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During a year long journey across Southeast Asia, fate had it that I came to the Philippines.
Not much of a plan when I arrived, I ended up staying for three months, the longest stay than in any of the other countries of that trip, and I even came back again just recently. I had the time of my life and it is safe to say that Pinas is my home away from home whenever I am in Asia. It is the country where I found new friends, fellow travelers and locals alike, the country of many adventures and the country with probably the friendliest people I have met. And on top of that, it features some true gems, some hidden some more accessible, but all of them uniquely beautiful. Come have a look at my photo album and explore some of these places with me.
A place that truly deserves its name.
The island of Camiguin is volcanic in origin and hence most of its beaches are of black and greyish color. But surprise awaits just a few kilometers and a short banka ride from its coast. There you will find the horseshoe-shaped land mass with the alluring name of “White Island”. And yes, that name is so well deserved. The powdery sand is so bright white that it glistens under the sun, beautifully complementing the emerald and azure blue shades of the surrounding ocean. Like a buried treasure, parts of a big reef can be seen shimmering below the crystal clear water. Actually being a huge sandbar, White Island’s face constantly changes with the everlasting rhythm of the tides.
My last night on the island of Camiguin. A mild evening breeze caressed my skin as my feet sank into the soft warmth of the beach’s black, volcanic sand. Rippling swathes of dark blue ocean swirled around my ankles and erased the footprints which I had just left in the sand. Towering coconut trees which stood like weathered giants around the small stretch of beach gently swayed in the wind. The setting sun cast its golden glow one last time before disappearing in the dark abyss of the sea. With the subtle taste of salt on my lips and squinting into the sunset, I knew that I had to come back one day, back to the island born of fire and whose name sounds like the beckoning farewell “Come again”.
The Beauty of the Underground.
Sometimes you have to go underground to find a different kind of beauty. Which place can be better for that than one of the New 7 Wonder of Nature – The Puerto Princessa Underground River. As the dark welcomed us with open arms, we were surprised by how colorful the inside was once our torches illuminated the fascinating formations inside the cave. As we smoothly paddled deeper inside, we were accompanied by flocks of birds, which had made the cave their home. Their cries, used for orientation as they were hunting for insects, were echoing far into the depth. The cathedral like cave gave shelter to yet another species. Bats … hanging from the ceiling and staring into our flashlights … thousands of them. As we exited this other world back into sunlight, we had learnt that it is true: Beauty lies below the surface.
Footsteps on a virgin beach.
All we had was a crinkled hand drawn paper map from the motorbike rental shop. Our destination was the little fishermen’s village of Marcilla where we were supposed to find a beautiful and remote beach, hardly ever visited by tourists. A hidden secret and very fittingly, the beach was marked with an X, just like on an antique treasure map. But what appeared to be like an easy ten minute drive along the coast, turned out into a never ending odyssey. An odyssey which took me along winding, steep and dusty tracks and curve after curve, farther away from the safe haven of Coron. But it paid off to be resilient and push through. In the end I was rewarded by meeting the friendly people of Barangay Marcilla and discovering this beautiful hidden gem of a beach, which maybe no tourist has ever set his feet on.
Wonders of the north.
There is something about the North – something magical, something mystical The North is usually rugged, raw and more authentic than other parts of the country. I had already witnessed that phenomenon in countries like Laos and Vietnam and it was also the case in the Philippines. After a long bus ride with a stopover in breezy Baguio, we had arrived in the province of Ifugao, part of the Cordillera Administrative Region. It was a chilly and rainy day, gloomy and like a thick blanket, white mist was covering what we had come to see – the region’s most famous attraction, the Ifugao rice terraces. Starting from the picturesque hillside gem of Batad, we took a hike through this symbiotic landscape of natural and manmade wonders. The fog had finally cleared and the sun was dipping the rice terraces into its golden glow. Built by masters of their trade, long before our time and built to nurture the community for generations to come. High up in the mountains and almost close enough to touch the sky, these intricate and geometrically aligned masterpieces of a thousand years old, left us behind in wonder.
Our quest for some of the Philippines hidden gems had us board another bangka – final destination Maripipi, Leyte. Maripipi is a quaint little island, actually the least populated of the entire province with only 7,000 residents. The island has managed to stay under the tourist’s radar and managed to keep its authentic feel and charm. Sleepy, laid back towns line the islands circumferential coastal road like lose pearls on a string. But once the sun starts setting, the same towns start coming to live with children playing basketball or hide and seek and the villagers chitchatting along the road. It is also the moment when the weary traveler comes to rest and reflects about his wondrous experience in this country of many smiles.
Escaping from it all.
Sambawan Island. Just a 20-minute boat ride from Maripipi, this hidden gem appears like a string of small, rocky islands. It is surrounded by a translucent blend of cerulean and turquoise waters, lined by a beach consisting of millions and millions coral pieces. The best and most rewarding part was hiking up the island’s highest hill which features a small watchtower at the top. As the green cogon grass gently swayed in the wind, a spectacular sight of the island’s rugged coastline and its surrounding sea unfolded right in front of me. The island is small and quiet and will charm its visitors with its unique, rugged beauty. It provides you with that fulfilling feeling of freedom and being disconnected from the hectic rest of the world. If you want to escape from it all, clear your mind and get back to the basics, then Sambawan will be your secluded retreat.
That orange glow.
