Oslob Cebu

Let me get this out of the way first, the cheapest way to probably get to Oslob is to take a Ceres bus from Cebu City and pay P500 to snorkel with the whale sharks when you get there (P1000 if you’re a foreigner).

Now let me tell you how we got there. First we got in touch with Island Trek Tours. Their website http://www.oslobwhalesharks.com is the first that pops up when you Google Oslob diving. They will contact you and then you have to deposit a down payment (50% of cost ) to their bank account.

We then booked our own accommodations separately. We chose to stay at The Henry Hotel which was excellent for two nights.

One of Island Trek’s drivers Rolly picked us up at 6AM the next day. It took us only two and a half hours to get to Oslob so we really could’ve left at 7AM. When we got there a girl named Elise took care of us. She asked for the rest of the payment (P900 cheaper per person if you’re a local!) and then we sat through an orientation. Don’t touch the whale sharks or wear sunblock because it will disturb the whale sharks!

We then went to the scuba dive guide (P500 less if you have your own gear whether you are a local or a foreigner). His briefing maximum depth 7m because, well, that’s the bottom of the floor. And the big news, you can spend 40-45 mins. with the whale sharks. This is what makes scuba diving worth it. First of all you avoid the hordes of people and secondly you get more than the allotted 30 mins. And there were only two other dive duos and one individual with us plus their dive guides.

After 50 minutes and still half our air left, we went back to shore. We were then shuttled off by Rolly and Elise to Tumalog Falls which is surprisingly worth it (and part of the package tour). Just be ready for a harrowing (helmet-less!) motorcycle ride. (Better than walking!)

Then back to lunch. By the way we also had a free breakfast of mango, sticky rice and hot chocolate before the dive. Lunch was very substantial. Kinilaw (raw vinegared fish), tinapa (smoked fish) chicken (with tomato sauce), soup, vegetables, and rice plus a soda or bottled water of your choice.

We got back to our hotel by 4PM. All in all satisfied with our trip.

Now the moral dilemma. Do the whale sharks look fine? They seem to be… But for the more eco-friendly traveller I would definitely suggest Donsol.

The Henry Hotel — The best boutique hotel in the country so far?

Maya at Crossroads strip mall — The king of Cebuano restaurants (They serve Mexican food.) The jam packed Fat Pho is also in this strip mall.

Canvas at Ayala Center — They have an Australian beef pie floating in gravy topped with green pea mash! Something I was looking for in Australia that I never found.

Taxi tip — Cebu taxi drivers surprisingly switch on their meters as soon as you board the cabs (175 pesos to the airport).

Mt. Pinatubo trek

A staple of the backpacker trail, I finally got to climb Mount Pinatubo twenty-two years after it erupted.

Send a text to Weng Santos 0999 365 5069 for a trustworthy reservation.

Anyway, I got there by driving down the NLEX, connecting to the SCTEX, and got off at the Concepcion exit.  I turned left, drove into the town of Capas, Tarlac and took a hard right after the McDonalds (a great place to catch an early morning snack).

I turned left eventually after that.  There must have been a sign, and drove straight till I reached a satellite station of the Capas tourist office housed in a container van.  Here you can get a ride and a guide to the foot of Pinatubo if you don’t already have a reservation.

A jeeps costs P3000, P500 for a guide, P450 per person for taxes and P50 to park my car.

It took around an hour and a half drive to get to the foot of the volcano and another hour and a half hike to get to the top.  BIG TIP: If your shoes are kind of old, bring an extra pair of footwear, even if it’s just slippers.  A few old pairs of shoes in the group I hiked with didn’t make it back in one piece.

There’s really nothing to do there once you get to top.  Just hang out for awhile, snap a few pics, and head back down.

But the feeling of achievement is pretty awesome.

By the way, last trip leaves at 10am and starts at 5am because it could rain in the afternoon, causing flash floods.

One last question, should you ride the open-air jeep or the closed Land Rovers.  It’s up to you, the view was great in the morning from the open-air jeep but would probably be too hot on the way back.  We had to ride the closed Rover because we didn’t get a choice.  Happy tramping!

