The Philippines is defined by its emerald rice fields, teeming megacities, graffiti-splashed jeepneys, smouldering volcanoes, paradise beach islands, majestics water falls, bug-eyed tarsiers, fuzzy water buffalo and smiling, happy-go-lucky people. The Philippines are becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination and the country really has a lot to offer for visitors with over 7000 islands.
With more than 7000 tropical islands to choose from, the Philippines is a beach bum's delight. There's an island to suit every taste, from marooned slicks of sand in the middle of the ocean, to volcanic fantasy-scapes concealing hidden lagoons, to sprawling mega-islands such as Luzon and Mindanao. Sun worshippers and divers should head straight to the Visayas, where island-hopping opportunities abound and the perfect beach takes many forms. More adventurous travellers can pitch a tent on a deserted stretch of coastline in Palawan and play solo Survivor for a few days.
The Great Outdoors
The Philippines is justifiably famous for its beaches, but sporty types need not feel left out. While surfers are just catching on to the tasty (if fickle) waves that form on both coasts, divers have long been enamoured of the country’s underwater charms. Northern Palawan is perfect for sea kayakers, and Boracay and Pagudpud (North Luzon) are world-class kiteboarding destinations. Back on terra firma, trekking can be done just about anywhere, while mountain-bike and canyoneering tours are gaining popularity. And the Philippines is also, unofficially, the zipline capital of the world.
A Land Apart
The Philippines is a land apart from mainland Southeast Asia – not only geographically but also spiritually and culturally. The country’s overwhelming Catholicism, the result of 350 years of Spanish rule, is its most obvious enigma. Vestiges of the Spanish era include exuberant town fiestas (festivals) and centuries-old stone churches. Malls, fast-food chains and widespread spoken English betray the influence of Spain’s colonial successor, the Americans. Yet, despite these outside influences, the country remains its own unique entity. The people are, simply, Filipinos – and proud of it. Welcoming, warm and relentlessly upbeat, it is they who captivate and ultimately ensnare visitors.
Life in the Tropics
We've all had it happen: your trip to paradise is ruined by torrential monsoon rain. Rather than let the weather defeat them, in the Philippines travellers can embrace meteorological uncertainty and use it as an excuse to go with the flow. This is a place to dispense with advance bookings and, when the going gets rough (or wet), migrate to fairer climes. Domestic travel is cheap and fun, and is best done spontaneously. Do your homework too – Palawan and the western seaboard are pretty darned wet from July to September, so go east during this time (unless there's a typhoon brewing).
HOW TO GET TO MANILA
Book a flight from your destination to Manila. Arrival in Manila. The capital of the Philippines is very warm and humid also at night, like a typical Southeast Asian city. If you want to travel to Manila from another location within the Philippines, there are bus and boat connections in addition to domestic flights, with ferries leaving at irregular intervals, e.g. from Caticlan (Boracay) in 17 hours to Manila.
Buses are a good option if you are coming from the north, e.g. from Sagada, Baguio City and a few more. A popular company is Victory Liner. However, it is a bit uncomfortable for newbies, because many bus companies have their own bus terminal. Your hotel will be happy to help you. Otherwise you can find many connections as well as private taxis.
Accommodation in Manila – Hotel tip
The Red Planet Manila Bay lies, as the name suggests, on the Bay of Manila. The location is fantastic for exploring some sights such as the Rizal Park or Intramuros by foot. The friendly staff and clean rooms speak for the Red Planet. Furthermore, the rooms are equipped with air conditioning, television, free WiFi, a safe and a fridge.More hotels in other districts of Manila, such as Makati or Quezon City can be found in Agoda.com
Here are my top picks for first-time travelers who want to start discovering beautiful destinations in the Philippines.
These Places are easy to reach from Manila to Palawan Airports. I also included a few remote, yet extraordinary spots for those seeking off-beat adventures.
If you have the unfortunate dilemma of choosing only one place to visit in the Philippines, Palawan should be at the top of your list. You came to the country to see spectacular beaches and islands. You are going to experience the best in Palawan! Most travelers arrive in Palawan by way of Puerto Princesa. Known as the “City in a Forest,” Puerto Princesa is not only the island’s busiest gateway, it’s home to many remarkable attractions. Don’t miss the Puerto Princesa Underground River (a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the longest navigable underground river in the World), island hopping trips to Honda Bay, and a tour around the city.
How to go — Major airlines including Cebu Pacific, Philippine Airlines & AirAsia serve direct flights from Manila, to Puerto Princesa Travel time from Manila to Puerto Princesa is around 1h30m by plane.
When most people think of Palawan, their minds automatically go to El Nido and Coron. If you ever came to Palawan and didn’t visit these two areas in the north, you’d be absolutely crazy. However, there is so much more wildlife, island hopping, wreck diving and food devouring to be done on this island.
