I spent a month hopping freely from island to island in the Philippines this past summer, and it was about the most unique country in Asia that I could possibly have ever imagined. It has a mixed blend of a little bit of everything, to say the least, you want volcanoes and trekking? They have that. You want world class scuba diving is some of the clearest and warmest waters on planet Earth? Yup. You want to explore tiny islands that most people in the western world have never heard of, just to sum it up and move this thing along, yes, the answer is typically yes for asking what all the Philippines has.
The Philippines was the first country in Asia that I traveled to in Asia solo, it was an eye opening and once in a lifetime experience for me having coming straight from traveling Australia and New Zealand to a place like this, it was the culture shock that I so craved in the best possible ways.
Albeit flying straight into Cebu city as my first stop solo backpacking Asia was, well it was hectic, everywhere I looked it was a bit overwhelming at first. I have to think that this is the case with a lot of people’s first time solo traveling a third world country, so I won’t rag on Cebu city, though it’s one of my least favorite parts of this amazing country, doesn’t quite make the following list of my highlights
As the saying goes and it is about as true as it gets, they are not kidding when they say; “It’s more fun in the Philippines”
The following list of places and experiences within the Philippines is of no ranking order, just a comprehensive catalog of my own PERSONAL favorites from my experiences here, so take it with a grain of salt, as I missed countless spots (literally thousands of islands) because I only traveled it for a month, but what I did travel, is what made it one of the top 3 countries I’ve ever traveled to, enjoy!
1. Siargao Island
Honestly I had never heard of this place in my limited research on this country before flying into it blindly (I enjoy that a little more than I should). My first night in Cebu city I had linked up with some wonderfully adventurous girls who were set to leave for Siargao island the very next day, we had got to talking, they explained to me what the island was supposed to be like and I basically just said “say no more, I’m in”. I tagged along with them, and I couldn’t be happier that I did, this place was paradise.
It has it all; surfing culture, amazing night life, authentic villages, ridiculously friendly locals, motorbiking all over, caves to explore, cliffs to jump, and all kinds of amazing scenery. Not to mention it’s much less discovered by tourism than the likes of Boracay and El Nido, the western influence isn’t nearly as prevalent here.
For starters something that has to be touched on would be the surfing, it’s incredible here for rookies and pros alike, they have all kinds of spots for all levels. It’s very popular here to surf twice in the same day, everyday, it’s a laid back surfing island if I’ve ever seen one. A typical day would include waking up at sunrise (didn’t always happen, alcohol sometimes happens and thus sunrises do not), yoga, motorbiking around the island and exploring, surfing at sunset, and then going out to dinner at the local restaurants which are incredible by the way. If you are here, you must go to Mama’s Restaurant in General Luna, simply the best Filipino BBQ around, cheap too!
There’s yoga everywhere, I’m not that into it besides a little bit here and there to help my flexibility, but the instructors here are incredible and it just blends too well with the chilled out atmosphere.
The nightlife is entirely too much fun and there are more options than you can shake a stick at, reggae bars, dance clubs, a jungle party that I don’t remember one bit, and of course the best part of the Philippines for a guy like me KARAOKE. Little known fact when I drink these days, I love karaoke, so much, it’s not healthy. I’ll expand on this one later. Did I lose my shoes, my motorbike once, and my dignity here with the nightlife? You bet your ass I did, but I had a good time doing it as it’s too easy to lose yourself to this island.
Just eat the local Filipino dishes all over this island, eat the BBQ, all the fresh seafood you can stuff down and you will be content.
If you combine all these factors with the fact that the beaches are pristine, the water is crystal clear and sands are pearly white and not overrun with tourists, then you can see why this was one of my favorite spots in this beautiful country. There’s a little bit of something for everyone here, no matter what you fancy!
2. Cebu (island itself not the city)
Let me once again make this clear, I’m not the biggest fan of Cebu city itself here. If you’re into gigantic malls with entirely too much air conditioning western influenced stores (incase for some reason you missed them), then this place is for you. If you like just about anything else, probably not the best place around in the Philippines. Lots of smog, dirty and run down streets, can’t walk anywhere really, overcrowded, and not really many attractions within the city itself. I wasn’t here long so I’ll stop right there as I didn’t give it a fair chance!
You will most likely get to Cebu by way of arriving in the city itself, as it’s where in the international airport lies as well as the ferry terminal. My best advice would be to get out immediately as there are some amazing spots within the island of Cebu if you go all the way to the southern part of the island or all the way to the north.
I’ll touch on the northern tip later (Malapascua island), but allow me to touch on some of the highlights of the southern region.
