Cebu City, Philippines – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
A tourist visiting Cebu City for the first time may well be turned off by some of the city sites. The city has several world class resorts, hotels, beaches and dive sites. It also has some areas of the world’s most devastating poverty. Cebu City is the capital city of the Cebu Province and it is the second largest city in the Philippines following Manila. I always feel at home in the city and lived in the city before building my home in the rural Cebu Province of Camotes Islands. Cebu City is a mix of the old and new, rich and poor, good and bad and pretty and ugly. There is also the mix of clean and really dirty or filthy. The rule for anyone going to Cebu for the first time is to not make a snap judgment.
My first trip to Cebu City was in February 2004. I went to the Philippines to meet a girl (Judith) now my wife. I flew into the Cebu-Mactan Airport and was met by Judith and one of here sisters. My flight started in Florida and the last leg of the flight was from Hong Kong. The Cebu International airport is just a little outdated, but very functional. Once outside of the airport doors I saw waves of people waiting to meet people coming off of the flight from Hong Kong. The airport was not all that busy when I arrived and I think my plane was the only arriving flight at the time. As people from my flight walk outside of the airport door they were bombarded with shuttle, taxi and V-hire greeters, all trying to get a fare. I met Judith just outside the airport doors. She, her sister and I all jumped into an old Kia Taxi and we were off to my hotel.
The taxi was old and not very well maintained. The Air conditioner didn’t work and the window wouldn’t go down. Of course that didn’t matter as I couldn’t close the door because the door latch was broken. So, I got lots of air. The hotel was about a 30 minute drive from the airport. As we traveled the city streets I saw crowded sidewalks made even more crowded by the many sidewalk vendors and street vendors. Some of the roads we traveled were moderately maintained while others were in very poor condition. The roads were crowded with many types of cars, but mostly Kia’s and Hyundais. There were also a lot of Jeepneys, a Philippine traditional method of travel. A jeepney looks like a stretched army jeep with a hardtop and a large cargo area used for two benches for passenger seating. Jeepneys are normally painted with several different colors and lots of chrome. Many of the jeepneys are poorly maintained and most have bald tires and the braking systems may be questionable. Also, there were lots of small motorcycles.
After traveling just a few minutes I decided that the most dangerous vehicle in Cebu was the Jeepney, the Taxi and finally the motorcycle. The jeepney drivers tend to rule the road and stop on either side of the road to pick up or drop off passengers. I saw many jeepneys cut both lanes of traffic off just to drop off people and then saw others swerve quickly to the side of the road cutting off traffic so the driver could jump out of the jeepney to urinate along the side of the road. Taxis are no better, but pose a slightly smaller threat because the vehicles are smaller than a jeepney Motorcycles seem to be a danger only to the motorcycle driver and passengers and anyone walking along side the road or on the sidewalk. Motorcycles make their own traffic lanes on whatever little shoulder the road may have to offer or sometimes drive on the painted divider line as a narrow roadway to make an extra traffic lane for themselves. At other times I saw motorcycles throttle down sidewalks weaving around pedestrians. Yet, the pedestrians seemed little concerned of the carelessness and just continued on their way.
As we continued on our way to the hotel we drove through many different areas of the city. Some areas were very old and the buildings looked as though they were ready for demolition years ago. Many buildings and store fronts are concrete with plywood or corrugated steel sheets added to broken windows and steel bars cover the window or plywood. I can’t imagine what would be worth the cost of the steel bars as the buildings were so poor. I was sure the contents within were no better. I noticed several small store fronts with one big open widow covered with chicken wire. These little stores are about the size of a small closet and there are dozen of these little stores on every street. They are called sari-sari stores and sell just a very few items such as canned fish, rice, snacks, cigarettes and so on. Most of these little stores are attached to the front of private houses and are crudely constructed of unpainted plywood and tin roofs. Most of the Sari-sari stores block the sidewalk, forcing people to walk on the road to get around the protruding plywood box. Other Sari-sari stores have a small table or tables along the narrow sidewalks for their rum buying customers and a karaoke machine assist in blocking the sidewalks.
In many of the old areas the sidewalks are filled with vendor’s shacks, tents or some other type of hurried shelter to sell goods. The sidewalks belong to the vendors and the pedestrian is left to find his own way around the ugly obstructions. These small vendor shacks on the sidewalks block the store buildings behind and I still wonder why the store owners allow the vendors to block their stores. The old neighborhood streets and sidewalks in most areas are filthy. Trash is all over the streets, chickens are tied to utility poles or street signs as well as dogs. Many of the old homes along the city’s commercial streets may or may not have running water and a sewer system. Many people use the streets and sidewalks as their bathroom and even bath on the sidewalks. The infrastructure of the old neighborhoods is almost non-existent. There is poor drainage, poor sewer systems, and electric lines hang low to the ground with hundreds of wires attached carelessly to a single wimpy pole. I often wonder how trucks make it under these wires without hitting the wire. In many cases the bigger trucks do indeed hit the wires and knock out power to large section of the city.
