Finding Paradise in El Nido

El Nido - Dolarog Beach

When I think of the Philippines, I think of beautiful beaches fringed with coconut trees, dense jungles, colorful coral reefs, and tiny little islands scattered across a vibrant blue sea. While there are many places throughout this island nation that may fit that description, it couldn’t have been more so than in El Nido on the island of Palawan. Going to El Nido was actually one of the main reasons why I decided to go to the Philippines. A few years ago I was watching an episode of the Amazing Race and they went to what was then a tiny little fishing village nestled between towering limestone cliffs. They then had to sailed out to the stunning Bacuit Archipelago just off the coast, and I was instantly enamoured with the place–I knew I wanted to go there one day!

So now that I’ve been there and seen it first-hand, I can tell you it was the most beautiful place I went to in the Philippines. In fact, I’d say it is a pretty good contender for one of the most beautiful places in world. While it’s obvious that the town has seen some growth in the past few years due to increased tourism, it’s natural beauty still remains mostly unspoiled. The islands here are spectacular and are riddled with thousands of dramatic limestone formations, hidden coves, and secret beaches. Island hopping is biggest activity to do here and can easily be arranged at any of the numerous tour operators in town. Day trips are generally around 1200 php (about $27 USD) and include lunch. Depending on the operator, you may or may not have to rent out snorkel gear (fortunately I had my own as our boat didn’t include it). The tours are simply named Tour A, B, C, and D, with A and C being the most popular as they take you to some of the archipelago’s best spots and highlights.

El Nido Town
El Nido

The boats generally leave around 9 am and come back late in the afternoon, so there is plenty of time out on the water. If that’s not enough, some operators also offer overnight tours, which I wish I had known about as spending a night on one of the islands sounds amazing! I ended up doing Tour A with a friend I met on the ride up to El Nido. Since it was the middle of the high season a lot of the boats were full of people, with 15-20 pax in each boat. We got lucky with ours somehow as it was just us and only two other people. It might as well been a private trip!

We made several stops throughout the day to explore a beach or go swimming, but my favorites by far were the Big Lagoon and Small Lagoon. The Big Lagoon is shallow passage between tall limestone cliffs that guard a large sheltered lagoon. Since the water is shallow inside the passageway, boats can only really enter at high tide. Small Lagoon is similar in that it’s surrounded by beautiful cliffs, but can only be accessed by a small hole in the rock that you have to swim or kayak through. Both were stunning and I couldn’t believe that places like this actually exist.

Entering The Big Lagoon
Big Lagoon
Island Hopping - El Nido

For snorkeling-lovers like myself, El Nido was heaven. While the snorkeling in the beautiful lagoons themselves were so-so, there are plenty of reefs around the islands you could spend a lifetime exploring. The coral gardens around are so colorful and abundant with life. We saw a sea turtle, barracudas, and a even a sea snake! When the boat wasn’t moving, we were snorkeling–we spent so much time in the water swimming with the fish. I think the snorkeling was actually the best part of the tour.

Under The Yellow Sea
El Nido Reef

Back in El Nido, when we weren’t sailing around the islands, we simply spent our days on the beach. The town beach in El Nido proper is okay, but the water is mildly murky and the bay is crowded with boats. A better place is Las Cabanas Beach just a few kilometers south of town and easily accessible by tricycle for about 50 php. It’s much more relaxed here compared to the town beach and there are some good places to get good food and drinks right on the sand. It’s also one of the best places to watch sunsets!

El Nido Sunset
El Nido Sunset
El Nido Sunset

Compared to the famous islands in Thailand or places like Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, El Nido is still relatively undiscovered and may as well be one of Southeast Asia’s best-kept secrets. Only until recently, in November 2014, the town itself only had electricity for a few hours a day. There’s not even an ATM machine, so travelers must stock up on cash before arrival. Getting there is an adventure in itself–it’s 5-6 hours by van or 6-7 hours bus, all along curvy rural roads that are still unpaved in areas. However, the region has attracted lots of attention in recent years thanks to a growing tourism industry and I can imagine in a few years El Nido will be the next big tourist destination for travelers in Southeast Asia. So get there while you still can!

Bohol: The Island of Chocolate Hills and Tarsiers

Loboc River

Bohol may be just one of the several thousands of islands that make up the Philippines, but it’s one that should not be overlooked. While it may not compare to the stunning scenery of El Nido on Palawan, the island is rich with history, an interesting variety of landscapes and wildlife, beautiful jungles, and some of the friendliest people I’ve met on my travels.

Arriving by ferry from Cebu, I was greeted at the wharf in Tagbilaran City, the provincial capital, by the usual throng of taxi and tricycle riders who tend to mob tourists looking for potential customers. My original plan was to take the bus to my accommodation, but eventually gave in to the pressure after a very determined young driver followed me all the way to the end of the pier asking if I needed a ride. When I asked where his car was parked, he pointed to a ruddy-looking motorbike that looked way too small for me and my big backpack. “Are you sure we can fit everything on there?” I nervously asked, having never ridden on a motorbike in my life, never mind with a complete stranger. “Yes, yes, it will be okay,” he nodded with an optimistic smile. I hopped on and we were off.

Loboc River SwingWe rode through the countryside past rice fields, old churches, groups of waving, smiling kids, and dodged the occasional chicken or dog that decided to stray out onto the road. The driver, Brian, was great, pointing out different points of interest and explaining their importance. About 45 minutes later we arrived at Fox and the Firefly Cottages in central Bohol. Located outside the nearby town of Loboc, the hostel was in the countryside in a pretty remote area next to a slow-moving river. Out here, the night air was filled only with the sound of frogs and crickets. It was a relaxing spot, and the owners and the locals living in the neighborhood were very nice! And being right next to the river, it was a great place to swim and cool off during the heat of the day.

