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Advice About Traveling to the Philippines
There are lots of advice about when travelling to the Philippines. Much of it is based on personal experience, some good and bad, some inaccurate. All of it is good because information is knowledge.
I recently was there for 20 days, travelling to the islands of Cebu, Mindanao, and Palawan. Luckily, I was with a Filipino who spoke good English and Tagalog, their native language. Had I not been with her, things would have been more difficult, but not impossible, for sure. That is the first tip: be with a local there because while most speak English, when you go to more remote areas, it becomes more problematic. This can also happen in the city too, but not in malls or other places whether government, law enforcement, or in stores. I would say nearly all can speak some English, it’s a question of understanding them. Usually, a local will save you money because locals know when a foreigner is being ripped off. In most cases, a foreigner there translates into charging more for the same thing. For instance, we went whale watching in Oslob, Cebu Island. The cost for a native is 500 peso ($12), for a foreigner- 1000 peso ($24). When we parked our car at church to hike into Kawasan Falls, Cebu island, at first the lady wanted 100 peso ($2) but my Filipina argued about this, asking her, “How much do you charge Filipinos?” The lady responded, 50 peso ($1). When asked then why are you charging a foreigner double, she had no answer and then agreed the cost was 50 peso!
My flight from San Francisco to Manila was 15 hours because you fly against the Jetstream. On the way back, it was just 10 hrs. In both cases, there is jetlag because of the time in the air and you are a day ahead going there. It takes a good eight hour sleep or more, to get out of the daze.
Manila airport is a bit confusing because of three terminals. You and your bags will be screened a few times for sure. When I flew there (Jan. 2016) and departed, it was always Terminal 2 (grounded level was arrivals, upper is departure). Terminal 1 is for domestic flights, so if you have connecting domestic flight, you need to transfer to the other terminal by airport shuttle or taxi (if you take taxi, make sure you tell the driver to start the meter!)
Upon arrivals you go through Immigration (How long will you be here, purpose?) and Customs (where they ask virtually nothing. How long does this take? Well, after you get your luggage, I was through both in 15 min. and on my airport shuttle. This was at 3:30 am, I suspect at normal hours it takes up to 30-60 min. You can stay in the Philippines for 20 days without a visa, after that, getting an extension for 30-60 days is not difficult. Manila airport is modern but lacks space for waiting passengers. I also flew to Cebu International airport on Cebu island, another very popular spot. Very nice airport and more spacious than Manila. More International. The airports at Davao (Mindanao island) and Puerto Princesa (Palawan) are similar to local regional airports in many US towns and counties. Small and less modern but adequate. In Palawan, you actually unload on the runway. It is a small, quaint, needing modernization badly, airfield. Lack of wifi and seating is real pain.
Despite all the warnings about driving there, I tossed them aside and rented a car twice. Drove all through Davao, Cebu cities, in the countryside to remote areas on Mindanao and Cebu island. Glad I did. It was around $60 a day and certainly WAY more convenient than taking a bus, taxi, trike, or jeepney. Gas was around 50 pesos a liter, so $3-3.50 a gallon. Diesel was just $2 a gallon. In the Philippines, you must be aggressive and defensive all the time especially in urban areas. This because of the crazy traffic and lack of traffic lights. Driving requires you to be a bully or play a game of chicken with your car, otherwise, you will go nowhere fast. At a four-way stop with no lights regulating traffic, do not be courteous, be a bully. Ease into the intersection and others will stop. Get use to tons of trikes ( a motorcycle and sidecar) and jeepneys ( large pickup that carries 20 people) as they are all over. Trikes will often pull to the right when a car is behind, if they don’t, pass them, even when an oncoming car is approaching because the oncoming car will also avoid collision by pulling closer to the side of road until you pass. As a driver, don’t stop for pedestrians, as they have no right of way here, cars do! I found driving quite fun and challenging there, you always must be alert. Now, driving in the remote areas is casual. I drove around Cebu island with very little traffic compared to Cebu city. So beautiful, loved it. With a car, you get to places quicker- for instance, in one day, we started with whale watching in Oslob, then Tumalog Falls nearby, then Aguinid Falls, and hour away at noon, finally stopped at Lambug white sand beach for snorkeling near Moalboal in late afternoon on the other side of the island. This could not be done by bus or taxi.
Philippine highways on a map are mostly just two lanes and the roads are decent. The only four lane road built by Americans I encountered was from General Santos city to Korandal city, when we drove to Lake Sebu to the ziplines across waterfalls. Wide and spacious, moderate traffic, it was refreshing and a reminder of home. Now, verify that Google GPS is accurate if you can. We learned you cannot always trust Google. When driving back across Cebu island to the city, we wanted the most direct route. Google provided it and for awhile, all was good. Then, the road literally began to fall apart. It gradually went from a nice two lane paved road to a horrible rocky gravel one lane road filled with potholes and boulders. What Google did not know was the road’s condition! It was the most direct but was not the fastest as we crawled through jungle remoteness until we hit paved road again. But still, we used Google GPS and maps all the time there, very helpful.
