We heard about Boracay when it closed down – the story of our lives!… A tiny island off the northwest tip of Panay Island in Western Visayas region of the Philippines with white sandy beaches and year-round temperatures of +27 ˚ -35 ˚ C (+81-95 ˚ F) it was THE place to be. Which was steadily confirmed over the years by numerous awards from travel publications and agencies, bringing in swarms of visitors (in 2017 more than 2 million tourists descended onto the 10.32 km2 of the island surface!). And now it was closed, as in their excitement over the newly-discovered “Promised Land”, the previous visitors managed to almost completely destroy said paradise.
In April 2018 the Philippine government decided to take matters in their hands and announced a 6-month tourist ban, during which the island would undergo major cleanup and renovations – from plucking out every hotel and hostel not meeting basic sanitary and engineering requirements, to putting in an island-wide sewerage system, which up to that time did not exist. As is quite often the case with paradises, before 2018 Boracay had a dark (and smelly) underbelly – all sewage was simply pumped out into the ocean at Bulabog Beach on the eastern side of the island.
The tourist ban was a temporary thing, though, and was expected to last 6 months. We quickly did the math – technically, the island should be open in October, 2 months before our trip – and we were impatiently watching the clock. Rumours were, that upon re-opening, the island will have limited visitation capacity, and only those with pre-booked accommodation would be allowed in. This contradicted our nomadic travel rules, but we were ready to bend them for the white beaches just this one time…
On the morning of Christmas Eve we set off for the airport, and having bravely queued for over an hour to the accompaniment of loud wailings of a seriously pissed European couple with huge golf bags, standing right behind us, we checked in to our flight to Caticlan, Boracay. The departures lounge surprised us with absolute lack of alcohol. Not that we planned to reach the intoxication levels of the European golfers we just had a dubious pleasure to spend the last hour with (this would not have been possible in the short period of time before the flight anyway!), but still… This set me thinking about alcohol and religions. Usually, Catholicism and alcohol go very well together (look at Bavaria, Ireland and Poland!), but apparently not in the Philippines… Without the possibility of starting the Christmas celebrations with a glass of prosecco, we had nothing to do apart from people watching. As always, the airport did not disappoint! A petite woman in a seat in front of us was masterfully gluing on fake eye-lashes with one hand (the other one was holding a compact mirror the size of a Euro coin), while having an animated conversation on a cell phone seemingly glued between her ear and shoulder. Now, this is a skill!!! I would not be able to do this with both hands and a proper mirror, even if my life depended on it…
The flight was on time, and after a quick and easy 1 hour, we landed in Caticlan’s Godofredo P. Ramos Airport! For a handy price of 700 pesos (~12 Euros) a smiley girl at the airport arrivals desk organized a bus, a speed boat and another bus right to the doorstep of our far-sightedly booked hotel on the island. For the record – the booking was checked twice (!) by official-looking guys before we were allowed on the 1st bus.
All connections worked smoothly, and (unlike in most other places in Asia) were punctual. In less than an hour, with not much waiting around, we were on Boracay!
A quick ride from the boat pier took us to the hotel, conveniently located right in the middle of the island down the “Boracay Highway” (official name of the main street). The central drag was as ugly and nondescript as they generally get everywhere in Asia, where shops, shacks, hotels, cacophony of noises and smells and what else, densely covers every square inch of the roadside surface. Take a quick step aside to either side of the road, however, and you find yourself on a different planet – white beaches, palm trees, hammocks and complete serenity. We first experienced this paradox on Koh Lanta in Thailand, and it was to be repeated predictably on every single island in South-East Asia. The Boracay’s only difference from this classic scenario was that every 3rd place along the main drag was boarded up, or bulldozed down. These must have been the un-sanitary and un-licensed establishments. The pavement (sheer presence of which was a surprise) was dug up for putting sewage pipes in, and the tiles were still being put together. The construction workers and authorities sure have been busy during the 6 months of island’s closure, but the job was nowhere near done…
We booked a room in Lime Hotel Boracay, attracted by the pool, good reviews and the hotel’s presence on the list of officially approved venues to operate on the island after re-opening. The list had 365 hotels (compared to at least triple the ## before closure), and as we experienced first-hand, the rules and limitations were being observed. Considering that only 6,400 visitors were allowed to enter Boracay per day, you would want to do your homework, book a room in advance, and check if the hotel of your choice is on the official list (ideally before making said booking…) The hotel did not disappoint – it was clean, modern, made of sustainable materials (additional karma points!), with a chilled roof-top pool, nice rooms, and only a 5-min walk from the famous White Beach.
