Backpacking Philippines: A Thrilling Adventure on a Budget – Tips and Tales

Backpacking Philippines is easy and super fun! Read below for some tips to save money along the way.

Backpacking Philippines- Getting around Philippines on a Budget:

Jeepneys: The best way to get around Philippines cheaply!

Jeepney: The cheapest way to get from the airport is to take a Jeepney. Jeepneys are a cultural phenomenon in the Philippines- they’re military jeeps converted into public transportation, with covered bench seats in the back. They cost very little, just a few coins about $0.25-1 to get around town. People speak English in the Philippines and will gladly help you out if you tell them where you’re trying to go.

Backpacking Cebu Island, Philippines

Cebu is a very long island packed with everything from modern malls and movie theaters, to white sand beaches and rustic lodges. There’s a very efficient public bus system connecting cities on the island, and many other ways to save!

Cheapest Way to get from Cebu Airport to the City

Jeepney! Go outside the airport and head to your left until you see a Jeepney stop. Ask around, people are friendly and helpful in the Philippines. Remember always ask your jeepney or taxi the price before you ride.

Backpacking Malapascua Island (Cebu, Philippines)

Malapascua is a small island at the very northern tip of Cebu Island. You can take a public bus form Cebu city to Maya town, and then catch the small-boat public ferry to the island.

Mapapascua is dotted with small boutique resorts and hostels, and the beaches are home to a few dive shops. Just back a row off of the ocean, you will find cheaper budget accommodations and hostels. The island is lined with wooden fences and narrow alleys in the sand, and in these alleys you’ll find delicious little BBQ stands selling fresh pork sticks and other delights for very cheap.

Did you know? In the Philippines, it’s common to see a triple shot rum and coke at a cheaper price than a single! Rum is cheaper than cola! At least this is true in Malapascua.

Diving with Sea Quest in Malapascua Island

Diving in Malapascua is unique for two reasons: the resident thresher sharks about 1 hour boat ride away at a deep sea dropoff, and the high-contrasting colored mandarin fish on the house reef, which do their playful mating dances at sunset.

Bohol Thresher Shark Dive: The thresher shark dive was our first deep dive, so we took this opportunity to complete our PADI advanced certificate, allowing us 3 specialty dives and the ability to recreationally dive to 40m instead of the beginner max depth of 18m. Our instructor was a good-humored Spaniard who took us around the local reefs teaching us about scuba peak-performance buoyancy, nitrogen narcosis, and color changes at deep depths. Lorenzo

In the advanced course, our instructor also took us on our first night dive, which was truly a shock to me. I couldn’t believe that the reef I had seen only hours before in the daylight could change so drastically as the sun went down. The sharp angles and swirls of the reef gave way to the fuzzy, wriggling arms of coral polyps exiting their hard skeletal homes to feed. Many new animals come out in the night, like pencil urchins which look like cartoon bombs, and other nocturnal critters like moray eels, squid, and night octopus.

We also opted to take our PADI nitrox (enriched air) certification at the same time. This allowed us to have more bottom time at the deep depths where you can spot the thresher sharks.

We set out on the huge wooden catamaran in the dark if early morning to head out the the ocean ridge where the thresher sharks are known to ascend at sunrise for hunting. When we arrived, we dropped into a 18m deep sandy reef and approached the drop-off. Together we went over the edge and went down to about 30m, where we found an outcropping ledge with a low barrier made of thick white rope and metal posts. There were already a few divers lined up behind the rope, and they looked just like a group of concert-goers waiting behind the rope to catch a glimpse of their favourite band. We joined then in line and scanned the inky blue water for a sign of a thresher. We didn’t have to wait long. Soon the shadow of a very long animal approached, it’s tail as long as it’s body and sleek as a whip. A few thresher sharks came by, and we were thrilled watching their silhouettes prowl around the deep.

Being at this excessive depth, divers consume air faster as the volume of their lungs remain the same, but the air itself is compressed to about a third of its regular volume. We saw our pressure guaging nearing low, and rose back to the boat, celebrating our victory! Thresher sharks are a very rare, deep sea predator, and to spot a few was a real treat!

Back on land we snorkelled around the around the island, and found a dead black king cobra on the beach, it’s body wrapped around a boat line so it moved with each wave, scaring the heck out of me. We walked back to the hostel on a path throufhr the small villages, where local kids greeted us with delight and held up their roosters to us so we could admire their pets and their striking claws.

