Backpacking in the Philippines and the race to unexplored destinations

An undeveloped cold spring - backpacking in the Philippines
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Featured photo: An undeveloped cold spring in Surigao del Sur, Philippines.

Anyone can tell you that as early as 3 years ago, local travel wasn’t mainstream. In travel speak, it’s the good ol’ days.

I could remember walking along the shores of Calaguas in Bicol Province, passing by children playing and a few other tourists having an early-morning swim. My footsteps were the only mark in the sand.

Things are different now.

Most people have joined the travel bandwagon, thanks to social media and low-cost airline prices. My Facebook feed is filled with travel posts. For us backpackers, the new challenge is to get to the next destination before it hits the public spotlight.

The nostalgia in setting foot in unexplored, raw places

Things seem to be moving too fast, at least that’s how I feel.

Last 2015, I went with a group of friends to Jomalig Island in Quezon Province. There were only a handful of blog posts about it, and we didn’t really know what to expect. When the island was on sight from our two-decker boat, I heard myself say “Wow.” The beach is one of the clearest I’ve seen, and the sands are a shade of orange-gold. There wasn’t any resort in the area, so we camped near the beach. For bathing, we had to walk 15 minutes to get to the poso in the residential houses.

A year later, a colorful signage has been erected in Salibungot Beach in Jomalig, as a welcome to tourists. Resorts and homestays have been set up to cater to the large number of guests, particularly during summer. Dozens of tour operators hold events in the island, and it’s now a favorite location for a quick weekend getaway.

I remember thinking Hali and I would go back in Jomalig Island sometime, for a beach wedding or other special celebration. I doubt that will happen anymore.

Cabugao Gamay in Gigantes Islands, Iloilo
Cabugao Gamay in Iloilo, 2014.
Cabugao Gamay in Gigantes Islands, Iloilo
The other side of Cabugao Gamay.

In the last quarter of 2015, I tugged Hali to come with me to Iloilo and see Gigantes Islands. When we were in Cabugao Gamay, he lamented the recent construction of stairs and fences up the cliff, which although provide security, obstructs the view overlooking the island.

I thought then that he was being silly, but now I understood.

Cabugao Gamay used to be just an island, unnoticed, visited by a few backpackers. Clambering up the cliff was difficult, and so is getting through the jutting rocks that serve as the entrance to Tangke Lagoon. Now, everything has been set up for comfort, along with dozens of private and public boats, tarpaulins for promotion purposes.

In the Philippines, there is no going back to the same place twice. A year – sometimes even a few weeks – can make a lot of difference.

Every commercial structure added, every change removes that “untouched” charm, the rawness that we travelers crave.

Backpacking in the Philippines, the race to get there first

When a place gets “discovered,” either of these two happens: (a) a local tourism office preps the place for sustainable tourism or (b) the tourists get ahead to litter, vandalize walls and structures or simply visit in droves that exceed a carrying capacity nobody seems to care about.

Mount Kofafey in Maligcong
Mount Kofafey in Maligcong, Mountain Province. (Photo credit to Hali)

There are several unfortunate cases wherein the local government fails to set up proper waste management practices, crowd control or standards in building commercial establishments in the area.

The rest of the time though, it’s really just a matter of having too many people.

Hundreds of hikers cramped in trails or mountain summits, large groups of tourists in cultural sites or beaches.

Before 2015 ended, we visited Sagada. Although I appreciated its unique cultural ambiance and cool weather, Sagada was just too crowded for my liking. The registration area looked like a theme park with all the people, vans were parked on every road, there were queues in caves and mountain trails. It was such a relief when we’d moved to on our next stop in the Mountain Province, a quiet homestay with delicious brewed coffee and a view of a terraces.

Why am I saying these? I guess to justify the pressure of getting to non-touristy attractions first before it succumb to commercial tourism.

Stepping out of the race, on to more comfortable travel

Over the 2 years that Hali and I have been regularly backpacking in the Philippines, we’d seem some really awesome off-the-beaten places. There’s the magazine-worthy beach of Candaraman Island, the pastoral hill of Nagudungan with its free-roaming goats and cows and as mentioned above the underrated rice terraces in Maligcong.

Beach in Carabao Island, Romblon
Relaxed. (Photo by Hali)

Sometimes I feel torn between writing about our experiences and keeping these places a secret. Just this month, we went to Surigao del Sur and a local gave me tips on what to see. I learned that he didn’t want these places to get published though.

Similarly, when we were in Maligcong, the proprietor of our homestay told us how she didn’t want bloggers writing about the terraces, lest it become another Sagada. I did write about it but didn’t promote it the usual way (i.e., posting in our social media accounts), letting it sit in the depths of our archive, as a compromise.

It’s a great feeling to see islands and landscapes in their original, their most pristine, but trying to get ahead of everyone can get tiring, eventually. It puts unnecessary pressure on our travels. I felt like I had to book flights or arranged schedules “now” instead of going when I really wanted to. There are about 100 million people in the Philippines, and people are bound to discover these “secrets” eventually. Maybe tomorrow, in the coming months, in the coming years.

After my short vacation in Coron in Palawan, I realized that I feel okay with mainstream tourist attractions. It’s not so much as I mind the crowd as the excess of it. There’s the feeling of nostalgia that I probably can’t shake off to be honest. It’s like cherishing a childhood playground in memory and visiting it years after, seeing the crooks and corners that weren’t anymore. But… as long as developments are designed after sustainability, kept at a minimum and do not overshadow natural resources, is there any reason not to support them?

Currently, I prefer spending a lazy afternoon in a proper beach resort, like any other tourist, rather than chasing after the next up-and-coming destination. It’s more relaxing and makes it feel like what travel should be — an enjoyable experience taken up in my own time.

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  1. i feel you. i did a little travelling 10 yrs ago and its just not the same anymore. i prefer non touristy places but now its hard to find seclusion. i love your blog btw!!!

  2. If the LGU decides to make their attraction/destination a tourist spot, then they should be responsible enough to clean it, rigidly impose rules for its sustainability, educate the visitors, etc. They have to remember they are the stakeholders here, and they should not just sit on their butts and watch the coffers go fat.

    Visitors should also be responsible and should face the consequences should they deface the area.

  3. Well said. Sometimes it’s really better to just leave things as they were. Progress is inevitable and progress is good but let’s just hope for a sustainable tourism – sustainable growth.

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