The Philippines – beyond the beaches

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Think of the Philippines and images of gorgeous beaches and crystal blue seas are sure to spring to mind. Islands such as Boracay and Palawan easily attract travellers with their picture-perfect looks but if you get away from the coast (which granted in a country with more than 7000 islands might not seem like the obvious thing to do), you’ll see a whole new side to the country.

Yes, the Philippines is a tropical paradise and yes, it has some of the best beaches you can swing a hammock on, but there is plenty more to this country than just a pretty face. It has unique wildlife and dramatic scenery, and chances are you won’t be sharing the experience with hordes of tourists.

So forget about the beaches for a moment. Here are four other reasons to visit the Philippines.

Rice Terraces

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The Philippines’ rice terraces are quite rightly touted as one of the eight wonders of the world. They were carved out of the mountainsides in North Luzon 2000 years ago, and it's said that if they were laid end to end they'd stretch halfway round the globe. A couple of the best places to see them are around Banaue and Batad, which are a nine-hour bus ride north of Manila - so most travellers to the country don’t venture there.  Their loss! Head here to see the rice terraces' dramatic landscape, to experience the serene atmosphere of the mountains, to hike on paths where you won’t see another soul for days and to witness the traditional way of life which still exists here.

Tarsiers

Tarsiers are tiny primates (so small in fact that they can sit in the palm of your hand), which are endemic to a few islands in Southeast Asia.  They have enormous eyes, soft velvety fur and long fingers. Still can’t picture it? Think of the cute one from the gremlins and you’re not far off. The species is endangered but some efforts are being made to help them on the island of Bohol, which has a sanctuary called the Tarsier Research and Development Center, where you can go and see the little fellas.

Coffins

Now bear with me on this. They may not be a typical tourist attraction but the hanging coffins in Sagada are a fascinating insight into the region’s culture. Found on the cliffsides of a valley nestled in the mountain province, which lies 275mk north of Manila, this traditional way of burying people (which is no longer used) is only found in a handful of places in the world. To get there requires some dedication. The journey involves a 12-hour bus ride from the capital, the last few hours through dramatic winding mountains passes and unsealed roads. Ladies, a sports bra is definitely recommended. The area around Sagada also has great trekking, along with waterfalls and caves to explore – some of which are burial caves so if you’re not coffin-ed out here’s a chance to see a few more.

Smiles

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Aah - the famous Filippino smile. It may not sound like something that's worth visiting a country for but the old adage is true, it is the people that make the place. Throughout the archipelago you’ll find people are friendly and curious, wanting to know where you’re from - often shouting out their guess at where you're from - and where you’re heading. At times when you’re not feeling in the best mood yourself, for example when you and 25 others are squashed in the back of a jeepney built for 10, if you glance around you'll always find lots of smiles and laughter that will instantly lighten your mood.

Pictures by  Heather Carswell, Lonely Planet UK