Boracay, a tiny little island in the Visayas of the Philippines, is world famous for its long stretch of white sand, gently swaying palm trees, clear azure waters, little white sailboats, and vibrant sunsets. At least that’s what every single picture ever taken of Boracay looks like. Boracay looks like a picture-perfect tropical paradise.
We didn’t have plans to go to the Philippines, but after hearing a few people rave about it, we looked into it. All blog posts I read also sang of Boracay’s highest praises. We found an airbnb right off the sand that was quite reasonably priced for one month. So it was decided: we were going. Beaches are my favorite, so I couldn’t wait to visit the most beautiful one of them all.
Now that I’ve had some time to think about my month on the island, I can say that while Boracay is gorgeous, it wasn’t my paradise.
Here is everything I observed about Boracay and what Boracay really looked like from behind my lens.
First, a quick overview of the island
White Sands Beach is the famous 4 kilometer stretch of soft white sand. Along this stretch is where all the resorts and guesthouses are located. It is split up into three sections called Station 1, Station 2, and Station 3.
STATION 1: This is where all the people with money come to stay. Station 1 has the widest beach and the softest, whitest sand. Walking on it is like walking on flour. This is where all the nicer, more upscale resorts are located. Of course, since we’re not luxury travelers, we did not stay here and hence didn’t spend too much time here.
STATION 2: I think of this as the backpackers district. Station 2 is the most crowded and where most people stay. D’Mall (an outdoor shopping and dining center) and D’Talipapa (the seafood market) are both located here. This area is jam packed with bars, restaurants, touristy souvenir shops, and beach hair-braid & tattoo artists. As soon as the sun goes down, the clubs open up and the neon lights and music can be seen and heard from a mile away.
This was not our scene either, though we had to come here almost daily to do our grocery shopping.
It really was this crowded at Station 2 most of the time. The crowd took away from the peace and beauty of the place, but I try hard to not complain about other tourists since I’m one of them too!
Also, this area has the most hasslers. You can’t stroll down the beach without being asked if you want to buy a selfie stick, massage, or a parasail tour every few feet. While annoying, it didn’t bother me toooo much. Maybe because I already got used to it in other Southeast Asian countries. But this is still something to consider.
STATION 3: This area is more filled with locals and family travelers. This is where we stayed (at the far end) as we prefer a more relaxed, laid back vibe. The beach isn’t too wide here and the sand is noticeably yellower and rougher, but this is more like the peaceful paradise I envisioned. At night, it’s blissfully quite. The only sounds are diners enjoying a meal on the sand or soft guitar music from live entertainment.
You may be thinking: these pictures are beautiful. So now, let’s get into some of the reasons I didn’t think Boracay was paradise:
Green slime everywhere
When we finally got to the island, I couldn’t wait to get into the water. But wait! What’s all this green stuff floating around??
The locals told us that this green algae is a seasonal thing and to just wade out past it. No biggie, they said. For a couple of days, we tried to ignore the slimy green stuff, but it was seriously gross. The algae gathers at the shallow part where the waves hit the shore, thus making it impossible to just play around in the waves. At times, this “green soup”, as we started calling it, is so thick and dense that it’s almost black.
So we read up a little bit and learned that this insane algae growth is a result of nutrient pollution (a.k.a human waste) in the ocean, caused by overpopulation and over-loading the sewage system. The algae breeds every summer (approximately February – May) when the waves are calmer and the water is warmer, and dissipates during the rough season. [Read more here.]
All of a sudden, we weren’t too thrilled about playing in the ocean anymore.
And yes, after a swim, the green slime gets everywhere.
Sometimes, it stinks too
As such, you can imagine that some parts of the beach doesn’t smell too good. Station 1 is gorgeous with the wide stretch of white sand, but as we strolled along it, we were hit by a pungent stench akin to that of raw sewage. My nose burned and my eyes stung. How could it be that people were just hanging out on the sand in this stench?!
