I drifted into consciousness to the familiar hum of a plane preparing for descent. Heather and I were in the midst of a twenty-seven hour transit marathon from Sagada that would involve a bus, another bus, a cab, a flight, a trike, a minibus, and another final trike ride.
This flight, which turned a twelve-hour bus ride from Manila into a one hour hop to Legazpi, had been a splurge at $59. Of course, that probably seems like a major bargain to those in North America, but it was more than twice my daily budget for the Philippines. Yet as we started to circle Legazpi, the legendary Mount Mayon — which graces the cover of Lonely Planet Philippines — came into view, and my stress over our long and pricey journey melted away.
Photo on right courtesy of Heather Holt
It was the most scenic and dramatic flight landing I’ve ever had, and well made up for the financial indulgence. Our high off of such a unique and beautiful experience was tempered by the frustrating afternoon that followed, which was typical of the roller coaster ride that was my three weeks in the Philippines — and specifically Donsol, which left me in tears a few times. A trike from the airport (40 pesos) brought us to the bus station, where we had to catch a minibus to Donsol (112 pesos), our remote seaside final destination. While we could have hired a taxi straight from the airport to our desired hotel, it was far too expensive. So the buses operate on a “first come, first serve, leave when full” system, and after a long wait we were shocked to be kicked out of the minibus without explanation when a few more Filipinos showed up at the last moment. Luckily we were able to get on the next one — though not before another long, sweaty wait and being strong armed into paying extra for our bags. At that point we were fighting off sour moods, though the stunning jungle scenery on the minibus route did help greatly.
As I’ve mentioned in many posts, it was very hard to find practical travel information about the Philippines online. So I hope those of you reading for a wanderlust inspiration and pretty photos will forgive me for providing a little more practical information that usual for those actually heading here in the near future! When we made it to Donsol, we had to pay yet another trike (40 pesos) to take us to the beach where all the accommodation and tourist services were. The accommodation situation was much more complicated than usual in Donsol. The cheapest rooms were at Woodland Beach Resort, where three bed backpacker dorms were only 500 pesos/person and had private bathrooms, hot showers, double beds, and an infinity pool on the premises. This would have been my first choice, except there was no WiFi, and Heather wasn’t so hot on the dorm idea.
My main desire was WiFi, which at the time of my visit was only available at two locations: Giddy’s Place, a more upscale and out-of-my-budget dive resort, and Shoreline, which was in our budget but I’m so glad we didn’t end up there, as we tried eating in the restaurant the next day and the food was quite bad and the WiFi was terrible anyway. In the end, we settled on Amor Farm Beach Resort. It was charming and homey and had a good restaurant and was just a tad out of my budget at 1000 pesos per night, so Heather happily offered to pay a bit more. There was no WiFi, which made life a bit stressful, but at least the Verizon data plan on my cell phone was working so I could keep up on emails.
However, we did have one major complaint about Amor Farm and unfortunately I saw it over and over again in the Philippines — severe mistreatment of pet dogs. In much of Southeast Asia, the term “pet” is used loosely as most dogs are left to roam unattended at all times. While that system has flaws, it is certainly better than what we saw in Donsol, which was dogs being left tied on foot long chains all day long, every day, for what I can only assume is their entire lives. They were clearly being driven mad by their small range of motion and complete lack of interaction, and we went to sleep and woke up to the alternating sounds of their viscous, frustrated barks or their dejected, heartbreaking cries. The younger dogs were so excited when you came over and showed them attention that it brought tears to my eyes, while the older and wearier dogs flinched at the sight of humans, as if expecting an angry kick. It just made us heart sick, and a good part of the reason we left town earlier than expected. For these two animal lovers, it was torture.
Donsol did have it’s highlights — the beach is still dotted with thatch roof huts, and the shore is lined with colorful local fishing boats. It has retained its laid-back fishing town charm even as tourism grows. As admitted spa addicts, Heather and I were thrilled to find a massage place — the first I’d seen outside Manila — where we had hour long treatments for only 250 pesos.
One of my favorite memories from Donsol was simply walking along the deserted beach and watching Heather work her magic with the camera. I love traveling with Heather for many reasons, a major one being I get to have memories like these of our trip…
Photo courtesy of Heather Holt
Photo courtesy of Heather Holt
Photo courtesy of Heather Holt
This particular boat was my favorite, because when we saw it I excitedly yelled, “Look, Heather, a narwhal!” And she had to let me down by pointing out that it was probably not an arctic whale but rather a local sunfish. Fair enough.
Photo courtesy of Heather Holt
Photo courtesy of Heather Holt
Donsol has one major tourist draw, and outside of that there isn’t much developed to keep tourists around longer. However, locals are working to change that with initiatives like the popular new firefly spotting tours being offered. We were both super excited about this but unfortunately, we missed out due to major miscommunications, confusion, and a possible scamming attempt. Hence, I can’t provide any clarity on the contradicting information available about how much these tours should cost, how to find them, and how to get there. If any readers have been to Donsol and done the firefly thing, I’d love for you to leave any advice in the comments so this post can be helpful to future travelers!
So of all the white sand, idyllic islands in the Philippines, what had brought us to remote and rough-and-tumble Donsol? Stay tuned, but here’s a hint…
Think you can guess what we got up to in Donsol?
