The Road To Palau Part 1: A Full Day in the Intramuros of Manila

This is the first of a three-part article about my trip to Palau. It was an adventure-packed trip, and for your sake, I’ve decided to tell the story in three parts.

I would like to start by giving you the preamble. I first set foot in Palau in early February of this year. Only 2.5 months have gone by, but it really feels like another lifetime. After Tonga & Samoa, this was the last pacific island left on my list to discover.

Before Palau

I was venturing through Cairns in Australia and Papua New Guinea. This particular journey began at Port Moresby, the capital (and largest city) of Papua New Guinea. Fun Fact, it is also the largest city in the South Pacific (outside of Australia and New Zealand).

Testing out Philippine Airlines Business Class on my 5h flight to Manila. The cabin in their new A321neo is pretty decent, with completely flat beds. 👌

I flew from PNG to the Philippines and had a 12-hour layover in Manila before my final flight to Palau.

12 Hours in Manila

I wanted to make the most out of my half-day in the city, and explore an area I had never visited before. Manila, by the way, is the capital of the Philippines, a highly urbanized and densely populated city. I had been a few times before, and still had much to discover.

For this short visit, I decided to go explore the old town – also known as the Intramuros (Latin for “within the walls”) of Manila. Apparently there was enough to see inside the castle walls to keep me occupied for the entirety of my layover.

So, after arriving at the airport, I brought my luggage to the terminal I would be leaving from that evening, left it there and took a taxi straight to the Intramuros.

Landing in Manila – 10h to have some fun

Being a proper tourist

The Intramuros is a 0.67 square kilometers (0.26 sq mi) historic walled area within the modern city of Manila. The Spanish built the fortress and city-castle during their rule of the Philippines. Now, you can see horse carriages riding through the old town freely – quite the tourist attraction.

All of the buildings inside the walls are preserved and declared National Cultural Treasures by the National Museum of the Philippines.

Been to Manila twice, yet never made it to the old colonial town – Third time’s the charm 👊

When I arrived at Fort Santiago, the entrance on the north-west of the Intramuros, there was a Youth-Day conference happening inside the walls. I wasn’t too keen on checking that out, so instead, I opted for walking along the castle walls. I took some photos and then went back inside the city to take a calabaza ride through the city.

What is a calabaza, you may ask? Well, for starters, “calabaza” is the Spanish word for pumpkin. In Manila, however, calabaza is also the word used to describe the horse carriages that pick you up and give you a tour of the old town, think Cinderella, but not quite.

Being such an iconic thing to do within the Intramuros, I got myself on one, and off I went to explore the city inside the walls.

During the ride, we saw a few churches, including San Agustin Cathedral and the Manila Cathedral. The latter was first built in 1581 and repeatedly destroyed by typhoons, earthquakes, and wars – right now, it’s on its sixth reconstruction.

Cathedral of Manila

As we were making our way through the city, it began to pour rain. We still had about an hour left of the tour, but thankfully the carriage had a roof, so that didn’t affect us much. Actually, it made for a nice and calming ride.

Riding is the best you can do on a rainy day in Manil

We continued to a set of colonial houses that have been converted into a museum. The place is called Casa Manila. Upon entering the walls of this house, you are taken to a different time. There is a small square with a small fountain in the courtyard, and high walls enclose the area. The museum exhibition proper starts on the second floor, so the first floor is free for anyone to visit.

In the exhibition hall, you find typical furniture and trinkets that show how the elites in the Philippines lived during the 19th – 20th centuries. Most of them are wooden products that look luxurious and very Chinese.

Enjoying the views of Casa Manila in the pouring rain☔

Fortunately, while we were at Casa Manilla, the rain stopped, and after the tour, I was able to walk through the old town. I walked to the east side gates in order to exit the Intramuros and continued along Mendiola Street, past the Malacanang Palace – the official residence and main workplace of the President of the Philippines, – to Malate.

Malate, a district of Manila, and together with the district of Ermita, they serve as the epicenter of commerce and tourism of the city. This area was notably more upscale, located right in Manila proper.

