Christmas Break - Atmosphere Resort
|Waiting for Santa|
Emma cooked us a wonderful Christmas dinner.
The excitement (and alcohol) was just too much for some...
The kids soon got bored with the presents and then the "big" kids took over...
Before we knew it it was time to be off again....
Maayong Tubig to Antulang Beach - 25km
|Family and friends, Atmosphere|
After a break from cycling of more than 4 weeks and all the excesses of Christmas and New Year we decided the first day back on the road should be a short one. It was past 10am before we hit the road and the short ride up the rough and bumpy Atmosphere drive was enough to cause a bit of panting.
Like most of the islands of the Philippines the main road runs around the coast and here, about 25km south of the capital Dumaguete, it is quite busy. The traffic consists of Ceres buses which travel fast and expect total subservience from all other road users, moderate sized lorries carrying sugar cane to the refineries, jeepneys and motor trikes. Bicycles are unusual but gradually gaining popularity. With the Philippines flags that Simon and Emma had given to us for Christmas fastened to the back racks we were constantly greeted and waved at by everyone we passed.
|Bit of a crush, Malatapay market|
After 7km is the village of Malatapay which holds it's famous bartering market every Wednesday morning. We have been there before but the busy, bustling mayhem of the place is magic. Vehicles of all sizes struggle to drive between the market stalls carrying their cargo of live animals to the livestock market. Pigs, goats and cattle in lorries, on tricycles, lashed to the rack of a motorbike or just led on foot with a rope harness. The highlight of the morning is the delicious roast pig (lechon) cooked whole on a spit and served in chunks with steamed rice. After only 30 minutes riding we were sitting down for a feast.
|Koo Koo's nest jetty|
From there it was only another 6km of flat tarmac before the turn off to Bonbonon Bay. This is mostly an unsurfaced road with a few cemented sections. It is well graded and shaded with tall trees. There are several short steep climbs and descents but the last one, up to the top of the headland and Koo Koo's nest is the steepest with a loose stone surface and we had to push up the last section.
|Koo Koo's nest beach|
The resort is beautiful with just a few bamboo cottages built on stilts on the beach, a restaurant and a small dive shop. We spent the afternoon relaxing, snorkeling and wading round the rocky headland with the resident resort dogs. Unfortunately Steve slipped on a rock and dropped the camera into the sea. It died instantly.
Antulang Beach to Bayawan - 70km
From the resort we returned along the track for 4km to rejoin the unsurfaced road which continues around the bay. The morning was cool and cloudy with slight drizzle and the dirt road climbed up and down through forest and palms. There was hardly any traffic but plenty of people on foot.
From here the road was significantly quieter with just the occasional Ceres bus and motorbikes. There were a few rolling hills to climb around Gillgaon Point but then the road was flat all the way to Bayawan. This town claims to have the longest beach side boulevard in Negros but it has no other tourist infrastructure.
There was a small hotel near the bus station, advertising a range of rooms at different prices. The receptionist told us that all the rooms were full except for the most expensive 'suite' room so we booked that. Don't be misled, it wasn't luxurious, it just had a settee and two small armchairs as well as the bed. We never saw or heard another guest.
Bayawan to Punta Ballo, Sipalay - 88km
The hotel breakfast was served in the Internet cafe next door on a little table in the middle of the lines of computers and monitors. The typical Philippine breakfast consists of cold rice, cold fried egg and either fish, ham or beef (cold, of course). We had to pay extra because we wanted a cup of coffee, no drink was included.
We set off along the wide, impressive boulevard, a dual-carriageway with grand lamp-posts. The tide was out and the large fishing boats were stranded on the pale sand. After 750m it stopped abruptly in a heap of earth and we had to do a u-turn and return to the main road. The sky was clear today so it was much hotter, but there was still a cooling breeze.
Heading north we had a few more rolling hills to climb on smooth tarmac with only light traffic. About 20km north of Bayawan we passed a beach resort called Fantasea which looked like a good, budget place to stay.
