2 July 2020.
Anchored off the northern tip of Cebu, pint-sized Malapascua offers up slow-paced island vibes in spades.
But, like many far-flung isles in the Philippines, getting here is no straightforward feat. From neighbouring Indonesia, it was a journey of some 18 hours involving three flights, a taxi, a bus, a ferry and finally, a tiny dinghy, one serendipitously named Freya.
Thankfully, there’s no better antidote to a long travel day than a few blissful hours spent between sun, sand and sea which Malapascua offers up in full supply.
And while I could have happily spent my time here mooching about the beautiful beaches, the real reason I’d ventured to this speck in the Pacific was to witness the elusive thresher sharks that frequent the deep dark waters of Malapascua’s offshore reefs.
But whether you’re here to explore the underwater world or simply seeking those chilled island vibes, these are the best things to do on Malapascua Island.
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Dive With The Thresher Sharks At Monad Shoal
Diving is the most popular thing to do on Malapascua and the thresher sharks are without question the star attraction.
These fabled creatures of the deep with their small heads and curiously long tails are best viewed along the steep wall of Monad Shoal in the hours just after sunrise. Dropping to a depth of around 30m, you’ll zig-zag back and forth along the slope, gazing out into the big blue for any flicker of movement in the eery darkness, even if only for a fleeting moment.
For many, the mere mention of sharks may be enough to send them bolting for the shoreline, but these underwater giants aren’t threatening to humans and hunt by swatting the water to stun nearby fish. They’re also one of few shark species able to propel themselves completely out of the water into the air like a dolphin.
Sadly, thresher sharks are widely hunted and are currently listed as a threatened species which means that globally they are relatively rare, yet here at Monad Shoal is one of few places in the world where you’re virtually guaranteed a sighting.
Given the depth you’ll be sinking to, dive times are relatively short – around 30 minutes – and you’ll be required to have at least an Advanced Open Water certification. Catching sunrise on the water also means a brutal 4 a.m. start, but I can guarantee you won’t regret it.
There are numerous dive shops in Malapascua and I went with Evolution Dive Resort who I’d highly recommend. They run a well-organised, safety-conscious operation and have a heavy focus on eco-friendly dive practices which is woven through every aspect of their business. They also strive to be first in at Monad which provides divers with the best opportunity to view the sharks before the crowds arrive.
For when you’re not in the water, the resort also offers a beautiful garden and private beach with hammocks and deck chairs where divers are free to relax. Rates start at 1,750₱ (€31) for a single tank dive at Monad Shoal and the early start means you’ll be back in time for breakfast.
Devotion is another highly-rated dive shop that came recommended to me as well.
Soak Up Salt, Sea and Sun At The Best Beaches On Malapascua
Fringed in palm trees and powdery white sand, Malapascua has some beautiful beaches to choose from, most of which are wonderfully uncrowded and undeveloped.
Wrapping around the southern end of the island, Bounty Beach is a popular choice where cafes, bars and beach chairs are plentiful. However, given the enormous fleet of outriggers that spend much of the day anchored here, I much preferred heading around to the south-east corner where you’ll find empty shores and far fewer boats but are still be within easy reach of town.
For my favourite pick of the lot though, you’ll need to head to Langob Beach on the far northern tip of the island.
This wide tract of glimmering white sand is the perfect place to while away an entire day, thumbing through an old paperback, catching up on podcasts and soaking up some much-needed vitamin D. The east end of the beach is wild and untouched, while the west plays host to a small local village. Smack bang in the middle is a beachfront cafe where you’ll find simple meals from around 250₱ (€4.50) and smoothies for 100₱ (€1.80).
End to end, Malapascua is just 2.5km long which makes getting about on foot relatively easy. That said, there are a number of haphazard island trails that can make finding your way somewhat confusing and in the tropical heat you might just find it easier to cross the island by motorbike instead. To get from town to the far north, you’ll find no shortage of drivers to get you there and in the afternoon, a handful of drivers generally wait near the beach to make the return journey. The going rate is just 30₱ (€0.55).
TOP TIP | During my visit, there was a handful of beach chairs and umbrellas set up along Langob Beach for visitors to use free of charge. While I’m not usually a beach chair kinda gal, much preferring to nestle into the sand, there isn’t a whole lot of shade up here and so having the umbrella on hand was an absolute lifesaver. Be sure to nab one as soon as you arrive though as they’re in high demand.
See The Nudibranchs At Gato Island
For lovers of tiny underwater critters, Gato Island is a haven of lush soft coral gardens that conceal a veritable explosion of macro life.
