Powder soft white sand beaches that appear to stretch on into infinity. Crystal clear water perfect for diving (or just watching fish swim around your toes as you wade into the ocean). A buzzing nightlife with beach entertainment and nightclubs that keep the party going well into the wee hours of the morning. These things and more have had tourists flocking to Boracay since the early 1980’s. One of the Philippines’ most popular islands (there are over 7,000!), these days Boracay receives almost two million visitors a year. It’s understandable – I mean, everyone deserves to relax on an island paradise at least once in their lives, right? – but such a high level of tourism on such a small island has had some pretty major consequences for this popular destination, which we would quickly discover upon our own arrival around this time last year.
We visited Boracay in mid-March, hoping to spend the better part of a week doing absolutely nothing while surrounded by Boracay’s natural beauty. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, that’s not exactly what we got. (Keep reading for the details of what went wrong…and how you can avoid a similar situation!) To say we were disappointed would be an understatement, but luckily, we still found several ways to save our holiday, and discovered some pretty cool places in Boracay in the process. Armed with the knowledge we gained from our own mistakes, I’ve created this travel guide to Boracay to ensure YOUR first trip to Boracay goes off without a hitch. Keep reading for all of our best Boracay travel tips, plus advice on how to avoid the crowds!
WHEN TO GO
If the Boracay experience you’re looking for involves cloudless blue skies and a calm, glassy sea, then you’ll want to time your trip during the dry season which typically runs from November to May. If cooler temperatures are also preferable, then stick with the months closer to the beginning of dry season. By March, temperatures often reach the high 90’s Fahrenheit/high 30’s Celsius. However, keep in mind that even in the dry season it’s not uncommon to experience some rain. Heavy all-day rain showers like what you might experience during rainy season are unlikely, though. What you’ll need to worry about during the dry season more than rain is the algae.
This was the main thing that nearly ruined our trip. That long stretch of White Beach with its glittering white sand next to the sparkling waters of the sea that features on nearly every postcard and advertisement for the island? Yeah, we never got to see it. (Or photograph it, which besides relaxing was the thing I was most looking forward to in Boracay.) The beach, and a fairly wide portion of the water next to it, was completely full of algae. So much that kids were even packing it like snowballs and having algae fights. I’ve never seen anything like it. A local guy we met tried to tell us it was a good thing. He was right…to an extent.
Algae blooms in Boracay are nature’s way of maintaining balance in the water. They were common on the island long before tourism boomed. But, and this is a big but, as tourism became bigger and bigger business in Boracay, the amount of algae in the water grew, as did the length of the season when it’s most common to see it. A massive influx of people on the island has caused nature to have to work much harder to maintain balance in the water (likely thanks to inadequate sewage infrastructure – yuck) and so instead of a normal amount of seasonal algae, sometimes you end up with mounds of it lining the beach and turning the water into an unnaturally warm, slimy mess.
So how to avoid it? It’s anyone’s guess when the algae will show up, but generally you won’t have to worry about it during the earlier months of dry season. It’s not uncommon for the algae to show up as early as February, but by March (when we visited) it’ll almost certainly be a feature in any photos you were hoping to get. Apparently, some years it’s worse than others, but personally, I wouldn’t risk it. If I had known about the algae problem, I absolutely would have booked our trip earlier in the dry season!
HOW TO GET TO BORACAY
There are essentially two ways to reach Boracay. One is quicker, but involves taking an extra flight. The other is often cheaper, but takes a little longer. We chose the second option, mostly because anytime I can reduce the amount of time I’m in an airplane, I opt for that.
THE QUICKEST WAY
Two airports serve visitors to Boracay. The closest one to the island is Caticlan Airport. If you go this route, you’ll most likely fly to Manila first and then catch a flight on to Caticlan. Your next step will depend on whether or not you’ve booked a transfer with your hotel in Boracay. If you have, they’ll handle all your transportation from here. If you haven’t, it’s quite easy to reach Boracay on your own. Just hop into one of the motor-tricycles waiting outside the airport and enjoy your short, 15-minute journey to Caticlan Jetty where you’ll then need to buy a ticket on one of the boats heading to Boracay’s Cagban Port. They leave frequently and it’ll take no longer than 15-20 minutes to reach the port. There will be vans and motor-tricycles waiting at the port to take you on to your hotel or resort.
