The many highlights of the Philippines include thousands of deserted beaches, a spectacular diversity of marine life, beautiful jungle treks, and a huge selection of adventure sports and activities. The challenge comes with trying to decide where to go.
Fortunately, if you have the time to spare, it’s quite easy to keep extending your visa. However, the Philippines is not such an easy country to explore. Reliance on ferry services, unreliable bus times and conflicting travel advice increase the stress of independent travel.
Last year, I spent three months exploring the highlights of the Philippines, and the following description of each of the places I visited is intended to help you build your perfect itinerary. Alternatively, you could take what you’ve learned and have someone customise your trip to the Philippines, so you can relax and enjoy the whole experience.
Most travellers will spend at least a few days in Luzon, primarily because this is where Manila is located. Still, there is plenty to explore further afield if you have the patience to figure out an itinerary. To the north, the rice terraces and intriguing history of the Cordillera region make for a shocking change of scenery (and climate) from that typically expected of the Philippines. Donsol is also worth a visit if you’d like to swim with whale sharks.
It’s very easy to despise Manila. With a reputation for crime and congestion, it can be a frustrating place to stay. However, if you’ve just entered the Philippines from elsewhere in Asia, this might be the first opportunity you’ve had in months to bask in air conditioning and pick up essential items from the mall. Free walking tours operate from most accommodation, taking in parts of the Old Town, such as Intramuros. If you’re looking for something a bit different, hop on a ferry and spend the night on Corregidor Island learning about its importance as a defensive fort and airfield during WWII.
Banaue has made a name for itself as one of the highlights of the Philippines thanks to its impressive rice terraces. Commonly referred to as the eighth wonder of the world, their base is also home to a number of tribes, whose traditional witch doctors offer spiritual healing rituals. This is also the usual starting point for a popular loop hike, which passes through Pula, Cambulo and Batad.
One of the most remote villages with tourist accommodation in North Luzon is Kabayan. From here, you can arrange for a guide to take you to the Timbac caves, where mummified human remains can be viewed in their coffins. Nearby Mt Pulag is the third highest mountain in the Philippines, offering unrivalled scenery. Pass through forests to a grassland summit, from which you can look down over a sea of clouds and admire the Milky Way from your tent.
Continuing the macabre vibe of the mummies in Kabayan, one of the main attractions of Sagada are its coffins, which can be seen hanging from the side of a cliff. There are also some impressive caves, which offer opportunities for adventurous spelunking, climbing and rappelling activities. Sagada has a slight hippie vibe and is a pleasant place in which to chill for a few days. There are plenty of cafes and cosy bars in town, as well as souvenir shops and market stalls. This is also where the century-old legendary tattoo artist Whang Od bases herself.
Cebu is one of the most visited parts of the Philippines. This is probably in part due to excellent travel connections, both nationally and internationally. It also has a lot to offer, whether you’re into beautiful beaches, nightlife, incredible diving or adventure.
Cebu City isn’t pretty. It’s the kind of place you will probably find yourself in through necessity. There’s a shopping mall with a visa extension service, and it’s home to the ferry port that links Cebu with Bohol. One of its main attractions is Mango Square – a part of town known for its plethora of bars, nightclubs, karaoke booths and live entertainment. It tends to attract locals more than foreigners. Drinks are affordable and you’re sure to have an interesting evening. Although the city is not known for being particularly safe, there are some very interesting areas that don’t see many tourists. Go for a run around the Hipodromo Oval Road, for example, and you’re likely to be greeted by cock fights, mini market stalls and team sports on the streets. The residents aren’t used to seeing travellers in this part of town and they cheer you on and high-five you as you go by.
The main reason most people visit Malapascua is its Thresher Sharks. If you like to scuba dive and are certified for dives of at least 30 m, this is one of the best places in the world to see them. This island is also worth a visit for its gorgeous beaches and chilled out vibe. Its small size gives it a great sense of community; whether you choose to stay at the Bob Marley-inspired hostel or at one of the island’s luxury resorts, you’ll want to experience one of the all-night basketball court parties, which attract a mix of tourists and locals.
