I thought I was going back to South East Asia by going for 2 weeks in the Philippines. But the Archipelago, located on the edge of the coral triangle, has a unique feel. I couldn’t help thinking I was in a baffling mix of Indonesia and Mexico. Colonised by the Spanish for more than 300 years from 1591 with the arrival of Magellan to 1898 when it became American until WWII, the Philippines feel more like Latin America with an Asian twist. English is one of the official languages with Filipino (Tagalog). Yet, within the hundreds of dialects spoken in the country, the Cebuano (or Visaya), spoken all around the Visayan Archipelago, kept many words inherited from Spanish. Money, time, food… by carefully listening, speaking Spanish was surprisingly useful from Cebu to Dumaguete.
Today, the Philippines is a paradise for scuba divers looking for some of the best diving in South-East Asia without breaking the bank. Obviously, scuba diving comes back often in the list of fun things to do in the Philippines, especially in the Visayas Islands, which concentrate the largest number of dive sites of the country.
My island-hopping itinerary in the Visayas
Like many tourists in the Philippines, I could have booked domestic flights and visited the entire country in 3 weeks by spending no more than 2 days in each place. However, When I realised how many extraordinary dive sites there were in the Visayas, I decided not to fly to further islands but to focus on this amazing archipelago, and to travel slower.
I only covered the heart of the Visayas with the islands of Cebu, Bohol, Negros and Malapascua. For a first trip to the Philippines, it was actually perfect and I could spend quality time with all the fantastic people I met during this journey.
Day 1 / 4 – Cebu Island
Cebu City is the biggest city of the Visayas and the 5th biggest of the Philippines. It is the gateway to island-hopping in the Visayas.
With lively and colourful areas to walk around (Carbon market, Fuente square, Mango square) and some really interesting historical sites (Magellan Cross, Santo Niño Basilica), Cebu City was an interesting introduction to the Philippines and its history.
I had booked 2 nights at a 4-star hotel near Ayala Shopping Mall to recover from jetlag. Just enough time to take some rest, to buy a local cell phone and I could hit the road again.
On the same island, 3 hours away by bus, you can reach Moalboal on the other side of the island. Once you arrive in Moalboal, you will have to negotiate your ride by tricycle to reach Panagsama Beach. Panagsama is a small village with one street along the shore where all the scuba diving centres and accommodation are next to each other.
Moalboal is famous among scuba divers for Pescador Island and its big shoals of sardines. Some divers decided to nickname it “the sardine run” like in South Africa, but it is not really the same scale. At the time of my visit, sardines were all along Panagsama’s shores, jumping everywhere around the boat at our departure and arrival. We didn’t see a single sardine near Pescador Island. According to the locals, the latest typhoons could be the reason for this change.
Generally speaking, diving in Moalboal has been the cheapest place I have been for scuba diving: between my private room at Moalboal Backpackers Lodge and each dive at 900 PHP (without equipment and including park fees), this is simply unbeatable.
The cavern in Pescador called “Cathedral” was quite a nice dive too, but I found the soft corals on the outer walls more impressive than the cavern itself.
I was impressed by the Filipino Divemasters, they have eagle-eyes! The macro critters, the turtles and one of my favourites, the porcelain crab, they know exactly where everything is along Panagsama beach and around Pescador Island.
Day 5 / 7 – Bohol Island
Bohol is famous all over the Philippines for the Chocolate Hills (due to the colour of the vegetation during the dry season) and the tarsier, the smallest primate in the world (everyone kept insisting primate doesn’t necessarily mean monkey).
There is a high chance you’ll arrive and end your discovery tour of Bohol in Tagbilaran… by far the least pleasant town I have been to, but due to the different schedules of bus and ferries, there is also a high chance you’ll spend 1 or 2 nights there like me and many other travellers.
If so, for a safe and clean place to stay, with incredibly kind service, breakfast included and central location to go anywhere in the island: go to Nisa Travellers Hotel (12 Carlos P. Garcia Av.), it was the best value I found during my trip.
It was a good idea to share my time between Panglao and Sagbayan in the Chocolate Hills Natural Park, to see two sides of Bohol. I went from the touristy Alona beach to the middle of Bohol countryside, between rice paddies and lush jungle.
Regarding the Chocolate Hills, I recommend going on a motorbike tour to explore more of the rural side of Bohol. The view at the observatory was nice but I found my day getting lost in the hills way more exciting.
Panglao was an excellent place to stay as a scuba diver. Without any prior booking, I found my happy place within 1 hour with a reasonable package of diving with accommodation at Alone Beach,
However, Alona Beach tends to be somewhat too busy and noisy to my tastes. When I wasn’t diving, I escaped by going to the market of Panglao Village or the Bohol Coco Farm which is both a restaurant and a guesthouse.
