Philippines: Cebu, Bantayan & Malapascua

Trip length: 16 days

Go: If you like beaches, meat, budget travel

Don’t go: If you don’t want to see pollution and plastic everywhere, if you get sad at the sight of dying stray dogs and cats.

*disclaimer* – this is not my usual way of travelling and exploring the local cuisine and staying in budget accommodations. I knew before booking that I wasn’t going to eat much Filipino food (I don’t eat beef, pork or seafood) and my friends and I opted to do more luxury budget accommodations, comfortable transportation, and North American style food. We kept costs low when we could but splurged when it felt appropriate (like every day). I have posted costs as a guide but you can travel the Philippines for significantly less if you so choose.

Flight from YVR = $650 CAD return including taxes.

Day 1: Canada – China – Cebu airport – Bantayan

After 26 hours of travel including the most ridiculous stopover in Shanghai, where were denied entry to China, we arrived in Cebu airport in the Philippines.

We were absolutely exhausted but opted to travel on and head to Bantayan to avoid having to make the trek another day.

We took a taxi for₱2750 (flat rate posted so didn’t bargain. There were 4 of us with a bunch of luggage but you could try bargaining) and headed for the 3 hour drive to Hagnaya Port. You can save a significant amount of money by taking the bus from the Cebu North bus terminal but we thought this was a place to splurge. Our driver asked if we wanted to hit a drive thru (is this because we are North American?) and we declined but asked to stop for some fruit. About 2 hours into the drive he stopped at some fruit stands where we tried several new fruits we had never eaten before. The highlight was the guaynabo – which is super messy to eat but really tasty.

Fruit stand on the side of the road from Cebu to Hagnaya

When we got to Hagnaya, we bought our ferry tickets (₱180 each +₱20 port fee) and waited an hour for the next ferry. There were plenty of small booths to purchase food and drinks from but we declined, opting to wait until we got to Bantayan. We took the 1 hour & 15 min ferry to Bantayan. The ferry looked much like a cargo barge but had some basic benches open air for seating.

Ferry schedule from Hagnaya to Bantayan
Kota Beach Resort Cabin number 5

We arrived in Bantayan and were crammed through what can only be described as a cattle chute to pay our island eco fee (₱30 each) before taking a tricycle (₱20 ) each to our hotel: Kota Beach Resort. We had rented a tiny little cabin for quadruple occupancy which to them meant, one double bed, one couch and a mattress on the floor. It was quaint (bordering on crowded with 4 people) but there is nowhere else to stay! Kota beach resort has the nicest beach in Bantayan, and the nicest beach I’ve ever visited in the world. Perfect, still, warm water with shallow sandbars as far out as you could want to go.

After 36+ hours of travel, we had arrived. We were starving and trying to fight jet lag so went into the main tourist restaurant strip in Santa Fe and had lunch at the Tiki restaurant across from MJ square.

After lunch we hung out at our perfect beach for awhile and got our second wind and decided to walk along the beach to the Ogtong caves (entrance fee:₱200) before it closed at 5 pm. Caution: this is a long walk (maybe an hour?) but amazing. We arrived at 4 pm and explored the cave area then laid by the pool for a bit. At 4:45 we went to go for one last dip in the cave pool to take some photos and were told it was closed. I protested, saying they weren’t supposed to close until 5. They pointed to a clock that was 10 minutes fast and showed the time as 4:55 and shrugged. My tip if you go here: go early.

Ogtong Cave

Note: we had considered staying at the Ogtong cave resort. After the sketchy clock moving situation to close early as well as the lack of beach and distant location from food, we were glad we chose Kota. Visit the cave for a day trip, but don’t stay in the resort.

We had seen a pizza spot online with great reviews and noticed a sign pointing to it from the Otong cave resort. We walked to Isla Ora pizza for some craft beer, fresh juice, and handmade thin crust pizza and along the way saw a cliff jumping spot where a bunch of local kids were playing. If cliff jumping is your thing, this would be a great spot.

