As I post this, I’m not even in the Philippines anymore, but in my defense, the internet access was patchy at best, and I’ve been a busy little bee!
I spent about two weeks in the northern Philippines, starting with a handful of day trips, followed by a 9 day group tour.
I think the less said about my flight to Manila, the better. I’ll sum it up by saying that the flight boarded late, left late, became later because of headwinds, and for some reason it was just impossible for me to feel even vaguely comfortable for the whole flight. By the time I arrived at Ninoy Aquino International Airport I was already an hour late. Add to that the fact that it was nearly midnight, the immigration lines were so long they were stretching back to the gate areas, and I had lost about $200 in currency conversions, I was tired and irritated.
For reference, there is a P10,000 local currency import limit, apparently. That’s really not a lot of money…roughly $260 AUD, but if you are caught with more it can be confiscated. So to avoid what I had to do (hurriedly converting my excess pesos to USD at Sydney International Airport before my flight at absolutely abysmal rates), limit your Philippine Pesos to P10,000 and bring some foreign currency to change when you arrive.
Anyway, lines were long and confusing, but I got through them eventually, picked up my bags, and passed border control. When I exited the area I picked up a travel SIM and P500 credit (best decision ever), converted my hastily attained USD to Pesos and was on my way.
Since the bulk of my trip was a group tour, I booked my first few days as a “pre tour stay” through them to minimise fuss. It meant I had someone waiting for me at the airport, and that I’d be staying at the initial hotel as well, for convenience.
Finding my transfer was a mini adventure, as I had to go outside the terminal and cross the road, but all went relatively well, and pretty soon we were ducking and weaving midnight traffic (wtf guys…do you even know what traffic lanes are?!) towards my hotel.
Check in was simple. I was staying at Red Planet Aseana City, and for a budget hotel, I was quite impressed. I’ll definitely be looking for Red Planet hotels on my next Philippines trip. They are clean, the staff are friendly, the beds are comfortable and the showers are wonderful. And best of all, the wi-fi is good! I thought that was a positive sign of things to come, but I couldn’t be more wrong, as it was the only reliable wi-fi I had during my trip!
(There was also an in room massage service…Whoo!)
I had four full days before it was time to meet up with my tour group, plus most of a fifth day, so I decided to book some day trips to make the most of my time. I booked four, all via the same company: Filipino Travel.
I can definitely recommend these guys. The tours were a little on the pricey side, but they were private, single person tours including a driver/guide, lunch, any entrance fees and also incidentals like tolls for the skyway. And in comparison to other countries, the prices were very low for private tours.
On day one, I did a combination tour for Tagatay Ridge and Manila City including Intramuros. Since morning traffic was less than ideal, we headed out to Tagatay first. Since we were a bit ahead of schedule, we stopped at Nuvali to look at the thousand koi in the lake there.
When we were closer to Tagatay, my guide, Robert, pulled over and bought me a fresh pineapple that was sliced up and bagged for me on the spot…it was delicious, and only fifteen pesos!
When we reached Tagatay Ridge, we rode a Jeepney up to the lookout, from where I could see Taal Lake and volcano. Unfortunately it was foggy at Tagatay, but still quite pretty.
After I spent some time taking photos and buying a few little souvenirs, we returned to Manila City. Our first stop was lunch at Aristocrat, which is the oldest barbecue chicken restaurant in Manila…over 80 years old. And there’s a reason it’s still around… the food is delicious!
After the food we had a look at Manila Bay and Rizal Park, then drove to Intramuros. Robert showed me Fort Santiago, the Rizal Shrine, and we walked the walls. We also made a quick stop at Manila Cathedral and St Agustin church.
Once we’d spent a bit of time wandering through Intramuros, we drove through Manila, including the reclaimed area and Ayala, Robert explaining to me that it’s a private street belonging to a weathly businessman. We stopped at the American military cemetery (which looks unsurprisingly similar to Arlington) .It only made me a tiny bit uncomfortable, unlike a later cemetery visit on my group trip. I have a pretty intense phobia about death and some things will set me off quite badly. Usually cemeteries do, but this one was okay…I guess because it’s so stark and plain. Not sure I can explain it, to be honest. But the upshot is that I survived without any kind of anxiety kicking in, which seems like nothing, but will make more sense later when you read about my Sagada visit.
Day one ended with a quick drive past Mall of Asia and my guide pointing out where I could walk to if I wanted to do a little shopping (and warning me to keep an eye on my belongings if I go to Baclaran markets).
On day 2 I had Robert as my guide again. This time we were heading back out to the Tagatay area, but I was going to trek up Taal volcano with a local guide (the local area doesn’t allow external guides).
So Robert took me to the resort to meet up with my guide. They gave me a life jacket and led me to the boat we’d be crossing the lake on. Several times I was asked if I’d like to rent a horse for the trek. I said no over and over, because I wanted to trek up there on foot.
