Iloilo was in darkness when we arrived after the two hour ferry ride from Bacolod (Negros Island), and we made our way to Injap Tower Hotel. What a contrast to everything we had experienced so far! The hotel was a modern high-rise, directly opposite the SM Mall with cinemas, cafes and shops of every franchise that can be found at any mall in the world.
Day 1: Iloilo: No riding
When we booked our flights into, and out of the Philippines, we chose a six week stay, but we hadn’t realised that at our point of entry we would only be given a 30 day Visitors Visa. In Iloilo we chose to rectify the days of shortfall by applying for a Philippines Department of Immigration Visa Extension. The process took a few hours, most of which was waiting our turn to be seen, waiting to lodge the completed application form, waiting for approval, waiting to pay the fee, waiting for our passports to be returned. The office had run out of stickers to update the passports so we left with an accompanying letter to be produced when we exited the Philippines, if it was asked for. It wasn´t!
Day 2: Exploring Iloilo. 19km
Iloilo is a large city with a modern appearance but as soon as we left the main road, the surface became dirt, punctuated with potholes. Traffic moved at walking pace and there were a couple of traffic jams. With defensive riding we mostly managed to keep moving. Jeepneys constantly pulled in to pick up passengers, but usually a metre was left between the vehicle and the kerb, and with passengers alighting the Jeepney from the rear, we found cautiously undertaking them was a safe manoeuvre. At times we noticed we were the fastest moving vehicles on the road! In this manner we made our way from one area of interest to another, following a tourist brochure and saw what one of the Philippines major cities had to offer tourists. Iloilo was colonised by the Spanish in 1569 and had been an important port and religious base.
Our ride took us to Jaro Metropolitan Cathedral and then through a tight traffic jam towards Lizares Mansion. We had difficulty locating that building, and ended up at a dead end in an area that was clearly a poorer part of town. The rather run down La Paz market was our next stop and then to Molo Church. We sat for a while in the shade at a park and watched young people practicing their dance moves. Unfortunately our timing to visit Iloilo meant that we would miss the city’s most significant event that would be held next weekend. The Dinagyang Festival is held on the fourth weekend in January. It is a religious and cultural celebration with vibrantly colourful costumes, street dancing and accompanying loud drumming music. Mind you, we would not have been able to find accommodation here then.
Day 3: Iloilo to Sari-an Hot Springs Resort near Anin-y 86.8km, 452m ascent
Although we know what direction we intend to travel, we’re not sure where we’ll stay tonight. There are only a couple of options that we are aware of, but we’re not sure how far we’ll ride, so haven’t booked anything.
Once we’d negotiated the early morning traffic in Iloilo we rode the National Highway, fortunately with a shoulder most of the time. It appears that most towns on Panay Island have a 7/11 so we habitually made a mid-morning stop at these convenience stores for coffee and doughnuts. The 7/11 toilets were often signed ‘out of order’ but when I asked to use them, they were unlocked for me. The Philippines is a country I have found it very hard to ‘go bush’ in. Men are often seen with their backs to the road, nose facing a tree, but for a female there is limited privacy because there are always people about, or houses in sight. Mid morning we noticed a car wash, and pulled in to get the salt spray cleaned from our bikes. A man and his young son worked diligently and 100p later we left on two shiny bikes and we’d had a nice chat with the owner while we waited. Later we were passed by a motorcycle with a stainless steel container on the back, we passed it, it passed us. The next time we saw the motorcycle at the side of the road and the chap was selling ice-cream. We caught up again later and purchased ice-cream for us and for the young children who were staring at us curiously.
Not far south of San Joaquin the main road headed west to cross the island. We continued south through many small villages that were having festivals on different days in this week. Banners displaying religious icons and with family names printed on them, fluttered outside every home. At Cata-an we came across many high school students, outside their school, only clad in dried banana leaves folded to form the appearance of scales. These youths were going to a dance competition, as baby crocodiles, as part of their festival. We chatted with the teacher supervising the loading of a papier-mâché lizard that was as long as the truck tray, then the many excited bodies climbed on board, and we called “good luck” as we waved goodbye to the students and their supporters.
Now that we had left the main road, as we headed towards the far south-west point of Panay, we felt like we were more in the backwaters. The road was narrow and there was not much traffic. We had coastal views and rice paddies that were now terraced meadows, where the occasional cow or goats grazed.
Youngsters on bikes joined us for a couple of kilometres, five of them, aged 13 and 14. They had no trouble keeping up without gears, even on the hills, and showed off riding no-hands.
It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at Sira-an Hot Spring Resort where we got a room. The resort had seen better days as the waterslide was not functioning and the pool at the base was empty. There were a couple of cool larger pools set up for swimming. Groups of small pools, just big enough for couples to soak in, looked inviting however the temperatures varied from cool to tepid. The pools were situated on a rocky outcrop with ocean views across to Nogas Island, popular for snorkeling and scuba diving, and we watched the closing day deliver a beautiful sunset while soaking in a sulphurous pool.
