The Philippines: Puerto Princesa to Manila

We touched down in Palawan’s capital and largest city, Puerto Princesa, which feels more like a small town with an airport. Our guest house owner was waiting for us at the airport to give us a lift.

We had three weeks of entirely unstructured time in the Philippines, which was far from our norm for a very long time. We had had so many deadlines on which to operate, including the departure of our liveaboard, for such a long time, that we were used to planning the durations of our stays in towns weeks in advance, especially in Southeast Asia. We didn’t even know where we were going that day when we woke up the following morning. It was a nice feeling which we hadn’t felt in a long time.

After some googling, we concluded that going north was probably the thing to do. There is much to be explored on the southern tip of Palawan, but it’s very far off the tourist trail, and we weren’t sure that we had the energy to forge those paths ourselves. The idyllic town of El Nido was definitely on our list, but there seemed like much in between Puerto Princesa and El Nido that we could explore as well.

 

One of the tricycles common in the Philippines.

We hopped on a northbound bus to Roxas from the Puerto Princesa bus terminal. We asked the conductor when it was leaving, “11 o’clock!” he said proudly, a glance at our watches confirmed that it was already 11:08. Maybe they were waiting for us. It took us more than three hours to get there, but we eventually arrived and made our way down to Bottega, a restaurant on the shore we were told we could catch the boat from. Eventually a man came up and beckoned us aboard a banca, the indigenous Filipino outrigger boat, for the journey across the bay.

Modessa Island

We settled on a tiny island, less than 400 meters across, some 10km off the coast of Roxas. The island is privately owned, and home to Modessa Island Resort. We arrived to a light drizzle, and there was nobody in sight. There were half-finished bottles of booze on a couple of tables, clearly from the night before, as we walked through the abandoned common area. Eventually the boat man managed to rouse a worker, who was apparently sleeping, from a back room to help us with our check in. He rubbed his eyes and tried to corral his unruly hair. We followed him along a sandy path to a bungalow on the beach, which was to be our home for the next three nights.

A piece of paradise on Modessa Island.

The rains came and went during our stay, but none lasted for too long, and it was mostly sunny, or at least relatively clear. The island has tremendous potential, but the facilities are quite minimal, with no air conditioning, a salt water shower, and electricity that comes and goes with the whims of the generator. If none of those things are high on your list, it could be the very definition of paradise. Crystal clear water, bright white sand, and hammocks strung between the deep green palm trees along the beach was all there was. Relaxation was an imperative.

Home sweet home.

Our bungalow was right next to that of a German family, which was weird considering that all the rest of them seemed to be free. Nevertheless, they mostly kept to themselves and left the day before we did. There was only one other couple on the whole island, but we rarely saw them. There were some 10 or 15 “inhabitants”, but they apparently all work there to some degree. Some you would see picking up seaweed from the beach at 6:30am, others would be lounging in a free hammock, others still repairing the hull of some clapped out old boat on the beach. Billiards was a common pastime when work was scarce.

The employee with whom we had the most interaction was Marco. He was apparently the waiter, and we became accustomed to his frequent comings and goings, taking our order for the next meal. The hotel is the only thing on the island, so three meals per day are included in the price. The menu is fairly diverse, but they were frequently out of many things on it, but that’s how things go on such an island we concluded.

A bottle of rum.

We spent our time relaxing on the beach, as there was little else to do. There was a dive shop on the island, but we had had our fill of diving, and were looking for pastimes of a more terrestrial nature. We played badminton on the beach, walked around the island numerous times, took a dip in the water, played some pool, had a beer, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat. We avoided showering, as the salt water really didn’t do much to clean the sweat off, and more of it would accumulate despite the platoon of fans in our bungalow. We didn’t do much communicating with the outside world as the cell signal was rarely strong enough to allow for that, but we couldn’t complain.

A lone mangrove sprout.

Eventually it came time to break from the cycle, and we headed back to the mainland after three nights there, which felt like a veritable eternity. We took the 8am boat back, were ferried to the Roxas bus terminal by a waiting tricycle (affiliated with the resort, it seems, as it was free of charge), and hopped on a minivan to El Nido. After a few hours on the winding jungle road we made it to our destination on the north end of Palawan.

Not a bad place to relax.

El Nido

The weather was pretty bad as we were pulling in to the bus station, but it fortunately waited until we made it to our hotel before the downpour started in earnest. We took this time to get cleaned up from our showerless stint on Modessa, and spent the rest of the day confined to our hotel.

Pretty content.

In fact, the deluge continued for much of our stay in El Nido, which was most unpleasant. Our hotel was a little outside of town on the north side, so it was about a 15 minute motorbike ride over mostly potholed and muddy roads back into town. The constant downpour dissuaded us from making this trip too many times, so we did spend much of our time at the hotel.