I’m not going to lie, the locals were persistent in attempting to sell something to me. Photos, horse hire, drinks…and when I said no to a drink they tried to guilt me into buying one for my guide instead. These people make most of their income from tourism so they need the money, but I think they’d be more successful with a different approach.
On my way up the volcano I was sad to see how unhealthy and overworked the horses are. It made me doubly glad I’d said no, and more determined to read h the top without calling down for a horse to help me finish.
It was meant to be an “easy” trek, but I’m far from fit, so it was quite difficult for me. I had to stop about a dozen times during the steeper climbs, because uphill movement is my kryptonite. Even when I was fit enough for a 10km run, I’d huff and puff after 30 seconds walking uphill. I am not sure that’ll ever change. But I was determined and eventually I reached the top.
It was worth every minute of breathlessness. The views were gorgeous and my local guide even pointed out where Lemery was (where my mum is from).
The trip down was a million time easier of course, but by the time I got to my hotel I was exhausted and happy to veg out for the rest of the afternoon.
On day 3 I had booked to visit Hidden Valley Springs. I don’t remember thinking about it logically at the time of booking, but I must have known I’d need the break after the volcano trek, since it was the most relaxing, and I booked it for right after a very taxing one.
The springs were quite a long drive away, but since I got to spend all day floating in natural springs and letting my shoulders get massaged by mini waterfalls, it was worth it.
I had a different driver, Edgar, who was actually also the tour company coordinator. He was really helpful on the drive to and from the springs, giving me info and advice, and also warning me about what to expect on my final day trip, for the following day.
I had a different driver on day four, one whose name I didn’t quite catch. He drove me out to Pagsanjan Falls, and once I was there I was glad for Edgar’s advice the day before.
I knew I was going to get soaked, and that the boat men were likely to request tips, so I stuffed P800 in a zippered pocket and left my wallet in my locker. I figured that would be enough. Edgar suggested P250 max for each of the two boat men as tips, and to not let them guilt me into tipping if I didn’t want to. I also knew that I wouldn’t have the same boat man going under the falls on the raft, so I took a little extra for them and in case I needed a drink or something on the way.
To be honest the advice was helpful, but I sort of wish I’d taken more, or had some smaller bills. I had seven P100 notes and two P50 notes with me, but I just hadn’t realised exactly how hard the boat men had to work to paddle me to and from the falls. It was a longer trip than I had anticipated, and much more effort than my own kayaking experience.
I had resolved in my head to give them P350 each (which from what I understand is roughly a day’s minimum wage in the area), but when I got to the raft…There were three men handling the raft, not the one man I’d expected from photos.
That made me rethink my entire tipping plan, since I couldn’t tip them all P50 since I only had two P50 notes, and they were all friendly and helpful so I didn’t want to NOT tip them.
In the end, I tipped them P100 each since I didn’t have three smaller bills, which left the recommended P250 for the two canoe boat men.
I still feel a little bad about that, after seeing just how hard those two guys worked, but I had nothing else on me. And honestly, tipping isn’t something that is considered the norm in the Philippines as far as I could tell, so I’m probably just overthinking it as I tend to do.
Anyway, forgetting my tipping woes and second guessing, the visit was beautiful. The trip to and from the falls in the canoe was gorgeous and the falls were, in a word, intense! I was actually grateful for the hard hat they gave me considering how heavily the water hit as I went under them!
By the time I got back to the locker at the resort, I was very glad for my change of clothing (I looked like I had jumped into the water fully dressed) and for my phone being waterproof!
The next day was the day I’d be meeting my group for the 9 day trip. This trip (Northern Philippines Adventure) I booked with G Adventures. I’d never done this kind of tour before, so I was a little worried about what could go wrong, but new experiences are good to have, right? And The Philippines isn’t super easy to traverse alone, anyway.
The meeting wasn’t until 6pm, so I whiled away the day at Mall of Asia, which was about 15 minutes walk away. When I got back to the hotel for the meeting, I spotted a girl looking over a familiar itinerary and approached her to say hello.
As it turns out she also ended up being my assigned roommate on the tour, which was a lucky thing because we got along really well! We both were relieved once we met the rest of the group that we were paired up, since some of the others were a little more… erm…difficult.
But I refuse to dwell on that, aside from saying that hey, if you’re a bigot or a homophobe…or any kind of intolerant jerk, maybe keep those conversations away from the group dinners where you’re sitting with people whose backgrounds and lives you know nothing about, yeah?
Since the group trip was nine days long, with quite a bit of driving time in there, i won’t go day by day…Way too many boring travel hours in there! (Although travel wise, I WILL admit that the drive from Manila to Banaue was terror inducing and my life flashed before my eyes over and over hahaha!)
Since Manila was just our meeting point, our first real exploration was in Banaue. I’m sure that anyone who has heard of Banaue has heard of the local rice terraces…they are a real sight to behold, and to get a good view, you need to be prepared to take a good long walk.
