Originally, we hadn’t planned to spend any time in Cebu City (which is the jumping off point for pretty much everywhere we wanted to visit in the Visayas) but at the last minute, we changed our minds and decided that we should spend one night checking it out.
We avoided a huge set-back at the Boracay airport (as soon as we arrived, they told us that our flight would be delayed 2 hours for additional servicing of the place, which pretty much meant that our one afternoon in Cebu would be ruined. After making a big fuss about it they came back and told us “never mind” our flight would actually be on time) and we arrived in Cebu City at around 11am.
We found a place to stay in the middle of Uptown and Downtown (the two areas we wanted to see) though after just a few minutes there, we decided that we really disliked the owner of the place. First, we were telling him our plan for the day asking for directions and every activity we mentioned, he said “that’s not for you. Foreigners don’t do that.” Well, clearly he didn’t know us. Then, after we cleared up the fact that we like to do very local things in the places we visit, he asked for a 50 peso key deposit for our room. We explained to him that we’d be leaving in the middle of the night (at around 2am to swim with the whale sharks in Oslob) and wanted to make sure someone would be around then to give us our key deposit back. He told us not to worry and then said, “but either way it’s only a little more than a dollar.” What a jerk! I replied by telling him that actually, it was our whole cab ride to the bus station later that night. Hate that guy!!
Needless to say, after that conversation we were ready to get out of that place as soon as possible, so we set out to explore the city. Cebu City is not the nicest of places (to put it nicely) – it’s pretty dirty, there are a lot of homeless people on the streets, etc. but there were a few sights we wanted to see. Our first stop was at Basilica Minore del Santo Nino, which is the holiest church which houses a statue of the Christ child. People line up for hours to pray in front of the statue. There wasn’t really much of a line when we were there so we went in to pay our respects. Actually, this thing looked like a very scary doll. Cool to see but I’m glad I didn’t have nightmares.
Our next stop was the Fort San Pedro, which is the smallest and oldest fort in the Philippines. It was a very cute and nice fort. We liked it better than the fort we had seen in Manila. After the fort, we headed to the Carbon Market, which the Lonely Planet says is a must-see if you like markets. This is the one of the places that the man at our hotel had said is not for tourists. Well, in this case, he was kind of right (I hate to admit). It was a very, very local market mostly selling fruits and veggies. It was pretty dirty though and we were the only foreigners there. We did see one cool thing that we’ve never seen before though. They were selling live chickens at the market and we got to see some people bargaining for their new pet (or more likely their next meal).
The first three sights were all Downtown. When we were finished with those, we took a very long Jeepney ride to the JY mall (further North than Uptown) to see the Tops Lookout, a very high viewpoint overlooking all of Cebu City. in Manila, all of our Jeepney rides cost us 8 pesos. We weren’t sure how much they would be here, but we assumed that giving the driver 20 pesos would get the job done. We handed him the bill and didn’t get any change back. Then, other people started handing him money and telling him they were going to the same place. He was giving each of them back 1 peso from their 10 (so he overcharged us by 1 peso each). Of course, we didn’t really care, but a few people sitting across from us noticed us noticing this and then they started paying attention too. All of the sudden, three older ladies were fighting with the driver and telling him to give us back our change. “It’s not fair! We’re all going to the same place, why should they pay more,” they argued. The driver finally gave in and we got our change. Even though we didn’t care about the extra peso (approx. 2 cents), it was very nice to have these Filipinos argue with their own people in defense of us. It’s always a highlight for me when this happens.
Finally, we got to the JY mall, and just as the Lonely Planet predicted, there were motor bikes lined up to take us to the lookout. The weather wasn’t looking so great so after confirming that there would still be a view to see, we hopped on a motor taxi for the very steep 20 minute ride uphill. The view was really nice (though it was a little foggy), but of course, as soon as we got up there it started to rain. Still, we sat down and had an apple-flavored San Miguel to enjoy the nice view and prayed that our motor bike would be able to make it down the hill ok in the rain.
After a somewhat scary ride, we made it back to the JY mall. We had been waiting all trip to try a famous Filipino dish, Lechon (roasted pig) that Cebu City is famous for. We hadn’t seen any lechon places earlier in the day, but the area around the JY mall seemed to be a good place to get it. It was still early for dinner though, so we needed to kill a little time.
