Donsol was once a sleepy seaside village until the discovery of Butandin (AKA the whale shark) by a group of SCUBA divers in 1998.
Often touted as THE place in the Philippines to swim with whale sharks ethically, Donsol has seen an influx of travellers over recent years. From the months of November to May, Filipinos and foreigners alike flock to this site to get up close and personal to these gentle giants.
Where to stay in Donsol
A range of accommodation is scattered along the coastal strip. In peak season, it is worth noting that accommodation fills up fast so always book ahead! There are no ATM’s in Donsol so you should make sure that you’ve withdrawn the cash you need before travelling.
Donsol Aguluz Homestay is one of the best and friendliest budget options in town. It’s a family-run place with clean, basic rooms and excellent home-cooked food. You’ll feel like you’re staying in an authentic Filipino house and really become part of the family here. This is a welcome contrast to some of the large and impersonal resorts. A single room at Aguluz Homestay costs 600 PHP (around $12USD).
Vitton & Woodland Beach Resort is located right next to the visitor’s centre. There’s a pool, lounge chairs, a restaurant and bar with a very budget-friendly 5 hours of happy hour drink specialities per day! What more could you ask for?! The staff are also super friendly and there are plenty of other travellers to see the sights and hang out with. The “backpacker” dorm room costs 500 PHP bed per night ($10USD). There are three beds to a room and each room has a bathroom.
Giddy’s is another popular choice located in Donsol town, however, you will have to travel slightly further to get from here to the whale shark interaction centre. Tricycle is recommended!
Touristlink Homestay is a great option for budget backpackers. It is exceptionally clean and there is also a communal kitchen where you can cook meals. Although this is located a little out of the tourist area, it offers more of an authentic village vibe. Rooms begin at around 450 PHP (just $10USD)!
Things to do in Donsol
Swim with Whale Sharks
Concerns have grown over recent years that swimming with whale sharks is not an ethical practice. No destination has come under fire as much as Oslob, which has been dubbed as the whale shark ‘Disneyland’.
Unlike Oslob, whale sharks naturally migrate to Donsol to feed, usually staying for around 6 months. Swimming with them here doesn’t disrupt their natural migration patterns as they are not lured in by fishermen who feed them.
There are strict rules about swimming with whale sharks in this area, however, many reports on TripAdvisor talk about instances where boatloads of travellers, sometimes up to 70 people, surround one whale shark, touching and petting it, in a situation which could clearly be distressing for the animal. One reviewer said: “This should be called eco-terrorism, not tourism.”
With Donsol’s reputation slipping in favour of alternative destinations such as Southern Leyte, we encourage you to check out this article about how and where to swim with whale sharks ethically. It details what you should expect from this kind of experience, as well as first-hand accounts from some of our Facebook community who have done this across the Philippines.
If you want to try this experience, then aim to arrive at the whale shark interaction centre between 7 am and 2 pm.
There are three sessions for swimming a day, taking place at 07.30, 11.00 and 14.00. The first session is always the busiest and the last can be cancelled if there is not enough interest.
When you arrive, you will get into a boat. Each boat can hold 6 people and the trip costs 3,500 PHP ($70USD) per person. If you prefer to go with fewer people, you can, it will just cost you more. The boat trip lasts around three hours and you can jump in and swim with the whale sharks whenever you like.
Take a trike to ‘the bridge’ for a firefly tour (trike around 15 PHP per person) in the evening. The cost of a boat (capacity of 5 people) is 1250 PHP. You’ll get an hour-long riverboat tour with a guide and you will see glowing trees full of fireflies! The tours start at 5 pm and finish at 9 pm. We recommend going later when it is fully dark so you can see all the fireflies in all their glory!
The Philippines is known for its great dive sites and Donsol is no different. As well as offering a myriad of different sea creatures to spot, it is even possible to dive with Manta rays around this area. If you fancy being near the sea rather than in it, Donsol isn’t a bad place to relax on the beach either!
Chow down at Barracuda
Grab yourself some really tasty fish and pasta from Barracuda, owned by a fantastic Filipino lady who has spent time as a chef overseas. She’ll bring prawns and fish to your table so you can choose whatever takes your fancy. This place also has some of the cheaper rooms (with shared bathrooms) along the Donsol strip and is only a short walk from the whale shark area.
Go Kayaking on the River
As well as being a hotspot for time spent under the water, Donsol is also a great place to enjoy being on it! Have a chat with some of the local tour providers and enjoy a little bit of lazy kayaking down the river.
Getting to Donsol
By Road: From Legazpi Airport, you can take a private van to Donsol which takes about one and a half hours and will cost you around 1750 PHP ($35USD). Alternatively, you can take a trike to the bus terminal (around 50 PHP) and bag a seat in a shared van for 75 PHP ($1.50USD).
The shared van (a UV express) will leave when it is full so you may have to wait up to an hour to depart. Vans will wait at the airport, or for a less touristy price, try the van terminal in Legazpi town.
Or if you’re a fan of the lengthier Southeast Asian bus trip (and who isn’t?!), you can get a bus all the way from Manila. The journey lasts around 11 hours and costs 650 PHP ($13USD).
Fly: You can fly from Manila (and other locations) into the Legazpi airport. The flight from Manila takes around 50 minutes. A one-way flight costs in the region of 1200 PHP ($25USD).
Getting around Donsol
The best way to take short trips around Donsol is to use tricycles. These generally cost around 50 PHP ($1USD) for a journey which means your wallet will love you! For longer journeys, jeepneys are recommended. If you’re more of a ‘wind in your hair’ kind of traveller, you can also rent a scooter for around 400 PHP ($8USD) a day.
Where to go next?
Naga/Bagasbas: Located 2 hours from Legazpi, this is a great destination for some surf and beach time.
Cebu: For a bit of history, head to Cebu which claims to be the birthplace of Christianity in the Philippines. This city has two sides, the sleek shopping malls on one and historic architecture on the other. There are also some island escapes just a stone’s throw away!
Caramoan: The set of US hit show ‘Survivor’, the Caramoan Islands are making their way onto the backpacker map and epitomise the idea of island hopping.