The Philippines was never on our original itinerary. Part of the beauty of traveling long-term, though, is that you have the freedom to modify your itinerary based on whatever might come up - like a friend planning a spontaneous visit, for example.
After Langkawi we first headed to Indonesia and blew all my Hilton points at the Conrad Bali. I’m working on a brief travel guide because we had a fantastic one-day guided tour of Ubud, but it would be disingenuous to publish an entire blog post when we basically didn’t leave the confines of our fancy hotel all week. So this post picks up after that, when we flew from Bali to the Philippines to meet up with Alex’s former fraternity brother and our good friend, Ben, who was heading back from a vacation in Japan and had some free time to come hang out with us.
These plans all sort of came together at the last minute and ended up costing us quite a bit in flight and travel expenses, as these places aren’t exactly close to each other, but it was all worth it because we haven’t seen anyone from home since Oktoberfest. We’ve met plenty of great people on the road, but it’s just not the same as seeing someone you know and love.
Choosing where to go was tough. The Philippines is practically overflowing with incredible island destinations, ranging from super intense party islands full of luxury hotels to quiet spots with nothing more than a few beach shacks for lodging. It’s incredibly hard to pick one because there’s always something you’re missing out on, and you’d need months to really get a chance to properly explore this country.
Unfortunately we didn’t have months - we only had ten days, because we had plans to meet another friend in Hong Kong immediately following our Philippines detour. As a result, we sadly had to force ourselves to choose only two stops. Adding any more would have been a logistical nightmare because it takes a very long time to get from place to place in the Philippines, as we would soon find out.
Having a friend come along threw us for a loop in terms of our priorities. If it was just us, we’d likely have chosen somewhere chill, not super crowded, with cheap prices and a relaxed vibe. With Ben, though, we knew we’d only have four days to hang out, so we wanted somewhere easy to get to, with good nightlife and a party scene. Well, in the Philippines there’s one big spot that comes to mind if you’re looking to party, and that is Boracay.
Boracay is probably the most touristy place in the Philippines. It’s famous for its gorgeous white-sand beaches, crystal-clear water, and mind-blowing sunsets. It’s also (in)famous for its party scene, probably more than anywhere else in the country. We’re not normally party hostel people (shocking, I’m sure), but we made an exception to be in the heart of the action and act like 21-year-olds for a few days. It, um, worked out about as well as you could expect.
Logistically, getting to Boracay is pretty easy. We flew from Manila to Caticlan Airport via AirAsia, and although we probably could have taken a bus or ferry for much cheaper (and longer), we only paid around $60 for the flight including checked bags, and that was the last-minute price. There’s also another airport, Kalibo, but it’s much farther away and we’ve heard getting to/from there to Boracay is quite a headache.
Caticlan airport is actually on another island next to Boracay and once you land you have to pay the terminal fee to exit the airport, make your way to the ferry port, ride the ten-minute ferry to Boracay, and then find your way from the port to your accommodation. You can do this all yourself for around 300-350 pesos ($1 is about 50 pesos), or for 500 pesos you can pay one of the many companies hanging out outside the airport to do everything for you. The big benefit of doing it this way is you don’t have to wait in a million different lines to pay the various fees, and they take care of transportation all the way to your accommodation. We made it from the airport to our hostel in about an hour doing it this way. If you’re really on a tight budget then you may want to take the DIY approach but as I’ve said before, time and convenience are worth money to us.
We stayed at Mad Monkey in Station 2 (the island is divided into three sections or ‘stations’ and most of the action is in Station 2). It’s a pretty standard party hostel, and in that regard I would recommend it if you’re looking to rage nonstop and don’t mind loud EDM playing from 8am to midnight. Most of the guests are in the 20-24 age range (you know, the age where you can legally drink but don’t yet suffer bad hangovers) so we felt a bit old but not enough to make it awkward. The pool area was really nice, the bar was cheap, and the facilities were reasonably clean, but the dorms were dark and cramped and by the end of our stay we were itching for a calmer space.
To paint a picture of what this place is like, when we walked to the front desk to check in, the entire staff screamed “WELCOME TO MAD MONKEY” in unison like we were at a quick-service burrito restaurant or something. It was…terrifying. On our first night there, we were minding our own business at the hostel bar when a frazzled-looking drunk guy who had to be around 45 came up and introduced himself as “Kaptain Khaos” (yes, spelled like that). He sat with us for 20 deeply uncomfortable minutes, chain-smoking and repeating himself over and over as he relayed stories of all the times he bribed immigration officials to allow him to re-enter the Philippines each time he overstayed his visa. The whole time we were at Mad Monkey, he was in the bar ripping shots and having the same conversation with everyone he spoke to, Groundhog Day style. It was something to behold.