The one thing that stood out for me as we past by all these areas in the taxi was the people all seemed happy. Despite, what I saw as great poverty and terrible living conditions, these people, or least many people were happy. Although, most of the people I saw were rushing down the sidewalks going about their daily routine. I thought these people are doing the same thing as other people do in any major city around the world. Yet, my first visit in Cebu City opened my eyes to the fact that at the very least, the city was poverty stricken or had a large population that lived in poverty.
After about 30 minutes riding in the taxi we came into a much nicer area of the city and there like an oasis in the middle of all the poverty was this beautiful Hotel and a large modern shopping mall next to it, as well as several large modern well maintain high rise buildings. The scene was a stark difference to the old areas of the city. This area could be found in any modern US city and looked very much like a commercial area of a US city. The area is called the Ayala Business Park and the Ayala Mall. This is modern Cebu City and it is everything you would find in any modern city.
Once at the Hotel, the Marriott, I checked into a very nice room and we all went to the dinning room for a pleasant lunch. Soon after that it was just Judith and I as her sister went home. Judith then took me across the park to the Ayala Mall, just a five minute walk and once inside the mall I was amazed. The stores were the same as in the US, Ace Hardware, Levi, MacDonald’s and so on. Plus, several Philippine Department stores and many different types of restaurants and coffee shops. All the store clerks and sale people spoke English and most all the Filipinos walking through the stores were speaking English. Others used a mix of English and their native Cebuano. All the store signs are written in English and the restaurant menus are written in English. In many ways I felt as if I just traveled 20 plus hours from Florida to be in a US city.
Although there were many other foreigners in the mall many Filipinos walking by asked where I was from and in general everyone was very friendly to me. While at the mall I bought a few souvenir type things to take home and Judith and I just did a lot of window shopping. I was happy to see the prices of most things in the stores were very cheap compared to the US. At that time one US dollar bought 56.00 pesos. Today it’s one dollar to about 44.00 Pesos. Still a good deal, but today I’m careful in my spending. By the middle of the afternoon I was ready for some sleep after my long flight to Cebu. Judith went home and I retired to my hotel room.
The next morning Judith was at the hotel bright and early and we had breakfast at the hotel and then off to see the city and some of the beach resorts. Cebu has wonderful and beautiful resorts and all very affordable. The resorts are all well maintained and modern. The biggest population of customers at the resorts are foreigners and the staff Filipino. I quickly change my opinion of the city from a poverty stricken third world to a modern commercial and tourist city with a few old areas that needed a lot of help.
During my trip to Cebu we went into the old area of Colon. Colon is the oldest street in the country and has several landmarks. However, Colon is a dirty area of very old and poorly maintained buildings. Prostitution is a major problem in the Colon area as is street crime. There are some wonderful markets and great bargains to be found in Colon, but not an area for the new tourist to wander alone. Hotels can be had for a really cheap price in Colon. Some just $20.00 a night, but these hotels cater to those picking up street girls and both the girls and the rooms are really dirty. Last year Judith and I stayed at two different Colon Hotels. We went into the city for our monthly shopping trip from Camotes Islands. We decided to try the hotels as they are cheap and close to many of the outside markets. I would never stay at either of these hotels again. The best words to describe them is old, filthy, rat infested and full of prostitutes. Both of these hotels seem to cater to single foreign men and any girls the men may find at the Colon bars or on the streets. The area has several little Bikini type bars with Bar Girls (Prostitutes) also called GRO’s. Unless you are looking for a prostitute there is little reason to go to Colon after dark and even then one needs to be very careful. This is not intended to say that all of Colon is bad. There are some nice stores and restaurants in Colon. I enjoy shopping in the Colon area, but one needs to use caution in Colon.
During my first visit I saw most all the areas of Cebu City and felt safe at all times. Of course we didn’t go into the old parts of the city after dark. Rather we were at the resorts or around Ayala Park and these are all very safe and enjoyable areas.I would recommend Cebu City to anyone that wants to go to a great resort and spend time on a beautiful beach, go diving, take a boat tour of the outer islands and not spend a lot of money. There is just so much to do in Cebu City and so many great things to see. Staying at any of the resorts is very affordable just about $60.00 per night and some as high as $250.00. Dinner at restaurants is also very cheap. Meals at nice restaurants can cost just $10.00 to $20.00 for two people, I had a wonderful time during my first visit. However, I had Judith as my tour guide and as my girlfriend. I’m not sure I would have liked Cebu City as much as I did if Judith wasn’t with me during the first trip.
