The next few locations, we were kind of in transit rather than at places we’d planned to visit, so I’m gonna merge them together into one. Our first bit of travel was from El Nido to Puerto Princessa, where we would catch our LONG ferry across the South China sea to reach Negros, another big island that offers much for the backpacker.
Our last morning in El Nido was a chilled affair, walking around town, checking out a basketball game that was taking place (the national sport in Philippines!) and taking pictures with all the Christmas trees we could find (as had become our tradition).
We then took a mini bus down to Puerto Princessa, on which we met a couple – local Filipino Gerlen and her Aussie boyfriend Scott – who we got chatting to, and subsequently arranged to stay at Gerlen’s aunt’s hostel over Christmas, on sleepy Siquijor Island (which sounded like heaven).
On arrival we just managed to catch the ferry office open – the sweet man letting us but a ticket at five past closing! -to book our ridiculous two-day ferry across to Negros. When travelling so long, even small amounts of money count, and I think we only saved about fifty quid doing this (vs flying) but we also had an unforgettable experience. And saved on carbon footprint to boot!
So we had a day to kill in Puerto Princessa, and after being on little islands and in remote highlands, it was super novel to be back in a big city, and we kind of overdosed on city life in our brief 24 hours there. By city life, I mean food. And shopping. We saw that there was a Jolibee there – a Filipino institution, and the fastest-growing Filipino business – essentially a cutesy fast-food chain that sells burgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, and – randomly – sbag bol! We ordered a little of everything, and it was pretty damn good!
We also found a HUGE department store called Unitop that had everything, including Christmas cheer, in abundance! High on camp decor and seasonal pop tunes, we spent a fevered day at the department store picking out Christmas presents for each other (cheap and cheerful, loosely based around ‘first Christmas’ or kids’ presents theme). We also picked out a mini Christmas tree, complete with baubles, lights and a star for the top. In our gleeful excitement, we kind of forgot Christmas was still nearly three weeks away, and this ‘Christmas bag’ still had to be carried around several islands!
After trying another famous Filipino fast food chain – Cantonese inspired Chow King – and being VERY impressed with the results (see Food Blog!) – we bought a load of food for the ferry (sandwich stuff and snacks), not quite knowing what to expect.
At the pier, I was hoping to see a MASSIVE sea-worthy ferry that would quieten my unease at sea (I’m pretty scared of being at open sea, especially when it’s rough) but to our surprise, the ferry was pretty small, only about three double-bed bunks wide, and about five beds length-ways! Compared to our 2Go ferry before, this was about a fifth of the size. My mind raced with thoughts of last-minute typhoons (it was still typhoon season!) and the long 2-day voyage that awaited us.
Boarding the ferry we were (unsurprisingly) the only tourists on board, and the bemused-looking staff asked us if we wanted to upgrade to a downstairs cabin (we’d opted for open-air bunks which we preferred as you can see the horizon and get a nice ocean breeze, rather than air-con or fans). We replied we were fine and settled in for the first day/night on board.
The first day on board actually proved to be pretty relaxing – we ate our gross pack-up lunch (fake cheese, slightly sweet sandwiches, crisps and fruit!) and listened to podcasts, napping with the natural lull of the boat back and forth, and comfy on our padded double bed-style bunk, a good temperature with a nice breeze. The sunset out at sea was pretty awesome too. I only woke up at about 3am with some heavier rocking, but all in all, not too bad.
The second day, we had a really nice break part-way through the day where we stopped at Cuyo – a tiny island that only a few backpackers visit to kitesurf – for some sunbathing and lunch. We snaffled down some delicious fried chicken with banana katsup and then visited the local market, where we met a tiny old lady who was a total legend. She told us about all the meals she makes for passers-by, using all the fruit and veg from her market stall. She was so endearing, we bought some fresh spicy guacamole from her, and it was seriously tasty.
After an hour sunbathing and cooling ourselves in the shallow waters (felt amazing after not showering since Puerto Princessa!) we reboarded the ferry for the second afternoon and night, which was straight-up terrifying.
As the evening drew in, the seas got really rough, and the ferry started rocking from side to side, pretty severely. Empty glass bottles started to roll from side to side of the boat, and if lying down, we were now being rolled over in our beds. Amazingly, most of the locals continued to snooze and the staff seemed super chilled, which comforted me, but I had to wake Sam up as I – for about an hour – genuinely feared for our lives. I cursed not just flying, as I tried to control my stomach as it somersaulted and acid started moving up through my throat.
Luckily I managed to eventually get to sleep, and woke up to our arrival on Panay, the island next to Negros. One high speed boat later (so fast it felt a little like being in a washing machine, water pouring down the windows!) we arrived in Negros, where we still had to take a five hour bus down the coast to Dumaguette, our jumping off point for Apo Island.
We ended up really liking Dumaguette – another ‘normal’ town – and stayed for a couple of nights at a friendly, super clean hostel (Aldea Lodge), whilst we got stuff sorted. We needed to extend our visas and found more great food (our first taste of really good Filipino bakeries, and shamefully more fast food!) We also tried a couple of local cheap food places and tried some classic dishes like Silogs (meat and rice dishes) and tasty ground pork.
Philippines feels way more like a developing country than mainland South-East Asia, which I wasn’t really expecting as I’d imagined expensive beach resorts and development. But it turned out no wifi was the norm in cheaper places, and we ended up buying a data and call card for our mobile as we couldn’t really plan our travels and reserve places any other way! Which was pretty essential given it was high season.
So after a few days of sorting stuff out (and a few more guilty purchases from Unitop of pretty dresses!) we headed to nearby Apo Island, home of legendary diving and lots of big greens sea turtles!….