Panglao Island

The next morning I caught a ride on a jeepney (an old converted WWII US Army jeep which provides the most popular form of public transportation in the PI) and made my way down to Panglao Island on Bohol’s south end. This is where some of the nicest white sand and palm fringed beaches in the province are found, granted it’s also the most touristy as the coastline is congested with hotels and resorts. Alona Beach is the most popular, but I decided to go to Dumaluan Beach with a nice German couple I met on the jeepney as we heard it was less crowded. The only way onto the beach was by going through one of the resorts, which was packed with Filipinos on holiday, but we easily escaped the crowds by simply walking a few hundred feet up the shoreline. Apparently the diving is really good off the coast here (the Philippines in general is supposed to be amazing for diving), which made me wish I had my PADI certification!

Chocolate Hills After a nice day at the beach, I left my new friends and headed back inland to the island’s most famous feature, the Chocolate Hills. The symmetrical grass-covered hills get their name when they turn a brownish color during the dryer times of the year. Many people, myself included, would say they resemble something out of a scene in a Super Mario game. It’s considered one of the best things to do in the Philippines, and while interesting to look at, there’s really not a whole lot else to do here. Still worth a look though, especially if you come at sunset!

Tarsier

Another famous curiosity is the Philippine tarsier, one of the world’s smallest primates which are endemic to the Philippines and are mostly found on Bohol. These odd-looking critters are an endangered species and are very hard to find in the wild, so we went to one of the nearby sanctuaries to see if we could see some. We ended up not seeing just one, but several of the little primates hiding in the trees and bushes around the park. They really are bizarre looking, with huge eyes and extremely long hind legs and fingers. Since their eyeballs are immovable, they also have the ability to rotate their head 180 degrees! Cute, but also kind of creepy, they reminded me of gremlins.

Boholanos

Two days was not enough time to spend on Bohol. While the island may look small on the map, it takes a few hours to cross and it’s rumored there are several beautiful hidden places that many travelers often overlook, places I would have loved to have visited if I had more time!

10 Things To Add To Your New Zealand Bucket List

I can’t believe it’s already been a year since I left New Zealand! I miss it so much, I’d go back and do it all over again if I could. Aside from being incredibly beautiful, there’s just so much to see and do here. That’s what I love about it most–it may be small, but it’s so diverse and packed with many opportunities to get out of your comfort zone and do something thrilling and different. Here’s a list of amazing things you should add to your New Zealand bucket list:

1. Climb Mount Doom in Tongariro National Park
Mount Doom
Crowned as New Zealand’s best day hike, the Tongariro Crossing is a 19 km trail that passes through the central North Island’s volcanic landscape. Filming of the Mordor scenes in Lord of the Rings took place here, and right in the center is Mt. Ngauruhoe, which took stage as the treacherous Mt. Doom. While you won’t find orcs or hobbits here, the journey up to the 2291 meter summit is well worth the journey, offering incredible views over the whole park and beyond. The hike is best done Dec-April when the weather is more favorable.

2. Island Hop Around the Bay of Islands
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The Bay of Islands in Northland is exactly what it’s named after—a big beautiful bay filled with islands. Situated in subtropical northern New Zealand, the region has a warm and relaxed atmosphere, making for an ideal getaway destination for Aucklanders escaping the bustling city life. With 144 islands and hundreds of beaches, it’s also a great place for island hopping! There are several sailing tours out to the islands from the towns of Paihia and Russel. I would recommend The Rock, which offers both day and overnight trips. Their tours include tons of activities including fishing, snorkeling, kayaking, night swimming in phosphorescent plankton, and hiking on the islands.

3. Heli Hike on the Franz Josef Glacier
Ice Landing
Ever wanted to see a glacier up close? In New Zealand you can take a helicopter and land on one! There are two major glaciers along the west coast of the South Island, the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers which descend from high in the mountains all the way down to the lush rainforests at sea-level. While the Fox Glacier can be accessed by foot with a guide, the Franz Josef is only reachable by aircraft. But it’s so much better to fly as you can see more and get to places you normally couldn’t. Flights take off from the nearby town of Franz Josef. While short, it’s an incredibly scenic journey and an exciting experience if you’ve never been on a helicopter before. After landing on the ice, you’re left behind with your guide to explore for a few hours. If you’re lucky, you might even have a chance to go inside a blue ice tunnel!

4. Kayak Abel Tasman National Park
IMG_5127
Many people who come to Abel Tasman only hike through it via the Abel Tasman Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. But as a national park next to the ocean, the best way to see it is by sea. The coastline here is stunning and is a great place to see some beautiful beaches and wildlife like seals and penguins. There are tons of kayak tours you can do, but I liked Kaiteriteri Kayaks as they offered a trip for people who want to see the park both by land and sea. You spend a day hiking a stretch of the coastal trail, spend the night, and then kayak back with a guide the next day.

5. Drive Through the Southern Alps
Road to Aoraki
Anyone who has ever lived in or travelled through New Zealand will tell you no visit is complete without visiting the South Island’s beautiful mountain ranges. It’s worth renting a car or campervan and taking a drive through this incredibly scenic part of the country. My personal favorite drives were in Aoraki-Mount Cook National Park and the road along Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown to Glenorchy and Paradise.

6. Walk the Milford Track
Milford Sound
For hikers and backpackers, the Milford Sound Track is a hiking mecca. It’s up at the top of the list with other world-famous hikes, like the Inca Trail and Camino de Santiago. This four day walk takes you through some of New Zealand’s most stunning scenery along rivers, past waterfalls, through lush rainforests, over mountain passes, and finally ending at Milford Sound. To maintain and preserve the pristine environment, the Department of Conservation only permits a limited number of people to the hike the track per day. Book well advance as permits go out quickly, especially in the summer!

