The Philippines: disaster in Cebu and disappointment in Boracay

Hello, lovely reader (if any of you remain after my unexpectedly long hiatus – I apologise for my absence). We’ve landed back in the UK and time ran away with me somewhat – so much mental (and at times, physical) energy has gone on readjusting to UK living that the idea of returning to write about our travels felt overwhelming. A tale for another time, though.

To continue from where I – somewhat abruptly – left off a few months ago, we had just finished an exhilarating whirlwind tour around Japan, and it was here that our plans changed once again.

I was flicking through our rather battered Lonely Planet when Air Asia notified us that (again) our flight out of Japan was cancelled, leaving us with an opportunity to refine our itinerary once again. Brainstorming ideas, my eyes rested on the open page in front of me, where tantalising phrases like “whale sharks virtually guaranteed” “idyllic beaches” “stunning scenery” jumped out at me. It had been Christmas since our last flop on a beach, and I had been captivated by the whale shark we saw in Osaka. It was settled – the Philippines was added to our itinerary.

We decided to begin our trip in the city we flew into – Cebu – for a couple of days before moving on to a beach. After some discussion, the lure of soft sand was too great and we opted to book an internal flight to the famous beach of Boracay. As we flew into the sunset from Japan, I felt the warm glow of anticipation I get whenever I head to a new country. I love the excitement of the unknown, and was excited to see the vibrant culture of the Philippines.

As the sun set over sea, we were Philippines bound...
As the sun set over sea, we were Philippines bound…

Upon landing in Cebu, things started to go wrong almost immediately. We asked our lovely hostel owner where she would recommend to go for a quick drink, and she seemed shocked that we wouldn’t particularly want to go to a British pub. Undeterred, we made our way to a nearby square with a few bars (non-British themed) spilling out into the open air. A nearby coffee shop had an armed security guard at the door. Our fellow drinkers seemed to be predominantly younger Filipino girls dolled up to the nines, and middle aged Western men. Oh. On our way back, we grabbed some food from a fast food stand nearby – the hard, sullen stares from the vendor making us feel far from welcome.

Unfortunately, our bumpy start continued to go downhill the following day when I got struck down with a recurring health problem which rendered me all but confined to the room – good for nothing except swigging potassium citrate and letting out the occasional pitiful whimper. Just to compound my misery, I then fractured my toe on a trip to the bathroom, of all places. Unable to now put any weight on my foot, I was upgraded to virtually bedridden for a day.

We did manage one trip out – a stagger to the local mall for some supplies and, upon recommendation from our hostel owner (who declared that most other eateries in the area were “not safe” – a phrase she used more than once) some food from a chain restaurant. It was on the way that we got our first glimpse of Cebu. I loved the beautiful, stark white churches which gleamed against the intense, cloudless blue sky and the famous Jeepneys – converted trucks which acted as public transport – decorated in swirling pastels and vivid murals like some kind of mechanical My Little Pony.

The  funky jeepneys of the Philippines. Photo ©2015 Philip Brookes
The funky jeepneys of the Philippines. Photo ©2015 Philip Brookes

Alas however, this was all we would see of Cebu. It was time to hobble to the airport for our propellor plane to Boracay.

And so to Boracay – the most popular beach resort in the Philippines and known well beyond that for its idyllic white, palm lined beaches. A taxi ride, a propellor plane ride, a short walk (or hobble, in my case), a brief but ill-tempered visit to the Most Humid Ferry Port on Earth and a tricycle ride later, and we arrived at the picturesque little resort Craig had found and – in an uncharacteristic display of commitment – booked us in for an extended stay of ten nights.

Alleyway entrance to Dave's Straw Hat Inn, Boracay
The pretty entrance to Dave’s Straw Hat Inn, Boracay

After dumping our bags, we wandered (hobbled) down to see the famous beaches – eager to wiggle our toes in the clear warm water.

I have to hand it to the Boracay marketing department – they’ve certainly done their job in making it sound like paradise. But the reality was somewhat different. Yes, there was a beach. There were certainly palm trees. There was even soft sand. The water, however, didn’t look quite as appetising. The slimy green algae coated the shoreline as far as the eye could see, with a faint but insistent whiff of boiled cabbage.

Crystal clear waters? Not exactly...
Crystal clear waters? Not exactly…
The beach of Boracay
The beach of Boracay

The narrow strip behind the beach went on for miles. By night, it pulsed with neon lights and thumping dance beats as the crowds – eyes glazed – shuffled along behind one another past the tacky souvenirs, fire dancers and signs for “All U Can Eat Buffets” and Starbucks. Who turns up at a stunning beach and thinks to themselves “you know what this paradise needs? Frappucinos”.