El Nido on a rare stretch of rainless weather.

In between the patches of rain we would try to get out and explore a bit, and indeed did manage to on a couple of the clearer days. On one such day we headed out to Duli Beach, some distance north of El Nido. Fortunately the skies remained clearish for most of the day and we were able to enjoy our time on the nearly entirely empty beach. The trip out there was quite nice as well, as we wound our way through the Philippine countryside, through rice paddy and jungle and village. The last several kilometers became a bit more challenging as it was unpaved and mostly mud after the nigh uninterrupted torrent for days prior, but it wasn’t too bad considering our experiences with such things in Laos and Thailand. We had a strange encounter with a crab on the beach, which was behaving in a most un-crablike manner. The closer we got, the more it stood its ground, flexing, as it seemed, to scare of its would-be harassers. After a prolonged standoff, it scurried around looking for a hole to hide in, running into our feet several times in the process. Eventually it found a hole suitable to accommodate itself and disappeared for the remainder of our time there.

Duli Beach.
Uncrablike crab.
Beauty and the Beach.
Looking for crabs.
Rice paddies.

The typical activity in El Nido is doing one of four prearranged boat tours. Each focuses on its own thing, and many people end up doing several of them. We opted for Tour A though with Tarawis (although we concluded that pretty much all the tour operators are about the same with regard to cost and quality), which visits a number of lagoons, snorkeling spots, and a few beaches. We took off on a fairly clear morning, and were totally stoked that we had gambled correctly on the weather. As it turns out, the rain started up again shortly after we headed out. We were on a boat with nearly 20 other people, which, judging by the numerous other boats we saw, was a little on the high side. Most had between two and fifteen. The tour is really quite dull, and depends greatly on good weather to be enjoyable. Fortunately the skies cleared up enough a few times during the day for us to enjoy our time in some of the lagoons. The snorkeling was fairly lackluster in most places, and 15 to 20 other boats were a common accompaniment at all the attractions. The lagoons, on the other hand, were stunningly beautiful, and would be absolutely breathtaking with better weather and fewer tourists angling for a shot. Unfortunately it seems that one is tied to the other, and even in the wet season the place is crawling with tourists.

Floating in the Small Lagoon.
Some unknown beach.
Typical El Nido weather.

A few rainy days later and we hopped on the early morning ferry to Coron. We had to check in at the ferry terminal at 5:30am, and the ferry left at 6. The trip via the fast ferry (Montenegro Lines) is meant to take 3.5 hours, but ours took about 4. We showed up to the port a little outside Coron and got a tricycle into town.

Coron

The weather was no better in Coron, but we liked the town a little better at least. It’s smaller than El Nido, with not quite as many tourists, but still some of the niceties of well-touristed towns.

Most of our time was spent waiting for the weather to get better as the rains absolutely battered the town. We heard from the locals that a typhoon was making its way north of the Philippines, which was apparently the reason for the awful weather.

Coron from above.
The hills behind Coron.

It was looking clear enough one day, so we decided to rent a motorbike and try to head to the beach in Marcilla, on the southeast coast of the island. Shortly after we rented the bike though the skies opened up, and we were stuck at a gas station for 15 minutes trying to wait it out. Eventually it calmed a bit, so we got back on the road, but we ended up freezing and shivering only a few kilometers outside of town. As we were heading in the direction of the hot springs anyway, we decided to curtail the trip there, and took a dip in the balmy waters. We never thought hot springs would be a huge draw in an equatorial country such as the Philippines, but it can get cold on a motorbike in the rain, so we were happy about their presence.

We decided to peruse some of the underwater attractions in Coron the next day, since the weather was still not improving. We booked a few dives at some of the well-known WWII ship wrecks in the area through Corto Divers. The dives themselves were great, and it was a very surreal experience drifting through the dilapidated remains of the rusting hulks on the seafloor, and we even spotted a human rib in the Okikawa Maru, a Japanese oil tanker that sank in 1944. We’re told that human bones are occasionally seen in the wrecks, as many people went down with them when they sank.

A rainy day on the dive boat.

The next day we were surprised by relatively clear skies in the morning, so we tried our luck at getting out to Marcilla again and picked up a motorbike. The ride out there was beautiful as we wound through the jungle, and we were afforded glimpses of the lush coastline through the vegetation. It was pretty challenging in parts, though, as its almost entirely unpaved and there are segments that get very steep over loose rocks and gravel. The town of Marcilla is quite small, but there’s a lovely beach there. The beach was almost entirely empty save for a couple other westerners who we suppose had the same idea as us. We spent a bit of time in the water and hanging around on the sand before we headed back to town. We had heard great things about the beach, but it wasn’t that nice. The ride out there coupled with the beach was a pretty decent way to spend an afternoon though.

Not the most challenging section.
The beach in Marcilla.