7. Go White Water Rafting

New Zealand is packed with rivers and there are tons of places you can go white-water rafting. But the unique thing about the Kaituna River near Rotorua is that you actually raft down several waterfalls, the biggest drop being 21 feet. This is the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world, and taking the plunge here is an experience you’ll never forget!

8. Discover Cathedral Cove
Cathedral Cove
Now somewhat of an icon after appearing in films and music videos, Cathedral Cove is a stunning beach accessed via a natural tunnel passing under a rocky coastal headland. About a 45 minute walk from the town of Hahei in the Coromandel Region, the beach is best accessed at low tide and in the morning or late afternoon when the day time crowds are not present.

9. Sandboard the Te Paki Sand Dunes
reingadunes4
These mountains of sand are located only 20 minutes away from Cape Reinga, the northernmost point country. The landscape is surreal—it looks more like the Sahara desert than anything you would expect to see in New Zealand. Here you can rent a boogie board (or if you have one bring your own!) and take a thrilling ride down the steep sand dunes. If you happen to go on a rainy day, you’re in luck as you actually go down much faster on the wet sand. And the best way to go is head first!

10. Tube Through the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves

The little town of Waitomo doesn’t look like much from the surface, but below the rolling hills and farmlands lies a massive underground network of caves lit up by millions of glowworms. The best way to see them is to grab an inner tube and get wet, floating through the subterranean rivers that flow through the caves. There is a bit of thrill on the adventure as in some places you have to pass through narrow passages and jump off a waterfall, making it an incredible adventure activity to add to your list!

10 Must-See Places In The Australian Outback

Despite being a vast empty desert, there are a lot of interesting and beautiful places that can be found in the Australian Outback. Taking a road trip is the best way to see Australia, as it gives you the freedom to go to wherever you want, whenever you want. Here are just a few highlights of what we saw during our road trip from Cooktown in Queensland to Perth in Western Australia:

Devil’s Marbles – Northern Territory

Devil's Marbles

Located a few hours north of Alice Springs, this is a good spot to get out to stretch your legs and see some interesting geology. Here big red spherical-shaped granite boulders dot the landscape. Best time would be to come in the morning or evening as the soft light makes the rocks glow red. You can also spend the night here I believe.

Alice Springs – Northern Territory

A Town Like Alice

Alice Springs. The funky little town right in the middle of Australia, hundreds of miles from nowhere. I actually really liked Alice Springs, it reminded me of the Australian version of Moab, Utah for anyone who has been there. We did a free walking tour offered by the folks at the information center and it was actually pretty interesting since you learn a little bit about the town’s history. There is also a large Aboriginal population here and you can go on tours to learn more about the culture or buy original Aboriginal artwork.

The MacDonnell Ranges – Northern Territory

Macdonnel Ranges

Running west to east and right through Alice Springs, the MacDonnell Ranges is one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. Divided into two regions, both the East and West MacDonnell Ranges are worth spending some time in, although I found there was more to see and the scenery more spectacular in the West. These days these mountains would dwarf the Rockies or even the New Zealand Alps, but they are riddled with chasms and cool little swimming spots to cool off on a hot day. My favorite spot was Ormiston Gorge, which has a small swimming pond surrounded by giant walls of red and orange rock. We also spotted some dingoes here!

Uluru (Ayers Rock) – Northern Territory

Sunset at Uluru

Nearly exactly at the very center of the Australian continent lies the iconic big red rock (or “the remarkable pebble” as one Australian explorer called it). You would think that a big rock out in the middle of the desert really can’t be that special, but it is. Once you first see it, you just can’t stop looking at it. It’s massive, dominating your field of vision. The prime time to go is around sunset when all the hues of red and orange transform as the light changes. Watching the sunset at Uluru was my favorite part of the whole trip. There is also a nice 10 km hike you can do around the base of the rock.

Kata-Tjuta (The Olgas) – Northern Territory

Kata-Tjuta

About 50 kilometers away lies another massive and equally beautiful rock formation known as The Olgas (Kata-Tjuta in the local Aboriginal language). Rather than one big monolith, Kata-Tjuta comprises of several large rounded domes that rise out of the desert. There is a great hike you can do here called the Valley of the Winds walk which takes you through all the formations and little valleys between them. Be advised though, in the summer this walk can only be done in the morning hours as it’s closed during the daytime heat. And like Uluru, the sunset here is spectacular.

Both Uluru and Kata-Tjuta lie within the same national park, located about 5 hours south of Alice Springs. There is only one paved road going in and out, so it might be worth spending a few days here. From what I recall, entry to the park was $25 for a three day pass.

King’s Canyon – Northern Territory

King's Canyon

I was a little disappointed with King’s Canyon. After having been to the American southwest and even parts of the MacDonnell Ranges just a few hours away, I think having the title as “The Grand Canyon of Australia” is an overstatement. It’s a lot smaller than I thought it would but it is still a cool place to visit if you’re going to/coming from Uluru and never seen a canyon before. The Rim Walk is a must-do if you’re into hiking as it takes you through some really neat rock formations. The hike can be a little difficult for some, especially in hot weather so if hiking isn’t your thing then it’s probably just best to save fuel and skip the canyon.

Coober Pedy – South Australia

Coober Pedy

We didn’t have a lot of time to check out Coober Pedy, but if you’re driving through the area you can see Australia’s famous underground town and the opal capital of the world. Roughly 95% of the world’s opals come from Australia and a lot of it comes from here. With all the mining nearby and often being succumbed to the perilous heat of the Outback, the town has developed this sort of underground theme and some of the buildings (including a backpackers hostel) is subterranean. An interesting little place to check out if you have the time.

