They say Thailand is the land of smiles, but the Philippines is home to the happiest and friendliest people EVER. I say that as a fact, because it surely is. I mean, their famous fast food chain is called Jollibee…and let me tell you, they are more than jolly! But seriously, I have never experienced a place with more trustworthy, helpful, friendly, and welcoming people. Spending the past month in the Philippines has been absolutely incredible, and I’ve met more local people than I could’ve ever dreamed of. From the beautiful beaches to unbelievable waterfalls and marine life, the Philippines has so much to offer, and I am so excited to share more about it with you!
Before I dive in, I will just say that no matter how long your visit to the Philippines is, I would HIGHLY recommend starting in Cebu. There is a ton to see in a relative close proximity and the area is very accessible to other places in the Philippines. I was planning on staying in Cebu City for a night, but I got there and realized it was a busy city with not many tourist attractions, so I ended up taking a 3 hour bus to Moalboal for my first destination (SO lucky because this worked out perfectly).
Manila (redeye flight) -> Cebu City -> Moalboal (4 nights) -> Oslob (1 night) -> Dumaguete (3 nights) -> Siquijor (3 nights) -> Bohol (4 nights) -> Puerto Princesa (1 night) -> El Nido (3 nights) -> Coron (3 nights) -> Puerto Princesa (1 night) -> Guimaras (2 nights) -> Gigantes Islands (2 nights) -> Iloilo City (1 night) -> Manila (redeye flight)
*** Disclaimer: This is not necessarily the perfect itinerary, and I definitely could’ve been more efficient if I had planned in advance, but I had the BEST time ever! I would make variations to this itinerary based on what your interests are, especially if you plan to go Scuba diving. Though I am no expert on the Philippines (yet!), I would be happy to talk to you about planning out a potential itinerary if you plan to visit. I also have a friend, Andrew, from the Philippines who has traveled a ton (has been to all 81 provinces!) who you can talk to as well :).
Moalboal– a diver’s paradise
- Accommodation: Moalboal Backpackers or Marina Lodge (next to each other)
- Dive at Cebu Dive Center on the north side of Panagsama
- Dive or snorkel to see the famous sardine run! Literally, millions of sardines swimming around you- absolutely incredible.
- Go to White Beach
- Eat the BBQ in the small plaza of Panagsama- the pork belly is to die for!
- Kawasan Waterfalls are ~20 minutes away (see my post about Kawasan Falls here!)
Oslob– swimming with whale sharks
You can swim with giant whale sharks for ~$20 USD any morning from 6-11 a.m., when they are fed by locals. Whale sharks are truly incredible creatures and are the gentle giants of the sea, so no need to worry about being in close proximity to them :). I will warn you that swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob is pretty controversial because feeding them every day interrupts their migration and breeding patterns. I would highly recommend going to Donsol to swim with them in the wild if you are there during whale shark season (December-May) instead of Oslob, but if you do choose to go in Oslob, prepare for lots of people but a truly incredible experience. I was very torn about going and wasn’t initially planning on doing it, but I decided to just say “screw it” and go because I was already there and probably wouldn’t get another opportunity. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it and had an unforgettable experience, but I didn’t leave feeling great about the impact this business is making on the whale sharks. If you have any questions about the whale sharks, you can do more research online, or I’d be happy to talk to you more about it!
- Accommodation: Sharky’s is a basic hostel right next to the whale shark beach entrance and the owners are SO nice!
- Tumalog Waterfalls are nearby, so I’d check it out if you have time!
Don’t miss Sumilon Island, which is only a 30 minute boat ride from Oslob and home to the most pristine sand bar I have ever seen! You can hire a boat to split with a group for 1500 pesos (~$32 USD) and head there right after you swim with the whale sharks. Check out these amazing photos!
Dumaguete– bigger city for a more local experience, one hour boat ride from Oslob (Liloan port)
- Accommodation: Harold’s Mansion is an awesome hostel with an even better rooftop and attached dive shop, walking distance from Dumaguete port
- Apo Island: great for snorkeling or diving with sea turtles!
- Casaroro Falls and Forest Camp: take a motorbike to visit this 100 foot waterfall and hidden oasis in the hills!