Dave had mentioned earlier in the day that he maybe wanted to get a haircut. I saw a place advertising a basic cut for 38 pesos (less than $1). We went in to inquire and we both ended up getting our hair cut, each for 38 pesos. At first, I wasn’t sure if a woman’s haircut would be considered basic, but by the time we were done, I concluded that my haircut is even more basic than Dave’s.
We were starting to get hungry so we asked around for where to get the best lechon in the area. A woman told us that if we walked a little less than 1km, we would find a place called IT Park, which apparently is the best spot for lechon. We made the walk and found ourselves at a big market, with 3 or 4 different places roasting up their pigs. One of the places had crispy lechon and the others were all regular. Of course, we wanted to try both version so we got a couple plates-full and sat down. This was one of the best meals that we’ve had on our trip (and definitely the best meal we’ve had in the Philippines). The lechon is cut up, served with rice, and they give you a plastic glove so you can eat with your hands. It was delicious and fun!
We got a couple hours of sleep and then our alarm went off at 2:30am so we could catch the first bus out of Cebu City to Oslob, which is famous for whale sharks. In Oslob, they feed the sharks (which are known as the gentle giants – they only eat plankton, krill, and other small fish – aka NOT humans) so you are 100% guaranteed to see them. We’ve heard that it can be a little touristy and also very crowded if you don’t get there early, but we thought that the chance to snorkel with these guys would be worth it.
Our bus got in a little before 6am and we were the first people waiting to go into the water. We paid our P1000 each ($25), got a short tutorial and then took a 2-minute boat ride to the shark area. Feeding time for the sharks is from 6:30-noon and as I mentioned, the sharks show up every day for the food but they are not captured, they are free to go/come as they please. I have no idea why they show up every single day, but I can’t complain. People pay tons of money to try to dive with the whale sharks and maybe they’ll show up, maybe not. But hey, if you can have a 100% chance of seeing them this way, why not. Our boat driver told us that sometimes there can be up to 500 people in the water but we got lucky and there were only about 10 others there at the same time we were. We pretty much had these babies all to ourselves for 30 minutes. It’s crazy how big they are and surprisingly not very scary considering they are swimming literally right up next to you. It was one of the coolest things we’ve ever done.
From Oslob, we were headed to Dumaguete in Negros, another island Southwest of Cebu. We took a bus and a ferry and less than two hours later (by 10am) we were there. Dumaguete is a cute little college town. We actually stayed at a guest house inside the University campus. Harold’s Mansion (the place we stayed) was what every guest house should be. They had a great common area on the rooftop with a pool table, great wifi, free coffee all day, free breakfast, free bike rentals, the cheapest laundry we’ve seen, and they ran tours right from their place. As soon as we got in, we were asked if we wanted to sign up to go to Apo Island the following day, which is a very small island off the coast of Negros (about an hour boat ride away) that’s supposed to have some of the best snorkeling in the Philippines. That’s exactly what we wanted to do (in fact, going to Apo Island is the reason we came to Dumaguete), so we signed up.
We did a little exploring in the afternoon but it was raining pretty much all day, so we took advantage of the great wifi and common area and spent a few hours catching up on emails and video chatting with our parents. Later in the day, once the weather got a little better, we went out to book our boat for the next night (we were taking our first overnight boat back to Cebu City, on our way to Malapascua Island to hopefully scuba dive with thresher sharks, which are more traditional-looking sharks but relatively small) and check out the dinner situation. We decided on a place with an amazing happy hour special – 5 frozen margaritas and chips and salsa for P 245 ($6). We decided to stay at the same place for dinner and got two awesome sandwiches – a gyro and a roast beef sandwich.
After dinner, we were exhausted (we had been up since 2am) and all we wanted to do was go to sleep. We were just getting settled in, when at around 10pm, there was a knock at our door. It was someone from the guesthouse telling us sorry but our tour was cancelled for the next day because not enough people had signed up. First of all, as I mentioned, the trip to Apo Island was the only reason we came to Dumaguete. Second, you can’t tell people at 10am that they are all set for a trip leaving at 7am the next morning and then come back to them at 10pm to tell them it’s cancelled. They had never told us that the trip was dependent on how many people signed up. They told us we were all set and that we should be downstairs at 7am (they even asked us what we wanted for lunch on the tour). We told them that what they were doing was unacceptable and whether they wanted to take just the two of us or find another company for us to go with, they had better get us to Apo Island the next day.
