Taal Volcano & Tagaytay

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„It´s more fun in the Phillipines“ – This is true. Most of the time, however. I had a blast on my trips to this beatiful country. However, travelling for a long time, you cannot avoid a disappointment every once in a while. Like what I encountered when visiting the Taal Volcano.

Taal is situated about 2 hours south of Manila and holds a record. The volcano lies on an island. On this island there is a lake, and on this island another island. Sounds confusing? It is. According to Wikipedia, Taal is „the largest lake on an island in a lake on an island in the world“. Reason enough to go visit this record-holder and natural wonder.

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Taal Volcano from above (source: Wiki Commons)

Transport and Accommodation

The easiest way to Taal is from Manila, where you can take the bus to Tagaytay. Many busses take this route, which only takes about 2 hours.

Coming from Mindoro in the south, you best start you journey in Batangas and take the bus to Turbina. There you board a van to Tagaytay.

Travellers coming from Bicol should try to exit in Turbina or Calamba (SB Camalba) and switch to a van to Tagaytay.

Tagaytay does not have a wide variety of affordable rooms. The cheapest option is the Country Living Hostel, rather hidden in a private area behind the Metrobank-Complex. Here you can find a bed in a 2-bed dorm for 500 Pesos  (9 USD).

On the ride to Tagaytay you can already catch a glimpse of the lake and the volcano. Unfortunately, there is no public transport to the pier 6,2 miles from Tagaytay, so you have to hire a tricycle. Expect to pay 150 Pesos (3 USD) with a little haggling. At the pier you have to hire a boat that takes you to the volcano island.

It was now that I was in for a bad surprise. The official price for a return boat ride is 2000 Pesos per boat. (On the sign below you can see the „official“ prices. However, all these signs look different which makes it hard to say what the official price is). One boat can take 7 passengers, so if you divide the costs, you should only pay 285 Pesos (5,3 USD) per person. This is pretty standard procedure at the Island Hopping Tours in Puerto Princesa and El Nido.

In Tagaytay, however, boat-owners will try to discourage you from finding a travel group that you could join. Even if you head to a resort, where groups are waiting to go on board, groups that would be more than happy to take another person and reduce the costs – you are still not allowed to join them. The reason the manager gave me was that this could lead to disagreements on the island if the makeshift group can not decide on a meeting-time when to go back. I call bs on this explanation: There are enough boats going back to the main land at any time.

I did not want to support this greedy business practice, nor did I want to pay 2000 Pesos for a boat where 6 other people could be seated. So with heavy heart I turned and went back to Tagaytay. I would have loved to go to the island because It is said to be really beautiful. But I did not want to do it on the terms I found there.

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These are the „official“ prices (as of May 2018)

Makiling Forest Reserve

Luckily, Taal Volcano is not the only attraction in the area. Nature lovers should visit the active Makiling Volcano.

To get there you have to take a van from Tagaytay Central Bus Terminal to SB Calamba. From there you take the jeepney to Los Banos, and another jeepney to „forestry“. The entrace fee is just 10 Pesos (0,19 USD). If you are early, you can tackle the difficult hike to the top of Mt Makiling. However, this is only possible for visitors before 9 am, because the park closes at 4 pm. If you arrive later, you can still hike to two points of interest: The Flat Rocks and The Mud Springs.

The Flat Rocks are just 1 km away from the entrance. here you can climb the rocks in the riverbed. Swimming, however, is not possible.

 

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Flat Rocks

The Mud Springs are a bit more interesting. These are hot sulphuric springs with a water temperature of 80° Celsius. The result is a sulphuric smell and dense steam. At these springs you are reminded that you are hiking an active, yet relatively calm volcano.

The hiking trail is mostly paved, the incline as well as the humidity makes hiking here exhausting nonetheless, so you should bring plenty of water. On your way to the Mud Springs, you can stop at a scenic picnic spot.

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The Mud Springs

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Travelling the Philippines – the perfect itinerary

The Philippines is comprised of over 7000 islands. This raises the question where one should go. Travelling the Philippines, though fun, is not as straight-forward as in Vietnam or Thailand, where the main choice is North to South or vice versa. One has to decide where to start? Which places should one visit first in order tonot waste time going back and forth? What do you want to get out of your stay in the Philippines? What is your travelling style? Do you value good infrastructure and a lot of like-minded travellers? Or ar eyou more keen on exploring islands off the beaten path, where you wont find all the necessary information online? In this article I am presenting two itineraries I followed myself:

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Route 1: 20 days

If someone were to ask me how many days they should spend in the Philippines, my answer would be: 20 days at the very least, if you want to travel to different places and get to know different aspects of the country. 20 days because you will spend a lot of time on airplanes, or if you are a budget traveller, on buses or ferries. Three weeks, however, should be enough to get a first impression of the country and to visit the most popular tourist destinations without having to rush.

  1. Manila

90 % of all travellers to the Philippines will start in Manila – simply because it has the biggest international airport and thus the cheapest flights. Like I wrote here, most visitors avoid Manila at all costs. And rightfully so. The city definitely has its nice spots, like the free museums and parks, but I would not recommend spending mor than 2 days here.

  1. Visayas (Cebu, Siquijor und Bohol)

First time visitors to the Philippines are often advised to start in the Visayas because of the easy accessabiliy. This might sound patronizing, but I think it is sound advice for the following reasons: 1) Cebu can be reached quite easily and cheaply from Manila. 2) Being the most popular tourist spots, these islands provide a good infrastructure. What is more, most of the information on hostels and sights is available online which makes research easy. 3) The Visayas are home to a lot of attractions that are typical of the Philippines: white sandy beaches, Snorkeling spots, lush forested mountains, caves… These attractions are also compareably closeby, making travelling around quite convenient.