We booked another dive trip through Neptune for the day after, this time to the famous Barracuda Lake on Coron Island, a bit south of Coron itself. The lake warms to fairly incredible temperatures between the depths of about 10 and 20 meters, and it feels like diving in a hot tub. We’re told this is due to some geothermal activity, which seems reasonable, but after making it past 20 or so meters it cools back down to pretty standard Philippine sea temperature. There’s not much going on in the lake as its half salt/half fresh water, but there are some catfish and shrimp that like to crawl all over you. Apparently there’s one barracuda too (hence the name), but hardly anybody sees it. The dive was pretty excellent though, and most of the attraction is the water temperature and underwater rock formations. Our trip also included two more WWII era wrecks, both of which were thoroughly enjoyable but fairly unremarkable. We preferred the service of Corto Divers to Neptune, as they’re a bit more engaged, for what it’s worth.

The entrance to Barracuda Lake.
Post dive.

We were supposed to leave Coron on Friday, after some five days of being here, but on Thursday evening, the office that we booked our boat tickets through told us the next day’s ferry was canceled, so we’d have to wait until Monday. No big deal, we thought, the weather was starting to improve, so we figured we’d take advantage of that and do a boat trip or something.

After another “Tour A” (this time around Coron, so different stuff to see), we concluded that most of those tours kind of suck. They’re all fairly expensive, packed with people, and they all go to the exact same destinations in the exact same order, so you can be sure that you’ll be showing up to the spot with a half dozen other boats on the same itinerary as you. We wondered why nobody has come up with doing it in the reverse order, and charging slightly more for a less crowded trip. At any rate, we saw the sights, which were mostly pretty boring beaches and nondescript snorkeling spots, the singular highlight was Kayangan lake, which is a big fresh water lake on Coron Island, next to Barracuda lake. Even that was packed with other tourists though, and wearing a life vest is mandatory for swimming, and you’re only limited to a fairly small area of the whole lake. Apparently two tourists died free diving in this lake not long ago, so free diving is also “strictly prohibited.” Nonetheless, the enforcement of these rules is pretty lax, so we mostly swam next to our life jackets, and did a fair bit of free diving. Oona even got down to 6.8 meters (without fins or weights!), which we believe is a personal record. The weather stayed fairly good for the day, but it was neither rain nor sun, so mostly just cloudy skies.

From the pass on the way to Kayangan Lake.
Not a bad beach.
Buko Man on the beach.

The ferry ended up running on Monday, so we met up with it at the port at 8am. The boat ride across the Mindoro Strait was mostly uneventful, weirdly though, on all these local “bunso” boats, they serve lunch. Ours was a basic plate of rice and grilled fish, but it was surprisingly good for free food on a boat.

Oriental Mindoro

The next hop for us on our way back to Manila was the island of Mindoro, just south of Luzon. We had plenty of time, but were rather lacking in energy, and truthfully, we’re pretty burned out from all this traveling, so the plan was to just take it easy (again). We disembarked the ferry at San Jose near the south tip of Mindoro and boarded a van up the east coast of the island. We got off at South Drive Beach Resort, near Bulalacao, some 1.5 hours from San Jose (the van cost 150₱ per person). The “resort” was totally devoid of tourists, but there were about a dozen friends and/or family who were sort of working there. It seems they were using the off season as the time to build some stuff, so much of the grounds was being renovated. It was a bit on the expensive side for what it was (1500₱), and we felt a bit like we were intruding on their private lives, but the family running the place was very nice.

It’s a good 2km from town, so we spent most of our time at the resort just relaxing. The room we were given was a basic three person affair in a building near the road, as the bungalows closer to the beach were being renovated. We had air conditioning, but the generator failed intermittently, leaving us without it for much of our second night. The staff refunded us 500₱ at our request though, which helped our impression of the place. The food was basic, and they were out of most things, but this was probably another impact of it being the off season.

The beach was fairly nice, but we didn’t do much swimming as it was low tide and quite shallow. Instead, we opted to hang out on the sand, soaking up a bit of sun.

The unspectacular beach at Bulalacao.

After our two nights there, we got a ride into the town of Bulalacao proper by the father of the family. He only had a motorbike, but we were all somehow able to pile on, with Ian sitting on the back with one backpack on each shoulder and Oona sandwiched in the middle with our day packs. We were dropped off at the market in town, where we were ushered onto a clapped out van on its way to Roxas. We were told that we’d have to transfer in Roxas to another van destined to Calapan. We know that some vans go all the way from San Jose to Calapan via Bulalacao, so in theory we could have waited for a one seat ride, but we were eager to get on our way. As it was, some 25km out of town, we switched to a van that was heading all the way to Calapan, the price was 250₱ per person, and we didn’t need to pay the driver of the first van at all (apparently they have some kind of quid pro quo agreement among the drivers).