If you’ve ever dreamed of swimming along side the ginormous gentle giants known as whale sharks, then boy do I have some good news for you, THIS is the place to do it! For a low price you can take local busses down to the town of Oslob, it’s well known for one thing and one thing only, Butanding (Filipino for whale shark). If you ask the people at the bus terminals to take you to Butanding, they will take you to this place, and of course feel free to barter down the prices the people will give you for swimming with them, they’re negotiable much like everything else in Asia.
Swimming with the Butanding, such amazing creatures!It’s pretty touristy, and we questioned the effect that this practice has on the migratory patterns of the Butanding themselves, but speaking to a marine biologist later about this he explained to me that it was only the young whale sharks who do not migrate out yet, they simply feed in Oslob until they are large enough to make the migration across the ocean for the most part, but I’ll let you guys be the judge. Very importantly with the ethical practices of this though would be to NEVER touch the whale sharks, give them space. This is easier said than done with the sharks seemingly coming out of nowhere all around you and sometimes it seems like they want to hit you, just keep very focused on where they are at all times so as not to touch them, this should also go without saying but if you get in their way, they will mess you up, they’re huge.
One last thing if you’re looking to do this, don’t let them sell you the swimming fins, they aren’t needed unless you really suck at swimming, if you’re that bad at swimming this might not be the place for you.
Another highlight of the southern region would be the canyoneering around Kawasan falls.
With the canyoneering you’ll need to locate a tour company (there’s hundreds of these damn things) to take you out here, or of course you can just rent a motorbike and check it out yourself. At the time I wasn’t as confident on a motorbike as I am today so I opted for group tour, also because I was still tagging along with the girls!
They will take you out to about 3-4 spots where you can cliff jump into water as crystal clear and mesmerizing as this, with drops from 30-70 feet, if you’re into that kind of thing it’s an adrenaline rush that you won’t soon forget (unfortunately they do make you wear the life jackets though, believe me I tried, they’re very stern on this one). Jumping feet first into water that looks like this also doesn’t hurt my case I’d wager, so if you’re in the area do it.
Eventually after the cliff jumping you’ll be taken to Kawasan Falls itself, you cannot cliff jump here unless you have a serious death wish (in which case you do you homie), but it’s just a sight to behold in itself. You will be taken out by the local guide onto these little bamboo rafts and he will take you under the waterfall, the pressure of the waterfall is no joke so watch out, it’ll knock you on your ass! (There may have been some screaming like little girls when being drilled by the waterfall, it may have come from the girls in the group, or me, or both….leave that to the imagination).
3. Karaoke, everywhere, seriously
If there is one undeniable fact besides of course that the country is thoroughly obsessed with Manny Pacquiao (the little dude is a legend over there, he holds like every major title over there, he’s a badass), and to stay out of Manila (top 3 worst traffic in the world, seriously try to get anywhere, you won’t) it is that Filipinos LOVE karaoke! They are damn good at it as well, I got challenged on several occasions, typically they use a Guitar Hero-esque rating system for hitting the notes right on some kind of Sing-Star game. If you hit the notes right you get the points, if not, no points for you, very easy.
I noticed a common trend that they love to sing love songs, the sappier the better. That’s not quite my cup of tea when it comes to karaoke, but I’ll absolutely give props when props are due, and these guys deserve a lot of props!
It was actually directly when I got to Oslob down in Cebu, I didn’t have many Filipino pesos (the currency) left so I had to locate an ATM, as luck would have it is was some 20 miles away in a distant town so I had to find a motorbike driver to take me down there. I eventually found one, and who would’ve thought my driver was the Elvis Presley of the Philippines?! We made a stop back from the ATM to his favorite restaurant/Filipino BBQ in the area, which was just a converted person’s house with a BBQ out front and a karaoke machine in the front. They sat me down, excited to have a foreigner to sing with, and dropped a big ass book full of hundreds of Western songs to choose from.
My go to in foreign countries was country music, I’ve learned that my deep voice combined with a Montanan accent blends well to sing songs from the likes of Blake Shelton, Zach Brown band, etc. Still not saying I’m any good, but I like to think that I’ve found my voice when it comes to karaoke, and its American country (this is not to say that I still won’t throw in some songs like Mambo Number 5 or Making my Way Downtown….just for shits and giggles you know?!) I decided I should sing the song Springsteen by Eric Church for these lovely locals, as I was willing to bet good money they’ve never heard it and it’s one of my personal favorites.
Well long story short they had never heard music like this before, they said nobody ever picks that type of music there so a look of “what the hell is this music” showed on their face the whole time, but the growing crowd from around the BBQ gave me a massive applause afterwards so I like to think I didn’t quite butcher it. I instantly fell in love with this karaoke phenomena within the country, it’s way too much fun here (again…it’s more fun in the Philippines people).