The White Beach was, indeed, breath-taking! 4 km long (the length of the whole island is 7 km), it did, indeed, boast white powder sands and clear blue waters. It was fantastic, but by far not deserted, though – with the allowed 6,400 daily visitors it looked quite overcrowded. I don’t want to think what the place was like when daily tourist numbers reached 19,000 people before the closure!… 6,000 people were barely bearable (pardon the pun). Three times as much – probably not so much…
The majority of tourists we spotted over the next 2 days we stayed on the island, were Asian, armed with cameras, phones and tablets for taking photos of everything around, and umbrellas to hide from the sun. The rest were either well-behaved families of Scandinavian or American original or a random assortment of piss-heads from all over the world. Somehow, we gravitated towards the latter… Or, maybe, they gravitated towards us… Having landed for a cold drink and some people watching at a welcoming bar by the beach, we met up with two childhood friends from Ireland, now conveniently residing on the opposite sides of the world (one moved as far as Australia, while the other one stayed home), who re-united for the holidays on Boracay, and seemed to have been celebrating this with zeal ever since they set foot on the island. They were travelling in the company of a really hot-looking English girl from the Midlands, who had a purely platonic friendship with the two, having convinced them about her lesbian inclinations. She also later shared that she was definitely into guys (just not the two brave souls she was travelling with) and pregnant, which did not stop her from drinking and partying… The trio was definitely an interesting group, and we bumped into them everywhere we went. Brave Nic even went partying with them till 4 in the morning one night. I very considerately stayed put.
Boracay had great coffee everywhere – a proper Italian espresso was to be had almost in every bar, and we even managed to find a wine bar to spend evenings at! In addition to the regular assortment of local beers and cocktails, the beach bar at The Victory Divers proudly carried 3-liter bottles of red and presumably Italian wine labelled “Rotwein”. The contents were drinkable and we did not ask any questions. Victor, the Barman, was friendly and welcoming, and other patrons did not disappoint – from a heavily pissed elderly guy from Ingolstadt near Munich, to a huge bloke from Hong Kong on a short vacation with his tiny wife tattooed from head to toe – everybody was friendly, mildly intoxicated (the Ingolstadt guy took the intoxication to the upper level of social, so wasn’t overly coherent most of the times), and absolutely relaxed. On the first night Victor confessed that the “Rotwine” bottle he opened for me was the bar’s one and only, and promised to keep it for me for the next days. The promise was kept, and after 3 evenings, the bar did not carry any more red wine.
The 1st day on Boracay we did absolutely nothing, alternating between walking down the beach and cooling ourselves in the hotel pool (which had a really cool leaf-shaped lounger inside (!) the shallow part of the pool – fantastic idea!), and did our best to let the vacation mode set it.
The views and sunsets definitely helped. Boracay had fantastic, mindbogglingly beautiful and absolutely amazing sunsets!
By the end of the day, the colors of the surrounding world intensified, not being burned down by the bright midday heat, the sun would go down to the horizon and the shadows from the palm trees would give the beach a mysterious and fairy-tale look. Within minutes, the skies would burn bright orange and red with the last rays of the sun sinking in the waters of the Tablas Straight. But not before highlighting the clouds with all shades of red, pink and yellow and then leaving them hanging like huge bright black puffs on the backdrop of unbelievably yellow sky over the soon-to-be darkened waters. Boracay was definitely worth the trip – if only for the sunsets!!!
On the 2nd day we set off exploring the island. We opted for not renting a scooter and relying our own two feet, as the island really was not that big. It worked. We crossed over from the White Beach to the other side of the island, the former “dark underbelly” of the Paradise. You could still see the remnants of the pipes that used to happily pump out sewage away from the watchful eyes of the tourists, but they were no longer in use. A big brand-new sewage cleaning plant was constructed in the center of the island, and seemed to be in full operation.
The clean-up efforts were very visible on the other side of the island – all the buildings that crawled in too close to the waterfront were simply cut almost in half, simply chopping away the “illegal” part, to leave the sands and beaches available to all. It was now up to the owners of the buildings to decide whether to give them a face-lift and figure out how to do without the chopped-off bits, or bulldoze them completely. Judging by the fact that at the time of our visit most of them remained in the “chopped-off” stated, the owners were still undecided…
On recommendation of our Irish-Australian friends, we had tacos in a lovely Mexican place on the way back to our side of the island (not too logical, eating Mexican food half across the world from its place of origin, but the tacos were fantastic!), enjoyed one more swim in the hotel pool, admired one more amazing Boracay sunset and spend the rest of the evening with Victor the Barman, happily finishing his supplies of “Rotwein”.
The end of the year was closing in on us, and we were intent to make it to Siquijor, about 600 km South from Boracay for the New Year festivities. There were no direct flights or boats, so we had to first make it to Cebu, the 5th biggest city in the Philippines, and from there figure out the rest of the route. The trip back to Caticlan was arranged – bus, boat and another bus, and an Air Asia flight was booked to take us South to Cebu. We were positive we’ll sort out the rest on the way!