The trip was fairly boring, stopping and starting in various villages throughout the jungle to pick up and drop off passengers. The rain stopped and started and stopped again with about the same frequency. We eventually got off near the immigration office in Calapan, and headed directly there. We had miscounted our days when we were buying plane tickets out of the Philippines, and we ended up with visas that expired a mere two days before our departure flight. We had heard horror stories of overstaying tourists being delayed at the airport and forced to head to immigration before departing, leading to missed flights and all sorts of other chaos in addition to tales of utter disinterest on part of immigration at the airport. We suppose it’s a gamble, and depends on the mood of the immigration official, but we opted to not risk it and extend our stay legally. The downside is that there is very little granularity to extending ones stay, and if you want to stay only two extra days, you still have to pony up the cost of a 30 day extension. This ended up putting us back about $100 in total, which is a lot, but it’s also less than the extreme costs and hassle associated with missing a flight, so we left not very happy, but with peace of mind at least.

After settling that logistical matter, we hopped on one last van for the day on the way to Puerto Galera (50₱ per person), on the northern tip of Mindoro. We were dropped off in town and got a tricycle to Sabang Beach, the city’s main attraction. We checked into our hotel and ended up just hanging around town for the rest of our time here.

Sabang has about a million dive shops, and most of the restaurants and stores cater to Korean and Chinese tourists. There were few westerners around such that we would take notice of them when we saw them. In any case, it’s a nice little area next to the beach, although the beach itself is pretty sub par. There are a handful of decent restaurants and bars, and it was relaxed enough (being the offseason) that wandering around town and hanging out at beachside bars was pretty nice. A particularly memorable time for us was heading out to the Sinandigan lighthouse, on the northeastern tip of the peninsula. It was about a 2km walk from town, but the walk was through relaxed and undeveloped suburbs, and the grounds and views around the lighthouse itself were lovely, and completely devoid of people.

Puerto Galera.
Sinandigan lighthouse.
The trail to Sinandigan.

We rented a motorbike the following day and headed out to Aninuan and the area around White Beach. We did a short hike up to Aninuan Falls, which was a nice way to spend the morning. It’s about a 4km round trip from where we parked to the falls themselves, and most of it follows the riverbed such that finding the trail is sometimes difficult. The trail also winds through some sparse palm forests, and the only others we saw were a few locals living in the area. There is a shack once you reach the top that collects an admission fee of 20₱ per person, but aside from the two women running the show we were the only ones there. The falls themselves are not particularly impressive, but there is a nice swimming spot which was most welcome after the sweltering trek through the underbrush. We stopped off at White Beach on the way back to town, it too was nearly abandoned, with only the workers trying their damndest to get you to come into their restaurant or get a tattoo or buy some mushrooms or what have you. The place, while surely offering a nicer beach than Sabang, was giving off menacing vibes, so we didn’t spend too much time there and opted to head back to our familiar ‘hood.

Aninuan Falls.
A curious butterfly at the falls.
Palm forest.

The following day we headed out for the final leg of our journey in the Philippines, towards Manila. What was meant to be a three hour journey easily became nearly seven. The boat from Sabang to Batangas left roughly on time at 9:30am, and we arrived on the southern edge of Luzon after about an hour. We made our way to the bus station at the Batangas pier, and were hurriedly ushered onto a waiting bus bound for Manila as though it was waiting for us. The staff was giving precious little information and consistently dodged the question of when the bus would be leaving. We ended up waiting for nearly two hours, until the next boat arrived, while several other buses had left for Manila in the mean time. The traffic-snarled highway again limited our efficiency, but we finally arrived in Manila at around 4pm.

Manila

We were only in Manila for a few days, mostly out of necessity as a stopover on our way out of the Philippines rather than as a real destination. There’s really not much to do there, unless you like hanging out in shopping malls.

Makati is much cleaner and more relaxed than most other areas of Manila, and it’s clearly the expat/tech neighborhood. We mostly hung out there, but made a foray out to Quezon City as well, which shows another side of Manila than the immaculate Makati. Quezon City is reminiscent of many other big cities in Asia, with a ton of traffic and people and dirty streets.

Quezon City.
Sweltering city heat.

Our hotel staff suggested leaving for the airport two hours before we needed to be there, even though it’s less than 10km away. The traffic in Makati gets quite bad during rush hour. The trip only ended up taking about 20 minutes, so we had a ton of time to kill at the airport. On our way through immigration, the official’s eyes narrowed as he looked at Oona’s entry stamp, steeling himself to question her further about overstaying. He turned the page to reveal the extension sticker, and uttered “nice…” under his breath with an approving nod. So perhaps it was a good idea to extend them after all.

The trip back to the US was grueling and exhausting, but we eventually made it to Seattle, where we will be for the next couple weeks before heading to Denver and New Mexico.

 

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