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How to Get Off the Beaten Path in Three Easy Steps

Above: A filipino jeepney, not unlike the one that we rode in. Photo courtesy of Richard Messenger on Flickr.

Emilie and I arrived Cebu city one humid February afternoon with the intention of leaving the next day to find a village where there we could get away from other travelers.  Over breakfast I thumbed through our Lonely Planet’s section on the Visayas. The book made it clear that the island of Cebu was too touristy for our mission. The closest island, Bohol to the south, would be less touristy, but would also be a difficult place to get away from other travelers. As I scanned the map looking for an alternative I noticed a speck in the straight between the Cebu and Bohol. It was labeled Cabilao Island.

The book contained only one paragraph about Cabilao Island. It said that it was eight-square kilometers, had one small village, and listed the names of two businesses that provided accommodations. It did not mention any way to get on or off the island, or any attractions on the island that would draw visitors. It was perfect.

By lunchtime we were on a ferry to Bohol, and by mid-afternoon we were walking among dozens of ornate local busses called jeepneys looking for one that would take us to the village of Calape. Calape was the black dot on our map nearest Cabilao Island.

We found our jeepney and crammed our stuff and ourselves into the back. When the jeepney was so full that nobody could move, it departed.

An hour later we arrived in Calape. The sun was beginning to sink into the palm trees casting long shadows across the potholed road. I looked in each direction. The road was lined with weather-beaten wooden structures for about 100 yards before giving way to jungle. The structures appeared to be stores, but I could not be sure because there were no signs and most of their doors were closed.

“What now?” Emilie asked.

“I guess we better find somebody with a boat and pay him to take us to the island.”

I walked up the road, looking inside open doorways to see if anyone was in any of the buildings. Inside one was an old woman.

“Hello.”

She looked up at me and said something in Tagalog. Then she shouted something over her shoulder. A man appeared in the doorway behind her.

“Hi. We’re trying to go to Cabilao.”

They looked at me blankly. I had thought that most people in the Philippines spoke English. I was wrong.

Outside Emilie was trying to talk to an old man who also didn’t speak English. A group of amused children watched the exchange. The news of our arrival spread quickly through the village and soon a small crowd surrounded us. One young man came forward.

“You go where?” He asked.

“We want to go to Cabilao Island.” I said and showed him the island on the map.

“Oh, Cabilao.” He turned and spoke rapidly in Tagalog to the crowd. Then he turned back to us.

“How will you go there?”

“Boat.”

“You have a friend with a boat?”

“No. We want to go to the docks.”

He turned and spoke again to the crowd. Everyone chattered for a moment, and then the crowd began to disperse.

A few minutes later a large sweaty man with a latino-style mustachio pulled up on a dirtbike.

“He will take you to the dock for 200 pesos (about $5 USD).” The young man told us.

“Can somebody there take us to Cabilao?”

“I don’t know.”

Emilie and I managed to squeeze onto the bike behind our rotund driver with our two large backpacks while I held my guitar in its hard case off the side. We drove first through the jungle, and then along dirt road to the end of a peninsula in the dwindling daylight. The air was thick with moisture and chlorophyll and the man smelled like sweat and rum. Of course, nobody had a helmet.

At the docks three fishermen were unloading the last boat of the day. They didn’t speak English, so I took a notebook and pen out of my bag. A spirited round of written bartering ensued, resulting in a price of 800 pesos (about $20 USD) each.  It was much more than we should have paid, but they had us over a barrel. At that point we didn’t really care anyways. We were almost at the island.

We reclined in the boat, proud that we had left Cebu that morning without so much as a plan, and managed to improvise our way all the way to Cabilao Island. We quietly gloated to ourselves about what awesome off-the-beaten-path travelers we were.

It was dark when we arrived.  The boat slid onto the sandy shore with a “shushhh”. We paid the fisherman, slung our packs, and started up the beach. About twenty yards inland stood a large building with bamboo walls, a grass roof, and light streaming from the windows.

A beautiful Filipino girl wearing a long flowered dress greeted us at the door.

“For two?” She asked.

