The Flashpacker’s Guide To Moalboal

Panagsama Beach, a short drive from the bustling Moalboal proper, is a sleepy little town with a lot of hidden gems. Located at the south-west edge of Cebu, a long, finger-shaped island lying in the Central Visayas, the island was recently voted Number Five Best Island in the World by Conde Nast Traveler.

Landing at Mactan-Cebu International Airport, we chose to take a taxi down to Panagsama. Costing us 2,200php, this is certainly the more expensive way to travel, however it’s much quicker than taking the five-hour bus – we were excited to reach our destination early!

After a pleasant two-and-a-half-hour drive through the mountains, coastal roads and along the charmingly named ‘Vegetable Highway’, we arrived at Panagsama Beach. Don’t be fooled by the name; Panagsama Beach itself is not a destination for avid beach-lovers; the beach is small, with dark sand and rocks, but it’s clean, and spectacular snorkelling is just a few meters away off a magnificent drop-off. The little town is tiny, but jam-packed with a fantastic range of international eateries and plenty of places to stay, for all budgets.

We were, however, very surprised to find that a lot of the town’s most popular accommodations were booked up for weeks in advance. As a backpacker, I prefer to rock up somewhere, assess the place, prices and details, and then decide. Normally this works, however, this is one spot in Asia I’d recommend planning and booking in advance if you want the accommodation and dive shop of your choice.

We initially wanted to stay in the huts at Maya’s, but they were booked a month ahead. Happily though, we were pointed in the direction of Pacita’s by the friendly foreign locals. Set in a lush, colorful garden, the large, clean rooms were cool and affordable at 1,000php per night, but booking for a week saw the price come down to 800php. Next, there were the many, many dive shops to choose from…

The Underwater World

Diving is the main draw to Panagsama. The area offers some of the most spectacular diving in the Philippines, if not Asia; whale sharks and thresher sharks have been spotted in local waters, there are turtles, too and incredible macro-life just off the house reefs and Pescador Island. And, of course, the jaw-dropping sardine run. This alone, is a reason to visit – you don’t have to be a diver either, as the massive shoal of tiny fish hangs out just beyond the drop-off, which is metres from the shore. It’s a freediver and snorkeler’s heaven!

There are many dive shops to choose from and with that, many price points. As always, don’t necessarily just go for the cheapest, make sure you do your research. One of the most popular is Cebu Divers, run by a friendly Brit, Cameron. His shop offers professional diving for some of the best prices in the Philippines, but you MUST book in advance if you want to dive here.

We dived with Neptune Diving Adventure as Cameron was fully booked and we had a great experience- wellpriced dives, good equipment and a pleasant dive shop with a great upstairs bar/resto boasting a stunning view over the water. Our guide was friendly and relaxed, but note that you may only dive for up to 60 minutes.

Diving with the sardine run on the house drop-off was incredible and an absolute must-do – we were also lucky enough to spot a fluorescent Mandarin Fish on the same dive.

Pescador Island is also worth a look, but it’s very popular and can become crowded. You’ll see why though, as this dive offers spectacular, colorful coral gardens and cathedral-like walls – much like the famous Apo Reef in the Mindoro Strait. Also look out for the electrifying electric clams at Tongo Point – they’re almost alien-like…

Eat, Drink and Adventure!

There are so many places to eat at in this little town and the food was of good standard in most of the places we visited. Maya’s does a spectacular pre-adventure breakfast: try the huge breakfast burrito or the American breakfast, the bacon is to die for (they also have very good Wi-Fi if you have to connect!).

For dinner, we discovered The Last Filling Station at Tipolo’s just over the road from Maya’s, for really good thincrust pizzas. Very affordable, they start at just 195php. Best of all, their wine was a snip at 90php a glass, some of the cheapest we’ve seen on our travels – and it was drinkable, too! This is also the place to book your Kawasan Falls Canyoning through their adventure company, Planet Action – a trip that is certainly not to be missed! The friendly owner talked us through the day’s adventuring and we couldn’t wait to sign up. We booked to go the following day and had the time of our lives. You can also rent decent mountain bikes, go caving, horse riding, trekking and more.

If seafood is your thing, then the place to head to is The Pleasure Principle. A friendly, buzzy restaurant, they give you a free appetizer to whet your palette.

For sunset drinks, we’d head down to the little bar on the Pacita’s beachfront. Rhumcokes were 60php (and strong!), and you could sit on beanbags to watch the sun go down on another day.

A week in Panagsama goes by very quickly. There is so much to do and so many places to discover despite it being so tiny. The great thing is it doesn’t feel crowded or overly ‘touristy’; quite the opposite. You can easily walk everywhere, but can rent scooters if you wish to head out of Panagsama itself to explore the rest of the area’s charms.

Why go? For incredible diving and snorkelling, and to experience the unearthly blue Kawasan Falls canyoning adventure

Top tips: Research and book your dive shop and accommodation in advance, it’s a popular place

What to bring? For canyoning you must bring trainers/sneakers. A waterproof bag for adventuring and going on the boats is useful, too. Don’t forget your licence if you want to rent motorbikes.

By HOLLY GOLIGHTLY

PHOTOS BY PAULO VIOLAS

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