- Check out Rizal Boulevard and eat at Jo’s Chicken
Siquijor– MUST visit! One of my favorite places 🙂
Siquijor is locally known for witchcraft and lots of superstition, but it is also a hidden gem off the coast of Negros Oriental. It is not quite popular yet, but more and more people are finding out about it, so I think it will blow up with backpackers in the next few years! You can easily take a ferry from Dumaguete to get there, which makes it even better. It is definitely necessary to rent a motorbike on Siquijor to get around, but don’t worry, it’s cheap and the island is actually a great place to learn how to ride one (you still need to be VERY careful). If you don’t rent one, be prepared to pay a pretty penny for tricycles everywhere!
- Accommodation: Tori’s Paradise (two locations, I stayed at the one with the sandy beach closer to the port); other budget hostel options: JJ’s, Kiwi Dive Resort, Tori’s Backpacker Paradise (better location, but beach isn’t as nice)
- Highlights: Cambugahay Waterfall, Salagdoong Beach for cliff jumping, Balete tree with fish spa, riding a motorbike around the entire island (my favorite Barangays were Lazi and San Juan!), Friday night parties at Czar’s Place
- Another highlight for me was San Juan’s fiesta party, a once a year celebration which included tons of food (the locals I met had two full pigs on the table that we feasted on!) and a giant paint party/rave. I happened to be there the same weekend as fiesta and happened to meet amazing local people, but it was more of a lucky coincidence than something to plan a trip around. See photos below!
- Eat at Joel’s Chicken in Siquijor town- they will serve you a whole or half chicken on a plate and it is SO good!
Bohol– a WHOLE lot to do!
Bohol is most famous for the Chocolate Hills, Tarsiers (smallest primates in the world), and beautiful beaches. The main island of Bohol is quite large, but most visitors stay in Panglao, a small island connected to Bohol by two bridges. Alona Beach is the most famous spot and has lots of beach resorts, but I actually found it to be quite charming!
- Accommodation: Nuts Huts (I didn’t stay here but everyone says it’s awesome) is in Loboc on the main island of Bohol. It is pretty difficult to get there (motorbike is recommended, or an expensive tricycle ride) but I’ve heard it’s definitely worth it, even though there’s no Wi-Fi up there! I stayed at Coco Farm for one night, which is an awesome bungalow style hostel in Panglao, but it’s quite far from the beach, which I didn’t like as much. They offer a lot of tours and the hostel has a social atmosphere, but I was on a mission to stay as close to the beach as possible. I ended up staying at Dormitel.ph (private room for 400 pesos a.k.a. $8.50) for 3 nights, which was nothing special but it was only a 5 minute walk to Alona Beach and had a perfect location. Other travelers I met stayed at Moon Fools nearby (580 pesos for a dorm room), which has more of a backpackers vibe, and loved it as well!
- Highlights: Riding a motorbike all around Panglao and Bohol to visit the Chocolate Hills, Tarsier Sanctuary, Bee Farm, waterfalls, and smaller towns scattered throughout the island was awesome. I didn’t do it, but you can also go zip lining over the river in Bohol!
- Balicasag Island: Attention all Scuba divers! Do NOT miss this island! There are plenty of dive shops on Alona Beach that will take you to Balicasag and they all have the same prices (1500/dive). I went with Alona Piratas because I liked the dive master and they provided free lunch, but there are lots of other shops to choose from.
Puerto Princesa- a quick stopover
When flying to Palawan, most travelers stop through Puerto Princesa on their way to El Nido, which is on the north tip of the island. I stayed for one night at the beginning of my time in Palawan, then another night again before flying out. It really just depends on what time your flights are!
- Accommodation: I stayed at Sheebang Hostel for a night, which was cheap, close to the airport, and had a great backpacker vibe. It’s a little out of the way if you actually want to explore the city, so I’d stay somewhere else if you want to check out PP before heading north.
- Underground River: I decided to skip out on this because I’ve heard it’s expensive for what it is (1000 pesos/~$22 USD) and is quite touristy. I’ve also seen incredible caves similar to this in Vietnam, so I opted out, but it’s definitely the top thing to do in PP!
- If you do stay in Puerto Princesa and feel like Vietnamese food, don’t miss Bona’s Chao Long House!
El Nido– famous island hopping
Tour A or Tour C- enough said! I won’t spoil it for you, but you can check out a few photos below. El Nido is a must-see in the Philippines!
- Accommodation: Our Melting Pot (OMP) Hostel has a great location and social atmosphere, but it’s a little pricey for what it was (600 pesos/~$12.50 USD). After staying for one night, we found another hostel called Pawikan down the road for cheaper and it was so much better! They welcomed us like family and it felt more like a homestay than a hostel. Highly recommend!