Don’t be afraid to go off the beaten path and discover the next El Nido-esque towns like Tay Tay and Port Baron where the food is cheap, the beer is cold, and the beaches are a lot less crowded. Or take a detour into a mid-sized city like Roxas or Brooke’s Point that are full of authentic Filipino food, quiet waterfalls, peaceful wildlife sanctuaries, and incredible local experiences. It’s often the most unsuspecting areas that have the most unforgettable experience waiting. Find something on this list that speaks to you, pack your bag and just go!
45-minutes from the capitol of Palawan, Honda bay offers an island hopping tour that will make all of your vacation dreams come true.
You’ll explore Pandan Island, Cowrie Island, Luli Island, Starfish Island, and Verde Island where the famous Dos Palmas resort is located. All of these islands offer out-of-this-world white sand beaches with turquoise water so beautiful that that you might get a little emotional.
You can spend the whole day island hopping in Honda Bay where you’ll have the opportunity to snorkel, explore the inland of the islands, and splash around in the water. These tours typically provide lunch and snacks for your trip.
Ugong Rock is a natural formation just north of Puerto Princessa that is beautiful, wild, and makes a funny noise when you tap it. Ugong Rock Adventures is a tour company that has built a triple threat of exhilarating fun around this formation and travelers love it.
Crawl in and out of rock caves with spelunking, climb up to the zipline as it catapults you through the jungle at high speeds, and trek through the jungle on some strategic trails that lead to incredible views.
At the very tip of a large peninsula jetting off the southern half of Palawan, you’ll find the Tabon Caves. The Tabon Caves are significant for the Philippines as it is home to one the oldest discoveries of human inhabitants. Remains of the Tabon man, along with his artifacts, were found at this very site. Hence, the Tabon Caves are also a National Museum.
When you visit, there are 2 large, cathedral-type caves for you to explore, named the Diwata Cave and Liyang Cave. Hire a boat to take you over and point you in the right direction. When you find the caves, your jaw will drop. The limestone formations nestled into jungle brush look alien. As you walk through, there are small signs dishing out historical information to tie the whole experience together.
After a long day of adventure tours, consider stopping into Baker’s Hill for a chocolate milkshake, a coffee, or a full-on dinner. They’ve got lots of seafood dishes featuring rock lobster, fish, crab, shrimp and more. If you happen to come in the middle of the day for lunch, you can take advantage of their seafood lunch buffet.
Outside of the amazing food, Baker’s Hill is quite scenic. There are peacocks that love to show their feathers, cutsie life-size Disney statues that locals can’t get enough of and a picturesque garden perfect for a breezy afternoon.
A quick 20-minute journey from Puerto Princessa, Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center is a refuge for endangered, hurt, or abandoned animals. The center dedicates itself to the education and progression of the animal species thriving here.
On example is the Crocodile Farm, which raises dozens of young crocodiles to adulthood. The species otherwise may struggle to survive past youth in the wild. You’ll see some massive Palawan Crocodiles in their habitat, and if you’re lucky enough- you’ll be there during feeding time.
There are lots of bird species including eagles, hawks, and hornbills as well as an education museum to peak your curiosity.
2. El Nido
How to go — Most travelers arrive in El Nido by flying to Puerto Princesa Airport and traveling by land to El Nido. Travel time is around 5-6 hours. If you want to skip the long land journey, you can also fly directly to El Nido Airport.
This is one of my favorite places to go in the Philippines for dramatic “over the water” views. El Nido is blessed with gorgeous off-shore islands, soaring limestone cliffs, hidden beaches, and secret lagoons. The “SEAnery” here rivals popular destinations in Asia like La Hong Bay, Phi Phi and the Secret Beach tucked away in a hidden cove, Nacpan Beach which is 4-kilometers of smooth sand and coconut trees, Pangalusian Beach that looks like a post card, Las Cabanas Beach with warm water perfect for swimming.
Off the coast of Palawan in the middle of the Sulu Sea is the unbelievable Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park. From the sky, this park may look like a sandy island with its light blue and white coloration, but that’s actually just the plethora of reef only discovered by a group of divers in the 1970’s.
Because of it’s far out location, divers who want to get an up-close look will have to sign up for a live aboard boat where they’ll spend a couple days on the water.
The trip is worth it to see the unspoiled wildlife in its natural habitat. In and around the reef, expect to see thriving populations of green sea turtles, manta rays, 11 species of shark, tons of colorful fish and more.
If you think what you’re seeing above ground is amazing, take a dive underwater in Bacuit Bay.
It’s no surprise that dive sites around El Nido are rich in marine life and thrilling topography including a 50-meter underwater cliff and a 12-meter underwater tunnel. Expect to see animals such as spotted Mata Rays and fully-grown green sea turtles. Take a night dive and you’ll see even more elusive creatures such as seahorses, shrimp and cat sharks.
You can take any and all of the diving courses here for pretty decent prices.