THE CHEAPER WAY
The other airport serving Boracay is Kalibo. It’s a good deal further away than Caticlan, but if you’re okay with taking a 1.5 hour bus ride after your flight, it’s an excellent option. The roads are fine and if you go with a transfer service (more on that in a second), the journey is simple. We chose this option because there are direct flights from Singapore to Kalibo, and the fare was almost half what it would have been if we’d flown to Caticlan.
If you fly into Kalibo and have not arranged a transfer through your hotel, I recommend booking a transfer with Southwest Tours. We used them on our way to Boracay and again on our way back to the airport. Both times, the process couldn’t have been smoother. They took care of all parts of the journey for us – the bus to Caticlan Jetty, the boat to Cagban Port, and the van to our hotel – and the stated price included the extra fees all visitors are required to pay on arrival at Caticlan Jetty. Otherwise, there are taxis outside Kalibo airport that can take you to Caticlan Jetty, but be prepared, they will swarm you as you exit and you’ll likely need to haggle to get a good price.
THE EXTRA FEES
All visitors to Boracay are required to pay a terminal fee and an environmental fee upon arrival at Caticlan Jetty. On your return at the end of your trip, you’ll need to pay the terminal fee again, but not the environmental fee. Thankfully, the fees are small – 100 pesos for the terminal fee and 75 pesos for the environmental. (That’s like $2 and $1.50 USD.)
If you are traveling to the Philippines by air, you’ll also need to be aware of the fees charged by the airport you’re flying into and out of. For most people, your airport fees on arrival in the Philippines will be included in the price of your airfare. Airport fees on departure, however, will have to be paid in cash before you’ll be allowed into the airport terminal. In March of 2017, the fee at Kalibo airport was 700 pesos per person ($14 USD). Make sure you have enough cash on you at the end of your trip to completely cover this cost because they don’t take cards!
WHERE TO STAY IN BORACAY
While there are places to stay on other parts of the island, the vast majority of accommodation choices in Boracay are found on White Beach. Split into three different “stations”, hotels and resorts on White Beach come in a wide range of budget levels. Generally, Station 1 is where you’ll find most of the upscale boutique hotels and luxury resorts. The beach is wider here and the sand is softer than anywhere else along White Beach, but those perks come at a high price if you want to stay beachfront.
For more affordable options, you’ll want to head on down to Station 2 or 3. What you’re coming to Boracay for will ultimately determine which of these two stations will suit you best. If you’re here to party and meet other travelers, or you just like to stay as close as possible to all the action, Station 2 will be your best bet. If you’re after a peaceful, relaxing beach holiday, then it’s Station 3 all the way. Station 3 is the quietest area along White Beach, and if could do it all over again, this is where I would stay.
Instead, we chose to stay at One Crescent Place in Station 1, far enough from the beach to be affordable, but close enough that we could still walk to it in under 5 minutes. It was a lovely hotel with kind staff and a delicious breakfast every morning, but I ended up feeling like we missed out a little by not staying somewhere with a view of the ocean. I mean, that’s what beach holidays are for, right? So next time, it’ll be Station 3 for us!
WHERE TO EAT
I hate to be the one to break this to you, but the food in Boracay just isn’t really all that exciting. It’s not that it tastes bad or anything, it’s just highly unlikely you’ll have the best meal of your life here, or even one that’s particularly memorable. Besides that, since the majority of restaurants are attempting to appeal to tourists, it’s not all that easy to even find actual Filipino food either, which is a pretty big downside for those of us who prioritize trying new foods and local delicacies while traveling.
In lieu of amazing food, we ended up searching out restaurants with cool vibes and were lucky enough to find a couple. Two standouts were the Tree House Restaurant in Station 3 and Spider House on Diniwid Beach. Our favorite lunch spot was Army Navy Burger + Burrito (one guess who they were catering to) and you can’t go wrong with Jonah’s Fruit Shakes. That’s where we tried the halo-halo pictured above, a Filipino dessert made up of shaved ice, evaporated milk, fruit, corn, beans, several unidentified gummy bits, and who knows what else. The verdict? I think we’ll be sticking with our regular fruit shakes!
