I’ve been to the Philippines twice, but both times were short visits of 2.5 weeks or less. So, I haven’t spent as much time there as I would like but I know I’ll be back at some point. For this post, a friend of mine who’s much more of an expert on the Philippines offered his thoughts on the best way to see and get around the country.
Since I’m always ready to listen to some good advice myself, I’ve invited him to write this post here on the blog:
Traveling in the Philippines in a nutshell:
The Philippines is a country that has always been in the tourist scene, but never hugely popular. However, there seems to be a growing interest in the country in recent years – perhaps because it was featured in TV series and seems to be very popular among bloggers. Here are my thoughts of the pros and cons of visiting this country, which might explain the positive trend of traveling to the Philippines, and also why it hasn’t boomed yet.
- Home to some of the most beautiful tropical beaches in the world. The Philippine Islands are constantly making it to the top of numerous travel magazines’ lists of best islands in the world.
- 90% of the population speak English. This makes it very convenient, and not to mention pleasant for most tourists and travelers to get around. Filipinos, as people, are known to be very welcoming as it’s an important aspect of their culture.
- There are so many destinations to choose from in the Philippines: 7641 islands, big or small, with different ethnic groups, languages and cultures.
- The Philippines is safe! With the exception of southern Philippines, which is near Malaysia and is a no-go zone, the rest of the country is safe to travel.
- Prices in the Philippines are relatively low, and comparable to Thailand. It’s not the cheapest country in Southeast Asia, but it’s still attractive from the financial point of view.
- The Philippines is still unspoiled, with a very low number of tourists compared to its size.
- Complicated transfers! As an island country, nothing is really straightforward while traveling in the Philippines. There are 3 big airlines, and several small ones, with routes from the main cities to smaller destinations. Sometimes it’s much better to transfer via ferry, van or bus, and in many cases it’s the only probable choice.
- Infrastructure is subpar. It’s a developing country, so standards are lower compared to developed countries to begin with and proper infrastructure was never built. The airports are old, transportation is slow and hectic, and there seems to be no correlation between distance and time. Also, hotels and resorts here usually don’t fall in line with the international standard.
- No decent urban experience: Many of the people who visit the Philippines choose to avoid the cities (Manila, Cebu) altogether, or swear they should have. The cities are dense, chaotic and dirty.
- Distance from your country: It depends of course on where you come from, but more often than not, you’ll have another attractive country closer to you, which means it will take you more time to travel to the Philippines, and it will most likely cost a bit more.
So, what are the things one should consider before traveling to the Philippines? Who is it for? While it’s true that anyone can enjoy this beautiful country, this is my insight on this topic:
Firstly, you must love the beach and ocean as it’s a huge part of the attractions in the Philippines. Many of what you can see/do/visit revolves around the ocean.
If you’re willing to take the time and sometimes compromise on your accommodations and convenience, there shouldn’t be a problem at all. Also, I find it a good fit for tourists who like to get familiar with the culture and people, and love to explore while being able to accept that things might not always work according to their plan or schedule.
Also, unlike some other countries where you just land and go with the flow, it’s much better to do at least some research and narrow down the places you’d like to visit. You should also make sure that you know the routes and means of transportation. Otherwise it can be very costly while you are already there. With good enough research, and at least a tentative structure to your itinerary, you’ll have a very successful trip.
If you’re not the type of person that fits the above, you shouldn’t be deterred, but you should perhaps look for the assistance of a travel specialist in planning your trip.
Luzon – Northern Philippines:
It’s where Manila is situated, and also most land-based attractions. From Manila you can travel to the northern part of the island, home to the famous rice terraces of Banaue. Also nearby are Sagada with the caves and hanging coffins, and the beautiful village of Buscalan and its famous traditional tattoo artists. You can also explore destinations closer to Manila such as the Taal and Pinatubo Volcanoes, Pagsanjan Waterfalls, and even Manila itself. In Luzon you’ll do lots of hiking, and you’ll see plenty of volcanoes.
Traveling in Luzon is painstaking, as you’ll rely heavily on buses or private vehicles – there is no way to fly between locations. The roads are narrow, and it takes a lot of time to travel from place to place. For that reason, it doesn’t make sense to rush the itinerary, and it’s better to allocate at least a few days to the trip up north. If you decide to travel to Banaue, you must pair it with Buscalan or Sagada, or another northern destination. Because of the long travel from Manila you’ll spend about a whole day just to get there, and a whole day to return. So, make the long travel worth your while.
Here are some travel hacks for Luzon that might help you make a better trip:
Hire a private vehicle and make stops along the way:
Because traveling in Luzon is difficult, I didn’t mention lots of places you can visit like Vigan, Baguio, Laoag and more. You can hire a car with a driver, or if you’re an experienced driver who’s used to harsher conditions, you can rent and drive yourself.
Making stops along the way (to Banaue or else) is possible, if you hire a private car or van.