Soon after my first visit to Cebu City I moved from Florida to Cebu City in 2004. By this time Judith and I were engaged to marry and I wanted to live in Camotes Islands. However, we decided to live in the city while looking for land to build a house in Camotes. Camotes Islands are a rural province of Cebu and just two hours from the city by boat. We rented a brand new two bedroom house in the Lahug area of Cebu City. The monthly rent was just $125.00 plus our TV cable for about $15.00 a month. The house was located on a hillside overlooking the city and close to everything we needed. Lahug is a very nice area and now there are many new housing sub-divisions built in the area. Our monthly budget while living in Lahug was approximately $700.00 and that included the rent, utilities, food, taxi cabs and even lots of dinners at restaurants and entertainment. I assume if we still lived in Lahug the budget would be just a few more dollars a month.
Within just a couple of weeks after moving into the Lahug house I felt as if Cebu was my city and I really enjoyed the city life. The city has many things to offer the foreigner and the city is always trying to attract more foreign retirees. It truly is a foreign (expat) friendly city. The largest group of foreigners in Cebu is Korean then Americans, Australians, British and Japanese. There are no racial tensions or problems in the city that I am aware of and the city is very safe. However, like any major world city there is crime, but using common safeguards and precautions one can have a happy life in Cebu City. Driving in the city is something I have never attempted and I don’t think I ever will drive in the city. The taxi cabs can get you almost anywhere in the city for $1.00 to $2.00 and that’s fine for me.
Shopping in the city is great and there are products from all over the world in Filipino stores. Many food stores stock western brands so you will never get homesick for your favorite foods from home. The outside markets, located all over the city offer great bargains and it’s always fun to negotiate prices with the vendors. Cable TV is available in the city and it offers many American shows and news programs. You can go to the movie cinemas and see a new release movie for about $1.00 and the popcorn is just a few pennies. The city has grown since I moved to the Philippines. There are many new gated housing Sub-Divisions that cater to foreign buyers, new high rise condo buildings and the resorts all continue to attract foreigners. The two major malls in the city, Ayala and SM are both expanding. Many of the roads have been upgraded as well as the infrastructure in many areas. The city is a major draw for tourism and is always attempting to bring in more tourist and more foreign retirees.
Any expat on a monthly pension of about $1,000.00 can live like a king in Cebu City. You can live on less than $1,000.00 but I think $1,000.00 is the right figure if you include saving a little each month for emergencies, trips back home and medical needs. The city has very good hospitals and medical cost are much less in the Philippines. Good dental care at very reasonable rates is also available in the Philippines. Many people go to Cebu for medical or dental vacations. Just remember, if you think you want to move to Cebu City do your homework. Do you want to live in a new country? do you want to be separated from your family and grandchildren?, if you are married how does your wife feel about living in Cebu? If you have young children do you want them to live in a new country and what about their education? Do you have the patience and understanding to learn and live in a new culture? Do you have the money to live a good life in Cebu without the need to find work? Do you have enough money to cover any type of emergency that may require five to ten thousand dollars? Finally, what is your reason for wanting to live in a new country? If you can be honest with yourself and have a positive answer for the above questions, then maybe Cebu City is for you?
Remember too, The Philippine economy is struggling. Filipinos with four and six year college degrees are driving taxi cabs or working as store clerks. Unemployment in the country is through the roof. Poverty is a major issue in the country. For all the beauty of the Philippines Poverty continues to destroy many Filipinos and their futures and creates an ugly face to an otherwise beautiful country. Just this week on November 8, 2007 an 11 year old girl in Manila living with her mother, father and little brother in a shanty town hung herself. The reason left in a note from the little girl was because of the poverty she and her family lived. The father not able to find work for months and the mother working for just $1.00 a day. The little girl had just the night before asked her father for P200.00 for a school project. The father did not have the money, just under $4.00. All the girl wanted was to finish school and buy a new bike. A simple dream complicated by severe poverty in a country struggling to overcome political corruption and theft. Please remember, what you may spend in just one day in the Philippines is what a Filipino may have to live on for a month. Poverty does indeed take lives.
I truly love my lifestyle in the Philippines, but it took some time, patience, understanding and a few sacrifices to live in the Philippines. I made several mistakes before coming here and a few since living here. I didn’t have enough money when I came here in 2004. I’ve made a few trips back to Florida to do some contract work and then returned to my beloved Camotes Islands. I’m currently away from home on a teaching contract. However, for me, it’s worth the price to have just a few months a year in my paradise called Camotes Islands, Cebu, Philippines. I think anyone looking for a great vacation will enjoy Cebu City. Those looking to retire on a modest pension can live well here, but just be sure living in a new country is right for you. Before making a decision to move here it’s wise to come on a vacation first and see the city for yourself. Then you can decide if this is the life you want. Once again, for me this is paradise.