Scuba diving along Alona Reef didn’t disappoint me. Almost all the macro animals I ever wanted to see were there, including porcelain crabs and ornate ghost pipefish, but unfortunately, no pygmy seahorse. Visibility was just average, between 15 and 20 m, but the water temperature was comfortable at 28°C
Just a bit further away, the islet of Balicasag is a marine protected area and a paradise for turtles. On each dive, I saw at least 5 turtles with even sometimes 3 at the same time. On my last diving day at Balicasag, I was surprised to 3 big frogfish together.
Day 8 / 10 – Negros Island
Surprisingly, I found out on the ferry between Tagbilaran and Dumaguete that most travellers were stopping on Siquijor Island and not visiting Negros Island.
Negros is the island of the sugar cane industry. It is mainly used to make the national liquor: the Tanduay rum (gasoline colour but amazing flavour). On the south part of this island, one of the largest in the Visayas, lies the town of Dumaguete, which seems to be only known by scuba divers.
The town had a beautiful promenade along the sea and a huge market where you can find every type of food from everywhere in the country. Take the opportunity to taste a delicious “halo-halo” ice-cream or a “bod-bod” coco rice pudding. From the nearby town of Valencia, you can also go exploring the lakes and waterfalls of the mountains of Negros.
Just a 20 minutes drive south, I was impressed by the muck diving sites of Dauin the divemaster of Liquid Dive Resort took me to. If you love macro critters and underwater photography, don’t miss the opportunity to dive in Dauin.
Read the full story of my diving experience there on my article Muck diving in Dauin.
Day 11 / 14 – Malapascua Island
If you are a scuba diver, you just can’t go island-hopping in the Visayas without visiting Malaspacua to try diving with the famous thresher shark!
Before my trip, I had arranged to meet up with friends I made during my divemaster training so I spent more time in Malapascua than indicated. In such a small island, it was a kind of daring bet for me to stay for a week.
In the end, I wish I could have added a couple more days: there are so many good dive sites all around the island, amazing day trips to further islands without forgetting beautiful walks around the island’s beaches and villages. I stayed a couple of nights at my friends’ house, then I moved to a quiet guesthouse at the very end of Bounty Beach.
Read the full story of the thrill of scuba diving with the thresher shark in Malapascua on my article Diving in Malapascua.
When is the best season to go diving in the Philippines?
Generally speaking, the best season to go scuba diving in the Philippines goes from November to June. Good to know, thresher sharks in Malapascua can be seen all year round so you can go island-hopping in the Visayas anytime.
In my case, I have visited the Visayas over the Christmas holidays, from the end of December to the beginning of January. Weather was mostly hot and sunny, except for a small typhoon two days before NYE. The water temperature was between 28 and 29°C.
Unfortunately, the visibility was not at its best, especially in Malapascua with 10 to 20 m. The visibility would be the best between March and June.
How to go to and travel around the Visayas Islands?
My main target was Malapascua and having heard Manila was not the nicest place in the Philippines, I looked for a flight arriving directly to Cebu. Thanks to the Mactan-Cebu International Airport, you can fly direct to the Visayas from South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore or Dubai.
In my case, I few with Korean Air from Paris to Cebu via Seoul. Thanks to a 12 hour stopover, I could visit the Korean capital city. I loved it so much that I promised myself to return !
Once on Cebu Island, you can travel all around the Visayas Archipelago thanks to the network of buses and ferries. For scuba divers, it has a great advantage since you can scuba dive every day by avoiding flying domestically :
- I took the bus between Cebu City and Moaboal, between Dumaguete and Cebu City, and between Cebu City and Maya (Malapascua).
- No trip to the Philippines would be complete without travelling at least once in a colourful jeepney which serves as a short-distance bus. I mostly used them in Bohol, between Tagbilaran and Panglao, and in Negros, between Dumaguete and Dauin.
- I took the ferry between Cebu and Bohol, Bohol and Negros, and Negros and Cebu.
- In the case of Malapascua, once you arrive at the tiny harbour of Maya, you need to take a traditional bangka boat to transfer to the island.
Ideas for a next trip island-hopping in the Visayas
While I managed to visit 4 islands while island-hopping in the Visayas, here are the places I couldn’t go. These spots are definitely going to my bucket list for my next trip:
- Apo island, near Negros: due to a typhoon, my day trip to Apo Island was cancelled. That’s ok, I’ll do it next time!
- Cabilao Island, near Bohol: it seems really quiet and beautiful, and I still want to see a pygmy seahorse which Cabilao is famous for.
- Padre Burgos, in South Leyte: I heard about it from a couple of travellers. Contrary to Oslob, where they feed whale sharks to let you snorkel with them, in Padre Burgos you can see them in the wild.
- Siquijor Island, between Bohol and Negros islands: most travellers stop there when going to the south of the Visayas instead of going to Negros. It seems the myth about all the witchery on the island has a big impact. Siquijor seems to have great wall diving and beautiful beaches.
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