So how do you sum up the Philippines? An archipelago of 7,107 unique islands, home to volcanoes, tropical rainforest, paradise beaches, UNESCO World Heritage rice terraces, Spanish colonial architecture, vibrant festivals, a great music scene and some of the best diving in the world… (breathe) told you it was difficult! Here is our guide to the top 10 things to do in the Philippines that we reckon backpackers just can’t miss!
1. Play Robinson Crusoe…
Where? The Visayas
Island hopping is an absolute must in the Philippines and no trip to the archipelago is complete without a maritime adventure on a traditional Filipino out-rigger boat, known as a banca. Sail from tropical island to island, with no itinerary other than where the wind blows. Rise early in the mornings to catch a glimpse of dolphins as you charter through deep turquoise waters. In true Robinson Crusoe style, stop for lunch of barbecued fish on perfect paradise islands with no more than a few palm trees sprouting from their centre. Swim and snorkel in water so clear and warm and see tropical fish darting over colourful coral many feet below. Step ashore on deserted beaches and create the first footprints in the sand. Only then will you discover that a banca really is the best way to travel…
Island hopping on a Banca boat in the Visayas
2. Dress Up!
Where? Cebu / Kalibo / Ilo-Ilo
No country in the world does festivals quite like the Philippines! Colourful street parades, loud ethnic drum beats, trumpets, xylophones, incredible sequined costumes, dancing, singing and just for giggles, a spot of cross-dressing thrown in… yes those Filipinos show know how to party! Although most of the country’s festivals have deep religious roots in Catholicism, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t fun-filled fiestas and anyone can join in the celebrations. From Sinulog in Cebu, to Ati-Atihan in Kalibo and Dinagyang Festival in Ilo-Ilo City, there are over 100 festivals taking place across the archipelago during the year, so your trip is bound to coincide with an event of some kind. Do your research beforehand – these authentic events are not to be missed!
Dressing up for a Filipino Festival
3. Find Magic
The mystical island of Siquijor in the Visayas region of the Philippines has long been famous for shamanism, sorcerers and witchcraft. With rumours of healing potions, magic herbs, black magic, ancient rituals and the spirits of the dead being conjured in the mountains and caves of the island, visitors have been both afraid and intrigued by the island over the years. A documentary film called “Shamans of Siquijor: The Healers” was created in 2000 portraying three healers who believed they could cure any illness of man. It is indeed a fascinating topic, but residents of Siquijor say ‘be careful’. There are both good and evil sorcerers and whether you be skeptical or not, locals advise that it is best not to dabble in the mysterious art of black magic if you do not understand. To this day, people from surrounding islands have been said to visit the island of Siquijor to find a shaman who will be paid a sum of money to avenge real world issues such as adultery, theft and other disputes. Stories of curses, unexplained deaths and injuries have been known to occur…
Find magic amongst the Shamans of Siquijor
4. Beach Bum
Where? Borocay Island
You’ve heard rumours about it and had seen photos in guidebooks, yet the island of Boracay’s ‘White Beach’ really has to be seen to be believed. With sand like white powder meeting pale turquoise water, the beach is a postcard picture of perfection – 4km long! Although the beach is no secret (there’s even a Starbucks on the beach front!) you can still find a quiet spot of sand for some serious sunbathing and then later watching an incredible sunset, cocktail in hand overlooking the famous Willy’s rock. On the other side of the island, the Kitesurfing Mecca of Bulabog Beach has a completely different feel. At any time of day, the sea swarms with darting kite surfing enthusiasts, their colourful sails gliding through the hot air. With international restaurants of every kind, gorgeous beaches and a wicked nightlife, it’s easy to see why Boracay is a world-class holiday destination…
Become a beach bum in Borocay…
5. Soak Up Culture
The Philippines capital Manila is a city which actually comprises five cities – yes it is that big! First time visitors to the city may find the busy mish-mash of congested streets clogged with traffic a little hard to handle, but like all Asian metropolis’, you just need to explore deeper below the surface. Intramuros (meaning Inside of the walls) is the Old Spanish Quarter where you can visit such landmarks as Fort Santiago and Cathedral Manila for a glimpse into the Philippines’ fascinating colonial history. Wandering around or taking a horse and carriage through the cobbled streets will make you feel like you have entered an ancient world. Take a tour with Carlos, the famous Filipino actor-turned-tour guide for a quirky and passionate take on Manila’s cultural gems.
