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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Preparing for the Philippines

Of all the countries in Asia, you might ask, “How did I end up in the Philippines?” for Christmas and NYE this year. I’ve been living in Sydney, Australia for the past year and had just been back to the States so I was eager for a new adventure.  A colleague was keen to come along and had a friend in the Philippines so boom – country locked.

The Planning:

I know ZLITCH about the Philippines.  There are 7,500 islands to visit (yikes) so it’s a daunting task to build an itinerary.  I quickly discarded the South since it isn’t particularly safe for tourists (I’d be traveling alone for the first week).  Usually I pick a country because I’ve read a book or done some research in advance and know what I want to see.  This was a new experience for me so I asked Facebook.

I received tons of feedback but the one that stood out to me was a 5 day sailing trip with TAO Philippines.  My experiences sailing the British Virgin Islands and Croatia’s coastline has taught me there’s no better way to knock out a country of sea and islands than seeing it by boat.

I submitted my application to join the crew.  Yes, you have to submit an application so they can weed out the “princesses” who won’t be able to handle the sunburns, bug bites, smelly toilets, random dogs and hard floors of the bamboo hut sleeping quarters.  I received my confirmation a few days later.

This made planning the first half of my trip easier as the boat goes from El Nido to Coron (you can also travel the other direction).  There seemed to be more to do in Coron so I decided to end there.  It does take about 3 days to get to El Nido from Sydney and I had to time it to arrive for the 5pm boat check-in the day before departure.

Next up was determining where I should meet my friend for the second half of my trip.  Originally I was thinking Coron because I'd already be there but soon learned it's best known for diving – no thanks, I’m terrified of the ocean.  I also wanted (no shock here) a party location for NYE.  More Facebook consulting and Boracay filtered to the top.

An Itinerary was born...

Day 1:               Sydney to Manila
Day 2:               Manila to Puerto Princesa
Day 3:               5 hrs Bus to El Nido (5pm Check-in) 
Day 4:               8:30am El Nido departure on TAO
Day 5 – 8:        On the Boat
Day 9:               Arrive in Coron (5:30pm) 
Day 10:             Fly to Boracay by way of Manila
Day 11 – 13:     Boracay

Day 14:             Manila to Sydney

Now, looking back on this itinerary here is what I'd change with the same timeframe:

Day 1:               Sydney to Manila
Day 2:               Morning flight direct to El Nido (boat check-in) 
Day 3:               8:30am departure on TAO
Day 4 - 8:         On the Boat
Day 9:               Arrive in Coron (5:30pm) 
Day 10:             Fly to Boracay by way of Manila
Day 11 – 13:     Boracay
Day 14:             Manila to Sydney

  1. It took three days to get to El Nido because from Sydney you can only arrive in Manila at night.  No real way to get around this.
  2. I stupidly booked an early afternoon flight to PP.  Book a morning flight because they are less likely to be delayed and then you get almost a full day to see PP (the underground river is apparently awesome).  Better yet, just pay a little more for a direct morning flight to El Nido. I took the bus which was a great experience (ride with and befriend locals and see the countryside) but it’s definitely a one-time experience.
  3. If you do go bus; Don’t book a bus in advance.  When you arrive in PP, have them take you to the private van hires - cut 2 hours off my bus trip.
  4. Definitely glad I didn’t spend any extra time in Coron – it’s is ONLY diving and pretty boring otherwise.  No beach.  If I'd had more days I would've ended in El Nido and stayed extra time.  Something to think about if you have more than 14 days. 
  5. Definitely book a "one ticket" flight from Coron to Boracay instead of two separate flights (you have to go through Manila).  This allows you to have your checked bag go through to your final destination which is awesome and means you skip the security line.  At Philippine airports you have to wait in an airport security line to get INTO the airport AND THEN do the regular security line to get to the gate.
  6. Boracay is a bitch to get to/from the airport so leave yourself PLENTY of time.  One of the best choices I made was booking the $25 USD transfer to/from the airport to Boracay Beach Club. 

If I could've had my ultimate itinerary and taken three more days...

