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James Betia on 100 Days of Backpacking the Philippines

Two years in the making, James R. Betia embarks on the journey of a lifetime that involves 100 days of nonstop travel on only 500 pesos per day.

AS A FREELANCE TRAVEL BLOGGER, I have the privilege of managing my own time, and every now and then I like to challenge myself. In 2010, I set out on a 14-day tour of the Visayas. The following year, I embarked on a 16-day journey around Mindanao. This year, I decided to up the ante and fulfill my dream of exploring the country — from the busiest towns pulsing with people and activity, to the loneliest stretches of beach and mountain. I had PHP50,000 in the bank and a lot of time on my hands, so in February this year, I set off make my dream come true.

Day 1
Starting offat Kilometer Zero

It was a gloomy Wednesday morning in February when I headed out of our family home in Los Baños, Laguna with a seven-kilo backpack full of clothes, a camera, a laptop and a hammock.

I wanted to officially start my journey from the original KM.0, which is the Manila Cathedral, Intramuros, so I boarded a bus bound for Manila. Once there, some friends joined me for a tour of The Walled City courtesy of a fellow travel blogger and history buff, Ivan Cultura. A few interesting bits stood out, among them: all structures inside this great city were destroyed during World War II, except for San Agustin Church, then the base of the Red Cross. One historical account says that the church was covered with an inch of blood from all the wounded and the dying. San Agustin Church is now a UNESCO Heritage Site. From Manila I headed to Rizal province, then went island hopping and beach camping in Zambales, and the Hundred Islands in Alaminos, Pangasinan. From these western provinces, I traveled north until I reached Abra, then Ilocos Sur, on the northwestern tip of Luzon, on Day 9.

The Shoestring Traveler
James R. Betia

His motto
Never defer a dream — the minute you see your chance, take it.

His mission
To cover as much of the archipelago without busting his budget.

Living off the earth
Day 10

From the old town of Vigan, where a stroll down the cobblestone-street of Calle Crisologo is like a trip back to the 1800s, I took a three-hour bus ride to Laoag and continued my way up to Pagudpud to take a dip in Saud Beach, famous for its white sand, crystalline waters and almost deserted beaches. From there I decided to go somewhat off the beaten path: walked down to the famous high-tech windmills of Bangui that harness wind power for part of the Luzon grid then endured an hour of butt-numbing uphill ride on a habal-habal (motorbike) to get to Adams, a small municipality with about 1,500 residents as of last count. It was worth the minor injury: once there, I found a room in a beautiful and cozy log cabin within a winery. Adams, so named by its earliest settlers who thought it looked like the Garden of Eden (or perhaps Adam's patch of it), is known for its local wine called bugnay, a sweet, fruity and light wine made from the fruit of the same name.

Aboard buses, motorbikes and tricycles — and sometimes, on foot — I made my way back to Tuguegarao, past the Callao Caves, through small towns across Cordillera mountain range that spread across the provinces of Apayao, Kalinga, Mountain Province and Ifugao, before following a course through the eastern part of Luzon. I dipped into waterfalls in Quirino and watched hardy surfers slice through curling waves in Aurora, and on the 24th day of my journey, I headed back to Manila.

After a quick pit stop in the city to replenish supplies, I moved south towards Quezon province and spent a few days following the daily rhythms of farmers in Marinduque.

I learned how to make copra and how to fetch fresh water from a river on the back of a carabao. Working with the earth was fulfilling labor, so by the time I got to the Bicol region, famous for its hot and spicy cuisine, I was ready to reward myself.

Swimming with sharks
Day 36

I'd always dreamed of swimming with the whale sharks in Donsol, Sorsogon, and finally I was about to cross another item off my bucket list. From the little catamaran, I had three whale shark sightings before I finally jumped into the water. I was speechless on the first encounter. The whale shark was bigger than a bus and it moved gently, softly, undistracted by the swarm of tourists, myself included, swimming around it. I swam about a meter over the gentle giant, following its direction and noticing small fish hitching a ride on its skin. It was 10 solid minutes of bliss that made me forget everything else. It was just me, the whale, and the peace of the underwater.

