I thought I was going back to South East Asia another time… I was wrong and so surprised at what I found in the Philippines. It was definitely different but in the end, it was better than expected. Why? It was like all my previous trips in Asia and Latin America prepared me to blend into this country naturally… I couldn’t help thinking I was somewhere between Indonesia and Mexico, which is actually not so wrong geographically speaking. Colonised by the Spanish for more than 300 years from 1591 with the arrival of Magellan to 1898 when it became American until WWII, being in the Philippines feels like being in Latin America with an Asian twist. Like the national super sweet dessert “Halo-Halo” which means “Mix-Mix”, Filipinos are very proud of their mixed origins. 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 a lot of words inherited from Spanish. Money, time, food… by carefully listening I could understand what people were talking about in many situations.
If you add the incredible hospitality and kindness of Filipinos (my experience of staying with 2 families during my trip just overwhelmed me), it is needless to explain too much why I felt at home. Of course, the ability to communicate in English with everyone, even in the most remote places in the country, helped me to make friends all along the way. In a nutshell, it was like everything I like about Asia and Latin America, here in one country. Unfortunately, no experience in the Philippines would be complete without a wake-up call from nature. In 2013, the Visayas were hit really hard by Yolanda (Haiyan) typhoon and Bohol Earthquake. Signs of the damages and symbol of all the lost lives were everywhere. It was maybe nothing but the small typhoon and the small earthquake I had during my trip already made an impression on me. Yet, Filipinos have this extraordinary philosophy “what will be will be” and they keep smiling and looking towards the future.
My 2-week itinerary in the Visayan Islands
Like most tourists, I could have booked domestic flights and visited the country in 3 weeks by spending no more than 2 days in every place. Palawan, another great place of the Philippines was on my list. 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 and found the perfect one via South Korea (giving me the opportunity to discover Seoul during a long layover)! When, with deeper researches, I realised how rich scuba diving sites the Visayas were and I wouldn’t even be able to cover everything, 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. Another advantage was actually to travel only by bus and ferry, which means being able to dive every day if I wanted to. On the map below, you will find the optimised itinerary of my island hopping tour in the Visayas.
Moalboal: incredible dive spots near Cebu City
Cebu City is the biggest city of the Visayas and the 5th biggest of the Philippines. It is the gateway to discovering this beautiful area of the Philippines. 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), my first day in the Philippines was perfect in Cebu. I had booked 2 nights at a nice 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, only 3 hours away for 160PHP only by bus, you can reach Moalboal on the other side of the island. Facing the mountains of the island of Negros, your final destination will be Panagsama Beach where the action for scuba divers happens. Once you arrive in Moalboal, you will have to negotiate your ride by tricycle to reach Panagsama. The ride should be 30 to 50PHP. Show your best negotiation skills to get this price.
Once in Panagsama, it’s rather quiet. It is a small village with one “street” along the shore where all the scuba diving centres and accommodation are next to each other. I really liked that in only 5 minutes of walking from this area, I could find a local bakery where I could take my breakfast for about 20 PHP. Generally speaking, diving in Moalboal has been the cheapest place I have been for scuba diving: between my private room at Moalboal Backpackers Lodge (350PHP but it could be even cheaper with the dorm) and each dive at 900 PHP (without equipment and including park fees) with Nelson Diving, this is simply unbeatable. Besides, I was happy to dive with the 1st dive shop of Moalboal: Nelson opened in 1979 when just a couple of Italian divers were diving there. Needless to say, they know the area really well.
Moalboal is very famous for its dive site of Pescador Island and its big shoals of sardines. Some are calling it as well the sardine run such as in South Africa (not really the same scale). At the time of my visit, sardines were all along Panagsama’s shores, jumping everywhere around the boat. The sardines were not in Pescador Island at all. According to the locals, the latest typhoons could be the reason for this change. The macro critters, the turtles, moray eels and one of my favourites, the porcelain crab, they know exactly where everything along Panagsama beach and around Pescador Island is. The cavern in Pescador called “Cathedral” was quite a nice dive too. To see more of it, you can watch my video about Pescador Island.