Isla Ora was such a great choice. Amazing pizza and very fast service (not that we were in a hurry to go anywhere…) I wasn’t particularly excited to try Filipino food so you’ll notice a lack of authentic food choices in this blog. We took a tricycle back to Kota for ₱25 /person and watched the most amazing sunset from the beach (a little west of Kota). We had grandiose plans of checking out the karaoke bar in town but after a long day in the sun following 36 hours’ of travel, we crashed out shortly after sunset.

Day 2: Bantayan 

We awoke super early to the sound of squeals coming from under our cabin. We investigated and found 7 little puppies, so tiny their eyes weren’t even open yet. Bantayan has a major stray dog problem which is heart breaking. We asked around and apparently the only two vets on the island only treat pigs. Animal lovers watch out, you’ll like come home with an extra puppy or two from this island. Not kidding, I actually went back and adopted a stray beach dog. More about that here. 

Entrance to Oboob Mangrove Garden/Eco Park

We spent the morning playing with the local dogs and tanning at the beach. After lunch we took a tricycle to the mangroves. We negotiated a tricycle for ₱200 return for 4 of us (from the original₱200 one way) and originally felt bad making the tricycle driver wait as we planned on kayaking around the mangroves.We paid our entry to the mangroves (₱50  each which included free use of a straw hat for the sun) and found out the kayaks were apparently broken. All of them. We bought some fish food for the giant tiger fish and set out walking around on the bamboo platform. We fed some giant tiger fish (about 1.5 inches long) and walked the entire boardwalk in about 15 minutes. We asked our tricycle driver to bring us to paradise beach instead of back to our hotel.

We weren’t sure about going to another beach when we already had the best beach at Kota but decided to check it out. From where we got dropped off it was about a 10 min walk through the trail to the beach. We paid our admission (₱50 each) and spent a couple hours playing in the water. We discussed chartering a boat back (₱300) to Kota but when we decided we wanted to leave, it was low tide and no longer an option. We had wanted to stay and watch the sunset but were a little worried about the walk back in the dark on the trail. We watched as the sun began to set and made our way back to where we had been dropped off. There were no tricycles looking to drive us back and rather than waiting, I had a look at Google maps (download offline maps, this is essential) and saw we were only 1.2 km from the pizza place from the night before and surely could catch a ride back from there and watch the rest of the sunset. We ended up walking through a tiny village where the children ran out waving and greeting us as though we were celebrities. We visited a local farm and the farmer introduced us to all his livestock. Although we had eaten at the pizza spot the night before, it was incredible and convenient so we opted to eat there again. They also called a tricycle back to Kota for us (₱25 each) and we got home to our cabin, and our sweet stray dog who stayed waiting for us on our porch. Again, we thought we’d try nightlife but after one drink in town, it was back to bed.

Tip: if you go to paradise beach, confirm a tricycle to pick you up unless you want to do the same walk we did.

Detour: You can add a day trip to Virgin Island from Bantayan. Apparently the snorkelling isn’t great but the beach is supposed to be nice. 

Day 3 – Bantayan to Malapascua

After 2 days in paradise, we were ready for some adventure. The day before we had arranged to take a boat from Bantayan to Malapascua for₱2250 for all 4 of us.  There is a ferry/taxi/bus/ferry option to get there in about 3 hours for ₱400 each but we thought the boat would be a more fun, possibly faster option. The man who arranged the boat for us said it was an hour ride. We didn’t anticipate it to be this fast but certainly didn’t imagine what would happen…

Boat from Bantayan to Malapascua

This boat ride was incredibly rough on a small banka with just a single man driving. It ended up taking us 4 hours due to multiple break downs. With the water crashing into the boat while the driver tried fixing it, a friend asked me if this was really the best option to get to Malapascua. I replied that it was “an option” but I had never claimed it to be the best option. The fastest/cheaper/safer option would be the ferry/taxi/bus/ferry option which I recommend however the boat journey sure made for a good story and some good bonding time together.