Great Australian Bight – South Australia

South Australia

Ah, the ocean at last! After two weeks of dirt, rocks, and termite mounds, it was refreshing to reach the Southern Ocean. Here the dusty, flat desert just simply ends—it plunges down into the vibrant blue sea. If there were any place in the world that could be the edge of the Earth, this would be it. The land just stops and it’s only ocean here all the way to Antarctica. If you’re here between May and October, you might be lucky and spot some elusive southern right whales as they do their annual migration!

Cape La Grande National Park – Western Australia

Lucky Bay

If you ever find yourself in southern Western Australia, you have to go to Cape Le Grande National Park. Some of the best beaches in the country can be found here, including Lucky Bay which is considered to have the whitest sand in all of Australia. The sand is so fine it also squeeks under your feet when you walk on it! It’s also a good place to spot kangaroos hanging out on the beach. Nearby is Hellfire Bay, another stunning white-sand beach on the fringes of a beautiful clear blue shallow bay. If you stick around for sunset, make the short climb up the summit of Frenchman Peak for the best views over the park.

The Wave Rock – Western Australia
Wave Rock

Located just a few hours outside of Perth near the town of Hyden, this unusual rock formation is a good spot to stretch your legs and explore a little after a long drive. It’s a big wall of multi-colored granite that resembles a wave about to break, hence the simple name the Wave Rock!

These are just some of the many hidden wonders and treasures hidden in the Outback. These are all easily accessible by a 2WD car, but there are many other amazing places out there that can only be reached by 4WD and high clearance vehicles.

How To Road Trip Across Australia

Nullarbor

Most visitors who travel to Australia tend to only see the eastern cities without ever setting foot into the country’s incredible vast interior. Granted there are plenty of cool things to see and do on the east coast. The sugar-white sand beaches of the Whitsundays are spectacular. Sydney is a beautiful city with a stunning skyline and harbour. The Great Barrier Reef is not to be missed. But to contrast the busy and oftentimes very touristy east coast, there is just something magical about the vast emptiness of the Australian Outback, which covers most of the country’s land mass. It’s so big that all of Europe can comfortably sit inside it. It’s a pretty big place!

Nowadays, getting around through the vast desert is actually a lot easier, with a fairly good network of paved highways connecting both populated and remote corners of the continent. There are also plenty of rugged long-distance 4WD tracks crisscrossing through it for the adventurous type. With all that empty space, big skies, open roads, and natural scenery, Australia is the quintessential place to road trip.

So last October after completing a trip up the east coast, I found myself embarking on another long-haul journey—this time across the entire continent from Cairns to Perth, a journey of about 4400 miles (7100 km). Since we really wanted to see Uluru and the other national parks in the country’s famous red center, we opted going by way of Alice Springs and then down south and over the Nullarbor plains into Western Australia. It took roughly 3 weeks to complete and was one of the most incredible experiences of my travels thus far!

So how does one exactly do a road trip like this across some of the loneliest and most formidable environments in the world? Here’s a little guide I’ve written up for any future Aussie road trippers:

 Getting A Ride
Into the Sunset

For starters, you’ll need your ride. If you plan to see Australia over a period of a couple months or longer, you can always buy your own ride and then just resell it before you leave. There are plenty of used campervans, 4WDs, and cars circulating around the country. It’s easy finding vehicles for sale in most populated places throughout the country, a quick check on Gumtree (Australia’s version of Craigslist) or community boards in hostels can confirm that.

Another cheaper alternative is to simply ride share. This is what I did and there are tons of resources out there that can help you find a ride from someone or help you find passengers to join you on your own trip if you already have your own vehicle. Take a look around on Gumtree, Coseats.au, or even the city community pages on Couchsurfing.com and you’ll find lots of lift offers or people looking for rides. There are even Facebook pages dedicated to ride sharing across Australia. You can also always ask around people in your hostel and check the community boards for offers. You just might get lucky and find someone (or a group of people) who are headed the same way you are! And the best part is if you go with more people you’ll (A) save money by splitting the cost of fuel and (B) will probably have a better time being with fellow travelers and not being alone.

Another popular way to road trip across Australia (as well as in New Zealand, USA, and several other countries) is by doing a rental car relocation. Oftentimes rental companies need volunteers to relocate cars or campervans to other branches. The pros of doing this is you get to drive a rental car for an insanely cheap price–usually a few dollars a day. However, it’s oftentimes free! Sometimes they even include things like car insurance and free gas vouchers, though this isn’t necessarily always the case. The con is that there is a time frame in which you have to arrive at your destination, so your trip is only limited to however many days they assign to you. There is an exception sometimes, however, where they allow you to keep the vehicle longer but then you pay the regular rental price after that. So if you’re short on time and are looking for a cheap way to get around independently, this may be a good option as well.

Be Prepared
Outback Skies

Once you have your ride, the next thing you need to do is to be prepared. If you’re driving through the Outback, be aware you’ll be in some of the most isolated and extreme environments on the planet, and getting stuck out there would not be fun. Summertime temps in Alice Springs easily get up to 38 C (about 100 F) and in other places it can get even hotter! In wintertime it’s the opposite, getting surprisingly cold at night (well, cold for Australian standards).

Remember to stock up. It’s essential to bring extra water and extra petrol with you as distances between stations are usually hundreds of kilometers apart. But don’t keep your gas container in your vehicle unless you want your car smelling like fuel and having all the fumes soak into your food (we learned that the hard way)! It’s also a good idea to routinely check your oil and fluid levels as well as the tire pressure to make sure everything is square and running smoothly. And don’t forget—everything costs a lot more in the Outback! Save money by stocking up as much as you can on food and drinks as it can get very expensive to buy goods in little remote stores. Something as simple as a plain loaf of bread can cost $5 to give you an idea. As for fuel, the highest gas prices I saw were around the $2.10 mark–much higher than on the coast.