A good rule of thumb about driving in remote areas is that when you see a gas station, keep your tank filled, because stations are not common. If you have to pee, just stop and do it. I saw so many doing this right along the road. You can also stop at any Jollibee fast food chain. They are all over. Also, avoid driving at night. Many Trikes have no headlights or taillights. When you find yourself in a sea of jammed pack traffic, you will to rely on all your senses and mirrors. Be cautious and then make your move. If you suddenly find yourself in the wrong lane, put the blinker on and bully your way into the correct lane.
Overall, very nice people. I had no issues really. All very polite and eager to talk with you but many are afraid to use their English, so you have to start a conversation. As I walked in malls or wherever with my Filipina, many glanced at us or me. In remote areas, I felt either like an alien or a movie star, as they would seem to gather near me sometimes. The kids are cool. We were on a motorcycle coming down from Osmena Peak on Cebu Island on a most horrendous dirt road and when we passed kids, they saw I was foreigner and would yell, “Hey Joe”. I waved and yelled back the same, they laughed. There is a lot of poverty there. Places you can’t imagine as being called “home”. There are many foreigners in Cebu city and it is common to see a 60-something man (foreigner) with a 20-something Filipino woman holding hands.
Before my trip, which I planned from A-Z, I book used Trip Advisor for ratings of hotels by others and then booked all using Agoda online. Agoda will not charge your card until the week before you arrive, so you can change your mind (as I did). I found them to have the best rates overall. Most of the hotels were not more than $25-50 a night and 3-4 stars. I found the descriptions on the website accurate when I arrived in person. Generally, most hotels do not have hot water, maybe warm sometimes. All had LCD cable TV (with the same channels as in the US) and bathrooms that also had showers (which are not separated from the rest of the bathroom). Many offered free breakfast consisting of rice and egg, toast, coffee or rice and pork\chicken. Most of the time, WIFI is only decent if in the hotel lobby and not in the room. My hotel suggestions are:
Hotel Galleria in Davao on Mindanao (wifi in room)
Garden Haven in General Santos (wifi in lobby only)
Days Hotel in Cebu City (near airport) (great wifi all over, hot water)
Lagnassons Resort near Oslob (near whale watching, Tumalog Falls) (poor WIFI)
Lambug Homestay in Lambug area(white sand beach and Kawasan Falls) (good wifi, hot water)
Kota Beach resort on Bantanyan Island (wifi in lobby only, beautiful beach area)
Food and Water
The big warning most speak of is to avoid drinking the tap water. So, I brought water purification tablets and filters, which worked fine in time. But, buying bottled water is literally ALL OVER and its just 20-30 peso (50 cents) for a bottle. They sell it along roads by street vendors. So, I guess there is a reason for this. I mean, if the locals rely on bottled water, well, must be legit. However, the water out of the tap seemed clear so eventually I tested it out. Nothing happened. Maybe, a slight, temporary case of diarrhea, but it could have been caused by food also. In any case, maybe its better to be safe than sorry. I drank water with meals at hotels brought to me by the waiter- seemed fine. Used it to mix instant drinks- seemed okay. Maybe their water affects people differently.
You can find Filipino food or stay with your American favorites in the cities. Plenty to offer of all types. I found the best Filipino fast food at a local chain called Mang Inasal (Mr. Inasal. Prounounced: in-nah-sall). They are common like another local chain called, Jollibee, akin to McDonalds). At Inasal (I wish they chain was in the USA) they offer many Filipino dishes for a few bucks. I was hooked on their rice and BBQ pork on a stick combo, with all you can eat rice. So good! They also have a unique dessert that was also delicious.
You will soon find out that Filipinos eat the same things at every meal: white rice (brown rice is not around) and either: pork, fish or chicken. They have the best coffee called Kopico, sold in stores. What is rare are salads and veggies, which surprised me. Their salads usually are iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, but not the better “green” lettuce.
Their grocery stores are very similar in look and what they offer as any in the USA. Usually, they are located in their gigantic malls that dwarf most in the US. Some malls have 500 stores and are like small towns employing 5000 or so. Prices, once currency conversion occurs, are very similar to those in the US. They have many of the same chain stores in their malls that may also have cinemas and ice skating.
What to See and Do
While it is totally subjective, one common thread is that people who go there seek beaches and sun and adventure. Cities are cities and they all have the same issues and stores. So, in my 20 days, I planned the best itinerary possible.
On Mindanao, must see is:
1. Eden Adventure Park near Davao city. A combo zoo of sorts and unique rides. Admission is 1000 peso with free all-you-can-eat buffet (the best on the island!). Beautiful jungle area with pines and an amazing butterfly house (within seconds of entering, swarms land on you!). You must ride the sky bicycle ( a bike on a zipline) and also their zipline.