Backpacking Moalboal Island (Cebu, Philippines)

This seaside town is built around scuba diving, and it’s clear to see by the sheer number of dive shops, scuba resorts, and even a scuba specializing doctors office on it’s narrow pedestrian streets. Diving and snorkelling here is easily done from the shore, as a wall of coral rich with life drops into very deep water only about 20 feet from shore. The area is also frequented by huge bait balls of thousands of sardines.

We took a few dives from shore to enjoy the wall of coral, and spotted ornate ghost pipe fish.

There are BBQ booths on the streets here as well, and we enjoyed some squid dinners. Once they had a giant Moray eel on the grill, but we didn’t venture to try it.

Backpacking Negros island & Apo Island, Philippines

From Cebu we set our sights on Apo Island, a very tiny island off of Negros. To get there we took a bus from Cebu city to Dumegete, which included the ferry ride across to Negros? We stayed the night in Dumegete, and then bussed down the coast until we reached Malatapay Wharf. This area is secluded and peaceful. We hired a small dugout sail boat with an outboard motor to ferry us across to Apo island. Is was a sunny and clear day but the little chop of waves splashed into the boat and soaked us and our backpacks. You could always see the mainland shore and the little island on the horizon, but at some points I was a litter nervous in the open ocean on this tiny vessel. We did have life jackets, and that was a small solace.

Apo island

This island is famed for the incredible number of green? turtles in shallow water, grazing lazily on sea grass. There are also TONS of black and white banded sea snakes, which are one of the most venous animals on earth, but because of their tiny mouths and calm temper, they’ve never killed a human and probably couldn’t unless it bit you between the fingers or toes.

The snakes are fun to watch as they expertly undulate through the shallows and hunt for small fish.

The island has a dive shop, but we opted not to dive. We were quite new divers at the time and had to budget out money, but looking back we wish we did at least one dive! The area has potential for clear water and colorful coral, and the currents around the island can bring butter animals in.

We did a hike across the island to the other side, which boasted a good snorkel spot. It was a beautiful hike through the quaint tropical village and through the wooded hills, but the snorkel site on the east side of the island was a terrible disappointment. There was nothing but rubble and bleached coral, it’s destruction a combination of global warming, use of oxybenzone and other harmful sunscreens and pollutants, and a hurricane that struck the weakened reef. I hope that the years have allowed some coral to grow back, but I doubt it is yet worth a trip out to that side for a snorkel.

Apo Island Beach Resort & Restaurant: This restaurant is a rustic building held up against the cliffside, serving fresh hot pizza and other Italian food. But this pizza isn’t your regular pie. Through some sort of cultural gap and creative use if local ingredients, their pizza is like a deep dish with pasta-like flakey crust. It’s different but really delicious! We shared this and a salad between two of us for the perfect dinner.

Backpacking Palawan Island, Philippines

Tay-Tay, Palawan

We took bus to El Nido, and chose to split up the journey and stop over in the small town of Tay Tay. We were so glad we did! We took a private day tour on a medium sized wooden boat through the calm bright blue water to a nearby island with a tiny village, boasting that it was the camp for the castaways for a season of the hut tv show survivor. We threw on our snorkel gear and checked out the healthy corals and schooling fish right out front. We saw reef sharks and rays and lots of fish. Afterwards we sailed over to a cliffside on another nearby island. We scrambled up some steps carved into the rock, and found ourselves in a darkened cavern full of crystal-clear still water. I jumped in and was surprised at how cool the fresher spring water was compared to the warm sea. Diving under, the water was so clear and the rocks so volcanic and charcoal, you feel like you’re floating on the moon. If you swim down further, you hit a thermocline were the water is even colder, and the visibility gets fuzzy with salt.

Irawaddi Dolphin, TayTay Philippines

The next morning we took a tuktuk over to the nearby lake, where we gathered into a wooden boat and headed out into the mist, looking into the brightening horizon for the endangered and super rate fresh water river irrawadi dolphins. Our captain motored us around the area. The lake was riddled with jagged sticks poking from the water, marking where fisherman had set their nets.

