Weekly Photo Challenge: Descent

Rappelling down a boulder with a rope.  The only caving "convenience" on offer during the whole caving experience.

Rappelling down a boulder with a rope. The only caving “convenience” on offer during the whole caving experience.

In the northern part of Luzon island in the Philippines is Sagada in the Mountain province. The town attracts a small amount of adventure tourism, including caving.   I had never done anything like it before. We were inside an underground cave for approximately 2 hours and descended about 200 metres.  What made this cave experience unlike any other was that it was left completely natural inside. No gravel path ways, signs, concrete steps or taped music.  And no lighting….save a kerosene lamp.  Just slippery limestone and marble pathways that needed bare feet to travel safely, lots of bats, even more bat shit, and the darkness!  Truly a descent into the unknown.  For the full story see my earlier post, Caving in Sagada.


See other entries for this weeks photo challenge here.




A Last Look Around


I tried very hard to get us all away for Memorial Day weekend.  But there were just too many obstacles and in retrospect, although it was boring being stuck in the apartment, staying home really turned out to be the responsible thing to do.  But I wanted to take one more trip to see this country that is so much more than Manila, but so hard for us to schedule time to explore.  There’s so much I haven’t seen and wanted to:  Batanes, Bagio, Bohol… and the questions were:  With one more trip possibility left where would we go? Did we want to try to cross off from the wish list, or did we want to revisit something that we loved?  This question made me stop and think about all the wonderful opportunities that I’ve had over the past two years to explore the Philippines, but that recap really is a post for another day.  The bottom line is I wanted to be out in the Filipino countryside, away from the city, away from tourist traps and all the hyperbole surrounding them.  I really just wanted to go for a walk somewhere pretty.

Going for a walk in the Philippines isn’t always that easy.  In Manila I haven’t enjoyed walking city blocks.  The lights are out on every other corner, and even when they work the drivers pay no attention to pedestrian rights.  You take your life in your hands every time you cross the street, which is not very relaxing to say the least.

We’ve had amazing hiking adventures here…some of my best memories.  But its not easy… not really a simple walk in the countryside…. and has usually involved a guide. Its hard to be a female foreigner walking around in small rural villages.  I end up feeling either vulnerable or voyeuristic.  But there was one place that I remember feeling very comfortable walking around and we never got to explore nearly enough – a pretty coastal stretch on Negros, near Dumaguete, where I was a Hammock Potato six months ago.  Now that was real countryside and walking territory without obstacles or issues, with a beautiful view and peace and quiet.  So it was decided that our last look around would be the familiar – Dumaguete and its peaceful cliffs and a little hammock swinging for good measure.  Here are some sights of the Filipino countryside that I will really miss.  I doubt we will have a chance to see them again:

Filipino Countryside

Starting off along the low grassy cliffs

Past thorny footpaths that reminded us of Devon hedgerows

Past thorny footpaths that reminded us of Devon hedgerows

Through tall, sunburnt grasses mixed with fragrant sage-like, woody shrubs.

Through tall, sunburnt grasses mixed with fragrant sage-like, woody shrubs.

Past spiky "house plants" gone mad!

Past spiky “house plants” gone mad

With bursts of colour from brilliant Acaia-type trees

and bursts of colour from brilliant Acaia-type trees.

Pretty white bushes decorated the scene

Pretty white bushes decorated the scene

and made a tasty lunch for the tethered cows.

and made a tasty lunch for the tethered cows

Who take their post-lunch siesta in the same spot every day (those are cow craters).

who take their post-lunch siesta in the same spot every day (those are cow craters).

Trees with leaves like clouds frame the sky

Trees with leaves like clouds frame the sky

 and in the distance the mountains remind us that that this pastoral scene eventually meets the jungle

and in the distance the mountains remind us that that this pastoral scene eventually meets the jungle

Hiking Pico de Loro

Pico de Loro Michelle and I hadn’t been hiking since The West Highland Way in Scotland. And prior to that The Banaue Rice Terraces  and Pinatubo Volcano were our last Filipino hiking experiences at least a year ago.  As we are both leaving the Philippines this summer, we wanted to get at least another one in before we leave.  We’d already missed the cooler months of December through March, and the only non-weekend day remaining on the calendar before departure was May 1…..so May 1 it was..hot or not!