One of the main attractions of Moalboal is also the scuba diving. Swim around Pescador Island or join the sardine run, where you can swim through huge shoals of fish, which move in unison virtually blocking out the sunlight overhead. Another reason to visit is to go canyoning. These tours are pretty extreme, including cliff jumps of almost 20 m, natural water slides, tunnels, log bridges and waterfall plunge pools. Pay a little more for a licensed guide and good-quality safety equipment, and this is guaranteed to be one of your most fun-packed days in the Philippines.
Sadly, Oslob has made a name for itself as one of the best-known locations in which to swim with whale sharks. The draw is that you’re virtually guaranteed to see them. The downside is that the tour operators in this area tend to feed the sharks to encourage them to stay close by. This alters their natural behaviour. If you’re passionate about conservation, it would be better to try your luck from Donsol, or even Puerto Princesa.
Bohol is one of the easiest places to get to from Cebu, and it offers a number of unique experiences, including rare wildlife, jungle adventures, unusual geological formations and what must surely be one of the best opportunities to see fireflies in their natural habitat.
There’s nothing of major touristic significance in Tagbilaran, but it does act as a useful stop off point if you’re catching a domestic flight or hopping on the ferry to Cebu the next day. If you’re searching for a place to eat, give the Garden Café a try. Complete with an Old West theme, this American-style diner is staffed almost entirely by deaf people and all of its profits are funnelled back into helping to educate deaf students in Bohol and Letye. In addition to a big selection of international cuisine, the menu includes some basic sign language diagrams so that you can try it out when you put in your order.
A visit to Bohol isn’t complete without some time spent on Panglao. Connected to the main island by a bridge, and just a 30-minute taxi ride from the main city of Tagbilaran, this small island paradise is the perfect place to unwind. The beaches are beautiful, the vibe is relaxed, and scuba diving at Balicasag and Pamilacan is world class. It’s also possible to arrange island-hopping boat trips with the chance of spotting dolphins and swimming with turtles.
Back on the main island of Bohol, one of the most serene places you could base yourself is Loboc. This small village is set alongside a beautiful calm river perfect for stand-up paddle boarding. During the daytime, make your way past lush vegetation and mango trees to some pretty waterfalls, where you can ride the currents and jump from a jetty. After nightfall, paddle boarding in the dark is a unique experience, especially when you come across trees twinkling like a Christmas wonderland with the light of thousands of fireflies. Take a day trip to a nearby hanging bridge, marvel at the oddly shaped Chocolate Hills, ride a zip line high in the forest canopy or stop by a sanctuary for tarsiers – the world’s smallest (and possibly most adorable) primate.
Although there are plenty of great activities across Negros, including jungle walks, volcano climbing and relaxing on the gorgeous beach at Sipalay, the main port of call for most tourists is Dumaguete.
Dumaguete is another of those cities whose location makes it a popular stop off point. A student town, it has a bustling centre with plenty of shops and restaurants; however, it isn’t much to look at. Most people visit Dumaguete for its macro diving, and to see the diverse marine life and vibrant corals of nearby Apo Island. It’s also the port for journeys to Siquijor Island.
Although you can do day trips from Dumaguete or nearby Dauin to visit the remote beauty of Apo Island, it’s much more rewarding to stay a few nights. Mario’s is a small bed and breakfast with a dive centre attached. It’s a great place to meet other travellers and certainly the most budget accommodation advertised online. You can rent snorkel equipment from the beach and, although there’s a cordoned-off area for viewing turtles, you’re almost as likely to see them if you make your way to the relative solitude further along the beach. There’s a set of steps leading to a look-out point, which is the perfect place for admiring sunsets. Though small, it’s easy to find a good eatery or karaoke bar, and it’s common for small groups of travellers and locals to gather on the beach at night. Sometimes you can see bioluminescent plankton as you stir up the rock pools.