Day 1:               Sydney to Manila
Day 2:               Morning flight direct to Coron (boat check-in) 
Day 3:               8:30am departure on TAO
Day 4 - 8:         On the Boat
Day 9:               Arrive in El Nido (5:30pm) 
Day 10:             Full day and night in El Nido
Day 11:              Fly to Boracay by way of Manila 
Day 12 – 15:     Boracay
Day 16:             Manila to Sydney

So what did I pack, purchase and wish I hadn't bought?

Usually I refuse to check a bag (since usually the airline loses it for me).  But unfortunately this time, due to the things I needed to bring for the boat trip, I would have to check.  Below is my packing list of must haves, optional items and items that you can buy there before the boat (this list is post-trip to it's been updated with any changes I would've made to the original list).  

Must Haves:
  • 3+ swimsuits: I brought like 5 and wore them all (you live in them)
  • 3-4 changes of casual clothes: You are roughing it and nothing feels nicer than fresh clothes in the morning. I recommend T-shirts and shorts.  Maybe 1 nice sundress for the pub crawl in Boracay if you decide to go on it.  I was there for NYE so I brought a cute dress for the celebration.  Otherwise it’s literally singlets, swimmers, shorts and thongs all the time.
  • 1-2 long sleeve shirts and pants: The mosquitoes don’t mess around.  Bring something long and light because it’s still hot but you will want the coverage.
  • All terrain shoes or “aqua socks”: you are swimming and nature walking and hiking and climbing and boating.  Thongs are annoying because they fall off.  Protect your feet and be prepared for anything!
  • 2-3 Bags: Sounds weird right?  You basically have 2-3 bags for the boat. 
  • The “Big Bag”: ideally you hand over the first day and don’t access until the end of the tour (I used my Country Road bag).  Store items you won’t use on the boat.
  • Dry Bag: Wait to buy in El Nido unless you already have one.  I highly recommend 30+ size so that you can store all overnight items (i.e. multiple changes of clothes) so you don’t have to repack it every night.
  • Day Bag: Leave topside on the boat to access stuff during the day.  I used my small CamelBak.
  • Waterproof bag:  Just something large enough to separate dirty/wet clothes from dry/clean clothes like a trash bag.
  • 2 towels: Both a beach and “shower” towel.  Definitely bring two – again you feel super dirty by the end of each day and using a cleanish shower towel is so much better than repurposing that sandy beach towel.
  • Sea sickness pills: I like the preventive kind that you take every morning regardless. 
  • 3 bottles of Deet: I used ALL of them.
  • Sunscreen: Face sunscreen and waterproof spray for your body.  Particularly traveling alone I didn’t want a “single girl sunburn” so good to have a spray that you can get your own shoulders.
Optional/Buy There:
  • Flippers: If you have them or insist on them for snorkeling; bring them.  I didn’t have them and later realized how tiring it is to snorkel with “regular” feet.  Hard to find flippers for a reasonable price in El Nido so bring or buy elsewhere in advance.
  • Rash guard/wet suit top: You can buy these for super cheap in El Nido if you don’t have one.  Really just need a top and it’s more for sunburn on your back while snorkeling than sea creatures.  It makes me feel safe so I bought one there.
  • Snorkel/Mask: TAO provides this but mine was pretty terrible and keep fogging up.  Might want to bring your own or buy in El Nido.
  • Alcohol: A case of beer is included in your boat trip but they recommend also buying a liter of alcohol and a list of mixer per person.
  • Portable speaker: if you like to have music on the journey/campsite.

Lastly, I purchased an Optus Travel Plan and it was so pointless.  There is free wifi EVERYWHERE.  Get a Philippines SIM if you desperately need to call or text people.  They do 7,14, etc day plan options.  But I honestly don't think you need it.  All airports have free wifi except Coron and Boracay beach basically has wifi even on the beach.

Now you've got all the basic information, feel free to plan a trip.  But if you want the dirty details and travel tips stay tuned for my next post with reviews of my hotels, the boat, my activities and the islands themselves.

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