We also enjoyed meals at Hey Jude in Station 3 (which I picked simply because I like the song) and Smoke Resto near D’Mall in Station 2. Smoke Resto isn’t much to look at and it’s so small you’ll likely have to wait for a bit to get a seat, but they serve Filipino food. And the food tasted best here of anywhere we tried, so definitely give it a go!
THINGS TO DO IN BORACAY
RELAX ON WHITE BEACH
It’s the beach that consistently earns Boracay a spot on Best Islands In The World lists, and it’s truly not to be missed. (Even if you have the bad luck of arriving during the dreaded algae season.) Stretching over 4km from the beginning of Station 1 to the far end of Station 3, White Beach’s massive size ensures that if you want a quiet beach vacation amid a tropical paradise or a wild one you can’t remember properly after you’ve returned home, you can have it without disturbing the other.
Given how long it takes to walk from one end to the other, where you decide to stay on White Beach will probably influence which area you spend the most time in, so choose wisely! If you stay in a beachside resort, you’ll have the benefit of a free place to lay on the beach all day. Otherwise, you’ll need to pay a daily rate to rent a beach chair and umbrella from one of the various vendors, mostly in Station 2 and 3. Alternatively, you can just bring a towel and plop down anywhere you like, but there’s hardly any shade, so be prepared to bake if you do that.
EXPLORE BORACAY’S OTHER BEAUTIFUL BEACHES
While its beauty is undeniable, White Beach does have a couple downsides – the most obvious being the crowds and a clear touristy vibe. If you’re looking to get away from all that, Boracay offers several other excellent options, some easier to get to than others.
The closest alternative to White Beach is Diniwid Beach, just a short walk around a cliff from Station 1. Here you’ll find the same super soft sand and crystal clear waters that White Beach benefits from, but with a fraction of the crowds. If you’re willing to pay a couple dollars for a motor-tricycle ride, Puka Shell Beach on the northern tip of the island is absolutely stunning. This was our favorite beach in Boracay, and ultimately what saved our vacation since the algae that plagued White Beach during our stay was nowhere to be found this far north!
GET ACTIVE IN OR ON THE WATER
If laying comatose on the beach for days on end sounds like torture (I hear you), Boracay offers plenty of ways to get your muscles moving. Snorkeling is a popular choice and you’ll have zero trouble finding vendors on White Beach offering boat trips out to areas known to have pretty coral and lots of fish to admire. The same goes for diving.
If you prefer to get your exercise on the water instead of in it, the calm nature of the sea along White Beach makes it perfect for stand-up paddleboarding. Or you can get your adrenaline pumping by going kitesurfing and windsurfing on Bulabog Beach. (We hitched a ride over there just to watch, and it looked really cool!) A quick walk past the vendors hanging out in Station 2 will show you all the different options you have for staying active in Boracay.
Paraw sailing is one of the most popular activities in Boracay. Paraw sailboats, double outrigger sailboats unique to the Philippines, are available for hire during the day to take you around to Boracay’s lesser known beaches* and at evening for sunset sailing. (It’s nothing short of magical seeing all the sailboats heading out to sea at sunset!) If you plan to go at sunset, book for at least an hour before so that you’re out on the water long before the sun falls below the horizon. It’s quite a show and you won’t want to miss any of it!
*Paraw sailing isn’t the only way to island hop around Boracay. Lots of other boat operators will take you around as well, but be prepared. Most of these tours try to hit as many beaches as they can in a limited amount of time, so if relaxing and taking a leisurely swim are something you were expecting to do, I’d just pick a beach and take a motor-tricycle there for the day.
CATCH THE SUNSET FROM WHITE BEACH
I have seen a lot of sunsets in my 34 years, but none quite like those we saw in Boracay. They were outstanding. The picture above was taken on our second night in Boracay, our first to see the sunset thanks to a late flight in. We set up on the beach an hour before the sun was scheduled to go down, fully expecting to see your usual beautiful beach sunset. Instead, we were treated to an almost otherworldly sunset as the light of the closing day bathed the entire beach in this glorious orange glow. Not every sunset we experienced in Boracay was quite this vivid, but they were all unlike anything I’d ever seen before.
