Between 2015 and 2019 I lived in the Philippines. I ‘learned’ how to ride motorbikes there. And discovered I really like riding around and exploring things on my own terms. In 2017-2018 having travelled around the country a bit by bus I changed over to doing so on a motorbike.
This two part story of our roundtrip through the Philippines is a summarized version of events and highlights. This is part one.
Joining me on this adventure is Jeanette from FloatingCoconut.net.
two roadtrips into one large adventure
The common way to get around in the Philippines is either to take a slow ferry and spend several boring days on it. Or take an airplane with one of the less than reputable local airlines. For shorter travels it’s common to take the bus. Which is often an uncomfortable and miserable experience.
But the country is full of roads, so why not make it a lot more fun and go for a ride?
I’ve driven up and down from Dumaguete on the southern end of Negros Island to Puerto Galera on Mindoro a few times. And the final time we headed further north to Luzon, past Batangas and in the shadow of Manila headed east towards Samar Island to finally end up in Dumaguete again. This makes for 2 road trips in what is essentially a huge round trip through the Philippines.
It was a great adventure, spanning over 2500 kilometers, crossing 8 islands and hundreds of small towns and cities along the way. All in true Filipino fashion full of excellent unspoiled nature and scenic views, full of inefficient systems. Having to navigate chaotic ports and busy highways at times.
For the purpose of this article we start near Tagaytay just south of Manila, which for us was sort of the middle point of the adventure as we started in Dumaguete 8 months before. I’m assuming most people will want to make this trip from Manila, so I’ve split up the adventure this way.
You can download all routes and tracks here on MotoTravel if you’re interested to ride (parts) of the adventure yourself.
All routes include Points of Interest which list hotels, restaurants, fuel stations, port services, shopping areas and attractions along the way. Just some things we visited and liked and want to recommend to you.
Starting in Tagaytay, where we stayed for a few days to see the area and Lake Taal, we headed east towards Legazpi City to see Mount Mayon.
First we drove to Naga city and spent a few days in there to recuperate from the insane traffic on the Pan Filipino Highway. On our small motorcycles this was a true chore at times as everyone around us went faster. Overall the trip was fine. But if you’re not careful you’d get caught up in a ‘convoy’ of semi trucks and sort of jog along with that. Which we didn’t feel comfortable doing. If we were more able to keep up with regular traffic this wouldn’t be a problem at all.
Anyway, from Naga City Jeanette cleverly suggested we take the coastal route to escape the busy traffic. This road was much much nicer to ride. Even though in several spots one of the lanes had broken off and slipped down the mountain due to land erosion and landslides further down. There was almost no traffic, which was great though! It also turned out that due to the volcanic eruptions and the huge ash cloud that brought the entire area where the main road is was sort of closed down and was definitely not suitable for motorcycle traffic. So that was lucky.
We arrived in Legazpi after a few fun hours of fun coastal roads and were treated with great views of Mount Mayon at times.
Visiting Legazpi City was a big deal for me and I was really looking forward to get there. Not so much for the city. But to see Mount Mayon.
This is an active volcano which was very active at the time. Night after night we’d be able to see lava spewing from the summit and a bunch of huge streams of lava would seep down the mountain side.
During the day it looked a lot less spectacular, but the huge ash cloud looming over the city was impressive none-the-less. We visited a refugee camp on one of the first days where the local government had converted a school into a temporary shelter for displaced people from the volcanic eruptions. 8 to 14 families with kids huddled together in a classroom suitable for 20-30 students. Zero-privacy. Zero-comfort. Absolutely terrible for us westerners… But they didn’t mind too much it seemed other than that it was a little inconvenient. We didn’t quite get how you could live there… But hey, that’s the Philippines for you. The people managing the refuge tried their best and for what it was they seemed to have a good handle on things.
After having seen the city and the volcano we headed south towards Tacloban City on Leyte. This had us cross the remainder of Luzon and take the ferry to Samar Island and finally down to Leyte. This entire ride was quite nice with lots of unspoiled nature and small towns throughout. A very forested area with little development going on all the way to the ferry.
Crossing over to Samar was an adventure in and of-itself. We were happy to see that there was a boat in port from a company we knew. Montenegro/Marina Ferries. So we immediately decided to get tickets for that. Easy. Job done.
Not so fast… Arriving at the port the port authorities building seemed abandoned. And someone told us the Montenegro boat was broken and had been so for a week at least. Uh… Ok. “Is there another boat then?” I asked, and the answer was “Yes maybe later today”.
Turns out the boat existed and was indeed coming. But seeing that it was the only one, the big question was if they would have space for us.
I quickly headed back to Montenegro and made a scene about selling me tickets for a boat that didn’t go. I got most of my money back (yep…) – The ticket girl seemed convinced they were fixing the boat within a day and bystanders said she’d been saying that for the better part of a week. Obviously I didn’t want to wait a day for a ‘maybe’.
At the other shipping company they were more than happy to sell me tickets as well. But before handing them my money I insisted they guarantee that the boat would go that day. They did.
Then the next obstacle was the port authority. Or lack there-off. The guard that usually helps you at the gate of these kinds of things was missing. All the office bits seemed abandoned. And we were told by a passerby that we could just line up with our tickets in the staging area.
Turns out we DID need to get our paperwork sorted at an office of the port authority or we couldn’t board.