(If you have more time and always wanted to see an active volcano, you can make a detour via Legaspi, and get a cheap flight from there to Cebu, instead of departing in Manila.)

Your route in the Visayas could look like this:

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2.1 Manila – Cebu City

It takes just an hour to go from the capital to Cebu City. However, I would only spend one full day in the biggest city of the island, because it has not much to offer for tourists, and you will have more time for the true gems of the Visayas.

2.2 Cebu City – Oslob

The closest tourist spot from Cebu City is Oslob, roughly 4 bus hours away. The place is most well-known for its Whale Sharks, which can be seen all year round. However, even if you do not want to go Snorkeling with these giants, you should still visit Oslob for the scenic Tumalog-Falls.

 

2.3 Oslob – Moalboal

If you want to discover the fascinating underwater world of the Philippines, Moalboal is the place for you. The town is 2 hours away from Oslob and sports some of the most beautiful Snorkeling spots and corral reefs in the country. Here you can see a lot of colourful fish, swarms of sardines and even sea turtles. Alternatively, you can explore the famous Kawasan Falls on foot or on a Canyoneering Tour.

 

2.4 Moalboal – Siquijor

If you are looking for a quiet, yet easily accessible island paradise, you have to take the ferry from Cebu to Siquijor. This island, known for its witchcraft, has a relaxed, laid-back feeling and sports a wide variety of sights: beaches, waterfalls, caves and a beautiful back-country. Just renting a scooter and cruising through the scenic landscape is an absolute highlight.

 

2.5 Siquijor – Bohol

Hardly any island in the Philippines sports as many famous locations as Bohol. Here you can find the Chocolate Hills, the Tarsier Sanctuary, the Man Made Forest and Panglao peninsula. And these are only the most well-known sights. The island is quite big, so that you can easily spend 2-3 days here.

 

  1. Palawan

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3.1 Bohol – Puerto Princesa

If you want to see the most beautiful landscapes and islands in the Philippines, you cannot miss Palawan. From Bohol you can take the ferry to Cebu City, and from there hop on an airplane to Puerto Princesa. Here you should definitely visit the Subterrean River, an UNESCO heritage site, and book an Island Hopping tour in Honda Bay.

 

3.2 Puerto Princesa – Port Barton

Palawan is a big island and the roads are not always excellent. Therefore it can take up to 8 hours to get to El Nido in the North. The small town of Port Barton is perfect for a stop. Here, far from the masses of tourists in El Nido, you can spend a few relaxing days, enjoy the unspoilt nature and take a bout trips to the most beautiful corral reefs in the country.

 

3.3 Port Barton – El Nido

El Nido is arguably the most popular spot in Palawan, due to its breathtaking landscape, the majestic lime stone rocks, and some of the most beautiful beaches in the Philippines. While the town itself is not very pretty, crowded with tourists and slightly overprized, an Island Hopping Tour to some of the most spectacular rock formations and islands in Asia will make up for this.

 

It is hard to say how long one should spend in the different locations. As a rule of thumb, I would suggest spending 10 days in the Visayas and 10 days in Palawan. In El Nido you can take a flight back to Manila or to other destinations in the Philippines.

Route 2: 14-20 days

On my first trip to the Philippines I took the plane from El Nido to Manila. However, if you have more time, you can take the airplane or ferry to Coron. The island is said to be one of the most beautiful of the Philippines.

  1. Coron – Mindoro

4.1 San Jose à Sablayan

From Coron you can take the ferry to San Jose on the island of Mindoro, and from there take the bus to Sablayan. The tourism industry in Mindoro is just developing, but you can already find some affordable hostels and a wide variety of sights, for example North Pandan Island where you can even spot sea turtles on a Snorkeling trip.

 

4.2 Sablayan – Puerto Galera

With the bus and the ferry you can venture into the North of Mindoro. Puerto Galera provides the perfect mix of white sandy beaches, beautiful scenery and secluded waterfalls. The town is not yet crowded with Western tourists, but my prediction is that this will change pretty soon.

 

There you can hop on a bus that takes you to Manila. Alternatively, you can stop at the Taal Volcano, which is situated on a large lake.

  1. Banaue & Sagada

If you have time, you should definitely spend some time in the North of the Philippines. The rugged mountaneous terrain is very different to the rest of the Philippines, but just as beautiful as the lush djungles and palm trees below. Banaue, rougly 9 hours from Manila, is mainly known for its impressive rice terraces. Not far from there lies the town of Sagada. Here you can go hiking in the marvelous mountain forest and have a look at the famous Hanging Coffins. All in all, these two places were the most pleasent surprise on my trip to the Philippines, so you should save some time to head north.

 

Sablayan (Mindoro)

In Southern Mindoro lies a place with a beautiful landscape, white sandy beaches and the biggest Atoll-Reef in the world: Sablayan. The small city situated 6 hours away from Puerto Galera also has tourism sector that is in the process of being developed. This makes Sablayan an affordable destination and at the same time a relaxed place with very few tourists. Ideal for everybody who does not like mass tourism.

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Visitors coming from Puerto Galera best take the ferry to Abra de Ilog, which takes about 1 hour and costs 230 Pesos (4 USD). A bus leaves from there every tour hours. Tickets are 220 Pesos. In Sablayan there is a sufficient number of hotels and hostels. If you want to stay directly at the waterfront, you should choose the Emily Hotel . However, there is no Wifi there. Therefore I would recommend the La Sofia Hotel, which has cheap single rooms (350 PHP = 6,5 USD/night) and surprisingly fast internet.