Hostel: Bagasbas Lighthouse, Daet, Camarines Norte, Bicol

The well-run Bagasbas Lighthouse

You know you are going to come across a good hostel, when someone from that destination recommends it. And such instincts were not wrong when it came to Bagasbas Lighthouse in Daet, Camarines Norte.

Trailer rooms, an interesting place to stay 🙂

The first thing grabs your attention when you walk in, is the really awesome trailer rooms. BL is the first place I’ve seen in the Philippines that has rooms like these. And they come at a really cheap price, too. 1750 pesos per room. A bit more expensive if they are fronting the beach. Each room is airconditioned, has a flat screen TV, refrigerator, cheap minibar, and bathroom with soap, shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste, and disposable slippers! They even have a programmable safe. They eventually plan to put dorm rooms, too, but these rooms are awesome for now.

Beside BL, they have Catherine’s, the hotel restaurant, which has really good Bicolano food. We noticed that not only do the guests eat there, but also the people from Daet, which is always good sign. This also guarantees that all the things on the menu are normally available. There is also free wi-fi here.

But the big thing in Daet is also the surfing, which BL can provide for you, too. 150 pesos per hour for the surfboard, 200 pesos per hour for the instructor, just make sure you book with the concierge ahead of time, because surfer dudes can be pretty laid back.

Anyway, they have a website at http://www.bagasbaslighthouse.com. They accept online bookings, which can be very important especially during the high seasons of Philippine summer in April and May, and the Christmas season in December.

They also have islands tours. BL can organize them for you, and there is also this guy, http://www.melvicbrinas.com, who has gotten good recommendations. Next time we’ll try to go to Calaguas island.

Just Daet!

PNR Train: Tutuban to Naga

The picture says it all!

Well finally did it, the Bicol Express train to Naga. So this is how it went. We took the LRT to the Bambang train station, which costs 15 pesos per person. Then we took a tricycle to the PNR train station, 50 pesos for two. (My tricycle prices are not always the cheapest rates necessarily, because I’m a horrible negotiatior.) Walked in and bought two sleeper tickets. Though you could reserve ahead by calling 3190041 loc. 122 or 3190048.

There is no dining car attached to the train yet, so you can buy stuff at the station canteen or you can go over to neighboring Tutuban mall, and get stuff there.

The train leaves every other day at EXACTLY 6:30 pm, it stops at Espana, 6:38 pm. It gets to the Pasay Road station at 6:56 pm and onwards to Alabang, 7:20 pm. We were supposed to arrive in Naga by 4:30 am the next day, but we actually arrived there at around 5:30 am.

There are two beds on the bottom and two on top.

So how was the train? It was pretty awesome. You get to lie flat, have a reading lamp, table, etc. Unfortunately they don’t provide any blankets or pillows, so we used our bags as pillows. There are curtains that can surround your whole bed which gives you a bubble of security. There are also reclinable seats at a cheaper price but sleeper trains are the thing! 🙂

The trains are very safe. There is a full-fledged policeman per train, and don’t worry, they’re non-threatening. 🙂 One fascinating thing is the need for some people to throw rocks at the train! This problem is unsolvable at the moment, but there are grills on all the windows, so don’t worry, it will be safe.

We got to Bicol around 5:30 in the morning, and there were tricycles at the gate to take you anywhere in Naga. We got into one with a group of other people who took us to the city bus terminal, where you can get a bus to Daet (110 pesos, no aircon with lots of stops!) or any other place in Bicol. Or you could go to SM Naga beside it where you can get minivans. Next time we’ll probably try to get minivans, but they were not yet leaving that early in the morning.

Bottom line, the train is awesome! We think this train is going to work. When this train reaches Legaspi, it will be even more awesome. Everyone interested should ride this train now, before it becomes too popular. PNR, please maintain this train well. 🙂

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P.S. The schedules and prices, since I rode the Bicol Express, may change. I try my best to update the article above and pictures below to make it current. But for even more accurate changes, please go to the Philippine National Railways official Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/pnrailways

pricelist

schedule

You can reserve ahead!

Hill Station: Baguio

I’ve started to become obsessed with hill stations recently and would like to visit a few. So it’s only apt that I write about the only hill station in the Philippines, Baguio City. What was only 20 Ibaloi houses at the the turn of the 20th century is now a big, sprawling metropolis.

