My unforgettable adventure from Manila to Cebu brims with discoveries of a modern metropolis, colonial heritage, and natural spectacles both on land and underwater -all in a crescendo of admiration!
Big, bold, and boisterous, the bayside metropolis of Manila can’t be ignored. I spend three days in the sprawling capital of the Philippines on the northern island of Luzon. After touching down, I catch up right away with local friends over a freewheeling tour of the city, covering the Spanish-era fortifications of Intramuros, the world’s oldest Chinatown of Binondo, and the all-new National Museum of Natural History at Rizal Park. In the evenings, we retreat to Mall of Asia, a mammoth shopping complex with seaside dining overlooking fiery sunsets, or the gentrified enclave of Poblacion in Makati City for its hole-in-the-wall cafés and art spaces.
If you know where to look, this frenetic metropolis of 13 million people indeed has its charms. Nonetheless, I still longed for an escape to paradise. Fortunately, the Philippines -the world’s second-largest archipelago with more than 7,600 islands- has a wealth of natural wonders. Accessible by frequent hour-long flights from the capital, the slender-shaped southern island of Cebu makes for a quick yet rewarding detour from Manila.
I lift my window shade as the plane descends to my next destination. Below, the view reveals soothing shades of blue and green fringing a chain of sandy islands. Just what I need, I think, looking forward to immersing myself in tropical idyll.
After touching down at Mactan, the airport island off the coast of Cebu City, I make a beeline to historic monuments along its northern coast for a crash course in history. With the province being the country’s first colonial settlement, it is only fitting that my exploration starts at Magellan’s Shrine and Lapu-Lapu Monument. Here, an old mural illustrates the Battle of Mactan five centuries ago between the forces of a local chieftain and a Spanish expedition that eventually would become the first to circumnavigate the world.
While most visitors might be tempted to skip a heritage tour altogether, I spend an entire day discovering the nation’s colonial beginnings with my sharp-witted and knowledgeable guide Ka Bino Guerrero. “You will see the amalgamation of eras and cultures that create all the order and chaos,” the heritage advocate explained. “Who is the Filipino? You can only discover this when you visit the downtown area and its markets.”
While Mactan is linked by two bridges to mainland Cebu, we choose to ride the Topline ferry service, which, aside from offering a more scenic ride, conveniently bypasses street traffic, and takes us straight to downtown Cebu City in only half an hour. Ka Bino escorts me to the surviving architectural legacies of Spanish rule. Sitting amidst concrete shophouses and narrow streets filled with colorful jeepneys, centuries-old edifices built from coral stone endure, most notably the Magellan’s Cross Kiosk, Fort San Pedro, and Basilica Minore del Santo Niño, which houses a 16th-century wooden statue of the Child Jesus.
After exploring the city, I am ready to venture farther for exciting outdoor adventures. Early the following day, I depart by public bus for nearly four hours to the southwestern coast, which harbors natural gems, most especially hidden waterfalls. The most-visited among these photogenic cascades is Kawasan Falls in Badian, which plunges over a limestone overhang into a swimming pool, colored in iridescent turquoise by dissolved minerals. I could easily spend the entire day here, but I decide to up the thrill factor by joining a river adventure by Kawasan Canyoneering, one of the first canyoning operators in town.
An experienced guide accompanies me and two American backpackers on a motorbike ride and a downhill hike to the middle of a canyon covered in moss and ferns. Dappled sunlight filters through the leafy branches overhead. “This is unreal!” remarks Tim Park, one of my companions, as we scramble between slippery car-sized boulders and muster the courage to leap off waterfalls. Our hoots of excitement echo through the primeval gully. We slide down a rock wall backwards into the cold water, before allowing the current to carry us downriver. Our five-hour excursion culminates at the upper tiers of Kawasan, where we swing on ropes into the river and, as a daring finale, jump off a 12-meter-tall cliff!
Noting that the Philippines has one of the world’s most diverse marine life, I backtrack to Moalboal, north of Badian, to discover the underwater realm. Tourism here centers on Panagsama Beach along an anvil-shaped peninsula jutting out into Tañon Strait, the country’s largest protected seascape. Lined by more than 18,000 hectares of coral reef, this narrow body of water is an important corridor for endangered marine animals including whale sharks, dugongs, and 14 species of whales and dolphins.
After diving the technicolored coral walls of Pescador Island, we return by outrigger boat to Panagsama. Our group is led by freelance dive instructors Charlie Klehr and Caroline Sandstedt, a Swedish couple who has fallen in love with the scuba diving here and recently opened their dream project, an eco-friendly inland retreat called Tongo Hill Cottages. We back-roll along the drop-off, only 30 meters away from the shoreline, in search of Moalboal’s main draw: one of the world’s largest gathering of sardines.
The sun is out as we plunge into the water, but my surroundings suddenly grow dim. Above me, a curtain of silvery fish stream towards a dark cloud far ahead. I anxiously fin closer to decipher the ominous sight, which becomes a mesmerizing tornado, made up of millions of glimmering sardines that transforms into fluid shapes. This “sardine run,” which can stretch for 200 meters, is formed as a defensive measure against predators. “It’s one of the most special dives you will experience,” Charlie later told me, “I’ve even seen thresher sharks hunting the sardines!” While none of the deep-sea sharks with whip-like tails have been sighted, we observe the shape-shifting mass shatter into smaller groups, when attacked by larger fish or disturbed by a passing sea turtle.
Hypnotized by the spectacle, I do not want my sojourn to end just yet and make my way back to the crowded city. Now, I muse with a smile, this is a traffic jam I don’t mind getting stuck in.