The next town was Santa Catalina where we had a morning break. Beyond that there were major roadworks. The road was being concreted. Several sections were complete and they were wide and silky smooth with the luxury of a hard-shoulder. Between these the surface was very rough and loose. All of the river bridges were being replaced. It was quite hard work in the hot sun but with little motor traffic it was bearable. Once back on the smoother surfaced road we noticed that one of Karen's rear spokes had broken, another repair needed.
At Sipalay we felt we were almost finished so had a beer in one of the cafes on the beach while we telephoned Artistic Diving, a resort at the Punta Ballo beach. When we asked her, the receptionist assured us that the road there was 'just a bit up and down' but nothing too bad. After a beer, the 7km of steep hills and descents felt more like crossing the Alps. To make matters worse, it poured with rain the whole way so we arrived bad-tempered, muddy and soaking.
The beautiful beach and lovely resort made all the suffering worthwhile and we enjoyed a few more beers and a delicious meal in the restaurant watching the continuing rain.
Punta Ballo - Day Off
The weather was better today and Steve did two enjoyable dives while Karen did some snorkeling. It was warm and sunny and we enjoyed chatting to the other guests, mainly German and Swiss. One couple, Matt and Karen, had spent the last 10 years running a dive resort in the Maldives and were in Negros getting a feel for the diving before considering buying a dive resort near Dumaguete. Maybe we'll meet them later. Steve also had time to replace Karen's spoke and re-balance her wheel.
Sipalay to Kahankaka - 83km
Knowing there were a few hills on the road out of Sipalay we decided to hire a tricycle to take us from the resort into town. With the bikes lashed on the back and our gear stuffed around our feet we enjoyed the steep hills and views that we had missed because of the rain. In Sipalay we brought new lube for the rusty bike chains and searched in vain for an ATM.
The road north was smooth and quiet, just the occasional motorbike. There were more hills as we approached the top of the 'heel' of Negros. The gradient was gentle and levelled out regularly. It was only about 150m high but the lovely sweeping descent on the other side was a joy. The villages we rode through were friendly and neat but they were poor with few shops or places to eat. Just as we were about to loose hope of lunch there was a little bamboo shack at the roadside overlooking the sea. It was called 'Little Shamrock' and promised coffee and food. It was actually owned by a Dutch man, married to a Philippine lady and they had only started trading 2 weeks ago. His wife served us some traditional chicken soup with vegetables and rice. It was delicious and we wished them luck with their business.
Sugar cane is the most abundant crop in this area with vast fields of tall green canes. It is a very labour intensive harvest with gangs of men cutting the cane by hand with machete type knives. Then it is all loaded by hand into large high sided lorries to be transported to the refineries.
From here it was a level ride all the way to Kahankaka. The town was holding its annual music festival and tonight was the climax. Unfortunately it meant that a lot of the accommodation was fully booked but we found a nice, newish place called West Side Inn with a vacant room. That night we were so tired that we just walked to the nearest restaurant, ate and went back to bed. We just couldn't face the throng and noise of the festival.
Kahankaka to Bago - 80km
The plan was to get a ferry over to the small island of Guimares, which lies between Negros and Panay. We wanted to get one from Valladolid but we arrived about 12md and the daily ferry had departed at 10am. A tricycle driver advised us to continue on to Pulupandan, where there were 'frequent ferries'. But actually there were only two a day and the last one had left an hour ago. An elderly local pointed us in the direction of a small boat yard which could rent us a private bangka. The problem was that it would cost 2,000 pesos, compared with 200 for the ferry.
We decided to continue into Bago for the night and return to get on the 7.30am ferry the next day. There was only one place to stay in Bago. Called 'L E Pension', it occupied the second floor of a small shopping centre and took a lot of finding.
Bago to Iloilo (Panay) - 35km + ferry
Today was one of those days when it seems the whole World is ganging up on you to make life difficult. The room in the pension had no outside window so we set the alarm for 6am so that we would have plenty of time to get to the ferry. Packed and ready to leave we went outside to find it was pouring with rain and blowing a gale.
In the little shopping centre cafe we brought coffee and local breakfast and considered the options. The idea of getting a little open bangka to Guimaras in the rough sea was not attractive. Instead we set off to cycle 20km to Bacolod and get the passenger ferry to Iloilo on Panay. The road was being resurfaced and so half the road was closed off and all the traffic squeezing past on the other lane. Luckily the hard shoulder was closed off but not obstructed so we rode along that. Before setting off Karen's front tyre had to be pumped up as it had a slow puncture, and halfway to Bacolod we had to stop and mend the puncture.
