When travellers first arrive in Cebu, they can be forgiven for thinking that they have arrived in an overcrowded and traffic-congested Filipino city. With stunning tropical beaches and islands beckoning just offshore, it is understandable that people will want to skip by Cebu City and the greater island as fast as they can! However, take the time to explore Cebu and you will find a few unique cultural treasures up its sleeve! And before you make a sprint for the ferry port, don’t forget the famous diving Mecca of Moalboal in the south…
Cebu island offers several areas worth mentioning:
- Cebu City: Referred to as the ‘Queen City of the South,’ Cebu is home to an estimated one million people and is actually the oldest city in the Philippines. It has a booming nightlife, gleaming shopping malls, busy international air and sea ports and if you delve deeper, a rich religious and historical heart. In fact, the city claims to be the location for the birth of Christianity in the Philippines!
- Moalboal: Further south, you will find Moalboal, which is around a 2.5-hour drive from Cebu Main airport. Diving and snorkelling are the order of the day here with crystal clear waters and beautiful coral reefs, with the most celebrated being at nearby Pescador Island. Panagsama Beach is lined with bars, restaurants and accommodation suitable for the backpacker budget.
- Mactan Island: Joined to the main island by bridges, Mactan Island is home to exclusive, luxury resorts that would eat into most backpacker’s savings immediately! Becoming very popular of late with wealthy Korean tourists, it is also the base for the island’s main airport.
Things to do in Cebu:
- See Magellan’s Cross: In 1521, Spanish conquistador, Ferdinand Magellan planted a wooden cross in Cebu as a symbol to convert the native Cebuanos to Christianity. Although most historians agree that the original wooden cross was burnt by locals following Magellan’s departure, a plaque next to the cross states its genuineness. The cross is housed in an octagonal shaped building in Plaza Sugbo.
- Visit the Basilica of Santo Nino: For all those interested in the fascinating religious history of the Philippines, the Basilica, dating back to 1565, is a must visit tourist destination in Cebu. The church contains a sacred statue of Santo Nino (translating as ‘Holy Child,’ Jesus) which is believed to have been presented to the Queen of Cebu by the Spanish conquistador, Ferdinand Magellan. The Basilica is visited by many devoted Filipinos who come to pray at the holy site.
- Visit the dancing inmates: You’ve seen the Youtube videos, now see the real life performance! The dancing prisoners of Cebu are a cultural phenomenon and travellers who happen to be in Cebu on the last Saturday of the month can visit the high-security penitentiary and see the show for themselves. Dancing to popular hits, from Michael Jackson to Justin Bieber, the inmates put on one hell of a performance that has become famous worldwide! And, it’s good for prison morale too – apparently, the crime rate inside dropped 80% during rehearsals for the show and the community dancing has continued to improve prison health, behaviour and spirit.
- Take in an incredible Filipino Festival: There are so many festivals in the Philippines that during your stay, you are bound to be in the right place at the right time! Cebu is famous for one of the biggest, loudest and most colourful festivals in the Philippines, known as Sinulog, taking place on the third Sunday of January every year. The festival is dedicated to Santo Nino, the child Jesus, as the Cebuanos celebrate their development from paganism to Christianity. Other festivals throughout the year include ‘Paskuhan,’ a Christmas celebration, Virgin of the Rule Fiesta (in November) and Kadaugan se Mactan (every April). There are many more, which lead the island to be nicknamed ‘island of festivals’ by some.
- Island hopping! There are no less than 167 islands that surround the main island of Cebu, making up the gorgeous, tropical Visayas. If the heat in the city gets too much for you and shopping malls just ain’t your thang, just a boat ride away you will find deserted beaches and swaying palm trees on Robinson Crusoe style islands. Malapascua, Bohol, Panglao, Siquior and Bantayan Island are some popular retreats amongst backpackers!
- Visit Tops: For an incredible view of the city and the surrounding islands, head to the area, famously known as ‘Tops’ which lies at the ‘top’ (surprisingly) of Mount Busay. You can hike, bicycle or get a motorbike to the top. Best visited at sunset for a breathtaking sight.
- Snorkeling and Diving: Moalboal is world famous throughout the Philippines and South East Asia for its incredible underwater life and the small area has many dive schools which offer a variety of courses from beginner to advanced. Its white sandy beaches, clear waters and abundant coral reefs will have your mouth watering and the best news is that the diving here is very affordable for budget travellers!
Where to stay:
For backpackers who can’t afford the likes of the Shangri La Hotel on Mactan Islands (join the club!), you will find yourself with little budget options in Cebu, an island which seems to cater more for resorts. You are looking at around 800-1,500 for a decent room in Cebu, whilst Moalboal has some better budget options on the beach.
- Fly: Flights with Cebu Pacific Air are great value and take one hour to reach Cebu from Manila. The main airport caters to many daily domestic flights around the Philippines and also Cebu Pacific Air flights from Singapore and Hong Kong.
- Boat: The port at Cebu City is the busiest in the Philippines and you can connect to the majority of shipping lines here, from Cebu to Manila, Davao, Cagayan de Oro or many other offshore islands. Boats are extremely cheap and a great option for travellers who are not short on time.
Where to go next?
- Bohol and Panglao Island: These laid-back, tropical islands are just a two-hour boat ride away from Cebu. Visit Bohol’s famous chocolate hills, see the world’s smallest primate, go diving, snorkelling or just relax on a beautiful white sandy beach.
- Malapascua Island: A four-hour bus ride from Cebu city and you will find yourself in the small and beautiful island of Malapascua, famous for dives with ‘thresher sharks.’
- Bantayan Island: Head to Bantayan to experience authentic, local island life, complete with encounters with hundreds of chicken farms!