Caticlan town, located north of Panay Island is the last stop for anyone who wish to enter the Philippines' most beautiful island of Boracay. Obviously, there are several ways to get to Caticlan from the country's capital Manila. Caticlan itself has an airstrip but only chartered, small planes can land there. Expect to pay hefty price for a ticket on such a plane. though. No commercial airliners fly directly to Caticlan, unfortunately. However, local Zest Air and SEAIR fly to Kalibo Airport on Panay from the capital Manila. Combined with a 1.5 hours bus ride from the Kalibo Airport, this is probably the fastest and cheapest way to get to Caticlan. Some other foreign airlines also fly direct to Kalibo from countries like China and South Korea. There is another way to get to Caticlan from Manila, which is more popular among local Filipinos, that is the sea route. A ferry cruise from Manila to Caticlan via Batangas Port, offered by 2GO Travel company is pretty cheap considering its 2-in-1 service of sea travel with sleeping berths aboard. If one can spend about 10 hours on a ferry ride, this cruise could be worth a try.
Fastest but not really fast
Frankly, I can't recall how I got to find this traveling method to Caticlan but the moment I saw it, I was confident such a rare experience must be something memorable. However, it didn't come hassle-free. First challenge came just right after we landed at Terminal 4, Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila. Since we've lost a considerable amount of time at the airport immigration, we were left with no other choices of land transport but taxi cab. Originally, we wanted to take a bus but later called the plan off since the remaining three hours we had couldn't be enough for a bus to reach the port city, about 100 kms away from the airport. Not during peak hours on Friday. The destination was Batangas Port in Batangas City where we'll catch 2GO cruise to Caticlan that night.
As we headed out of the arrival hall, we approached a local lady at the 'chartered taxi' stop located just to the left of the exit. She seemed to be the one in charge of calling for taxis upon requests. We voiced our intention and she made a few calls using her hand-held transceiver. A couple of taxi operators she called didn't want to make a run to Batangas, though. I quickly understood why. Although 100 km is not really far a distance, the traffic and the possibility of coming back with empty car are two major concerns for them not to drive to Batangas. About five minutes later, the lady told us that we got a taxi coming right over but the fare would be Php 3000. Considering the fact that the taxi driver would be coming back to Manila without any passengers, we agreed. I knew the price was reasonable because one Western tourist got charged Php 3800 for the same trip he did earlier. Moreover, we didn't really have time to haggle further.
We didn't have to wait long as the taxi that would take us to Batangas arrived at the taxi stand just minutes later. An old man in his mid-50s got off the white Toyota Innova and took our luggage into the back of the multipurpose vehicle. "Does he know where we're heading to?", I asked myself. My watch shown 5.10 PM as then current time and according to the cruise boarding pass, we must check-in at the ferry terminal four hours prior to departure. If the ship company did really mean it, I think we won't be going to Caticlan on that same day. So, with 3 hours on the clock, we left the airport vicinity into the madness of Manila's traffic right in the midst of the rush hour on Friday.
The taxi entered the main street that would take us out from Pasay City and onto South Luzon Expressway (SLEX). I didn't really get what caused the massive crawl and in fact, still thinking why and what have brought the traffic to almost stand still when most of the roads we traveled on were straight lines but we had to stop at traffic lights quite frequently. Maybe that contributed to the jam as well. About an hour leaving behind the Manila airport, our cab driver made a stop at one Caltex station to refuel to about half of its tank capacity. Looking at his relaxed pace in doing things, we told him that we were in hurry to catch the 9 PM cruise ship. I think he understood what we meant by hurry, he slightly increased his speed to 80km/h (that's not fast, uncle) once we hit the road again. All in all, we lost 1.5 hours getting out of Pasay alone. By 6.30 PM, we were already on the highway heading south.
Eye problem? Please don't drive at night
We had a slight relief then. Traffic on the highway looked good, smooth flowing. It was about sundown and then entered another problem. As the sun was going into hiding, taking out its ray of hope, what's left is the artificial lighting from the automobiles on the road. Our driver kept slowing down every time oncoming vehicles flashed their headlights. Each time, he needed to bent forward to have clearer view of the road. I sensed we were put in a very risky hands there. It was getting more terrifying when semi-trucks or buses passing and the driver wasn't so sure whether he maintained the right lane. Wifey did suggest to me to take the wheel after a while of horrible experience but I bet the uncle won't have allowed me to do so. "I think we should just help him read the road signs and directions", I countered wifey's idea. So, we helped a little and prayed for safety. Come to think of it, I wonder what if this critical situation took place in China or Cambodia or any countries which uses no Roman alphabets. Surely we couldn't help out.
Batangas at last
10 minutes to 8 PM, after some heart-stopping moments, we made an exit to Batangas City. Suddenly the roads became a single carriageway. Our cab moved even slower for another 10 minutes into the city. Luckily, it wasn't so far till we saw a sign for Batangas Pier. At this point, we were obliged to instruct the driver where to go in order to reach the port in time. We had just under an hour before the ship departure, remember? With God's will, we finally made it there 15 minutes past eight. The driver stopped us at one building, dark and sombre, and told us that's the back entrance to the pier. I wasn't feeling so good remembering a colleague's experience in Manila when he got mugged by four local thugs. There I saw as many as 10 men waited somewhere at the market's parking bay. They approached our vehicle and asked the driver to pull over right at the market doorstep. The driver talked something to them while we grabbed our luggage, thanked the driver and vanished into the market. A couple of them followed us and offered something to sell but we just told them off. It was a quick and short walk before we actually exited the market into the port area. We didn't even look back to see what those men were after. A security personnel stood there and in the sigh of relief, we thanked God for our safety.
