Where did the time go, Steve and I first visited the island of Boracay in the Philippines in the late nineties. Located in the Western Visayas, this tiny island famous for its pristine white beaches and parties, has become the most visited destination in the Philippines and was named as the best island gateway in the world in 2012 based on a survey of readers by Travel+Leisure and has continued to gain in popularity.
This year’s visit was a rekindling of the past and embracing the changes that have taken place over those years. So let’s rewind the clock and compare what the island of Boracay offered then and now.
Airport – The newly upgraded Caticlan Airport – Godofredo P. Ramos is now one of the major airports, it can now host larger jet aircraft for direct flights to and from Caticlan, the gateway to Boracay. A few years ago, only turboprop aircraft and smaller planes were allowed to land and take off due to its short runway.
Our jump off during our first visit was at the Kalibo airport with a connecting 2-hour van ride to Caticlan. Kalibo airport is now an international airport hosting direct international and domestic flights.
Transfer to Boracay Island – Every visitor will go through the Passenger Terminal. Your luggage will be screened and x-rayed then you’ll pay the Terminal fee of Php 100, environmental fee of Php 75, then pay Php 25 ferry fare of your choice, then you will exit the building and head to a tricycle stand, Php 50 to get you to the Caticlan Jetty Port. Upon boarding the ferry, you will be required to wear a life vest as part of the safety regulations.
This trip, we included a private boat transfer to our accommodation. When we arrived in Caticlan, our van and guide was there to welcome us. With only few minutes drive we arrived at the check in counter then escorted to the beach where we caught a modern speed boat and whisked away into the blue waters of Boracay.
When we first visited Boracay, the rigmarole was obviously less complicated. We paid the terminal fee (sorry can’t remember how much now), ferry fare then we just queued to board a ‘banca’ (boat). (We booked a package deal from one of the tour operators in Manila which include airfare, accommodation and breakfast).
Jetty Port – The disembarkation of all the ferry services is now at the new Cagban Jetty Port. Transfer from this port to your hotel can be arranged through your hotel if they offer it, if not, then by tricycle. The ride from the port to Boracay main town is 20 minutes. Again, since we took the transfer deal, our air conditioned van was there waiting for us when we got off the boat.
Before, the drop off points aboard a banca were Station 1, 2, and 3 along White Beach and depending of your hotel location, the crew will drop you off the nearest station. It was fun, because upon disembarking, you get the chance to soak your feet in the warm waters and walk on the white sands of Boracay.
Accommodation – Plentiful; from backpacker style accommodation, high end apartments, air bnb and 5 star hotels, it’s your choice. You also have an option of staying away from the madding crowds of the main town by staying in secluded retreats and self contained resorts.
Looking back, we stayed just opposite Station 1 drop, our waterfront Spanish inspired accommodation was very handy. Surrounded by coconut trees, every morning and afternoon, staff swept the sand to make it even for the outdoor breakfast and later, dinner by candle light.
Night Life – The choices of places to eat out and party all night are near endless. As soon as the sun sets, Boracay comes alive. Top restaurants offers indoor and outdoor settings by the beach front. Budgeted food stalls along the walking strip and alleys are also popular. You can even go to the wet market and pick up a variety of seafood and fresh veggies they sell, then get one of the many restaurants around the market to cook the food for you. Local fast food chains, including the all too familiar international brands are all competing on the scene. Bars that offer drinks to set the mood or after dinner libations are everywhere and for late party goers, there are venues with dance floors and DJ’s spinning tunes till the early hours.
Back then, we had a very personalised dinner service from the staff of our hotel. Our dinner table was set by the beach and only few people were walking up and down along the sandy footpath. After dinner we would head off to the Basura Bar (Trash Bar), where visitors and locals hung out for drinks and boogied for the night in the open bar area.
White Beach – Location, it now doesn’t seem to exist, it would have been nice to have a private space where you can spread your towel and enjoy a dip, then catch some rays but it has become so commercialised. Lots of boats are moored along the beach for all kind of day activities. In some areas, the presence of the green slimy algae is a little off putting. Although they said it’s a summer occurrence, the algae disappears during the monsoon season. We closely looked at our photos from back when, yes indeed the beach had a few green patches, but not as bad as what we saw on this trip.
Activities in Boracay – There are many activities on offer from helicopter tours, scuba diving, parasailing, helmet dive, island hoping just to name a few. Best tip is to haggle for the best price, especially if you are combining activities.
One of the highlights of our first trip to Boracay was hiring a motorbike, a wonderful Yamaha DT125, and toured the island ourselves. We visited the secluded Puka Shell Beach, rode up a hill with breathtaking views of Boracay, where an elderly man had built a garden overlooking the island, he had a donation box on the gate, so with some Pesos donated, we entered the garden, I remember that development was just taking place, as we looked down, a resort and golf course were being carved out the island, he blessed our safe travels back as we left. We continued to ride and stopped at small sari-sari store (convenience store) for a cold soft drink. The kids from school shouted, “Americano, Americano!” (not to me but to Steve, who is English!), with smiles and waves as they walk along the road on their way back home. What an incredible island life!
Developments – We stayed at the Fairways and Bluewater Resort in Newcoast, an impressive cluster of accommodation away from the noisy side of Boracay. It has a golf course, private beach and 5 swimming pools including an infinity pool. The Newcoast area is also home to other high end hotels and a new mall. From our balcony, we could see new developments of high rise apartments. It takes 15 minutes by the hotel’s private van to get us down to the D’Mall and traveling during the peak hours can be daunting, traffic builds up quickly. D’mall is a very popular shopping and eating area, a non stop cabaret of people in tourist hordes, especially in the evening.
D’Mall back then was a tiny collection of shops selling mostly shirts, souvenirs and few knock off brands and general dust gatherers and tat. This was the place where we got a souvenir shirt with ‘I love Boracay’ printed on it, hardly original I know!
The mesmerising sunset view is one to remember during your stay in Boracay, it is beyond awesome, make sure you are stationed to get the best view, some areas get crowded with cameras and phones all up in the air for that picture perfect shot.
The main question now, is whether the sharp progress good for the island and the locals? Most definitely, the economy has doubled, tripled over the last couple of decades, but to what cost? The traffic, congestion, pollution and over population is quite prevalent, just think of the ecosystem of this tiny island. I hope the local government will continue to implement a strict Sustainable Tourism Program for the future of Boracay.
Lastly, some visitors call it La Boracay or Bora on social media but excuse me, the island is simply called Boracay and that is it.
Boracay Island, Malay Aklan, Philippines