Cebu is known as the first island of the Philippines, as it was the first the Spanish colonised in 1569. As such, it’s also the centre of Catholicism in the Philippines and you can’t move for churches, rosary beads, and psalm quotes on buildings and taxis.
A city of two halves
Old town Cebu is the historic part of town with the old fort of San Pedro, cathedral and Magellan’s Cross. This area is definitely the gritty Philippines – ramshackle buildings, strays, beggars and lots of people just hanging out on the streets or in the cafes in the middle of the day, for no obvious reason than passing the time! It is a bit of a culture shock coming from Singapore and London and I would be lying if it surprised me just how basic it is, but if you’ve travelled to other parts of Asia (as I city I would compare it to Siem Reap in Cambodia) it’s not too different and easy enough to walk around if you have a map. The taxi drivers are also honest and put every journey on the meter which makes a nice change from the hagglers in KL, Malaysia.
There were very few tourists here and I think most people landing in Cebu city make a quick dash to the other islands and beaches. It was only when we sat down to eat that night that Jess commented we had gone the whole day without seeing another white person, and that she (Chinese) felt like she was standing out. Which, in the second city of the Philippines was quite an interesting observation – it is very Filipino, rather than ‘Asian’. Despite the lack of any other tourists, English is widely used and spoken and language was no problem at all.
Cebu is definitely a city of two halves though and I also really enjoyed seeing the upmarket area where middle-class teenagers and young families spend their weekends. The Ayala Centre is a mall with huge gardens and a great variety of shops and restaurants. It’s great for people watching and feels like a barometer for the development and money pouring into the Philippines. Cebu is one of the most developed islands (the Philippines has over 7000) and the selection of international and designer shops in this mall proves there is money here. We had much more than a usual mall experience and took a pew in the garden to watch some guys playing with their yo-yos (old school!) and kids running about enjoying an ice-cream.
Security is high
The other thing that was interesting was the security. We popped into a Marriott to look at the cocktail menu as it was the no.1 rated on Trip Advisor but to even get in we had our bags scanned and a full pat down from a group of five security guards. Armed police stroll the streets at night in pairs and expect to go through body scanners when going to supermarkets. When we woke up early one morning for a trip out of town, we realised even our small guest house had its own armed security guard on night watch – despite the police station being 50 yards down the road. Typically, when security is high it makes you feel less safe as you start to wonder why it is necessary…and sadly this is the feeling I had throughout my stay here. However, this problem seemed specific to Cebu City and we didn’t encounter security like it again on the rest of Cebu or on the other islands.
Cebu felt a bit like old and new worlds clashing together. Investment from the Chinese has brought money and malls, but there are areas that are clearly deprived and security, safety and crime is an issue. The City is incredibly proud of its Spanish history and definitely has some old-world charm, you just have to dig a little deeper to find it!
Zubuchon – a pork-lovers heaven. Recommend the pork belly and stuffed squid, my mouth is watering just thinking about it – so good!
Cafe Georg – in Ayala Centre and not too many tables but great for lunch and an excellent selection of cakes for a mid-afternoon pick me up.