My favorite stop on the way north is Puning Hot Springs near Clark, where you can spend a few hours and bury yourself in hot sand, or soak in the hot springs.
Another great place to visit is Vigan. This will most likely add another night to your itinerary. But Vigan is one of the best-preserved Spanish-Asian cities in the world. After Vigan, which many tourists never get to visit due to the long road, you can stay the night in Baguio and then continue to Manila.
DIY tours near Manila:
There are plenty of tours that are offered online, but the best approach to most tours in Manila and near it, is to DIY. In most cases, if you leave early enough, you can rely on public transportation or hire Grab (the Asian equivalent of UBER, which works great in Manila and its surroundings), and make the same tour a tour agency will offer you, for about 50% of the price.
Most tours are pretty simple, and it goes for Tagaytay, Taal Volcano, Pagsanjan Waterfalls, Laguna, Corregidor Island and exploring Intramuros – the old Spanish Quarter of Manila. You’ll just need to pay the entrance fees yourself once you get there.
However, there are some tours you should not do on your own, namely the Manila market and slum tours, and Pinatubo Volcano. The first one isn’t even possible to do on your own, as you won’t find your hands and feet, and even if you do, it will lack the proper context needed for understanding what you’re seeing. Therefore, book a tour with Smokey Tours, an NGO that takes you to lesser known parts of Manila, like the slum neighborhoods, cemeteries, and local markets, with excellent guidance, and great insight into communities that sadly were left behind.
Pinatubo is also a unique case, as it’s very difficult to visit there on your own. I’ve personally tried to get there by myself twice, and was denied entrance on both occasions. The first time even though I arrived early enough (you’ll need to be there before 6:30am), I didn’t find the exact meetup point and office. Once I already did, it was a little later than 6:30am and I wasn’t let in. The second time there was a military drill in Pinatubo (which is actually quite common), and the tours were all cancelled. The third time I decided to book it with YGD Travel and all went very smoothly.
Plan wisely and don’t stay for too long:
It might be counter intuitive, but try to minimize your time in Luzon, especially if you’re on a tight schedule. There just isn’t as much to do when compared to other islands. Even Manila, which is the county’s largest city with a population of 12.8 million people, isn’t advised for long stays (unless you’re looking for nightlife and parties).
Due to the lack of infrastructure I mentioned before, most of the public areas are very neglected, and the travel time between destinations is long (especially within the city). Most travelers who don’t spend time planning the Luzon part of their trip in advance, usually regret it later.
Visayas – The Central Philippine Islands:
I especially love this part of the Philippines for several reasons. The main one is that you can easily and comfortably explore many of the Visayan Islands. Each island is small enough for you to discover in several days, and the atmosphere is village-like, where everyone knows each other and everyone is nice to one another. Also, there are lots of waterfalls, amazing beaches, and reefs in this area, and the weather is good all year round.
The central island is Cebu, which is also home to Cebu City, the second in importance in the Philippines. From there you have plenty of islands to explore: Bohol, Boracay, Negros Oriental and Occidental, Siquijor, Camiguin, Apo Island, and more. Traveling from one island to the other is usually done via ferries, but some routes have flights (like Camiguin-Cebu, Cebu-Boracay).
Travel hacks for the Visayas Region:
Travel with ferries: Not only it saves money, you’ll also travel between small villages, and get to talk to curious locals (Filipinos and expats) on the ferries, as this is the most common means of transportation in this area of the Philippines. So, if you’re not planning to sleep and looking for a few hours to kill, mingle!
This is how I got invited to Marcel’s birthday, a German expat whose been living in Camiguin with his family for more than 10 years (and split the ride cost with him), and found a local guy whose cousin is a tourist driver in Bohol, and he took me around for a countryside tour for a bargain price. This is also how I usually find a lot of up to date information, like how much is the fare for traveling from the pier to where I’m going to stay, what are the things to do in each place, great places to eat, and also attractions you don’t usually hear about.
Don’t have a rigid travel plan: If in Luzon I suggested to have a well-planned and tight schedule, here I suggest to do the opposite. You can leave a lot of things to the last moment, and as long as you know your routes (flight or ferry, bus or van, times of departures, etc.), and what you want to do in each place, you’ll be able to play it by ear.
In this way you can stay for as long as you want in one spot, and as little in the other. You don’t have to commit, and that’s a perfect way to travel. From my experience, the unplanned adventures are usually the ones I remember best.
Make one place your temporary base: This is only applicable to people who plan to travel for a long time. Visayas makes an amazing base for a month or so. I’ve once rented an apartment in Bohol for a month for 17,000 PHP, which is a bit more than 300 USD. I could have gone for something cheaper, but it was located in Panglao, 10 minutes from Alona Beach, and many other beautiful (and quieter) beaches, and it had internet, air conditioning, and a small kitchen.
