Is Boracay Worth Going in the Rainy Season?
The Philippines has a distinct typhoon season towards the middle to later months of the year (although as climate change progresses, it is becoming a bit less distinct - and 'typhoonier'). This does not mean that there are typhoons all the time, but this season is considered the off season for island vacations - including Boracay - because it also tends to be more rainy. So is Boracay worth going in the rainy season at all?
*Safety note: In the typhoon season, please always check the weather report for typhoon warnings.
- Why even do Boracay in the rainy season?
- Boracay Station 1 beach in the off season
- Long weekend in Boracay: Things to do
- Clear day in Boracay in the rainy season
- Is Boracay Worth Going in the Rainy Season?
Why even do Boracay in the rainy season?
That's a good question.
The general plus points of going somewhere in the off peak season include better deals, and fewer crowds. That last one is a major plus for an introvert like me.
But is it a good idea to apply this logic to a beach holiday destination? That's the sort of holiday made or broken by the sunshine!
I found out for myself last year when a bunch of colleagues and I decided to pop down to Boracay, subsequent to our team meeting in Manila. Not only were we going during typhoon season, we intended to go for only 3 nights. Deducting the travel days, we were giving ourselves only 2 full days to get lucky. Not great odds for Boracay in the rainy season!
So was it worth it?
A rainy arrival
The omens were not good on our arrival day. There was a light rain that day, and the sky was completely covered with low, heavy cloud. We were ushered into a bus that went out of the Caticlan airport, seemed inexplicably to go all the way around it, just to deposit us at the boat transfer location pretty much across the fence from our plane still on the tarmac.
We stayed at what is widely considered to be the best beach of Boracay, the Station 1 beach. Typical Philippine boats with bamboo outriggers took us to the Boracay landing, where we took tuktuks to reach Station 1.
Boracay's back streets
Boracay (at least before the island's shutdown) is infamous for its lack of municipal infrastructure relative to its density. I had already heard of this. Someone I knew told me once that he wandered inland while vacationing in Boracay, and found the heaps of garbage just dumped and hidden in the remaining forest on the island.
But I think I didn't quite factor it in, perhaps because you never see these images. I'd only seen the fantastic beach images of Boracay.
So I was mildly surprised to see the real Boracay, as the tuktuk stuttered along the back roads, through dense and heavily built-up zones, and rows of commercial buildings just like any other Southeast Asian town growing in density. In my mind, I was imagining it to be smaller, and not as dense.
The basic nature of the roads and alleys showed, with the rainy season. A lack of streetside drainage infrastructure meant that parts of the lanes had standing water, obscuring potential potholes.
But water had also carved troughs at the sides of the unpaved roads, eating down next to building walls. So the tuktuk basically had to delicately choose a route that best avoided both the water and any 'natural drainage'.
I thought this was not going to end well.
Sure enough, eventually the overloaded tuktuk ran itself into a trough and was mired. So we all had to get out so that the vehicle could be lifted and pushed out to continue its journey. Fortunately it was not damaged.
Boracay Station 1 beach in the off season
Once we reached our hotel though, the atmosphere changed. Within the resort, and out to the beach, the cramped and ramshackle vibe vanished. Our hotel was a mid-range one near the far end of the beach, with a local Philippine vibe. In the off season, it was not a full house, so there was never a feeling of crowds.
Out on the beach you could see why Boracay is famous. Even with the gloomy overcast sky, you could see the spacious pale sandy shoreline stretching a long, long way down along the water's edge.
However, the downside to the beach experience was that you would invariably encounter touts trying to sell you trinkets and tours. Not as much as some other places I've been in the region (or maybe that's because it's the low season), but... it's not the kind of beach where you could wander onto it and expect to have your private time to contemplate undisturbed the meaning of life and everything.
On the Station 1 beach
There are also a ton of options for food and bars, especially at night - albeit mostly near the middle of the beach. (That means, if you want a quieter stay, pick a resort at the north end of the beach, like us).
The quality is mixed; we went to a budget place for the first lunch that was just ok. But we were more discerning for dinners and those fared better.
At about sunset you would see local lads making sandcastles. Not amateur ones, mind you. Really good ones, usually spelling out 'Boracay', and with niches to put tea lights in, so that it glows after nightfall. They charge you for taking photos of these; basically it's a way for them to earn a bit of side money. It's not a lot, so depending on your mood and how much you liked the sculpture, it's reasonable for a nice photo.