Scattered throughout the room were several polished wooden tables surrounded by pale old Western tourists with wrinkly chicken waddle skin under their chins. Most of them wore t-shirts and speedo bottoms. As it turned out, the listings in our Lonely Planet, which included only names and telephone numbers, were not for cheap local hotels as the lack of description had led us to believe. They were first-class scuba resorts for fat rich Germans.  The people in the dining room stared at us for a moment before returning their attention to their schnitzel and gewürztraminer.

Defeated, we took an overpriced room, ate an overpriced schnitzel, and drank an overpriced beer. That night, while thinking back to figure out where we went wrong, I came up with three steps necessary to getting off the beaten path. We had failed in two.  These are the steps:

1)   Throw away your guidebook. Anyplace that is mentioned in a guidebook will have tourists by virtue of being mentioned in a guidebook.

2)   Get on a local bus out of town.

3)   When you arrive in a village with no tourists, hotels, or English speakers, where you feel completely uncomfortable and out of place, stop.

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14 Responses to How to Get Off the Beaten Path in Three Easy Steps

  1. Christy @ Technosyncratic June 2, 2011 at 11:47 pm #

    Dang, what a story! I really like your three tips, though, and in particular the last one. If you’re out of your element and don’t see anyone else like you, then chances are you’ve found your way off the beaten path. 🙂

    • Matt Gibson June 2, 2011 at 11:51 pm #

      Thanks Christy. It was an epic trip! I agree. That was one of the points I really wanted to make. Getting off the beaten path means getting away from what’s comfortable.

  2. Faith June 5, 2011 at 12:44 pm #

    This was a great story 🙂 I love the image of the place filled with older Germans. It makes a lot of sense that they charged you so much on the boat ride over then, you were going to a pricey location.

    And I really like your points! And that you came up with them because you didn’t do them, haha. When I go to a new place I love writing the local bus service around aimlessly because most of the time the local buses will take you to the places that the locals actually go, so I find places I don’t when I try to use maps.

    • Matt Gibson June 5, 2011 at 12:59 pm #

      Thanks Faith! I agree. Local busses are totally the way to go if you want to explore.

  3. Robert McKay June 5, 2011 at 12:54 pm #

    Awesome story! When you got to the village before Cabilao I kept staying to myself, “Why are they still going to the island? They’ve already wandered off the beaten path.”

    What did you do after leaving the German resort?

    • Matt Gibson June 5, 2011 at 1:01 pm #

      Thanks Robert! Emilie was a scuba diver, so she went diving there for a couple of days. Then we went to see friends on Alona Beach. There we discovered that there was a place on a nearby island where we could swim with whale sharks. That will be the topic of a future story 😉

  4. Robert McKay June 5, 2011 at 1:05 pm #

    That’s AWESOME, Matt. Can’t wait to read the post about the whale sharks!

    • Matt Gibson June 5, 2011 at 1:32 pm #

      Sweet. Then I’ll be sure to try and get it up before too long.

  5. Matt Gibson June 22, 2011 at 11:42 pm #

    Thanks Dan. Glad ya liked it!

  6. dan June 22, 2011 at 10:51 pm #

    Nice!!!

  7. Declan Kielty February 11, 2012 at 2:13 am #

    I have found to get off the beaten path is store the backpack in a hostel for a few days, rent a motorbike and just drive onto every pot holed dirt road you can find. It won’t take long to have a far more memorable experience than any package tour can provide. this is especially true on Bohol island. Just try to get a bike with good tires, when it rains here it gets very dramatic very quickly.

    • Matt Gibson February 11, 2012 at 8:07 pm #

      I whole-heartedly agree. I love motorcycle exploration. These days I lean more towards loading all my gear onto a bike and trekking around. Better for my health, and the environment.

      You live on Bohol? I was just there in December.

  8. Declan Kielty February 13, 2012 at 10:01 am #

    No I was just here visiting. I went to see the eskaya tribe after some local cops gave me a tip that they were on the island. When I finally got there I was given the grand tour by one of the school teachers and she mentioned your name. A google search lead me to your blog.

    • Matt Gibson February 13, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

      Nice! Visiting the Eskaya was one of the best parts of my trip. They were some pretty awesome people. I’ve got some photos and videos of them coming up soon. Where are you off to now?

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