The effect that Instagram has had on travel and tourism is kind of weird. I was born three hours away from Tablas. I spent years of my life living close by without ever hearing of the island. Yet, my South African friend who had never even been to the Philippines was adamant that we go. Never being one to turn down an adventure, we left my Lola’s house, hopped on a bangka and endured a nauseating couple of hours on the high Philippine seas.
Following a quick detour to Carabao Island, we arrived at Tablas’ Santa Fe Port early in the morning. To call us clueless would be an understatement. There was no research done prior to our arrival, with our entire trip hinging on our optimistic naivety. Thankfully, distant family connections come in very handy in the Philippines. Even the most distant relative will happily treat you like one of their own children. That includes tall, white South Africans.
Because of this, we were well taken care of in Tablas. We stayed at a beautiful B&B in Looc and got our own driver to take us around the island the five days we were there. It was admittedly a lot different than the style of traveling that I was used to.
As a backpacker on a shoestring budget, Tablas can be overwhelming if you don’t know what you’re doing. Tablas is the biggest island in the Romblon island chain and despite having a few resorts here and there, it is still light years away from the tourism infrastructure that made Boracay a desirable and accessible destination.
Thankfully, that also keeps it from being disgustingly expensive and chaotically overcrowded like Boracay. Tablas isn’t an easy travel destination but it is absolutely worth it.
How To Get to Tablas
Tablas is part of the island chain of Romblon Province. It is located a couple of hours away from Boracay and my home island of Panay. If you’re coming from Boracay, you will have to go back to the Caticlan’s port to catch the ferry. It is only about fifteen minutes back to Caticlan from Boracay’s main port. From Caticlan, it is a 3-hour ride.
If you’re coming from Carabao Island, the boat leaves at 6 AM from the Port of Said. The ride is less than an hour but the boat is one of the small bangkas. It won’t be the smoothest ride. Brace yourself.
From Romblon Island, Tablas’ port in San Agustin is about an hour away. There are a few departures per day. If you miss one of those, you can hire your own private bangka to take you there for about 1,500 pesos total. Depending on how many are in your group, it might be worth it to have more freedom with your schedule.
Where To Stay in Tablas, Philippines
From a tourism standpoint, Tablas is not quite developed yet. You won’t find luxury resorts or any hostels offering anything above the most barebones of accommodation.The most developed parts of the island seemed to be Odiongan, Looc, and San Agustin. However, a few of the other barangays have accommodation options. Most of those won’t show up online.
There are some beachside “resorts” around the island but the ones that I saw would not really meet any Westerners’ definition of resort. The term resort is used very loosely in Tablas. Most of them are very barebones. Just you and the beach, baby. They’ll have electricity, water and food but don’t expect too much in the way of luxury. That’s the way all beachside properties should be, honestly.
However, a lot of those beach resorts are located outside of town in more isolated areas. They are perfect if you want to be right by the beach but that comes with the tradeoff of being impossibly far from everything else. If you don’t have your own vehicle or driver, that can be very inconvenient.
Like I mentioned earlier, a few family connections got us a good deal at Hilltop B&B in Looc. Free breakfast, air conditioning, and our first warm showers in weeks made it feel like a 5-star resort. The veranda made for a peaceful and serene place to catch up on work during the sweltering midday heat.
A relative of mine had built a beautiful garden and popped up Tablas’ first honesty store and a coffee shop out in the lush fields of Tablas. We’d spend a couple of our afternoons having Meriyenda there, called Grotto de Banloc. Definitely not a bad spot for pancit, toron, and coffee.
What To Do in Tablas, Philippines
We were only meant to have about three full days in Tablas but our intended foray to Romblon Island went awry. We arrived to the port an hour and a half early. Unfortunately, that proved to still not be early enough. That left us stranded in San Agustin at about 6 AM. It was far too early for any of us to function but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Maybe not necessarily a blessing, but substituting a quick day trip to Romblon with our most epic day in Tablas left me happy enough.
There is a lot to do on Tablas. Even with our five days there, we didn’t get a chance to explore as much of Tablas as we would have liked, leaving quite a few things left to come back to. Regardless, we covered as much as we could, taking in all of the natural beauty that the island could offer.
Looc Marine Sanctuary
The Looc Marine Sanctuary was one of our favorite experiences in Tablas. For 100 pesos ($2 USD), you can hop on a boat towards the middle of the sea and go to what is pretty much a floating house in the middle of the ocean. The water is ridiculously clear and the shades of blue are just stunning. You can get panoramic views of the island, from its curving hills to the lush jungles.
On top of the views, you can rent a snorkel for 60 pesos (just over $1 USD) and dive right in with the vibrant marine life. From neon blue starfish to the most colorful rainbow fish that I’ve ever seen, it was like entering another world. The exquisite coral reefs were teeming with life. The intricate structures of the underwater paradise were mind-blowing.