There is nothing much to see in Sablayan Proper. Therefore you should head straight to the Tourism Center and register as a visitor. There you can choose from a variety of tours, and the staff is more than happy to help you find a group if you are a solo traveller. However, you need a little luck as there are not always a lot of visitors.

North Pandan Island

Apo Reef is the most popular tourist spot in Sablayan. However, if you do not want to spend 6 hours on a boat and are looking for a cheap alternative, North Pandan Island  might be the place for you. The small island is located just 20-30 minutes from Sablayan and has two good Snorkeling spots, a clean beach as well as restaurants, bars and a resort where you can stay the night. Boats leave from the Emiliy Hotel and cost 400 Pesos (7,5 USD). On the island you have to pay the Environmental Fee of 230 Pesos (4,3 USD). For 150 Pesos (3 USD) you can rent Snorkeling gear to explore the underwater world of North Pandan.

You will not be disappointed as there are two distinct Snorkeling spots right off the coast. If you want to see large swarms of sardines and big sea turtles, you should stay near the boats on the right. To the left is an extensive corral reef which sports colourful corral gardens and an impressive variety of fish. The reef is nothing short of spectacular and does not have to shun comparisons to Moalboal or Fantastic Reef in Palawan.

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Apo Reef

To get to Apo Reef as a solo traveller, it is best to ask at the Eco Tourism Office for a travel group. One boat can take up to 13 people, and you can divide the costs of the boat, so that it should cost around 650 Pesos (12 USD). Once on the island you also have to pay the Environmental Fee of 750 Pesos (14 USD) – which is a total rip-off in my humble opinion. Of course the island is beautiful and the fee goes toward protecting it – but there is no reason for it to be 3 times the amount you have to pay at Pandan Island.

On Apo Island you can swim at the beach, take a walk through a mangrove forest to a secluded lagune, enjoy a scenic view on top of the light house and go Snorkeling at the reef. My tour provided a guided Snorkeling tour: We held fast to the boat and where pulled along, all the while marveling at the Marine wonders below us. The reef is beautiful, but not beautiful enough to justify the high costs. Therefore, if you only have limited time, I would advise you to head to North Pandan instead of Apo Reef.

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the modern, climbable lighthouse of Apo Island
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the small lagoon in the mangrove forest

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Libuao Lake

Besides small islands, Sablayan also sports a scenic back-country with interesting sights. One of the is Sablayan Prison and Penal Farm. This is a prison with integrated farms, plantations and hiking trails. The concept might sound odd or outright dangerous, but for prisoners who behave well guiding tourists through the area is a way of supplementing their income.

A popular destination is Libuao Lake. There you can pay 100 Pesos (2 USD) to hire a guide that accompanies you on a hike around the lake. The trail leads through a dense forest and can get very muddy after rain. Hiking boots are therefore strongly recommended.

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Hiking around the lake is fun. My absolute highlight, however, was the lunch you can buy there. The prisoners go fishing at the lake everyday and are more than happy to prepare a meal for visitors. For under 2 USD you can get freshly grilled fish with rice, soy sauße and some mangoes.

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Simple, but delicious: freshly grilled fish from the lake

If you still have energy, you can also hire prisoners to take you to an idyllic waterfall – a popular spot for inmates to swim in.

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Puerto Galera (Mindoro)

South of the Luzon, about 5 hours from Manila, lies the Mindoro, an island that is visited by only few western tourists. Nonetheless, it has everything to offer what you could wish for in the Philippines: white beaches, romantic islets, corral reefs and a beautiful landscape.

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Mindoro is divided into 2 provinces: Mindoro Oriental in the East and Mindoro Occidental in the West. The most popular tourist spot in the Western part is Puerto Galera. However, it is not yet a top destination for backpackers in the Philippines, so you might have to look for a while for cheap accommodation. A popular place is the Happy Buddha Inn, which was unfortunately completely booked when I arrived. A good alternative is Paddy´s Bar in Sabang. Here you can find a room for 2 persons for 350 Pesos (6,50 USD).

Puerto Galera offers a variety of sights, which are, however, quite far from each other. So the best thing is to rent a scooter for 400 Pesos (7,50 USD) a day to explore the area. The roads are well-maintained and riding along the beautiful coast is great fun.

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Coming from Sabang, you should head for the Mangrove Reserve, half an hour from the town. There you can walk on wooden planks through a mangrove forest and learn about this vital but endangered ecosystem. The fee of just 30 Pesos (0,50 USD) is well spent as it contributes to the preservation of mangrove forest. I spent about 1 hour there.

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The mangroves lie on the way to the Tamaraw-Wasserfällen. You can hardly miss them as they are located right next to the main road. For 30 Pesos (0,50 USD) you can swim in a basin underneath the waterfall. However, I do not think it is worth it. You can also eat at the local restaurant for a fair price.

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If you want to see a remote waterfall, you should head towards to the Tukuran-Falls. If you follow the road signs, you will reach a „parking lot“ where you can leave your scooter. You can pay the 25 Pesos (0,50 USD) parking fee, but there is no need to hire a guide that accompanies you to the Waterfalls for 300 Pesos (5,50 USD). The touts there will advise you to hire one in order not to get lost, but this fear is uncalled for. The waterfalls are virtually impossible to miss, all you have to do is follow the river for 30 minutes and cross it 5 times.