Me and my boyfriend travelled se asia and got back a few weeks ago, we visited Donsol and did the fireflies!! Its hard to remember exactly but we paid roughly 600 peso for a boat with 4 of us in. So around 150 each. Best to ignore the trikes that want to take you on a round trip, and they also say there’s another river which is ‘better’ but further so you pay more for the journey. We just found a trike on the street and paid 50 each way for the travel, and then paid for the boat when we arrived. A couple we know were scammed with pre-booking the trikes to pick them up at their hotel- not worth it! Im pretty sure we werent scammed but then who really knows,, we were happy with the price. There’s also usually lots of trikes sitting near the tourist centre in the eve (I think that’s what its called). Hope this helps anyone planning to go.. the fireflies were incredibly beautiful!!
Alice, thanks so much for the info! I’m bummed I didn’t get a chance to do this, but we got stuck with a scammed driver and then got different information from each of the four people that we asked and then basically just got frustrated and confused and gave up! Shame though, because I really wanted to see them. Glad you were able to have the experience!
You tease! Did you dive with whale sharks?
You’ll find out tomorrow…. 😉
I came away with the same question (and conclusion) as Tammy!! That is a big dream to fulfill for me.
Can’t wait to see!
Hopefully you’ve read the new post by now 🙂 If not, check it out — it’s up!
Ah, traveling in the Philippines. If there’s any activity that will teach you patience, surely it is that. Tony & I had our own fair share of marathon travel days as it never seems straight forward to get anywhere in that country. But we always found it was worth it and realized it was far easier to just sit back and enjoy the scenery as there was nothing you could do about the length of the journey. It sounds like you had a rough time with getting scammed by trike drivers, which I admit only happened to us one time and not very badly… then again, everyone there thought I was a local, so that might have had something to do with it!
Can’t wait to hear about your Donsol diving adventure… whale sharks are at the top of our “want to swim with” list!
We only had the one problem with trike drivers, and that was over the whole firefly thing. Other than that we had pretty pleasant interactions! We had one other upsetting scammy moment, but that was with the boat to Malapascua. Though I would say you might have had the “look like a local” advantage over us two blondies 😀
Gorgeous photos from you and Heather!
I’m sorry to hear that you guys had so many frustrations and ran into scams.
I haven’t been to the Philippines yet, but I will definitely be going through your archives when I do!
I said to myself many times throughout this trip… “My readers are going to be so lucky to learn from all my mistakes!” 😀 They all do sound a bit annoying spelled out like this but overall I have happy memories of the Philippines 🙂
Hi, Alex! Thank you for your honest review of Donsol. I wonder if I was at our resort last year when you visited the town. I appreciate the kind words you have about the resort but I just want to clarify one thing about this post: how we treat our dogs. I am a dog-lover myself and the little-white-spotted-with-black dachshund dog is Tag, he is actually my dog. I would like to assure you that our family loves dogs and there’s no way that we maltreat them. There are times though, and you are right as this is a common practice in the Philippines, that some of our dogs are tied up in long chains to stop them from attacking strangers or guests in the resort as some of our dogs are not used to seeing other people. Also, some dogs in the Philippines are trained as “watch dogs” who guard the security of the place – they bark and make sound at the sight of unlikely people. We also have that in the resort as robbery has been rampant for a time in Donsol. Some of our dogs are unlike Tag, who grew so fond of being surrounded by guests early on. We make it a point that we give them enough time to roam around, mostly in the morning and evening, and when there aren’t too many people in the resort. During off-peak season, you can see all of them running around and swimming in the beach. I would like to assure you that we treat our pet dogs the best way we can. Thank you!
Hey Amer, thanks for commenting. While I’m glad to hear that there is some love for the dogs there, we definitely didn’t see any during our visit. In our days in Donsol we never once saw the dogs taken off the chains, and we spent a lot of time around the resort. What also upset us is that, as I wrote, they seemed either heartbreakingly desperate for attention or terrified of humans. I’m glad to hear your family loves dogs but I do encourage you to come up with a better system. Even if it is just for business purposes… a lot of Western travelers are not used to seeing dogs treated that way and it was very upsetting to us and the other guests. Thanks for commenting.
I’m glad you’ve brought up the “pets” comment, as I often wonder how they are treated…as I’ve been to Grand Turks and they have pets at the place. They were well trained and good watch dogs as well- barking at the wandering folks that didn’t belong on the property. If pets/ dogs to were taught to interact or be in contact with humans as a normal everyday activity and not stay tied up all day, it would be a good practice and keep the barking down. I would not want to go to a place who mistreats their “pets” .
Indeed — it definitely affected our time in Donsol to see those dogs mistreated :-/
Beautiful site.. I liked it…
Thanks for reading Rick!
Lovely article, really made me remember about Siquijor, a remote island in the Visayas and the highlight of my trip to the Philippines.
Gutted to hear about the pets, it seems to be a constant theme in Asia! 🙁
Yeah, in the Philippines we found it particularly uncomfortable. Where I live in Koh Tao, Thailand, the dog population is well controlled – almost all dogs are fixed — and looked after or at least left to roam free, so I am shielded from it somewhat. I find it very hard to stomach when I do see mistreatment.