An Unlikely Gem
In June of 2006 I traveled with my father and two friends Steve and Doug to the Philippines on a 17 day diving and cultural adventure. This archipelago has over 7000 islands spanning over a 1000 km and biodiversity exceeded by few places on earth. What's
really unrealized about the Philippines are its dramatic seascapes. In numerous palm lined white beaches bathed by crystal blue water many of which lie right next to huge former and sometimes active volcanoes, towering over 7000 ft only 10-20
miles away. Sadly, large numbers of reefs in the Philippines have been destroyed, but there still places where huge numbers of coral and fish exist, rivaling many of the great dive destinations in the world. To top it off, this country one considered
to have some of the highest risk for natural disasters. It is one of the few places on earth where you can get blown away by a typhoon, drowned by a tsunami, crushed by an earthquake, or buried by a volcano, and kidnapped by a terrorist, its almost
as dangerous as traveling in Southern California. The society is complex and chaotic with most of the people there in survival mode, just scrapping by to put food on the table, a roof over their head and a charge for their cell phone. (Its a third
world country where over 30% of the population lives on a dollar / day) One has to be very aware and present of your surroundings, combine that with some good old fashion street smarts and the Philippines is a great place to be alive.
We arrived in Manila from LA at 4am on Saturday June 10. It took about an hour to clear customs, and Doug (who had flown in from Thailand the day before) was waiting for us outside of baggage claim with our taxi van. (riding in an automobile around in Manila or in most cities here is like a crazy mad hatter tea ride, really feel sorry for the poor sucker who has to sit in the front seat, I just kept my eyes closed at first but after a while you get used to it and realize that NASCAR drivers have nothing on a Philippine cab driver) First we went down to the port city of Batangas (2.5 hour ride) There we met our hired boat for a 1 hour ride across the passage to the beach in front the Deep Blue Sea Inn at Small Laguna Beach.,Mindoro Oriental, about 80 miles south of Manila (the van and boat trip cost us a total of $30 pp). The diving area around Puerto Galera / Sabang beach is one of the most popular in the Philippines. Most of the dive sites are less than a 10 minute boat ride from the shop, the reefs are in good shape with a sampling of just about every tropical fish imaginable. We had a dive package for the 1st three days for $66 that included a single room with ac overlooking the ocean, two dives per day, and breakfast. In Sabang beach, a 10-15 minute walk, there were numerous bars, discos and restaurants which created a nice combination of fun and sun few places on earth can offer for the money. One of my favorite things to do in the east, is getting a relaxing afternoon massage for a couple hours, usually around 2-3pm and then taking a big long nap, all for 12-14 dollars.
The island of Mindoro is very mountainous, with many scenic bays especially on the north coast and the interior is minimally developed. With a little local knowledge, there are numerous areas for hiking to waterfalls, boating to secluded fresh water lagoons, or traveling to one the the many Mangyan tribal villages, where most of the people live off the land and seldom visit civilization. One of the best ways to see the area is by motorcycle, which cost around $16 dollars per day for a 200cc off road enduro but prior experience is a must. The roads are very hilly, rutty and like a four wheel drive track. Around the other side of the island by San Jose (8-10 hours by Jeepney), the guide books (and confirmed while I was there) discussed North Pandan Island as a must place to go if you want to get your own slice of secluded paradise. It has numerous curved white sand beaches on the south of the island and untouched jungle forest stretching across its north shore. The island is also surrounded by nice reefs that are supposedly excellent for diving and snorkeling. North Pandan can also be used to base a diving trip to Apo Reef (not to be confused with Apo Island, Negros) which is also considered another top diving area. We ended up spending six nights in Small Laguna Beach, and left the following Friday for Alona Beach in Bohol via Manila. Its was a long day, our boat met us at 8 am and we had a hour ride over to Batangas. While crossing, in the middle of the channel between the two islands, we encountered a school of 50-75 dolphins, spread out over several hundred yards, some of them played around our boat for 10 minutes or so. Wow, it was an unexpected indescribable experience. Once, we got to Batangas our van was waiting for us and carried us on another death defying ride to the airport in Manila (like I said before the cab drivers are crazy) then after a couple of hours, we caught the plane for Cebu, then a van to the ferry terminal, after that, a 2 hour boat ride to Bohol and a 45 minute van ride to the hotel. It was a long day but arrived safely at the Oasis Resort (3 stars) in Alona Beach around 9:00 pm. We did two dives around Alona Beach. The morning dive was unimpressive but the second dive was a place locals call Snake Island which is a little sea mound submerged in about 20 feet of water and notorious for its strong current, I have never seen so many LARGE (some almost 4 ft long and 3 inches thick) black and white striped sea snakes in one place, a little scary but very impressive. The next day we began our SeaQuest dive safari (8 days, 7 nights, 3 islands, 15 dives, hotel and most meals for $695 pp double occ ) at 8am and the first stop was the Black Forest off of Balicasag Island about 6 miles from Alona Beach. The Black Forest is a wall dive where there used to be a lot of black coral, fisherman have taken much of it, but the rest of the corals, sponges and sea fans are in excellent condition There were seemingly a endless number of tropical fish of every variety moving all around us. The wall itself is about 35-50 ft down and then drops off into a blue abyss, needless to say it was really cool. On this dive we also saw a HUGE barracuda, it must of been at least 5 ft long and 7-10 inches thick (no exaggeration here), with big mean looking teeth, hovering in the water, motionless in the coral garden on top of the wall. After our our dive we continued to the island of Siquijor about 2 hours away.