The hike to the falls is well worth it, and the landscape with its lush meadows and dense palm trees is nothing short of spectacular. At the waterfalls, in theory you have to pay a fee of 20 Pesos (0,40 USD). However, when I went, there was nobody there to collect it. The climb to the waterfall is slightly slippery, but well doable. As this is a remote waterfall, chances are you will have it all for yourself and can refresh yourself under the cool, clear water.

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Back at the parking lot, you still have time to drive to White Beach, the most popular beach in Puerto Galera, and one that is free and open for the public. Of course the beach is not as scenic as many others in Palawan, but it is clean and you have a lot of watersport options there. If you are looking for a less frequented beach, you can climb over the rocks on the left side to get to a more quiet strip.

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It should not take you more than one day to visit these 4 sights. If you have more time, you should also visit the Aninuan Falls and Talipanan Beach. All in all, Puerto Galera is well worth the visit. There are not many western tourists and it offers some very beautiful natural sights. If you do not mind that not all information is available online and like to spend your time away from westerners, Puerto Galera could be your perfect getaway.

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The costs

If you can get a room in a hostel or guest house, a full day in Puerto Galera, including three meal, the scooter rental and the fees mentioned above should cost you about 1250 Pesos (23 USD).

Accommodation: 350 Pesos

Food: 415 Pesos

Transport: 400 Pesos

Fees & Activities: 85 Pesos

Legazpi

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In January 2018 the Philippine Province of Bicol was in the news because of the eruption of the Mount Mayon. 40.000 people in the immediate vicinity of the volcano had to be evacuated. A few months later, in March, the moody giant seemed to be sleeping again. A perfect time to visit Legazpi, the city in the shadow of the volcano.

The cheapest way to reach Legaspi is by bus from Manila. The ticket is not expensive, about 650 Pesos (12 USD) and the ride takes about 12 hours, so it is best to take the night bus. Although many bus companies service Legaspi, it can pay to buy your ticket well in advance, because when I wanted to go there in March 2018, all the tickets were sold and I first had to take the bus to the nearby city of Naga.

If you are in Legaspi, you will soon notice that there is less infrastructure for foreign tourists here than in the Visayas or Palawan. This can be a good thing as prices tend to be pretty low. However, your choices as a backpacker will be somewhat limited. I can recommend the Mayon Backpacker Hostel, where you can get a room for 350 Pesos (6,50 USD).

For there you can set off to the Volcano. The best spot to get as close to the Volcano as possible is the Church Ruins of Cagsawa. The church was built in 1587, destroyed by pirates, and levelled again by the eruption of Mt Mayon in 1814. From Legazpi there are regular jeepney that you can take and it is free, but expect a lot of tourists at this popular sight.

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Access to the still active volcano is restricted. Therefore, if you want to see the Mayon up close and have a bit of fun in the process, I can recommend a Quad-tour. There are many operators at Cagsawa and driving the thing is quite simple. The light vehicles with the big tyres can cross almost any terrain and all you have to do is accelerate and break. An experienced driver/guide will lead the way and take pictures of you whenever you like. However, you should not wear your best attire as you will drive through mud and water.

There are different tours to choose from. As a rule of thumb: the closer you want to get to the Volcano, the more expensive the tour. For example, of you want to see the cold lava up close, you will have to pay 1500 Pesos (28 USD). However, you should check for special discounts. I was offered a promo tour: 1 hour of driving for 300 Pesos (5,5 USD). I did not get that close to the Volcano, but got a better view than in Cagsawa and had a lot of fun driving my Quad.

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If you want to see a beach in Legazpi proper, you can go to Puro Beach. However, do not expect to swim here as the water is very dirty. It is more known as a fishing spots. However, you have a nice view of the bay and the forested hills of the back-country.

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If you come to Legazpi in May and are lucky, you can visit the Magayon Festival honoring the tradition of the Mountain Goddess. The fest attracts many visitors and sports a parade. Well in advance the locals prepare colorful wagons to represent their neighbourhood or town, and dancers prepare for their role in the big parade at the opening of Magayon.

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If you are as unlucky as me and are unable to purchase a bus ticket to Legazpi, you can still take the detour via Naga. The town itself does not have a lot to offer for tourists. However, if you are already there, you can take a jeepney to Mount Isarog, an inactive volcano 45 minutes away. There you can either hike up the mountain if you are early, or take a short walk to a waterfall. Last entrance is 4 pm, too late for me sadly.

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The verdict

All in all, I liked my trip to Bicol, although it was not a highlight of my travels in the Philippines. The Mount Mayon is an impressive sight, although its top was mostly covered by clouds.

Another reason to visit Bicol is the food, which is praised by many as the best food in the country. The region is home to the famous Bicol Express, pork with coconut milk, ginger and red peppers. This dish shows Bicol´s love for spicy food, spicier than in the rest of the Philippines.

The costs

A day in Legazpi, including a bed in a hostel, three meals and a Quad tour cost me 905 Pesos (17 USD).

Accommodation: 350 Pesos

Food: 225 Pesos

Transport (Jeepney): 30 Pesos

Quad Tour: 300 Pesos

 

Sagada

In northern Luzon, just 2 hours from Banaue, lies another tourist magnet. Sagada is a small town in the Mountain Province and can be reached by van or bus. The ride is not exactly pleasent, but well worth it. Like the name suggests, the province is mountaneous, so you will find a changed vegetation. Instead of palm trees, pines and evergreens dominate the landscape. One could think this was the mediterranean if it was not for the extensive rice fields.

