There is a pocket on the western side of the Filipino island of Cebu called Moalboal. It is far from the biggest tourist destination in the Philippines, but a number of wayward backpackers float in and out for the schools of sardines, the pleasant drift dives along Pescado Island, the sea turtles and the breezy rooftop terrace and hammocks off of the top floor of the ever-popular Moalboal Backpackers’ Lodge.
After an exciting few days up north on Malapascua Island – where I got to dive with sharks!! – a couple travel buddies and I migrated south to Moalboal, on the west side of Cebu Island. One traveling companion had done her diving certification there a few months earlier and was keen to return, which was a pretty good endorsement in and of itself. After a ten hour journey via Cebu city we emerged in our next paradise.
Note to the wise: many people seem to travel between Malapascua and Moalboal. This IS do-able, but be prepared for a long day.
How to get from Malapascua Island to Moalboal:
- Boat from Malapascua Island to Maya Port. About 45 minutes, 100 pesos + 20 pesos if it is low tide
- Bus from Maya Port to Cebu City North Bus Terminal. About 4.5-6 hours, 165-180 pesos
- Taxi from the North Bus Terminal to the South Bus Terminal. About 45 minutes (depending on traffic) and 100 pesos
- Bus from Cebu City South Terminal to Moalboal. About 2-3 hours and 110-130 pesos
- Trike from Moalboal bus stop to Moalboal town. About 15 minutes and 30 pesos
Total time: It took us 10 hours, but we started at 1 pm and hit a lot of traffic. We also ended up on non-AC busses, which stop more often (and are generally less comfy – especially for a difference of about 10 pesos, or 25 cents). If you are doing the trip in reverse be aware that the last boat to Malapascua leaves at some point between 4 and 6 pm. We heard different things from different people – but when we went there we took a boat around 5 pm. In either direction we never had to wait more than 30 minutes for a bus, and this seems pretty normal.
The game of Pinoy bus bobbles
One of the somewhat old fashioned but charming aspects of travel in the Philippines is the bus ticketing system. The busses run regularly, have good service to just about anywhere you might want to go, and actually hold together better than those of a lot of other countries (I’m looking at you, Montenegro and your disappearing bus doors).
The system is pretty straight forward to get anywhere. You walk around the bus station repeating the place you want to go. People will point you in various directions to various busses, and eventually one will probably be headed the right way. At this point I would normally say hi to the bus attendant (aka the guy who would later take my money), drop my bag in the bus’s hold as insurance that they’ll wait for me, then go to grab some baked goods, water for the road and maybe visit the comfort room.
The busses seem to leave on time (seriously!), so I would return just a few minutes before departure to grab a seat. The front ones fill up quickly and are squished, and the back ones will send you flying to the ceiling when you hit a bump, so the best spots are in the middle. I usually ended up in the back despite this.
Once you’re on the way the attendant will come around and ask where you’re going. He will then punch a bunch of holes into a little piece of paper that looks like old newsprint and hand it to you. Then he’ll walk away.
This is good, because if you haven’t seen one of these tickets before it might take you a few minutes to decode it. But once you get the hang of it you can do it in seconds. Doesn’t really matter either way, since he won’t come back to collect your money for at least half an hour.
Never expect the same trip to cost you the same amount twice. But don’t worry, it only varies by a couple of pesos (a few cents), and seems to be part of the game. Eventually he will return to collect your money. If you only have larger bills you might have to wait another half hour for change, or you might not get it at all, though a friendly reminder will usually produce the correct change immediately, along with a toothy smile.
Being (probably) the only white person on the bus, the attendant will correctly assume you are a total moron and have no idea when or where to get off. So when your stop comes up you will be signalled and promptly deposited roadside. It is all very sociable and efficient.
**Unless you’re in Manila. Then all of the above is null and void.
Into Moalboal and into the Sea
Moalboal is a single strip about 3 km from the main road where the big, yellow Ceres bus deposits its Cebu cargo. We hopped into one of the ubiquitous Filipino tricycles (sort of a circus ride meshed with a tuk-tuk) and arrived in the little diving enclave at 11 pm to promptly pass out. The next morning brought with it breakfast pizza on the beach and our first daylight glimpse of our new surroundings.
Moalboal may be lacking a decent strip of beach, but that just adds to the slightly angular nature of the town. It is a double sided coin – since there is no sand it means you can step into the water and float right over to the coral reef. We camped out at Andi’s Talisay Bar and Coffee Shop where you can pull up a beanbag chair, order an iced latte and then hop into the water and paddle alongside sea turtles. For real – I did exactly this and it was magical and totally compensated for the fact that I have been carrying my own snorkel and mask with me for the duration of this trip.
There are a number of dive shops on the water-side of the (only) street in Moalboal. Luckily, a set of frugal backpackers had done the dirty work for us the day before, going shop to shop for a price comparison. In the end we saddled up to Cebu Dive Centre and discovered nearly everyone else at our guesthouse had made the same decision.
I got fitted for my diving kit and decided on two fun dives for the next morning: Pescado Island and House Reef. The equipment at Cebu Dive Centre was in good shape, and the women working the bar/shop were tons of fun as well. I’d highly recommend these guys if you’re headed to Moalboal for some underwater fun.
The drift dive took us from the south end to the north end of nearby Pescado Island. Along the way we spotted a number of cool critters: a nudibranch, parrotfish, trumpetfish and some cleaner shrimp dancing in a sponge. We even saw a frogfish, which really takes an expert eye to spot. Luckily our dive master had the requisite frogfish-spotting vision. Check this guy out:
The second dive was a wall dive that boasts ‘schools of sardines so dense they block out the light from above.’ I was skeptical, and despite a really cool dive that included lots of pipefish (which are basically uncurled seahorses) I began to get a little disappointed as we rounded back to our starting point and had yet to spot a solitary sardine.
And then out of the (literal) blue they appeared! The dive master hardly needed to alert us – I think I could have probably still sensed them there had I been diving blind. We weren’t so deep, so they were right above us, and at a couple points we were even swimming within the masses. A seriously memorable dive.
Freshwater falls and sugary drinks
We did some non-diving activities around Moalboal as well. On the first day we headed up to Kawasan Falls – a swimming-pool blue waterfall tucked a short walk into the forest. The showering falls were also literally a shower for us, as the guesthouse had a water failure that morning, leaving us about as smelly as you would expect after a day and a half on busses & unbathed in the humid tropics.
We paddled around for some time before my travel buddy Dave (blogging over at Far-Flung) pointed out that we could do some pretty basic rock-climbing of sorts in the cavernous area behind the crashing opal sheets. This was endlessly entertaining to me, since I have been missing the climbing wall at home. We couldn’t get so high, but just practicing grips was enough for me – plus falling into the water was a lot nicer than tumbling down onto the chalky mats.
To top off the day, in the treehouse-like covered patio back at the guesthouse we finally tested out the local rum. The local firewater, Tanduay, costs 50 pesos (or just over $1) for a 350 ml bottle. It is dangerous for a number of reasons, the least of which is that at a bar the coke costs more than the rum – so they will save money by pouring you a triple shot. It is also surprisingly palatable, making it all the more deadly.
From Moalboal I headed south again, this time to Dumaguete on Negros Island where I met up with two friends from (Sweden) home! We had a quick lunch and then headed over to the ‘mystic island’ of Siquijour where we rode bikes, snorkelled, had fish eat our feet and I almost died on a dive trip gone wrong. Posts to follow when I find some spare time in Manila waiting for flights in the coming days!
Where in the world is Allison? Right here!