And, they did. We set out in the morning with another company for the trip. There ended up being only 4 people on our boat, the other 2 were diving and we were snorkeling (we were planning to dive a couple days later in Malapascua and had heard that the snorkeling was actually better than the diving in Apo). Just as in Boracay, it was nice not being on a very crowded boat with tons of people for the trip. We hopped off the boat at the first stop, right off the island, and were told that there was a 101% chance we’d see giant sea turtles. We’ve been scuba diving about 20 times and have never seen any very large sea animals. So, we were loving the odds in the Philippines so far (in two days, we saw the whale sharks and now potentially sea turtles). We hopped in and within a minute or so, we found them. They were incredible and SO big! At one point, we saw 7 of them all hanging out together. I think I liked swimming with these guys even better than the whale sharks the day before but it was really amazing to see these two incredible creatures back to back like this. We took a bunch of pics and even videos and decided to call it quits when the memory card on our camera ran out:(.
After about an hour of snorkeling, we went onto Apo Island to check it out and have lunch. We walked up to the lighthouse at the top of the island, which is supposed to have an amazing view of both Negros and Bohol, but unfortunately, it was pretty foggy, so we couldn’t see much (though we were able to make out the aforementioned bigger islands). Apo is really tiny and I probably would not want to sleep on the island (there are only two hotels), but it was perfect for the day trip.
Our second snorkeling spot was a little more off shore than the first, and we saw some of the most beautiful coral we’ve ever seen. Even though there were no turtles (or other big sea creatures) it was still a really beautiful area. Dave said that this is probably the best snorkeling he’d ever done, maybe other than the Great Barrier Reef (I haven’t snorkeled much so it was definitely the best for me).
We got back to our place in the late afternoon and hung out/got ready for our midnight ferry ride back to Cebu City. We were allowed to board at 10pm, so we got on then so we could get settled and go to sleep. As I mentioned, we’d never been on an overnight ferry before. It was basically a big deck filled with bunk beds and hundreds of Filipinos (we were the only white people on board). It was definitely unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. But given our tight schedule, we basically had to take an overnight ferry if we wanted to get to Malapascua Island the next day. Luckily, we got bottom bunks so we were able to lock up our stuff and actually get a pretty good night’s sleep (much better than on the overnight buses which we frequently take).
We got into Cebu City at 6am and were on another bus to Maya (where we’d then get a ferry to Malapascua) by 7. Then, after just one more boat ride, we arrived in Malapascua. It was a very long journey so we were really hoping that our diving the next day would be worth it. But, if we got lucky and were in the 70% of people that saw thresher sharks on their dive, that would definitely make it worth the trek.
We thought we had heard that Malapascua was one of the most beautiful islands in the Visayas, but after just a short walk up and down Bounty Beach (the main beach on the very small island – it’s only three miles all the way around) we didn’t really understand why people had said that. But, after thinking about it more, maybe they just raved about the diving, not the beauty of the island. Who knows.
After a little exploration, we went to our dive shop to get everything set up for the following morning. We were doing the famous thresher shark dive at 5am and then we also wanted to do a night dive later that evening. We got fitted for all of our equipment and then met our dive master for the following day who told us that there was a 101% chance we would be seeing thresher sharks in the morning. That was way better than the 70% chance that the Lonely Planet estimates. In fact, he went as far as to say that if we didn’t see the sharks, our dive would be on him. We really liked that deal and our odds and now we couldn’t wait for the next morning.
All up and down Bounty Beach are hotels and dive shops, all with restaurants/bars that are pretty expensive and not very local. We wanted local meals for our last couple of meals in the Philippines and luckily we were able to find a great spot for dinner at the very beginning of the beach (the first place we’d found earlier in the day that we thought looked great said they were out of pork and chicken – so naturally we decided to look elsewhere). We had a nice meal and then called it an early night to get ready for our 4:15am wake up call.
We were on our dive boat by 5:30 and in the water by 6am for our deepest dive yet, 30 meters – we were already putting our advanced certification to good use. We were the first ones in the water and within minutes, we were sitting on the ground waiting for the sharks to show up, which they did within a matter of seconds. We watched the thresher shark circle around for about 15 seconds and then disappear. I think we were the only ones from our boat who actually got a good look at it, so we considered ourselves very lucky. We waited around for a little while longer for another shark to show up and when none did, we did a little more underwater exploring before heading up.