Sagada proper is a cosy, small town with 11.000 inhabitants, none the less the infrastructure is excellent. Finding an affordable accommodation is not difficult. A room should cost between 350 and 400 Pesos (6,5-7,5 USD). The restaurants are cheap, too, although I could not see any small eateries like in other places in the Philippines.

Your first stop in Sagada will be the Tourist Center. Here you have to pay a fee of 40 Pesos (0,75 USD). Then you have the choice between a wide variety of tours. In theory you can hike the countryside on your own. However, many places like the hanging gardens and the caves can only be accessed with a guide. The prices of all tours can be found here.

Sumaging Cave / Short Course Caving

My group decided to go caving on the first day. If you are inexperienced in caving but physically able, and if you want an adventure without having to fit through narrow cave tunnels, you should take this tour. You will explore Sumaging-Höhle, which can be reached on food in one hours from Sagada. Alternatively you can hire a van for 350 Pesos per group (6,50 USD). Exploring the cave takes about 1,5 hours and costs 1000 Pesos (19 USD) for 9 people.

You enter the cave through a wide entrance and then follow an underground stream. At times you will be walking, at other times wadding through water or climbing down while holding on to a rope. It is an exciting experience, although you have to be careful as the rocks get very slippery. Even if you are not that fit, the tour is still doable as there are always enough tour guides ready to help you.

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If you are looking for a more challenging adventure, you should try the Cave Connection. You start in a different cave and make your way through a narrow passage, only armed with a candle, until you reach Sumaging Cave. This tour can not be taken in a large group. Two persons pay 800 Pesos (15 USD), the price increases for every additional person.

Kiltepan Sunrise Tour

If you like romantic sunrises (who does not?) and do not mind getting up early, you should consider this tour. It starts at 04.30 am at the Tourist Center and costs 550 (10 USD) Pesos for the van plus a fee of 55 Pesos per person. You will set off while it is still dark and drive to the Kiltepan Viewpoint, where you will be greated by cheerful vendors selling coffee and breakfast.

The place is also known as the „Sea of Clouds“ because of its high altitude. The cloud-hidden valley below and the serene pine forest give the place a mystical aura and watching the sun climb up there gave me a truly elevated feeling. After a hot breakfast, preferrable rice porridge with chocolate, you will have enough energy for the other tours.

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Echo Valley Adventure Trail

Chances are you want to visit Sagada for its famous Hanging Coffins. In this case I can recommend a trip to the Echo Valley, where they can be seen up close. Taking the Adventure Trail, you can not only see the coffins, but also a subterrean river and a waterfall. The tours costs 1000 Pesos (19 USD) per group, so it is still reasonably cheap.

The tour starts at the church of Sagada, where you will get to know some of Sagada´s history. The path leads across the modern graveyard of the town, to the Echo Valley where you can already see the Hanging Coffins from a distance. Down in the valley you can see this attraction up close. Hanging the coffins has a long tradition in Sagada and was done in order to prevent wild animals from eating the deceased. It is still practiced today, although not as commonly as in old times. If one wants to be buried in a Hanging Coffin, they have to be from Sagada and already have grandchildren. Ultimately the family have to decide whether they want this kind of burial.

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Around Sagada there are thousands of coffins. These ones are relatively young – from 1960 to 2010.

Next you will follow a riverbed until you reach a cave, through which the river flows. It is pitch dark here, so your tour guide will light the way. You should bring your flip flops as you will have to wade through water.

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Next stop is a waterfall, which is not very big or impressive. However, it is refreshing to swim in the basin, and you can even jump from a rocky flatform if you wish. After having a look at the work of local weavers you will return to Sagada.

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Bomod-Ok Waterfall

This tour takes you to the Bomod-Ok Waterfall and takes about 3 hours. It costs 500 Pesos (9 USD) per group plus 500 Pesos for the van that takes you to the starting point.

The path leads through a dense pine forest, alongside rice terraces and through small villages where you will be greeted by the friendly locals. Once at the waterfall, you can take a swim or just lie on the warm stones and relax from the hike.

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Trying Moma

If you travel to Banaue or Sagada, chances are you will see some men with red-stained teeth. This is due to their excessive consumption of Moma, the local drug of choice and energy booster. It is a mix of dried tobacco leaves, vine leaves, betel nut and a white powder made from snail chells. The substance is chewed and then spot out. It produces a high that is not too strong, but still tops the effect of coffee and cigarettes. If you are looking for an energy boost, you will not be disappointed. However, I was feeling rather dizzy and light-headed after my first try.

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The ingrediants of Moma have to be bought individually.

The Verdict

If you are in the north of Luzon, you absolutely have to visit Sagada. In my three days here I was only able to do a small portion of the activities provided by the Tourist Center. There is a lot to see and do in this mountaneous region and I was never bored. However, it was not just the beautiful landscape and the fun activities that made me fall in love with Sagada. It was also its laid back, friendly people and the relaxed atmosphere. The small town with its narrow streets and the beautifully furnished wooden houses is a place where you can truly forget time.

The costs

Sagada is very affordable as it provides cheap accommodation and food, and the tours are not expensive either. An average day here including your stay in a single room and three meals should not cost you more than 1215 Pesos (23 USD).

Accommodation: 350 Pesos

Food: 475 Pesos

Tours: 390 Pesos

 

 

Banaue

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White sandy beaches, idyllic islands, lush palm trees and dense jungle – this is what the Philippines is known for. However, if you want to discover a different side of this island nation, you should visit Banaue in the north of Luzon.

