Travel is a bit like meeting someone new. You either click or you don’t.
As much as the neighboring provinces Biliran and Leyte offer nice attractions — multitudes of waterfalls, islands, scenic rice fields — I can’t say that these are my favorite. In fact, our visit here will probably go down to my list of least enjoyable trips. It’s just laden with bits of unpleasant experiences here and there that it wasn’t as fun as I’d hoped it would be.
To be clear, it wasn’t a complete disaster. We weren’t robbed, didn’t suffer from traveler’s diarrhea or anything along those lines. Yes, Chow, we didn’t die. But in travel, a lot of times it’s the small things that matter.
Why am I writing this? I honestly don’t know. Maybe I just want to go against the grain, write about travel that isn’t in the happy tune we’re all familiar of hearing. Maybe I just want to allow myself to be petty once in a while. Maybe I just want to say I don’t have to like every place I go, and when I write about it, I don’t have to pretend I do.
We’d booked for a 4-5 day trip to Tacloban to see Biliran and Leyte, and by the fourth day I was just glad it was almost over. It’s crazy, I never thought I’d be excited to see the city lights of Metro Manila back home.
What went wrong
One of the things that I like about going on out-of-town trips to provinces are the locals. They are often warm and welcoming, generous at times — traits hardly exhibited in the dog-eat-dog world of Manila.
Now that I think of it, my favorite places in the Philippines all have this in common. In Catanduanes, Ate Letty of Coco Grove beach resort was very attentive to our needs; the caretakers and other residents near Tuwad-Tuwadan Pool were kind and hospitable, offering us coconuts to battle the heat and seafood for lunch before sending us on our way; the tricycle driver who toured us to see the hills in Virac went far and beyond, even carrying my backpack when we went trekking to a lighthouse.
I can’t say the same for either Biliran or Leyte.
In fact, my first thought when we arrived in Biliran was that people seemed to lack effort, from the lazy staff of the restaurant next door to tour providers who were late in schedule (habal-habal guide, island hopping tour guide). In our first morning, we went trekking and when Hali greeted locals “Good morning,” most just walked past by.
In Inopacan in Leyte, whenever we’d hail a van and it would stop in front of us, other waiting passengers would swoop in and snatch seats. This happened several times it must be the road ethics. It was unnecessary and rude.
We did meet kind people as well — our boatman in Inopacan and fellow tourists in Biliran, for instance — but in general the locals didn’t struck me as warm compared to those we’d encountered in other provinces.
We just met the worst habal-habal tour guide
He was a cousin of a friend of Hali’s and personally vetted. We texted him the day before to see the waterfalls in Biliran. He said we’d only be able to visit only 2 or 3 due to limited time, even though we clarified we’d allotted a whole day for this. We should’ve seen this as a red flag.
Our guide was late, arriving at about 9AM. We found out he wasn’t familiar with the routes and didn’t know about the smaller waterfalls in the area, so we’d frequently stop to ask locals for direction. Whenever we’d inquire about other places to visit, he would sport a discouraging tone.
We’d managed to see a few waterfalls (Ulan-Ulan and Recoletos, Pondol and Tinago Falls) and was done at 3:30PM. We asked our guide if there’s anywhere else we could visit or pass by, and he said there was no time left. He did, however, asked us if we’d like to have a tour to see other waterfalls on another day.
He asked for P1200, and we haggled it down to P1000. Back in the resort, we talked to a fellow traveler who said he got a habal-habal ride for P500 only.
Riding a flimsy boat in a sea storm
After Biliran, our plan was to go to Cuatro Islas in southern Leyte. But then it started raining, and there were no other tourists in the port. Our only option was to shoulder the whole island hopping cost, which is P3000, not including the cottage rent and other fees in Digyo Island. We decided to go to another place instead.
While walking back to the main road, we met a middle-aged fisherman who offered to take us in Cuatro Islas for P2000 only in his pump boat.
The boat turned out to be so small it could fit perhaps 4 people at best. There were ropes, nets, scraps of fabric inside. There was no roofing. There were no life vests. When our boatman started paddling, I had the horrible thought that we’d have to paddle the one-hour distance to Digyo Island. I was relieved — and embarrassed — when our boatman started the engine.
I’m used to potentially dangerous boat rides, but I’d never been on one without a life vest.
We sailed in rain and low visibility. For an hour or so, nobody was speaking. I thought about Noah’s Ark, the world covered in water, and dying. I consoled myself by thinking that a good psychic had a vision of me having a book deal in a few years’ time.
We arrived safely in Digyo Island in Cuatro Islas. Our boatman promised to fetch us the next day.
I was so uneasy that I didn’t enjoy bumming as used to. The sneaking off, the risky transport, the guilt. I think we may have broken a rule there as well, but I’m not sure. Do we get in trouble for coming on a fisher’s boat instead of the big tour boats in the port? Would our boatman get in trouble as well?
The ride back to the mainland the next day was worse. We vacated the front of the boat and squeezed into the back. Our boat would plunge over big waves. I could hear the loud crash of the floor boards. We got swept by wave after wave, sometimes it seemed we’d completely keel over the water.
Getting back to the mainland was a relief.
But to tell you the truth, it’s not just the thought of dying that troubled me.
It’s the fact that our boatman was so happy to get that small amount of money (P1300 excluding gas) for his wife and child, whom we’d met briefly. I felt bad that he had to sneak us off, that he didn’t have the opportunity to take part in the growing local tourism, unlike those working under registered tour operators and businesses. It’s poverty staring at us straight in the face, the Manileño tourists who visit to have a bit of fun.
It’s uncomfortable and unnerving, and it’s one of those things I can’t do anything about.
Island hopping rates aren’t ideal for solo or couple travelers
Most of the time we do budget travel because we can, but this time it’s different. It’s not that fun doing budget travel out of necessity.
The markup on the island hopping rates in Biliran and Leyte is higher compared to other places we’d been. There are also none or limited joiner tours. This is something that I already knew from reading, but it still bummed me.
From Talahid, it costs P3500 to go to Sambawan Island alone. Including the other islands costs much more (P4000 above, depending on boat size). The last time I paid for almost the same amount was in Dinagat Islands where the itinerary included 7 islands and a tidal pool and in Balabac in Palawan where the islands are 2-3 hours apart. I mean, Sambawan Island isn’t even that far.
P.S. We did find a sulit island hopping tour in Biliran for P1699 each.
In Cuatro Islas, boat rate is P2500 for 10 people or less, plus P500 if the boat has to fetch you the next day. Are there smaller, cheaper boats? Apparently none. There are also no regular group tours arranged in Inopacan.
If our Biliran-Leyte trip has a saving grace, this is it
On a positive note, there are also things I appreciated on our trip to Biliran and Leyte. The still water in the shores of Talahid Resort, Ulan-Ulan Falls with its umbrella pockets and strong gush of clear stream, the visible Milky Way in the whole of Biliran and, most of all, Sambawan Island. Sambawan Island is an underrated beauty of islets and turquoise water in the middle of summer.
All in all, I think I was too irritated or stressed most of the time to actually enjoy the short trip.
I may come back in the future, in Leyte in particular to explore some of its lesser-known beaches such as Limawasa, but to be honest it’s not going to happen soon. I mean, we didn’t really hit it off.
What to read next:
This is part of our backpacking trip to Biliran and Leyte. Here are the posts we’ve written for this trip: