I first traveled to the Philippines when I was 6 years old. My mom wanted to show me to the family and introduce me to the country where she had grown up. I don’t remember much of that trip besides the mosquito bites and endless traffic of Manila.
The second time I visited the Philippines was in 2012. I did a round trip to Taiwan and the Philippines, staying 5 weeks in the Philippines. I went back there last March, only ten days this time. Limited time so I stayed close to Manila.
I have seen a bit of the Philippines in those 2 trips. The country is very big, bigger than you would think.
Even if you had 2 months, it is impossible to see everything. There are more than 7600 islands and flights go only to the major cities. If you want to visit smaller islands you have to take the bus, tricycle and ferries and that takes time.
If you are going, focus on a few places but have a flexible itinerary. You might get stuck in a hurricane (ferries don’t sail when there is a storm) or might want to stay an extra day to hug turtles.
What to do in The Philippines?
All those islands provide the most excellent tropical beaches. All that ocean provides brilliant scuba diving. There are other adventure sports you can do here like surfing, paragliding and mountain biking. Filipinos love food so there is plenty for your taste buds. I especially recommend you try out the dessert halo-halo.
The country has 6 Unesco World Heritage Sites. Together with some historic churches are some natural wonders like the Subterranean River National Park in Puerto Princessa and the Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary.
The Philippine government made this promotional video. It gives a rough idea of the options.
Metro Manila with its 22 million inhabitants comes with all the lovely chaos of a South-East Asian capital. The Metro consists of Manila, several other districts and Quezon City. You can stay in any of these depending what you want to do. Transport is cheap and easy but you usually get stuck in traffic for an hour. There are no subways in Manila, getting around is by taxi, tricycle, airconditioned vans or jeepneys. The jeepneys are my favourite since they are the most colorful way to get around.
This is the actual Manila city of the bigger Metro. It has the historical center Intramuros, a remnant of the Spanish and American colonial times. Manila Cathedral and Fort Santiago are the highlights. Catch a ride on a horse buggy if you don’t like walking.
Another attraction in the city is Manila Ocean Park: a big complex with fish tanks and sea lion shows. They have sharks and a crocodile, which is interesting, but the place can get very crowded. I loved the bar in the hotel: the Club H2O Lounge. You can find it above the Oceanarium.
Stay in this district if you want to see some of the history of the Philippines.
Makati is the financial and business district of Metro Manila. I stayed here last time I was in Manila. There are some shopping malls and lots of Middle Eastern restaurants. My favorite was no doubt Beni’s Falafel (4364 Valdez St, Poblacion, Makati). Try the Falafel sandwich for 185 PHP, followed by Baklava and a Turkish Coffee. There are some great bars in the area if you like to party.
Stay in Makati if you like shopping and nightlife.
Batangas port is the gateway to Mindoro Island and Puerto Galera. It is 4 hours by bus from Manila. Buses leave from the Jam terminal.When I stayed there last time, I treated myself to a luxury stay in the Batangas Country club.
At Batangas port there are ferries daily to Sabang and Puerto Galera. The boat ride from Batangas Port to Sabang takes about 1,5 hours.
The port is a hotspot for scamming so be alert. You will get asked where you are going the moment you arrive. I was very nice to answer and ended up having my tickets being taken care of by 6 different persons. They expected me to pay each one of them a tip which was ridiculous. You can buy the tickets and pay for the port tax yourself. Don’t be friendly if somebody asks where you are going.
Sabang, Mindoro island
Sabang is a beach resort town close to Puerto Galera. It is one of the major dive spots in the country with a protected reef. I would recommend staying in Sabang instead of Puerto Galera. The beach might not be as spectacular but there are less vendors. In Puerto Galera you can hardly relax on the beach.
I did 2 dives off the shore on the third day I was in Sabang. We spotted some turtles underwater. Their sight of these graceful creatures never tires me. The reef in Sabang is one of the most diverse coral reefs in Asia. Most of the fishermen now work in tourism which is beneficial for diving, since the ecosystem is more in balance and there are a big variety of species.
Banaue Rice Terraces
Settled in the mountains of Ifugao are these 2000 year old rice terraces. Carefully carved into the mountain by hand, you can only imagine the amount of work and care put into them by the all the generations of indigenous people. Most of the hotels have a patio looking over the valley, the views are amazing.
The terraces are 1500 m above sea level and the climate in Banaue is pleasantly mild. So you won’t be sweating your guts off all the time. There are plenty of tours available in town and the local travel agents will make sure you book one. Visit to the Hapao hot springs, right in the middle of the terraces. Soaking in a natural spring with this view is unforgettable.
To get to Banaue Rice Terraces, take the night bus from Sampaloc, Manila to Banaue. It takes nine hours. Buses are airconditioned so absolutely freezing! Take a jacket.
Busuanga and Coron Island
North of the Palawan Island you can find Busuanga. Flights leave daily from Manila. It takes about an hour. Go island hopping with one of the local boattours in Coron town. You will find yourself in the middle of a Hollywood movie with its breathtaking lagoons and hidden beaches. I found that twin lagoon was the most amazing experience. You swim through a hole in the cliffs and get to a bamboo hut drifting on the azure blue waters of the lagoon.
Busuanga is famous for wreck diving with 12 WW II Japanese war vessels to explore. The ships were hiding here from the US navy. Unsuccessfully though. They are now all to be admired at the bottom of the ocean.
I did my Open Water Scuba Dive course here with Busuanga Seadive Resort. Most of our training was in Barracuda lake on Coron Island. Because the lake sits on top of a giant volcano it has thermoclines (boundary between cold and warm water). It is also supposed to have fabled gigantic barracudas. The resort has really nice and cheap rooms and there is a restaurant.
You can take the ferry to El Nido from the port. It takes 8 hours.
South of Busuanga lies Palawan island. You can ferry in or fly in. Puerto Princessa has connections to every major airport in the Philippines. When I went there in 2012, there was a warning not to travel to the south of the island because of pirates. But if you stay in the central and north parts of the island you will be safe and it is definitely worth it.
Located on the north end of the Island, it is a location taken out of the Lost World. Big cliffs surround the beach and you can island hop to even more spectacular places. Secret beach is one of them. Take a tour with one of the local boats. It will take you to all the pretty sights and at noon the captain will plonk down a table on a pristine white beach where you’ll enjoy fried fish and fresh pineapple.
There is some great diving too with splendid coral reefs and night diving. In town you’ll find lots of good alternative live music by Filipino Rastafarians.
There is a ferry connection with Coron Port. The boat trip is slightly uncomfortable though and takes 8 hours.
The biggest city in the Palawan province. You can find a Unesco World Heritage Site here: the Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park. It’s a cave complex that you can tour by boat. See crazy rock-formations and glowworms. The city has some great restaurants and rasta cocktail bars where you can meet surfers and bare feet ecologists. Get in and out by plane or take a shuttle from El Nido (takes half a day).
This the central south island region of the Philippines, it consists of Cebu, Bohol, Negros plus the other islands in between Mindanao and Luzon. There is some really good diving around Cebu Island and Alona beach. Dumaguete on Negros is a hip student town with lots of nightlife. Fly here from any airport to Cebu city. It takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes from Manila. There are ferries from the Cebu port to Bohol and Dumaguette.
A two hour ferry ride from Cebu lies the island of Bohol. Home of the Philippine tarsier, these are night hunters with eyes bigger than their brains. You can book a tour from Alona beach to see them in a wildlife park.
Getting off the ferry in Tagbilaran it is a short tricycle ride to the beach. Don’t take the tourist shuttle at the exit of the port, they are horribly expensive. Go outside and negotiate with a tricycle driver, it shouldn’t cost more than 175 PHP. Stay at an amazing guest house, walking distance from the beach called the Reggae Guest House. One night in a double bungalow for 1200 PHP.
There is a protected marine park off the shores. Spectacular wall dives with coral reefs, nudibranchs and the biggest turtles I have ever seen. I found a dive school with packages of 3 dives including gear and tanks for only 2000 PHP. My favorite beach and dive spot in the Philippines!
West of Cebu sits Negros, great for scuba diving, food and party with Dumaguete the main city.
Stay at a great hostel in the city: Harolds Mansion. Dorm beds go for 300 PHP per night. Owned by Harold, you’ll probably meet him and get invited to a party when you stay here.
Harolds mansion has a dive school that offers trips to Oslob, where you can dive with whale sharks. Dauin is another dive spot and is located 20 minutes south of the city. There are day trips to Apo Island, another marine sanctuary where you can find poisonous sea snakes and puffer fish. They need a few people to make the dive trip worth while so stay in Dumaguete for a couple of days and find out when the next trip would be.
You can take the ferry from Tagbilaran or Cebu port to Dumaguete city. It is possible to take a ferry to Lilo-An port on the south of Cebu Island if you want to travel to Moalboal.
The central island of Visayas, there is an international airport in Cebu City. Go diving with orang-utan crabs in Moalboal and tresher sharks in Malapascua Island.
Less busy than Manila and more definitely more entertaining, the city is the way to get to the Visayan region. Ferries connect Cebu to the surrounding islands. There are great 24 hour cafes located around the Osmeña Boulevard. This is where the call centers are located that work around the clock. The coffee shops supply the weary worker with caffeine. Stay at Cebu Guest House in the city center, the owner is lovely.
On the west side of Cebu you can find this small beach town. It is one of the best dive spots in the Philippines to see macro.
The dive masters in Cebu Dive Centre show you all of the orangutan crabs and pygmy seahorses you can swallow. Stay at the Moalboal Backpacker Lodge right at the beach and meet some great people. It is also a great place to get a massage. Talk to the locals and they will find you a local massage therapist who will knead all the stress out of your weary travel shoulders.
Take the ferry to Lilo-An port on the south of Cebu Island from Dumaguete, then go by tricycle to the bus station in Bato where there are buses to Moalboal and then take a tricycle to the beach. If you are coming from Cebu city, go to the South Bus Terminal and take the bus to Moalboal.
North of Cebu Island is Malapascua Island. The tiny island attracts many scuba divers because of tresher sharks. There is great food on Malapascua. Try the restaurant Angelina Beach for the best Italian food you can find in the Visayan region and Ging-Ging’s restaurant has some great breakfast options.
At 4 in the morning you’ll find yourself sinking to the bottom of the ocean spotting tresher sharks on the edge of the black. They are the most spectacular sharks I have ever seen, with a big scythe for a tail. They gather every morning on a plateau to get cleaned by cleaner fish. You need to be an advanced scuba diver to be able to dive to the great depth that they are.
You can get here from Cebu city. Take the bus from the North Bus Station to Maya and then a ferry from the port. Make sure you arrive early because there are no ferries leaving during night time and you really don’t want to stay a night in Maya.