Its amazing how having a hiking goal helps kick me into gear in the gym.  I went from dragging myself down there once a week on a Sunday to going 4-5 times/week on a mission.  (Note to self:  How about always having a hike planned?  It should be easy in Nepal!)

Pico de Loro

Pico de Loro

Pico de Loro is located in Ternate, in Cavite province, about a 2 hour drive from Manila. A friend had recommended to Michelle as an accessible day trip, not too difficult, on a well-marked trail, and I think that’s a pretty good summary of the hike.  As with all hikes here, its an up and down event (rather than cross-country).  I heard different times reported on how long it would take.  For us it was 7 hours roundtrip (which would probably would have been 6 hours if I hadn’t kept making us stop!)  Alot of the hiking is a more gradual climb, although there is a steep hour or so in the middle.  I found this exhausting in the heat as I couldn’t handle hiking sticks and a water bottle at the same time. ( I can’t believe I still don’t own a hydration system of some description.)  In general, I found the heat unbearable and I remember how exhausting Pinatubo was for just that reason.  There were times when I had to remind myself how great it was to be out of the city – and it really was….  Manila is not the Philippines, but it is so easy to forget sometimes.

Pico de Loro

May 1 is a Filipino holiday and I understand Pico de Loro is a popular hiking destination for college kids.  It was lucky we went as early as we did as the groups started to arrive in throngs after us.  At first I was taken aback how many kids were coming from behind, but they were the nicest people.  One group that over took us (because of my huffing and puffing) was kind enough to wait at a split in the path to make sure we took the right route.  And when I took a well earned break on the main ridge, they kindly offered to share all their food with me.  Really nice kids.  Many of them were staying the night and little camp sites starting going up all around.  While I waited for the others to come back from their attempt to ascend the beak, I watched a marriage proposal on a nearby rock.  Very cute.

They do need learn the hiker’s mantra that I was taught though:  take nothing, and leave nothing behind.  It was pretty clean up there, not too much litter, but it wasn’t litter free either.  And when I saw the piles and piles of plastic garbage at base camp that had been collected from a very recent clean up campaign, I understood how bad it could really get. I’m glad I didn’t get to see that.

The trail is marked as easy, and it is really – except for the heat.  Especially by Filipino standards where trails can involve climbing and ropes.  The beak itself I did not attempt, as rope climbing is not for me, but braver souls than me made it all the way to the top.  An accessible day hike from Manila.  Best done with an early start, December-February on a non-holiday weekday for a little more peace and solitude…


Donsol Whale Shark Adventure

Mount Mayon, Legaspi

Mount Mayon taken from the airport arrival in Legaspi. Hello big guy!

We set off a couple of weeks ago to Legaspi, about an hour flight away from Manila and home to the very visible, omnipresent Mount Mayon, an active volcano.  I was taking a group of 40+ people to see the gentle, giant whale sharks that pass through the Philippines at this time of year.  But I’m starting this post with Mount Mayon as its the first and last thing you see in Legaspi.  And it watched us all day as we hunted for the whales.  Its renowned for its perfect cone shape, and has erupted quite often in recent years.  This was the best picture I took as other days the clouds obscured the summit.

About an hour ride away from Legaspi, is the town of Donsol, where we stayed at the Vitton Resort.  There’s no much there except for a small town, and a resort built around the tourism from the Whales.  After a really early start, we arrived at the resort around 11am and headed out immediately for the first watch of the day.  Everyone was put in groups of about six on to traditional filipino bancas.  I was quite surprised how large and comfortable they were compared to other bancas I’ve been on, and there was plenty of room for six Western-sized passengers.  Plus we had a crew of four or five:  a captain, a spotter, a Butanding Interaction Officer (official tourist guide, Butanding being the filipino word for Whale Shark) and one or two lifeguards depending on the composition of the group.    The BIO guy gave everyone the swimming protocol, which involved listening to him, reacting promptly and avoiding the uncovered rudder underwater.  The spotter’s job was to spot the whales, although it was my impression they spent a lot of time watching each other too.  There was some secret signaling system where one spotter would see the shadow of a shark and all the other boats would be alert and head over, full speed, to that location.

Spotting Whale Sharks

Boatman and spotter in action

On that first day it didn’t happen very often.  We were out at sea for three hours, just puttering up and down the coast, watching another 25 boats doing the same thing.  We had a potential sighting twice, but the boats scared the shark away.  After a while, my eyelids started to get very heavy, and along with the 4.45am start, and the gentle putt-putt-putt of the engine, my eyes closed and I drifted into a nap.  So not much happened, but it was relaxing, good to be away from Manila and out at sea.