Also, unless you happen to be driving a road train (Aussie lingo for a huge semi-truck) or your vehicle is equipped with a “roo bar”, expect to do your driving only during daylight hours. Driving at night can be fairly risky as that’s when kangaroos are most active and in many remote areas in Australia they are very common. And unfortunately they sometimes like to unexpectedly jump in front of your vehicle! Seeing kangaroos and even free-grazing cows hanging out in the middle of the road at night is not an unusual sight. You’d be surprised at the amount of roadkill that litters the side of the highways here. And the flies! After New Zealand I never thought I’d come across a pest worse than NZ sand flies, but the Australian bush fly is might as well come straight from hell. They don’t bite fortunately and looks similar to a common housefly, but they are oh so very persistent. As soon as the sun comes up, your face, arms, and back are usually covered in them; crawling up your nose, into your ears, into your eyes. No matter how much you swat them away they always come back. So bringing a fly net might be a good idea.

Where To Stay
Outback Camping

As you travel through the Outback you’ll come across tiny little stations called roadhouses every few hundred kilometers or so. Not only do they provide a place to refuel your car, but there’s also usually a restaurant and store that sells a limited stock of groceries you can buy. Some even provide different types of accommodation, anywhere from rooms to both powered and unpowered campsites, usually with basic facilities. The national parks do also tend to have camping grounds and accommodation available.

If you are looking for the cheapest accommodation and don’t mind roughing it your way across Australia, just do freedom camping. The Outback is a big land of nothingness, there are plenty of places to pull over and camp overnight rather peacefully. I would recommend using an app called WikiCamps Australia—it’s an excellent tool for finding free places to camp as well as official pay-for campsites and things like hostels and hotels in case there aren’t any free spots nearby (usually in and around cities freedom camping is forbidden…you normally have to be out in the remote areas to do it). It’s largely based on advice and reviews given by other travelers. Using this app saved us hundreds of dollars in accommodation, I wouldn’t go without it! And Australia is probably one of the best countries I’ve ever been for camping. Camping gear is actually fairly cheap here and can easily be bought from K-Mart or Target. And if you’re in the Outback, you’ll likely find lots of clear skies and dry weather making it perfect for stargazing at night!

 

Swimming With Whale Sharks In Oslob

Whale Shark

The Philippines is famous for its abundant wildlife living under the sea. Thousands of people come here every year for the excellent diving and snorkeling. It’s also one of the best places to swim with the world’s largest fish—the whale shark. Also known as butanding in Tagalog, these gentle giants can grow up to 41 feet (12 meters) long and weigh as much as 23.5 tons. Despite their intimidating size, whale sharks are mostly slow-moving and fairly mellow creatures, drifting close to the surface through the world’s tropical oceans, filter feeding on plankton and small fish as they go.

You can find whale sharks pretty much anywhere in the Philippines, but there are two places in particular where they are especially common–Donsol and Oslob. Located on the southern end of the island of Luzon, Donsol has grown from a sleepy little fishing village to a whale shark watching mecca over the past few years. The other locale is near the little town of Oslob in Cebu, where the whale sharks can be found just a few hundred feet offshore.

Whale Shark

Getting to Oslob is rather easy. There are daily domestic and international flights flying right into Cebu City. From the airport you can take a taxi to the South Bus Station (about 250 pisos) where you can then take a bus to Oslob. The journey takes around 3-4 hours and cost only 150 pisos for an air-conditioned bus. I found the bus system on Cebu to be really good with buses making several trips between Cebu City and Oslob throughout the day.

Originally I had planned on seeing the whale sharks in Donsol, but since I was coming to Cebu anyway to visit the nearby island of Bohol I figured I would save time by going to Oslob. Upon arrival in town, I was told the best time of day to see the whale sharks was in the early morning as that’s the time of day they come to feed. The cost of swimming with the whale sharks is 1100 pisos for foreigners (about $25 USD) and includes your snorkeling gear, boat, and environmental fee. Before setting out to sea, we were given a quick briefing of the dos and don’ts of swimming with the whale sharks. A few in particular I remember was that we weren’t allowed to wear sunscreen since it’s toxic to them. Another was we were supposed to give them a 3 meter berth and that we couldn’t touch them. Simple enough.

Whale Shark

We got in our boat and paddled off from the beach around 06:30 and within five minutes we were at the spot where the sharks were in water. Being only a few hundred feet off shore the water was shallow, maybe only 20 feet deep. As soon as we jumped in there was already one swimming by! Over the duration of the experience, I was surprised not only to see one or even two sharks, but a total of 5 whale sharks! Incredible. We didn’t have to go very far either as they swam right by the boat. They were varying sizes, but the largest one I saw was maybe around 30 feet long. We were given 30 minutes to swim with the sharks and I felt that was plenty of time.

Whale Shark

Until 2011, Oslob was just another little fishing town off the southeastern coast of Cebu. The sharks have been in present in the area for years as they are thought to have been attracted to the small shrimps that the fishermen use for bait to do their fishing. Initially this caused some fishermen to see the sharks as a pest as they ate their bait and scared away the fish and some used to capture and kill them. But when tourists began visiting the site to see the whale sharks, the fishermen saw the opportunity to make some money off of the tourism and the hunting stopped.

Whale Shark

While the hunting has ceased, the feeding of the whale sharks has become a controversial topic. While they’re by no means kept captive by a net, the fact that they’re hand-fed is concerning to a lot of people as the sharks lose their natural migratory habits and become more reliable on humans for food. I also didn’t like how crowded it was–there must have been a hundred people or so out on the water at once. It was pretty noisy and some people were kicking and splashing around. The only real positive thing about seeing the whale sharks in Oslob is that you’re highly likely to see them. I met people who had been to Donsol and while it’s much less crowded there it’s hit and miss. Some people got lucky and had an amazing experience, others not so lucky. But apparently its more regulated and eco-friendly in Donsol as well, something I think the people in Oslob could learn from.