The cliffs of this remote rocky enclave plunge sharply into the ocean creating an underwater world of large sea caves and narrow tunnels. Fondly nicknamed ‘nudi-city’, you won’t have to swim far before being met with the plethora of brightly-coloured nudibranchs that dwell here, proudly waving their feathery gills atop their backs. White-tip reef sharks, sea snakes, seahorses pipefish and plenty of intriguing shrimp are also common here.
Gato Island sits around 2 hours from Malapascua and so visiting is really a full day adventure. Once again, I visited on a dive day trip with Evolution which included two tanks and lunch on board for 4,140₱ (€74).
As the reef is relatively shallow, this area is also great for snorkelers and you’ll find a number of day tour options available from Malapascua.
Catch The Sunset From Logon Beach
If there’s one thing you absolutely must do in the Philippines, it’s watching the sunset. Every. Damn. Day.
And of all the magnificent sunsets I saw in the Philippines, the ones on Malapascua were the best!
After a day of diving, island hopping or chilling on the beach, by the time sunset rolls around there’s good chance you’ll already be three drinks deep into happy hour at one of the island’s many beach bars, but when the sun kisses the horizon and stains the sky a deep fiery orange, be sure to wander over to Logon Beach, or any west-facing patch of sand for that matter, to catch the spectacle.
Admittedly, Logon is not the prettiest beach in the area but it does provide an excellent vantage point and that’s what really counts. At low tide, the vast sandflat also provides a perfect canvas to reflect the burning sky.
Dinner + Karaoke At The Public Market
During the day, this dusty open-air market place remains relatively subdued, but when darkness falls and the island’s visitors tear themselves away from the final streaks of sunset and wander through the warren of narrow laneways in search of dinner, this place really swings to life.
Smoke fills the air from the many barbecues that mark the front of every market stall while strong, free-flowing cocktails begin to fly out the bar in an endless stream.
Though most stalls offer a selection of pre-prepared meals, the barbecue really is the way to go where you’ll find everything from marinated veggie skewers to freshly caught and perfectly charred whole fish.
Happy hour cocktails are dangerously affordable at just 50₱ (€0.90) while a whole fish and a pair of veggie skewers can be enjoyed for around 200₱ (€3.60). I ate at Avril’s which had a decent selection of seafood on the grill and I wasn’t disappointed.
Funnily enough, there’s a small karaoke booth off to the side of the market which is an endless source of amusement for the diners, but after one too many cocktails, there’s a good chance you’ll end up there yourself.
Take A Day trip to Kalanggaman Island
Wedged between Cebu and Leyte, Kalanggaman Island is the kind of paradisical castaway isle that many of us can only dream of. A delicate thread of powdery white sand, pristine turquoise water and palm trees in full supply.
These days, this tiny blip on the map is an exceedingly popular day trip and weekender destination so don’t expect to have the place all to yourself, but for anyone looking to enjoy one of the prettiest stretches of sand this pocket of the Philippines has to offer, chances are you’ll love your visit here all the same.
Located just 2 hours from Malapascua, the cheapest and easiest way to visit Kalanggaman Island is on a day trip. Group tours are offered through all hostels and resorts on the island where guests are pooled together and divided across a couple of large outrigger boats.
Trips cost 1,300₱ (€23, which includes the 500₱ fee for international tourists) and include hotel pick-up, transport to and from Kalanggaman and a simple buffet lunch with soft drinks.
See this guide for all my tips on planning the perfect Kalanggaman Island visit.
There’s no ATM | That’s right, you’ll need to withdraw all the money you plan to spend on Malapascua – plus plenty of extra, just in case – before making the long journey north from Cebu! Many of the large resorts and dive shops do accept credit card but they tend to add a huge surcharge which can add up quickly and just isn’t worth it. As a guide, my entire 5-day stay came to €230 which included all transport to and from Cebu, budget accommodation and meals and all the activities mentioned above.
Wear proper clothes away from the beach | This may be a beach destination, but the Philippines are still a relatively conservative place and it’s a basic sign of respect to cover up when you’re wandering around town.
Bring a torch at night | Malapascua feels like a labyrinth of narrow sandy laneways at the best of times. At night with no street lights to speak of, it’s a downright maze. Always bring a head torch or a fully-charged phone when venturing out at night to help you find your way.
Internet isn’t great | Internet isn’t great anywhere in the Philippines, but painfully slow speeds and frequent outages make it barely worth using in Malapascua. I’d recommend doing all your research for your trip beforehand so you can enjoy a bit of a digital detox during your stay.