Two days later, after hopping around islands in Masbate, I caught a ferry to Allen Port in northern Samar. I made my way to Borongan City in the eastern part of the island, where I reconnected with long-time friends and tried surfing again. Then it was time to make my way to Leyte, where I caught another banca to the remote island of Biliran, before heading back to the capital town of Tacloban. It was Day 47 of my trip when I stepped onto another ferry, this time to cross a small artery of the Pacific, from southern Leyte to Surigao City in Mindanao.

Jumping off cliffs
Day 50

I was halfway through my journey and in an awestruck haze, the sheer diversity of the natural wonders left me mesmerized. I've always loved the great outdoors and would hate to miss a chance to experience something new and adventurous, so when a friend offered me a tour of his home province, I jumped at the chance. Jumping, it would seem, was to be the running theme of my first few days in Mindanao. Early morning we traveled by van to Hayanggabon Port and rode an outrigger to Sohoton Cove, on the eastern fringe of Siargao Island, famous among surfers around the world for the quality of its swells. You enter Sohoton Cove through a small cave opening during low tide; when the tide rolls in, it submerges this long passageway, making it impossible to leave the cove until the following day. This place, uninhabited by humans, is a spectacle of nature — coral formations in crystalline, turquoise waters; shimmering cave walls; the musical buzz and screech of hidden dwellers among the lush trees.

There's a must-do in the cove: climb up the narrow Makukuob Cave — stepping on slippery footholds and grasping ruts on the walls — to emerge onto a cliff. From 30ft high, the only way down is to jump into the clear water. Don't hesitate; there's the rising tide to think of.

Going with the flow
Day 52

Cantilan wasn't part of my original itinerary, but was too charming not to explore. The locals were so warm and friendly, and fellow travelers made for kindred spirits. I met Cathe, a CouchSurfer, who became my friend and guide while I was in town. The nearest beach is 10 minutes from the town proper. Cantilan's sand comes in shades of gray, brown, black and white. After two days, Cathe invited me to explore Ayoke Island, 45 minutes away by banca. It's a marine protected area and surfing spot where some foreigners have set up camp. While walking around the island, I was offered fresh buko (coconut) juice, and it was the sweetest I had ever tasted in my life.

Rescuing sea turtles
Day 55

I'd been to Mati a number of times before, but the capital town of Davao Oriental never ceases to spring a surprise on me. At my favorite beach of Dahican, a safe haven for endangered marine life like thedugongs (seacow), turtles and dolphins, I pitched my hammock between two trees — my bed for the next two nights. The local surf team, Amihan Boys, take good care of their place, cleaning the shoreline every morning and taking care of the turtles. One day I joined them as they rescued a green sea turtle weighing over 100kg, the biggest I'd ever seen. After three hours, the pregnant turtle laid 156 eggs on the sand beneath my hammock. If that's not yet an auspicious sign in any culture, it should be: the following day, I went out in the surf and for the first time ever, stood up on my board and road a wave unassisted.

After all that traipsing around remote beaches, it was good to be in urban sprawl of Davao City, where I met up for drinks with other backpackers passing through. Among the many ways solitary travel is thoroughly satisfying, is the snatches of time you spend with other people, especially those who share the same passion for travel.

Going the distance
Day 63

In Cotabato City, I tried speaking to people in the local dialect, only to learn later that Tagalog is spoken here.

I had a much easier time ordering food, buying souvenirs and asking for directions, and therefore covered more ground in less time. I saw Masjid Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah or the Grand Mosque, the largest in the country. I felt dwarfed by the enormous and grand structure.

I hopped aboard a bus to get to Malaybalay, Bukidnon where temperatures dropped and I needed, for the first time, to bring out a sweater. I traveled through Cagayan de Oro then Iligan, and Marawi City, then to the Zamboanga Peninsula stopping at Pagadian to meet fellow travel bloggers Wendell Cagape and Gael Hilotin, who then traveled with me as I visited Zamboanga City, Sulu Province and Tawi-Tawi via an overloaded ferry boat. I'd never met warmer people than the Tausugs in Zamboanga and Sulu.