In this area, I went to a very famous bar that had been recommended to me by some friends. I can’t really tell you the name, but I will tell you that I had quite a bit of fun there…

Ok. Fine, I’ll tell you – but don’t google it please! 🤫- it’s called Los Angeles Cafe. 🙈

So yeah, after some food (and other things), I was already on my way back to the airport to catch my 10 pm flight to Palau.

It’s s small world

Once at the airport in Manila, someone called my name a few times. I looked around, and it took a few seconds before it dawned on me that I actually recognized (and even knew) the man calling my name and the woman next to him, it was Achim and his wife.

Achim is head of the famous and exclusive German Traveller’s Century Club. Membership in the Travelers’ Century Club (TCC) is limited to travelers who have visited one hundred or more territories of the world (like me). It was first organized in Los Angeles in 1954 by a group of the world’s most widely traveled people, and Achim is the current leader of the German chapter.

I met Achim a few years back at some conferences around the globe. The club holds regular meetings and provides other tools for social networking among members. The idea has attracted the interest of world travelers everywhere, and it now has 329 territories across the globe. Visiting all these territories is something I also want to do eventually.

We got to talking at the airport, and I found out that he was actually coming from Palau and Guam. He was also supposed to be on his way to collect some more country points in Polynesia. However, he wasn’t able to get to his yacht in Micronesia before they closed the borders, thanks to COVID-19.

So, they were now on their way back to Palau and taking the same flight as me. We chatted as we boarded the plane and met up after immigration to share a cab.

About Palau

The Republic of Palau (Belau) is a group of islands in the Micronesia area of Oceania, situated several hundred miles off the southeast coasts of Australia and the Philippines. Palau is a peaceful oasis in an otherwise turbulent ocean.

The country is made up of approximately 340 islands, and together with parts of the Federated States of Micronesia, it forms the western chain of the Caroline Islands. Did you know that it is also the most easy-to-reach island in the pacific? I might even add that it is also the most beautiful, but I’ll let you be the judge of that, just read on.

What I mean about it being easily accessible is that, for instance, you can take a 9-hour flight from pretty much anywhere in Europe to Seoul, North Korea. From there it’s only another 4 hours by plane to Palau. So, in total, it’s roughly thirteen hours from Europe, just like Latin America.

Furthermore, there are direct flights from Manila twice a week, and direct flights from Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Guam (U.S.) also a few times. Typically, you would have also found many direct flights from China, but even back in early Feb., as I was heading there, Palau was already denying all flights from China due to Coronavirus.

I should note that Palau had experienced a significant surge in Mainland Chinese tourists since late 2014, and up until early this year, Chinese tourists comprised approximately half of all tourist arrivals. So when I was there, there were already no more Chinese tourists, and the island was quite barren and enjoyable.

Divine timing

My timing as the pandemic developed was pretty great. I found myself always arriving and leaving just in time. As you may know, two weeks before, I was in Tonga and Samoa, as they were just starting to close borders, screening everyone that was coming in. Palau was like that at this time, but I had no issues getting in since I was coming from the Philippines.

The flight itself was around 3 hours, but due to the two-hour difference between the Philippines and Palau, we landed at ROR airport in the middle of the night, local time. I was one of the first to get off the plane and was able to get through immigration quickly and without hassle.

I waited for my friends, and we shared a cab to our hotel. They ended up booking the same hotel as me, so we got to see each other every day while I was there, and we even went out for a memorable dinner, but more on that later.

We were staying at a really lovely hotel in Koror. Koror is the largest city, and Palau’s only real concentration of shops, restaurants, and hotels. The city is on the island next to where we landed, so the cab drove us across the Friendship Bridge, over to our island. By the time I checked into my hotel room, it was very late, so I went straight to sleep.

The coming days were filled with activities – I had booked most of them online, before arrival. I guess you could say I was excited to see in person what all the fuzz was about. Spoiler alert: Palau is worth the fuzz.😍 But I’ll leave it at that for now.

I had two boat tours, a day visit to Peleliu (a very famous island from WWII), a rental car for a day to explore solo, a chartered flight to see the islands from above, and a couple of kayak and snorkel tours. The days that followed were truly nothing short of amazing!

Check out this little preview:

Swimming with thousands of stingless jellyfish

The best views of Palau

Kayaking through the Arch of Palau