In the daytime, there are places all along the beach where you can get a massage. It's not the cheapest in the region, or even in the Philippines itself, but still ok.
You could also get henna tattoos drawn. Depending on how complicated the design you chose is, it could take a few minutes up to maybe half an hour. Or, you could also let the artist draw freestyle - my colleague did this, and her foot tattoo turned out awesome!
However, the constant gloom and threat of rain did make everything a little bit dismal.
A note for zero waste travellers to Boracay
I personally found it hard to avoid single use plastic if dining at budget scale. A compounding factor was that I was also ill on this trip for the first couple days, which lowered my willpower to refuse many things or prepare sustainable alternatives. You would also have to miss out on local specialties like famous fruit shakes, which are only served in single-use plastic. Even in the off season, a popular place is still very busy, so it would be difficult to make special serving requests.
But if you go upmarket, it is easier. The dining options range up to 5 star quality, with the service level that comes with that.
I did not see any signs of recycling effort on Station 1 beach.
Long weekend in Boracay: Things to do
I was looking forward to doing a dive in Boracay, as I hadn't done one in quite a while. But my nose was still blocked as I was still recovering from the flu. So on our first full day, I joined the others on a standard island hopping tour. The tour involved a visit into Crystal Cove island, a bit of snorkelling, and Puka beach at the north end of Boracay.
This is a resort island near Boracay, but seems to be a popular day visit location for tours from Boracay. There is an entrance fee to get in, which is PHP200.
Perhaps since it was the off season, there wasn't a crowded vibe. I mention this because, based on some signs (like the risque sculptures you occasionally come across by the paths, and the sign with the unusually specific safety advice not to buy booze for your boatmen), I wondered if ordinarily Crystal Cove is a party island.
The day tour takes you on a walk through the complex. The two highlights are a couple of island grottoes that you can explore briefly (they're very small).
The first one involves descending a spiral staircase into a small grotto. I actually sort of liked this one, because it felt like a pirate hiding hold. However, even in the low season, there is a queue to get down, because the grotto is too small to accommodate more than a few people at any one time.
The second one involves descending the side of a low cliff on staircases and catwalks, and then walking partly in water to crawl into a hole to the grotto.
To be honest, I felt Crystal Cove was just an ok stop. If I were to choose between it and more snorkelling time, or even just a chill massage day on Station 1 beach, the latter would be a better choice.
Snorkelling in Boracay - say no to fish feeding
The tour brochure specifically mentions 'fish feeding'. This is a tactic to induce fish to come to the snorkeler, by throwing bits of bread into the water.
When I was little, this used to be common in Malaysia too. Just to be sweet and 'feed the fish', as if they were in your own aquarium or pond, not even for the purposes of snorkelling with fish. I did it myself before we understood why it was a bad practice for coral reefs. In the video below, marine researchers describe the role of grazing fish in maintaining coral reef health and resilience.
Also, for readers who have not yet seen what a healthy coral reef is supposed to look like, near the end is a view of the healthy ecosystem from a location in Fiji. This is so you would know whether you're actually looking at a depleted and unhealthy coral reef system on your holiday, or one that is properly cared for. And be able to write your TripAdvisor reviews correctly! :)
Anyway I explained to the boatman at the outset that I did not want it done. That I was fine with just snorkelling naturally. And he nodded, as people often would in this region, who are trying to sell you something.
But when we got to the place, he opened a packet of bread to start feeding the fish. So I had to stop him, and reiterate my request. Then I had to firmly assure him that I understood that he was only doing it to get the fish to come to me. And it was still no. Finally he agreed.
The snorkelling location immediately where we anchored was as you'd expect. Pretty desolate, littered with broken corals, and not a lot of life.
Slightly further on, you can still find intact coral reef. In a stormy sort of region, the reef consists mostly of the 'staghorn' branching coral, which is faster growing. But, as you would expect from a heavily touristed island with poor sewerage infrastructure and prevalent fish feeding practices, much of it was covered over with algae.
However, surprisingly there were also pockets of healthy reef portions. So perhaps, not everything is lost for Boracay's coral reefs.