The next day I was primed for a really early start, as with nature, an early start is always best, right?  Well, not so here.  The word from the last few days had been that the later departures were seeing better sightings, and the whales were affected by other forces such as tides and the weather.  So, our departure was scheduled for 10.30am, and true to the recent pattern, the day was much more active.  After only half an hour the sightings began and ran continuously for the remainder of the three hours we were at sea.  A call would go out and all the boats would race over to the sighting:

Whale Shark Spotting

Shark alert! Everyone race over!


It got pretty congested at times.  I saw more than one game of chicken, as boats vied for maneuvering space in such close quarters.

Spotting Whale Sharks

Sometimes the boats got a little too close for comfort

Once the call had gone out for a sighting, the boatman put the engine on its highest speed and, as we raced over, our group had to get ready to jump in the sea.  On went the snorkeling gear and flippers, and at the BIO’s call, we settled on the side of the boat ready to jump in:

Whale Sharks

On standby to jump in the water

Then the BIO guy gives the signal to jump!  The boat is still moving and you hit the water running so to speak.  The water was quite choppy and the visibility was limited, because of the high concentration of plankton in the water that attracts them to the area.  I was still trying to figure out which way to go when one the lifeguards grabbed me by the arm, pointing ahead and telling me to swim hard.  Just as I got my face in the water, I saw it.  I huge,spotted mass, swimming a few feet underneath him.  I was able to keep up with him for about 30 seconds before he out swam me and disappeared into the cloudy water.  Thanks to him, I was the first person to see a whale from our boat.

It was an amazing day, very active and a little dangerous.  I could see the safety efforts were in place, but it was all too easy to get hit by a beam or someone else’s boat.  It was the very definition of organized chaos.  Here’s a little video that captures the sheer excitement/coordination/and chaos of it all:

So what’s all the fuss about?  I didn’t have an underwater camera, nor the skills to capture what I saw while I was working so hard at staying up with the whale.  But from others pictures on the internet, this most closely represents what it looks like when you’re out there:


Seeing the huge, spotted mass in the cloudy water


I’m also including this heavily photoshopped image from a tourist site somewhere, as it gives a good impression of the animals size in relation to a man.


I highly recommend the experience, but its not a passive activity.  You are beat by the end of the day!  The Butanding Tourist Office is a laudable attempt to put controls in place for both the whales welfare and the tourist’s safety.  I never felt mobbed or mistreated and we weren’t treated like cattle.  However, some of their own rules were being broken regarding the number of boats per whale because sightings have gone down in recent years, and I worry that so many boats make the experience less safe for us, less attractive for the whales, and potentially unsustainable if sightings continue to drop because of other environmental challenges.  But at least some effort is being made to balance the needs of man and nature.  An amazing weekend.

Siquijor: A Review of Coco Grove Beach Resort


Finally, a short word about where we stayed in Siquijor.  We had booked our accommodation back in February when I first learnt my family was coming for Christmas, and we managed reservations from the last few rooms available. It had been recommended to me by friends as one of their favorite places in the Philippines and, as a result, I had high expectations. But I was still pleasantly surprised when we arrived. It was very, very pretty. And large.


The resort is spread out along almost 2kms of beach, with two restaurants, two swimming pools and and cottages widely spaced in different settings. I loved the restaurant tables, where you could get a table in a little private hut, far away from others. Everything was well cared for and the service was good. The clientele was from all over the world, but there was a high percentage of families from Europe. This was reflected in the menu, which offered a lot of European dishes with potatoes, not rice unless you asked for it, and European service standards. Additionally, there were many customs and typical Filipino protocols that weren’t followed either. If you haven’t lived in Manila, you wouldn’t notice their absence, but we did. Staff were trained quite differently. The Filipino standard Mamsir form of address was replaced with first names only, which they took the time to learn. Starters were brought out as a first course, not along with or even after the entrée, a common practice here. Entrees came out at the same time, so everyone ate together, rather than just delivering the dishes as they were prepared in the kitchen. Even the plate clearing was handled differently. Giving good service in a Filipino restaurant means clearing empty plates away as quickly as possible. This can be awkward to Westerners who don’t like their plates cleared so quickly, leaving the other diner eating alone. Here plates were cleared when everyone had finished.  A small detail that makes a big difference to Western manners.