The resort had a restaurant, that had mixed Internet reviews. Our meal was okay but the dining experience was spoiled by an uncomfortably loud videoke and three Filipino guests with tuneless voices enthusiastically following the lyrics on the screen. The tide was out next morning and the beachside did not look at all appealing for swimming.
Day 4: Anin-y to San Jose (aka Antique) 49.3km, 193m ascent
It´s mid January and to avoid riding in the heat later in the day we were on the bikes before the resort staff rose to serve breakfast. At Anin-y we stopped at a local restaurant, but the soupy stew being served to locals didn’t appeal. We asked for, and were served breakfast of rice and eggs; still we were given some of the liquid from the soup, in a separate bowl, as a ‘tea’.
Rice production is the main industry here and the following set of photos shows how much labour is put into the production of small holdings of rice. We were surprised to see that rice comes in many different grades with price relating to the type of grain and the quality.
Flat terrain got us quickly to San Jose and the Robinson Mall, that with a number of franchise type restaurants was an attractive place to stop for lunch. Temperatures were in the mid 30C, with no cloud cover, and we were both hot and dehydrated. Acommodation is sparse along the west coast; especially when we don’t want to pay premium prices. We got the shabbiest room we have had to date. The building was made of concrete blocks, the room was small, with a separate bucket washroom. With the bonus of aircon, we managed to cool the hot room and rest for the afternoon. Later we rode along what we thought was the coast road, but it was actually a very narrow lane-type road, bordered by shabby houses in what appeared to be a very poor suburb. There were people about, we could see children playing at the beach when there was a gap between dwellings, but we had the feeling that people were looking at us with a ´what are you doing here´ expression.
Day 5: San Jose to Tibiao 91.6km, 443m ascent
Our room certainly hadn´t been attractive enough to hang about in, so we made another early start. McDonalds offered breakfast: garlic rice, fried chicken, hash browns and eggs.
By now we were very familiar with island countryside but never tired of passing through rice paddies, passed grazing cattle and through ‘dots’ of villages. We loved the coastline and at an elevated point near Bugasong stopped to take a photo.
From a garden over the road, ¨hello¨, was called. We were invited indoors by Rose, who had lived in San Francisco for 55 years. A former Registered Nurse, Rose was now retired to the village of her youth. Tomorrow Rose will be celebrating 76 years of age. She was fit from gardening for long hours on a daily basis. We enjoyed her warm hospitality and left loaded with fruit and chocolate treats. Further along we stopped for our usual lunch of bread, bananas, and peanut butter. We were sitting in the best shade we could find; at a bus stop, beside an enormous bill-board promoting the current controversial leader, President Rodrigo Duterte, to be reelected in May this year. A man, curious about why we were sitting there, came over for a chat. He used to work on coal ships out from Newcastle in Australia.
Roads in the Philippines on each of the islands we visited were undergoing significant rebuilding. Concrete surfaces were being replaced, dirt roads were being turned into concrete. Stone drains were being laid and stone retaining walls being built against cliffsides. This work, apart from the pouring of concrete was always done manually. We were grateful to usually have a good surface to ride on, and often a very wide shoulder to ourselves.
Had I been sucked in by the Eco in the Tibiao Ecoadventure Park? I booked accommodation within the park as it offered kayaking, and white-water kayaking was a sport Nev participated in when he was younger, and this week Nev celebrates his birthday. To get there we had a 4km ride from the main road. There were two significant climbs; short but steep at gradients reaching 18% and 16%. I was proud to ride both, but it was an effort at the end of an 87km day. Fortunately the temperature hadn’t exceeded 30C, but we still arrived at the accommodation in a lather of sweat.
We were shown to our room that was simply a large replica of a local nipa hut. Here the Nipa Huts hang out from the high riverbank giving a view beyond a curtain of huge trees, to the beautiful river. I wind the clock back to when we traveled in Asia in our mid twenties and try to feel a little excited about the mattress on the springy, split-bamboo, slat floor, with gaps between big enough for any number of creatures to crawl through. At least there was electricity. There was an open sided veranda between the bedroom and the stone walls of the bathroom facilities. A separate toilet (no seat) with water tap and bucket for flushing, and a separate washroom where a tap, placed quite low, filled a scoop with water for washing. We sat on the veranda, admired the river and the mountain beyond until we felt recovered enough to walk down to the river for a cool swim. Back at our room we had a bucket wash and dressed quickly to avoid being eaten alive by mosquitoes. We were told mosquitoes would be active between 6 and 7 p.m., and compliant insects that they are, that was exactly the period of time we found them after our blood. At other times they were not a problem. After dinner we took a Kawa hot bath, a famous tourism draw-card to this area. A large steel bowl is filled with water and local herbs, seeped to a rather hot, but bearable bathing temperature tea, by fire lit under the bowl.