I chose Bohol because I could travel to the following destinations via ferry: Camiguin, Siquijor, Dumaguete (Negros Oriental) and Cebu. Whenever I wanted I went on short expeditions from Bohol, leaving my stuff at “home”, and taking my long term rented motorbike with me on the ferries, making my trips more convenient, and also much much cheaper.
Palawan – Western Philippines:
For many, myself included, Palawan is the most beautiful area in the Philippines. El Nido and Coron in northern Palawan, are really something to die for. It’s all I imagined a tropical paradise would be. There are three main airports you can travel to: Puerto Princesa, El Nido and Coron. Also, if you prefer to save some money you can take the ferry from Manila to Coron, 7:00pm to 6:00am on Fridays.
I think that what I’m going to say here is pretty unconventional, but if you don’t plan to visit the Underground River don’t go to Puerto Princesa. Also, the Underground River is OVER RATED! It once was an adventurous tour, and now it’s an over-crowded place, which offers a 45-minute mass produced tour. Personally, I don’t feel that these 45 minutes are worth 1-2 nights of my trip.
Coron and El Nido on the other hand are two beautiful places that if you arrive in the right season (November to May), should definitely be in your itinerary. El Nido is known for its island-hopping tours – even though they are a bit touristy nowadays, nothing can compete with the stunning views there. Coron has some of the best diving, snorkeling and island hopping as well.
Travel Hacks for Palawan:
Stray off the beaten path: Both Coron and El Nido are actually not the best places to stay at. In El Nido, staying north and south of the city will be quieter, cleaner, and you’ll get better accommodations for the same money. You can also visit Taytay, a municipality on the eastern side of El Nido. If you’re not mobile you won’t be able to explore Bacuit Bay, where the famous tours are, so either rent a bike or a car, or split your time in El Nido between Taytay and Bacuit Bay.
The situation in Coron is pretty much the same, as the town has no beach and is the most crowded area on Busuanga Island. After a night or two in Coron town you can move to the northern side of the island, where you’ll go on “private” island hopping trips, enjoy pristine white beaches for pretty much only yourselves, and dive or snorkel in the healthiest marine reservations imaginable. Also, you can visit the manatee reservation, the only place I know of in the Philippines where you can snorkel with these graceful creatures.
Travel between Coron and El Nido: Something that most are unaware of, is that many of the most beautiful islands and beaches are not even visited by anyone other than local fishermen. The Linapacan Island group is untouched and unspoiled, and there are several ways to get there. Some rent a speedboat, but I think that the best way is a 3-4 days expedition. You’ll need to time it correctly, but I think that the best ones to offer it are Tao Philippines. For an even more intense trip try out Tribal Adventures who offer a kayaking expedition (and other kayaking trips in Busuanga).
Not really uncharted, but rather less frequented, with the exception of Siargao. Siargao is an island in the east most part of the Philippines which gained a lot of popularity in recent years. I put it in the “uncharted” section as it’s a standalone location, which you fly in and out of (to or from Manila or Cebu).
Other than that, you have so many places in the Philippines that most tourists, and even travel experts didn’t visit, and are ready for the committed traveler to discover. It’s not where you can go, but where you shouldn’t go, that should shape your travel plan.
By that I mean, DO NOT travel to Mindanao, with the exceptions of Siargao and Camiguin. Even though many parts of Mindanao are safe, many are a no-go zone, with rebel groups of communists and extreme Islamists. You, a foreigner, won’t know when things get strange before it might be too late, and you also stick out and will be a magnet for unwanted attention. You shouldn’t be deterred, because you have thousands of islands to explore without traveling in Mindanao, so as long as you don’t go there, knock yourself out and enjoy this beautiful country.
How to tie it all together?
My last tip for this guide is on how to arrange the destinations in the right order. For this I have two easy rules I made over the years while traveling in the Philippines. They will use the building blocks I mentioned above, so it should be fairly simple to follow: “Travel in a circle”, and “Travel clockwise during the high season, and counter clockwise during the low season”.
You want to minimize the total travel distance as much as possible and save time and money. Hence, you’ll want to travel in a circle (relative to the map/shape of the Philippines), so you’ll move around more efficiently and economically.
The reason I like to travel clockwise during the high season is that the eastern part of the Philippines is rainier during this time, and the western part enjoys its best weather. Also, I find Palawan to be most unique so I prefer to keep the best for last.
During the wet season however, it’s better to reverse the order and visit Palawan at the beginning of the trip (if you still choose to travel there over the rainy season). It’s because the weather won’t be as good near Palawan but there are high chances that the end of your trip in Visayas or Siargao will be better, as they enjoy slightly different climate zones.
Your trip will most likely start in Manila, so a good high season plan would look like this: Manila and northern Luzon – Siargao – Cebu/Visayas – Palawan – Manila. Of course, the actual time you spend in each place and the specific destinations are totally up to you, but as long as you follow these two rules, I’m certain you’ll have a successful trip in the Philippines!