Cebu City is uncharacteristic of the white sand and crystal clear waters experience that otherwise dominates one’s idea of the Philippines. From the Cebu International Airport it sprawls, though relatively compact in size, as an urban metropolis that contrasts with the smaller more rural or seaside towns. Whilst many travellers use it as entry point only to the Central Visayas, the series of islands around the Visayan Sea that include Bohol, the Surigao islands and Boracay as main points of interest, an extra night or so especially over a weekend, does provide an insight into life away from the tourist façade that is worth seeing.
Flying from air-conditioned and fluro lit Hong Kong the contrast of Cebu City airport is immediate, as is the intimacy of its people that give the Philippines the truly honest reputation of being terrifically friendly. Sent on our way by an airport customs officer who asked if we were married, laughed when we said we weren’t and told us to make some babies with his goodbye, we were greeted by possibly the most jolly taxi driver for our ride, 375 pesos (about £5) later, Uptown. He smiled as heartily as he danced when he turned the music up loud and told us where the party party was every weekend at Mango Square. He was a bouncer in a previous profession and knows the party scene well. He now drives a cab to and from the airport and is often harangued by Koreans aware of the meter telling him to drive faster faster! What was a good food to try in the Philippines we asked? You like BBQ? Or there is KFC, McDonalds. We are trying to get away from McDonalds we said and he seemed confused.
Downtown Cebu is older and subsequently dirtier than Uptown, it has of buildings that have been stacked over time and compounded with exhaust dust. There is little price difference between Downtown and Uptown with Uptown being considered slightly nicer to stay in – though it has to be said the clean and newly built TravelBee (about 850 pesos / £11.50 a night) we stayed in still gave me a mighty electric shock upon touching a light fitting.
Food & Going Out
Near to the Fuente Osmeña Circle we had good access to Mango Square, the current top place for clubbing. This is really only to be visited late on a Friday or Saturday after several drinks to warm up for what is the music and club equivalent of the worst tourist destinations in central London or any of the clubs that flocks of euro teens descend on around the Mediterranean. A good warm up place, weather permitting, is Harrisons Bar & Grill just off the central road on the way Downtown from the Fuente Osmeña Circle. Bring Your Own Booze or stock up from the 7/11, grab something meaty and grilled from the food stalls and sit amongst the hundred or so tables that make up this outdoor park. Basketball, the Philippines’ favourite sport, is played on a couple of flat screens as party music drifts from loudspeakers dotted around the park. The crowd is local and the atmosphere is friendly, a situation we found to be common in our experience of they city.
If you fancy a cultural outing get a cab to the harbor (also the ferry port) for 80 pesos (about a £1.10) or so and take your pick of the old colonial fort. Fort San Pedro, or perhaps slightly more interesting Basilica Minore del Santo Niño. Not being truly keen sightseers we did neither but stopped outside both on our way to see the nonexistent coastline, which is instead visible only as docks for the oiled and greasy cargo ships and passenger ferries that give life to Cebu City. The fort has a nice outside garden to take rest and shade from the graffitied religious zeal of the infamous Filipino jeepney, whilst we sat for a small time watching the business that surrounds the church and making conversation with the child hawkers that push small flower garlands on you for the statue of Christ in himself to in his child form (Santo Niño) that people queue to see. Cebu so far has been the only I have seen children begging and street sleepers. Elsewhere in the Philippines they have all appeared owned and in school attendance. They follow you around particularly after dusk asking for small change but seem much happier when a couple of pennies are accompanied with a handful of small chocolates, although perhaps a toothbrush and paste would have been more helpful.
Cebu City might not be the most beautiful of places or have the most to see but it is not at all without its charm. It is a good introduction to Filipino culture, the friendliness, the food, the rhum! There are places of sanctuary amongst the madness also: Bantana, an arts café on Elizabeth Pond Street in Uptown, plays welcome jazz, showcases local art and has a good selection of second hand books for sale. The disproportionate number of large bookshops found in Cebu City is also surprising; they hold a beautiful amount of stationary from delicate notebooks to artist supplies and, beyond the most extensive romance section, some contemporary and classic books also.
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