As Jules and I planned our 3-week road trip itinerary around the Visayas, we compromised with each other to squeeze in everything we both wanted to see. My non-negotiable was Apo Island! As long as I got to swim with the sea turtles, I would be happy. For me, turtles are just about the coolest thing in the ocean. Super elusive in most other parts of the world, they are basically the celebrity of the sea. I have to admit though, I was a bit skeptical. We usually steer clear of tourist attractions involving animals, as they tend to be exploitative, overdone and just plain cruel. But everything we read online and heard from friends who had been confirmed that you really do get to swim with wild sea turtles.
And I can say now with full confidence, that if you go to Apo Island, you will indeed swim with just about as many turtles as you want.
That should be enough for you to book a ticket immediately and come out to the Philippines. Here, I’ll help you out: Cheap Flights to the Philippines.
And when I say swim with turtles, I don’t mean oh hey look there’s a turtle over there in the distance. I mean they get right up in your grill. The government has created a marine sanctuary where you can only enter with a local guide. The turtles are highly protected, with a 5,000 peso fine for just touching one. Because of this protection the local turtle population, which was decimated about 10 years ago, has repopulated. Now it’s a fairly popular spot with tourists, so the turtles are comfortable being around humans. They come into the shallow water and feed on the algae, while us lucky humans get to gaze in awe. Win/win! Here’s how to make the most out of your time on Apo Island:
How Long To Stay
If you have a limited time in the area, Apo Island is totally doable as a day trip. There are a ton of companies that will take you out for a day of snorkeling or diving. If you have a couple days, however, we recommend staying over night. Most day trippers don’t even make it on shore, which is a shame because Apo Island is really lovely. Staying a couple of days gives you time to explore the rest of the island and gives you the opportunity to avoid crowded times to have the turtles all to yourself!
How To Get There
If you’re coming from Dumaguete, there are several boats that can take you down to Apo Island. We recommend coming over with the boat from Harold’s Mansion, a popular Dumaguete hostel. They do daily snorkel and dive trips, but you can also grab a one-way ride to the island for 250 pesos. Their boat is huge and makes for smooth sailing. Liberty Lodge, where we stayed on Apo, also has a boat, but they charge 300 pesos and the boat is tiny. Jules and I barely survived the rough trip back without losing our lunch. Go with Harold’s.
What To Bring
Apo is a small island, so there is limited selection of places to eat and buy things. In true budget style we brought over some food from the mainland to make simple breakfasts and lunches. The Robinson’s in Dumaguete is a great spot to stock up on food, as is the local market in town. Be sure to bring enough money for however long you’ll be staying, as there’s no ATM on the island. Heads up: there is a 100 peso charge to enter the island. We also recommend traveling with your own set of snorkeling gear to save money on rental costs, but a set can be rented from your hotel or on the beach for a couple hundred pesos.
Where To Stay
Apo Island is pretty damn small. Where your boat pulls up is the main area of town. There is no running water on the island and electricity only runs during certain hours of the day. Be prepared for bucket showers (exactly how it sounds) and don’t expect air conditioning. The first accommodation you’ll see is Liberty Lodge right on the shore. After you pay your island fee the ladies will direct you to this accommodation; we’re not sure if they make a commission or if they’re just friends. Liberty Lodge is one of the nicer spots to stay on the island. We rented a beautiful private room with a small balcony overlooking the ocean for only 500 pesos (low season price, without meals). They cater to most budgets, with nicer rooms and dorm beds available. More budget accommodation can be found just a short walk from shore including Mario’s Homestay (which we also heard good things about), Ronors Guesthouse and H – H rooms for rent. We saw private rooms advertised for 500 peso with breakfast, but you’re a short walk from the beach.
What To Do
If you’re going to Apo Island you better be there to snorkel or dive. If you’re there for a beautiful white sand beach, you’ll be disappointed. That being said, the snorkeling is AMAZING! Did I mention the turtles?! There are also gorgeous coral, a plethora of fish and some incredibly clear blue water. This marine sanctuary is a testament to what happens when local governments choose to protect and respect their resources rather than exploit them. As travelers it’s easy to fall into tourist traps like riding elephants or playing with tiger cubs, but it’s crucial that we do our homework and think critically about how these animals are actually treated. Swimming with turtles on Apo Island is one of the few ethically and environmentally sound opportunities we’ve found to interact with animals. Knowing that the turtles are protected and able to live in their natural habitat makes the experience just that much more special.
While Jules and I didn’t dive, we heard the scuba sites were some of the best in the country and very reasonably priced.
Besides the snorkeling and diving, Apo is a great spot to get a taste of local island life. We recommend walking over to Cogon on the other side of the island. This walk takes about half an hour and sees you walking over two mountains (there are concrete steps). On top of both peaks there are spectacular views of either side of the coast. To get to this side just follow the concrete path toward the interior of the island and ask locals along the way.
The people of Apo are super friendly and love to chat. Be on the look out for groups of kids engaging in paaway ug damang (spider fights). The first time we stumbled across this we could barely make sense of what we were looking at. Think real life Pokemon! These young kids collect non-venomous spiders from the forest and keep them in little matchboxes divided into cells by folded banana leaves. They bring them out and fight against other kid’s spiders by putting the two on a long stick and having them battle it out. The spider that falls 3 times from the stick loses, or the spider that can wrap the other in a web wins. It’s pretty crazy to see the finesse the kids have for directing their spiders. It’s something you really have to see to believe, so make sure to ask some local kids to take their spiders out, undoubtedly they’ll have them waiting in their pocket.
On a final note, this should go without being said, but don’t forget that these turtles are wild animals! They do not want to be touched, poked, harassed or held on for a wild ride through the sea (as awesome as that sounds). Treating them with respect means that future generations will be as lucky as we are to have a close up look at these gorgeous creatures!