Boracay: The Light At The End Of Manila

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I’ve got those Hollywood ad campaigns pegged: A sweeping shot of an unimaginably beautiful beach fades in from black. You picture yourself lying on a chaise lounge, toes in the warm sand, drinking from a freshly cut coconut. The picture quickly becomes a backdrop for some cliché catch line such as, “the most beautiful white sand beaches in the world awaits.”

Yup, I’ve figured it all out, and here’s the secret: It’s Boracay, Philippines. Yes, Boracay is all of those pictures. It’s that powder soft sand, the umbrella in your daiquiri. It’s everything that every beach in every part of the world wants to be. Boracay is the sailboat silhouetted against the fading auburn sunset, the green leaves stretching over the aqua waters and cobalt sky. The best part about this entire tropical dream, you’ll be the first person in your crew to know about it. If you make it there.

“Nah, forget Bali, man. Too built up — you wouldn’t like it.” Reagan has been places, and when he talks destinations, I tend to listen. “Boracay. That’s the best beach I’ve ever been to. You’d really dig it, man. Romance your girl a little there.” His dancing South African tempo was making the island oasis sound irresistible; my flight was practically booked.

* * *

Manila, at first impression, is an unkempt and threatening sprawl of a city. “Pearl of the Orient” it is no longer, barely a shadow of its former self.

One step off of the gangway proved this to be true. In stark contrast of the two previous airports we passed through — from gleaming Incheon, outside Seoul, Korea, and uber-modern Hong Kong — Manila reeked of better days long gone.

Sixteen hours of air traveling rested heavy on our eyelids. The dank air slouched our shoulders and the sterility of fluorescent lights accented a brownish film coating every surface. Customs was little more than a formality. After seeing the money exchange was closed well before our 3:00 a.m. arrival, my wife and I were backpacking our way to a line of four-wheeled predators waiting to take us to our hostel.

“Sucat? Ah, yes. Five dollars. I’ll take you.” We jumped in the back seat of the taxi, straddling our packs. The driver, so eager to get us, now stands near the passenger door quietly talking to another driver.

He hops in, turns his meter on, and bolts away from the curb with concerning acceleration. I rolled down the window in order to stay awake and get some kind of respite from the increasingly oppressive heat and my own increasingly apparent body odor.

Very soon I noticed the bright lights of the airport giving way to dim street lights and then dark roads. My guard rose with sight of every lightless street corner.

“This very far away from the airport.” I ignored his backhanded negotiation, but he continued. “Sucat Road is ten dollars.”

“No, you said five dollars.”

“Very far from the airport. Ten dollars.”

“I talked to the hostel before leaving; it is a ten or fifteen minute taxi ride. Taxis from the airport should be no more than five dollars. That’s what I’m paying you.”

Slowing, the driver turned down an completely unlit alley. Curse my vivid imagination; my mind started filling with pictures of missing persons reports back home on the Montana news channels. Outside, the sounds of footsteps and childrens’ screams were uncomfortably close. They sounded far too close to escape tactics from a horror movie. This is what the goddamn guidebooks warned me about: Another set of stupid white tourists in a place they shouldn’t be. Nothing good could happen.

Another shout pierced the night breeze.

I looked at Cassie sitting stiff next to me, her tired eyes wide. I could tell she sensed our increasing vulnerability through her exhausted state. Before she had us dead and ravaged in some ditch, she turned toward me with an its-ten-frickin-bucks-just-give-him-the-damn-money look in her eyes. I somehow felt the same way.

We pulled to a stop next to a wrought-iron gate silhouetted by a flickering white bulb attached to a nearby palm tree. The hand-painted hostel sign was hard to make out through the darkness and foliage, but it was there. I tossed the USD$10 towards the front of the taxi and we left before the driver could open his door. It sped off into the darkness.

The corner of screen was pulling away from the rickety wooden door. Aqua-colored trim and lush plants stood against the dark wood of the lobby walls; the bright lights were a comforting sight.

