First Impressions of Boracay

March 4, 2015

Starbucks Boracay

Vacationing in Southeast Asia is always a gamble for me, because my baseline behavior abroad was largely shaped by my two years in Japan. Although I still maintain my American demeanor of smiling on the street and talking up strangers in a bar, I tend to shy away from street vendors, package tours, and large crowds. By the same token, I’m not a fan of overly commercialized areas, e.g. Patong Beach and Kou Samui in Thailand, Piccadilly Circus in London, and Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.

To anyone who hasn’t been to the Philippines and is expecting a tropical getaway in the middle of nowhere with hand crafted bamboo huts and coconut drinks with little paper umbrellas, I’m here to tell you:

You can have that experience, but at a cost.

Boracay was relatively unknown until 1978, when a travel book brought it into the international spotlight. Even up until the early 2000s, the infrastructure on White Beach was very rudimentary (the Internet not having been developed enough for the tourism industry). I can only assume the same is true for other hot spots in the Philippines. The problem when one discovers a beautiful, unspoiled paradise and wants to share it with the rest of the world is that it ceases to be a beautiful, unspoiled paradise.

This is what I see when I look at Boracay, or at the very least in what direction it’s headed. Sbarro’s and Shakey’s replace coconut trees. Women in purple robes relentlessly pester anyone with a foreign face if he or she would like a massage. Men walk up and down White Beach just waiting for their gazes to be met, so they can try to sell seats on a sunset cruise.

When I arrived on the island, I didn’t have the opportunity to even see the beach up close; all I wanted to do was get a drink and pass out in my bunk. Waking up first thing in the morning and seeing a Starbucks after having traveled all day by trike, van, ferry, and bangka was a bit unsettling.

Back in Puerto Galera, I met a man at my resort who warned me White Beach on Boracay was just shop after shop, very much the same as White Beach on Mindoro. The only true paradise he knew was limited to the far northern islands, where the chance of booking anything online was non-existent (sounds good to me, actually). El Nido, on Palawan, was a close second, but it’s sure to follow the path of every Filipino tourist spot that came before it.

Let me be clear, though: this island is deserving of its fame. The beach, despite being a stone’s throw from a hundred t-shirt shops, is covered in powdery sand and crystal blue water. The sunset cruise, while overpriced and unnecessary, offers a breathtaking view of the South China Sea. And there are spots to stay that are quieter than White Beach and refuges from tourists.

What upsets me is the cookie-cutter nature of the restaurants and programs being sold. No matter who approaches you, you can find tours to snorkeling and diving sites, cliff diving at Ariel’s Point, ATVs, kite boarding, wind surfing, and booze bangkas. There are some unique places to check out, like Real Coffee and Tea, which sells some delicious calamansi muffins, and Jonah’s Fruit Shakes (though, truth be told, shakes are sold everywhere). Getting a $9 massage on the beach is a cool experience, though I don’t need to be sold on it more than once.

If you’re willing to spend 2000-2500 php/night, you can stay almost anywhere. There are a few hostel-style resorts like Frendz and YB which offer bunks at 600-650/night. And though Boracay isn’t what I thought it would be after such a long journey, it’s not at all a bad place to spend a few days and run on the beach, soak in the sun, and swim until your lungs give out.

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