I have had a strong urge to visit the Philippines ever since the first time I saw a Photo of the Kawasan Falls. Every photo I see of the Philippines from fellow photographers looks like a post card from paradise! Recently Condé Nast Traveler recently ranked Cebu the number 5 island in the world!
I had a few concerns about traveling to the Philippines though. Muslim extremists in the south, Pirates on the seas and the new President that recently took office. The first two we will get to later. As for President Rodrigo Duterte, he wooed the people with promises of cleaning the streets of drug dealers and crime. He took office on June 30th and boy did he keep his promise!
By the time I had left for the Philippines there was reports of over 2,000 people killed from Dutertes “War on Drugs.” A few weeks later those reports were over 6,000 people dead. 2,000 by government officials and the rest by unknown gunmen in return for a bounty. The stories I was hearing sounded less like the present time and more like something from a John Wayne movie!
Here is a link to Time Magazines recent article. http://time.com/philippines-drug-war/
So I had a lot of thinking to do but the more that people told me I may not want to go there right now, the stronger my curiosity got! You can ask my mother, I was never one for listening. I do not use drugs, but me being a guy with tattoos and piercings, I was concerned that I might end up on the wrong end of this war. And then I looked at a few more photos of Kawasan Falls and that was all I needed to know that I had a flight to book.
That week waiting for the flight had come and gone and 30 hours of traveling later I had landed in Cebu. I grabbed my backpack and left the airport looking for the cheapest most raggedy taxi I could find. There were fresh clean white ones all lined up in front of the airport with men in proper uniforms. I knew that wasn’t for me. Then I saw local people around the corner standing in a line to get into these beat up yellow Nissan sentras. After waiting my turn I hailed my cab to the Pacific Cebu Resort on the Island of Mactan. The price seemed more than fair but of course I hired the one person in the country that doesn’t speak English! I got a laugh out of that.
I knew traveling to the other side of earth was going to take a toll on my clock so I booked a nice room for the first two nights in Asia. The first day by 3pm I couldn’t function any more. I rested my eyes for a moment and the next thing I knew it was 1am! After stalking the internet for photo ideas in the Philippines until sun rise I went to the onsite 24 hour convenient store and bought a few beers. The staff didn’t know what to do when I walked into the breakfast with 2 bottles of San Miguel in my hand.
This resort is definitely not the nicest I have ever stayed but the ground are full of views. Three pools, one of which is used for dive training, a small beach, tennis courts and a small gym. The breakfast though.. Now that was incredible! Everything you could ever want in a breakfast and many things that had no business being there but it was impressive. A table of food fit for a king! In front of the restaurant there is also a long pier that you can walk. At low tide there are local people scavenging the shores looking for anything that they can sell. “Hello sir. Would you like some souvenirs?” This gentleman asked me. That was one of the first things I realized about the people of the Philippines. They all seemed so polite! Even if they were trying to talk you into something they knew you didn’t want they were polite and did it with a smile. I also remember thinking this was one of the only places in the world that if you didn’t want something, no meant no. They give you a smile and let you go about your day. This fella spent hours sitting on the pier cleaning shells to sell. We talked about his shark tattoo and I showed him my shark tattoo. He told me anything that I needed from snorkeling, to boat tours, to advise, he was my man.
After a few days of relaxing by the pool it was time for the real journey to begin. I learned two lessons very quickly after leaving that resort. One don’t ever travel in Cebu City anywhere that you don’t have to during business hours! It took me about 2 hours to get three miles from Mactan, over the bridge to the mainland. The sun beating on my face the whole way to the bus terminal. And number two, just because you ask the taxi driver if he has a taxi meter does not mean that he is going to turn it on! A half hour into the trip I realized that the meter hadn’t changed. I asked what was wrong with the meter and he said it was broken. After refusing to pay the 500 peso he asked me for and tried to get out of the cab in traffic his tune changed real fast and we agreed on about half that. You always have to keep your eye on the cabbies. I think I have seen every single trick in the book done by these guys while traveling around the world. Its their job to make money for dinner and usually your job to keep them honest.
From the South Bus Terminal to my next stop of Boljoon, the ride from the city to the south of Cebu was about two hours. This was the first time traveling in almost 30 countries that I could sit on a bus with local people and have a conversation! That was really something special for me. I talked to a local girl about her growing up on a farm on the island south of Cebu called Negros. We talked about the local political situation, good places to hike and the mountains on her island. It was really nice to be able to travel a place and properly communicate with the local people. While we were talking, I showed the drivers helper a photo of my hostel and two hours later they dropped me off at the Noordzee Hostel. Now this place seemed less like a hostel and more like a resort! A swimming pool overlooking the ocean, cabanas on the shore, a restaurant bar with a view and even a koi pond.
The property had two armed guards on the grounds at all times which I thought was a bit much but hey safety first. That was my thought until I read about the travel advisory put out by the USA advising no one visit the cities of Dalaguete and Santanders. Advising against travel because of muslim extremist threats of kidnapping. I just so happened to be in between those two towns and I guess that explained the two armed guards at the hostel. But I walked these towns with my own two feet, got lunch and a haircut. Nothing seemed out of the norm and the people were exceptionally nice! Every person that I talked to about this travel advisory all seemed to know nothing about why it was issued and even the Philippine government asked for any evidence that there was a reason for concern. As for me I had no problems. I got a hair cut on a bucket in front of a chicken coupe on the side of the road for $1! Whats not to like about that.
