It may be small and rather quiet, but there are lots of things to do on Bantayan Island near Cebu. Out of the eight most popular islands I visited in the Philippines, it was my favourite.
El Nido came as a close second, but nowhere else in the country quite compared to the laid back, tropical and extraordinarily friendly vibes I experienced on Bantayan Island.
It is hard to say exactly why, but Bantayan Island felt different. The people were so lovely and always happy to see you. Not because they were surprised to see Westerners, just because they seemed happy in general.
Everybody would greet you as you walked or drove around – men, women and children, everybody just wanted to say hi – and there were people everywhere. The streets were always busy with happy, laid back locals and this made us feel happy and laid back too.
One moment that really stood out to me was when Nash and I were driving through a busy street on a motorbike. Children had just finished school so were all over the places and adults had obviously come out to meet them too.
As we drove through, slowly weaving through the people and saying hello over and over again, one man pointed to use and said to his children and mates: “Look, white and black.”
Obviously referring to us being a mixed race couple, I braced myself for racism, ready for my lovely island experience to be tainted.
Instead a big smile spread across his face and he loudly said: “Good, its good!”
I laughed and waved back at them, so pleasantly surprised.
Deciding whether to go
We almost didn’t go it. In planning what islands to visit in the one month we had in the country, it looked like it had the least to offer other than beaches and mangrove forests and both are common on most islands.
Nash and I were all the way in El Nido with a few days to spare and no intention of visiting Manila (we had heard horrors of how dangerous it can be, and how difficult it is as a tourist from both visitors and Filipinos).
So in a last minute f**k it decision, we flew back to Cebu and hopped on a boat to Bantayan and it was one f the best decisions we made.
Is there really nothing to do?
There isn’t much to do, but saying there is “nothing to do” is unfair and incorrect.
However, it is partly due to the fact there isn’t much to do that made me like my time there so much so much.
When we first arrived in Asia, I was determined to do everything and see everything and this can be exhausting. I wrote about this, the anxiety it gives me, and how to let it go in my blog post about Santorini, and I soon remembered this lesson.
By the time we arrived in Bantayan, having been travelling for roughly six weeks and having done many activities, I relished the opportunity to kick back and spend all day lying on a beach drinking beer.
Bantayan is probably one of the least popular islands for travellers. We saw very few other tourists for were our age (below 30). It is, however, a haven for older white western men and young Filipino women.
This is common across the whole country and it is something that I really hate – but that is another conversation for another day/blog post.
Things to do
1. Ogtong Cave
This was my favourite activity on the whole island. Ogtong Cave is a natural phenomenon. It is smaller than the Hinagdanan cave, which can be found on Bohol Island (which I will be writing about soon), but with more lighting it is much better for photos!
You walk down some stone steps into a natural pool in an underground cave, you can swim right into the back where it is very dark, and the water feels spectacular.
I would recommend going quite early, and preferably on a weekday as it is a popular spot for locals over the weekend.
I was slightly put off when I first arrived, as it is located inside a private resort. Adults have to pay 200 pesos for a day pass (£3/$4), which permits entry between 8am and 4pm. However, this gives you acess to the rest of Ogtong Cave Resort which includes a slightly pricey restaurant, a swimming pool surrounded by sun loungers, beach access and toilets and showers.
So if you go at 8am for a dip in the caves when it is nice and quiet, you can then spend the day relaxing by the pool or on the beach. This is fabulous if, like me, you are on a budget and so don’t have these facilities where you are staying.
You can bring your own food and drink, but the hotel will charge a small fee for doing so, like a corkage fee. Details of this are here: http://ogtongcave.com/days-use-offers
2. Omagieca Obo-ob Mangrove Eco Park
Mangrove trees grow on coastlines in tropical countries and are common across the Philippines. What makes this spot different however, is that there is an entire forest sitting along Bantayan Island to explore.
In the Omagieca Obo-ob Mangrove Eco Park there is a bamboo walkway through the forest, which is great for exploring the trees and taking lots of photos! You can also go kayaking or take a tour of the mangroves on a small boat.