We quickly learnt that the way to get efficient service in the restaurant was to preorder your meal. If you go down to the restaurant earlier in the day and let them know where you would like to sit (the best beach tables were booked a couple of days in advance) and what you would like to eat, the food arrived hot and prompt. If you didn’t, you went straight to the back of the line as everyone else pre-orders, every meal, every day.

In the main, the resort did everything very well, and it was a pleasure to be there. At Christmas, it was full with families – the noisiest of guests – but we rarely really felt their presence. You could walk on the beach or through the grounds, see others but feel enough personal space that they never took away from the relaxing experience.  The pool was probably the only place I sometimes felt other people’s presence intruding on mine, but the pool was an optional space. So if you felt crowded, you could just walk away.  There were plenty of quieter spots that were comfortable with pretty views.  We did have to fight the German’s tendency to reserve every pool chair with their towel, holding the chair for hours for their exclusive use. Fortunately none of us really wanted to hang out around the pool too long anyway.

Coco Grove was that rare find in the Philippines so far… an affordable resort, with excellent service that took advantage of its beautiful location. I don’t think we’ll have a chance to return, but it would be a wonderful opportunity to go again.


Beautiful Siquijor

I really liked Siquijor. It was small enough to miss the traffic, noise, congestion and sprawl of a larger island. But large enough to explore, with lots to see and do. We only got to see a corner of it, but if I had time, I would love to go back. Paul and Nikki managed to have their own adventures, exploring the town and a Mangrove swamp. Paul took some fabulous pictures which I’ve included in other Siquijor posts, but many didn’t really have a place in any of my stories. Here’s a few more that he took that I loved, and that really help capture the spirit and feel of the place. They all look better when you click and enlarge them. Enjoy!

Mangrove Swamp Siquijor

Bridge across Mangrove Swamp, Siquijor

Small Boy on Motorbike

Old Filipino Kitchen

Not a kitchen restaurant I’ve eaten from (I hope)

Filipino Market Stall

Filipino Market Stall

Filipino Wet Market

Typical Filipino Covered Market. This one’s in Siquijor but looks like so many others I’ve visited

Filipino Fruit Market

Whats’s for sale today in the market

Dried Fish in Siquijor Market

Dried Fish in Siquijor Market

Siquijor streets

Just hanging out in Siquijor

Siiquijor boat at sunset

Siiquijor boat at sunset

People Watching in Dumaguete

Dumaguete was only on our schedule as a point of arrival and departure at the airport. It was supposed to be a short drive from the dock over to the airport and back to Manila for a couple days of touring Taal and perhaps some more shopping before Paul and Nikki had to leave. However, we woke up on our last scheduled morning to a tropical depression and a canceled ferry. The pages of the newspapers the next day showed people in the sea with life jackets being rescued from another ferry that chose to sail Our canceled ferry meant that we would miss our flight and the rest of the day was spent calling, faxing and emailing the airline to try and solve the problem of rebooking our flights. It was a problem that needed constant feeding. Philippine Airlines were not cooperative, and we very grateful to have a travel agent to assist us. We never really got to enjoy our extra day at the resort because of the stream of airline demands and Manila arrangements needed canceling too.

The next day we took the first ferry out, which meant an unscheduled afternoon and night in Dumaguete. The short drive from the port to the hotel was enough to make sure I wasn’t too excited about going out to explore. I’d been around enough small, poor towns here to feel uncomfortable and almost voyageristic walking around. There’s usually nowhere to really eat, drink or hang out and you often get mobbed by beggars or small children. But I decided to venture out with Nikki and Paul anyway, thinking I could just turn back. But Dumaguete was a small, college town worth a look around.

Dumaguete Street

Nikki and I let loose in Dumaguete

Shopping in Dumaguete

I stumbled upon a fabric store. Perfect timing to buy some fabric for new tablecloths

We drew a circular route down the main street, and then back along the tree lined coast road to the Mexican restaurant where we planned to eat that evening. Latham and Robert joined us at our last destination and we watched the world go by for 2-3hrs, through the rush hour traffic along the coast, and on into the early night. It was fun looking at all the different passengers on the tricycles, trucks, cars and bikes that paraded by. School kids, people coming back from work, college kids, families, goats and chickens. Paul sat and clicked away at the procession and we drank margaritas and ate funky nachos. After the evening traffic died down, the street vendors came out and a makeshift street restaurant just materialized down by the water. It was a little bit of unscheduled fun salvaged from our disrupted plans and I was grateful for it. Sometimes its nice to have something unexpected in the mix.