Seeing a thresher shark was pretty cool and we considered ourselves lucky for getting the best view of the group (that is until later that morning when we were talking to someone from another dive company who said that in the area they were watching, a shark circled around for 6 minutes). It was really cool to see but still not as cool as actually getting to swim with the whale sharks and sea turtles. We didn’t realize that we’d just be sitting on the bottom waiting for these guys to show up (well, I think Dave did but I guess I didn’t). We wished that we could have swam around searching for them, but apparently if you try to swim after them, they swim away.
It rained for the rest of the day in between our dives so we took that opportunity to rest, catch up on email, explore a little (we found a great lunch spot by the pier), and get ready for our night dive. We were back at the dive shop at 5pm and heading into the water just before the sun went down.
We saw some incredible stuff on the night dive. First, we saw mandarin fish (which are supposed to be some of the most beautiful fish in the world) mating which was pretty cool. Again though, we sat on the bottom waiting for this to happen for about 15 minutes which was too long in our opinion (when you only have 50 minutes under water, you want to swim around as much as possible). Then, we saw a very small octopus, which we later learned is one of the most poisonous creatures in the sea. We also saw a seahorse, crab, rock fish and more. It was a very successful dive! Other than the third person in our group who came with the most serious underwater camera we’ve ever seen and wanted to spend our entire dive taking photos of the octopus (we’ve vowed to never dive again with someone with a camera like that again; his camera was literally the size of a 12 inch box TV and he needed two hands to hold it), it was an awesome night dive.
The company we dove with, Thresher Shark Divers, was also probably the best company we’ve used for diving so far. All of the dive masters were local guys who knew a ton but also wanted to make it an enjoyable experience. They took care of everything from getting our equipment ready and on board the boat, setting up our equipment, taking it in afterwards, and doing everything to ensure we had a successful and safe dive (they even served us coffee on the boat). Definitely one of the best run operations we’ve experienced so far.
After our dive, we ate at the dive shop’s restaurant, which had a great menu filled with a lot of Filipino food. We met two guys and a girl who had lived in Bali for two months last year getting their dive master certification. We all traded tips and ate and drank together for a while. It was fun hanging out with some fellow divers and a great end to our couple of days in Malapascua.
On our last day in the Philippines, we were taking a 30 minute boat and then a 4 hour bus ride back to Cebu City to catch our 6pm flight to Bali. We had about an hour left in the ride when it started to pour. All of the sudden our bus stopped, people were getting off and we saw tons of people outside running to what looked like a huge accident. Dave got off the bus to check it out. A bus (the same company as ours) a few cars in front of us had tipped over and was now in the middle of the highway. Dave said that he saw tons of shattered glass and people covered in blood being pulled out.
After a similar experience in Nepal (a bus hit a motorcycle rider and we got stuck in traffic for 3 hours), we decided that we didn’t have the time to wait around from them to clear the accident (there was no way any other buses were getting through any time soon since the flipped bus was sprawled across the entire highway). We got off the bus, walked to the other side of the accident, took a tricycle to another bus station at the nearest town and then a van back to Cebu City. It was very sad to see the accident (it looked really bad but from what we could tell it didn’t look like there were any fatalities, just a lot of injured/scared people) and a dramatic ending to our time in the Philippines but I’m glad we were able to make it out of there and get to the airport on time. From now on whenever we fly, we’re going to try to make sure we’re in the same city we’re leaving from the night before just to be safe.
As wonderful as the Philippines have been (this may be one of my new favorite countries though maybe also the one I was least looking forward to in the beginning – funny how that happens), I think it’s a difficult country to travel through unless you have a good amount of time and don’t mind spending a lot of time on many different modes of transportation. You can fly into several places here (Manila, Boracay, Cebu) but then from there, many of the other awesome destinations can only be reached by very long bus rides or boat rides (for example, the Batad rice terraces are an overnight bus ride from Manila to Banaue, a 1 hour jeepney ride from Banaue to the saddle and then a 45 minute walk, the islands are all ferry/boat/bus rides away from each other, etc.). If you don’t mind that (which we don’t), then the Philippines are amazing. I’m not sure I can picture mine or Dave’s parents though doing all the traveling to get from place to place. That’s something that makes Thailand so great, in our opinion. It’s very easy to travel to the main areas there (the North, Bangkok, the islands in the South). But, all of that being said, I have been very pleasantly surprised by the Philippines and am already looking forward to our trip back to visit Palawan.
Next, off to Indonesia for three weeks – First stop, Bali!