And not just long, but steep and high! I’m so glad I’ve been getting over my fear of heights because some of the walks I did on this trip would have been traumatising otherwise.
I’m far from fit, so the walk was pretty intense, but honestly I’d do it again for that view.
After Banaue, we travelled to Sagada, where we went on a small walk around the town on the way to the hanging coffins.
Now, this was not a great experience for me. I told my guide the previous night about my phobia, and warned her that i couldn’t go to the hanging coffins, or see any graves or coffins in case they triggered a panic. She seemed to understand and told me she’d wait with me before we got anywhere near anything that might cause me any issues.
When we were leaving for the town trip, we were under the impression that the afternoon would include a visit to some caves as well as the hanging coffins, and I had no idea where these places were in relation to each other. I was expecting to get to a certain point and the guide would tell me we were getting close and where I should stop.
We passed a lovely old church and then were led into a cemetery. A fucking cemetery, after I told the guide about my phobia. She was ahead with the local guide, so I did my best to keep my head down and ignore what was around me.
I really only hung in there because I thought maybe we had to pass through there to reach the caves, considering the guide hadn’t said anything to me. She was too far ahead for me to ask, so I followed along, hands shaking and lungs tight, eyes glued to the ground trying not to see the tombstones in the edges of my vision.
I lasted about halfway before I caved. I was so terrified of hyperventilating and getting stuck on the ground in the middle of a cemetery, unable to breathe and therefore unable to get out of the situation, that I managed to keep breathing shallowly but instead panic-crying until I got out the other side.
Literally about ten seconds after I got out of the cemetery I couldn’t breathe and had to sit on the ground trying to calm down.
Then, my guide came up and said she thinks that since I have Filipina blood, that must be why I got upset being in an old Filo cemetery.
Umm…what the fuck?
No…that would be my brain trying to let out the panic in a way that wouldn’t trap my in the middle of the situation that triggered me. When I explained to her again about my phobia and that the only reason I even tried to walk through was because I wanted to see the caves, she told me, “No, the caves are tomorrow, we are just going to the hanging coffins today.”
Are. You. Fucking. Kidding me?!
So basically despite knowing about my phobia in advance, she let me walk through a cemetery towards a site she knew I couldn’t visit. And guess who had to then walk back through the cemetery?!
It was not a good afternoon for me.
She then told me, “Maybe you shouldn’t go to the caves…they have hanging coffins in them too.”
WHY WOULD SHE NOT TELL ME THIS WHEN I FIRST TOLD HER ABOUT MY PHOBIA?!
She knew I was planning on visiting the caves, for fuck’s sake.
So, clearly I gave the caves a miss.
I did visit the waterfalls the next morning. They were a bit of a trek away, but they were beautiful. I took a quick dip in the water too, but I only lasted a few minutes hip deep and splashing before the icy water got to me and I had to get out.
That afternoon only one of our group braved the caves, so the rest of us took a different tour, seeing the weavers, the pottery center and a small lake.
The weavers and potters were super impressive…the lake was less so. 😂
Honestly it just looked like every other small lake, nothing to set it apart, though apparently there’s a belief in the locals that it’s the crater of a small volcano.
After Sagada, we headed out to Vigan.
Vigan was lovely, and I enjoyed every minute we were there. The hotel (Gordion Inn) was, like every other building in the area, heritage listed. The rooms were big (though old) and the whole place was really cool in an old school way.
While in Vigan we saw the dancing fountain (twice!) which I loved. We also did a city tour including a small museum, the zoo, and the hidden gardens.
My roommate and I also rode in a calesa, and I went with one of the other group members to get a 2 hour massage package which was so good I found myself drifting to sleep on the table.
Vigan was definitely a highlight.
After Vigan we spent a night in Laoag. Laoag was honestly nothing special, I suspect we were only there for the local airport. There wasn’t much to see except the sinking bell tower.
The best part about Laoag was actually the dunes on the way there.
Me, my roommate, and a pair of sisters in the group decided to do the 4×4 sand dune activity and sand boarding. We had a blast! Basically the four of us were standing(!) in the tray back of a 4WD while the driver drove up and down the dunes. It was both fun and painful…we were all bruised by the end but had a great time.
Sand boarding was basically riding a board down the slope of a dune, either sitting (which was easy but still fun) or standing, which was fun but much harder and of course, I face planted near the bottom. I didn’t hurt myself though, and still had fun.
After Laoag, our last stop was back in Manila City. We took a flight that got us back in the afternoon, then a quick city tour including lunch again at Aristocrat.
I’m very glad I did a city tour myself at the beginning of my trip, though, because the flight arrived a bit late so it got dark during the tour and we only really got to see Fort Santiago.
After one last night (at another Red Planet), I said goodbye to the group and jumped on a plane…this time to Singapore. 😊