The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against all travel to western and central Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. Check the latest before you travel.
The Philippines is defined by its emerald rice fields, teeming megacities, graffiti-splashed jeepneys, smouldering volcanoes, bug-eyed tarsiers, fuzzy water buffalo and smiling, happy-go-lucky people.
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 travelers 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 travelers 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).
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Philippines.
This island, only a 20-minute bangka ride from Coron town, has an imposing, mysterious skyline that wouldn’t be out of place in a King Kong film. Flying over Coron, you see that the fortresslike, jungle-clad interior is largely inaccessible terrain pockmarked with lakes, two of which, Kayangan Lake and Barracuda Lake, can be visited. The entire island is the ancestral domain of the Tagbanua indigenous group, who are primarily fishers and gatherers of the very lucrative balinsasayaw (birds' nests). Concerned about the impact of tourism, the Tagbanua have limited access to a handful of sights. Accessible by a steep 10-minute climb, the crystal-clear waters of Kayangan Lake are nestled into the mountain walls. Underwater is like a moonscape; there’s a wooden walkway and platform to stash your things if you go for a swim. Unfortunately, the lake, an Instagram favorite, is overwhelmed by the cellphone-wielding masses during peak hours. To avoid the crowds you'll need to visit on a private tour early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Scenic Barracuda Lake is of interest to divers for its unique layers of fresh, salt and brackish water and dramatic temperature shifts underwater (it can get as hot as 38°C). It’s accessible by a short climb over a jagged, rocky wall that ends directly at the water's edge. Other stops that are open to visitors include Banol Beach, a small sandy area with shelter from the sun, and photogenic Twin Lagoon, one half of which is accessed by swimming through a narrow crevice. All of the above are popular stops on island-hopping trips out of Coron town, although standard group tours A and B are allowed to take in at most two of the above at a time because of the relatively stiff admission fees at each site. To visit all sites at once, you should book a private trip through the Calamian Tourist Boat Association, which costs P2200 for up to four people, not including admission fees or snorkelling gear.
For an easy day trip out of El Nido, head north by tricycle or motorbike to this incredible, golden-hued, 3km-long beach. Development has arrived in Nacpan and new guesthouses, boutique hotels and upscale tented camps are popping up everywhere. Still, the atmosphere remains mellow – for now. To get here, drive 16km north of El Nido on the National Hwy (paved), then another 4km down a once-rough access road that is now mostly sealed. There's a shuttle van from El Nido (round-trip P600, eight trips daily). The last trip back to El Nido is at 6.30pm. Nacpan gets crowded during the high season; walk north to find solitude. On the way to Nacpan look for the turn-off to Nagkalit-kalit Waterfalls just north of the Km 285 marker on the highway. It's a 40-minute hike to the refreshing falls; hire a guide at the trailhead to avoid getting lost.
This incredibly beautiful, jungle-backed, stretch of golden sand toward the northern tip of mainland Palawan is the centre of El Nido's surfing community. The season is November to March and board rental is available (P500 per hour) at a couple of places, including idyllic Duli Beach Resort. To get here turn off the off the National Hwy around the Km 294 marker and continue 3.5km on a rough but improving road that ends in a slippery single track to the beach proper. There's now a daily shuttle van from El Nido town proper (round-trip P800, three daily).
The Mestizo District, or Kasanglayan ('where the Chinese live'), is a grid of streets hemmed in between Plaza Burgos and Liberation Blvd and bisected by the beautifully preserved Crisologo St. You can wander in a daze among ancestral homes and colonial-era architecture. The mansions here are beautiful and architecturally unique, marrying two great aesthetic styles: Chinese and Spanish. The latter were once Vigan’s colonial masters; the former were merchants who settled, intermarried and, by the 19th century, became the city’s elite. In fact, Spanish and Chinese are themselves limiting terms when it comes to describing Vigan architecture. Spain itself has either influenced or been influenced by Mexico, the Caribbean and North Africa, and these regions also make their presence known in the form of airy verandahs, leafy inner courtyards and wrought-iron balconies. At the same time, Asia makes an appearance with dark wooden accents, polished floors, sliding capiz-shell windows and ventanillas (ventilated walls). In most mansions, the ground floor has stone walls and is strictly for storage and/or work, while the wooden 1st floor, with its large, airy sala (living room), is for living. The capiz-shell windows are as tall as doors, while the wide window sills are good spots for a siesta. The capiz is a flat bivalve found in the coastal waters of the Philippines. It came into fashion in the 19th century because it was cheaper than glass and sturdy enough to withstand typhoon winds and rain. Light shines through capiz in a particular way that is almost impossibly romantic. While a couple of mansions have been converted into B&Bs or museums, most are private homes. Two houses to look out for are the Quema House, with its original furnishings and decor, and the Syquia Mansion on Quirino Blvd, the former holiday home of Vigan native Elpidio Quirino, the Philippines’ sixth president, who was born in the nearby provincial jail. This is one of the best-preserved historical homes, and a good place to get a sense of the traditional interior of a Chinese–Spanish mansion at the end of the 19th century.
