Our time at the southern end of Cebu island was the perfect example of what the Philippines does best; scenery and wildlife.
We’d come with one activity ambition; to swim with whale sharks. The place to do this is actually a few kilometres south of Oslob near Tan-Awan, so we’d booked one night at a guesthouse near Santander, where the boat arrives from Negros island. Having not been that impressed by the other transit towns and cities we’d passed through in the Philippines, we didn’t have high expectations for Lilo-an port. We should have. More like a village than the built-up university town of Dumaguete on Negros, and so much calmer than traffic-snarled Tagbilaran on Bohol, every step of the 2km walk from the ferry landing to the guesthouse was picture-perfect. From the sparkling turquoise waters at the jetty, to the colourful washing lines strung amongst the palm tree groves, and the bunches of bananas hanging overhead, the colours were almost unnaturally bright and vivid. Unnatural to eyes more used to an English palette of cloud, drizzle and damp, that is. To be honest, The fact that it’s further away from Tan-Awan, and not nearly as beautiful, means we can’t really see a good reason to stay in Oslob itself.
Further on we passed children playing in the doorways outside their homes, basketball nets (the most popular pass-time in the Philippines), big cockerels with bright plumage (kept for the second, cock fighting), and a very tempting For Lease sign on a patch of ground with a view of the ocean.
The Farm, a newly opened guesthouse, is set in a grassy clearing between a small country lane and the beach. We’d booked just a simple overnight stop, but it turned out to be a really good find. Our room, in a little terrace of four cottages, had high ceilings, rustic decor and its own little porch looking out over the picnic tables dotted around the clearing. It was just a 100m walk down a track to the completely deserted (if slightly pebbly) beach, with views back to Negros island. Our delicious dinner that night set our hopes high for the included breakfast the next morning.
As our pick-up for a day trip swimming with whale sharks was coming at 6am, the chef agreed to open the kitchen early to serve our breakfast at 5:30am. This was the start of our introduction to another aspect of local culture: Filipinos love to eat. So much so, that there is a special word, ‘merienda’, for the snacks eaten after breakfasts (yup, plural breakfasts), again after lunch, and, for the full experience, a midnight merienda after dinner! Thanks to some excellent home-cooked bacon and scrambled eggs at The Farm, followed by a second breakfast and huge ‘lunch’ served either side of the whale shark swimming, we’d put away three meals by 9:30am! It did mean that we got to try a lot of local dishes like fried fish, pork sisig, chicken inasal, spring rolls, vegetable soup and – a Filipino breakfast staple – mango sticky rice and hot chocolate.
Punctuating all the face-stuffing was our real reason for being there; the whale sharks. It’s possible to just turn up at the pier and pay directly to go out on a bangka-canoe with the boatmen. However, booking a day’s tour turned out to be quite strategic as we ended up putting away enough calories to last a week, but also because the private driver offered pick-ups and drop-offs at either end of Cebu island so it doubled up as our transport from Santander up to Cebu City – saving us many, many hours on a public bus.
Shortly after a sunrise briefing session (don’t touch the animals, of course) our boatman canoed us out from the shore and we jumped in. The visibility at 6am in deep water is much worse than the crystal clear snorkelling conditions we’d got used to in the Philippines. This only added to the suspense as we strained our eyes, trying to spot our first sharks. We needn’t have looked so hard; the first shark came into view about 2m from our faces. Our feet stopped treading and our arms hung still for a few seconds as we watched this imposing creature, the size of a bus, glide by with just the smallest movements in its tail. As the second and third came along, we felt comfortable enough to get the GoPro out and take some pictures as they swam closer and closer around us along with their entourage of swarming ilvery fish. The 30 minutes was up in no time…
After the whale sharks there was a “side trip” to Tumalog waterfalls before the 3 hour drive up to Cebu City. We were a little dubious of these side trips being added in as fillers, but Tumalog falls turned out to be a good stop. An incredibly steep 10 minute walk down into a valley lead us to a towering sheer rock face with patches of plants dotted around causing mini cascades which made tens of tiny rainbows when the sunlight caught the spray right. Our guide said that during rainy season the waterfall swells into an impressive thick curtain of water, but during rainy season the steep track we walked down is probably a waterfall in its own right!
Whilst on some other group tours we’ve taken we’ve felt a little shepherded around, taking a private tour meant our guide was happy to add side trip upon side trip, but only if we felt like it. At the base of the waterfall was another small pool full of the fish used in fish foot spas – we dipped our toes in, the fish got a free lunch and we got a free confirmation that this spa treatment is one to skip if you’re ticklish.
Driving on from the waterfall we passed through village streets decked with fiesta flags. Just as in Spain, each village has an annual celebration for their patron saint. Beyond the villages we stopped briefly in Oslob, giving us the chance to see the free folk museum, a colonial church and legitimate reason to call this post Oslob despite most of it happening between Santander and Tan-awan.