One day we participated in the hostel’s ‘booze cruise’ which cost $30 for a daylong boat trip that includes unlimited drinks and a bit of island hopping, snorkeling, and cliff jumping. You know, responsible things for blacked-out 21-year-olds to do in a developing country. Long story short, between the three of us we lost one hat, two pairs of sunglasses (including the Ray-Ban aviators I owned for literally ten years), two pairs of sandals, 500 pesos, a small chunk of my left big toe, and several hours of an otherwise fine Wednesday afternoon.
I’m relaying these stories as a cautionary tale: if you read this and think “Sounds like fun! I would LOVE to leave behind my most beloved possessions on an outrigger boat in an island nation in Southeast Asia!” then I would recommend staying in a party hostel when you go to Boracay. Otherwise, I would maybe choose somewhere a bit quieter.
Okay, I’m being harsh, but honestly - Boracay is great, as long as you’re the kind of person who can look past the crowds and find beauty in an insanely touristy place. Because, seriously, the beauty here is out of control. The sunsets are absolutely breathtaking, and each night White Beach (the island’s main beach) gets jam-packed with visitors clamoring to take the perfect sunset pic. Join the crowds, because it’s worth it.
Ben was only with us for a grand total of four days, and after he left we checked out of Mad Monkey and moved to the slightly calmer atmosphere in Station 3, where we stayed at Trafalgar Cottages. We had a basic room (A/C but no hot water) with a nice hammock/patio area out front. To be honest, after the party hostel we would have been happy with a cardboard box as long as we could get some sleep, but we actually loved staying here. The staff was incredibly kind and helpful, even going so far as to bring our pool floats to a nearby shop to get inflated. We were trying and failing to blow them up manually and it was very embarrassing, so we appreciated the help. The location was great, right by a grocery store and only a few hundred meters from the beach - what more could you want?
During the day on Boracay we really didn’t do all that much other than work on our tans down at White Beach. I highly recommend picking up an inflatable raft and one of those little waterproof phone pouches (you can buy them from any beach vendor, and they work) and spending a day just floating around in the water. It’s literally impossible to feel stressed doing that. Trust me.
Now that I’m a certified diving addict you know I had to find a way to spend time underwater. Ben and I went out with Eclipse Dive Center and had a great time. It’s a really small shop, so it was just us and the divemaster, and the equipment was all in fantastic condition. It was a fun change diving off a traditional Filipino outrigger boat, and the visibility around the island is phenomenal. Plus there are lots of turtles!
One of the nice things about Boracay is that there are tons of great food options, although quality does not come cheap and restaurants were actually fairly pricey. Still, it was nice to have options because we didn’t love the local food as much as we have in other countries in Southeast Asia. Except for the mangos. The Philippines has the world’s best mangos, hands down. Accept no substitutions.
Boracay is actually great for breakfast foods and we ate brunch every single day, which is probably half the reason I loved the island despite our insane hostel experience. Some of our favorite restaurants included Cha Cha’s, a trendy, Instagram-friendly spot with good poke bowls, margs, and fried chicken; The Sunny Side Cafe for tasty local-inspired breakfasts and good coffee; and Steampunk for good burgers. I also have to give a shoutout to Hoy Panga for maybe the best mango shake we had in the Philippines (and trust me, this country knows how to make a mango shake).
Our favorite restaurant on the island was Nonie’s which serves fresh healthy food like turmeric lattes and veggie grain bowls. It’s the kind of place you want to go when your body is really angry at you for all the alcohol you’ve been feeding it. Most of the rest of the beachfront restaurants seemed fine if a bit overpriced, but we found TripAdvisor really useful here. Also, Boracay is wildly popular with Koreans so there are tons of KBBQ restaurants scattered around, just follow the crowds.
To be honest, I was really apprehensive about coming to Boracay at first, because people had warned me that it was too crowded, too touristy, too expensive, and not ‘authentic.’ Okay, all of those things are definitely true, but I don’t need every place I visit to be completely untouched by tourism. Sometimes I just want a margarita on the beach, okay?
The whole “I’m a traveler, not a tourist” mindset and the idea that you need to ‘live local’ and get off the beaten path everywhere you go kind of drives me crazy sometimes. Look, I get it: we try to avoid crowds too. We hated Croatia because it was mind-numbingly touristy and it felt like everywhere we went we were surrounded by massive crowds and expensive shitty meals and cheap factory-made trinkets for sale. It annoyed me to no end.
But at the end of the day, Boracay is a resort island in a developing country. Yes, you can find creature comforts here and you can live like it’s spring break if you want to. But to get here, you still have to literally travel to the Philippines. You have to ride a bus to get from the airstrip to the terminal, the taxis are scooters with a bench attached, and everything moves at a glacial pace. It’s a different experience from whatever you are used to back home. It may not be hitchhiking to a desert island and getting invited over to a local’s house for dinner, but it’s still an experience. We had fun. And that’s all that matters.