Yes, Boracay

The white sand beach at Boracay (Photo courtesy of Gemma Nemenzo)

The white sand beach at Boracay (Photo courtesy of Gemma Nemenzo)

I consider myself very lucky to have seen Boracay at its pristine state. In 1984, I was with friends seeking relaxation from a frenzied weekend in Kalibo for Ati-atihan, when we decided to drive over to the coast of Aklan (which I know now as Caticlan) and take a motorized banca to an island that shimmered like an emerald in the sun.

Electricity was still nonexistent in Boracay then. I don’t remember if there was running water or we washed with a timba (pail) and tabo (dipper). Chances are we did the latter.

A series of nipa huts dotted the shore, owned by people who knew about Boracay and could afford the P10,000 to buy one. That was where we spent the night, in a hut with slatted bamboo floors, wooden beds topped by a thin cushion. There were fireflies all around as we ate supper with our hands, and the cool breeze and the rhythms of the sea lulled us to sleep.

Going native in Boracay (Photo by Gemma Nemenzo)

Going native in Boracay (Photo by Gemma Nemenzo)

In the morning we took to the beach which at that time was so powdery white and unbelievably beautiful. We took a pumpboat to about a kilometer from shore and we could still see the bottom of the sea. The Boracay of my memories was enchanting and romantic, and I promised myself that I would return.

Soon after that visit, hundreds of thousands of tourists discovered the island and commerce took over its serenity. Through the years I’ve heard how Boracay has deteriorated to ordinariness, how there’s just too big a crowd any time of the year and that there are so many things going on in the island that aren’t exactly palatable or pleasurable.

But my husband had not been to Boracay so when we went home to the Philippines early this year to be tourists in our motherland, it was at the top of our itinerary. Many tried to dissuade us: don’t waste your time [in Boracay], go to Coron instead; too many annoying tourists; it’s no longer beautiful; you’ll just be disappointed.

And indeed there were disappointments, the biggest of which was the beach. Gone was the sand I remembered as scintillating white; now it’s dull beige from years of human trampling, though it’s still powdery. The crowds of sun and beach worshippers can be thick and loud, and one can’t walk a yard without being accosted by vendors selling hats, time shares or a full-day of island hopping or water sports. Makeshift massage chairs shaded by tarps dot the beach and the nipa huts of yesteryears have now given way to hotels and motels of varying star levels (many of which are 2 stars or lower).

In spite of the crass commercialization, there was an energy in Boracay that my husband and I found compelling. At daytime I enjoyed looking at the variety of beachwear that tourists from neighboring Asian countries wore; many times I was tempted to ask where I could buy a flowing sun dress, a clever hat, a shawl that doubled as a headgear. Obviously it didn’t come from the nearby tiangge, where each stall displayed the same kind of mass-produced, low quality stuff as its next-door neighbor, differentiated only by how much a vendor was willing to haggle down.

Because our senior bodies can no longer tolerate intense heat and sun, we retreated to our air-conditioned hotel room for a few hours of reading and napping. We went out again late in the afternoon when the sun was about to set and the beach was relatively empty before the dinner rush. The vendors have dwindled to only the most persistent; most of the masseuses have wrapped up for the night and the boatmen have docked after a long day of earning a living.

For that bit of time, if one lies still on the soft, powdery beach with eyes closed, one can still imagine the serenity of the old Boracay, where the only sound one hears is the lapping of the waves. And then of course, there’s the sunset, unchanged, still mesmerizing.

The famous Boracay sunset (Photo by Gemma Nemenzo)

The famous Boracay sunset (Photo by Gemma Nemenzo)

When you go, try to catch this little slice of day because it won’t last long. Pretty soon, the bamboo lamps, the plastic tables and chairs, and the tourists would once again take over the beach, lured by the bands of varying talent, the fire dancers and the display of the fresh catch of the day (fishes, clams, prawns, squids, oysters, etc.) that the restaurants will cook according to your taste and preference.

Just another day in not-quite-paradise but I’ll take it. Even if the Boracay of my memory is gone forever.

Tips for visiting Boracay:

1) When choosing a flight from Manila, it would be best to fly direct to Caticlan (a 45-minute flight) where it’s only a 30-minute boat ride to Boracay island. It’s also better to arrive at daytime.

2) If you’re a senior, you get your senior discount (20%) off domestic airfare if you buy your ticket at the airline office in Manila or anywhere in the country. You don’t get it online.

3) When choosing a hotel, you have the option of:

Station 1 – where the high-end ones are located; the beach apparently is still almost pristine white (or that’s what we were told);

Station 2 – where most of the action is and where the crowds are;

Station 3 – several decibels quieter and less crowded than Station 2 but it’s where the boats dock so swimming there is not advisable. You’ll have to walk over to Station 2 if you want to take the plunge.

There is really no demarcation line between stations so you can walk the entire length of beach and cover all three stations.

4) Beachwear, flipflops, hats, sunblock – all you really need in Boracay, so don’t burden yourself with cumbersome luggage.

5) I would advise arranging for airport transfer before arriving in Caticlan. If you prefer to wait till you land, negotiate with the vendors (a swarm of them will try to win your business) that will handle all the tickets for boarding the boat to Boracay. There are several of them and doing it yourself means you’ll have to stand in line per ticket. A waste of time. Help the locals by hiring them to help you get to the island, but negotiate the price down.

6) At dinnertime, you have your choice of a wide variety of restaurants by the beach. Many of them offer entertainment so decide which one strikes your fancy. Don’t make the mistake we made – we chose a restaurant that offered grilled blue marlin but the lady singer was so bad, she ruined our dining experience.

Beach dining (Photo by Gemma Nemenzo)

Beach dining (Photo by Gemma Nemenzo)

7) If you want to shop at the tiangge, choose the stalls farthest from the beach. They offer lower prices and of course you have to haggle (start with one-half the stated price).

8) If you want to spend the day sailing, arrange it through your hotel. Prices will be higher than the vendors on the beach but you’ll be assured of a better boat and a better lunch.

Sailboats for hire in Station 3 (Photo by Gemma Nemenzo)

Sailboats for hire in Station 3 (Photo by Gemma Nemenzo)

9) Same goes for your exit out of Boracay – better to arrange through your hotel so you won’t have to go through the hassle of negotiating a ride to the dock, buying your tickets for the boat, etc. Our hotel even had its own Boracay-Caticlan boat so we had it all to ourselves when we left early in the morning.

10) Don’t try to look for dental floss in Boracay. Chances are you won’t find it.

Gemma Nemenzo

Editor, Positively Filipino