4. El Nido (North tip of Palawan Island)
One of the more popular destinations within the Philippines, and for good reason, this place is beyond beautiful!
Ginormous limestone rocks cover the landscape surrounded with clear blue water and outrigger boats everywhere you look!
One of the main attractions, besides the gorgeous beaches, unforgettable sunsets, and bumping night life (which all live up to their reputations here by the way I can confirm), would be the island tours. There are hundreds of companies, some official some not so much, that all claim to take you out on island tours, they’re all about $10-$15 so have fun trying to decipher through them all I can say is take them, take them all. They will be numbered island tour A-E usually or something along those lines, some will take you out to secluded islands with white sand beaches, others will take you to natural caves to explore.
The biggest attraction/island tour would be the Big and Small Lagoon tours. This is one of those places that shows up constantly in everyone’s Facebook/Instagram news feed if you follow travel related content, this is an alley of limestone rocks and underlying reefs with an abundance of marine life (and fish that will bite you if you step foot on the ground, you shouldn’t do that anyway, so just don’t put your feet on the ground you’ll be sorry).
So go experience the raging nightlife, try that Tanduwan (Filipino rum) but please don’t go overboard with it, worst hangovers of my life… I mean not that I would know…. a friend of mine told me…yes that’s it. Go take the snorkeling trips, the island trips, explore everything you can out here because in the end, there aren’t many ways to go wrong out here, besides overpaying of course.
One more random note that I would like to mention because it’s not on the tourist spectrum, find an outrigger boat captain or 2 who will take you out to one of the secluded islands, for the right price they’ll do it, it’s Asia come on now. With my Finnish friend and a large group of others that we assembled from the hostels in the area we made our own party caravan and left in the middle of the night for an island in the middle of nowhere. With the local guides help and supplying us with firewood and BBQ, we had ourselves the island to only our group and camped out under the stars in the most picturesque way that you could possibly imagine. The water even in the middle of the night is still ridiculously warm for a swim, and the sand contains tiny microscopic plankton that glow fluorescent, it’s a sight to see and something that should be added to anyone’s bucket list. But once again I’ll stress this, stay away from drinking too much Filipino rum, it’s all fun and games until the rum is gone.
5. Ride in a Jeepney
I feel like this one more than ever has to do with the type of traveler that you are. If you’re a traveler who enjoys authentic local experiences, getting into the nitty gritty of local culture, meeting people because you’re so squished in that you have to, and just wanting to do something genuinely different than any type of transport you’ve probably ever experienced then riding in a Jeepney in cities like Manila and Cebu is for you!!
If you are the type who doesn’t thrive off of the things above, doesn’t like being sandwiched between people, is okay with just a normal taxi/uber, is less a backpacker more a vacationer, thennnnn I would stray away from this one honestly.
What is a jeepney?! Quite simply it’s a large militarized bus/jeep left over from past military involvement over here from the western influences that they have adopted as their own unique form of public transportation here. They blow out unhealthy amounts of diesel, are far too oversized for the already crowded city streets, and are typically pimped out to the driver’s customizations. Some drivers put a bunch of decals on theirs, others shiny rims and all chrome ervrythaaang, others paint them bright obnoxious colors, they’re just all about customization and can either be visually appealing or appalling depending on the onlooker. They are usually overstuffed with people, and sometimes you’ll find people hanging off the backend or chilling up on the roof, I did want to try the rooftop seating but never had the chance, I regret that one.
They are a unique form of transit only found in the Philippines, and they’re the cheapest way to get around anywhere besides walking of course, so while you’re here, give it a try!
6. Eat Lechon, all the Lechon
Unless of course you find that you’re a vegan, in which case do not try this dish, but if you’re a fan of cultural specific dishes that taste like heaven and enjoy partaking in meat, then do I have the Filipino food for you!!
It’s the Philippines national dish, it’s literally a whole spit roasted pig, it’s their centerpiece for any big celebration be it a holiday, wedding, fiesta, and so on! It’s a dish derived from Spain originally, which is the case with countless other things in the Philippines, the whole country is like a random mix of other SE Asia countries and Spanish countries all gelled into one, it’s very unique. Getting off topic and back to the magnificent pig; much like a Thanksgiving turkey here in the US, the pig is stuffed with herbs and vegetables of different variants, the pigs are then slowly roasted over an open fire usually by hand turning over the coals for hours on end, you can taste the difference believe me.