It's boarding time
To reach 2GO ticketing counter, we had to walk about 100 meters more. The sign was clear and a bit easy to find once we got inside the pier area. Many other passengers were seen busy getting their tickets. At the counter, we successfully exchanged the e-ticket printouts for real boarding passes. Yes, this cruise was just like taking a flight. Not only that, it's close to resemble airport procedure when we were required to pay for the terminal fee of Php 30 per person. Only then, we were allowed to get through the boarding gate. Again, a standard feature of an airport, a security checkpoint was set up to scan all bags carried on by passengers. However, it wasn't as strict as the airport.
We formed two lines to get aboard the ferry, one for male and another for its opposite sex. Wifey and I were puzzled of such a strange requirement. Not only that, we must put down on the ground whatever we were carrying. A minute or so later, out of nowhere, an Alsatian (aka German Shepherd) detection dog and its human trainer got down to every queuing passenger and started to sniff around their luggage. Luckily, the dog didn't really like my bag. Maybe she knew I wasn't carrying any dope (or meat) in that bag. Then, we headed on board the big ferry via a ramp. A couple of the ship crews shown us to the Red Section upon looking at our tickets. That was the Super Value (aka Economy) class located on the second top deck of the ship. At this point, I was eager to know whether the Php 875 ticket worth its value.
Super duper value
Once we were at the red section, not to my surprise, it looked like a huge dormitory with rows of double-decked bunk beds with narrow alley between each row. I guess there can be easily 300 passengers in that section. Looking at our tickets again, it turned out we were assigned to bunks on a same row but on different corner. Lucky enough, no one was having his bunk bed next to mine, so wifey can quickly moved in there. Even though both our tickets were bought online with auto-assigned berths, that didn't guarantee both were located next to each other. The same thing happened to another couple who were busy in search of side by side bunks. Wifey looked upset when she couldn't find any other foreign tourists on board plus the fact that we couldn't secure a cabin much earlier. On the bright side, at least at the bunk bed section, we could see how those locals do their travels.
After we put our stuff on our beds, I went to collect our pillows and pre-booked linens at the nearby service counter. I, however had to leave my identification card at the counter as a deposit. While wifey made our bunks, I went up to Yellow section to check on our dinner, which was complimentary with each ticket. At the top deck where the Yellow section was located, I saw a long queue of passengers at Island Fiesta Grill to collect the free dinner. When asked on what we got, I was shocked that our super value tickets only entitled each of us to a pack of rice and local-style cooked chicken but nothing else. Not even a bottle of water.
Knowing that, I skipped the queue and headed back to lower deck and entered the ship's eating place known as Horizon Restaurant. There I saw many better looking dishes available. The only setback was they were not for free and for Halal consumers, the choice was very limited. A combination of a scoop of rice, meat option, and vegetables cost Php 100. I got ourselves rice with chunks of fried fish and mixed veg. With a bottled water, I was charged Php 130. As we were enjoying our tasteless meal, the ship slowly cruised out of the pier area into the darkness of the night on Batangas Bay. Soon later, we were already asleep after a tiring day of moving from one mode of transport to another, from air to land to sea.
A stop at Odiongan
In the wee hours next morning, I was awaken by a female voice on the loud speakers, making announcement of a scheduled stop at Odiongan within the next 30 minutes. Almost half the passengers in Red section were seen packing their stuffs and ready to get off at this port city on Tablas Island. I don't think Odiongan is a tourist destination, so I believe they were going back to their hometown for some reasons. Only later that I knew the period we were in the Philippines was the final week for school holidays. So, at around 4 in the morning, the ferry harbored at Odiongan for about 15 minutes to unload some passengers. At the same time, some other passengers got on board for another two hours cruise to Caticlan.
Sunrise on deck
Soon after the ship continued to sail off Odiongan, I could hardly went to sleep again. Twilight color from the far horizon was peeking out through the thick cloud formation over the ocean. The sun was rising and I didn't want to miss such a difficult moment to catch, especially from a moving sea ferry. Wifey was also awaken by some noise made by other passengers who were moving about our bunks. Later, somewhere between Tablas and Carabao Islands, we witnessed one of the beautiful sunrise effects in our life. The day looked to be a nice one, at least that was what we thought at that moment.
Mooring at Caticlan
Our hope went south as we got closer to Caticlan about an hour later. Dark clouds could be seen above us covering the nice blue sky. Not far to the east, Boracay Island was already in sight. It was drizzling while we were looking ahead at what seemed to be our last stop before Boracay. An announcement was made to alert all the passengers of the next disembarkation point, Caticlan. Fishermen in a few small local boats or paraw were already out at sea to get some good catch to bring home. 30 minutes later, the captain slowed down the speed and made a slight turn to enter the path towards the port of Caticlan. I was glad that finally we had reached to the final stop before reaching our target destination after a 10-hour economy sea travel.