The beach strip of Boracay by night
The busy beach of Boracay

The beautiful sunset was obscured by countless selfie sticks and over a hundred boats moored just off the beach. Acoustic musicians fought with rave music to be heard – each turning their speakers up to deafening levels. It felt like being suffocated.

While we both nursed ourselves back to health (for by this point Craig had also been unwell) on a balanced diet of banana pancakes and mango shakes, I tried to learn to love Boracay. I did, I really did.

I swam out past the cabbage-slime to where the water was clearer. We took a dive trip to explore underwater but watched, crestfallen, as the dive instructor carelessly booted large chunks out of the coral and poked shy marine creatures with his stick. We took walks further up the strip to sample different places to eat and different bars. Each night, we came back disappointed until we eventually gave up and stuck to haunting the one nearby cafe where we actually enjoyed the food.

I know that my dislike for Boracay isn’t universal. I know for many people the proximity to mediocre caffeinated beverages and Big Macs is a bonus and that’s cool – my ideal beach wouldn’t be for everyone either and, if nothing else, our ten days in Boracay taught me two things: firstly, that I require little from a beach. Literally.

I also learnt that when your perfect beach extends to maybe a rum shack (cool beers would also be available), a decent (non-coral-destroying) dive school and a hammock or two, it is no one’s fault but yours when you decide to make for the most populous beach resort of the entire country.

If you want to go to Boracay
  • We flew on a short internal flight from Cebu to Kalibo, an airport on the island next to Boracay
  • When you land at the airport, there are numerous transfer options to get you to the ferry port. This is madness, as the ferry port is a five minute stroll. We walked and arrived ahead of most of the coach loads of people who’d paid a premium to be transferred
  • We stayed at Dave’s Straw Hat Inn – a good option if you want to be tucked away from the beachfront and at the quieter end of the beach. Electricity supply could be a bit dodgy, but the rooms were comfy
  • The only place we particularly enjoyed eating was the Sunny Side Up cafe, which is around Jetty 3
  • In case this blog is a bit too on the fence for you, Boracay is developed, although there is a considerable (and successful) effort from the locals to keep the beach clean and rubbish free and I take my hats off to them for that. However, if busy beach resorts such as Benidorm in Spain wouldn’t be your bag, I’d look elsewhere for your beach time


  1. Lynne said:

    Nice to have you back always a good read X X x

    September 28, 2015
  2. Amy said:

    Wow, I’m sorry to hear you had such a bad experience in the Philippines; we loved it there. Mind you, we didn’t visit Boracay and we mostly stuck to the mountains except for when we volunteered on Leyte. The diving company sounds awful; I’ve heard that the Philippines is an amazing place to go diving too. I hope your time there got better?

    October 4, 2015
  3. Athena said:

    Im sorry to hear about your experience in Boracay! I USED to like Boracay yearsssss ago, unfortunately when I recently came back, I was so shock how it got so commercialized, sadly this is not the paradise I once used to like. The green algae increases depending on the season and the nice beaches that are almost algae free unfortunately are towards the “expensive” section of Boracay and other parts of the islands which are only accessible by boat in which is usually a stop on one of the boat tours. Whenever I visit the Philippines, Boracay is not on my list anymore but instead I visit the islands of Palawan (El Nido and Coron). It is not commercialized yet and the waters, islands and lime rock formations are gorgeous. So far every tour company (boat tours mostly) I have dealt with are nice, funny and service great. compared on what I have dealt with in my other Asia travels. Cebu would have been a better choice to spend longer days than Boracay and visit Kawasan falls. I understand what you mean by not doing enough research as I experienced the same with my first Cambodia-Thailand trip. I decided being “spontaneous” is not my forte 🙂 I was determined to correct my first experience, did more research and came back much much happier and ready. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your travels!

    November 7, 2016
  4. Helen said:

    I was just there, it’s got worse if that can be believed. There was a cruise ship in as well so there were about 3000 people on the beach, and it was more like Ibiza than an island paradise. Hopefully your blog will serve to keep everyone away!!

    February 17, 2018
    • Katie said:

      Oh crikey! I can’t believe a cruise ship docked as well!
      It’s definitely a great party place now but wasn’t what we were looking for at all. Hope you’ve managed to find somewhere a bit more peaceful!

      February 17, 2018

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