We hadn’t prebooked a place to stay in Malapascua as we were unsure we would actually get there, and wifi on Bantayan had been sketchy. We had emailed a place but not booked who said they had one room remaining for the four of us. When we arrived, they stated they were full so we tried another place who also said they were full. We went back to the Slams Garden Resort and showed them the email. They managed to find a room for us and we ended up having a fantastic stay. Other than not being on the beach, this hotel is fantastic! A great location (2 min walk to the beach, close to water taxis), a swimming pool, free welcome drink and free (really good!) breakfast all for a bargain price compared to other hotels on Malapascua (we paid₱3850 for 4 of us).

After a 2 hour lunch (island time isn’t known for fast service) we spent the rest of the day by the pool.

SLAMS garden resort, Malapascua.

We enjoyed a drink at the Sunset bar above French Kiss divers – this place is probably one of the best spots for the sunset and they have a 6 pm happy hour timed with the sunset.

Sunset bar above French Kiss divers in Malapascua, Philippines

We decided to finally explore the island and headed for Craics at the other side of the south of the island. Google maps showed us a road through town which was actually more like small sand alley ways, barely large enough for motorbikes (the only transportation on the island) which gave us a chance to see local homes and local businesses as opposed to the tourist strip of hotels and restaurants along the beach side (which we walked back along)

Craics was North American but tons of great seating options and a good crowd (and happy hour til 7). It was more expensive than the local spots but this is to be expected for an Irish pub with a kick ass location on the beach and a variety of seating options (bean bag chairs on the ground, patio chairs and couches or regular chairs).

As we walked back along the beach we noted a bunch of nightlife options and great tourist style restaurants, wishing we could stay longer. This walk along the beach is definitely the more touristy route to walk as opposed to the side streets and alleys through the island.

Day 4: Malapascua 

I woke up super early for my 5 am dive to see Thresher Sharks – which is kind of the thing to do on Malapascua. I am an advanced diver with at least 60 trouble free dives under my belt but for some reason I completely panicked on the descent with my mask filling with water and struggling to take full breaths (was this my first panic attack ever in my life?) I contemplated going back on the boat and skipping the dive but the awesome dive master was able to get me sorted with a new mask and calmed me enough to breathe normally. The water was super rough on our entry but I can’t think of any other reason why I struggled. Thankfully I went through with the dive because I had a drama free descent after I got sorted and we spotted the thresher sharks! This dive site was interesting as it was a wall we dropped down to a viewing area where we sat and watched the sharks swim by at their cleaning station. Shark sightings are not guaranteed – they hadn’t seen them the day before but we were lucky enough to see 2! The site was otherwise beautiful with coral and tropical fish. It is worth visiting even if you don’t see the sharks. I didn’t have any recommendation on any particular dive shop on Malapascua. The PADI shop I walked into first to inquire ignored my presence and French Kiss was the next one down the road and was super helpful and friendly – I also got 10% off for staying at Slams but don’t let a discount be your main reason for choosing a dive shop. You’ve got to feel comfortable. French Kiss is all French speaking staff, seemingly marketed to French people (I was the only Anglophone on the dive) but this didn’t seem to be an issue and I was welcomed the same.

I was back from the dive by 8 am (only one tank, deep dive short bottom time and boat ride there and back was 30 minutes each way) and enjoyed my breakfast at Slams (included). If I had more time I would have loved to explore more of the dive sites in Malapascua.

Our biggest concern for the day was to decide between a massage on the beach (₱450) vs at the Bueno Vida spa (₱990). We walked around exploring the island, heading up north more while we decided. We opted to give the spa a try despite the high cost relative to other massages in Asia. It was definitely worth the cost! The Buena Vida spa also offers twice daily yoga (₱400 at 7 am & 4:30 pm) and has amazing facilities. If you need a break from the sun and beach, check this spot out. A friend summarized her massage with one sentence:
“I had someone climb on my back, straddle me and massage my cheeks”