Venture over to Port Barton, a sleepy fishing town on the North West coast of Palawan. Think of Port Barton as a less trendy, less crowded version of El Nido where you enjoy all of the same attractions for half the price.
Go kayaking on the sea, explore rocky cliff sides, get a good tan while laying on a sandy beach- you get the picture. See how locals live as they fish, take their buffalo on a walk, or head to school.
You can find plenty of budget accommodation here at the expense of electricity. That is, there isn’t any. Most guesthouses in Port Barton run on generators that turn off at night. No fans and no ATMs, either.
3. CORON, PALAWAN
Located farther north of El Nido, Coron is also popular for pristine lagoons and white-sand beaches. The views underwater are just a beautiful too! Go here for shipwreck diving, sprawling coral gardens, and great snorkeling.
Soaking in hot springs might sound a bit insane after I was just going on about the heat. Honestly, sitting in 39-41°C (102°F) sounded like the last thing we wanted to do, especially after having just climbed Mt. Tapyas.
Maquinit Springs are one of very few salt water hot springs in the world. Two pools that have been built in the mangrove forest and there’s a small beach just beyond. Natural hot water from an underground volcano feeds the pools to produce the therapeutic waters. And actually, it felt really good even after the hot climb up Mt. Tapyas.
The springs are located about 30 minutes outside of Coron Town, but you can easily hire a tricycle. Negotiate with a tricycle to take you round trip. It should cost between 300-400 PHP (about $8 US) and they will wait while you visit Maquinit Springs. Entry to the springs is 200 PHP ($4 US) for the first hour and an hour is really enough.
The Twin Lagoon gets its name from a limestone wall that divides the water in to two lagoons. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen…and I can’t believe I got to experience it twice.
During low tide, you can easily swim through an archway in the limestone wall to access the inner hidden lagoon. With the limestone towers of Calis Mountain embracing the inner lagoon, fresh and salt water meet causing a thermocline with layers of varying water temperatures.
The limestone walls surrounding the inner lagoon are rich with corals and marine life. I swear, aside from when you stir up the brackish water and cause it temporarily to look like oil mixing with vinegar, you can see down clearly for at least 50 feet. This was one of my favorite places to snorkel because of the unique environment coupled with stunning walls of coral.
Barracuda Lake is another one of Coron’s fresh water lakes, and the weirdest place we can imagine diving!
To reach the lake, you have a short hike up rickety wooden stairs and slick granite rocks with all your dive gear on your back. The lake is a heliocline and a thermocline. That means it has layers of salt and fresh water, plus varying temperatures as hot as 38° C (100° F). Between being bizarrely hot while diving in a hot spring, it looks like the mountains from the movie Avatar underwater and you can just hang out suspended while taking in the view of underwater mountain peaks.
The lake is incredibly clear and it’s worth a stop even if you only snorkel, but to experience the hot spring and truly take in the magnitude of the underwater peaks, it’s best explored on a dive.
The waters around Coron are filled with WWII shipwrecks and the Japanese ship known as Skeleton Wreck is shallow enough that snorkelers can appreciate the wreck and coral reef that has formed on it. The stern of Skeleton Wreck lies in just 5 meters (16 feet) of water and with a dry snorkel, you can easily free-dive down for a closer look.
One of the top reasons that why you have to chose Coron out of all the locations to visit in the Philippines was because Coron is one of the best places to dive in all of the Philippines.
In hindsight, Coron is an excellent dive location for divers a little more advanced than us. As previously mentioned, the waters of the islands that make up Coron are filled with shipwrecks perfect for skilled divers to maneuver their way through the various rooms of.
I always feel that food is an important part of the travel experience. Good food is something that knows no language barriers and enjoying a meal is something we can all find common ground in no matter race, religion or anything else. And while I have to admit that Filipino food has been my favorite cuisine in the world..
If you do stay in Coron Town, which you’re likely to for at least one night depending on when your flight arrives or departs, I highly recommend Hunt Restaurant at The Funny Lion on the edge of town. If the barbecue pork ribs are on the menu, don’t even think twice! The meat literally fell off the bone and these were by far the tastiest ribs I’ve had anywhere.
In town, Santino’s Grill Restaurant is an excellent choice. They’re known for their pork ribs, though I didn’t think they were as good as the ribs at Hunt Restaurant at The Funny Lion. What was absolutely delicious is the variety of seafood dishes like the calamari, chili salt squid and grilled prawns.
A boodle fight, which is typically served as a communal meal during festivals, is also a popular way to try a variety of traditional Filipino dishes.Also a boodle fight is eaten with your hands and you just scoop up a bunch of different things, shove them in your mouth and repeat. But if communal dining and mixing all your food up isn’t your own personal version of hell, then joining in on a boodle fight is definitely a unique Filipino experience.
Note: Destinations featured above are not listed by rank.