Arriving at Bacolod we were immediately lost in the busy traffic and incomprehensible one-way system. Finding sanctuary in a cafe we asked the staff the way to the ferry port. We might as well have asked them the way to the moon for all the help they were. They acted as if they had never heard of an island called Panay, let alone a city called Iloilo.
It was raining again as we rode down the hill towards the sea and the probable port location. We saw a queue of lorries and cars and thought that was it, but in fact they were waiting at the Vehicle Emissions Test Centre. Eventually we found the ferry and brought a ticket at the first counter, paid a 'Terminal Fee' at the next, then had to check the bikes in at the freight counter. Luckily there was plenty of time to spare.
We boarded the boat and the bikes were loaded by the porters. We learnt a valuable lesson - always supervise the loading of the bikes. Arriving at Iloilo an hour later we discovered that Karen's front tyre had rubbed so badly on something that all the side webbing had ruptured and it needed replacing.
The traffic in Iloilo was about the worst we have encountered yet. It seems like all of the tricycle and cyclocab owners have been persuaded to trade-up to a modern, long wheelbase, jeepney style multi cabs. The whole town was nose to tail with them. They stop anywhere to pick up and drop off passengers and the drivers never look before they pull off again. We attempted to ride to Jaro, about 3km north, to see the 'china town' but gave up half way because the traffic was manic. Instead we rode to Moro, to see the old church.
After searching around the quieter backstreets we managed to find a replacement tyre and as we locked the bikes up at the hostel Steve discovered he had a broken spoke. Strange, after three years cycling with no wheel problems we each get a broken spoke within four days.
Iloilo to Guimbal - 30km
Along this coast are the remains of the look-out towers, built in the 1500's. They were built to enable the people to keep watch for the approach of the Moro pirate boats, searching for valuables and able bodied people to sell as slaves.
Guimbal had to be our next stop as the next reliable accommodation was in San Jose, a further 70km. The resort recommended in the 'Rough Guide' was tired and the rooms smelly and expensive so we booked into the Rosco's Garden resort over the road. It was an interesting little place with a small zoo as well as a swimming pool and gardens which was popular with the locals but in need of some renovation.
Guimbal to San Jose - 73km
We ate breakfast by the swimming pool, watching a group of finches making nests in the creeper over our heads. The wind had dropped at last and the sea was like a mill pond. By coffee time we had arrived at Miagao with the most impressive ancient church yet, with a carved facade depicting typical local themes and two towers. It was a struggle to find a peaceful place for coffee. The locals love their music and weather it is videoke or just the radio the volume is always on maximum with lots of bass.
20kms further on we turned away from the coast to climb over the short peninsula toward San Jose. It was a long, gentle climb and a good road surface but the sun was hot and there wasn't a breath of wind. The sign at the bottom raised our hopes of finding a fortune but the search was fruitless.
At about 11.30 the children go home from school so there were lots of them walking along the road as we toiled up the hill. One lad tried to race Steve, running along at his side for quite a way and pushing the bike along. As he tired he decided to try to jump onto the rack for a lift. This extra weight brought Steve to a complete halt and he had to forcibly evict him.
After two false summits we eventually reached the top, at the border of the Antique province, and picked up a cooling sea breeze from the west coast. At the bottom of the descent there was a small village and a welcome eatery. It was already 1.30pm and there was little left but the lady owner welcomed us warmly and we ate fish steaks with jack fruit and bean casserole which was the most delicious food yet. There were men in the back garden chopping down a coconut tree so we had free green coconut juice as well.
|The owner of Biniraven with his Union Jacks|
Following the coast road north it was just 10km further to San Jose where we had booked bed and breakfast in a place called 'Biniraven Cottages' just on the outskirts of the town.
San Jose to Tibiao - 85km
Today we continued to follow the west Panay coast north. This area was described in the Rough Guide as one of the poorest in the Philippines, but we saw more signs of wealth here than on the south coast of Negros. The road was well surfaced and there were plenty of 4wd vehicles going past us.
