It’s nighttime by the time our plane leaves the Cebu runway behind, with a convoluted journey yet to come: after getting out of Kalibo Airport on Panay, we still need to haggle for the two-hour journey to Caticlan Port, navigate the short ferry ride to Boracay and finally haggle once more for the tricycle ride to our hotel on the other side of the island.
We left Cebu at 11:25pm – by the time we started to draw close to Oasis Resort and Spa, the horizon is already threatening daylight. The porter on duty has been waiting for us since 1am, and his genial greeting isn’t enough to convince us that we aren’t terrible people for making him wait. We drop our bags in the room, ready to slip into a coma – but it takes no small amount of self-discipline to intentionally be awake for a sunrise in the Philippines, and we weren’t about to waste the opportunity.
Sitting on Illig-Illigan beach, a short walk down the hill from the hotel, we let the sandflies dance madly around us as we watched the sun sneak over the horizon and start its rounds over Boracay. This was especially poignant for me as this was now officially the start of my 30th year on Earth; our irresponsibly fancy, non-backpacker-y hotel and this trip to the luxury capital of the Philippines was all part of Meg’s birthday plotting, and this solar spectacle was an event neither of us had planned for.
Three glorious hours of sleep later, we scraped ourselves off the bed and sloughed our way to the restaurant for exactly the right kind of birthday breakfast, with every intent to go right back to sleep afterwards. That would likely have resulted in the rest of the afternoon vanishing, however, so we grudgingly decided to have a glorious day instead.
Boracay was a familiar name to me even before coming to the Philippines. For better or worse, it’s the tourist capital of the country, particularly with Korean visitors (as my students have informed me en masse). This being an improvised, tight-purse sort of backpacking adventure, such a destination would probably not have been on our radars, but it was my birthday and be damned if we weren’t going to do something special.
I was a bit wary of the crowds at first. I’ve been trained from a young age to Not Be Tedious and I’m already desperately English to look upon as it is: no matter how long I spend in the sun, I’m either ‘bleached’ or ‘violently bacon-like’ without much time in-between, so the least I can do is try to avoid behaving too much like I’m looking for an English breakfast everywhere I go. As with many touristy things, however, there’s a reason for Boracay’s popularity.
White Beach is exactly what you imagine when you picture somewhere like the Philippines. A two-mile bar of bone-white sand stretches along the side of Boracay with palm trees behind and crystalline water beyond; despite its popularity, it’s fastidiously maintained, with regularly-signposted rules on what is and isn’t allowed on the beach (mostly sensible things like smoking, fire-dancing and whatever ‘commercial sandcastles’ are). As a result, you never have to worry about discovering someone‘s cigarettes/broken bottles/remains while picking out the perfect towel spot.
You’ll need to develop a thick skin for salesmen – every few feet someone will pitch a boat tour, massage parlour, restaurant or trinket to you, some more enthusiastically than others. After I semi-jokingly assured one hat seller that my head was too big for most human hats (this is in fact true) and walked on, he came running after me a good kilometer further down the beach with as many large-size hats as he could find. While he caught his breath, I dutifully tried them on to guiltily demonstrate that they, too, were to small for my massive noggin.
Being a commercial hotspot for the Philippines, dining on Boracay is noticeably more aggressive on the wallet compared to the rest of the country. We spent many-a frustrating moment trudging with increasing hunger-induced wrath past wonderful but overpriced eateries (lomi for 200 pesos, pull the other one it’s got bells on my good man), occasionally settling for appetisers or, in our darker moments, 7/11 toasties. It was a turning point, then, when we discovered the wonders of the town’s side streets.
I promised a shout-out in particular to the wonderful folks at Eva’s Homemade Resto and Bar: they don’t advertise themselves with particular gusto and are a little off the main stretch, but their food is a) backpacker-priced and b) spectacular. We spent both breakfast and dinner there, talking with the staff and accidentally advertising the small restaurant to other passing travellers. Eva, Vanessa and Nonoy – and their food – were lovely and I would love to point any hungry adventurers their way.
Boracay’s sunrises are serenely beautiful, but its sunsets are a true spectacle. Dark-sailed boats drift lazily across the bay as the sky becomes a vivid palette of orange and blue hues, putting any social media filter to shame. I gave up on editing the photos as there was nothing I could do to make it look any better than reality.
As our penultimate expedition in the Philippines, we head with quiet trepidation to its capital – the sprawling, decidedly palm-tree-free metropolis of Manila. We’ve got flights to be on and Meg’s got a climbing fix to feed, so we’ll be thrust into the beating and blaring heart of the biggest city for hundreds of nautical miles around.
I reload my camera, shoulder my slightly salty backpack and hope my passport’s around here somewhere.