Once you get tired of swimming, it is also an unbeatable place to just laze away the afternoon. The second time we went, we loaded up on snacks and just hung out until they kicked us out around closing time at 4:30 PM.
Viewpoint of Carmen Bay
This spot was the highlight of our first drive around the island. Just before you get to Barangay Carmen, you drive through the winding mountainous roads and eventually stumble upon an incredible viewpoint. There is not much to do here besides take in the views but it is a more than satisfactory spot to stretch the legs after being in the car almost the entire day.
One of Tablas’ most secluded beaches, this place was a perfect introduction to what life was going to be like on Tablas. Laying back, relaxing, and partaking in the favorite activity of Filipinos: absolutely nothing. We spent a lazy morning here by the ocean before having some fresh fish for lunch and heading off for more adventures.
The beach is also for sale, so if you’ve got a lot of cash lying around and want your own private beach in the Philippines, let me know. Doesn’t sound like a bad investment to me at all.
Footprints Beach Resort
This was the beach resort that we ended up visiting. We were basically the only people there which was amazing. Like I said earlier, a beach resort in the Philippines is not the beach resort you’ll find in Cancun. This was more like a restaurant with a couple of cottages nearby.
The beach stretched on for miles with hardly another soul in sight. In the midday heat (aka naptime for Filipino people), we were the only ones in the ocean. The towering palm trees watched over us from the shoreline as the vast expanse of ocean opened up behind us. In the distance, the lush green hills of Tablas jutted into the ocean.
While there are a number of beaches to choose from in Tablas, it doesn’t hurt to choose one that has mango shakes and delicious Filipino food.
Mablaran was the first of three waterfalls we went to and was the most developed. On those sizzling days, we Filipinos love to park ourselves near a cold swimming hole and spend the whole day there. Bring the whole squad and a lot of food and it is a perfect day out.
For the slow-paced traveler, spending a while at Mablaran can easily be one of the most relaxing ways to spend the day. It may not be the biggest or most beautiful waterfall on the island but as you’ll come to find, Filipinos are more about good company than good views.
The tallest of the waterfalls we went to, Busay was as beautiful as it was secluded. I was a bit worried pulling into the parking lot (basically anywhere you could fit your car between the palm trees) because the facilities looked decrepit and worn-down. Where Mablaran Falls had decent walkways and buildings and decor, Busay was just gloomy and broken. Thankfully, the waterfalls made up for it.
Although pictures don’t do it justice, the several layers of Busay Falls made it easily the most beautiful that we saw on the islands.
Even lesser-known than Busay Falls, Dulom Falls is tucked away even further back of the general vicinity where Busay is. While Busay is an established swimming hole complete with stairs and tables and little huts, Dulom Falls is literally just in the middle of the woods.
The only sign of human interference was a small hut just before you reach the falls. I genuinely thought there would be some sort of witch in there waiting to kill us. Thankfully, there were no evil witches and we passed through unharmed.
Once you pass the little hut, you can try to strafe the river or just get your feet wet and go through the river. Make sure to say “tabi tabi po” as you go so that you don’t offend the people of the forest, the mystical elementals of Filipino lore. If you fail to offer respect while crossing through their territory, you might find yourself a victim of one of their curses.
Ziplining from one Island To Another
This was definitely the highlight of my time in Tablas. I’ve done a fair share of zip lines in the past so I wasn’t too enthusiastic about this one when our driver suggested it. However, after spending most of our days in the car, I was itching to do anything that would give me a little freedom.
At 350 pesos (<$7 USD), this zip line was the cheapest I have ever done and hands down the coolest. I honestly wished that I could have done it a few more times.
You can’t do anything like this anywhere in the world. It was shocking to me how there was literally no one else there. Apparently, Miss Universe had been there a few weeks before, though, so that might start putting Tablas on the map. After my cousin managed to coax our way into getting some free coconuts, the guys mentioned that not even Miss Universe got free coconuts after the zip line. In short, we received treatment beyond what was fit for a beauty queen.
We hopped on a tricycle and just asked him to take us to anywhere we could watch the sunset by the water. He took us here. Catch the sunset at La Punta then stroll over to Sailor’s Haven for some karaoke and sisig.
And just because this is the Philippines, weird things are bound to pop up. Here’s a bamboo Eiffel Tower juxtaposed to bamboo Big Ben. Surprisingly impressive no matter how random it may be, especially on a secluded island like this.
Some of the other things that we wish we had time to visit.
Danao Norte Viewpoint
Aglicay Beach Resort
…and probably a lot more.
The best part of Tablas is that there is so much left to be discovered and to be explored. It is so untouched by international tourism.
One of my favorite things about exploring the Philippines is that the locals know so much that the Internet won’t. One time, my family and I just drove around looking for an adventure. We kept asking locals who always had suggestions that have yet to make their way onto the Internet. We found waterfalls, swimming holes, and hiking trails through this method. Word of mouth is still the best guide in many parts of the Philippines. I absolutely implore you to do a little of your own exploring beyond this guide.
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