After an hour of lolling in the boat I became drowsy and rested my eyes, taking a little nap. And I was awoken with excited shouts as a splash and dark figure rose from the water about 50 feet from the boat. It was a river dolphin! It looked like a tiny whale, missing the protruding nose and mouth of it’s seaward cousins. It’s smooth round head had inquisitive eyes, glancing at our group as it hopped through the water. It dove after a few breaches, but once in a while it would surface nearby for a few breaths before dissapearing back into the black water.

Backpacking El Nido, Palawan

El Nido is a lively tourist town set on the northern coast of Palawan island. A long stretch of white sand beach is lined with restaurants with display tabled packed with ice and fresh caught fish, and, a Philippine favourite, a few kareoke bars.

Lapu-lapu is the name in the Philippines for grouper. Grouper is a colorful, spotted fish with delicate white meat and not too many bones.

Another philipino favourite foods are fresh rotisserie chicken, hot silog (garlic rice, fried egg, and hot dogs), and bbq pork.

From El Nido you can do a variety of day trips.

Camping in El Nido

We saw a few shops renting tents, hammocks, and kayaks, and decided to go on a camping trip! We packed our essentials, leaving the rest in luggage storage at our hostel. We bought some water and food, including some fruit at hot dogs and fixings, and we also bought a little line a tackle for fishing. That afternoon We paddled our kayaks out across the bay toward one of the small nearby islands. There was a little current, but we made it to the island without too much effort.

Once there the boys went out fishing in the kayak using hot dog as bait, and I snorkelled beneath and behind then, giving them live updates on their progress as the fish eyed their bait. They caught a couple tiny reef fish which we promptly returned to the sea. That night we slept in the tent, and our friend slept in a hammock in the little island’s covered wooden shelter. I wouldn’t recommend sleeping on the sand without a sleeping mat, it was an uncomfortable night! But the hammock our pal slept like a log. In the morning the sand around our camp was covered in claw tracks, leading to a mango which had a few hearty bites taken out of it. We think this was courtesy of a large lizard, but we never spotted any in our time in Philippines. A creepy mystery!

Getting from El Nido to Coron:

You can take a passage ferry boat from El Nido to Coron Island. Ferries in countries like Indonesia are notoriously dangerous and do occasionally sink or catch fire, so make sure you have a life jacket on hand, and know the risks when taking a ferry boat.

Backpacking Coron Island, Philippines

Coron island has a small airport, and its main town has a small town port feel to it. Many hostels are made of wood on stilts in the water. There’s also a big fish market in town, which is fun to explore, or to buy from if your hostel has a kitchen!

There are a few day tour options for Coron. Journey Era has a great article outlining different day tips in Coron Island. Banana island tour was very fun, and included a fresh seafood BBQ lunch on the boat.

Kayangan Lake, Philippines

Kayangan Lake is a short day trip from Coron and offers crystal clear brackish water, underground cliffs, and bamboo rafts. Getting to the pools is a small hike up the mountain (with a gorgeous lookout point) and then a hike down back into the canyon. There’s little bamboo rafts you can paddle around for free.

Scuba diving in Coron

Scuba diving in Coron is very unique, with a number of HUGE WWII shipwrecks. These are deep dives to about 30-40m, so this is a good place to get your advanced PADI certificate.

Hot Spring Coron: Maquinit Hot Spring

There is a really lovely Hot spring in Coron. Just take a short tuk-tuk ride out of town to it. When we were there, the hot spring was mostly enjoyed by locals! The hot spring water flows right into the ocean, and is mixed with ocean water to maintain the right temperature. There is a bit of natural algea growing on the benches, so wear a bathing suit that won’t be stained green.

Best Snorkeling in Coron: Tres Pecados

Tres Pecados is a very impressive snorkel spot nearby to shore outside of coron. One of the day tours includes this spot, or you can also visit the site yourself by taking a tuk-tuk to the shore. There is a ranger station floating on a warf at the site, and you must first go there and pay the park entry fee. you can either swim out 5 minutes to the ranger dock, or for very cheap you can rent a little outrigger canoe from a local. We did this and it was super fun! We just tethered the outrigger to the ranger dock and snorkeled around from there.

Donsol Bay Whale Sharks, Philippines

Whale shark signings is not guaranteed, but they will let you go out again for free if you don’t see, so book extra day(s) in case this happens.

Fire fly tour, Donsol Bay

You can Tuk-tuk over to the riverside where you hire a tour boat. A small boat with take you upriver to the more forested area, where firefly’s blink in unison by the thousands in the riverside bushes.

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