Banaue lies in Ifugao, a province that was only truly controlled by the government after WW2. Due to its remote location, it retained a lot of its traditional way of life even in the face of colonizers and invaders. Even today, local customs, laws and decisions made by a council of village-elders plays an important role in this mountaneous region.

The easiest starting point to Banaue is Manila. The bus ride should cost around 500 Pesos (9 USD). The name of the bus company is Ohayami Trans, and the bus ride takes about 8 hours. The ride on the winding mountain roads is not always pleasant, but it is the only option to get there, because there is no airport. I strongly advise visitors to book their tickets early, on order not to get a dreaded „center seat“, which is very uncomfortable.

The ride, however, is well worth it when you see the flat land give way to rolling hills. Banaue itself is a small town, but there are enough guesthouses and hostels, and the town with its narrow streets and small houses has a lovely atmosphere. In family-owned shops you can see the famous Ifugao wood carvings, and in the evening dances are held i front of the town hall. The close-knit community, so it seemed to me, is very keen on keeping their culture alive, while at the same time being very open to foreigners.

Once you have registered at the tourist office, you can either go hiking on your own, or choose from the available tours. My hostel, the Pink Banaue Hostel, offers 2-day-tours to Batad for 2000 Pesos (37 USD) – a fair price compared to other tours that are offered. Batad is the most popular destination in the Banaue and arguable has the most beautiful rice terrasses.

On the first day you start by taking a van to a view point outside of Banaue. Here you can already see the rice terrasses. The hiking trail is pretty straight forward and is situated next to the terraces, some of which are 2000 years old. It is not hard to see why rice plays such an important role in the region´s lore and customs. The rice terrasses are great works of engineering and are still cultivated by hand. A slow and difficult process, because every rice seedling has to be planted manually. On your way and in the small hamlets along the terraces you will be greeted by what I can only describe as the sweetest, kindest people in the Philippines. Life in the mountains may be difficult, but the locals are genuinely interested in foreigners and very welcoming.

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Building such a rice terrace can well take a hundred years.
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Planting the rice seedlings is a work that is mostly done by women.
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The locals do not grow only rice, but also vegetables and even pineapples.

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If you book a 2 day tour, you will spend the night in a small, cosy homestay. The food was good and nothing will disturb your sleep here. However, do not expect internet or any cell phone signal.

On the next day, you will continue the rest of the way to Batad. The path gets quite steep, but the view on top is definitely worth it. On a clear day you will have a beautiful panorama of the rice terraces and the majestic mountains in the background.

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After gorging your eyes on the breathtaking view, it is time to hike to your last stop – the Tappiyah-Wasserfällen. The trail that leads to it is infamous for its incline and quite demanding. The waterfall itself is quite tall and impressive. You can also swim there, although not directly underneath it.

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All in all, a trip to Banaue is a must for every Philippines tourist, even though it takes some time to get there. The landscape is pleasently different, the local culture and artworks interesting, and I immediately fell in love with the locals. If you decide to go, do pack some rain gear as it rains regularly in Banaue. The nights get a bit colder as well, so long clothes are recommended.

El Nido (Palawan)

El Nido

El Nido is neither a pretty town, nor is it a party place or a town where you can relax. However, El Nido does not have to be either of these things, because it sports the most beautiful landscapes and islets in the Philippines, maybe the whole South East Asia. Enough reason for most travellers to the Philippines to pay the town in the north of Palawan a visit.

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El Nido Canopy Walk

Even in the city you cannot miss the majestic lime stone rocks that El Nido is famous for. If you want to enjoy a nice view of El Nido Bay, but have only limited rock-climbing skills, look no further than the Canopy Walk: For 500 Pesos (9,5 USD) you can climb a limestone rock on a scaffold. Although the walk is very safe, you might have an adrenaline rush when crossing a shaking bridge. The walk is pretty short, though. After about 20 minutes you reach the viewpoint where you can have a photo taken (that you have to pay for later, of course). All in all, the price is quite hefty, but the view on top of the rock was enough compensation for me. Experienced climbers, however, might feel bored.

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View of El Nido

Of course, when you are in El Nido, you will want to enjoy its beaches. One of the most beautiful by far is Nacpan Beach, which takes roughly 1 hour to reach by tricycle. The ride is very bumpy,  but well worth it if you want to relax on one of the nicest beaches in the Philippines with soft, pearly white sand and crystal-clear water. You can also enjoy a romantic sunset here before you make your way back to El Nido proper.

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Island Hopping in El Nido

No visit to El Nido would be complete without an Island Hopping tour. In El Nido you have the choice between 4 tours. I would recommend a tour with a good balance of Snorkeling spots, caves and islets. The price is around 1200 Pesos (23 USD), including lunch.

Our tour started at Entalula Island. Here we went Snorkeling at the corral reef. Our guide warned us about jellyfish, but I did not encounter any. A very beautiful reef, though maybe not as nice as the ones in Port Barton.

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Next stop was Snake Island. Like Starfish Island near Port Barton, this is a sandbank which gets completely submerged in the course of a day. If you come before noon, however, you can still access it. Walk through a mangrove forest and up a hill and you can enjoy a beautiful view of the sandbank and the nearby lime stone rocks.

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The next stop was Cudugnon Cave, which can only be ontered via a small entrance. The cave itself sports interesting coloured rocks. If you are not afraid of heights, you can climb up to a view point inside the cave.

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After a bit of climbing, lunch was ready. And I was not disappointed. Expect freshly grilled fish, chicken, shrimps, rice, vegetables, along with mangoes, pineaplle and water melon. It was delicious and I advise everybody to book an island tour with lunch included.