On our right were the towering steep sided mountains with just a thin strip of flat rice paddies before the ocean on our left. We rolled into the town of Bugason at lunchtime. They were in the middle of their patronage festival and as we searched for somewhere to eat lunch we came across a crowd of locals blacked up for a parade. They were happy to pose for a photo as long as we put cash into their collecting boxes.
By now the moderate head wind which had made us work hard all morning had increased and the next 40km was challenging and tiring. The rice paddies gave way to sugar cane as this area calls itself the 'Muscovado Capital'. Here the locals call all Western men 'Joe' and by late afternoon Steve's temper was getting thin as he just wanted to tell everyone his name was Steve, not Joe.
In the evening we walked to a little restaurant behind a petrol station on the main road. As usual we were the only people eating. A middle aged man arrived alone on his motorbike and asked for the videoke to be switched on. He stood on the garage forecourt, sung a couple of his favourite songs and then went home!
Tibiao to Boracay - 97km + ferry
We were the only people staying in the Homtel. The students asked us what time we would like breakfast and it was arranged for 7.30 am. As usual, although there were only two breakfasts to prepare, they had been cooked it hours in advance and the eggs and bacon were stone cold.
|Rice harvesting, Panay|
Lunchtime found us in Pandan and on a restaurant search. Quite by chance we found a place near the market owned by a Swiss man and his local wife, with a good choice of international food. The rosti potatoes were so enjoyable after days of rice. From there we took the slightly shorter route to Caticlan via Nabas and then along the north Panay coast. Here it was sheltered from the wind but the steep hills up and down the headland taxed the legs somewhat.
The ferry port at Caticlan was heaving with tourists, masses of them arriving in coaches, mini-buses, taxis and tricycles. Because we had the bikes we were directed to the Montenegro ferry which was a normal boat (ie, with no outriggers) and easier to load the bikes onto than the bangkas.
Arriving at Boracay, the rain which had been threatening all day finally arrived and it was dark and miserable. By the time we had ridden up to White Beach we were soaked so searched out a bar on the beach side to relieve the pain with beer. The problem was that the price, 60 peso, was 3x what we had been paying on the other islands. The bar menu also had peanuts, usually free, for $2 a dish.
Boracay - Day Off
Boracay really does have a most beautiful white, sugary beach but it has been spoilt by excessive development. The sea is full of boats, the boats are full of divers and the sea front heaves with tourists. The worst ones are the large groups of Korean/Taiwanese/Chinese who do everything together and follow each other around.
One day was enough for us and tomorrow we would move on to the Romblon Islands. That evening the housekeeper of the house we were staying at cooked us three huge pizzas for tea for free a significant help for the stretched finances.
Boracay to Odiongan (Tablas) - 26km + ferry
We had to be up early to get the ferry back from Boracay to Caticlan, then catch the 9.30am ferry to Looc on Tablas Island. After the usual ritual of buying tickets and paying terminal fees we had to ask around to find the ferry, a bangka, which was tied up at another jetty. As we were some of the first passengers we got the bikes and bags loaded and got a seat in the inside. The seats were normal plastic stacking chairs fixed in threes to wooden cross members. The problem with traditional Philippine boats is that they have bamboo outriggers and the spars for these pass through the middle of the boat so getting into the cabin means climbing over several of them.
The cabin kept filling with more and more passengers it was difficult to imagine where they were all going to sit and weather there were enough life jackets for all of them. Everyone had masses of baggage, boxes with crowing cockerels, bags of rice, a motor tricycle, suitcases and shopping bags. A family with two children sat behind us and the kids were sick all the way. They had camphor rubbed on their chests which made a nauseating combination with the engine fumes.
|Boat crew, Tablas Ferry|
On the way into Odiogan was a little oasis of a place, a restaurant and deli owned by Peter, called Mouse's Morsels. We stopped for a beer and he persuaded us to return for a meal later and recommended a good place to stay on the outskirts of town. The meal, Cajun barbecued fish with chips followed by cheese and biscuits and washed down by a good bottle of red wine, was great.