In Cloud 9 at Mt. Cloud

I began my Baguio adventure by visiting Mt. Cloud Bookstore in Casa Vallejo on Upper Session Road. It seems that this is the current ground zero of the Baguio art scene. Mt. Cloud is well-stocked with the books of Filipino authors and has the potential to become an important bookstore as our literary scene begins to grow. It also has a restaurant beside it called Hill Station.

Oh My Gulay!

Another art scene favorite is Oh My Gulay! on top of the Azotea Bldg. also on Session Road. The owner of this place, Baguio legend Kidlat Tahimik, actually transferred parts of a huge boat to the top of his building and incorporated it into a vegetarian restaurant cum bar.

BenCab Museum

And if you still can’t get enough art, you can head out to Km. 6 of Asin Road and find the museum of BenCab. BenCab is short for Benedicto Cabrera, probably one of the most premiere artists of the country. He has funneled his money into this personal project which exhibits the best of Philippine modern and indigenous art. And if you want to buy some indigenous art for yourself, the museum is located in the heart of the Baguio woodcarving district, where you can get the real stuff for yourself, and you can even bargain.

Baguio has also another scene that is also taking a hold in the Philippines, and that’s the organic movement. Master’s Garden at the edge of Baguio, in neighboring La Trinidad serves vegetables from their very own gardens. Pat, the farmer/owner, also gives a short tour after, answering all your questions about organics vs. the evil chemical empire.

Bliss Cafe

There is also the Bliss Cafe in Hotel Elizabeth, a vegetarian restaurant with smacking good food.

And what would a hill station be without awesome coffeeshops.  A long time ago, I went to Kafee Klastch on City Camp Road, which I liked.  This time around, we went to nearby Cafe Will’s on M.H. del Pilar.  What makes Cafe Will totally awesome is that it has really excellent, free wi-fi connection (w/ no password necessary!) and even better, on Friday and Saturday nights, it is open for 24 hours!  The time I was there, I had really excellent hot chocolate, and I was even able to nap on a couch!  Lol.  But that was a Sunday night, so maybe I got away with it because it wasn’t so full.

One last thing, the reason I got obsessed with Baguio is because I read a book about Baguio, who’s name escapes me right now.  But now I’m reading The Great Hill Stations of Asia by Barbara Crossette which is just as inspiring.

Update: I forgot also to write about Pizza Volante on Session Road.  Cheap and tasty, this place will appeal to students and hungry backpackers alike.  I’ve also gone back to Mt. Cloud Bookstore and picked up a copy of A Sagada Reader.  It is an awesome book that chronicles the minutiae of Sagada life.

Outside of Metro Manila: Taal Lake and Tagaytay

Most people are interested in seeing the lake that has a volcano that has a lake that has a volcano. It is also the backdrop of Apocalypse Now when they played the Ride of the Valkyries. This is Taal lake. Of course there are many ways to get there, but if I was going to go there I would use this group.

Taal Lake Yacht Club

There is also Tagaytay which is overlooking the lake. Lots of good places to eat there. One of the best (and most expensive) would be Antonio’s. It used to be a reservation only place, I’m not so sure anymore. Another is Bag of Beans. Not as expensive but they do have a smashing breakfast. Another nice place with lots of places to eat is Cliff House in Tagaytay.

I don’t really know where to stay in Tagaytay. The Boutique seems to be recommended.

Other parts of the country: Donsol

Whale sharks is the reason people come to Donsol.  The supposed whale shark spotting season is from December to May.  Basically the times when it isn’t raining yet.  I went in the middle of May and still saw whale sharks.

I stayed in the Vitton resort, but all the others looked alike.

Do go on the firelfy tours at night.  You will see whorls of fireflies that you’ve never seen fireflies do before.  You’ll also see the night fishermen with their old school basket and torches.  Authentic cultures.

Don’t take the bus to Bicol.  I highly recommend you just fly to Legaspi via Cebu Pacific.  If you catch it on sale on the website, you can get it really cheap.  Eventually there will be a train to Bicol, but it looks like this will still take some time.

In Legaspi, you will be able to see the fabled Mayon volcano with it’s perfect cone.