2. Lake Sebu – the Seven waterfall zipline. This is the only reason to go there and spend 1 night. For 500 peso, you fly over a canyon of jungle and below are waterfalls, but be prepared for a jolting landing. It is one of the longest ziplines. It is 2 hrs north of General Santos. So worth it!
On Palawan island:
If you are not going to El Nido, you must do:
1. Underground River and across the bay zipline. Both are in Sabang, about 2 hrs from Puerto Princesa. Tours run about 1500 peso a person and includes free buffet lunch. The zipline is 550 peso. The underground river runs under a mountain and filled with bats, it’s a fun, cool event. You sail there in a small boat across the ocean. On your way back, you must state you want to do the zipline because you must be dropped off on the way back. They, walk along a jungle path and zip across the bay to a beautiful beach. This is all day event.
2. Honda Bay island hopping. Another all day event as you go to small islands in the bay to snorkel or swim in the 80F water that is so clear, you feel like you are in an aquarium. Cost is 1500 peso\pp with free lunch. You spend about one hour at each island and visit several. Very relaxing and fun.
On Cebu Island:
1. Whale watching in Oslob- for 1500 peso for two, a small boat takes you out where the giant whale sharks are feeding. You have 30 min. to swim along them in an experience you will not forget! I was within 3 feet of a huge whale. Great adventure.
2. Tumalog Falls is only 20 min by car from Oslob. It’s virtually a free thing but for a small entrance fee. Beautiful to see and swim in the pool of turquoise water.
3. Aguinid Adventure Falls- is best because you climb up 5 levels and are totally wet in the challenge. It is on the other side of the island about 1 hr from Oslob. Admission is a few bucks. You have two guides assigned to you, one to guide you as you climb and one to take photos with your phone. It is a blast to do this. Plan to spend 1-2 hrs there. Signs are right along the road.
4. Lambug Beach- free and awesome white sand, powdery beach. This is 15 min. north of Kawasan Falls. Getting there is tricky because you take the single lane road to the Cebu International Golf course and pass it, then the road is dirt and goes to this fantastic public beach that equals Boracay and Moalboal. There are a few two star hotels there, but the beach is stunning-long and wide, lined with coconut palms. You can spend days there, for sure. Water is clear and 80F.
5. Kawasan Falls is on the way to Lambug. Signs are along the road and parking is at the church for 50-100 peso. The walk along the path to the falls is 15 min or so and stunning jungle with a stream through it. Once there, the falls is majestic, tons of water and you can swim or rent a raft for 300 pesos to go under the falls. Very popular, so get there before noon. Watch out for giant spiders. You can eat at the falls also, but expensive. Great place to hang for several hours.
6. Cebu City Go-kart track is fun for sure. Located near the Sykes building in Cebu City, for 800 peso, you have high powered racing go karts. You have eight laps with a lot of turns. Fun even if you are not racer, I mean, can’t spend all your time in the ocean and beach.
7. Karancho Beach on Mactan Island. Mactan island is home to Cebu International airport and other high end resorts. There is not much to see on the island really. So, if you want a nice cheap public beach, go here. Entrance is 80 peso and the beach is nice sand, not coral. You can snorkel and jet ski for 2000 peso. We jet skied for 30 min. zipping past high end hotels on the shore. Snorkeling was nice, starfish and small fish, as there is lots of coral just off the island. We bought some food and the tour guide cooked it for us over a BBQ. Sweet. Plan to spend the day there just chilling.
8. Bantanyan Island – This is off the tip of Cebu island. By bus from Cebu City it is 5-6 hrs, then a ferry across takes 1 hr. Total cost per person in maybe $10. Be sure to take a yellow air conditioned bus from the north bus terminal in cebu. Get going by 8 am. You will see much of the island this way. The ferry across is on a military landing ship used to land troops and vehicles when hitting the beach. Cool experience. The island only offers you nice beaches to spend time at. Santa Fe town is really a poverty village, not much there are all but a few stores. It is beautiful, but really, there are other places on Cebu island that are just as good, like Lambug beach.
If you need money while there, simply use any bank ATM at a mall or airport. Use your Bank America or Citibank credit card and make sure you know the PIN. You will be charge at bank fee at both ends. So, because it is costly, I would take out 10000 ($200+) at time. You can also wire money to yourself using Western Union. This allows you to get the money in pesos from ANY WU branch and there are tons of them all over. Just take your passport and ID. When flying there, have at least 2000 pesos in your pocket and also have $100 in USD as backup. The current exchange rate is 45 peso to $1, so each 1000 pesos is about $25 USD. Make sure your credit card as the smart chip in them because it may get rejected otherwise.
Money is much easier to access than I expected with my US credit cards, so no worries. BTW, the total cost minus airfare ($1200 rd trip) while there for 20 days was not more than $1500 (included hotels, food and misc, costs for two).