After what felt like a lifetime of planning, scanning through Instagram and reading countless travel blogs about the Philippines we were finally boarding our flight bound for Manila.
Arriving in Manila I didn’t really didn’t quite know what to expect. Ray being Filipino Australian himself and also our good friend Christine who was traveling with us on this trip had drummed into me all the things to watch out for in the Philippines. How dangerous it can be, all the scams, the corruption, the robberies, the traffic, nothing ever running on time, cancelation and a bunch of other things, especially in Manila. Needless to say I was a little apprehensive because everything I had seen online just showed off all of the beautiful untouched beaches of the 7000+ islands and the stunning limestone karst landscapes. But I shouldn’t have been worried because our 3 weeks in the Philippines was one of the best trips we have had in all of our time traveling together albeit a few hiccups along the way.
We had a round about itinerary but nothing really set in stone, 2-3 days in Manila, a week in Vigan (Christine’s home province) and then a week or so getting off the grid on a secluded beach somewhere in Palawan.
After spending 2 days in Manila we were all ready to hit the road for Vigan, it’s true what Ray and Christine had warned me about Manila. It was crazy busy mainly the traffic. No one walks in Manila because they don’t feel safe walking the streets, they all drive and traffic moves at a glacial pace at the best of time and can sometimes take the best part of an hour just to get a few block.
Plus apart from the Greenbelt Mega Malls a few historical sights like Rizal Park, Intramuros and Quiapo Church there isn’t a great deal to do in Manila and it really is just a stop over/bouncing off point for other parts of the country.
Like we mentioned earlier things rarely run on time in the Philippines and upon arriving at the bus terminal that afternoon we were informed that the bus had been cancelled and wont be there until tomorrow… So I guess its one more night in Manila for us.
Fast forward to the next night we boarded the overnight VIP bus for Vigan and I must say this bus was pretty sweet, big comfy reclining chairs, 2 by 2 configuration and a big TV playing random Filipino movies. There could have been worse ways to spend the next 7 hours. The bus makes 3 pit stops along the way giving you time to stretch your legs, go to the bathroom and grab the obligatory truck stop snacks.
We arrived at Vigan public market just before sunrise, the town was just waking up and I honestly don’t know why Vigan is not on any of the travel blogs we read about because this place is beautiful and not what we expected at all.
Vigan is a town in the province of Ilocos Sur about 7 hours north west of Manila. It is the most intact example in Asia of a planned Spanish colonial town, built in the 16th century its well preserved Spanish colonial and Asian architecture, cobblestone streets, huge mansions and horse draw carriages create a really unique townscape unlike anywhere else in the Philippines and all of south east Asia. Apart from the local tourists who venture up here westerners don’t really know it exists and that’s always a good thing in our book.
For our week here Christine’s parents had organised for us to stay with a family friend at their newly opened homestay Rey De Corazon resort about 5 minutes out of town, down a country lane by the river and nestled amongst the corn fields we were so excited to call this home for the next week.
There is so much to see and do in Ilocos, Vigan town with all of its historical architecture, local markets, churches and the old town square, but once you get out of town and venture north and south the scenery is incredible. If you head north to Ilocos Norte you come across small farming towns with endless tobacco fields and black and white sand beaches that only the local’s know about and if you head south down past Vigan and into the countryside and mountains of Ilocos Sur the scenery is incredible.
One day we all went down to Salcedo a small town in the mountains and then up to Bago Resort. Bago Resort was a mission to get to along one-lane roads hugging to the side of a cliff but once we arrived this place was incredible. Levels of emerald green pools built into the hills and overlooking an incredible dry riverbed at the base of the mountain, and apart from a few local kids we had the place entirely to ourselves for the afternoon relaxing in the natural spring water watching the sun setting behind the mountain range.
A week quickly flew by and it was time to head back to Manila, say goodbye to Christine and head on down to Palawan. We read up so much on Palawan and decided not to go the usual tourist trap and head to El Nido like everyone else but opted to check out Port Barton.
Port Barton has been likened to El Nido 25 years ago and has only been open to tourists for about the past 10 years so hasn’t felt to brunt of mass tourism like El Nido either.
Like everyone else wanting to explore Palawan you must enter via Puerto Princesa and transfer via bus or minivan to your destination. Ray and I opted to stay a night in Puerto Princesa before catching the rather overcrowded minivan to Port Barton. The road to Port Barton is still under construction but for the most part follows the same highway north as El Nido but then veers off to the west once you hit Roxas and that’s when the road gets a little less paved and more like.. Well mud!
