day wandering around, I'd compare Manila to Bangkok, but with a twist of Spanish-American heritage thrown in, with the old colonial fort of Intramuros and the big corporate flavour with shopping malls blended over the top. I then pondered the fact I was in a tall building and that the Philippines suffers deadly earthquakes. In fact, just one week after my stay in Manila, there were 2 earthquakes of over 6 on the Richter scale, one of which was out near Mount Pinatubo. It made the tall buildings of Manila literally sway for 30 seconds or so. I am glad I was not in this apartment block for that, in fear of it collapsing!

My second day in Manila was spent back over in Intramuros exploring the alleys and churches. Then I got the LRT metro train south to the Pasay district where all the bus terminal are located. It was now Easter week and every man and his dog was moving about the place going to visit relatives, so it took me a good 3 hours to make it onto a bus, to leave the city north to visit the mighty volcano of Mount Pinatubo. It was 9pm at night when I finally got to the small village of Santa Juliana just 10 miles shy of the volcano. I stayed in a lovely wooden guest house hosted by a local guru called Alvin. He is the man to know in this area if you want to access the volcano on a guided tour. The next morning I boarded a jeep at 7am with a pleasant French couple and we got driven up a river valley full of ash. It was an incredibly bumpy ride for around an hour.

The river valley which we drove up got gradually narrower and more bumpy as we climbed the rim of Mount Pinatubo. We actually got stuck in a couple of streams which we drove across, but got winched out by another jeep following us. Finally, the jeep reached as far as it could go up a narrow canyon, we got out and started to hike. We walked up hill through a bit of vegetation, following a stream. My excitement grew as I anticipated arriving at the sight of one of the world's most famous volcanoes, Mount Pinatubo.

The photo of me is at the prime viewing point with the back drop of the crater lake and surrounding rim of Mount Pinatubo. The facts about this volcano are simply astounding. The crater which you see in the photo was once completely filled in and there used to be a peak-shaped mountain here. Around 25,000 people lived in villages around the volcano which had no known eruptions up until a massive one took place in June 1991. At first, there was a series of small earthquakes and steam started rising from the top of the peak. Then on 7th June 1991, magma started pouring from the summit. All people within a 20km radius were hurriedly evacuated.

Finally on 15th June of 1991, there was an almighty explosion of pyroclastic flow, with the top 300 metres of the mountain blown off completely. The crater began to form as the centre of the volcano collapsed in itself, as billions of tonnes of rock and ash were thrown up to 40km into the atmosphere. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo stands as the second biggest of the 20th century (after an Alaskan volcano Novarupta in 1912). Pinatubo thankfully didn't kill many people, but it did actually have an affect on worldwide climate for several years after, with the amount of debris and gases going into the atmosphere, causing a temporary cooling effect. If you find yourself visiting Manila for several days, then I can highly recommend an overnight trip up to see Mount Pinatubo. The views are stunning and you get to sample rural Filippino life. On return to Manila, I then took a domestic flight of just one hour to the stunning island of Palawan. 

I arrived at the city of Puerto Princesa, at the centre of the very long island of Palawan. After a brief stay I caught a minivan 5 hours north to the paradise setting of El Nido, as shown in above photo. El Nido is at the northern tip of Palawan and has beautiful limestone cliffs, and a whole host of stunning beaches around the main peninsula. The town of El Nido proper, as it is referred is very touristy and has lots of bars, restaurants and even nightclubs. I opted to stay a ten minute walk await from the hustle and bustle just north of the town. The above photo was taken from a lovely little bar called Havana's at the north end of El Nido Beach.

Not wanting to spend long in El Nido town, I hired a moped for around $10USD for the day, and did a 100km cruise around the main peninsula. The roads for the most part were fairly decent. I stopped off every hour or so to check out the empty white sandy beaches and go for a dip in the sea to cool off. I was so surprised that no other tourists did the same as me, as I barely saw anyone bar the odd local person all day long. I always love a good explore on a moped, especially in Asia, where it's to cheap and easy to arrange. 