Say no to plastic | As a whole, Malapascua’s small community is striving to drastically reduce their plastic consumption, so do your part and help them out! Avoid buying bottled drinks of any kind, say no to plastic bags and straws and collect any trash you might find in the water or around the island.
Use reef-safe sunscreen | If you love exploring the marine environment, you wouldn’t want the chemicals in your sunscreen to destroy it. Honestly, I’m still trying to find a brand that I love, but these are a few that are recommended: Stream2Sea, Sun Bum Mineral, Tropical Sands and Blue Lizard. Many dive shops on the island also have reef-safe sunscreen for sale.
Consider rainy season | Rainy season in the Philippines can mean anything from a brief afternoon monsoon to persistent heavy rain and strong winds – hardly ideal beach weather. The height of the season runs between June and October so be sure to factor this into your trip planning.
Malapascua Budget Inn | Pretty much the backpacker hostel on the island with capsule style dormitories complete with a light, powerpoint and curtain for each bed, air conditioning and lockers. The staff are incredibly helpful, rooms are spotless, the small chillout area includes a handful of hammocks and beanbags. Check rates and availability here.
AABANA Beach Resort | A decent budget option for those wanting to avoid the hostel scene, Aabana offers private ensuite rooms right on the beachfront at the far end of Bounty Beach. Facilities are simple but breakfast is included and prices are very reasonable. Check rates and availability here.
Malapascua Garden Resort | Set around a lush garden brimming with palms and hibiscus, this brightly coloured resort offers simple but affordable rooms right in the heart of town. There’s an onsite bistro and extras like massages, day tours and airport transfers can be arranged for guests. Check rates and availability here.
Evolution Dive Resort | Want to roll out of bed and straight into your dive gear, or spend the day lounging on a secluded beach just steps from your front door? Evolution is among the best dive outfits on Malapascua and they also offer a selection of bright rooms right on the beach, an in-house restaurant and plenty of comfortable spots to kick back when you’re not blowing bubbles. Check rates and availability here.
Hippocampus Beach Resort | Set right on Bounty Beach, Hippocampus is the home of Devocean Divers and another top spot in Malapascua with decent rooms and a spacious open-air terrace overlooking the beach. Check rates and availability here.
Tepanee Beach Resort | Set on the far tip of Malapascua, Tepanee offers a tropical island getaway with access to a private beach, onsite restaurant, spa, gym and dive shop. Rooms are simple and colourful with a balcony facing toward the garden or ocean. Check rates and availability here.
Much like overlanding anywhere in the Philippines, getting to Malapascua Island is a rather slow, longwinded adventure, but I promise it’ll be worth it in the end.
First, take a Grab (like Uber) to Cebu City’s North Bus Terminal for your transport to Maya Port which will either a yellow Ceres bus or a minivan. Buses tend to be slower, cheaper and more comfortable with some having air conditioning, while the minivans leave when full and make very few stops, but they do cram people in so don’t expect much in the way of comfort.
A bus with no air conditioning costs around 200₱ (€3.50) and takes anywhere between 4 and 6 hours, while a minivan costs around 250₱ (€4.50) and takes around 3 hours. I went with the minivan and though it was cramped it was thankfully much faster than the bus.
If you’re travelling as a family or large group, you may prefer to book a private transfer directly between Cebu City or Airport and Maya Port in a comfortable air-conditioned minivan. Check rates and reviews here.
From Maya Port, ferries leave every half hour from early morning until 5 p.m. and cost 100₱ (€1.80) per person. If there are too few passengers to justify the trip, you may be asked to pay more to make up the difference (only foreigners will be asked) or you can choose to wait for a later departure and hope more people arrive.
As you approach Malapascua, if the tide is too low for the large outriggers to get close to shore, you’ll be transferred to a small dinghy which will take you and your luggage to the beach for an extra 20₱ (€0.35).
The return journey is much the same, but in my experience was significantly slower than the way there.
There are generally just a few passengers leaving Malapascua in the morning so there’s a good chance you’ll need to decide whether to wait for the boat to fill up or pay the additional fee. For my trip, the very first boat of the day left as scheduled but the next four consecutive departures were cancelled due to low passenger numbers – that’s 2 hours of waiting. The bus to Cebu also made regular stops, sometimes for up to 45 minutes for no apparent reason, which added plenty of time to the trip.
For this reason, I would not recommend aiming to leave the island on the same day as your flight, unless it’s late in the evening.