This took another hour or so of frustrated and frantic insistence for them to get a move on. And finally we had all signatures, stamps and approvals.
Finally arriving on Samar Island we headed to a town called Catarman, were I had spotted a number of hotels and resorts on the coast on the map.
Hotel and Resort are loose terms in most parts of the Philippines. They all turned out to be a mix of discotheques and open bars. Completely unsuitable for any kind of overnight stays.
So we headed into town and luckily found a nice and quiet place to sleep. They had some nice breakfast too!
Having spent a few nights in Catarman we headed further south towards Tacloban with a stop in Catbalogan. Which I had booked in advance.
The dirtiest place on earth
Catbalogan is a decrepit little city on Samar. It’s the capital of something, the municipal or province or something. There is a port, some black beach. And a small city center. But… Everything was also covered in garbage and sewage. The few small streams through the city were blue/brown from the open sewers dumping in it. All the streets were littered with garbage and dead animals. We were scared to go out on slippers and not get sick. And yes, everything had a smell, too.
Needless to say we didn’t stay here longer than we had to, and only because I booked the hotel in advance. Unlucky!
After that we quickly headed into the mountains making our way south on a twisting road towards Tacloban. The capital of Leyte.
It was a nice ride. Samar and Leyte are connected by a huge cantilever bridge called the “San Juanico Bridge”. Guarded on both ends by the military it’s a several kilometers long bridge crossing the strait between the islands. I really liked the drive over it. My first proper bridge crossing and I think this is one of the very very few large bridges in the Philippines.
Arriving in Tacloban shortly after we quickly checked into our hotel and prepared for some ‘big city’ stuff. We ended up spending about a week here, stranded in a surprise typhoon. Luckily our hotel was on top of a modern shopping mall so we could hang out there. On the few nice days we had we explored the city center and visited a few World War 2 memorial sites. General MacArthur from the USA landed his first troops there apparently, which I bet was no small feat to start liberating the country.
To Bohol Island and beyond
From Tacloban on Leyte we followed the coast down and crossed the central part of the island over a fun and twisting road to the other side to end up in Hilongos. Where I’d booked another hotel for a few nights. I explored the area a bit, found some nice water falls and stuff, and we rested for a day to prepare for our next ferry crossing.
In the port of Bato we took one of the few ferries to Bohol. The actual ferry was cancelled for unknown reasons. But the same company had another boat coming, so they still sold tickets. Luckily the boat indeed came. But it arrived on the departure time. Which means they had to unload first – A million bales of rice came out on a single forklift, then more cargo came out which all had to be loaded on trucks first. They ‘cleaned’ the ship and finally 3 hours later we could board. Which took another hour. Done – We’ve moving… 2 hours across to Bohol and we’d be on white beaches!
Unfortunately the replacement boat went so slow that it took them almost 6 hours to cross. Somewhere mid-way we encountered thick fog, so our envisioned sunny arrival and to see Bohol appear astern was quickly replaced with a slight fear of crashing into the island. As you sometimes read about on the local news.
Luckily we made it without issues and entered Bohol Island in the thickest fog we’d ever seen.
White beaches of Anda
Having arrived on Bohols north-east bit in the Ubay port, we headed south to the town of Anda. A touristy little town with a load of hotels and resorts. And some white beaches. I didn’t book a hotel in advance assuming there would be plenty of space for us. And I was right, but many hotels weren’t very nice or hugely overpriced.
We ended up in a hostel kind of place which was fine. They had separate rooms and such and the attached restaurant was great. But I had hoped for something a little more fancy.
We spent some fun and relaxing days on the beach and made some trips over the island of Bohol. Visiting the Chocolate hills, a butterfly conservation park. Of-course we went to the Tarsier conservation area as well. Tarsiers are a small kind of monkey-like animal and very cute to see.
We also made a quick stop at the ‘Manmade Forest’ a nature reserve full of planted trees to stop erosion of the hills.
We also visited Tagbilaran and Panglao Island for a day. These places are on the other side of Bohol. Tagbilaran is the main and biggest city on the island. We explored the shops and such for a few hours. On Panglao Island you’ll find another tourist hotspot, akin to what Anda has to offer, but larger and less fun in my opinion. Everything is a bit over the top where Anda keeps the normality a bit intact.
Heading to Dumagete
Having rested up, seen Anda and most of Bohol its popular attractions we headed west to Tagbilaran where the ferry port is. Here we took the boat to Cebu Island. This port had its affairs mostly in order and boarding was a mostly straightforward affair. Due to earthquakes a few years before a few ports on Bohol became unusable and the short-ish crossing turned into a several hours longer trip as they moved the broken port its services to Tagbilaran port which had since opened up a new pier and modernized its facilities.
Arriving on Cebu we headed down on the coastal road to the southern tip of Cebu where another ferry took us to Negros Island. There are several ferry options here. We took the one going to Sibulan, which is a small town right next to Dumaguete.
Finally arriving in Dumaguete city after about 6 weeks of almost nonstop travelling and hotel living it was a relief to get some proper rest and stay in a house for a bit again. Remember, we started this adventure in Dumaguete a year earlier. Heading to Puerto Galera where we stayed for a few months.
Check out part two of the adventure where we head up from Dumaguete to Puerto Galera here.