Boracay – Fantasy vs. Reality
From CNN to the New York Times to Yahoo, Boracay is consistently named among the world’s top beach destinations. Twice Boracay has been dubbed the best beach destination in the world by Conde Nast. Top 10 Beach lists across the globe regularly feature the powder sands of Boracay, the Philippines’ pride and joy. But for experienced travelers, all that attention might send up some warning flags. Could any destination hold up to that much marketing hype?
There is truth to the fantasy of Boracay. Kilometers of criss-crossing palms back some of the most perfect waters in Asia. The stunning sands of Boracay’s White Beach extend far out into the ocean creating what could be, with fewer boats, an ideal swimming beach. There are few underwater rocks, virtually no annoying sea urchins, no sand flies – just crystal clear waters straight out of a luxury travel brochure.
Yes, Boracay is beautiful. Twenty years ago, it would have been completely stunning. But as with many destinations in Asia, it is drowning under the weight of its own beauty. Overdevelopment is the most noticeable problem. Virtually the entire length of the 7-kilometer White Beach is backed by tightly packed resorts, restaurants, and shops. Smaller, low-impact backpacker enclaves hidden beneath the palms have quickly been replaced with blocky behemoths sandwiched into tiny lots of land. Actually, some of the high-end resorts have been so squished into the sprawl that they are bordering on funny. It’s quite telling that many of these places sell postcards made before the construction boom. One noticeable exception to the overdevelopement is the stretch of beach in front of our small rental house, which is where I shot the “fantasy” pictures above.
In places, especially around the northern end of White Beach, the construction oozes out onto the beach itself. It is not surprising that in these areas erosion and algae growth can make the beach much less attractive. Beach lovers who inadvertently book rooms in these areas expecting a view of the pristine beaches depicted in hotel brochures and promotional posters might be a bit disappointed.
But I knew all this before I came to Boracay. And I came here anyway. I knew that the backpackers who “discovered” Boracay in the 70s had been replaced by large tour groups, and that White Beach had become the Philippine version of Miami Beach. I set my mind on learning to appreciate this beauty, even though she was a bit past her prime.
Many visitors, especially Asian tourists who are less interested in the beach itself and more interested in the food and nightlife, love Boracay just the way it is. They enjoy the parties, the beach bars, the amazing food. They enjoy D’Mall, the arcade of shops featuring tourist kitsch for everyone. There are plenty of snorkeling trips and party cruises. Active beach lovers can go scuba diving, parasailing, wake-boarding or kite-boarding. If you need something goofier, you can go beach zorbing. There is plenty to do.
And the beaches are stunning – and strangely photogenic. Even when I tried to take some less attractive photographs to highlight some of White Beach’s problems, the photos turned out remarkably beautiful. In fact, on good days, it’s quite difficult to take a bad picture of White Beach. And if you need a bit of pristine beach, Puka Shell Beach on the north coast has somehow miraculously been spared the development plaguing most of Boracay’s other beaches. Puka Shell Beach is still pure fantasy.
But not all days are good days. Over the course of our two-week stay in Boracay, we witnessed tremendous differences in the look of the beach. Storms can stir up choppy, murky waters. Extreme tides can make the beach less attractive. And for two days, northern stretches of White Beach and Diniwid Beach were covered with a layer of spinach-like seaweed. It is important to remember that all fantasy destinations have their bad days.
So is Boracay the best beach destination in the world? Although it is still pretty, the 21st-century incarnation of White Beach certainly wouldn’t make it into my list of top 10 beaches. To be fair, I have ridiculously high standards. The good news is that Puka Shell Beach would. But lists are beside the point. Boracay is the Philippines’ favorite destination – you have to go, you have to see it. It’s still a lot of fun and it has some of the best food in the country.
Tips for Visiting Boracay
Budget travelers will find Boracay a little painful. Prices are much higher here than in other parts of the Philippines. In high season, a cheap room can set you back 1200-2000 Pesos ($27-$45) a night. However, we visited during the low season and found a great little house for rent for a remarkable 800 Pesos ($18) a night. (And we had great weather.)
High end travelers should be a little cautious when booking accommodation in Boracay. The brochures can be quite misleading. Many of the mid-range and high-end resorts on White Beach are not as big or as nice as they look. Make sure you know what you’re booking.
And don’t assume price guarantees you the best beach, it doesn’t. For example, the first two pictures in this post showing the pristine stretch of beach were shot on the same day as the last photo showing the gross, sea-weed covered stretch. On that particular day, those who booked hotels near Station 1 were swimming in what looked like spinach soup. There’s definitely luck involved!