Soak up the culture in Manila (photo by Regin Reyno)
6. Ride the Waves
It’s not just Bali that gets those totally bogus barrels (sorry we are trying – perhaps a little too hard?) Siargo Island in the province of Surigao del Norte boasts surf that would inspire the Beach Boys to write some new lyrics. The famous wave known as “Cloud 9” was discovered by travellers in the 1980’s and has since drawn thousands of surf enthusiasts to the small teardrop shaped island to experience the wide, hollow tubes. The wave was dubbed “Cloud 9” by surf photographer, John Callahan who brought fame to the island by publishing a feature in the American “Surf Magazine” in March 1993. The best time of year to ride the famous waves is September through to March and there is an International Surfing Contest taking place during the last week of September, which has been sponsored by surfing heavyweights such as Billabong. So what are you waiting for? Don’t be a dweeb, grab a gnarly board, hit the swell and get stoked dudes! (I know, I know… a little bit of sick just formed at the back of my mouth too).
Ride the waves with the surfer dudes of Siargao
7. Climb the Stairs
Where? North Luzon
The subject of Led Zeppelin’s classic? The Banaue rice terraces of Northern Luzon have been nicknamed “Stairways to Heaven” by some or like many spectacular sites in South East Asia, touted as the “eighth wonder of the world.” Carved out of the mountainside of Ifugao province, the UNESCO World Heritage rice terraces are a sight to behold. They were built with primitive tools more than 2,000 years ago by ancestors of the indigenous mountain people who are still living and working in the area in the same tradition as they have in the past. The terraces are a perfect example of irrigation and permaculture that would make modern farming methods blush. Trek amongst the spectacular scenery and marvel at one of the most impressive feats of natural engineering.
Climb the stairs to heaven in North Luzon (Photo by FlipTravels.com)
8. Get Wet
Where? Coron / Malapascua / Donsol
The Philippines is voted as having some of the best underwater life on the planet. Head to Coron to explore the spooky, sunken wrecks of a Japanese WWII supply fleet sunk by the Americans in 1944. Glide with turtles, grouper and lion fish over the decks and through the engine rooms of at least 12 ships in the area that have long been taken over by this subaqueous world. Or north of the island, attempt the most unusual dive site in the Philippines, the incredible, thermal Barracuda Lake that you have to climb over a mountain in dive gear to get to. There you will meet the King of the Lake, the mighty 1.5 metre barracuda swimming in crystal clear fresh water that changes temperature as you swim. If you prefer tropical seas and colourful coral, head to the beautiful Malapascua Island where you can witness the amazing thresher sharks of sunken island, Monad Shoal. Every morning, the 2 metre long sharks visit the cleaning station on the island and divers who remain still have experienced the sharks come so close that they almost touch them. And finally, for those travellers who prefer not to don diving tank and wetsuit, don’t worry – you will not be left out! In Donsol, Southeast Luzon, you can snorkel with what is probably the largest protected school of whale sharks in the world. These gentle giants which are rare in many dive sites, come right up to the surface here in Donsol on a daily basis allowing snorkelers the chance for an out of this world encounter with one of nature’s most wondrous creations!
Explore the underwater worlds surrounding the islands of the Philippines
9. Get Hot
Where? Mount Mayon / Pinatubo / Taal
No, not the national rugby team in the Philippines (nicknamed the Volcanoes), I’m talking about those great big ruddy mounds of earth spewing out lava, ash and sulphur on unpredictable occasions. And, the Philippines, which is located on the pacific ring of fire, has 37 of them, 18 of which are active! The scary mother of all Filipino volcanes is the perfectly conical-shaped, Mount Mayon which has had 47 eruptions since 1616, the last one occurring in 1993 with devastating consequences. For those daring backpackers looking for an adventure, the mountain can be climbed in two days, though one must be aware of recent volcanic activity (currently, the summit is off limits due to toxic fumes from the crater). If Mount Mayon seems a little risky you may like to attempt the awe-inspiring Mount Pinatubo in central Luzon where the landscape includes white lunar-like stretched of sand and grey almost alpine peaks. You can take a day-trip to climb the mountain from Manila and be back sipping cocktails in Makati by evening. You can also hike to the top of Taal Volcano just 70km from Manila, which has been named the smallest active volcano in the world and enjoy a novel swim in the sulphur infused lake which has formed in its crater.
Get up close to the craters of the Philippines’ many volcanoes
It is a well-known joke in the country that Filipinos are born with a microphone in their hand. And, when you visit a karaoke bar and the microphone is passed from person to person revealing an X-Factor finalist with each new song, you kind of wonder if the joke is based on truth! The Philippines is indeed a nation of entertainers and each person seems to possess a natural voice and ability to capture an audience that will leave you embarrassed to attempt your best rendition of “Living on a Prayer”. Sitting like a shrine at the forefront of many bars and restaurants across the land, it won’t be long before someone suggests a karaoke session and whether you have a belly full of Tanduay (cheap local rum) or not – you will be persuaded to perform. Away from the karaoke bars, there are some fantastic live music venues, especially in Manila with talented local bands singing everything from Filipino rock, to cover songs and traditional folk classics.
Sing the night away with the friendly Filipino locals