Carlos Celdran is my Thrilla in Manila

by Michael

Lots of travel guides suggests that tourists should “skip Manila.” It’s big, crowded, and for the most part, not pretty. But we needed a couple days to plan and manage the next segment of our trip (meaning we needed a reliable Internet connection) so we booked a place for a few nights. While much our time was spent chilling out at our hostel’s rooftop bar surfing the internet and drinking cheap beer (yay for Catholics!), we wandered some parks and neighborhoods too. There are two highlights that I recommend: Intramoros and El Chupacabra.


It’s like being back in Latin America: find the Plaza de Armas and you found the center of town.


Intramoros is the original walled city (literally “within walls”). It houses the Cathedral, San Agustin Church, and Fort Santiago. During our visit to Fort Santiago, we came across a tour group. At first we thought it was a “city walks” type tour, which in many cities are free or donation-based. There was a big (50+ people) crowd and it seemed interesting, so we tagged along.


Fort Santiago.

As the tour continued, it slowly became clear that it was not the free tour that we initially thought it was. Included in the tour were an optional short ride in a horse-drawn carriage (we walked instead) and a halo-halo (more on this later). And most notably, the guide was quite a performer. He was at times very funny, and at other times very dramatic. And he was very good.

Version 2

Carlos Celdran being dramatic.

At the end, the guide took us all to the San Agustin Church, the one building that survived the Battle of Manila during World War II. And there he pointed out what he called the Filipino decoration style: just throw up lots of stuff, even if it doesn’t make sense together. That’s how the jeepneys are decorated (jeeps modified to carry 20+ passengers on set routes). That’s why the Church has columns that don’t hold anything up. And that’s how the national dessert — halo-halo — works. It’s ice with condensed milk, coconut, sweet beans, corn, jello, and sometimes more, topped with ube (purple sweet potato) ice cream.


Some buildings in Intramoros were never rebuilt after the US air raids in WWII.


The officers’ club has seen better days.


Inside Fort Santiago.


Carlos Celdran outside the St. Augustine Church.


Church interior.


Wedding while we were in Intramoros.


A jeepney. According to Carlos Celdran, the U.S. decided that rather than bring the jeeps home from the Pacific, the U.S. sold them to the Philippines for $1 each.


This is a hal0-halo. We didn’t have one until we were at Good Taste in Baguio. I liked it, but Elizabeth wasn’t a fan of the mash-up of flavors.

When the paying guests were invited to have a halo-halo for “free,” we made our exit.
I later searched online and found that the tour guide was Carlos Celdran, who on his website admits that the tour is performance art masquerading as a walking tour. He was apparently arrested for a protest during mass at the Cathedral, opposing the Church’s influence on reproductive health matters. And the tour costs about $25 (yes, US dollars).
I’m normally happy to freeload now and then if I don’t impose a cost (that’s why we skipped the carriage ride and dessert), although we typically only casually listen in to paid tours for a few moments before heading on. But I do care about artists getting paid, so I felt bad when I later found out more about the tour and Carlos Celdran’s back story. But then, $25 for a walking tour?

If you visit Manila, consider his tour. It’s really good.

El Chupacabra

I love burritos. Elizabeth says she does too, though maybe not as intensely as me. And there have been no good burritos since New York.

El Chupacabra is the best burrito I’ve had on the trip. Elizabeth agreed. Better than anything in Europe or elsewhere in Asia (based on our experience, there are no burritos in Africa). Better than Taqueria Tlaxcalli in the Bronx — a finalist in Nate Silver’s “burrito bracket.” [Elizabeth’s note: I’m not sure if I’d go that far.] We even went back when we returned to Manila to catch a flight.


This place!


Preparing tacos.


Cooking out front.


This is the normal size. If I had one complaint, it’s that the burritos were on the small side.


Choice of Misson Style or San Diego Style


There is a food called White Women…


A chupacabra.


Not a chupacabra.

El Chupacabra was not the only Mexican food we saw. There is a chain called Army Navy that has burritos, and other places. I’m not sure if this results from the American occupation or the historical trading connection with Mexico. But there is far more Mexican food here than anywhere else we have traveled on this trip (other than New York). Occasionally, we even come across refried beans!


Monument devoted to the maritime expedition to Mexico. The Manila Galleons would sail back and forth across the Pacific for centuries.

We stayed in Manila long enough to watch the Super Bowl (it’s on in the morning here) and then set off for Baguio in the Cordillera to hike.

[This blog post describes our visits to Manila, Philippines on February 3-5 and 18-19, 2017.]

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