What would it be like retiring in Cebu were my thoughts as the plane's wheels shuddered onto the runway. Bumping and weaving to a stop ... a better-than-normal landing on Mactan Island!
We had lived in Cebu for over three and a half years. What was the experience really like?
Initially I was on a two-year contract which had later been extended. The work had been interesting but in three months it would be all over.
During our time here, my working life was centred in a PEZA (Philippines Economic Zone Authority) zone, which is not the “normal” type of area in the Philippines. It is organised, clean and in many ways First World.
Over the years we lived in two subdivisions - one on Mactan and the other in Mandaue. Both were secure and the accommodation and environments were more than acceptable.
Was I glad to be leaving? In some ways, no and in other ways yes.
The no includes the people that I've met and worked with. The pleasure I’ve had being a mentor, guide, or colleague at work. And in the social hours, the expat friends and locals that we have enjoyed many hours (and glasses of wine) with.
Added to the natural beauty, tranquillity and accessibility of the many nearby islands. The island hopping banka trips. The ever-present banka (sometimes banca, bangka or pump-boat) is a boat with outriggers for stability and used as a ferry, for fishing and leisure. They vary significantly in size, function, and luxury.
The islands and banka's make for the ideal diving and snorkelling and lazing around the well-appointed island resorts.
On the other hand, the number one "yes" for me is the year-round hot and humid weather. Day and night… it’s relentless, oppressing and very tiring. My next "yes" would be the remorseless mosquitoes. Unfortunately, I'm one of those people that mosquitoes love and not a day went by that they wouldn't get their fill of my blood.
Added to those yesses are the log-jammed traffic in Cebu city and the scourge of most Third World countries - corruption, and bureaucracy. We overcame the traffic problem by employing a full-time driver and fortunately had an incredibly efficient HR person who managed all the bureaucracy hassles!
Where and What is Cebu?
This is not always clear as one name represents four separate entities.
The local people are delightful. Very welcoming, willing, friendly, and compliant. Always smiling and optimistic. Despite the poverty, they are very generous in offering to share a meal or to assist.
The Philippines is a country with great unrealised potential. A “servant” nation with many people working as overseas foreign workers (OFW’s). Working all over the world. In the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, on cruise liners, merchant vessels as nurses, as domestic helpers, merchant seamen, beauticians or shop assistants.
I compare this with the Chinese. They are also all over the world but when they arrive in a new country, they start a business. A hugely different mentality and outcome. Many of the richest Filipinos are Chinese Filipinos. Somehow this entrepreneurial spirit has not transferred into the general population.
I wonder whether this is the education system or dogma?
The Weather - Hot and Humid
Going out for a run at 5am in the middle of winter the temperature is often around 27° and the humidity in the 80's. In most countries this would be an extremely hot midsummer day. While the humidity hovers in the 80 to 90% range the temperature steadily increases throughout summer.
Resulting in hot, oppressive conditions all year round. Loved by some and tolerated by others with the use of fans and air-conditioning.
The Philippines is hit by many typhoons throughout the year with the worse hit areas north of Cebu. However, Cebu gets its fair share, and these are accompanied by high winds and bucketing rain. With this rain comes the inevitable flooding.
Cost of Living
In many “places to retire” articles you’ll read that Cebu is a cheap place to retire. That depends on your definition of Cebu and your understanding of “cheap.”
If you want a reasonable Western lifestyle the city of Cebu is relatively cheap. For example, for my wife and I the following were our estimated expenses:
Rent (including levy)
Food (including a couple of bottles of wine a week)
Helper (twice a week)
Gas (very low mileage)
Sky cable (cheap package)
Internet (4G mobile WIFI)
Electricity (very little use of air conditioning)
Assume P50 to the USD, so monthly expenses of about $2 500 per month. Living Western style comfortably but not extravagantly.
In addition, there may be extra expenses for any staff. There are inadequate state medical facilities and as most local people live hand to mouth from week to week, they have no funds for unforeseen circumstances.
When emergencies occur, their only options are employer or loan shark loans. Loan sharks charge exorbitant rates of interest. Unfortunately, despite the costs, many people are indebted to them.
The mosquitoes are another story.
If you’re a “mosquito magnet” you’ll be paranoid about closing doors and blinds and become immune to the smell of all varieties of Baygon spray.
Dengue, chikungunya and Zika fever are spread by an Aedes type mosquito. They are mean little creatures who like living indoors and bite ferociously during daybreak and early evening ... as well as any other time they have an opportunity!
Dengue is endemic, and although you may not be bitten very often, the dengue may still get you.
