Best experiences in the Philippines
Most people are familar with the Philippines as a great beach destination, but with this blog we are going to introduce you to the best experiences that the Philippines has to offer away from its pristine white sands. You will find that this amazing archipelago has experiences to suit almost everyone - with a fabulous range of activities to indulge in, and an array of natural wonders that are bound to amaze and captivate.
Located in the beautiful Cordillera Region of Northern Luzon, the inland rice terraces of the Ifugao people are a real highlight in a country usually more famous for its tropical beaches. With several sections recognised on the UNESCO World Heritage List, the terraces were carved into the hillside over 2,000 years ago in what was an incredibly impressive feat of engineering, and are still used for farming today. Banaue is the most famous base from which to explore the terraces, but the network of fields spreads much further out. It is said that if placed together the total length would reach halfway around the globe!
Best place to see rice terraces:
- Banaue features on several of our tours of the Philippines, including our ‘Grand Tour of the Philippines’. The best way to explore is on foot, and a number of walking trails of varying lengths and difficulties are possible in the winding hills and valleys.
Where to stay:
- Accommodation options in this region are quite limited. We recommend the Banaue Hotel, which offers a clean and comfortable base while exploring the majestic scenery around Banaue.
The Philippines is an incredibly diverse country, a fact which is evident in its food, landscapes, wildlife, and most of all its people. The most well-known and easily accessible indigenous group is the Igarot people, who inhabit the mountainous Cordillera region of Northern Luzon and comprise of numerous individual tribes, including the Bontoc and Ifugao. Due to the remote nature of the region, the tribes of Cordillera have for the most part managed to avoid too much outside influence and development, and many of their traditional ways of life continue uninterrupted to this day.
Best place for indigenous culture:
- Sagada has been little touched by development and remains a fascinating place to see some of the traditional cultural practices of the Igarot people, particularly the unique ‘hanging coffins’.
- The Cordillera Rice Terraces located in Banaue and beyond were built by the Ifugaos more than 2,000 years ago, and they are still in use today. The region remains one of the best places in the Philippines to experience unspoiled local indigenous culture.
- Our ‘Highlights of the Philippines’ tour includes a multi-day tour of these areas of Northern Luzon, which provides a wonderful contrast to time spent by the beach at Boracay afterwards.
Where to stay:
- Accommodation options in and around Sagada are quite limited, but our pick is the Masferre Country Inn, which offers clean, comfortable rooms and a good supply of hot water. The hotel also has a fantastic restaurant serving up hearty local meals to sustain you on your travels through the mountainous north.
In many ways, the Philippines is very different from its Southeast Asian neighbours and much of this is to do with their colonial history. From 1565 until 1898, the country was under Spanish colonial rule and often referred to as the Spanish Philippines. The Spanish influence is clear if you visit the Philippines today, in particular, if you look at religion, where nearly 80% of the country is Roman Catholic. After the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Philippines fell under American influence until their independence in 1946 and American influence can be seen in many spheres of Filipino life such as education, food, clothes and language.
Best place for colonial history:
- Renowned as the best-preserved Spanish colonial town in Asia, Vigan offers the visitor a fascinating combination of architecture from across the ages.
- On a tour of the Philippines, it seems you are never far from a church and there are many examples of Spanish era catholic churches still being used today. Paoay Church, a fine reward for anyone who makes the journey up to Laoag in the north of Luzon and Manila’s San Agustin Church are both fine examples of stone colonial churches which have been included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Where to stay
- The Villa Angela Heritage House is a well-preserved colonial hotel and an appropriate base from which to explore the atmospheric streets of Vigan.
- Or if you’re heading up to Laoag to see Paoay Church, accommodation is very limited and quite simple, but the small colonial style Sitio Remedios will offer you a comfortable night with some interesting gardens to explore.
- And to experience a stay in the most historical district of Manila, head to Intramuros, where the Hotel White Knight offers you simple accommodation but in an unbeatable location.
The Philippines lies close to the convergence of three major tectonic plates meaning that it is prone to earthquakes and also that it has over 300 volcanoes, 53 of which are reckoned to be active. Many of the active volcanoes are found on Luzon but there are others spread throughout the archipelago. Volcanoes in the Philippines are some of the most magnificent to behold in all the world and it is a shame to undertake a tour of the Philippines without visiting one or two of them! Some are best viewed from a distance but others offer great trekking opportunities and some it is possible to climb right to the top and look into the crater.
Where to see volcanoes:
- Taal Volcano is a complex and stunning volcano complex a couple of hours drive south of Manila. The main crater is situated in the centre of Taal Lake. Taal is considered to be the most active volcano in the Philippines and trekking on it is only allowed when the eruptions allow.
- Mount Pinatubo is another volcano with dramatic scenery. A little further from Manila, it offers some very scenic trekking opportunities either as a day trip or an overnight stay.
- The southern Luzon city of Legaspi is dominated by the huge Mayon Volcano. Sometimes referred to as ‘the worlds most perfect volcano’ because of its perfect cone shape. Trekking or mountain biking in the area around the foot of Mayon is a hugely rewarding thing to do or if you are looking to splash out why not ask us to organise a helicopter tour over the volcano?!