Our lunch stop was at Puka beach. This is another spacious long sandy beach, at a different part of Boracay island. There are mainly restaurant shacks lining the beach here, and it seems that there are options for beach activities like volleyball.
When we were there, it was not too crowded. Lunch was ok, and it was a pleasant enough stop.
However, is it that different from Station 1? Maybe not. In the off peak season anyway, even on a weekend, the crowd levels on both beaches felt mostly similar. I personally preferred Station 1.
Clear day in Boracay in the rainy season
For the first two days, Boracay felt like just a mediocre island destination. There were things I liked, but there were also things I could live without.
But then we woke to a clear sunny morning, and Boracay instantly jumped up in my estimation. It was warm and the colours were crisp and vibrant. It got me in the mood to explore all the way to the north end of Station 1 beach, where it ends in a rocky cliff.
I discovered that there was an actual concreted path hugging the shoreline at the base of the cliff. There were other people on it, too. This must lead somewhere.
And it sort of did. At the very end was a sort of rock arch, which made a beautiful frame for a serendipitously photogenic rock outcrop standing in the water.
To the side of this arch, someone had made a discreet little Catholic altar for the Virgin Mary, underlining the Christian faith of the local people.
It is possible to hike through the arch and make your way around it on a narrow path that hugs the cliff. This will lead you to an adjacent cove that had a big resort looming beyond it.
Boracay sunset cruise
The beach was so pleasant with a sunny day that, after a bit of swimming, I was even in the mood to just laze about on a lounger all day. (This is fairly rare for me. Maybe I was also a little weak from the recent illness.)
As the afternoon wore on, though, we decided we should do the sunset cruise, even though it was the most expensive of the Boracay tours on offer.
This tour involves being taken a bit out to sea on a boat in the hour or so around sunset. The boat is extremely narrow, so you actually sit on some netting that's laid across the outriggers - like a hammock.
We were not disappointed.
That evening Boracay decided to reward us with one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen - then and since.
And out at sea is the perfect way to enjoy it.
Is Boracay Worth Going in the Rainy Season?
To be sure, the rainy season presents more risks to the trip. You might have to cancel it if a typhoon is approaching the Visayas. And you risk having the whole trip be rainy and gloomy. (Note: just because a typhoon is approaching the Philippines, that doesn't the whole country shuts down for tourism. It depends on the typhoon trajectory).
But on the other hand, you could have a 50-50 outcome like we did, or better! The gloomy days don't necessarily mean rain all the time. And truly, the sunset was spectacular.
Boracay closure and the competing sustainability demands
I guess another way of asking the question is, is Boracay worth going in the peak season?
Obviously my answer will be biased, since (1) I didn't go in the peak season, and (2) being an introvert, it is hard for me to appreciate what is so appealing with going somewhere when it is heaving with people.
However, the year after I went (this year, i.e. 2018), the whole island of Boracay was shut down for tourism, due to concerns over the environmental degradation caused by over-tourism at a location without the appropriate supporting infrastructure. At the time this guide is written, it has not yet been re-opened.
It is possible that by going in the off peak and typhoon season, I saw Boracay in its good form. The water was nice and blue and the beaches clean. I did not see 'cesspool' Boracay. Maybe the rougher seas during the rainy season mixed the water more, and reduced the effect of the unplanned sewage outfalls from the many businesses on the island. And lower visitor numbers would obviously reduce the burden on the ecosystem as well.
The island closure received mixed responses. On the one hand, from the environmental perspective, I could see why the upgrades were so desperately needed, and why it would be much more easily done with a total shutdown. But the decision also received strong challenge from Philippine citizen groups dismayed over the loss of livelihood during the shutdown period.
Activists of one issue or another like to believe that their issue is the most pressing one, and that 'somehow' the consequences of what they want will (vaguely) be taken care of (usually by someone other than them). But the fact is, real sustainability means hard decisions, compromise, and stakeholders adopting each other's issues. I can only hope that enough of it is happening.
Why I would choose the off peak season for Boracay
Even with the planned upgrades, it's difficult to see how it would fully resolve the sustainability issues related to peak season tourism impacts.
Boracay is definitely worth going as a holiday destination. The low season levels may still fall within the coping abilities of the environment. But the peak season seems like an over-tourism period, and so I would avoid it then, and take my chances with the rainy season.