Odiongan to San Augustin - 56km
For the first 40 km the road continued following the coastline north. The population density here is very low, with just a few small agricultural and fishing villages. The road was well surfaced at first but after about 25km there were some longish rough surfaced sections. Where the road skirted the sea we had views of the 'Whale Island' which looks just like an enormous whale swimming in the sea.
|Water buffalo having a bad hair day|
Calatran is the northernmost town on the island. It is a poor, little visited place and didn't appear to have a single eatery. On a side street we found a little stall offering 'burgers': a small bun with a slice of ham smothered in a generous quantity of (very sweet) tomato sauce.
Accommodation option were similarly limited with just one small beach resort on the outskirts of town. It appeared to be closed, with the bar shuttered and the chairs and tables stacked up. The idea of paying 1200 peso for a room with little chance of finding anything decent to eat was not tempting so we decided to continue to San Agustin.
We booked into the August Inn, close to the ferry jetty. It was quite basic but run by a lovely couple who were very helpful and friendly. Just as we were about to go out to eat there was a brown out of about an hour so we sat drinking beers at a little bar by the pier in the pitch dark.
San Agustin to San Pedro (Romblon) 15km + ferry
The ferry was scheduled to leave at 8am. When we arrived there was already quite a crowd of people sitting on the sea wall while the porters loaded the boat. They carried our bikes over and laid them on the roof. A couple of jeepneys arrived and unloaded more prospective passengers. Once we were allowed to board the little bangka there was a bit of a scrum to grab one of the life jackets that the crew were distributing. The law is that every passenger has to have one to be allowed on the boat.
We both grabbed one and jumped on. The small cabin at the rear was already full and the only way to access the front cabin was to crawl through one of the window openings. Difficult wearing a life jacket. The only vacant seats were right at the front of the boat. Not so much seats as a plank to sit on. A large crowd of prospective passengers remained on the quay, prevented from boarding by the coast guard as they had no life jackets. Gradually we dug out a few from under the seats and passed them out so most of them eventually got on.
|San Pedro Resort|
San Pedro - Day Off
San Pedro - Romblon Town - 35km
It was so quiet especially when we left the 'main' road, which took a more inland route, to follow an unsurfaced track along the coast. This passed through small fishing villages with friendly locals, giving stunning views over the sea.
Romblon Town - Magdiwan (Sibuyan) ferry
Sibuyan is a beautiful and largely undeveloped island, with a 2,000m high volcano, Mount Guiting Guiting, at it's centre with its thickly forested slopes. Paradise Resort has wonderful views of the mountains but in the three days we stayed the top of the volcano was only visible for about one hour.
Our five friends from Romblon were staying there, as well as a Polish backpacker, Hannah.
Magdiwan - Day Off
The resort had its own jeepney and today a trip had been arranged to circumnavigate the island, stopping at a couple of waterfalls on the way and taking a picnic lunch. Richard, Gloria, Hannah, Julie, Vincent and Frank were all going so we decided that we would go with them.
The road on the west coast is unsurfaced and had been badly affected by floods a couple of years ago. All of the river brides were swept away and the temporary steel bridges erected to replace them are still waiting for permanent replacements. In a couple of the wider river valleys the road had gone also, meaning slow progress over piles of boulders. It was good to be in a jeepney rather than on the bikes.
|Hannah, jumping in|
Along the way we cooled of with a swim in the river followed by a picnic. We watched the local boys jumping into the water from the high tower and of course the men all had to have a go to. Most courageous was Hannah, the only girl brave enough, and wearing the skimpiest of bikinis.
Magdiwan to Cajidiocan - 39km
Our original plan was to get the ferry from Sibuyan back to Roxas on Panay, ride back to Iloilo then cross to Negros and from there to Cebu. Then we found that there was a ferry from Sibuyan to Masbate from where we could get another boat directly to Cebu and save quite a few kilometres on what were reportedly busy, boring roads.
As usual it was difficult to find any food at all for lunch until we arrived at Cajidiocan at about 2pm. There was a cafe with a long menu of food in the window but the only thing avail;able was a 'hamburger' the usual meagre sweet bun with a slice of meat and tomato sauce.
There were two very basic pensions in the town but they both turned us away as they were full. About 5km further south was 'Reiner's Place', German owned and a bit run down but the welcome and the food were very good.