Where to stay:
- Taal Volcano is easily visited as a day trip from Manila, but for those wishing to spend more time exploring the area, the historic Taal Vista Hotel provides a good base with its classic design and plentiful facilities.
- Abe’s Farm is a small and quirky hotel near the city of Angeles and provides quicker access to the Mount Pinatubo area than doing a long day trip from Manila. The hotel is owned by a local Filipino restaurant chain and the food here is fantastic!
- The Misibis Bay Resort near Legazpi offers comfortable accommodation on a private bay just an hour or so from the Mayon Volcano. Watersports and land-based activities here are plentiful making it a good place for families and couples.
With tropical islands spanning over 1500km from the Sulu Sea to the South China Sea, the Philippines abounds with awe-inspiring natural wonders. These include volcanoes, subterranean rivers, coral reefs, pristine islands, unique topography and rainforests with some of the world’s highest concentrations of biodiversity. UNESCO has three natural sites in the Philippines on their World Heritage List, along with more than a dozen other areas of geographical beauty under consideration for nomination. Check out our Natural Wonders of the Philippines itinerary that focusses on Mother Nature’s bounty across all the islands.
Where to experience the best natural wonders;
- Head to Palawan for the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, which many view as the most impressive natural wonder in the Philippines. An 8km long river flows through this limestone karst cave system out to the sea, past high cliffs carpeted with lush vegetation, much of which is navigable by boat.
- The island of Bohol near Cebu is home to the world-famous Chocolate Hills, unofficially one of the seven wonders of the world. Spread out over an area of 50km2, these symmetrical dome-shaped hills are covered with lush green grass during and after the rainy season which turn brown in the peak of the dry season – which is how this geological phenomenon gained its name.
- The Philippines has a vast number of pristine islands to choose from, and to help with your decision you can read our blog on the best islands here. Exploring the Philippines dazzling marine environment doesn’t get much better than on a kayak in the azure waters of the El Nido Archipelago, exploring tiny islets with deserted beaches surrounded by towering limestone cliffs.
Where to stay:
- The welcoming Daluyon Beach & Mountain Resort is conveniently located near the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, and several other natural wonders on Palawan.
- The cliff-top Amorita Resort is our pick visits to the Chocolate Hills, a superior modern resort overlooking the sweeping sands of Alona Beach.
- The lagoons and islets around Miniloc Island provide the ideal setting for a kayaking adventure in the El Nido Archipelago, and the only place to stay here is the El Nido Resort.
The Philippines covers a significant area of Southeast Asia and has the fifth longest coastline in the world. The coastal waters form part of the coral triangle that spreads across to Australia and Malaysia, in which around 500 different species of coral can be found. The nutrient-rich waters of the Philippines are a complex marine ecosystem that provides a habitat for a significant number of species form the tiny pygmy seahorses to the vast whale sharks and manta rays that pull in divers from all over the world. Inland 24% of the islands are covered in vegetation, and a tenth of this is primary forest that is some of the most biodiverse on the planet. The Philippines is one of only 18 mega-biodiverse countries, and over 5% of all plant species on the planet can be found here. With such a rich natural environment, there are numerous wildlife experiences to be had on a trip to the Philippines as featured on our Wildlife Adventure in the Philippines tour.
Where to get the best wildlife experiences:
- The best place to see tarsiers is at one of the conservation projects on Bohol and Panglao Island. Growing up to just 15cm, the tarsier is a diminutive primate that live in the forests of the Philippines. This nocturnal creature has a curious look with oversized eyes, developed to hunt insects and outsmart predators in minimal light.
- One of the best places on the Philippines for dolphin and whale watching is Pamilacan Island, located a short boat ride from Bohol. This coral island is a pathway for migrating dolphins and whales, and there are 11 species that can be sighted here including sperm whales, pilot whales and Bryde whales.
- Located on a small island 3 miles east of Cebu, the Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary (OIWS) is an important wetland habitat for migrating birds coming from Siberia, Japan and Australasia. The sanctuary protects over 1000 hectares of mangroves and sand flats on the southern coast of the island. Some of the species that can be spotted here include the Asiatic Dowitcher and Chinese Egret.
- Watching fireflies at dusk in the mangrove forests near Puerto Princesa on Palawan is a popular wildlife experience for families. Head out on the Iwahig River in a rowing boat just before dusk, and then witness the otherworldly spectacle of thousands of fireflies swarming in the night sky.
Where to stay:
- Located in a quiet location on Cebu’s Macatan Island the Crimson Resort is a short journey from the jetty for boats to the Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary.
- For families the Bohol Beach Club located on Pangalao Island is a good base for whale watching trips and seeing tarsiers. For couples looking for an upmarket resort look no further than the Eskaya Beach Resort & Spa.
- A convenient place to stay to see the fireflies on Palawan is the Canvas Boutique Hotel in Puerto Princesa.
