Last Updated on May 27, 2023 by Ellen
We took a side trip to Moalboal and Simala during our stay on Cebu Island in the Philippines. Moalboal is known around the world for its sardines and coral walls. Simala is known for its crying Virgin Mary statue.
You can surely arrange “tours” to get to these spots, but we early retired budget travelers got there the way locals get there.
Moalboal and Simala: why go
Diving, snorkeling in Moalboal
The main attraction is diving and snorkeling. Tedly is a certified PADI diver, and he wanted to check out the reef on a few cheap dives. Moalboal lived up to its reputation. For just $22 per dive, he was able to see millions of sardines up against a coral reef that drops several meters close to the shore.
Since the reef wall is so close to the shore, snorkelers can watch the action after a short swim from the beach. Tedly’s mom Diane and I watched millions of sardines moving as if all of their fish minds were connected — they never hit each other and moved with such grace. (See a quick video here.)
I was treated to a special show: a giant turtle that surfaced from the deep. The sardines clued me in to something large approaching when they parted to let the turtle through to the reef. I watched the turtle munch on underwater plants and scope out the reef for at least 20 minutes — without any other tourists around. It was truly special.
Tedly’s dives were so close to where the snorkelers go, we may have seen the same turtle. In fact, snorkelers see diver bubbles emerge from the ocean floor drop.
Kawasan Falls near Moalboal
The Kawasan Waterfalls near Moalboal are worth seeing if you are into jumping into waterfalls. Also, it’s a well-kept park where you could find a quiet place under a tree, along a stream, if you had the time to explore and relax.
These waterfalls are not the highest we’ve been to – they’re only about 15 meters. But they are in pools of refreshingly cold water.
Tedly jumped from the tallest one; mom jumped from the smallest one; I took a dip to cool off.
No jumping from the largest waterfall. But you can swim behind it, with a required life jacket. Rentals vary from $2 – $3 each.
We found a trike driver in Moalboal to take us to Kawasan and back to Moalboal for $10. We also stopped at Lombug Beach on the way back. That’s a private beach with an entry fee of less than $1 each.
White Beach near Moalboal
Another white beach near Moalboal is called, “White Beach.” There are actually two locations – one is where the tourists go, and one is where locals go. These are public beaches. We went to the tourist spot which is a tad further north than where the locals go.
If you keep walking north, away from the crowds, you can find more secluded patches of sand. However, the rocky shoreline makes going into the water tricky without some type of flotation device.
The crowds gather at the spot on the beach where it’s a bit easier to enter and exit the water.
There are some restaurants on this beach, as well as accommodations.
Where we stayed in Moalboal
We used Airbnb and found a two-bedroom apartment within easy walking distance to main strip along the shore, but far enough away from the rowdy drunk tourists so we didn’t hear them all night.
I’m not linking it here, because it likely is not for everyone. While it was a beautiful, typical Filipino home for Moalboal, it lacked amenities American readers will want: such as a flushing toilet and hot water. (It was bucket flushing and bathing, and kettle-water heating.)
However: if you feel inclined to forego said amenities, you will find similar options on Airbnb, where the family will move out of their home during your stay, as you help locals with some income.
For its location and comfortable beds with air conditioning in one bedroom, we paid $21 a night, including Airbnb fees.
Moalboal and Simala side trip: Simala on the way to Moalboal
Crying “Mama Mary” statue in Simala
However, thousands of devotees line up to see the statue each week. We were there during Christmas break (a few days after Christmas) and we waited about two hours to see the statue.
The setup reminded me a bit of Montserrat outside Barcelona. However, the major difference was the number of locals lined up to see the Virgin Mary statue in Simala: thousands while we were there. Not sure if it was because it was Christmas week or not.
Regardless, the locals’ belief in the virgin’s powers of healing was endearing. Notes of ‘cured’ people line the hall leading up to the shrine. And I did feel some positive energy in the space around the statue.
Tips for long lines at Simala shrine
Bring a bag to place your shoes. Shoes must be removed inside when the line forms beyond the church area. If you don’t carry them, you leave them with hundreds (if not thousands) of other people’s shoes in the outer hallway.
Bring water. Go to the bathroom before the line. Bring a hat or umbrella for shade.
Getting to Moalboal and Simala
From Cebu City to Simala
From Cebu City’s south bus terminal, we took an air-conditioned bus to Simala for about $5 each. It was about a 2.5 hour ride. Once there, we arranged for a trike (motorcycle taxi cart) driver to take us to the church, wait for us, and take us back to the bus stop for $12. Considering the guy waited during our two-hour long line wait to see the statue, we thought that was a pretty good deal.
From Simala to Moalboal
Another trike driver took us from the Simala stop back to the Carcar bus stop. We waved down the bus to Moalboal on the side of the road. There were not enough seats for us three, so Tedly and I stood for several miles until other passengers got off the bus.
That second bus journey cost less than $5 for three people and was about an hour long.
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