Pointing down a dark and rubble strewn alleyway, our tricycle driver proclaimed, ‘your hostel is just down there’, all three of us looked at each in trepidation. With no help from the driver, we dragged our heavy backpacks from the precariously balanced pile on the back of the bike and after many grunting attempts got them on our backs and staggered off down the alley. It looked like a building site rather than the fun and friendly hostel we were promised. We had been dropped at the alcove in between a small local street vendor; shop poking out of a window cut into the interior, and a brightly lit and well advertised steak house. It had pretty girls standing outside offering leaflets about burger deals with a pink fluorescent guitar swinging from a post outside. Yet we were destined for that myriad of blackness in between. The path was littered with disused bricks and what looked like the remains of whatever building had stood there before. The path was uneven and where it had been raining the holes had filled with water and the sand had become wet and all too easy to sink into. We picked ourselves out of these traps and continued until we could find our destination. What we found was a gate. A locked gate. With a sign which it made it very clear that this was not the entrance to our, or any kind of hostel. It was a dead end.
After a short stop over in Manila, I had travelled immediately to the island of Boracay in search of a slice of Philippine paradise. Although by no means off the beaten track I had been lured in by the promise of the ‘second-best island destination in the world after Palawan*’ and the sigh inducing beauty of the white beach. After a flight, 2 hour taxi, boat trip and tricycle, I was interested to see if, despite the growing number of plush resorts, the natural beauty of this Island and its locals could still shine through.
It was dark by the time we finally arrived at the apparent location of the hostel and all the street vendors and restaurateurs were advertising dinner menus. We approached someone to ask for directions to ‘Frendz’ hostel and were directed to another, albeit different, dark alleyway. Fortunately this one was not a dead end and about 100 metres down it we were greeted by the sounds of live music and raucous laughter, ‘I want to be in there’ Chloe proclaimed. To our great surprise this turned out to be exactly where we were heading. Frendz hostel; a cluster of wooden beach huts, had at its centre a large communal area consisting of a small bar, a pool table and a selection of wooden benches and chairs, and tonight in its corner, a guitarist and drummer performing some classic cover hits. Despite being too late for the free pasta, after we had dumped our bags in our room, we sat down to enjoy our first beer on the house. By this time the gentle guitar music had been replaced by Armand TJ who was a full blown entertainer. With a mixture of his own original songs about Boracay and the Philippines and some more classic hits including the Spice Girls and Oasis he got the whole crowd involved, waving the microphone in unsuspecting peoples faces and desperately trying to incorporate everyone’s international roots by picking songs from everyone’s home country. For many people the night ended dancing on tables.
The next day it was time to see Boracay’s famous white beach for ourselves. A two minute walk further down the narrow alleyway and we reached the main strip along the beach. The busy street was lined with a range of shops and restaurants; from small and local to large expensive looking and Italian, with even a Starbucks and Pizza Hut thrown in. It was also full of bustling tourists, mainly hailing from Korea or China. None of this however could take away from the view beyond. The shore was lined with colourful paraws (double outrigger sailboats) all of which stood perfectly still on the glassy surface. As I stepped into the sea I could make out the faint lines on my ankles where my anklets had blocked my tan, and as I walked out to sea I found that even up to the buoys marking the swimming area my feet remained on the sand and the sea remained clear to the very bottom. ‘It’s like bathwater’ Nicole remarked and indeed the lack of salt was remarkable, it felt like we were in a natural spring or spa rather than the pacific ocean.
In order to see more of the coastline surrounding the Island we booked ourselves onto a half day trip on one of the many paraws. We were all handed life jackets and directed to sit on either one of the nets which made up each of the kadigs protruding from the side of the boat. As I sat there clutching my camera one of our sailors indicated that I should place it in the hold of the boat with the rest of our bags. ‘I’m sure it will be fine’ I naively assumed but he insisted. I soon found out why. Paraws can sail up to 11 to 17 knots (20~31 km/h) and on a choppy day, as this day turned out to be, the kadigs of the boat are plunged into the ocean at every dipping wave. Holding on for dear life we were tossed into the oncoming walls of water, nearly buffeted right off the nets and were soon wet from head to toe. Our first stop on the trip was Puka beach on the north side of the Island. Where main beach is a thriving tourist hub, Puka beach is practically uninhabited with only a few wooden beach cafes littered amongst the trees. The sand here is the same white as the southern side of the Island but mixed with puka shells, giving it its name. After a short break to relax amongst the almost untouched natural beauty of Puka beach we were whisked back onto the boat for snorkelling and our continued trip around the Island taking in crystal cove, as well as the more exclusive resorts springing up on the eastern side.
That night we ventured out of our hostel to check out the night life on the Island. After sunset the restaurants and bars lining the beach extend their covers onto the sand and you can experience a beach front dining experience. Also at dusk the fire shows and shisha arrive on the beach allowing you to relax on beanbags atop the white sand and gasp as fire dancers impressively wave fire precariously close to the heads of tourists. Choosing to avoid these hotspots for now, we stepped further towards the shore, dipping our toes in the warm waters and wandered further along the beach. Not too far along we came across a group of local teenagers practising a group dance. We stood and watched for a few moments until Chloe ran up to them and asked if we could join in. Obligingly they agreed and we were soon in formation and learning the steps to their routine. After impressing them in turn (or was it my imagination) with some choice British moves including the Macarena and the worm, we got to talking about what the dance was for. The group turned out to be colleagues from a local phone shop and were practising the dance for their Christmas party, (it was the 12th of November). Having been reliably informed from a Filipino colleague that Christmas was celebrated for a long time in the Philippines I asked one of the dancers if this were true. ‘Yes’ he replied, ‘from about the 15th we feel the presence of Christmas’. After wishing them luck in their competition we left them to continue practising and headed back towards the vibrant strip lining the beach they were dancing on. What with the outstanding beauty of its beaches which the increasing tourism has not affected and the growing hub of bars and restaurants Boracay Island has much to offer its visitors. Add to this the fact that despite the growing number of resorts the locals here still frequent the area, Boracay has a long way to go before it loses its heart and soul.