The water is cold
This one was highly disappointing to me. I was so looking forward to swimming in warm tropical waters. The first day, I eagerly ran out into the sea (despite the green soup), and eek! – the water was cold! Not super cold, but enough that I had to coax myself to get in (I should admit that I’m kind of a wimp. D rather liked the cool water). We went during March, which is the height of tourist season, and I’m not sure if the water gets warmer in other months.
The coral is all dead
We went on an island hopping tour, part of which took us to Crocodile Island for snorkeling. The guide said that it’s a popular spot for snorkeling so we were excited to see some underwater wildlife. So imagine our disappointment when we donned our masks and snorkel, jumped in, stuck our heads below the surface, and saw…. dead coral! There were plenty of small fish, but nothing to write about.
After poking around online a bit, I read that the coral around Boracay has been almost completely destroyed. Some articles say it was destroyed by too-warm water, while others say it was by unregulated fishing activities and pollution due to tourism. Either way, I can’t imagine why anyone would spend money to dive here.
So it is worth a visit?
Even with all the development, Boracay’s beaches are still picturesque. But heavy tourism is definitely creating lasting, damaging effects. The explosion in population is causing more pollution to be leaked into the ocean. In talking with a local who lived his entire life on the island, he says that Boracay is no longer the peaceful paradise he remembers.
“Now at night, when I’m on my sailboat and look back at the island, all I see are neon lights. It’s like Vegas.”
So is it still worth visiting?
I think this depends on what you want out of a beach vacation. I’m sure there are more pristine beaches in the Philippines (I hear good things about Palawan!) if you want the true lonely beach experience.
But if you’re looking for a tropical vacation with a good balance of beach, activities, nightlife, and amenities, then Boracay has all that and more. It has an abundance of Western cuisine, bars, cafes, and even shops. The food at most places we tried is actually quite good and the drinks are cheap. The internet connection is decent and most cafes & restaurants will have free wifi for use. You can also engage in any water activities you want, including sailing, scuba diving, kiteboarding, parasailing, etc.
And of course, the sunsets are breathtaking.
I focused on talking about White Sands Beach, but it is not the only beach on Boracay. There are several other beaches dotted around the island that will provide a different, more secluded experience. We didn’t get to go to a lot of them (I know, we had a month… there’s no excuse!) but I would recommend escaping the crowds on White Sands to check them out. No shops, no bars, no neon lights. There, you can still find pure, unspoiled paradise.
Boracay was not our paradise but we were able to enjoy a month of living the island life while still being able to work. For that, Boracay offered what we needed. It probably would have been hard to work on a less developed island. We did have a good time, but personally we will not return. Koh Chang is still my ultimate paradise with its warm waters, lush jungles, and mountain roads.
Lastly, a word about safety
I’ve already talked about how we got robbed on our 4th night on the island. In the middle of the night while we were sleeping. Our airbnb host said that robberies, while not very often, do occur. And she cited a couple of other instances where people in the area had their apartment broken in to.
Someone asked me if I think it’s dangerous given that we had a break in. I wouldn’t call Boracay dangerous as there’s no violent crime, but we were more cautious for the rest of the month. I would recommend that you check if your resort has a gate or not (ours didn’t) and be sure to check all your windows and doors every night. But I think in general, as long as you practice common sense, you will be fine.
How to get there: There are two airport options to fly into: Kalibo or Caticlan. Kalibo is the international airport (and the one we flew into) and is located about 2 hours away from the ferry terminal. Once you exit the airport, there will be a number of companies offering transfers to Boracay for $250PHP/person (or approx. US$5). You will take a 2 hour van ride to the Caticlan ferry terminal, and then a quick 15 minute boat ride to Boracay Island. Once on the island, there will be tricycles to take you to your guesthouse or hotel.
Fees: Everyone entering the island must pay a terminal fee of $100PHP (or US$2) and environmental fee of $75PHP (or US$1.50).
Date of visit: March 6, 2015 to April 3, 2015
Have you been to Boracay? What did you think? If not, would you want to go?
Linking up to Travel Tuesday.