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).
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).
Miniloc Island is perhaps the most interesting of the archipelago's islands. The main attractions are Big Lagoon, Small Lagoon and Secret Lagoon, three of the more photographed sights in all of Palawan. Big Lagoon is entered by an extremely shallow channel (you may have to swim into the lagoon and leave the boat outside). Inside, surrounded by jungle-clad karst walls, is an enormous natural swimming hole.
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.
Cadlao Island is like a mini–Tahiti miraculously relocated to the Bacuit Archipelago. In addition to being a wonderful piece of eye candy for those staying on the beach in El Nido, it’s also home to lovely Cadlao Lagoon (also known as Ubugun Cove). This lagoon offers some good snorkelling in the shallow coral gardens that lie off the beach at the head of the bay. More and more people are kayaking out here on their own from El Nido.
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.
At 8km in length, Sabang's famous underground river is one of the longest navigable river-traversed caves in the world and draws scores of tourists. Trips aboard unmotorised paddle boats proceed about 1.5km upstream into the cave (45 minutes return) and now include audioguide headsets. Book a bangka through the Sabang Information Office (P1120 for up to six people, 15 minutes) to get you from the wharf to the cave entrance, or walk 5km via the Jungle Trail.
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.
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.