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Thus nurished, you can make your way to Cathedral Cave, which can only be accessed by boat. With its form and height it resembles a cathedral, and while I did not have any spiritual feelings there, it is an interesting structure that makes for a good photo opportunity.

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However, the best was yet to come – in the form of Pinagbuyutan Island. If I were ever to be stranded on an island, this would definitely be my choice. Pinagbuyutan has everything: pearly white sandy beach, lush palm trees, majestic cliffs and an awe-inspiring view of the surrounding lime stone rocks. Definitely one of the most beautiful islands in the Philippines, if not South East Asia.

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If you want to relax on the beach without venturing to far from El Nido Proper, you can go to Marimegmeg Beach. It lies only a 20 minute drive from the town, and while it is not as scenic as Nacpan Beach, it is definitely a relaxing spot for swimming, sunbathing and watersports.

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The Verdict

If you visit Palawan, you have to visit El Nido. The town itself might not be pretty and can get quite crowded, but the breathtaking scenery makes up for this quite easily. You will definitely want to take an Island Hopping tour there, to see the majestic lime stone rocks up close. It also has some beautiful beaches, although some are not that easy to get to.

El Nido is probably the most touristic place in Palawan – accordingly, expect prices to be somewhat higher than in the rest of the country. You can still find reasonably cheap accomodation, but it is not always easy, at least in high season. And while I was able to find a cheap eatery, the more touristy restaurants are quite expensive, compared to other tourist spots.

The costs

A typical day in El Nido, including an Island Hopping tour should not cost you more than 2100 Pesos (40 USD) if you stay in a hostel rather than a hotel.

Accommodation: 500 Pesos

Food: 400 Pesos

Island Hopping Tour: 1200 Pesos

Port Barton (Palawan)

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If you are visiting Palawan, chances are that you will arrive in Puerto Princesa and want to make your way to El Nido. However, flights are not that cheap, and an 8 hour ride in a crowded van across bad roads is not for the faint of heart. Luckily, between the two cities lies the town of Port Barton, a quiet, idyllic getaway. It is often advertised as „similar to El Nido, but only half as expensive“, and why that is not entirely true, there are many reasons to stop in this sleepy town in the middle of nowhere.

Upon arrival you will immediately feel the difference to Puerto Princesa and El Nido. There are hardly any cars, most houses are made of wood, and the dominant sound is the zirping of cicada in the lush palm trees. All in all, Port Barton is a town where time seems to stand still. However, make no mistake – the place has seen a remarkable transition from a small fishing town to an increasingly popular tourist destination, without catering to mass tourism yet. Port Barton offers a wide variety of guest houses and homestays where you can get a room for as cheap as 350 Pesos (6,5 USD) a night. Of course the remote location of the town comes with a price: Internet is barely existent, and even electricity is only available from 6 to 12 pm. Needless to say, there is no ATM, so bring enough cash if you want to avoid the trip back to Puerto Princesa.

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Papawyan Falls

A popular and easily accessible tourist attraction are the Papawyan Falls, about 5 km from Port Barton. The waterfalls are neither as spectacular as the Tumalog Falls in Oslob, nor as big as the Kawasan Falls in Moalboal, but they are less crowded, and the entrance is free. You can swim in the clear water underneath the falls. However, my personal highlight was the hike towards the waterfalls. Port Barton offers an impressive, almost untouched scenery of rolling hills and lush vegetation. Palm trees, banana plants and elephant grass scatter dominate the landscape, alternated by beautiful rice fields. All in all, the scenery is definitely a main reason to visit Port Barton.

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It is best to stay in the shades during the midday heat…
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…or have a relaxing mud bath.
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Other animals are a bit harder to spot.

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Island Hopping in Port Barton

They say, one goes to El Nido for the island, but to Port Barton for the corral reefs. A statement that everybody should test for themselves. If you want to take an Island Hopping tour in Port Barton you should look directly at the beach, as there are many organizers. The average price of 600 PHP (11 USD) per person is definitely cheaper than in Honda Bay or El Nido. What is more, you do not have to find a group of people, since the prices are per person.

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You can book your Island Hopping tour directly at the beach.

I can recommend the following tour that covers 4 islands:

The first stop is Twin Reef, a popular Snorkeling spot where you can see an impressive variety of colourful fish. But be very of jellyfish.

Next, the boat heads towards German Island, called thus because it was rented and turned into a resort by a German guy some years ago. The island looks very scenic, however, there is not much there except the resort. Not worth the entrance fee of 100 Pesos (2 USD) in my opinion.

The next stop was an area known for its sea turtles. You will be very likely to spot at least one of the gentle creatures. However, because it is a popular destination, every turtle in the water will inevitably be surrounded by a throng of divers with their cameras. If you come to the Philippines mainly to see turtles, Moalboal and North Pandan Island are much better spots.

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German Island

My definite Snorkeling highlight was Fantastic Reef, which does not bear its name for nothing. Nowhere else (except maybe in Moalboal) was I so fascinated by the variety of fish and the size of the corrals. Definitely one of the best Snorkeling spots I have seen in the Philippines.

The last stop was Starfish Island. Strictly speaking it is not an island, but a sandbank that gets fully submerged in the course of a day. Therefore, if you arrive midday, you can still walk on what is left of the sand bank, relax in the surf or go Snorkeling. There are colourful corrals on display here, along gardens of sea weed that provide shelter for all kinds of small fish.