It’s often served with a thick sauce that is combined with vinegar, sugar (they put sugar on everything in SE Asia I swear), and more herbs, herbs on herbs on herbs ya’ll.
Don’t believe me? Fine. Well here’s a link to an article about how popular travel foodie/world renowned chef Anthony Bourdain spoke about the delight that Lechon is and how it is one of his favorite dishes: Anthony Bourdain’s Lechon Guide
7. Chain of 3 Islands off of Siargao Island
This is a popular tour (I know I know Aaron you said you didn’t like organized tours), but this one is insanely cheap, typically done alongside locals from all over the country, and brings you add to some truly amazing spots you wouldn’t be able to get to by yourself! So for this one I’d throw my “don’t do touristy group tours” thing out the window, as it doesn’t ALWAYS hold true!
To get to these three islands you must be taken by boat, duh, and you typically get there via Siargao island itself (as previously mentioned above).
The chain includes the islands of Guyam (home of Patrick Star and many of his Bikini Bottom friends ^), Dako, and Naked (despite the name please don’t roll up naked to this one). All three have about the same views and landscape, this is not a bad thing however, as the views are astounding, the sands are pearly white, and the water is crystal clear. They’ll take you out here and let you run around and do as you please, swim, hunt down some coconuts, drink yourself silly, chill in the hammocks, snorkel, the list goes on.
My personal favorite was Guyam, it’s the smallest of the three but the sand is just a unique texture of white and it’s straight out of a Windows Desktop wallpaper. If you’re looking for a place in the Philippines to just chill out on the beach and take in some dramatic views with a couple Filipino beers, then make sure to add these islands to your list, you will not regret it!!
8. Malapascua Island and or Palawan For Diving (SCUBA heaven)
People come from all over the world to experience the world class diving that the Philippines has to offer, and now I can absolutely see why.
The waters are warm, the marine life is abundant and there are more turtles than you can shake a stick at, it’s a well known migratory hangout for whale sharks, there are multiple ship wrecks, and specifically with Malapascua Island it’s the best known place on plane Earth to SCUBA dive with Thresher sharks.
Beginning with Malapascua Island, I was not able to make the journey up to this one as it was clear off of the other side of the island of Cebu away from where I went in Oslob. This is the legendary dive site for Thresher sharks, they are spotted out here almost everyday on sunrise dives into the deep blue and according to people I spoke with about it, not something to be missed if you’re certified!
So where did I go SCUBA diving at in the Philippines? I went on two separate trips to a bunch of deep dive sites north of El Nido. I couldn’t recommend these enough as they’re up there for my favorite places that I’ve ever dived (even though I’ve only been SCUBA certified for about a year now). The amount of marine life I saw on these trips was astounding; turtles, stingrays, reef sharks, lion fish (I hate these guys), colorful lobsters, moray eels, clownfish, jellyfish, sea snakes, and the list goes on and on and can best the summed up as; there are a shitload of fish here let’s go with that.
The French dive master that I went with for both of my trips was world class, straight out of the rolling hills of Southern France and knew the secrets to finding the marine life, I nicknamed him the French Fish Whisperer, subtle I know. The company that I went with is called “El Dive” based in El Nido, very easy to remember, and their website can be found here; El Dive Website. So if you want insanely affordable prices with some world class diving instructors and spots, these are the guys they were fantastic, I’m not even sponsored by them and I’m giving them a shout like this, so you know it’s damn good!!
Things to Avoid in the philippines
Manila, just Manila….
Ha, you thought I was going to elaborate on this?! Nope, but really, avoid the city of Manila if you can as it is the largest city in the country and pretty damn rundown, the infrastructure is chaotic and the traffic often competes against Jakarta for the worst traffic in the entire world. Not to mention the amount of people trying to take advantage of travelers here was ridiculous. Even the locals I met from all over the Philippines almost ALL said to stay away from Manila as well, for the same reasons I mentioned above. So if there is something I can pass onto you for traveling here, you’ll probably have to go here to get to elsewhere on the big island of Luzon, or to get a flight out the country, but the only area I can recommend for Manila would be the airport or bus terminals (to get out).
Is this my opinion?! Of course it is, that’s the beauty of Travel Blogs is I get to have opinions like this so yay! But is this also the general consensus of other travelers and local Filipinos alike? Yes, so don’t stay in Manila and you’ll be happy you took my advice!
Have you ever been to the Philippines? Does my advice line up with yours or do you have anything more to elaborate on (there are thousands of other islands so I missed a TON)? Plan to travel the Philippines and want further insider info from me? Leave a comment and I’d be very happy to help you or discuss these topics with you, thanks everybody and please remember to like, comment, and share!!