Bohol: the best balance of underwater and land adventures
Bohol is very famous in all 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). Well, to be honest, even it was mostly geared towards tourists, I enjoyed seeing both. But there is always a way of experiencing things off the beaten track, to appreciate them even more.
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, if you are looking for a safe and clean place to stay, with incredibly kind service, breakfast included for only 500PHP and central location to go anywhere in the island: go to Nisa Travellers Hotel, it was the best value I found during my trip. Unfortunately, you can’t book them online, so if you prefer you have something booked before your arrival, the Lucky Place Budget Inn has something similar on offer.
I shared my time between Panglao and the Sagbayan area in the middle of the Chocolate Hills Natural Park. I went from the very touristy Alona beach, which is really convenient for diving, especially in Balicasag, to the middle of the countryside, between the rice paddies and the jungle. The best was definitely taking a motorbike tour around the Chocolate Hills Park because once you’re at the observatory of the Chocolate Hills, it somehow goes too fast: “Ok I’ve seen it”, whereas the experience of getting lost in the hills will lead you to authentic green treasures.
In Panglao, I could wander indefinitely to escape the agitation of Alona beach. One afternoon, I got lost in the village of Panglao, found the market and an ancient church. The following day, I visited an organic coconut farm, the “Bohol Coco Farm”, which has a charming hut style backpacker lodge and a delicious organic restaurant.
All my dives on Alona reef and Balicasag were fascinating: all the macro animals I wanted to see were there (except the pygmy seahorse). Balicasag is the paradise of turtles (at least 5 turtles on every dive, even 3 at the same time). One day I also saw 3 frogfish. Here you can find the video I shot in Balicasag: “Dance with the turtles in Balicasag, Philippines”.
Negros: treasures off the beaten track
Surprisingly, I found out on the ferry between Tagbilaran and Dumaguete that most travellers were stopping on Siquijor and not visiting Negros. Negros is the island of the sugar cane industry. The sugar cane is mainly used to make the national liquor: the Tanduay rum (gasoline colour but amazing flavour). On the south part of this large island, lies the town of Dumaguete. It has an American University, the Silliman Institute, which has one of the best reputations in the country. There is also a really beautiful promenade along the sea and a huge market where you can find everything from a food point of view, from everywhere in the country and appreciate a good halo-halo ice-cream. From the nearby town of Valencia, you can also go exploring the mountains, lakes and waterfalls of the heights of Negros.
Just 20 minutes drive, is the scuba diving hidden gem of Dauin and its fantastic muck diving. If you love macro critters and underwater photography, don’t miss the opportunity to dive in Dauin. To know more about my diving experience there, read my article Muck diving paradise in Dauin, Philippines
Malapascua: the scuba diving paradise of the Visayas
In the time I travelled around the Philippines, I could have gone to many other places, but staying in one place for a longer time at the end of my trip is always my greatest luxury. Before my trip, it had been arranged that I would meet up with the friends I made during my divemaster training in Thailand. This why I spent the last 10 days of my trip to Malapascua. In such a small island, as much of paradise it can be, it was a kind of daring bet for me to stay for so long. In the end, I wish I could have added couple more days to do even more: there are so many good dive sites all around the island, amazing day trips to further islands you can take without forgetting beautiful walks around the island’s beaches and villages. I stayed a couple of nights at my friend’s house, then I moved to a lovely and quiet guesthouse at the very end of Bounty Beach.
To know more about how to get the thrill of the dive with the thresher shark in Monad Shoal and all the fantastic scuba diving day trips you can hop on from Malapascua, read my article Playing hide and seek with the thresher shark in Malapascua.
For my next trip to the Visayas
Below I listed the places I couldn’t go, which 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. Sometimes there is a reason for things not to happen, 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, and for the hammerhead sharks that used to come in the area years ago. I wanted to dive there from Panglao, but if you’re not a group of 6 people, no dive centre will take you there. I should have travelled there by land, but ok it will be also for next time.
- 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 while diving.
- 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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