They say, “It’s more fun in the Philippines,” and I got to find out for myself that the country certainly lives up to its tourism slogan during my visit in October for TBEX Asia Pacific. Below is my 15-day itinerary, along with some of the views that I captured on Instagram along the way.
Part 1: Palawan
- Day 1 – After a very long flight from New York City by way of Taipei, I landed in Manila at about 11:30 p.m., hopped in a cab and spent the night near the airport at DG Budget Hotel.
- Day 2 – I was up and out early on a Cebu flight to Puerto Princesa on the island of Palawan. After checking into my hostel, I spent hours exploring the port city on foot and waiting out the evening rain shower at a Vietnamese restaurant.
- Day 3 – I toured Underground River in Sabang, which is about two hours away from Puerto Princesa. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It’s what initially drew me to Palawan, and it did not disappoint, even though I have no photos to prove it (needless to say, caves are dark). Tip: I booked the tour in advance through my hostel; there are only a limited number of entrance tickets available each day, so plan ahead.
This is the boat that took us from Sabang to the start of the Underground River tour.
- Day 4 – I swam with (whale) sharks! I extended my stay in Puerto Princesa in order to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience with Dolphin and Whales Travel and Tours (You can see a photo in this post). Unlike other locations in the Philippines, this was a completely natural encounter.
This was my view for most of the day when I wasn’t paddling around with whale sharks.
- Day 5 – This was a looong day. I spent seven hours riding in an un-airconditioned van to get to El Nido, on the tip of Palawan. Fortunately, I snagged the front seat, so I got some air, but that also meant I was forced to witness the route’s twists and turns. I arrived in late afternoon, checked into the trendy Spin Designer Hostel and then refueled at Artcafe, a popular backpacker restaurant.
This was the view out the back of a roadside rest stop on the harrowing ride from Puerto Princesa to El Nido.
- Day 6 – The most popular activity in El Nido is “island hopping,” which is as great as it sounds. You can chose from four boat tours – A, B, C, and D – and my friends and I chose A, “beaches and lagoons,” the most popular one (We booked it through the hostel the night before). We made five stops, but with the exception of the beach where we ate lunch, we were joined at each by dozens of other tourists. The scenery was worth it, though. Tip: Wear sturdy water shoes. I forget mine and got quite scratched up by the coral when trying to get from the boat to a beach in rough water.
I took this while kayaking in the Big Lagoon, which was my favorite spot on the island-hopping tour. In the kayak, we were able to get away from the bottleneck of boats and tourists at the entrance.
This was on Seven Commandos Beach, which was the last stop on the tour, where we enjoyed a swim and a few beers.
- Day 7 – This day started and ended with an adrenaline rush. My friends and I took the zipline down to Las Cabanas Beach, where we spent a few hours reading, napping and sipping cocktails with hardly anyone else in sight. Sadly I had to leave early that afternoon for Manila. Since there was no way I was going to do that drive back to Puerto Princesa to catch my flight from there, I bought a one-way ticket to Manila for about $100 on AirSWIFT. It was the most terrifying 55 minutes in my life because it was a very tiny plane, and we flew in a very bad thunderstorm. But we made it. I ended the night with a well-deserved drink at the Sofitel.
This was the view from the top of the zipline…
… and this was the view from Las Cabanas beach at the bottom.
Part 2: TBEX Asia Pacific
- Day 8 – The reason I was in the Philippines was for TBEX Asia Pacific, and the Corregidor Island tour was my first “pre-BEX” activity organized by the Department of Tourism. The other TBEX attendees and I took a 90-minute ferry ride out to the island, which sits at the mouth of Manila Bay. We and had a very full day of hopping off and on a trolley to view the island’s ruins, museum, monuments, and cemeteries, which ended with a tour of the supposedly haunted Malinta Tunnel.
Corregidor Island, a former U.S. military base and one of the most important World War II sites in the Pacific, was decimated during the Battle of Corregidor in 1942. These barracks once housed thousands of U.S. and Filipino troops.
This Buddha stands at the Japanese Memorial Garden on Corregidor Island to honor the thousands of Japanese soldiers who lost their lives on the island.
This is a view from Corregidor over Manila Bay to the Bataan Peninsula. During World War II, 75,000 Filipino and American troops on Bataan were forced to march 65 miles to prison camps, which is now known as the “Bataan Death March.”
- Day 9 – My second “pre-BEX” activity was a bike tour of the walled city of Intramuros – Manila’s original Spanish settlement – with Bambike Ecotours, a social enterprise that employs low-income individuals to craft bikes from bamboo by hand. I enjoyed getting some exercise away from Manila’s traffic and high rises, and seeing a small slice of the country’s history.
my Bambike taking a break in front of San Agustin Church
a view of “new” Manila from the Bastion of San Diego, which was added to the walls in 1644
- Days 10 and 11 – TBEX was two jam-packed days of learning and partying with hundreds of other travel bloggers and writers. It was exhilarating and exhausting. (Read more about my and other bloggers’ experiences here.)
- Day 12 – I participated in the post-TBEX volunteer FAM trip with four other fantastic and fascinating bloggers – a Kiwi named Jub, a Dane named Palle, and two lovely Canadians named Mel and Lauren. We spent the morning attempting to help build houses at the Gawad Kalinga community in Quezon City, which is home to visually impaired people and their families. We then drove out to the idyllic GK Enchanted Farm in Angat, which is only 58 km from Manila, but feels much further away due to the abundance of open space. Upon checking into our comfortable rooms at the retreat center, we were greeted by friendly volunteers and served a farm-fresh meal.
- Day 13 – We had a full day of learning about how GK Enchanted Farm is working to end poverty in the Philippines. It’s a training ground for future social entrepreneurs, so there is a school on the property, and it also serves as an incubator for numerous socially responsible companies, which produce everything from carabao yogurt to peanut butter to stuffed animals to shampoo.
- Day 14 – We were able to get our hands dirty on our last morning on the farm, planting seeds and putting numbered tags on the collars of baby goats. Unfortunately, we had to leave the goats behind when we departed for Manila. Because we had to rough it on the farm, the Department of Tourism was nice enough to arrange a night for us at The Henry Hotel, which I greatly appreciated.
I much preferred the traffic jams at GK Enchanted Farm to those in Manila.
dusk on the farm
- Day 15 – My last day in the Philippines was mostly spent relaxing at The Henry’s beautiful, secluded property, although I did briefly escape for a manicure at the Mall of Asia to get the farm dirt out of my nails. I very reluctantly left for the airport around 1 a.m. for the long journey back to the U.S.