It is open from 6am to 6pm, but because of the changing tide you have to be careful when you go. The water can be completely gone so you see the ground below and this isn’t such a pretty sight!
I’m not sure if the timing changes throughout the seasons, but when we visited the best time for high tide was early morning or in the evening.
Entrance is 50 pesos which is less than a pound or dollar.
3. Explore the beaches
Paradise beach and Kota are the best on the island. With white sand and clear blue water it is like you’re in a Bounty advert (anyone remember them?).
They don’t have any bars or stalls on the beaches, so you’ll need to take your own food and drinks. This also means no sun loungers or umbrellas to rent so I’d go early to find a shady spot as these are few and far between.
4. Santa Fe Cliff Diving and Ruins
Not far from Kota Beach are some old ruins that make a perfect spot for a photo shoot. The area is called Santa Fe Cliff Diving on Google Maps, but without anyone else to copy I had no idea where you are meant to jump from so didn’t do this.
Also, my favourite restaurant on the island sits close to the ruins, but I’ll get to that later…
5. Quarry and Big Cross in Kabangbang
Sadly I heard about these places after my trip, so couldn’t see them for myself. They both look like really cool places to go for walks and take some photos.
The quarry, by definition means a place from which minerals have been extracted, have left behind rock formations like mini mountains which you can explore.
The big cross is apparently the highest point on the island, so great for views as well as sunsets and sunrises!
Where to eat
In Santa Fe (the town nearest the port, where most people stay) there are loads of restaurants so you can find all sorts of food. My favourite here was Bantayan Burrito Company, great for a massive dirty burrito!
However, my favourite restaurant in Bantayan isn’t in town, it is a outside of town by the Santa Fe Cliff Diving and ruins – Athena Authentic Greek Cuisine.
It is a massive Greek restaurant – run by a Greek man, who works in the kitchen and cooks all the food himself. It is open plan so you can see the ocean during the day, and here it during the night. We went on two nights and on one night we were the only people there, on the other we were one of three groups. Being a large restaurant this can be a little off-putting but trust me, the food is amazing!
How to get around
Tuk tuks on the island are the cheapest we found on the eight islands we visited – sometimes as little as 20 pesos, which is pennies!
However you can’t always guarantee there will be one to bring you back from where you are, such as the mangrove forest or the ruins (there are usually some waiting at the beach and cave, but they will definitely try and overcharge you!).
The island is very safe for cycling or biking, it is how most people travel, I can’t even remember if I saw any cars… maybe just a few.
All the locals seems to travel this way, or by tuk tuk, and most of the time the streets are full of people walking around. (This is one of the things I loved about it, there was so much life everywhere).
The roads can be pretty bumpy and rocky to the beaches and the mangrove forest, so if you’re on a motorbike go slow and take care.
How to get there – ferry and coach or taxi
From Cebu, you can take a coach from the North Bus Terminal all the way to the island. It goes to the port, travels across on the ferry and can drop you near where you are staying.
It takes four or five hours to get to the port, if you travel early and late it will be quick, during the day my guess is it could be even longer than five because traffic gets very busy. It then takes about an hour to get to the island by ferry.
Fare costs around 225 php for an aircon bus and 170 for a non-aircon one (£2.50 to £3.50, or $3 to $4). You have to pay for the ferry on top of this, which is 180 php.
On my return I had a flight to catch so we paid for the ferry and on the other side you can usually count on there being taxis. Many people take a taxi from Cebu, so the driver will then wait for a fare back to the city.
We were asked to pay 1,500 php (£22/$29) but we only had 900 on us and the driver was happy enough with that, which was only £13/$17. He drove us all the way to the airport, which is about an hour further than Cebu city.
There were only two of us, so you could definitely try and share the taxi with more people however I doubt they would take as little as we paid for a full car – especially with luggage as well – but you still might be able to work something out that is more for him but less for you shared between four people.