From Noordzee Hostel you can organize your trip to Oslob to swim with the whale sharks. I have been chasing these majestic creatures for years. In South America I went to coastal towns hours out of my way just for the hopes that I could see one in person. I went to an island in Mexico that is a big part of their migration pattern during the mating season but of course I arrived a few weeks to late. So I figured this is one of the things that the Philippines is known for. I have to give it a try!
Oslob is only a 30 minute bus ride from the hostel and they drop you off right at the entrance. (Well they actually drop you off at the hotel next to the Whale Center and the hotel charges you 100 peso extra to do the exact same tour.) I left at 6am to make sure I beat the crowds of people I had earlier heard about. After arriving though I was really a bit disappointed at what I saw. They took me out in a boat about 30 meters from shore and there was another guy sitting on his boat dumping what I assume is some kind of plankton into the water. I did not feel good about it but I was already there so I jumped into the water and from there I have to be honest I was amazed.
There were five whale sharks swimming around me. They were so big and beautiful! One swam towards me with his mouth open and right when I thought my arm was going in, he turned away. This went on for about 20 minutes and then I looked to the shore and saw more and more people showing up. I really didn’t feel good about this at all. In my opinion any animal being fead by humans isn’t doing its job in the wild and this was no different. Though this was not a zoo, they do have the option to stop being so lazy and swim away any time they want! It just didn’t seem right. Then I went back to the hostel and read about how this is a terrible diet for the whale shark and it is going to cause reproductive issues for them. I also read that whats happening in Oslob is stopping the proper migration patterns for mating as well. I later found out about many other places in the Philippines that you have an excellent chance to see them in their natural habitat without doing more damage then good. The Miss Universe candidates went the there the day after I was and many were outraged at them for this as well.
From Boljoon I took the bus to Santander and switched to a bus going up the opposite coast for Moalboal. This town is a good starting point for many tour opportunities. Its a 45 minute tricycle ride to the Kawasan Falls, you can also do canyoneering here, the sardine run and there is also many good restaurants and bars in the vicinity. I stayed a few nights at Chief Mao Hostel. Nice beds, AC and a good breakfast. (Not included) It is also a 1 minute walk from the ocean.
After a long night of “exploring” all of the bars that the town had to offer until the early morning, on a few hours of sleep I woke up to go fetch a snorkel and mask. I rented one for 100 pesos ($2) for the day. I tried snorkeling a few spots off the shore with no sardines in site. Then I saw a local kid swimming and asked him where he was hiding all of the fish. He waved me to follow him. We walked a minute or two down the beach and he dove into the water. I followed him swim out about 10 meters as the earth began to drops off a giant cliff. As I swam out over the deep water I started to see the ocean light up like glitter!
Before I knew it I was completely surrounded by walls of sardines. They were everywhere! Local people said that a few years earlier they didn’t have the sardines in Moalboal. I don’t know where they come from but it truly was a site to see! If you have a bit more time and want the truly epic photograph you can go diving here directly from the shore and get a photo from underneath the sardines to get the true effect.
The next morning I was up early with one thing on my mind. The mighty Kawasan! And I really wanted to beat any crowds of people. I flagged a tricycle (rickshaw Moto taxi) and negotiated a price to take me to the Falls. They told me that 700 pesos ($14) was the standard rate to take me there and wait for the return trip but I talked him down to 500 pesos. Its amazing how far a smile and a couple of jokes will get you in the world. 45 minutes down the winding coast later and I arrived in a church parking lot. I didn’t know where to go so I just started walking down a path into the jungle. A beautiful green river lined the trail and a few bamboo huts with women selling fruit on the opposite side.
After about 15 minutes of walking I got to a little village and was starting to have my doubts if I was on the right track but it was so beautiful I wasn’t turning back.
Another five minutes around the bend and I started to hear the crash of water in the distance. Local kids with huge sacks of rice passed me and smiled. A few steps later and I arrived..
To be honest the falls themselves weren’t as big as I had imagined especially after already seeing some of the biggest in the world but I have NEVER witnessed water like this! There was just a few people here and most of them worked at the nearby restaurant. It was just me, this gal, a bamboo raft and the sound of the water crashing.
I don’t know how I got so lucky because I had heard stories of this place crawling with people but I just sat and admired the nature around me. This was what I came here for..
If you follow the trail on the left of the falls up you can get an unbelievable view from above!
After admiring the view from above for a while a police officer that was walking the grounds told me to follow the trail up another 15 minutes and there was another set of falls. I think lots of people come here and don’t know about the second falls. They also told me that if you have proper shoes another 20 minutes up a muddy trail there is a third set of falls that are meant to be really beautiful but I didn’t go that far.
Getting to and from-
Buses leave the south bus terminal every 30 minutes or less heading south to Santander. There is a bus also on the other side of the island that runs every 30 minutes. Prices depend on the pick up and drop off point. From Boljoon to Moalboal took about 2.5 hours. I took a mini bus from Moalboal to Cebu City and it dropped everyone off in Mactan. You can also take the public bus but takes about an hour longer.
Where to stay-
Boljoon- Noordzee Hostel- 500 Pesos ($10) Does not include breakfast but has great options to buy.
Moalboal- Cheif Mau Hostel- 400 Peso ($8) Also no breakfast but ala cart breakfast menu is good and cheap.