Siquijor is Apo Island’s big sister and, owing to its larger size, is only really navigable by motorbike. This makes it less solo traveller friendly, although you still stand a good chance of meeting people at your hostel. Much of the accommodation is spread out along the road, which follows the circumference of the island and, without transport, this can leave you feeling isolated. Expect stunning sunsets, miles of deserted sandy beaches and evening beach barbecues. You will probably be invited by locals to join them outside their house for karaoke and grilled chicken feet, and this is an opportunity not to be missed. Some of the island’s attractions include impressive waterfalls, cliff jumps, caving tours and scenic view points. Take a map and travel in a group, as it’s easy to get lost on the back roads.
Most travellers head to Panay for one reason only – to live it up for a few days on the party island of Boracay.
Most travellers have a love–hate relationship with Boracay. On the one hand, it’s stunningly beautiful. On the other, it has become over-crowded with tourists, tour operators and restaurants. This is the one place in the Philippines where the diving is disappointing. The beaches are also very crowded, with people hassling you every few minutes to try their water sports activities or join a booze cruise. While it’s depressing in some ways to see the extent to which this natural paradise is being meddled with, Boracay does offer an escape from the frustrations of travelling in more remote locations. Transport is reliable, opportunities to meet new friends are plentiful, and you can find all levels of accommodation and any cuisine that takes your fancy. This is also a hot spot for wind-based sports like wind and kite surfing. To visit Boracay alone will provide you with a poor reflection of the country’s culture, but it makes a fun stop off between Cebu and Palawan. Make the most of your time in Boracay with a tour package involving extreme water sports, sailing, cliff diving and zip lining.
If you’re travelling long distances to reach Boracay, you might need to break up your journey in Iloilo. There really isn’t much to see in this city. In fact, you will feel less like the tourist and more like the attraction, as it’s incredibly rare for foreigners to pass through. There are a few budget hotels, and the port is a reasonably attractive location for an evening run. Ferries connect it with the northwest of Negros, and there’s a bus station a little out of town with services to Caticlan, where hundreds of boats are on hand to ship you to Boracay.
The islands that make up Palawan lie to the west of the Philippines and are best known for their coves and sandy beaches. Top activities include diving, snorkelling and island hopping tours, but there are also some interesting geological formations to take in.
In 2011, Puerto Princesa’s underground river was listed as one of the new seven wonders of nature. Although there is some controversy over the voting procedure, which suggests that this title may not be well deserved, it is quite spectacular nonetheless. Tours typically involve being guided slowly through subterranean tunnels while sitting in small paddle boats and listening to pre-recorded audio guides.
If you’re a beach person, you can’t go far wrong with the Philippines, but if you want to visit the best of the best, El Nido is calling your name. Frequently topping lists of the best beaches worldwide, you can choose between a number of island hopping tours, with hidden lagoons, snorkelling and kayaking. El Nido is one of the country’s best places to scuba dive, with over 30 dive sites, warm waters and sheltered bays. Rock climbing and freediving courses are also on offer.
Getting from El Nido to Coron requires sturdy sea legs and a strong stomach. The ferry journey is not for the feint of heart. However, it’s a trip well rewarded. Although Coron itself is less appealing, its island hopping tours are equally as impressive and a lot less crowded. The diving here has a different focus, with WWII shipwrecks the main draw. For those with experience, it’s possible to swim through several decks via engine rooms, bunk rooms, galleys and cargo holds.
As this post demonstrates, there is plenty to see. Even just to scratch the surface of the highlights of the Philippines requires a lot of time and planning. If you don’t have the time to see it all, my recommendation would be to choose a location that offers a variety of activities, such as Bohol, or to focus on your primary goal; for example, if you’re a keen scuba diver, aim for the wrecks of Coron, the thresher sharks of Malapascua or the natural beauty and diversity of El Nido, or check out my rundown of the best dive sites in the Philippines. This is a fascinating country and one that’s guaranteed to leave a lasting impression no matter where you end up.