Even though I travelled through Southeast Asia extensively (Nepal is really one of my favorites) I didn’t have a chance to visit the Philippines yet. I know the country is becoming increasingly popular and I heard it’s one of the best places for a tropical vacation. So, while I’m still unsure when I’ll find time to go there, I definitely want to make it happen. In the meantime, I thought I’ll share some of the research I have done with you.
Finding information regarding the Philippines online is a bit tricky, you have to dig deep and scan through a lot of hype and sponsored content. It seems like there are 2 major types of travelers going there: either luxury honeymooners who spend their time at private island resorts, or backpackers who don’t mind sleeping in a tent on a beautiful beach.
But what about the rest of us, who want a balanced trip that allows for both leisure and adventure? What if I don’t mind getting my hands dirty, but don’t want to sleep at cheap hostels all the time? The best solution I have found is this agency offering holiday packages to the Philippines. These guys have a lot of information on their site, and since they don’t try and hide the negatives I found them quite reliable.
10 Things to do in the Philippines
1. Manila slums and old city tour
While this tour isn’t for anybody as some of you might find it a bit disturbing, it is a very powerful experience. Personally, I feel like going to a 3rd world country and keeping your eyes shut to the misery surrounding you is a bit hypocritical. I get why some people just want to chill at their luxury 5 stars resort but still, how can you say you have been to the Philippines if you haven’t even bothered to learn the local way of life.
The best Manila city tour is organized by smokeytours.com – an NGO organization with helping the Manila slums population. Their guides will take you into the heart of Manila – it’s not always pretty but very interesting and thought provoking. For a less intense experience, you can book their Manila market tour instead.
2. Manila’s museums and cathedrals
Another interesting part of Manila which is often overlooked by mainstream tourists is the fact the city is the best window to Filipino culture and history. The Manila national museum is a complex of 3 buildings each focusing on a different aspect of the country – Arts, Anthropology and History. You can easily spend half a day there just exploring and learning about the multicultural history of the Philippines.
The museum is also just a walking distance from Intramuros. This is the old city built by the Spanish conquistadors, and it has been pretty well preserved. Walk through its streets and visit the many cathedrals, churches and museums for another view of Filipino history. From there, you can cross the river into Binondo – the world’s oldest Chinatown district. Landmarks there are quite dull, with the exception of the market, but it is the best place in the Philippines to try some strange, local delicacies.
3. Swim in Taal’s volcano crater lake
Taal volcano is located in Tagaytay – a province just 2 hours away from Manila. The province is placed on a long mountain ridge overlooking a vast lake. In the middle of that lake you’ll find Taal volcano, which has a smaller lake in its crater.
You can take a boat to get to the volcano, then hike for 40 minutes to reach its summit. Since Taal is inactive, the waters in its crater are not acidic and it’s perfectly safe to swim there. Regardless, the view from the top is simply breathtaking. You can even have your lunch at the top – there are local fishermen catching fish from the crater lake and frying them on the spot.
4. Camping in Banaue Rice Terraces
The Banaue rice terraces are one of the most iconic locations in the Philippines. Unfortunately, many people skip it for 2 main reasons: First of all, it’s not an island destination and doesn’t blend well with a tropical island escape type of vacation. More importantly, there’s no airport over there so the only way to get there is by taking an 8-10 hours bus or van from Manila.
If you endure the long trip you will be rewarded with one of the most unique and interesting attractions this country has to offer. The rice terraces are believed to be more than 2000 years old and they are far more impressive than the ones in Vietnam. You can trek the mountains for anywhere between 1 to 3 days, camping outdoors or spending the night in the house of some local family in a small village.
5. Travel 200 years back in time in Vigan
Vigan is a small city in the Northern part of the country, an area which is far less frequented by foreign tourists. This is quite a shame, since Vigan has been voted as one of the new 7 wonder cities of the world. The reason it has received such praise is the unique mixture of Spanish and Asian influences which lead to a beautiful and very special town.
The architecture and the food here is quite different from anywhere else in the Philippines. The old streets really remind small towns in villages in Spain or other parts of Mediterranean Europe. Still, Asian and Filipino influences are evident everywhere. Vigan is one of the best preserved colonial era towns in the world – so it really feels like a step back in time when you go there.
6. Apo island sea turtle sanctuary
Apo is a small island just off the coasts of Dumaguete in Negros province. You can easily get there if you visit either Cebu or Bohol – two of the best places to dive in the Philippines. This marine sanctuary is one of the oldest and best preserved in the country and has one of the largest population of sea turtles in the world.
Apo island is primarily a diving destination and there’s not a whole lot else to do there. That said, you can enjoy it there even if you don’t dive – the beach is wonderful and snorkeling is just as rewarding. The turtles are known to come very close to shore, so you can easily spot them just by swimming and snorkeling. If you want a day of peaceful relaxation on a small island surrounded by stunning nature, then Apo is an excellent choice.
7. All-inclusive resorts in Boracay
The Philippines is not all about extreme adventures and cultural immersion – as promised there is also luxury and leisure to be found. The best place to do so is the island of Boracay – who has one of the most beautiful beaches you’ll ever see. This has made Boracay the top tourist destination in the country, which means hotels industry is very well developed.
There aren’t any special attractions or exciting tours in Boracay. The focus there is just staying at a 5 star resort and feeling like royalty for a few days. The beach is wonderful and the nightlife is the best in the Philippines – so you won’t be bored on this island.
8. Island hopping in El Nido
Island hopping is usually the main attraction anywhere you go, but there’s no better place to try it out than El Nido. This sleepy beach town in Palawan is the epitome of the stark contradiction I mentioned earlier – lavish private island resorts on one hand, and dingy hostels for backpacker on the other. Try to avoid staying in town, since there are reports of sewage running in the streets, and electricity and running water are considered a luxury. In any case, it doesn’t matter too much since you will be spending most of your time on the nearby smaller islands and secluded beaches.
Island hopping tours are divided into 4, with tours A and C being the most popular ones. If you ever saw postcard-like images of the Philippines, this is where they were taken. During the high season these places tend to be quite crowded, so it might be better to pay a bit extra and book a private speedboat instead. This way you can get there first and control your day’s itinerary better. Problem is there’s high demand for these boats so you’ll need to book them well in advance – these El Nido honeymoon packages are a good place to start.
9. Wreck diving in Coron
Coron is another part of Palawan which is even less developed than El Nido. There are only a handful of decent resorts over there, and most likely you’ll end up staying at a hostel or guesthouse instead. If you are the adventurous type than this is certainly worth it, since the islands around here are even more beautiful than those in El Nido, and everything is much less crowded.
The main attraction in Coron however is the underwater world. It is considered one of the best diving spots in the world, and an excellent place for wreck diving in particular. There are dozens of sunken vessels all over the bay, some of which are even accessible to complete beginners. If you take the long trip up north (3-4 hours) you can also dive with sea cows out in the wild.
10. Maldives-like experience in Amanpulo
One of the biggest incentives to visiting the Philippines is the fact you can enjoy world class service for relatively low prices. Nothing exemplifies this better than the Amanpulo private island resort. Located on a remote and secluded island, only accessible with a seaplane from Manila, this is the ultimate island getaway for couples who want to enjoy a private experience at a world class 5-star resort.
While Amanpulo is certainly not cheap (prices start at 950$ a night) it’s actually a bargain considering what you get in return. It is the ultimate all inclusive vacation, at only a fraction of the price you’ll pay for similar quality anywhere else in the world. Amanpulo also has branches in Thailand and Vietnam, where daily price is almost double.