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All in all, I can wholeheartedly recommend Port Barton to anyone who is visiting Palawan. It is definitely less crowded and cheaper than El Nido. What is more, the beautiful scenery, the friendly people and the laid-back atmosphere makes it a place where you can truly forget your worries for a few days. Of course its remote location comes with a price, and you will have to live without fast internet and 24/7 electricity here. But for me this was a nice change and made the small sleepy town even more loveable, and I hope that Port Barton will retain its rural charme even when tourist numbers increase.

The costs

All in all, a whole day in Port Barton, including an Island Hopping trip and a room in a homestay should not cost you more than 1350 Pesos (26 USD).

Accommodation: 350 Pesos

Food: 400 Pesos

Island Hopping Tour: 600

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Rice left to dry on the road – a common sight in Port Barton.

 

Puerto Princesa (Palawan)

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Palawan has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Philippines. While most backpackers are naturally drawn towards the scenic islets and majestic lime stone rocks of El Nido, going to Puerto Princesa in the south has a few advantages: It is cheaper, both in terms of flights from Manila and in terms of accomodation, and it offers some unique sights that one should not miss when visiting Palawan.

Puerto Princesa Subterrean River

Puerto Princesa proper has not much to offer except a lot of restaurants, bars and night clubs. However there is one attraction well worth visiting: the Puerto Princesa Subterrean River, an underground river roughly 2 hours away from the city. Geographically, Sabang, home to the Subterrean River, is situated midway between Puerto Princesa and Port Barton. However, because of the layout of the roads, one has to come back to Princesa to be able to drive to Sabang.

To get to the river, you have to book a tour at the Sabang Visitor Centre. There you have to pay an environmental fee plus the costs of the boat. Even if you are alone, the staff of the visitor centre are very helpful and can arrange group tours to split the costs. All in all, a tour of the Subterrean River should cost no more than 1000 Pesos (19 USD).

The boat takes you to the mound of the river, where you have to go the rest of the way on foot. There one receives a life vest and a helmet plus an audio guide.

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On the way to the Subterrean River

Once at the entrance of the actual underground river you hop on a rowing boat and begin your journey into the darkness. The river flows through a cave that was formed millions of years ago. The cave, known for its sheer size and its varied rock formations, is unique in the world. 1999 it was acknowledged as a World´s Natural Heritage by UNESCO. One can easily sense  why. Once you are in the cave you enter a totally different world: a stone cathedral of majestic size, home to enormous stalactites and thousands of bats (because of that you should keep your mouth closed when you look up in the cave).

At one point during the tour the captain will switch off his flashlight, and you will be surrounded by total darkness. However, most of the time, the guide will use his flashlight to point out a variety of iconic rock formations, e.g. the head of a T-Rex, a female looking structure dubbed Sharon Stone, or a series of rocks looking like vegetables. You don´t need a lot of imagination to spot the formations and the variety is impressive. All in all, I can whole-heartedly recommend a tour through the cave since it is unique in the world and truly breath-taking.

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The entrance to the Subterrean River

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Honda Bay Island Hopping

If you are in Puerto Princesa for more than one day, you should also consider an Island Hopping Tour at Honda Bay. If you are not familiar with the concept, this is how it works: You rent a boat for a day and arrange for the captain to go to a number of small islands for a fixed price. There you spend as much time as you want, before you signal the captain to head to the next islet.

To get from Puerto Princesa to Honda Bay you best ignore the taxi offers and take a Jeepney, which takes about 30 minutes. At Honda Bay you pay a fixed price for your boat, depending on the islands you want to go to. To reduce costs, it is good to be in a large group or to join one, which the tour guides are more than happy to help you with.  The price for 4 islets is 1000 Pesos (19 USD).

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If you are at Honda Bay anyway you should not miss the Buddhist Temple.

The first island on my tour was Cowrie Island, just a few minutes from Honda Bay. Cowrie is privately owned, like most islets in the area. If you are not staying at the island resorts, you have to pay a visitor fee of 50-100 Pesos (1-2 Dollars). Cowrie Island is most known for its fine white sand and the clean beach. You can swim here and eat the restaurant. Otherwise there is not much to see, and it is not a Snorkeling spot, so I would not recommend spending more than 1 hour here.

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The second stop was Starfish Island. The island got its name due to the many Starfishs that can supposedly be seen here (however I did not spot a single one). It is a Snorkeling spot, but not a great one because the marine life here is rather dull and not impressive compared to the many corral reefs in Palawan.

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The next island was technically not an island, but a man-made platform in the ocean. Here you can see huge swarms of sardines and snorkel at an extensive corral reef. The corrals might not be as colorful as in places like Moalboal or North Pandan, but the fish here are pretty big and impressive. An absolute highlight of the Island Hopping Tour.

The last island – Luli Island – is remarkable because of its C-shape. It consists of a circular sandbank which is only visible at low tide, and a mangrove forest. It is also a Snorkeling spot where some impressive schools of fish can be spotted in the shallows.

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All in all, Island Hopping at Honda Bay was worth it – even so if you consider that you can get at tour for as cheap as 450 Pesos (8,5 USD) per person. The islands all have fine white sand, crystal clear water and nice vegetation, even though they are not as impressive as the limestone islets of El Nido or Krabi, Thailand. However, if you are looking for some island fun for a reasonable price, Honda Bay is THE place to go in the Philippines.

The costs

On average, expect to pay 1600 Pesos (30 USD) on an Island Hopping day:

Accommodation: 350

Food: 380

Transportation: 420

Island Hopping: 450