The next day we checked out Guimaras island. A friend from BC had suggested I go there and see his friend, so Fil and I took a small boat across and got toured around by Amme. We saw a decent amount of the island, driving by lots of mango plantations, visiting a Trappist Monastery and seeing where all the windmills are near the west coast. After all this we stopped for a mango pizza which was amazing! (Thanks Andrew for the recommendation!)
Once back in Iloilo Filshed and I checked out a famous old house and drank a special choco drink, which was like a very thick and rich hot chocolate. We sat there laughing and chatting for a while before making our way back to her house, stopping at a church and another old house on the way.
The next morning I was up early to catch a flight to Puerto Princesa! Filshed came to the airport with me and then gave me the two little owls she had made for me. It was such a sweet gesture from someone who I had only just met.
I stayed the night in Puerto Princesa at a really cool bamboo house before heading to El Nido. I met some very interesting people over the course of the next couple days...
- "Toothless Tommy" (not actually his real name in case you didn't get that) sang me karaoke while I ate lunch and tried to get me to eat clams and squid. The squid was surprisingly alright but the clams I could do without. He was a 70 year old man taking shots of rum and singing away, improvising and throwing my name into the songs and constantly telling me Palawan is the greatest island in the world.
- My tricycle driver who, upon hearing I was going to El Nido alone, said that El Nido would be a great place to go with a boyfriend and then laughed his face off. Apparently he thought we were on good enough terms for him to make fun of me like that.
- Brother Philip and Brother Starr, two guys taking the same van as me to El Nido. Brother Starr made a great tour guide, pointing lots out on the way and trying to teach me some basics of the language. He had asked me about my siblings and when I said that Derek passed away he said they would use the word "Sayang" to describe that because it means a great loss. He also offered me a place to stay in the church if I needed when I came back through Puerto Princesa.
El Nido itself wasn't what I had imagined, although if I had done any research I probably wouldn't have been so surprised. I was excited to be at a beach and able to post up in the sand for a few days, but the beach there was small and there was actually a fair bit of garbage in the water. Quite the turn off (although the view was still beautiful). During the day everyone was out doing tours but at night the place was packed. The tours themselves were fairly expensive, and you'd hop from place to place to see a beautiful beach or lagoon swarming with people in bright orange life jackets... It was not the relaxing place I was looking for. I did a tour one day which was nice to see some nearby islands, but the weather was pretty cloudy and rainy so that definitely took away from the beauty! The weather in the Philippines had been pretty ugly actually after my first week in Boracay, and it seemed to be like that across a lot of the western islands so it didn't really matter where I was.
After a few days in El Nido I took the 6 hour boat ride to Coron and spent the whole ride sitting on the upper deck in the sun. Listening to some James Blunt and staring out at the ocean and the passing islands was so relaxing and peaceful. I was excited to finally have sun but probably overdid it. The next day a few of us rented a boat together to check out only two of the tour spots. Renting it was actually a little bit cheaper per person and we could stay however long we wanted since it was on our time. This is definitely the way to do it if you have a good group of people! It was also much less crowded because tour groups came and went while we stayed there. The boat driver grilled up some fish and pork and we had bought rice, fruit and Filipino beer for our lunch too so we enjoyed all that on the boat. We saw the twin lagoons where there was a mix of 70% salt water and 30% fresh water and tons of coral and fish. Then we went to Kayangan Lake, which required us to climb up a cliff and then back down to get to the lake. It was surrounded by cliff and 70% freshwater so there weren't many fish but the water was really clear and the rock itself was super cool to see going deep down underwater.
That night when we got back to the hotel I wasn't feeling well and got immediately sick. I spent the next few days posted up in the hotel room with either heatstroke, food poisoning, the flu, or all of the above.
Once I felt a bit better I finally went diving in the shipwrecks! I went with a well reputable company on the island - as many of the local dive shops will take anyone down to explore inside the wrecks, even those who aren't qualified... James (who I kept bumping into) went with one of these companies a couple days before and three of the divers ran out of oxygen while underwater, and one guy was stuck in a wreck by himself with an almost empty tank, obviously panicking and trying to find his way out while almost 30m underwater. Luckily he made it out but it traumatized me to even think about it let alone be in that situation. For all of these reasons and then some, I was really happy to spend the equivalent of an extra $15 Canadian to dive properly. Our group of 4 divers and 2 instructors set off for the dive sites, and it happened that the other 3 divers hadn't dove in the past year so they all needed to do a refresher. Because of this, I got to go one on one with Tim, a German guy who was currently working on completing his Dive Master.
The ships around Coron were all Japanese vessels that sunk during an air raid by 'Merica in 1944. We checked out East Tangat, Morazan Maru and Lusong Gunboat. All the ships were covered in coral and I kinda felt like Ariel exploring the shipwreck with Flounder (although luckily we weren't joined by an angry shark while inside).
East Tangat was open so most of the areas we swam through were easy to get out of if I had felt claustrophobic or anything. We saw where the periscope was - now just a large stack - but it was neat to see.
Morazan Maru was deeper and larger, lying on its side with an entry point in the middle where the engines had been removed. Because I was feeling fine we actually went to about 22m while exploring inside the wreck even though I am only supposed to go to 18. Tim was impressed with my diving so as long as I felt comfortable we continued on in the wreck which was great for me! This one was more enclosed so there were some areas where we needed to use torches and we swam through a lot of tight spaces to check it all out. It was thrilling to enter a room where you couldn't see anything other than what your light was shining on! I almost forgot I was underwater while I was exploring it all.
Lusong Gunboat had one end rising shallower so there were people snorkeling around it but we started our dive by swimming a lap around to see all the coral before making our way to the ship. We swam around through this ship as well and then got back on the boat to drive an hour back to the shore. Tim was always surprised by the amount of oxygen I had left in my tanks because I always had more than him even though I'm still a new diver... But he chalked that up to how he'd been told girls don't have feelings so they don't get excited by anything they see underwater. Ha! If he only knew!
My last day in Coron I spent relaxing... I had been so tired from the dives and from being sick so I just a wandered around a bit and then did some yoga at my hotel. Early the next morning I took the ferry from Coron to Puerto Princesa (a 14 hour ferry) and spent the next couple days chilling and getting ready to head to Bali! Filshed surprised me with a little Valentine's Day gift which included an hour and half massage so I got to treat myself to that one of the days! It was a relaxing way to spend the end of my time there.
To sum it all up:
My overall consensus for the Philippines would be really mixed.. Obviously I only visited a select few islands but if you're trying to go on a budget trip it would be tough to see much... Posting up in one or two areas would probably be best to save money and time on transit... And if you can avoid touristy spots it would be better because the cost of tours is more expensive than it probably should be.
If you are looking to sit on a beach, that's going to be surprisingly hard to find unless you go off the beaten path or you stay in Boracay (which I loved).
If you want to do lots of island hopping and day tours you can easily find that in most of the spots, but be prepared to pay a bit, and just know that each of the stops won't be for very long since the transit takes time so you don't really sit at a spot for very long.
And lastly, (one thing that no one seemed to mention beforehand!!) be ready to spend most of your days in transit. I spent 30 days in the Philippines, out of this I think I spent maybe 7 days laying on the beach, 4 days diving, and at least 11 days just sitting on a bus/ferry/plane. The rest of the days were spent sightseeing or planning transit/re-planning when the weather didn't cooperate. Although it was a beautiful country I really can't say that it was a very relaxing trip, but it was still a holiday and an escape from the -40 back home!