Uncovering secrets
Day 74

Gael and I wandered around Tawi Tawi until we stumbled upon its best-kept secret: Panampangan Island where the white sand is so soft that your feet actually sink. It's so remote that only two families live on the island and hardly anyone comes to visit. We left it grudgingly to go to Simunul Island, where the first mosque in the country was erected. I'd first read about it in an old copy of National Geographic and from that time on, I'd promised myself I would make it there. I've always been curious to learn more about our country's Muslim heritage, and this was the best place to start.
Surfing in Mati

Marking 80 provinces
Day 80

On my 80th day on the road I arrived at Siquijor, an island off Dumaguete City, famous for its white beaches and mysticism. To celebrate how far I'd come, I ordered half a roast chicken, a local specialty, for dinner and for the next three days did nothing but lie on the beach. I didn't think I would ever experience contradicting feelings so strongly but for those three days I was both happy and sad — I was elated over my personal achievement of covering so much of my country on such a tight budget, but with 20 days to go, the end was also in sight. I wasn't sure what I would do once the whole journey was over.

Surviving El Nido
Day 96

El Nido, Palawan
After spending a week wandering around Cebu City and many of the island's southern towns, around Negros Occidental, Guimaras and Iloilo City (where I had more than my fill of the original La Paz batchoy or pork rind soup), I hopped aboard a ship bound for Puerto Princesa in Palawan. We sailed for 36 hours — across the Panay Gulf, passing scenic islands and landmasses along the way, then out into the wide-open Sulu Sea, our large boat suddenly small as it sliced through the vast blue waters. As I stood on the deck, watching the horizon turn from dusk to night, I finally understood many a travel writer's obsession with sailing, and how few things hold more romance than a voyage over sea.

Nearing the end of my 100-day tour, with my funds quickly dwindling, it was time for a little creativity and a lot of brawn: in Palawan, I decided to go island hopping via rented kayak instead of booking a tour. I bought water, cooked food, bread, canned goods and boiled eggs before I set out a la Survivor, looking for a nice island where I could spend the night on my hammock. I did great the first day: a troop of monkeys playing on the tall trees just above my hammock shook me awake, so I set out early to explore more islands. I kayaked toward Helicopter Island, where I snorkeled. Palawan is perhaps one of the best places for all kinds of underwater adventures, and when you're having so much fun being riveted by sea creatures in crazy colors, it's hard to tell that your body's had enough. I started feeling a pain in my stomach and I felt dizzy. I realized I was dehydrated and decided to head back to town but my strength had been sapped. There was no one for miles.

I could only get as far as the island closest to town and stopped for the night, hoping that I'd get my strength back the following day. But deep into the night my stomach problems persisted and I grew weaker and weaker. When the sun rose, I decided the only way I would survive was if I kayaked for my life back to El Nido town. It was the longest 30 minutes of my life. Fatigue and dehydration weighed heavily on my arms, and every stroke of the paddle felt like the last.

For the next couple of days in El Nido, I pumped myself with fruits and Gatorade, grateful to still be alive. I was back in Puerto Princesa on Day 98, and while the prospect of squeezing more out of the last two days was tempting, I decided to take it easy. There'd been a number of life-changing experiences on the trip that showed me how important it is to seize every moment, and there'd been many instances that demonstrated how fragile we are, so I opted to be wise and rest so that there'd be much more to look forward to.

Heading home
Day 100

All through the flight home I couldn't believe I'd actually fulfilled a dream — to travel the whole country in the cheapest way possible: 9,000km from north to south of the Philippine archipelago on PHP500 a day. I sent out a message on Twitter as soon as I landed: Touchdown MNL. Those who'd been following my trip sent heartwarming congratulatory messages for completing my mission. But in no way did it feel like the end of anything; but rather just the beginning of something bigger. Before the 100th day ended, I Tweeted again: "Thanks guys, I'm just warming up."

Total Expenses after 100 Days: Php 49,641

Hello! I’m JourneyingJames, an adventurer, backpacker and runner and newbie surfer. I’ve been traveling the Philippines and Southeast Asia since 2003 mostly on a budget. This is my way of encouraging fellow Filipinos to discover the beauty of our own country even with minimal resources.

I want to share with you my travel discoveries, cultural experiences, strange encounters, and food trips on a low budget as I journey around the Philippines and beyond.

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