After a jaunt on the backpacker trail through South East Asia and a few nights on Boracay, I was desperate to get “off the beaten track”. I spotted the Bugtong Bato falls on an old map of the Philippines I found. No further explanation of what might be there. No information at all on how to get there. Perfect!
How to get to Tibiao?
The island of Panay is visited by well over a million tourists every year…almost all of whom then proceed immediately to the ferry terminal at Caticlan and transit to the infinitely smaller – too small to have its own airport – island of Boracay.
I’d seen the amazing landscape of rolling green mountains and turquoise coastline that Panay has to offer, both from the plane over from Vietnam and from the bus journey from Kalibo airport to the port. Most Boracay-destined tourists fly directly to Caticlan. Luckily for me, I’m a cheapskate.
So, if coming from Caticlan and/or Boracay, turn right out of the port terminal, negotiate your way through the tourist shuttle buses and look for a yellow local bus. You want the bus for San Jose de Buenavista, although the locals all call it “Antique”, like the province it’s capital of.
The bus cost 100 pesos each (less than £1.50). I asked a local, who’d had his headphones in when we’d asked the driver, and he confirmed the amount. Whatever they tell you, the bus ride will take the best part of the day.
The road passes between the lush, undulating moss-green hills of Panay’s own Cordillera mountain range and seemingly never-ending stretches of beach – some golden sand, some pebble, palm-shaded, peppered with little fishing boats, home-made from bamboo, but all completely free of people. You could take weeks, travel this coastline in depth, experiencing the best of the Philippines, and yet you’d most likely never meet another foreign tourist.
If you’re coming up from Iloilo (Panay’s capital, biggest city and other major airport) then you can catch the same yellow bus coming from the other direction.
Ask to be dropped off in Tibiao or, if you can, at the turn off signposted for “Kayak Inn”, 4km north of Tibiao.
How to Get to Kayak Inn?
A local lady ran us through our limited options and accommodation choices in Tibiao. It was getting late (our bus broke down, of course) but we decided to grab a tricycle (the three-wheeled Philippine equivalent of the tuk tuk) to the turn off for a few pesos. (We paid 30 between us, but it’s not far. You’ll get it for less.) From there you need to change to a motorbike, for reasons that will soon become clear. The price for this is 35 pesos per person…
…only, when we got there, the guys waiting wanted 200. We haggled them down but when it came down to it, the guy said, “yes, 35 is local price. You pay tourist price” and they wouldn’t budge below 45.
“Oh, I wish you hadn’t told me that,” I said, and, much to their surprise, we took back our bags, which they’d already taken the liberty of strapping to their bikes, and started hoofing it.
You might think I’m crazy haggling over a few pence, but “tourist prices” really get my back up. A lot of places take this attitude towards tourism, and the Philippines is especially bad for it. I’m always happy to take a minute to argue a principle and do my bit to help stop other travellers being ripped off.
The road is about six or seven kilometres but rough conditions mean you’re looking at at least a two hour walk. Some bikes passed – each taking their turn at trying to extort us – but, now that we’d walked some of the way, I wasn’t even going to pay the full 35, let alone what these guys were quoting. Eventually though, we got a good honest kid who agreed on 25 pesos each and insisted he could fit three people, two backpacks, six litres of water and various other crap on one motorcycle…
…and he was right… Just about.
We spluttered up steep gradients, then raced down the other side at god-knows-what-speed, over loose gravel, sliding and skidding through tight bends and deep mud, slick from recent rain, all on a ridiculously overladen bike, rattling over the deep corrugations, and with darkness falling fast.
Being a motorcyclist myself, I have the utmost respect for this young kid. I know how dangerous any one of these things can be on its own, let alone all at once. At times we had to get off and walk, but he never once went down.
Though we spent most of the ride watching the ground speed by beneath us, it was impossible to miss the sunset over the mountains, the rice-fields and the Tibiao river valley.
Eventually, in almost complete darkness, we pulled off the road at what must be Kayak Inn and luckily they had a room for one night. A big family were eating dinner on the big, open terrace, with the darkness as a back-drop. The dad, who couldn’t speak much English but had his kids on hand to help translate, invited us in while one of the daughters made up our room.
A baby, in a basket/wrap-type-thing, hung from the ceiling by a single rope, bouncing gently in the breeze. A pet monkey on a chain looked extremely unhappy with his current situation and leapt at me with fangs bared when I got close.
The room was in its own self-contained log cabin, suspended off the ground by wooden legs, perfectly located and with a simple electricity setup run through bamboo tubes.
The shower was a bucket.
Looking out now into the darkness, we realised we’d never have found this place if we’d walked. Such is life.
The room was 500 pesos per person and they also prepared a hot meal for us for something like 250 pesos each, which was a little steep, but it’s not like there’s anywhere else to go and eat.
Someone had to ride off to get the ingredients (most probably a live chicken) so they brought over a Thermos, mugs and some sachets of 3-in-1 coffee while we waited.
We sat amidst the impenetrable blackness of night and the sounds of nature echoing around the valley – crickets chirping, the stream trickling, grasses rustling in the night breeze – sipping from mugs of hot coffee, knees up as the heat of the day gradually cooled off, while the family across the way played card games by a faint light and one-by-one retired to an early bed.
Dinner was surprisingly delicious chicken and vegetables, with a side of fried fish and absolutely tonnes of rice…and was accompanied by a friendly dog, who went on to stay for breakfast and even escorted us to the Bugtong Bato falls and back the next day (a round trip of two hours that included an almost vertical flight of steps).
We sat up talking long into the night. It was that magical feeling you get when you go camping as a child.