Dumaguete Traffic

Watching the tricycle traffic in Dumaguete

Dumaguete Traffic

Family after family on bikes heading home

Dumaguete Tricycle

Every tricycle told a different story. So fun to watch everyone commuting back and forth

Dumaguete Tricycle

Young passenger waiting for Dad to come back

Kids on a bike in Dumaguete Traffic

As always, kids are often the best subjects

Dumaguete Roxas Blvd at Night

We watched so long the traffic subsided and darkness started to fall, with a little peace returning to the coast

Roxas Blvd Dumaguete

Seaward side of the coastal road. Boats lined up on the beach reminded us that island life wasn’t far away

Apo Island: Adventures with Turtles

Apo Island is a small island destination about 1.5hrs away from Siquijor by boat. We had originally tried to book the boat privately to take us over on our anniversary as a way of marking the day and making it extra special for everyone. With our own boat the idea was that we could stop somewhere else along the way, or have a picnic lunch in a quiet cove somewhere. We really didn’t know what to expect on Apo and it seemed like a way to avoid what could be another one of those nightmarish vendor-infected scenarios.  There’s never anyway of telling in advance.  But hiring the boat didn’t seem to offer us any advantage.  There was probably a way to do make the way you wanted it, but without inside help, I gave up.

So we took the group boat, which was fine.  Its always annoying to wait for (really) latecomers who can’t get themselves out of bed in the morning, but the boat was clean and comfortable, and not too crowded.  We sat on the back deck watching the waves and water spray up on to the deck.

Boat to Apo Island

Beautiful wave sprays as we headed out

About an hour later, the island came into view and our boat slowly manouvered on to the beach.

Approaching Apo Island

Apo island coming closer

Boat to Apo Island

Our boat docked on the Apo Island beach


Apo island has a small, attractive resort right on the beach. It would be a lovely place to stay and a way to enjoy the peace of the island after the daily boat (us) has left. Maybe next time….

Apo Island Resort

Upon arrival everyone has to pay a small environmental fee. Hopefully this is going toward the job of preserving the reef and beaches. It was certainly kept unspoilt. It actually could have used a little development, though, to help protect the shoreline and the visitors. A small wooden dock extending into the water a little would have made entry across the spiky coral much easier. But Apo is still very pristine and low key. I would never have picked that particular shallow, coral beach covered in algae and rock pools to enter into the water and explore.  But they were right….it was totally worth it.

Nikki held back a little.  She was the last in the water, but the first to see a turtle.  I wish I had been there to witness it.  As she worked on her resolve to enter the water, a turtle head poked out of the water to get air.  I can only imagine the scream!  To her credit she got in anyway, and we all managed to see and swim with the turtles.  I didn’t see one for a good 10 minutes, then Latham started signalling me to turnaround.  I turned, expecting to see something the size of a large tortoise, but no, it was the size of a small kitchen table, swimming around just a foot or two away.  It was kind of disturbing that something so large was so near and I had only just spotted it.


Turtle at Apo Island

Smaller, but beautifully coloured turtle

Turtle at Apo Island

My first turtle…and it was a big one!

Sea snake at Apo Island

Yes. It is what you think it is….don’t tell Nikki!

The Apo Island snorkeling beach.

The Apo Island snorkeling beach.

Snorkeling in Apo Island

Not exactly a beach I would choose to snorkel at…and yet it was great Turtle territory

After about an hour or so, we had had our fill and headed over to the resort for lunch.  We could hear the drummers playing from a distance, our entertainment for the meal.  On the way back across the beach, we passed this excellent Christmas tree, that is made from fallen, dried palm fronds, driftwood, and discarded tourist gear.  Loved it!

Filipino Christmas Tree

Drummers on Apo Island

Drummers entertain while we enjoyed our beach lunch

Apo island was a great location, and still undeveloped enough that everything was pleasant and friendly. I sure it will become more popular in coming years and I hope that they continue to care for their environment as well as they do now. Responsible tourism attracts responsible tourists. And I got to swim with turtles…..!