A took a day of motorbike riding across the island of Cebu to get to this not so hidden secret. Moalboal, long time haven for Western expats but still the serene scuba diving paradise that it always was. Weary and dusty from riding along the province’s backcountry roads, I just wanted to unwind by the sea and call it a day. The sea is my medicine. For some strange reason, it always has the power to soothe and make you content, no matter what your story is. And it sure did its job that day. As the sun slowly submerged in the tropical waters, it painted the surroundings with its palette or oranges, reds and yellows. As the fishermen moored their bangkas to finish another hard day of work, an infectious type of tranquility and serenity spread across the shoreline. That orange glow and the swathing ripples of the sea, which wash away everything that’s been.
A different kind of blue.
Blue is maybe not the color that one would associate the Philippines with right away. Especially not the island paradise of Bantayan. The small island boasts bright white and yellow beaches, green vegetation and sunsets in every nuance of red and orange that you can imagine. But one evening, blue made its way to the coast of Bantayan with a force. The sun had set and the low tide had exposed the islands famous tidal flats and its intricate structures. Scattered groups of people were soaking in the tidal pools, digging for clams and mussels. What seemed unspectacular at first, looked like an abstract painting through the lens. Dark blues, light blues, azure blue – everything came together. The artist that painted this picture must have been a true master.
A friend and helper.
Somewhere in rural Bicol on a rather gloomy day. I was riding my motorbike back home from the tropical getaway Paguriran Island. Cruising along the backcountry roads, passing by rice fields and small villages, I came across this scene. In the mud up to his knees, the farmer was plowing away to prepare the field to grow his precious commodity. Leading the way was his patient Carabao. But for that farmer, the good Carabao is not just an animal. He is a helper, a workmate and a friend. Without him, the farmer wouldn’t get his work done, without him, he couldn’t feed his family. It is a sort of symbiotic relationship that has shaped the Philippines for hundreds of years. On a side note, I still wonder which one of the two was more stoical.
El Nido can be a busy place, especially in peak season. Island hopping tours, beach bars, dive shops, night life – the small town at the edge of Palawan has become a haven for international backpackers and locals alike. What is generally a good thing, can be a little too much for others. But solitude is often only a short motorbike ride away. Riding our bikes along unfinished roads and gravel paths, we finally made it to this stretch of beach. Going by the name of Nacpan, this piece of paradise is lined by lush green coconut trees, caressed by the turquoise waters of the South China Sea and as long as the eye can see. And the best thing is the lack of crowds which makes it the perfect getaway. The lesson learnt is simple: Even if you find yourself in a busy place, an untouched paradise is often only a stone’s throw away. It just needs to be discovered.
My second home.
It’s where I spent the most time during my 3 months in the Philippines. It’s where I felt at home and where my soul could rest. It was in the province of Sorsogon where I found true friendship and got to experience a very normal, Filipino way of life. That alone was a great experience. I had already gotten used to my new home away from home as my friends decided to take me on an island hopping trip. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I had done some marvelous island hopping around El Nido and Coron which would be hard to beat. However, the gems we found came as a huge surprise. Virgin beaches, fine white sand, and a mirror like cerulean sea which looked almost too perfect to jump into. It was unbelievable that a place like that was just around the corner from where I lived and it made me like it even more.
A forgotten paradise.
It took a three hour passage across the San Bernadino Strait in a small Bangka to get to this hidden gem. Biri Island seems like a forgotten paradise which is saturated with natural attractions. Biri is most famous for its enormous rock formations but these wonders of nature are just one aspect which makes the island so special. Its beaches are pristine and most of the time you have them all for yourself. No crowds, no upscale resorts, no pushy vendors and no vehicles bigger than a tricycle – just the lullaby of the ocean as its waves gently caress the islands shoreline. The atmosphere on the island is laid-back and relaxed. Its soothing effect is enchanting and people, who come to visit, find themselves slowing down almost instantly as they set foot on the island. The friendly and welcoming attitude of the island’s locals just adds to the charming allure of the island. Two days were extended to three and I easily could have stayed longer on this little piece of heaven.
A despised highlight.
“Why would you want to add Manila to such a list of Filipino gems”, you might ask. “Don’t stay there! It’s not good and there’s nothing to see! Get out right away and explore the real Philippines!” are just some of the things I heard before entering the Philippines for the first time. How wrong they were. Manila is just a part of the country’s reality as is Palawan, Cebu and Boracay. Maybe even more so. It sure has its issues but so do a lot of other Southeast Asian cities. It is a vibrant place, a place full of ambitions, hopes and dreams. A place which, if you allow it to, will take and sweep you along with its very own dynamic and character. No, missing out on it would definitely be a mistake. For me, Manila is also connected to a bunch of great friends and acquaintances which make arriving even more feel like coming home.
The good times.
This image, taken in one of the lagoons around El Nido, just sums up my experience in the Philippines. An amazing time filled with experiences and memories which will last a lifetime. I will (have to) come back. Thanks for having me and see you next time. Maraming salamat. Magkita kita tayo sa susunod!
About the Author:
I’m Phil from Germany, a traveler and adventurer suffering from a severe case of wanderlust. With a passion for Asia, I am exploring this beautiful world bit by bit, thoroughly and slowly. I love photography, surfing, diving and trekking. Follow his journey on his blog – Escapology.eu or Instagram / Twitter