Written by: Jaii Fredregill
Destination: Malapascua Island, Cebu, Philippines
Visited: April 2016
Malapascua Island is one of the most visited havens in Cebu. It’s not a big place. You can lap the entire island on foot in a couple of hours, or rent a bicycle and do it twice. Tourism is present and catered to, but not to the excess you will find in places like Cabo San Lucas or Gili Trawangan. The pace of things is slower here, and the main attractions involve being on a boat or relaxing on a beach. It has yet to be overrun by herds of frat boys in coconut bras, and straw hats chasing after girls who will depart with pregnancy scares and fuzzy memories. It is, in fact, everything Malapascua does not have, that makes it so appealing.
Obnoxiously loud bars where you can party ‘til you puke do not line the beach. No aging rock stars are bastardizing the local cuisine in their overpriced restaurants. There are no mega-resorts. There are no roads, cars or sidewalks. Your feet have to hit the sand to get around on this island. There are no banks or ATMs, and you are unlikely to find a SIM card. Wi-fi is possible, but it moves at island speed, as does much of the service in the local shops and restaurants. If you want that Mai Tai right f@%king now! You will just have to adapt.
Like many visitors to Malapascua, I was there to scuba dive. I spent most of my time in the water, under the water, or on a boat. Thresher sharks are a major draw to these parts for divers, so I joined a dive at dawn headed to Monad Shoal, a cleaning station frequented by threshers and other large pelagic fish.
At 4:45 a.m. Still, once the alarm sounded, I gathered up my equipment and stumbled groggily to the other end of the beach with my husband to catch our boat. We departed just as first light crept up on the island. A ship full of like-minded strangers, quietly watching the sunrise over the sea, sharing and appreciating the moment as we bounced along knowing we would not remain strangers for long.
We were successful in our quest to see the Threshers that day and continued to join dives all day and into the evening, returning from our last dive at around 8:30 p.m. There was some overcrowding at the sites, with up to nine boats diving at one time. We were fortunate to be with Evolution, who did an excellent job of getting us in and out of each site ahead of the crowds. In the evening things slowed down quite a bit, so our group had the house reef all to ourselves.
It is unfortunate that we did not have the equipment to film at night because this was the best dive of the trip. If you’re into cephalopods, a night dive at the house reef may pay off handsomely. There were several octopuses, including a blue-ringed octopus, squid, and cuttlefish. Malapascua is also abundant in macro life.
It is one of the few places you can see mandarinfish, and there are regular night dives to see these colorful reef inhabitants perform their mating rituals. Hammerheads had been seen in the area, so we asked our dive shop to arrange a dive for the next morning. Sadly, we were unable to find four more people willing to go out at 4:30 a.m., so the dive did not happen. I don’t understand getting up at 5:30 a.m. to try to see threshers and not getting up at 4:30 am to try to see hammerheads, but we didn’t let this keep us from spending another day diving.
On land, there are small local shops and restaurants scattered around the island. The vibe is friendly, so don’t be shy about wandering away from the main beach for a meal or basic supplies. We did find Mabuhay Foods at Bounty Beach, at the South end of the island. This turned out to be the right place for simple, tasty food and drinks. If you’re looking for someplace more resort-like, this is not going to do it for you. They have mixed reviews online, and I can’t say that some of the negatives I read are entirely untrue. That said, I don’t know that posting a 1-star review on a global travel site for a small island restaurant is necessary either.
When we arrived, the place was packed inside and out. It took a minute to get menus, and another minute for someone to ask us for our order. The wait staff was slammed, but an attentive bartender came out from behind the bar to get our order and let us know that it would take a while. We thought this was pretty considerate and even returned the next night with a new friend and fellow diver.
In all honesty, I did not think the diving in Malapascua was terrible, but it did not live up to the hype I have heard lately. It could be that I was just not there on the right day. The diving culture is friendly and welcoming, and my time there was filled with laughs and good times at sea and on land.
Remember, there are no ATMs or banks on Malapascua. So get cash, including small bills for gratuities, before leaving the airport. The commute from Mactan-Cebu (CEB) airport to Malapascua is about 3-4 hours. The first 2-3 hours are from the airport to the Maya port by car or bus. The last half hour or so is by water taxi or private boat from Maya to Malapascua. All boats travel at the same speed, more or less, but water taxis do not leave until they are full, so you may have to wait a bit longer.
If you have a reservation with a hotel or dive shop, most will arrange your transit from the airport to the island starting at around 4,500 PHP each way for two people, which is approximately USD 200 round trip. You can also get a taxi at the airport. For convenience, we just booked through our diving company. There was no additional charge by the shop to do this, and our hotel offered the service for free as well.
From the Airport
Here is some general information and approximate pricing for those would prefer to handle their own transportation.
Mactan-Cebu Airport to the North Terminal Bus Terminal Traveling by bus can extend your travel time up to about 1 hour, but it is considerably less expensive. Buses with A/C cost a little more than those without, but they also drive with the windows closed, which keeps out dust and pollution. Buses leave the terminal every 30-60 minutes, and the fare is roughly 163 PHP.
Taxi – from the airport to the North bus terminal by a cab, go outside the arrival gate to the ramp where you will see the taxis. Make sure they turn the meter on before you drive away. The yellow and white cabs are metered. It takes 30 minutes to arrive at the North bus terminal, which is about 10 km/6.2 miles from the airport. Online fare calculators are bringing the cost in between 190-250 PHP/4-6 USD. Here is a link to one in Cebu http://www.numbeo.com.
Jeepneys – Travel from the Mactan airport to the North terminal requires two transfers and takes about an hour. Jeepneys are an inexpensive mode of transportation and cultural experience in Cebu. However, if you are traveling with multiple pieces or large pieces of luggage, or already making the very long trek to Malapascua, it is probably easier to just take a taxi.
I did not take Jeepneys on this trip, but I did contact Cebu Jeepney Route Map through Facebook on how to get from the airport to the bus terminal. Here is their response. “From Mactan airport, ride MI-05A and alight at Savemore (Marina Mall). From there ride MI-02B and alight at Parkmall. From Parkmall ride 01k, it will pass Cebu North Bus Terminal.” Fares start at 6.50 PHP.
Public Water Taxi – Fare is 80 PHP, but If it is low tide, a small boat will take you from shore to the water taxi or vice versa for an additional 20 PHP. The porters at either end will carry your bags. When I say carry your bags, I mean all the way from the shore to your hotel, or the other way round, so give them at least 20 PHP. To keep things in perspective, 20 PHP is 0.50 USD.