- Food: Art Café is AMAZING and you should definitely splurge to eat there at least once (highly recommend the pizza, tuna melt, and pasta). There are plenty of restaurants on the beach with fresh seafood to try, and if you’re brave enough… you can try the Filipino delicacy, balut. You can look up more details about it, but I did in fact eat a fertilized/half-developed baby duck egg, wings, bones, beak and all. I gagged the whole time, but got it down and felt like I was on Fear Factor! The photo below is not for queasy stomachs…
- The Reggae Bar on the beach is definitely the place to go at night- also has great live music!
Coron– shipwreck diving, island hopping and sunsets!
Coron is a 7-8 hour boat ride north of El Nido, and to be honest, a bit out of the way, but it’s totally worth it, especially for divers. The wreck diving there is SO cool and the snorkeling is some of the best in the Philippines. The island hopping tour (Tour A) is just as good as El Nido, if not better. Don’t miss Kayangan Lake either!
- Accommodation: Coron Backpackers was recommended to me, but it was pretty far out of the way and we saw a mouse run across the counter as soon as we walked in, so I was almost relieved to find out they were fully booked. We stayed at Seahorse Guest House (a bit of a splurge for 600 pesos/$12.50 USD per night), which had a perfect location, HOT SHOWERS (so rare), and an amazing rooftop breakfast included in the price. The sunset on the rooftop is unbelievable- see photo below.
- Other things to do: Rent a motorbike or take a tricycle to the natural hot springs, hike up to the Coron sign/viewpoint for sunrise or sunset, and don’t forget about diving!
Iloilo– gateway to Guimaras
I spontaneously booked a flight to Iloilo about halfway through my time in the Philippines, and I’m so glad I did! When I did some more research and talked to a few locals, I found out about Guimaras, the island next to Iloilo City (15 minutes by boat) known for having the sweetest mangoes in the world! Yes, I tried mango pizza and an amazing mango shake :).
- Accommodation: If you stay a night in Iloilo City and are looking for a cheap place to stay, I highly recommend Ong Bun Pension House. It’s right near the mall, about half the price of all the other hotels in the city (350 pesos for a small fan room with shared bathroom), and I felt plenty safe there. In Guimaras, I stayed in my very own bungalow on the beach in Nueva Valencia for 700 pesos at Raymen Beach Resort, which I highly recommend. You can also stay in Jordan at JM Backpackers, but it’s not near the beach.
- Don’t miss: The Pitstop restaurant in Jordan, Guimaras for their famous mango pizza!
Gigantes Islands– untouched paradise!
I found out about the Gigantes Islands on a random blog post, which inspired me to book a flight to Iloilo. The Gigantes Islands are a remote set of islands to the northeast of Iloilo, and I’ll be honest, it’s a pain to get to, but totally worth it! To get there, you can fly into Iloilo or Roxas City, take a bus (4.5 hours from Iloilo) or van (3 hours from Iloilo) to Carles or Estancia ports, and take a boat to Gigantes Norte or Gigantes Sur. Make sure to check boat times before going, because they don’t run often!
- Highlights: UNLIMITED fresh scallops, island hopping, super friendly locals and Filipino tourists! I was the only foreigner there and was treated like an actual celebrity :).
- Island Hopping: I highly recommend booking an island hopping tour with Gigantes Island Tours (Facebook page is here!). Paul and his huge family will take care of you and make sure you have the best time EVER! I got to stay with their family and it was one of the best things I did in the Philippines. No Wi-Fi/cell service, no running water, electricity for a few hours each night (brownouts are common though), but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. They live off of fresh scallops, crab, squid, and different kinds of fish, but mostly scallops. My favorite were the fried scallops, which I like to call scallop “nuggets”! Feel free to ask me if you want more info about the Gigantes Islands!
Book in advance or plan as you go?
You have two options when traveling in the Philippines, and both have pros and cons. You can either do lots of research to plan your flights/transportation in advance, or you can plan as you go to give yourself more flexibility. Though I chose the latter option, which worked great for me, it definitely had its drawbacks. Because I essentially came to the Philippines without a plan (had a general idea of where I wanted to go, but I heavily depended on word of mouth when I got there to plan my time), I ended up paying more for internal flights than I needed to. I paid $40-$50 USD per flight because I waited until the last minute to book, and if I had planned in advance, I could’ve paid about half, or even less! However, it was well worth it to me to have flexibility and be able to go to places like the Gigantes Islands, which I never would’ve known about if I had planned in advance. Your ability to plan as you go is also specific to season- I visited during low season (June-September), so I didn’t need to book in advance if I didn’t want to. If you go during high season (November-April, summer being March and April), I would highly recommend booking flights and accommodation in advance, because tourist destinations will get very crowded. I hope that helps!