This photo was taken at the very northern tip of the El Nido peninsula, around one hour into my journey. The islands you see in the distance are where I would be exploring during the next few days on a fully organised boat tour with a company called Tao Adventures. The rest of my moped journey was pretty straight forward until three quarters of the way in, a local shop keeper warned me that the last 10km of my journey would be on unpaved road, which was a bit of a bone shaker. I took it steady, not wanting to fall off or damage the moped. 

The day after the moped adventure, I joined up with 23 other foreign travellers and 7 crew members for the absolute highlight of my Philippines trip. I boarded an outrigger boat which was made of fibreglass and some bamboo, and had a couple of decks to laze around on. I got chatting gradually to the mix of nationalities on board who I would say were predominantly in their late 20s to mid 30s, making me the oldest at 45! The countries of origin ranged from the Netherlands, Ireland, France, the UK, Israel and Australia. The bulk of the group were predominantly Irish and Australian and that added a little competitive party element to the trip! The crew members were led by a friendly Filippino local called Dodo, who resided from one of the islands. I got to chat to Dodo throughout the trip and learn about island life.

The above photo is a genuine ship wreck covered in crustaceans, barnacles, and coral. It was only about 10 feet under the surface making it relatively easy to swim down and explore. The colours and water clarity was fairly decent, though not perfect at our first snorkling destination, but who was I to complain? This was still pretty damn heavenly and better than most snorkling destinations I'd visited around the world. 

At our second stop of the day, we just had little fun before lunch was served. I chose to see if I could still do a back flip off the boat at 45 years of age! I managed to hit water feet first at least and avoid an embarrassing belly flop or back smash in front of a sizeable audience, whom I as still getting to know! The Aussie bloke who filmed my stunt amusingly stuffed up the recording, so I had to go through it all a second time much to everyone's amusement!

Our third stop of the day was at Cobra Island, so called due to the fact there are snakes there apparently, but I just hoped not deadly cobras! Here we encountered the very best quality of snorkling so far. Here I got to use my dome lens on my GoPro which gives this stunning half in, half out of the water affect. I felt like I was on the film set to Blue Planet crossed with Jurassic World, minus any dinosaurs! We saw an array of fish and coral before sunbathing on the beach.

Cobra Island provided 'out of this world' snorkling, such that I didn't want to stop, but the afternoon sun was rapidly dipping and it was time for our merry band of island hoppers to swim ashore at the next island, called Linapacan. I felt quite the explorer having to actually swim to my destination for night, only about one hundred metres. We were shown to our little beach huts and then it was pretty much party time. The evening got off to heavenly start as our crew poured us out a thirst quenching cocktail which we referred to as 'jungle juice'. We sat down by the beach and enjoyed the most sublime of sunsets. The drinks and chatter flowed into the night. 

On each and every trip I've been on there are certain defining moments that stick in the memory more than others. That first night of chatting away, laughter and drinks on the beach at Tabayan Camp is what leaps back into my mind first and foremost when I think back to the big Philippines island adventure. In just the first few hours of our island adventure, I got to know some pretty cool fellow travellers from all over the world. You get that common bond that you're all on the road for the same thing, that big yearning to be amazed by nature. You chat, away, eat and drink together, swim together and become close pretty quickly. However, I'd say I got lucky that in this group of travellers, they really were even more of an outgoing bunch, and were a real dynamic group. There were some quieter more reserved people on the trip, but there were also plenty of more raucous ones too. I did laugh at the fact the Irish and Australians were the main life and soul of the party, staying awake longer than the rest of us!

Day number two on the big island hopping adventure brought us to Cagdanao Island and possibly the most visually enticing island of the entire lot! When you think of quintessential paradise islands with palm trees, white sand and cyan sea, this place really had it, as you can see in the photo. I'd scoped out a nice couple of views then I was straight beneath the waves in my snorkling gear. The water was crystal clear as you can see in below, and revealed some incredibly colourful and unusual types of coral. 

I've been privileged enough to snorkel off the Great Barrier Reef and also the glorious Red Sea, but I'd see these islands in the Philippines had the edge! The whole world's coral and marine life is now under threat from climate change, and a lot of coral has suffered 'bleaching' due to increased water temperatures. Also plastics in our oceans have a big impact on the fragile marine ecosystems. It is up to responsible tourism to play it's part in preserving this under water beauty, and that might mean more restrictions on numbers of tourists to preserve this places. 