We watched the sunset in Boracay from four different locations and my favorite was from Station 1 on White Beach just to the south of Willy’s Rock. By sunset, most people have already headed to Station 2 for drinks and dinner, so Station 1 is as empty as you’ll ever see it, making it easy to capture photos without lots of other people jumping in front of you to grab the same shot!
EXPERIENCE BORACAY’S NIGHTLIFE
Besides the gorgeous beaches, the thing that draws most people to Boracay is its nightlife. From beachside bars to lounges with live music to nightclubs where you can keep on dancing until 4 in the morning or your legs give out (whichever comes first), Boracay’s vibrant nightlife offers something for everyone. (Except for maybe those of us who are in bed by 10pm every night. Haha!)
In addition to bars and clubs, you’ll also find lots of nighttime performances (mostly fire dancers, but also karaoke) going on up and down White Beach. If you want to sit down and watch, you’ll have to order something to eat or drink from whatever restaurant is putting on the show, but watching from the beach is free!
OTHER TRAVEL TIPS FOR BORACAY
HOW TO GET AROUND
The easiest way to get around in Boracay, other than walking, is to hop on a motor-tricycle. They’re relatively inexpensive, and unless you’re in a remote area, you’ll have no trouble hailing one. You might have to haggle, but you should be able to get just about anywhere on the island from White Beach for about 100 to 150 pesos. If you’re staying on one end of White Beach and want to get to the other side without walking, expect to pay around 50 pesos per person for a shared motor-tricycle ride.
Note: It’s best to ask beforehand how much the ride will cost just to avoid any confusion or possible scams once you reach your destination.
THE BEACH VENDORS
If you’ve spent any time on beaches in Southeast Asia, then you will be no stranger to the beach vendors who make their living by selling goods and services to tourists on the beach. Everywhere else we’ve been, it hasn’t been a big deal – sometimes we buy something, most of the time we just smile and shake our heads and they move on – but in Boracay it was nothing short of excessive. It wasn’t necessarily the persistence of the vendors, it was the sheer number of them. Every five minutes we were being asked if we wanted sunglasses, hats, souvenirs, massages, hair-braiding, temporary tattoos, boat tours, snorkeling equipment, and so on from someone new. We even had people tap us on the shoulder while we were sleeping to ask if we wanted to buy something! We were always polite because obviously everyone’s just trying to make a living, but for people who are just trying to enjoy a peaceful vacation, it’s more than a little annoying.
The best way to avoid the worst of this on White Beach is to set up in Station 3, as far down as you can. The beach vendors tend to go where the most people are, so Station 1 and Station 2 see a lot more salespeople than all the way down in Station 3. Alternatively, you can head to one of Boracay’s other beaches where less tourists also mean less touts.
HOW LONG TO STAY
Boracay is small, and even if you venture outside of White Beach (which you should), you’ll still be able to see a large portion of the island in a relatively short amount of time. While there will always be enough activities to fill whatever time you decide to spend in Boracay, for some people it might start to feel the same after awhile.
Usually very active travelers, we decided to make our trip about relaxing (mostly). We stayed for five nights which gave us four full days on the island. For us, this was enough. Any longer and I think we might have gotten bored, but any shorter and we wouldn’t have had time to check out the areas outside of White Beach that we wanted to see. I think, generally, 3-4 full days will please most people. For those who prefer a change of scenery or larger places to explore, 2-3 days would be enough. For those who like to do as little as possible for as long as possible, stay as long as you like. The beaches are phenomenal and with little to do outside of boat tours and water sports, you won’t feel any pressure to leave your lounge chair if you don’t want to!
DON’T EXPECT TO FIND MUCH FILIPINO CULTURE
Here’s the thing – Boracay is touristy, no doubt there. And because of that, you’ll be lucky to find any actual culture here. If you’re coming for the scenery or to escape regular life for awhile, then that’s no big deal. Not everywhere you go needs to be a history lesson or an opportunity to learn how other people live. But if this is your first time in the Philippines and you were hoping to find out what living in the Philippines is like, then you might want to look elsewhere. Both Cory and I left the island saying it was one of the most beautiful places we’d ever been, but we could have been anywhere in the world – nothing about Boracay made us feel like we were in the Philippines. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, but it’s something you ought to know before booking your trip.
If you’ve been to Boracay, what did you think? Any other travel tips you’d add?
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