Massages at Bueno Vida spa in Malapascua

If that sounds enjoyable to you, check this spot out! After lunch we had to start our long journey back to Cebu. We heard varying opinions on the last public boat to Maya so opted to go early at 2 pm. We got our tickets (₱100 each) from the little booth in front of the under construction pier. We were loaded into a small boat which transferred us to the slightly larger (not large) boat to Maya (another₱20 each)

We were at the old pier in Maya, short 3 min walk to main ferry terminal where vans were waiting.  Walking off the boat was a terrifying tight rope walk on a thin wooden plank with a piece of bamboo held on either end by men as the railing. We got some quick advice from a girl living in Cebu:
– Do not take red buses
– Vans can be a cheap, faster option but they cram you in pretty tight
-₱115-215 for a bus that can take 4-6 hours

We didn’t see any buses nearby so caught a van for ₱200 each. He charged one passenger an extra₱200 for her large suitcase but said ours were fine. Until we started driving… then he asked for another ₱400 for two of our bags. We reluctantly paid it. You’d think for the equivalent of 3 extra seats (the British girl’s₱200 plus our ₱400) that we’d have got a little space but he crammed that van with as many people as possible. And a chicken. Our 3.5 hour journey was filled with a woman puking into a bag beside my friend for a couple hours and another woman spraying perfume (don’t do this in a small confined space) so the chicken clucking was the least of these annoyances. If any of these issues worry you, you might want to rent a taxi. Despite the frequent stops, our drivers maniacal driving got us to Cebu in 3.5 hours. He dropped us at a gas station at the turnoff for the airport where we paid ₱300 for the 8 minute ride. Huge rip off (for the Philippines) but we were in no position to bargain as it was dark, a small child was trying to get his hands on my friends iPhone, and we were exhausted.

Tip: if you have data or can find wifi, use Uber.

Tip: try not to rely on bus/van/taxi times from Maya to Cebu as traffic was horrendous and I can see how this 3.5 hour journey can easily turn into 6. If you are planning to catch a flight, leave yourself plenty of extra time.

We stayed at the Little Norway guesthouse – super close to the airport and a fantastic price for 2 rooms. This place was clean, friendly and a great location. At first it felt a little sketchy going down what seemed like a dark alley to find the spot but once we settled in, we set out on foot and made the short walk to the nearby mall without safety concerns. I highly recommend this as a spot to stay if flying in/out of Cebu airport.

It was interesting to explore the nearby Gaisano mall. I’m not sure if this is how all shopping centres are, or if it was the proximity to the airport but everything was in English. We curiously explored all the Filipino fast food restaurants and settled on some fruit from the supermarket for a light dinner and tucked in before our super early flight to Coron the next morning.

Detour: stay longer on Malapascua, especially with the long travel time from Bantayan and Cebu.

Next stop: Coron

Cebu, Bantayan and Malapascua Tips:
– There is an ATM on Bantayan, apparently it doesn’t always work but there is one there. We did not notice one on Malapascua. Head to the islands with cash if you can.
– Malapascua is more expensive than Bantayan.
– There are frequent brown outs on Bantayan
– Security guards are located everywhere, making you wonder if it is as safe as it feels. I didn’t feel unsafe once, even walking alone at night as a female.
– Not all places have hot water for showers. Get used to it.
– The beaches are typically full of plastic and garbage. Instead of buying cheap souvenirs from the children on the beach, consider giving them some cash in return for picking up beach garbage.
– Many bars offer 2 for 1 drink specials at happy hour
– Make sure you bargain with taxi/van drivers and confirm the rate before leaving, including bags.
– If you want to stay connected, buy a cheap SIM card as the data is faster than island wifi and the Uber costs are much cheaper than taxis. Take advantage of the free SIM card giveaways at the airport. SMART seems to be the largest cell network in the areas I visited and purchasing “load” for your SIM card also includes access to free wifi areas.
– If you are headed to Bantayan, consider bringing a donation to the Island Sanctuary for stray dogs and cats. They do incredible work with limited means and could use our support as tourists. For more info about the situation, click here.

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