Helpful tips for the Philippines:
- ~45 Philippines pesos to $1 USD
- There are 7,107 islands in the Philippines!
- Each region in the Philippines has their own unique dialect, though Tagalog and English are the country’s official languages. You could have a group of 20 Filipinos together and they wouldn’t be able to understand each other if they were from different places, which I think makes the Philippines even more unique!
- Islands are divided into provinces, then municipalities, then barangays (community/village)
- Each barangay has a basketball court/community center, which is where most events are held. Basketball is HUGE here!
- Stay at LEAST a month if you can! Traveling between islands can be time-consuming and you will wish you stayed longer if you only have a week or two. If you are limited on time, I would recommend picking one area to explore, rather than trying to fly and island hop all over the place. If you have a month, I’d pick three areas, otherwise you will be flying around too much.
- Transportation: buses, tricycles (tuk-tuks in other Southeast Asian countries), ferries/boats, jeepneys (you ride in a covered truck bed with about 15-20 of your closest Filipino friends squished next to you, but worth it for only 7 pesos), planes, but most commonly, motorbike!
- Visas: You can get a free VOA (Visa on Arrival) for 30 days, but be prepared to pay a terminal fee of 700 pesos ($15 USD) at the airport when leaving the country and 200 pesos ($4.50 USD) when flying domestically.
Filipino people eat a LOT of bread, meat, and rice. It would be very difficult to be a vegetarian here (but not impossible). There are bakeries on every corner and BBQ is pretty much an everyday thing.
- Pork/chicken/squid adobo- a classic Filipino dish: delicious marinade of vinegar, salt, garlic, pepper, soy sauce, and other spices that originated as a practical way to preserve meat without refrigeration
- Pancit- popular noodle dish
- Lechon- spit-roasted pig served with liver sauce
- Bulalo- beef soup rich with flavor
- Pork barbeque- my favorite, cheap meal!
- Milkfish/bangus- a classic Filipino fish that you must try!
- Rice, rice, rice- did I mention, rice?
- Bread- bakeries on every corner, cheap and looks like there is a great selection, but it is quite misleading because every product they sell is essentially the same thing- sweet bread in all sorts of shapes and even colors, but tastes basically the same! If you go to the Philippines, you WILL eat pan de sal, small, sweet buns, for breakfast (yum, carbs!).
- Halo-Halo- shaved ice with ice cream and all kinds of fruit toppings!
- Ube ice cream- this purple yam flavored ice cream is hugely popular!
- Balut- a trip to the Philippines would not be complete without trying balut, which is a 17-day old duck embryo, served with vinegar. Did I try it? Yes. Did I like it? Absolutely not. But some Filipinos swear by it!
- There are tons of other Filipino dishes to try- these are just a few!
Other places to visit:
- Banaue rice terraces
- Mayon Volcano in Luzon- the world’s most perfect volcano with a symmetrical cone shape
- Malapascua- a small island to the north of Cebu, perfect for diving and known for Thresher sharks sightings!
- Boracay- I chose to skip it because it has gotten overrun with tons of people, it’s quite expensive, and there are places just as beautiful that aren’t as much in the party scene as Boracay. Most backpackers I’ve talked to said they loved Boracay, but every local person I’ve met says there are better places to visit elsewhere. Up to you!
- La Union- recommended by lots of locals and several travelers I met, but I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about it (yet!).
- Siargao- surfing capital of the Philippines
- Camiguin- another untouched island in the Bohol Sea, the second smallest island in the Philippines!
- Tinuy-An Falls- the Niagara Falls of the Philippines
- I haven’t heard many positive things about Manila from travelers and it can be dangerous at night so I chose not to go this trip (solo female traveler problems). Now that I have lots of friends from Manila, I will definitely come back to the Philippines and visit!
Where else have you been or would you go? I’d love to hear about your favorite places in the Philippines in the comments!
Again, I’d love to help if you are planning a trip to the Philippines! It has become my favorite country I’ve visited and I will DEFINITELY be back. Salamat (thank you in Tagalog) for reading and happy travels!