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 really 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) needless to explain too much why I felt so quickly home. Of course, the ability to communicate in English with everyone even in the most remote places in the country helped me making friends all along the way. In a nutshell, it was like everything I like about Asia and everything I like about Latin America, was here in one single country.
Unfortunately, no experience in the Philippines would be complete without a wake-up call from Nature who is hitting really hard this amazing country. 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 impressed me. Yet, Filipinos have this extraordinary philosophy “What will be will be”. They keep smiling to the future. I wish I could learn this positive survivor mindset.
My 2-week itinerary in the Visayan Islands
I could have done like most tourists, booking domestic flights and visit 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 being 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 of scuba diving sites the Visayas were and I wouldn’t even be able to cover everything, I decided not to fly to the 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. You will find on the map below the optimised itinerary of my island hopping tour in the Visayas.
Moalboal & Pescador Island
Incredible dive spots only couple of hours away from the Cebu City
Cebu nestles the biggest city of the Visayas and the 5th biggest one of the country. 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. Just the 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 arrived 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 skill to get this price (the normal price).
Moalboal is very famous for its scuba diving site of Pescador Island and its big shoals of sardines. Some are calling it as well the sardine run such as in South Africa (let’s be honest it’s 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.
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 really well the area.
The macro critters, the turtles, the moray eels and one of my favourite, the porcelain crab, they know exactly where everything along Panagsama beach and around Pescador Island is. The cavern in Pescador called “Cathedral” was quite nice to dive too.
To see more of it, you can watch my video about Pescador Island.
Bohol, Panglao & Balicasag
The best balance of underwater and land adventures
Bohol is very famous in all Philippines for its Chocolate Hills (due to the colour of the vegetation during the dry season) and its tarsier, the smallest primate in the World (everyone kept insisting primate doesn’t necessarily means monkey, so it’s not a monkey!). Well to be honest, even very touristy, I enjoyed a lot 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 very central to go anywhere in the island: go to Nisa Travellers Hotel, best value I found during my trip.
I shared my time between Panglao and 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 to take 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 as well I could wander to escape for some time 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 (ok 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, Dumaguete & Dauin
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 beverage: the Tanduay rum (gasoline colour but amazing flavour). On the South part of this really large island, lies the town of Dumaguete. It has an American university, the Silliman Institute, which has one of the highest reputations in the country. There is also a really beautiful promenade along the sea and a huge market where you can find absolutely everything from a food point of view from everywhere in the country but also appreciate a good halo-halo and even have your manicure done! From the nearby town of Valencia, you can also go exploring the mountains, lakes and waterfalls of the heights of Negros.
Just 20 minutes driving away, is hidden the scuba diving gem of Dauin and its fantastic muck diving. To know more about my diving experience there, here is an article I wrote about it: Muck diving paradise in Dauin, Philippines
You can also discover muck diving in Dauin with my video “the tiny underwater world of Dauin“
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 1 place for a longer time at the end of my trip is always my greatest luxury. A long time before it was decided I will join the friends I made during my Divemaster. This why I spent the last 10 days of my trip in Malapascua.
In such a small island, as much of paradise, it can be, it was a kind of daring bet for me who like to do things all the time. In the end, I wish I could have added couple more days to do even more: there are some many good dive sites all around the island, amazing day trips to further islands you can take without forgetting beautiful walks in and around the island’s beaches and villages.
To know more about how to get the thrill of the dive with the thresher shark in Monad Shoal, you can read my article: Playing hide and seek with the thresher shark in Malapascua.
To do list for my next trip to the Visayas
You will find the places I haven’t or I couldn’t go which is definitely going to my bucket list for my next trip:
- Apo island near Negros: Due to a typhoon, my day trip to Apo Island has been cancelled, sometimes there is a reason for things not to happen… That’s ok, I’ll do it next time!
- Cabilao in Bohol: It seems really quiet and beautiful, and I still want to see a pygmy seahorse which Cabilao is quite famous for, and not anymore 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 centre will take you there. I should have travelled there by land, but ok it will be for next time:”live and learn!”.
- Padre Burgos in South Leyte: I heard about it from a couple of travellers. Contrary to Oslob where they feed the whale sharks to let you snorkel with them, in Padre Burgos you can see them while diving and they are wild.
- Siquijor: Most travellers stop there when going to the South of the Visayas rather than going to Negros. It seems the myth about all the witchery on the island has a big impact. It is supposed to have really good beaches, and apparently really nice wall diving.
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