We were properly, well and truly “off the beaten track”!
“I could stay here forever.”
Suddenly there was a sound above, like the bleating of a donkey echoing through the night. It seemed to come from overhead, from the corner of our bedroom.
“What the hell was that?”
A few minutes later it came again, closer.
Then the biggest gecko we’d ever seen emerged from between the bathroom and bedroom and the mystery was solved. He was soon joined by a female, same size, and we watched them for hours as they crept slowly towards a moth or other insect of the night, one foot at a time, those little toes splaying out and sucking to the wall, all with such unbelievable patience. They almost always got their man. After everything they ate, it’s no wonder they’d got so big.
The bed was a thick, comfy new mattress, on the ground and covered from head to toe with a mosquito net (no holes, no dust, no musty smell). The sheets were freshly laundered and smelt good, the bed freshly made, which is kind of necessary in a place like this. (I once stayed in a place on Lake Ometepe in Nicaragua where spiders had laid their eggs in the sheets and scorpions hid under the pillows. The owner ended up chasing us out onto the bus with a machete, but that’s another story.)
We went to bed watching the stars…
How to Get to the Bugtong Bato Falls?
…and in the morning, with no alarm to set, I woke to golden sunlight, blue sky and a cool morning breeze stirring the green leafage outside the shutter-less window.
Kayak Inn is even more impressive by the light of day and even has several kawa hot baths.
Ruth was already up and had ordered our breakfast, which is included in the price and arrived shortly…as did our four-legged friend from last night.
As you’ll know if you’ve ever travelled the Philippines, a typical Filipino breakfast is not at all dissimilar to a typical Filipino lunch and a typical Filipino dinner, consisting of rice, fried egg and fried fish or chicken (or, in this case, tocino, which in Spanish means “bacon” and here, evidently, means “red shit”.
We ate, threw a few buckets of surprisingly pleasant cold water over ourselves, packed up, left our bags and set off again for the Bugtong Bato falls, with our canine amigo leading the way up ahead.
The dirt road continues on, past stunning views of wooden houses perched overlooking the Tibiao river valley, into Barangay Tuno. (A barangay, often abbreviated to “Brgy.”, is the smallest administrative division in the Philippines, so roughly translates to a hamlet in English.) The Bugtong Bato waterfalls are actually in (or closest to) Tuno, but Tibiao is the closest place that’s likely to show up on a map, if you’re lucky.
In Tuno, tourists have to “register” and pay, I think 100 pesos, to go to the falls. This sleepy makeshift booth is also where they’ll try their best to insist that you need a guide. You don’t. In countries where there’s no such thing as “official”, government-run Tourist Information offices, it’s always hard to know who to trust. In my experience, as a rule of thumb, trust no-one…when money’s concerned, at least. However, in this case 100 pesos isn’t a lot and seems to go directly to the community.
Our dog strutted around like he owned the place, while bigger, tougher-looking dogs slept all around us or raised one eye-lid from where they lay in the shade.
From here, take a right on a little alley just past the registration booth. We didn’t have any major problem sticking to the path, but it does fork off more than once or twice so, if in doubt, ask a local. There’s always a villager nearby, carrying something or building something, and they’ll know what you’re after.
The path leads through jungle, beside rice-paddies where water-buffalo get down and dirty in the mud, rivers where the locals bathe and wash their clothes and rustic homesteads where chickens feed under the palms. All the kids rush over to say “hello” and run off again giggling when you say it back.
The track is not exactly what you’d call a gentle stroll, and then, when you reach the first of the “seven” Bugtong Bato falls, involves a cross between a ladder and a very steep flight of steps. (You haven’t lived ’til you’ve seen a dog climb this.)
At the second fall is a beautiful swimming hole where you can jump in and cool off after the sweat-inducing trek. From here you need to climb and then use a rope to scale an incredibly slippery rock-face. (This is probably why most people opt for the guide.) As long as you can hold your body weight, you should be fine.
At the top is the third waterfall and a plunge pool – the best swimming hole yet – directly overlooking the others below. I was admiring the waterfall when I heard a scream.
I ran to the edge and saw Ruth was attempting the climb and her legs had been washed out from under her and she was hanging on for dear life.
“No, no, no!”
I climbed down, calmed her down and talked her through it. She made it up to the top, where she admitted it was worth it. Sadly I couldn’t carry a camera up there so I don’t have any photos of the third pool and you’ll just have to trust us or, even better, go experience it yourself. The Philippines is absolutely covered with waterfalls just like these ones.
Apparently there are seven levels of waterfalls at Bugtong Bato, but where the other four are is beyond me. Even if you hire a guide you only get as far as the third.
Later, while we were swimming, some local kids came by, scaled the rocks in seconds and started doing back-flips into the water, making us look like complete pussies.
We climbed back down, soon reminded that the way down is often harder than the way up, and had to get back to the Inn before lunch to grab our stuff. This time our dog wasn’t so lucky. The other dogs were laying in wait for him and fell about him snarling and biting. They had him surrounded and I had to run in there and startle them so he could slip through and get the hell out of there.
Back at the Inn, we said goodbye to him, donned the bags and hit the road again…
…until a few minutes later we got a free ride from some friendly Boracayans in a four-wheel-drive, just returning after dropping off an all-Filipino tour group at Kayak Inn. (Maybe we weren’t so “off-the-beaten-track” after all.) At the main road they chased the yellow bus which had just gone past (another wouldn’t be due for hours), flagged it down for us (actually, more like ran it off the road) and refused to take any money for their help.
The bus took us to Iloilo, and from there we flew to Palawan.