Day 6: Tibiao to Pandan, 63.6km, 251m ascent
The two of us squeezed on the back of a motorbike and were driven a short distance up the hill to the end of the road. We hiked to the seven tiered Bugtong Falls with our guide Christa. We chatted as we walked. Christa lived at the mountain village and was rostered to guide four times a week. She had a one month old daughter. Villager´s income was from farming and tourism. It was a beautiful walk to the falls and then a bit challenging to negotiate two of the climbs to look into pools at the base of the falling water. We were interested to see that locals lived in the same type of building as we had stayed in last night. It was Sunday and some people were worshipping at a small church. Young children appeared to be amusing themselves, without adult supervision. We stopped and bought a green coconut for the refreshing water, before walking back to collect our bicycles from our accommodation, feeling like we had a very fortunate life.
Our ride began with a ´no-pedalling´ drop, down to the main road. The way north to Pandan, was then into head-on wind. To our right, mountains were shrouded in moisture loaded cloud, that dropped only a smattering of rain, enough to keep us cool riding in a temperature of about 27C; but with humidity high. The dark sky illuminated the young rice to luminous green. Then the wind intensified and I took my mind off the riding by focusing on the scenery, watching the grain stalks move as if hands waving at a joyous music concert. Our expected 52km ride extended to 62km when we identified our accommodation was north of Pandan. The map showed one squiggle in the road, that always meant a hill. Fortunately the final 10km was rather pleasant and the hill, definitely a zig-zag but not too difficult. Settled into our room, we looked out to see the wind whip the surrounding trees into a fury. We were happy to be enjoying a little luxury. It seems our preference, after months of cycle touring, that in itself can be challenging, is to end the day with a nice room, hot shower and comfortable bed such as we had at H&P Inn www.hpinn.net . We also had a comfortable lounge suite to sit on in the shared lounge, and access to Wifi!
Day 7: Pandan - No cycling today
Itś Nev’s birthday and a non riding day for us. We handed over our laundry and will collect it this evening. We have an admin morning, a swim in the pool, pack up and change our accommodation to Phaidon Beach Resort, over the road that we had booked in advance, a few days ago. We had initially planned an afternoon at Malupati Spring but figured we’d be riding that direction tomorrow and may as well see that area on route. Phaidon is a lovely white sand beach. We swim, eat lunch then catch a motor tricycle to Pandan to buy a birthday cake. The picture of Nev beside the Jeepney was taken the day before his birthday. Jeepneys always have a name blazoned across the windscreen and often have quirky sayings or biblical text adorning the panels.
It pours with rain while we are in town so Nev gets a haircut to pass away some time. On the return motor tricycle we got a warning that the ride was coming to an interesting point, when those passengers that had something to hold on to, grabbed it! It was an understatement to say it was a little hairy on the hill. Gears were chopped down, throttle expanded and the vehicle loaded with six adults and two children, screamed up, taking over the on-coming lane on the blind corner and with a jerk to the lowest gear, breaths held, the apex of the climb was achieved. I felt like clapping! The lady opposite said he was a good and strong driver. Sometimes other drivers stall on the hill and the passengers have to climb out and push!
Day 8: Pandan to Boracay 54km, 386m ascent
We left the comfort of Phaidon Resort and rode the climb up to Malupati Springs, where the river had been broadened and edged by stone walls to create a swimming pool area, complete with diving boards. Groups of Asian tourists floated around on inner tubes or in life jackets. There were a number of tourist vans in the car park, that appeared to be the road end. Our map showed that the road continued and linked back onto the main road. We asked a van driver for information, and while we expanded our map on the phone screen, to show him, we saw that the road stopped and was broken at the river. Although there was a bridge, he explained we could reach the other road with a bit of a walk and some bike carrying; but he wouldn’t recommend it. We’re not into epic adventures at the moment and happy to back-track, downhill to the main road. Head winds blew at us as we travelled across to the north-east coast, and then the wind was more helpful but we had a number of climbs up, and over headlands. Until now our coastal views had been pretty and serene, of calm waters with sandy shores bordered by waving coconut palms. This coast had furious waves driving into a rocky shoreline.
At Caticlan we headed straight to the port. It was 1:30 p.m. and we were hungry but had already started the process, that someone described as ´being as crazy as trying to get into Disneyland´; queue to show that we had accommodation booked, then queue for a boat ticket. We chose an ‘oyster boat’ rather than a ‘pump boat’ because we thought a boat that took cargo, rather than only passengers would be easier with the bikes. Oyster boats departed on the hour, so we chose 1500 to give us time for lunch. Filipino fast food is predominately fried chicken and rice. We had eaten this for many breakfasts, lunches and sometimes evening meals. I was at the point where I could happily never eat chicken again, but today it won again as the easiest option.
Back at the port we pushed our bikes across a narrow ramp to the boat. Within ten minutes we disembarked at Boracay. You can read our blog of Boracay and Romblon Island here.