“Hi, I’m Jon. I should have a room reserved for two nights.”

The young girl behind the bamboo counter looked up from a small television. “Oh, hello Mr. Wick. I wondered when you would arrive, but we are all full. Some other travelers decided to stay longer. So sorry.”

“What the fu–?”

“No problem. We have another building close by. They have plenty of room. Emmanuel will walk you there.”

Eighteen hours of traveling and sweating the equivalent of Lake Michigan; we’re tired, hungry, and now I’m forced to walk my wife down another rape-ville Filipino back alley because my reservations were bumped for some douche who just decided to stay a little bit longer? You’ve got to be kidding.

Apparently Reagan left Manila out of his tropical descriptions.

The other hostel was a charming infestation of cockroaches and plastic mattresses. We managed getting through the night by passing out on a layer of strewn clothes between us and the plastic. Holding each other, we hoped the door’s lock was secure — those three dudes watching a western movie in the lobby were awfully suspect.

Manila. The raw energy, intimidating gawks, and oceans of jeepneys — a uniquely communal army of wildly painted, wartime jeeps — are enough to turn anyone away. Endure — no, survive — the necessary evil of navigating this gateway city and your reward is a week of beautiful on the greatest beach in the world.


Somewhere between the dark streets of Manila and the sandy beach path, we passed into our very own world of Narnia. The pictures Regan described were no longer images in my mind, conjured up from those I’ve seen on television; they were underfoot. Palm trees gracefully reached to the heavens from sand the hue of fallen snow; so white it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust. The vibe was so chill it was nearly horizontal; cool enough to make Jack Johnson feel at home.

The yang to Manila’s yin was brilliant.

A sand boardwalk paralleled the waves in both directions. Restaurants, massage therapists, dive companies, and beautiful island goddesses waited to accommodate any way they could. The restaurants served meals on tables in the sand and fruity concoctions under the shade of palm trees, while your mind settled down somewhere close to a million miles from anywhere.

Despite the sensory ecstasy of a new destination, I noticed something missing; a void of something I had only recently become accustomed to: hordes of people. This is supposed to be the high season, I thought. Am I on to something here?

The setting sun marks a time when the beach undergoes a ritual of transformation. Restaurant tables spill from buildings onto the sand. Each restaurant offers its unique flair of accent lighting: tea lights on the table, rope lights wrapping the trunks of nearby palms, and decorative lights hung from the above canopies. Reflected sunset off the waters cast soft orange tones about, while hidden speakers produced soft rhythms dancing on the sea breezes. It was romantic, it was hip, and it was fun.

Still something plagued me. Why isn’t there tour bus after tour bus pulling up to the line of concrete mega resorts? Where are the multitudes of spring breakers? There is this heaven on earth right before my very eyes — without a doubt and without the crowds. Most importantly, without anything that tarnishes the very reasons we seek destinations like this.

The sirens song of water is truly irresistible. The sand tugs childhood fantasies of sandcastle building until you act on them; then realize you’ve been digging a hole for the last ten minutes. The breezes dance over your skin to butterfly kiss sun-drenched cheeks. Here, your soul can’t help but let life’s complexities roll off your back and out with the changing tides.

Boracay is hiding in plain sight. It’s an island paradise disguised as, well, an island paradise. The unnerving prowl of Manila is only a small price to pay. One week among true paradise and Boracay became the new standard against which all future island trips will be measured.

Thank you, Reagan. I never doubted you for a minute.

By Jon Wick


About the Author

Jon lives in Butte, Montana, spending most of his time on skis or bikes; sometimes both. He began travel writing while teaching in Korea and is currently pursuing his Master’s Degree in Technical Communication at Montana Tech. Jon has begun writing his first book, The Story of Will, whose movie rights are still (very) available. Catch more of Jon at (@ExpedJon)

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