Siquijor is small relatively quiet island about 12 by 14miles, known for its friendly people, miles of white sand beaches, warm springs, waterfalls,hiking trails, miles of uncrowded roads for biking, and for its witches / mystic healers. We arrived there about 6 pm after doing two more great wall dives on the southwest part of the island near Solangon. A couple of miles further down the coast is the Coco Grove Beach Resort which Jen Peters Philippine guide book calls the nicest on the island. The grounds were really impressive (many different flowers and palm trees), the rooms were simple, but very nice (travertine walls and tile in the bathroom), AC, good food, bordering a nice long white sand beach gently stroked with light blue waters of the Sulu Sea all for $25-30 dollars. (this place would have been $300 / day in California) The next morning we left early for Apo Island, wish I could have spent more time here.
Apo Island is a really small spec of a island only 300 ft at its highest point situated just off the southeast coast of Negros. There is no regular water source on the island and all potable water has to be brought from Negros which is about an hour away by boat. Electricity is only available between 6pm to 12 midnight. There is a village of 600-700 people that subsist mostly off the ocean and or work in one of the two small diver hotels on the island. To stay here was a little bit challenging, its was very hot and there was no AC, at night the temperature did not change more than 5-10 degrees. The fans kept one cool enough but when the power went off it became quite warm. (thank god for Ambien or none of us would have got any sleep except Dad who is used to sleeping on a boat) With that being said, Apo Island has beautiful blue water, a couple of nice small white sand beaches, and very impressive world class diving. The reefs around the island are considered a marine sanctuary and have been overseen by the department of oceanography at Sliman University in Dumageute. More than one source has called the reefs here the most populous and diverse aquatic ecosystem in the world. As a matter of fact, it was recreated at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago on a 27,000 sq ft area costing $47 million. This interactive state-of -the-art project called The Philippine Wild Reef Exhibit was opened on 2003. The best dive sites here are for advanced divers only, there is a lot of current (do not dive around a full moon, the currents can get really dangerous) and the dives are deep (most starting out at 20-25 meters) We stayed here for 4 days, had around a dozen dives and would rate this area just below the Barrier Reef of Australia (which was a little more colorful) but the marine diversity was amazing. Below, there is a link to a web site that gives more detail about the diving here.
The last 3 days of our trip where spent relaxing and sight seeing around Dumaguete. I found the city to be very pleasant, a great park area on the ocean with very large shade trees, lots grass and cement walking path. There are 7 universities here and giving the area a character very unique to the Philippines. Siliman university has a very nice campus full of grass and large hardwood trees. It was a great place for my Dad and I to go for our morning walks. This would be a town on my short list if I ever were to live here. The coast to the north is very mountainous and would be equivalent to a tropical version of the Big Sur in California with no commerical development. Just to the east of the city there are mountains over 7500ft tall providing many hiking opportunities to lakes (vents of former volcanoes) and waterfalls. On the north side of Negros there is an active volcano which you can hire a guide to climb it (3 days and 2 nights). Plus there are other dive areas to the north. I went on a mountain bike tour to the charming town of Valencia, its probably 1000 ft up in the foot hills from Dumaguete, and had many small nurseries displaying a large variety of tropical plants and flowers. Dad and I also spent a morning at a place called Forest Camp, its a private sanctuary complete with old growth trees, dense foliage and a rushing cool mountain stream lined with numerous swimming holes to get a break from the heat. The following afternoon we boarded an Air Philippines jet back to Manila where we made a connection to LAX and then on to Phoenix (about a 22 hour journey counting time waiting in the airports) Dad got a chuckle out of the fact that we left Manila on Sunday the 25th at 10:20 pm and arrived in the US at 7:45 pm the same day. I found my second trip to the Philippines to be another great adventure and now have many more places that I am curious to explore. See below for a link to my pictures and some other info links on traveling. Thanks for reading.
( my pics from the trip)
I think I'll pass on the Philippines.
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