From Northern California, you’ll probably head to SFO (San Francisco) and will probably begin your lengthy overseas journey with a stopover in Singapore or Japan. I’d aim for Singapore because the airport there is obnoxiously welcoming for weary travelers, especially after 12 to 16 hours cramped on an airplane, and you can find a cheap hotel room with shower access that will feel like an oasis in the desert. Rinse off. Take a nap.
Find your connecting flight to Manila, sit around, read a book, then board. You’ll land in Manila about two hours later. Things are going to start to feel a lot more foreign, especially if you’ve purchased your following flight to Kalibo separately (as I did). Get your passport stamped. Head outside. Feel that sticky humidity. You need to get to Terminal 3, so either take advantage of the free shuttle service downstairs or hail a taxi. Barter for a low fare (100 pesos might work), but expect to be overcharged. Once at the proper Terminal, find your gate, sit down, take a breath, and wait. Pay attention to what everyone else is doing. Listen for your flight number. You’ll hop into a bus that will shuttle you to the plane. Get to your seat. Buckle up.
This flight to Kalibo will probably have a decent amount of foreigners on it heading for Boracay (which, when I went, was where I was headed, too). You’ll land at a tiny airport on Panay Island. Get your bags inside. After this, you’ll have no trouble finding a van taking people to Caticlan (the port town), and it costs somewhere around 100 pesos. Welcome to the Philippines. Here you’ll finally feel like you can sit still and look around. Soak in the winding, thin roads; the plethora of palm trees; the motorcycles (called singles) weaving through traffic; the lack of sidewalks; the buildings half-finished, made of local trees and cement foundations; the American pop music on the radio.
You’ll end up in Caticlan outside of the port, and probably everyone else in the van will lead you to the payment booth to the left of the entrance, where you’ll pay your Terminal Fee, Environmental Fee, and Ticket Fee (200 pesos, all told). Now, if you’re going to Boracay, there will be plenty of boats taking people across to the other smaller island to the north. I’ll write something else on Boracay later. However, if you’re going straight to Tablas Island, you’ll want to aim to catch the 9:00 AM bangka (boat) to Looc. This won’t be accessed through the main entrance, but rather you purchase your ticket from the folks sitting out front near the payment booths. I think it was about 300 pesos. Wait with them, then follow them around to the left of the terminal building to where they’ll guide you onto the proper bangka. Take a seat. Get comfortable. This is about a two hour ride over sometimes rough water, so take your seasickness meds if you need to.
So this is how you get to Tablas Island. If you’re aiming to get to Calatrava, or perhaps to San Agustin to continue onward to Romblon Island, follow these steps:
When the boat docks in Looc, disembark and either take a walk into town or hitch a ride with a trike (the motorcycles with passenger sidecars) to the jeepney waiting station. You can ask around if you’re confused, but someone will probably want to offer you a ride to wherever you’re going (which is to Odiongan) for 300 pesos. You can get it down to 150. Or get to the jeepney (which leaves around 1:00 PM) and pay only 60. Either way, you’ll want to end up in Odiongan in time to catch the 2:30 jeepney to Calatrava. The jeepney station is a prominent part of this port town and the jeepney should take you right there, but make sure to make your destination known (“sa jeepney station”) to the guy collecting money at the back, who will knock on the ceiling to tell the driver to stop when it’s time for you to go. The jeepney ride to Calatrava takes about an hour and a half.
If you’re continuing on to San Agustin or Romblon, my helpfulness fades, but I know there are jeepneys and trikes heading that direction from Calatrava. There, you’ll pay your 10 peso terminal fee and hop onto a bangka for Romblon Island. Nice place. I’ll write about that later, too.
In Summary: Have at least 1000 pesos for various transportation fees and snacks. There is only one boat from Caticlan to Looc and it leaves daily at 9:00 AM. Don’t forget to barter (“make tawad”) with trike and single drivers. The last jeepney to Calatrava leaves Odiongan at 2:30 PM. Don’t be worried about feeling too lost because the Filipinos are a helpful and curious people that will guide you in the right way and probably know a decent amount of English, just say “Sa Looc” or “Sa Caticlan” or “Sa [wherever you’re going]” and they’ll know the way.