This photo of me is off the beach at Cagdanao Island. I really didn't want to leave the place but we had more fun destinations still ahead of us. After a leisurely boat journey we arrived at middle of the afternoon at a small island with steep cliffs on it. We swam out to it and climbed up a rope fastened to a sloping rock, and enjoyed a tidy 8 metre jump into the sea, whooping as we leapt! Following this we then crawled through a 50 metre long cave, half filled with water. Without much light to get us through it proved to be quite a risky little adventure but we survived!

After such fun antics leaping off the side of a cliff and crawling through a creepy half flooded sea cave I was ready to lie out on the boat and just enjoy a beer. I enjoyed chatting away to the other boat trippers and taking in the most dazzling view of gorgeous tropical islands as we approached our second night-time destination, on Culion Island.

After a second day of excitement our boat pulled into the stunning location of Culion Island at a place called Pucoy Camp. Once again we were given a neat little bamboo hut each to stay in. Then it was over to the luxury of a massage by one of the local women. Now think 'Thai' massage but with a little extra roughness, that's Filipino style massage. Once I got used to the extra twists and ripples, I actually did feel quite relaxed, just in time for a fantastic 7 course dinner! We had a hog roast from a poor pig killed that very afternoon, but it tasted delicious! We finished the night with a variety of drinking games from around the world. I didn't want the evening to end!

The photo below is our fantastic vessel which got us around the islands. The Abalaw is made of fibre glass with a bit of bamboo extra decking added on. It was spacious and homely. I'd have happily have done the full 5 day trip offered by Tao adventures but 3 days was pretty amazing too!

Our trip entered it's third and final day and we visited our last destination called Ngey Ngey Island, a small island where Tao Adventures allowed for people to chill out for a couple of days in a well set out homestay, with a beautiful beach, lovely huts and a cafe area. Indeed, 6 of our group left us here to stay two days in paradise. The photo below was our big group effort and provides for me fantastic memories of all the characters on the three day trip. The photo reminds me a bit of the group photo which featured on the Danny Boyle movie, The Beach, based in Thailand. Thankfully our trip ended with a lot less drama than in that Hollywood movie! I've swapped a few contact details with a few members of the group and hope to stay in touch. 

Our boat finally rolled in Coron Harbour and our trip sadly keep to and end. I almost felt tearful that it was at an end. I'd met such amazing fun people from all around the world. Several of us got together for a fairly raucous night of fun in a bar at Coron Town, where a talented local reggae band entertained us. Thankfully, I was able to continue having fun siteseeing for the next couple of days with a few of the Australians from the Tao tour. We visited the stunningly beautiful Coron Island (see below).

The above photo is taken at Coron Island Cove, from a fairly crowded platform where you have to even queue to get this epic view. However, it's well worth it. The view is probably the most famous in all of Palawan. If you google the name Palawan or Coron then this view is sure to appear. 

Just over the top of a ridge above Coron Island Cove, you drop into a 'fairy tale' world containing a fresh water lake with the most crystal clear water I've ever seen! I jumped off into the water to be greeted with an underwater world that was so serene and clean, it could have been an artificial pool. If you get the chance to do a day trip to Coron Island, then be sure Kayangan Lake is on the itinerary, you won't be disappointed!

The above photo is from my hotel balcony overlooking Coron Harbour. It makes for a fitting end to my Philippines island hopping adventure. I can safely say that the Philippines more than lived up to my high expectations of a top Asian travel destination. I had a long journey home from here, including a ferry, a bus journey and three flights to reach the UK, taking 3 days! I was in a virtual daze for the whole journey home with such incredible memories of my two week long adventure. I saw a fascinating and historic metropolis, Manila, buzzing every hour of the day. I sampled a world famous volcanic crater at Mount Pinatubo. Then finally, I enjoyed 8 incredible days travelling across several of the most stunning tropical islands I've ever seen! Asked several times already if I'd go back to the Philippines then the answer is definitely 'yes'. I have barely skimmed the surface of this amazing Asian wonder. What baffles me more is why the hell didn't I visit it years ago?!

 

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