7 Highlights From Australia’s East Coast

Upon arrival in Australia at the start of my working holiday, I had no idea where I was going to go first. But after a few days of planning and networking, I ultimately did a road trip up the east coast with some new friends all the way from Sydney to Cairns. “Doing the east coast” is on almost every backpacker’s bucket list when they come to Australia. The 1800 mile (2900 km) route took us three weeks to complete and took us from big cities, beautiful remote beaches, and everything in between. Here are some of the highlights from the trip:

1. Sydney
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If you’ve read my blog post from my first visit to Sydney, you’d know that Sydney is one of my favorite cities in the world. Despite being a major cosmopolitan city, there are plenty of natural areas around making it a perfect blend of city and nature. It’s an active city and there are always people out doing something, whether it be taking a run through the Royal Botanic Gardens, swimming or surfing at Bondi, boating or paddleboarding around the city’s many little inlets and coves…people in Sydney like to get out! One of my favorite activities was taking the ferry to Manly beach, which is basically a short cruise through the famous harbour with the best views of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. There’s a lot to do here so it’s worth staying a while in this beautiful city!

2. Byron Bay
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Byron Bay is the epitome Australian surf and beach culture. Located at the easternmost point on the continent, it’s the first place in Australia to welcome the rising sun. The huge beach that the town sits on is big and beautiful, but the best thing about Byron was the vibe and energy there. Between the surf and hippie culture that is prevalent there, the atmosphere is relaxed and care-free. It’s a no shirt, no shoes, no worries kind of place. The town streets are filled with surf shops, funky little cafes, and a night scene that is also pretty decent. Outside of town are plenty of national parks that offer some great day or overnight hikes. A popular activity is to wake up early and watch the sunrise at the lighthouse. If you’re there between June-November you might be lucky and spot some whales on their annual migration!

3. Noosa
Noosa National Park

We decided to settle in Noosa for a few days as an alternative to Brisbane and the over-hyped Surfer’s Paradise. Noosa is a relaxed little beach town with some nice beaches and a big national park where you can see some Australian wildlife, like koalas and giant lizards called goannas. The hostel we stayed at (Noosa Backpacker’s Resort) offered free kayak rentals so we spent an afternoon paddling around the Noosa River. A nice spot to relax for a few days!

3. The Whitsunday Islands
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The Whitsunday Islands are an island archipelago off Queensland’s central coast. A multi-day sailing trip around the Whitsundays is usually part of every backpacker’s east coast itinerary, but since I was short on time I opted for a one day trip. I went with Ocean Rafting which offers a day tour to the famous Whitehaven Beach along with a few opportunities for snorkeling around some coral reefs. It’s the only tour that has access to Hill Inlet Beach on Whitsunday Island, so you can actually walk on the pure white silica sand. The buffet style lunch on the beach was a nice touch as well!

4. Magnetic Island
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This little island paradise is often overlooked by travelers going up and down the coast, which is a same because it’s a great little getaway and definitely worth spending a few days. It was one of my favorite places on the east coast. Located about 8 km off the coast, the island is easily accessible by ferry from Townsville. Getting around the island can be done by bus or you can rent a moped or one of the open-air “moke” cars which kind of resemble those little battery-powered jeeps for kids. There are plenty of hiking opportunities with a big network of trails to explore. The most famous walk is the Forts Walk, which ascends to a lookout where you can see the ruins of old military used in WWII. It’s also the best place on the island to spot a koala in the wild. During my stay on the island, I saw a total of 6 wild koalas. If you don’t see any in the wild, you can always check out the Bungalow Bay Koala Village, which is both a hostel and a koala sanctuary. You can even get a chance to hold one!

The island is also a great place to just spend the day lounging on the beach, or snorkeling around some of the coral reefs dotted around Magnetic’s many bays and coves. Around dusk, head out to the tiny community of Arcadia where you can see some of the island’s resident rock wallabies. The cute little marsupials come out to feed right near the old pier. Being rather tame and curious, they sometimes hop right up to you!

5. Mission Beach
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Another underrated and often missed locale on the east coast traveler’s itinerary. My only regret is we didn’t stay longer! The town itself isn’t much but it’s one of the few places in the world where a World Heritage rainforest and the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef meet. It’s also a place where you can spot the elusive cassowary, a shy man-sized bird with a blue neck and a big intimidating crown on its head. Unfortunately we didn’t see any during our visit. If you decide to come here, stay at the Jackaroo Hostel–it’s one of the best hostels I’ve stayed at in Australia.

6. The Great Barrier Reef
Swimming With Crush

No trip to Australia is complete without seeing the Great Barrier Reef. The reef isn’t actually one entire mass of coral, but rather several thousand individual reefs and islands stretching along the east coast for over 2,300 km (1430 mi). I took a day trip out to Green Island from Cairns with some friends and we spent the day exploring the reefs. The island is actually a tiny little coral cay with lush green rainforest, sandy white beaches, and clear blue waters full of life. Aside from tons of fish, we swam with several sea turtles! This is a good place to see them as they come here to feed on the sea grass beds off shore. Although you see much bigger fish and more colorful coral further away from the coast on the outer reef, Green Island was actually pretty impressive and worth going to if you’re on a budget.