Guarding the entrance to the Pasig River is Intramuros' premier tourist attraction: Fort Santiago. Within the fort grounds is an oasis of lovely manicured gardens, plazas and fountains leading to an arched gate and a pretty lily pond. Within is the beautifully presented Rizal Shrine museum, the building where Dr José Rizal – the Philippines’ national hero – was incarcerated as he awaited execution in 1896. It contains various fascinating displays of Rizal memorabilia and a recreation of his cell and the courtroom trial. At the far end of the fort are outlooks over an industrial section of the Pasig River leading to Baluarte de Santa Barbara, a restored 18th-century Spanish military barracks where hundreds of Filipino and American POWs were killed in WWII; it's now the Rizaliana Furniture Hall, displaying Rizal's family furniture. Also of interest are various dungeon cell blocks, including one that Rizal spent his last night in. Brass footprints set into the pavement mark his final steps to the execution spot in Rizal Park.
Cebu's holiest church houses a revered Flemish statuette of the Christ child (Santo Niño) that dates to Magellan's time. The church is no stranger to hardship: established in 1565 (the first church in the Philippines), three earlier structures were destroyed by fire, before the existing baroque structure was built in 1737. Its facade and belfry were badly damaged by the 2013 earthquake but have been restored. Perhaps the church owes its incendiary past to the perennial bonfire of candles in its courtyard, stoked by an endless procession of pilgrims and other worshippers. The object of their veneration is an image of the infant Jesus, sequestered in a chapel to the left of the altar. It dates back to Magellan's time and is said to be miraculous (which it probably had to be to survive all those fires). Every year, the image is the centrepiece of Cebu's largest annual event, the Sinulog Festival. On Sundays and Fridays, the street outside the church is closed to vehicular traffic, all-day outdoor masses are held and the basilica turns into a sea of pilgrims, water sellers and replica Santo Niño salespeople.
The San Agustin Church was the only building left intact after the destruction of Intramuros in WWII. Built between 1587 and 1606, it is the oldest church in the Philippines. The massive facade conceals an ornate interior filled with objects of great historical and cultural merit. Note the intricate trompe l’oeil frescos on the vaulted ceiling. Be sure to check out the tropical cloisters as well as the slightly shabby gardens out the back. The present structure is actually the third to stand on the site and has weathered seven major earthquakes, as well as the Battle of Manila. It’s an active church and much in demand for weddings and other ceremonies. You can access the church through the newly renovated San Agustin Museum, a treasure house of antiquities that give the visitor tantalising glimpses of the fabled riches of Old Manila. Check out the vaguely Chinese–looking Immaculate Conception statue in ethereal ivory. The church is closed to tourists during Mass, though you may be able to sneak in.
Just 20 minutes from Mactan by public bangka, Olango Island is home to this important wildlife reserve. Taking in 1030 hectares of sand flats and mangroves on Olango's southern shores, the sanctuary supports the largest concentration of migratory birds found in the Philippines – 48 species (including the rare Chinese egret, the Asiatic dowitcher and several species of sandpiper and plover). Timing is everything here. The peak months are October to November for the southward East Asian–Australasian migration, and February to March for the northward leg. Be sure to visit at low tide, when the birds take to the sand flats en masse to fill up on worms, snails and small fish. There aren't many birds here from May to August, but the sanctuary remains an austerely beautiful spot and worth a visit. You can also kayak through mangroves with Island Buzz Philippines. The sanctuary is 15 minutes from Olango's Santa Rosa pier by tricycle (around P180 round trip with an hour or so waiting time).
Tranquil Limasawa Island, a place of historical and religious significance, is well worth a visit. The island has around 6000 inhabitants and five tiny villages. This is where the Spanish first celebrated Mass on 31 March 1521, thereby starting the Christianisation of the country. A five-minute walk to the left from the pier leads to the original Mass site. Next to it, a set of 450 steps leads up to the commemorative Magellan's cross. From here you can gaze at gorgeous views out across the ocean to Mindanao, Bohol and mainland Leyte. The island also has beautiful small coves that are ideal for swimming and snorkelling, and a few guesthouses. Between Monday and Saturday four big bangkas make the journey to and from Burgos (P50, 45 minutes); the last trip from Burgos is at 3pm, while the last trip off the island is at 12.30pm. On Sundays there's only one boat, leaving Limasawa at 12.30pm and returning from Burgos at 3pm. Chartering a bangka will cost around P1500 return.