The Aquatic Heights and Depths of Cebu Island
At the beginning of this chapter of the Philippines, the protagonists are slumped on a rickety plastic bench nailed to the aft deck of a battered old shipping vessel. Siquijor has become a scattering of faint lights on the horizon behind us, and ahead of the ship the mountains on either side of Dumaguete and Lilo-an are ablaze with dying sunlight. On the flickering TV nearby is a hypnotically terrible Bollywood film which is successfully distracting everyone from the natural spectacle and the drunken swaying of the ship.
After forming an alliance with yet another group of like-minded Europeans, we disembarked and haggled relentlessly with the waiting minibuses before getting a lift to Moalboal from Lilo-an – a good two-hour trip up the western coast of Cebu Island, for a total of 2,500P. A bit pricey for the bohemian backpacker, but manageable between a group of five. Had we more time we would have held out for the far cheaper coastal bus, but it was well into the late evening by this point and options were becoming slim.
I should say a ‘projected’ journey time of two hours, but our driver clearly had things to do that evening; I’m sure he must have lifted off the accelerator at some point but don’t remember being consciously aware of slowing down. The outside world became a Millennium Falcon-esque lightspeed blur of sporadic pedestrians and animals briefly illuminated in the van’s headlights before being aggressively honked out of the way and vanishing back into the night. After barely an hour’s rollercoaster along a pitch-black coastline, we screeched to a halt outside Soul Travellers Guesthouse, unclenched our backsides and slid out of the vehicle.
Soul Travellers is a short drive outside Moalboal, just north of Badian- either a tricycle ride or a scoot from anywhere – and is a quiet oasis for the weary traveller to fall over and be looked after. The owners, Jocelyn and Bear, immediately made us feel at home; the guesthouse is relatively new, but word of mouth is spreading in the backpacker community. A number of guests – ourselves included – plan to stay for just a night or two as a stop on their journey, but end up crashing for multiple extra nights just to soak up the sunsets.
I can’t recommend the place enough; it’s quiet, comfortable, festooned with enthusiastic dogs (and one less-enthusiastic but vocal cat, appropriately named Protest) and barely a minute’s walk from the coast. They have brand-new scooters for hire as well as diving and snorkeling paraphernalia, and will either arrange for specific tours or just point you in the right direction of the numerous local sights if you’re exploring for yourself.
Though we’d intended to embark on the famed canyoneering adventure at Kawasan Falls, we were still in somewhat of a delicate state and didn’t yet feel up to hurling ourselves off cliffs into bodies of water, but we got ourselves on a scooter to check it out from the bottom. Kawasan is Cebu’s most famous waterfall, with good reason – but, like Cambugahay in Siquijor, with proportionate marketing efforts and tourist popularity.
The walk up from the scooter park takes you on a winding jungle path to the first set of falls, where you’ll be ushered to rent a locker (200P) and table (300P) and buy food (300+P) and rent life jackets if you want to swim directly under the falls(50P); rather than being corralled into the tourist pen here, I’d instead recommend walking a little further up to the second, much quieter set of falls.
Being the tourist-trap-phobe I am, I insisted on a secondary excursion to the elusive Montpeller Falls, as suggested by our hosts. It lies at the end of a long mountainside trail, which itself is hidden near the top of a long mountainside drive; we actually only succeeded in discovering it on Day 2, after missing the sign twice. The friendly WELCOME banner painted on a rock was partially obscured by a car, so we’d missed the …TO MONTPELLER FALLS bit and assumed it was just a nice greeting. Our trials were finally rewarded with a totally isolated mountain pool with a spectacular view of the Palawan strait.
The second highlight of Cebu came as a bit of a surprise. While feasting on a freshly-prepared meal and local rum at Soul Travellers, we were offered the opportunity to visit a floating platform in the middle of the bay. As it was long past sundown at this point I asked why we’d do that at night rather than enjoy the reefs during the day.
The platform is a haven for backpackers during daytime – you can hire a local paddle boat to take you out and go snorkeling, diving and drinking with your mates. It looks fun, if a little crowded in the afternoon.
“No,” I was reassured, “you can’t go in the day, too busy. Go at night – you will be on your own, and you can see the bioluminescence.”
My Attenborough-nerd senses tingled. Unbeknownst to most of the local area – and even the hostel owners until recently – tiny, luminescent plankton gather around and under the platform when the sun goes down. We immediately got in touch with the captain (who’d personally discovered the phenomenon) and headed out on his vessel, an eight-foot wooden hull with bamboo outriggers which is slightly less narrow than a large English man but fit Meg perfectly.
Due to it being nighttime (and to my current lack of underwater camera), photos of the bioluminescence was, alas, impossible. At first we thought we’d missed it, but then our guide told us to swim in the shadow under the floating platform. Immediately, we were enveloped in clouds of flashing blue lights as we disturbed the tiny creatures floating in the water. It’s hard to describe how weird and magical it feels to be surrounded by an electrical swarm of sparks underwater, but suffice it to say I’m going to come prepared with camera equipment in future.
Even photos on the platform itself were a struggle, as long-exposure photography does not lend itself to bobbing bamboo structures in the middle of a tropical bay. I wasn’t about to let this stop me bloody-mindedly taking photos anyway, shaky though they may be.
The whole point of improvised backpacking is to have new, memorable and weird experiences, and this was the perfect outtro to our time in Cebu. True to the pattern of Soul Travellers, we extended our stay by two nights to get the most out of the area – but in the end we had places to be, and long bus journeys to get us there.
Bidding the guesthouse farewell, we hauled our gear onto a long-suffering tricycle to Badian in anticipation of the bus to Cebu City, far on the other side of the island across mountains, jungles and a particularly nasty tropical storm. Good thing I brought flip-flops.