7. The Daintree Rainforest
Daintree Rainforest

While I wasn’t too impressed with Australia’s tropical city of Cairns, the areas around it are really worth checking out. Just a few hours to the north is the Daintree Rainforest, considered to be the oldest rainforest on the planet. Here you can see an abundance of Australia’s most unique flora and fauna, including cassowaries, saltwater crocodiles, Bennet’s tree kangaroo, and the electric blue Ulysses butterfly. Cape Tribulation is a beautiful spot where coastal mountains covered in lush green rainforest meet a sandy white beach and fringing reefs. Another good spot in the Daintree is Mossman Gorge, which has some nice walking tracks that take you into the heart of the rainforest. The natural pools here (they’re croc free!) are a great place to have a picnic and cool off in the tropical heat.

Food, Fiestas, and Fire Running in Barcelona

Barcelona

Barcelona! The last stop on our European summer tour. We arrived into the city late at night after travelling all day from Italy by train and plane. Needless to say we were exhausted and very hungry, so after checking in to our Airbnb we aimlessly wandered down the streets looking for something to eat, hoping to find anything open at 1 AM. We were only mildly surprised to find quite a few shops and restaurants open because let’s be real–this is Spain. The country famous for eating late and staying up late (which maybe is why the Spanish like to sleep in and take afternoon siesta!). There was one restaurant near the waterfront that was pretty lively and appeared to have a good menu, so we went in and had a seat.

And that is when I was first introduced to one the things that I would love about Spain–the food. I have always heard about the paella in Spain, so ordered myself a steamy plate of seafood and rice goodness. Paella is a traditional Spanish dish, originating from Valencia, that includes cooked rice, veggies, and spices that can be cooked with seafood or meats. It’s amazing–definitely a must try when in Spain!

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Aside from paella, we also snacked on the large variety of tapas that you can get at a lot of small restaurants and bars throughout Spain. Gazpacho was another favorite, which we normally just bought from the store. While I’m not a big fan of tomato juice, this refreshing blend of tomatoes and veggies, garlic, and spices is just the thing to cool off on a hot summer day. I think it’s actually meant to be a kind of soup, but we would just drink it from the glass. The following day we headed out and walked around the city to see some of the sights, went to the beach for a bit, and walked through the huge park located across the street from where we were staying. But really, the most we ever did besides walking around was eating. All the time. Because Spanish food is just so freaking good. Out of all the places I went in Europe, I thought Spain had the best food (move aside France and Italy!)

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On another evening we headed out to the neighborhood of Vila de Gracia for a night out to see a street festival. Our Airbnb host said there was going to be a parade and I was expecting a typical parade with floats and people dressed up in costumes throwing candy. But that’s not how they do it in Barcelona. In fact, they take parades to a whole new level. As we got out of the subway station, we didn’t really know where we were going so we just followed everyone else heading off down through the streets. Soon enough we could hear drums playing off the distance, their resonating beats rumbling off the buildings. Eventually we got to where the festivity was taking place and right away I knew it wasn’t going to be just a “parade”. It was La Festa Major de Gràcia, one of the biggest events of the year in Barcelona. And we had stumbled right into the middle of the correfoc, a popular tradition in Catalonia meaning “fire run”. There were groups of people dressed up as devils running through the streets brandishing sticks that would shoot out fireworks, often times chasing people down the street and showering sparks over the crowd. There were also a few floats resembling things like donkeys and lizards that could be carried around and had fixings on them so they could be lit up with fireworks. So imagine, you’re running down the street being chased by a diablo, fireworks going off over your head all along with the powerful sound of the drummers playing. It was deafening. It was chaos. But the energy that filled the streets was incredible. People were dancing and having a good time.

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All of this went on for a while, I think we were there for two hours following the spectacle until it reached its end at a small plaza. There they had the grand finale where they lit up every last bit of fireworks they had. It was phenomenal.

We were very lucky to happen to be there at the time of year when they have this event, but it’s just one of many festivals and events that take place in Barcelona annually. That’s what I loved about this city–it’s such a lively city and full of energy. Everywhere you go there seems to be something going on. And of course there’s the great food! Even though it was a short stay, my experience in Barcelona really makes me want to come back again and see more of Spain.

Travels in Italy: Cinque Terre

Vernazza

Out of all the places we visited in Italy, Cinque Terre was my favorite. Located on the west coast along the Italian Riviera, Cinque Terre (meaning “Five Lands”) is actually a national park consisting of five small seaside villages. The whole area is breathtakingly picturesque. This rugged coastline is sparsely populated with brightly colored clusters of rustic buildings that appear to hang precariously right along the sea cliffs. Tiny fishing boats dot the harbors and vineyards and olive groves grow in steep terraces along the lush green mountainsides. It’s an enchanting place not to be missed.

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Once a very remote and difficult location to access, getting here is quite easy nowadays. We took the train from Pisa (after checking out the famous leaning tower) to the nearest municipality, La Spezia. From here, it’s only a 20-minute train ride further up the coast to the park. There are several ways you can explore the Cinque Terre. The easiest and fastest way would be by train, each town having its own tiny platform. It’s also possible to get between the towns by boat. Although a slower and more expensive option, taking a boat can be more rewarding as you can view the park and villages by sea. And then you have your own two feet to get you around. In my opinion walking is the best way to see the Cinque Terre.

The five villages (Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore) are all interconnected with another by a network of trails. While there is an entrance fee to walk the main coastal trail (Sentiero Azzuro or “Blue Trail”) between the towns, it’s fairly inexpensive. A day pass I think only cost us €7.50. All the other trails in the park are free. You can start from anywhere, but if you want to do the whole 7.5 mile (12 km) walk in a day the most logical places would be at the trail’s termini in Monterosso or Riomaggiore. We began our walk at the northern end of the park in Monterosso al Mare. This was the biggest of the towns and appears to be where most visitors use as their base to explore the region. There is a big beach here as well, making this town more like a beach resort than the rest of the villages. We didn’t stick around in Monterosso for very long, we basically just walked through it to get to the start of the trail.