Another negative is the dirt and garbage. Metro Cebu is dusty. Add the humidity to the dust. The diesel exhaust fumes from the thousands of jeepneys and cheap Chinese motorbikes. Mix this with the tyre remnants (ground away by the abrasive concrete roads). The combination is black grime.
Every morning you will see cleaners brushing away the dirt from the previous day and by the end of the day it’s back again!
Garbage is strewn along sections of the road. Scattered around by the groups of scavenging dogs. Partially collected but never completely clean.
Jogging around Mandaue in the early morning one of my hazards was dog poop. Dropped on the road after their early morning ablutions. Identified only as a dark patch on the road it's difficult to see after it's been raining!
The storm water drains are another disaster as they are totally inadequate. Cebu city has over 120 flood zones so whenever there’s a heavy downpour, there is flooding. There have been several times when our subdivision has been inaccessible as water flowing over the entrance road was more than a metre deep.
Corruption in the Philippines is endemic. With towns and cities spread over 2,000 inhabited islands with various levels of government and bureaucracy. These cities and towns are further fragmented into 42,000 barangays (sort of tiny to very tiny municipalities) so realistically, corruption is impossible to eliminate.
Before going to the Philippines, I never realised that roosters crow all day! And that they live everywhere. The property next to our subdivision sounded like a rooster farm.
After many sleepless hours you’ll recognise that the crowing is varied. Their piercing cockle-doodle-doos range from a full-throated Pavarotti crow to a pathetic warbling gurgle.
I don’t know what the crowing means or whether my observations are correct. As I’ve listened to the crowing through many sleepless hours at night it seems to be done in groups of three. You’ll hear the first one close by, the next further away and the last one a feint sound in the distance and then back to the start. Each session goes on for about 10 minutes.
Filipinos are passionate about “cock fighting” and I’ve been told they care more about their roosters than they do about their wives!
Life in the city is noisy. From the whir of fans to the hum of air conditioners, the exhaust popping and growling of the tricycles and jeepneys all add to the never-ending cacophony.
In a Waze (popular traffic app) survey, Cebu was voted the worst place in the world to drive. For that reason, I drove myself to work at 6 am and had our driver collect me from work at 4 pm. During the rush hours, the few hours around 8 am and 6 pm, it is chaotic. Jeepneys, tricycles and cars squash together in an attempt to make progress. Many traffic lights don’t work … on Mactan island none worked for the 3 years I was there. And I was told that some haven’t worked for 20 years!!
Roadworks are never-ending. Characterised by poor planning. Hordes of people doing everything manually. The very poor quality (partly as a consequence of the corruption) ensures that this will be an endless exercise.
One often hears or reads that it is dangerous in the Philippines.
However, I never experienced any incidents which would make me believe this. Coming from South Africa, where one is constantly vigilant … the areas of the Philippines we visited were safe.
There is no doubt that there is petty crime and there are areas in which one must be careful. My wife had her purse taken out of her bag while on a jeepney journey. After taking the cash the pickpocket left her wallet behind a pillar in a shopping mall. The next day we were contacted by a friend in South Africa letting us know where we could collect the purse. Their email address was on a piece of paper and the mall security had sent them an email.
There are areas in the very south of Mindanao where the Abu Sayaf operate. It is not advisable for foreigners to go to these areas for extended periods as they may become targets for kidnapping.
- We have non-Filipino friends who have happily made Cebu their retirement home. While others couldn’t wait to leave.
- For me the Philippines has a delightful charm. All the negatives pale with the overall experience.
- So it’s up to you. The idyllic resort you see in advertisements and holiday promotions only make up a minuscule part of Cebu. It can be a relatively low-cost option and perfect if you like the all-year-round tropical weather, the sea, and peaceful, kind and considerate people.
- It’s certainly worth a roving visit. To experience the more remote parts of Cebu Island and nearby islands like Bohol, Palawan or Sequijor. Here the cost of living is much lower than Cebu city. With the levels of traffic, crime and noise (except the roosters!!) also much lower.
- Please leave your comments below or contact me for any other information.
Thank you for the honest assessment. I am planning to become a global nomad in October 2023. I will begin the trip in Cebu, or near it. Banking and mosquitos are my biggest concerns. You did a great job of explaining the mosquito issue, (I am a magnet). I would appreciate some views on banking if you have the time.
Thank you! I had two bank accounts – RCBC (local bank) and HSBC which I transferred from Hong Kong. On balance, I recommend RCBC – good service, easier access to branches and from what I remember lower cost.
All the best and enjoy your nomading!