Needless to say we survived the ride and arrived 4 hours later in our island paradise. This place was like stepping back in time 25 years, no phone reception, only intermittent Wi-Fi at your hotel/guesthouse, no hot water, no a/c and the electricity is only switched on between 5pm and midnight. Port Barton was just what we were looking for.
Originally a fishing village the town now caters mainly to travellers who aren’t afraid to rough it a little, the town is made up of 2 roads the run parallel to the beach and 2 back up into the mountains. The streets are filled with cute little local restaurants, sari sari stores and almost every home doubles as a guesthouse.
While doing research of where to stay in town everyone recommends pre booking as accommodation is limited but we found the opposite. We booked a few nights on the southern end of the beach at Deep Moon Resort, which for all accounts got rave reviews online for its cute beachfront bungalows and relaxed vibes but I’m sad to say it was a no from us.
Like I mentioned above everyone recommends the southern end of the beach but we found far better places with better amenities and a much more chilled out, quiet vibe at the northern end of the beach. It’s a nice mix of Gen X and Gen Y’s genuinely wanting to switch off and relax rather than shirtless backpackers dancing on the beach with fire poi’s till 2 am. Plus we found somewhere with electricity from 4pm till 8am… winning!
Port Barton is one of those places you come for a few days and end up staying for weeks. A tiny town fringed by dense jungle, time goes slower here and with so many pristine beaches, uninhabited islands offshore and hidden waterfalls to explore we understand why. This place really is paradise.
After settling into the pace of island life for a few days it was time to do some exploring of what this gorgeous little place had to offer. There are a few tour companies in town that offer private and group island tours, one notable agent would be Rizal’s run but Miss Rizal at the northern end of the beach next door to Besaga Resort. She offers great service and amazing tours at a reasonable price or any of the guesthouses and hotels can organise it for you.
But to be honest we much prefer to go it alone and find our own way and our favourite way to explore is by foot. It might be slow but you really get to take it all in and see everything around you.
We had heard about Austria Beach (coconut beach) and White Beach, which could be reached by foot so decided to take it on one morning. Located to the south of Port Barton, Austria Beach is about a 3kms away and White Sands Beach is about a further 1.5kms. The walk isn’t for the faint hearted ill admit, as you get out of town and pass the first headland the road turns pretty sketchy and combined with the heat it was exhausting but after about an hour we reached Austria Beach and this place was better than we’d imagined.
We were the first people to lay our footprints on the powdery white sand that morning and apart from the local family working their coconut grove there wasn’t a soul in sight the whole time we were there. The beach in privately owned by the family who run the coconut grove and for a small donation of around 30 peso your allowed to swim as long as you like and the lovely owners will normally fetch you a fresh coconut they’ve harvested that day.
It was a special experience visiting here, the farmer realised Ray was Filipino and insisted we come up to their house and graciously offered us both fresh coconuts and fruit. Ray’s Tagalog is pretty rusty at the best of times but from what he understood the family has been farming their patch of paradise for 3 generations and is constantly being offered money by developers to leave so they can turn the beach into a resort. But they refuse to leave and we really hope they hold strong because this place is really special.
His son then showed us a shortcut through the jungle to get to White Beach; it’s about another 20 minutes walk if you follow the road. White Beach has a small resort and is quite popular with day-trippers. The sand is pure white, the water has a gentle drop off and is perfect for swimming and you can also relax while having a few cold San Miguel’s and some lunch from the restaurant. They also offer boat rides back if you aren’t up for the hike back to town.
There are other amazing beaches located to the north of Port Barton as well – Pamuwayan, But But and Nao Nao Beach. These beaches are also accessible by foot but we hired a boat and driver for the day. Stopping off at each beach was really beautiful; each of them different from the other but by far Nao Nao was the most spectacular. Golden sands covered in tiny hermit crabs and some of the nicest turquoise water we has swam in on the whole trip. Cruising back to port Barton past all of the islands and isolated sand bars we realised just how special this unspoilt part of Palawan really is.
On our final day in paradise we decided to tackle the mountain and trek up to Papuwayan Falls. Located about an hours walk out of town along a small dirt road that cuts through the verdant jungle, you’ll pass a small village along the way with cute kids selling coconuts. The walk here is almost as good as the waterfalls themselves.
Once we reach the falls you pay a donation, which goes directly back to the upkeep of the falls and the local village you passed through on the way. The falls were beautiful and the water is so refreshing after walking an hour or so uphill in 100% humidity.
After lunch it can get pretty busy here so we recommend coming early, but either way they are definitely worth trip.
So after almost a month spent in the Philippines its time to pack our bags and head off to our next adventure. I can honesty say we have enjoyed our time here immensely and we cannot wait to plan our next trip here very soon. We have hardly scratched the surface of what this incredible country has to offer and we have a thirst to uncover much much more next time.