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Going in the southern direction starts out much more difficult than going north. The trail between Monterosso and Vernazza is considered the most difficult section of the walk as it’s the longest (2 mi/4 km) and the path is steeper at this end. The trail is more uneven and rocky here with lots of stone stairways going up and down along the way. The upside to this is once you’ve covered this portion of the trek it just gets easier from there!

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Upon arrival in Vernazza, we were greeted with a view of the village from above. The scene is exactly what you would expect of a little town depicted in a fairy tale–a small little harbor busy with fishermen making their daily catch, the local market buzzing with activity, the people lazily walking through the narrow streets going about their daily business, and of course the most cliché thing of all–the castle on top of a hill. This is perhaps what makes Vernazza the most popular and most touristy of the five villages. With a little harbor as well as a small pebbly beach, it’s also an ideal place for swimming. After the tough and sweaty hike from Monterosso, jumping into the Mediterranean was irresistible.

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After a swim and a quick bite to eat, we were on our way again to the next town, Corniglia. What started out as a sunny day quickly turned into dark clouds creeping in, and before we knew it we were caught in a heavy downpour. Amazing how quickly the weather can change here! For about 20 minutes we took shelter under a tree with a bunch of other people hiking the trail. Once the rain subsided we continued on into town. Corniglia is the only Cinque Terre town not built at sea level. Instead, it’s perched high above the sea on top of a cliff. I’m not sure if it was because of recent rain, but the town had a rather sleepy mood to it. Compared to Vernazza, it was much quieter and there were fewer people on the streets. We didn’t stick around for very long, only long enough to enjoy the views and grab some gelato from a local gelateria.

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As we made our way back down to sea level toward the next section of the walk, we discovered that the rest of the trail was inaccessible due to landslides and are closed until further notice. So unfortunately, we couldn’t hike the entire length of the famous walk and instead hopped on the next train to the neighboring town of Manarola where we spent the rest of the afternoon. Between Vernazza and Manarola, I would say both are the most picturesque of the villages. While Vernazza has its snazzy little harbor and castle, Manarola perched right at the edge of a cliff. The pastel colored buildings all appear stacked on each other, clinging on the side of the mountain. The small cove at the base of the town next to the sea is also great for swimming and oftentimes you’ll see locals and tourists alike jumping off the rocks. We stayed here for the sunset and it did not disappoint!

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Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to visit the last town Riomaggiore, but this region of Italy was so incredible that I’m sure I’ll find myself here again one day. One of the things you notice about the villages in the Cinque Terre is how it has escaped the grasps of the modern world. Before the railway was built through here, the villages were really only accessible by foot or by boat. It’s remoteness allowed for the local culture and lifestyle to remain mostly unchanged for centuries. No where in the towns do you find any chain stores or supermarkets. Even the streets are absent of cars. The only traffic jams you’ll find here are two old locals chatting with another or a distracted tourists stopping in the middle of the street to marvel at the scene around them. Aside from the trains rumbling through and the WiFi hotspots in the towns to cater to tourists, life in the Cinque Terre still goes on as it did hundreds of years ago–at a slow leisurely pace.

Travels in Italy: Florence

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From the sunny shores of the Bay of Naples, we headed back north and inland to the capital of Tuscany–Florence. Florence is a beautiful city and as the birth place of the Renaissance, it’s an art-lovers dream. All around the city are many art museums, galleries, and wonderfully decorated churches.

One of the things I loved about Florence was how easy it was to get around by foot. Compared to other Italian cities, it’s a smallish city with all the sights and attractions being fairly close together. There is a bus system that could make getting around a lot quicker, but the buildings and streets of Florence are beautiful–they’re meant to be walked!

Despite Florence being a treasure trove of museums and art, we actually skipped out on some of the major sights like the Uffizi, where works from famous artists such as Michaelangelo, Da Vinchi, and Raphael are on display. Or Accademia, where the famous David statue resides. At this point during our trip around Europe, we were getting a little tired of seeing so many art galleries, museums, and churches. We did make an effort to visit the Duomo however, the main attraction of Florence right in the heart of the city. The massive cathedral, which began construction in 1296, was (and still is) the largest masonry dome on Earth when it was completed in 1436. It’s huge and it towers over the city. At 114 meters (374 feet), the Statue of Liberty could easily fit inside it. making it easily recognizable from afar. On the inside it’s quite ornate and looks different than other churches I’ve seen in Europe. And entrance is free!

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We also did check out a few other churches such as Santa Croce, where Galileo, Michaelangelo, and Machiavelli are buried and another (Basilica de Medici) where Donatello rests. Other than that we just enjoyed walking around and getting lost in the streets.

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Of course we also paid a visit to the famous Ponte Vecchio, the last remaining medieval bridge. During WWII all the bridges in Florence were destroyed with the exception of this one. Rumor has it that Hitler sent a last minute decree to spare the bridge as he had a liking for it. Whether that’s true or not, it’s still standing after all this time and is among the oldest bridges in Europe. What also makes this bridge unique is that there are still shops lining its sides, just as they were centuries ago.

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On the other side of the river is my favorite place in the city, Piazzale di Michaelangelo, where you can get an incredible panoramic view of all of Florence (as seen in the header photo)!

Another great view of the city can be seen from the nearby town of Fiesole, out in the countryside and up in the hills outside of the city. From Florence we took a bus to the tiny commune and spent an afternoon there walking about and watching the sunset over the city.

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That’s all I have for Florence unfortunately. It really is a beautiful city with lots to see and do, but unfortunately we just weren’t keen on seeing most of them. I would probably come back if I ever found myself in Italy though, as a jumping off point to visit other parts of Tuscany. After Florence we headed west to our last (and my favorite) place in Italy–Cinque Terre!