While not known as a hot foodie destination, the Philippines has one of the most underrated cuisines in Asia. The country has long been a melting pot of different cultures each bringing their own distinct tastes and cooking styles. This has resulted in a cuisine which is quite different to anything else found in Southeast Asia. The most famous dishes include Adobo – pork or chicken cooked in vinegar, soy sauce and garlic - and succulent Lechon – whole roast suckling pig.
Best foodie experiences:
- A street food tour of Manila is a must for avid foodies. It is possible to experience the melting pot of Philippine cuisine in microcosm by walking the streets of the nation’s capital city.
- The colourful local markets, known locally as tabu, on the islands of the Visayas are a great way to sample local life and try some freshly prepared seafood.
Where to stay:
- Cebu is a mecca for foodies famous for its delicious Lechon and Puso, a local heart-shaped rice cake wrapped in palm leaves. We rate this city so highly for food we ranked it as one of the 10 best cities for foodies in Asia.
- Manila has a thriving foodie scene best observed in the former run-down neighbourhood of Poblacion. The area has been transformed by gentrification and is now home to many independent restaurants and bars waiting to be discovered.
Snorkelling & diving
With so many islands in the heart of the 'Coral Triangle', it is only natural that the Philippines is home to world class diving and snorkelling. Coral reefs rich in marine life, colossal wrecks, vestiges of several naval battles fought in WW2, transformed by coral, and migratory whale sharks are just some of the underwater wonders on offer in the Philippines. With 72 Marine Protected Areas there is no shortage of fantastic reefs to explore. Many of these reefs are unrivalled for their biodiversity and it is unsurprising that reefs in the country featured prominently on our list of the ten best snorkelling spots in Asia.
Best snorkelling & diving experiences:
- Some of the best snorkelling and diving is found in the rich coral reefs surrounding Apo Island. The island can be reached on a day trip from Negros and is not to be missed. The reefs here truly are an underwater paradise teeming with an abundance of colourful marine life.
- Between the months of December and May each year migratory whale sharks pass the coastal town of Donsol without fail. The town is now a pioneer in sustainable tourism in the Philippines with its strictly controlled ethical encounter program. Swimming with whale sharks here is one of the best ways to tick off this bucket list activity while ensuring the least possible impact on the sharks and their environment.
- There are several WW2 wrecks in the waters surrounding the Philippines. These have been claimed by nature and transformed into thriving reefs and make for a unique diving experience. Most lie at depths of 40 metres or more so will require an advanced diving licence. But the El Capitan, an American freighter wreck, in Subic Bay descends from just 5m to 21m so is the most accessible for novice divers.
Where to stay:
- Set in a dramatic location in the El Nido Marine Reserve, Miniloc Island Resort has a fantastic reef on its doorstep which offers some of the best snorkelling and diving in the whole country.
- The Atmosphere Resort is set in a beautiful and deeply relaxing setting and is the best option for arranging day trips to snorkel or dive in the underwater paradise of Apo Island.
River trips & waterfalls
The Philippines is rich in natural beauty and many of its most famous and scenic geographical features are rivers and waterfalls. Sometimes these water features are imbued with a sense of legend and other times they are simple beauty spots that attract locals and tourists alike. Two of the country’s most famous rivers are the Underground River in Sabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Loboc River in Bohol – both of which can easily been seen on our tours of these islands. Elsewhere in the country, visitors to Vigan can marvel at the Pinsal Falls, the biggest waterfalls in the Ilocos Region - located just a short drive from town, and considered to be one of the most picturesque waterfalls in Asia. For those staying in Manila a trip into the countryside south of the capital leads to Pagsanjan Gorge and the waterfall where some of Francis Ford Coppola’s 'Apocalypse Now' was filmed, and where you can ‘shoot the rapids’ on an exciting boat trip.
Best river & waterfall experiences:
- A Loboc River cruise makes for a wonderful interlude during your tour of Bohol, and a trip along the Underground River can easily be arranged for visitors to Palawan’s main island.
Where to stay:
- On Bohol the Anda White Beach is a charming place to stay on a fine stretch of beach.
- In Manila the Hotel Celeste puts you right in the heart of Makarti, one of the city’s smartest addresses.
Nowhere parties like the Philippines! The country plays host to a range of 'fiestas' throughout the year and three of the most important take place in January to honour the Santo Nino (infant Jesus). First off is the colourful Ati-Atihab which takes place in Kalibo on Panay Island. Next up is the Sinulog Festival on Cebu which showcases a long parade of participating groups in amazing costumes, and thirdly there is the extremely vibrant Dinagyang Festival in Iloilo, also on Panay Island, when merry mayhem breaks loose in Iloilo City as inhibitions are dropped and everyday clothes are exchanged for "Ati" warrior costumes and black body paint. This concludes the trio of hectic fiestas which start the year off but there are others such as the Panagbenga Festival in March, which is famous for its displays of tropical flowers, and the MassKara Festival which takes place in October and gives Bacolod City a chance to show off.
Where to experience festivals:
- The islands of Panay and Cebu host some of the best, and most famous, fiestas that the Philippines has to offer. Both islands can be explored on our Volcanoes, Islands and Beaches tour.
Where to stay:
- One of the best places to stay on Cebu is the Shangri-La on Mactan Island.