The Philippines is one of the popular Southeast Asian countries. Best known for its beaches and tropical paradise landscapes, it attracts thousands and millions of visitors every year. Many of them go to the country’s few most famous places like Coron, El Nido, Boracay, Cebu, and Bohol Island. Others go further, to not very famous places like Siargao, Siquijor, Pagudpud, and Malapascua. But there are travelers, who really want to explore the Philippines more deeply, focusing not only on the beach destinations but also on the history, culture, mountains, volcanoes and everything else that is essential for this part of the world. And they need to build their Philippines itinerary, knowing the places they have to visit.
Some basic facts about the Philippines
The Philippines are an island country, consisting of more than 7400 islands and islets, from the largest one- Luzon Island, to the smallest rocks in the sea. They are a part of the largest archipelago in the world- Sunda, which includes also Indonesia, the eastern part of Malaysia, Eastern Timor and Brunei.
Geography of the Philippines
The islands of the Philippines are located in the northern tropical and sub-equatorial zone of the Earth. At the same time, geologically they are a part of the “Ring of Fire”- the Pacific Rim, making these islands a land of volcanoes and earthquakes.
The Philippines are divided into three main parts:
– Northern Philippines, consisting mainly of Luzon Island, as well as Palawan Island in the west, and all other nearby small islands and islets.
– Middle Philippines (Visayas), including the big islands in the middle of the country- Mindoro, Panay, Negros, Samar, Leyte, Cebu and Bohol, and all other smaller islands and islets in this area.
– Southern Philippines, consisting mainly of Mindanao Island, and the Sulu Archipelago.
As the Philippines are located in a geologically active zone, they are full of mountains and volcanoes. Most of the islands are mountainous, although the mountains are not very high. The highest point of the Philippines is Mt Apo (2954 m) in Mindanao Island. The volcanoes can be found all over the country, most of them not active currently. Among them, the two most famous are Pinatubo (known with its second strongest eruption in the 20th century in 1991) and Mayon (known as the most beautiful volcano due to its perfectly conical shape).
Climate of the Philippines
The climate of the Philippines is wet tropical, sub-equatorial and mountainous subtropical in the mountains of Luzon Island. The country is well known for its typhoons, which are the strongest and most often in the world here.
All this forms two main seasons in the Philippines- wet season, which starts on May-June and ends around December, and dry season- the rest of the year. During the dry season, the weather is generally dry, but short rains are still not rare. The sky is deep blue, and the cloud cover is fast changing. You can see sunshine in the morning, thick clouds coming for 15 mins, short rain (sometimes strong) passing for 5-10 mins, then the rainy cloud disappears and the sun again dominates the sky. And it may happen a few times a day.
During the dry season it is winter in the Northern hemisphere, but the “winter cold” can be felt usually only in the northern Cordillera mountains of Luzon Island- with temperatures usually not lower than 8 to 15 C. In the other parts of the Philippines the weather is hot, just not VERY hot, but “normal” hot. The VERY hot weather (at its peak) is on April-May before the rainy season begins.
Rainy (wet) season
Then the rains become more often, the sky is mostly cloudy and it prevents the temperature of the “summer” to become too hot. This is the rainy season. And also this is the season of the typhoons, which sometimes can be really severe and seriously to disturb and change your Philippines itinerary.
All this has formed the natural “cover” of the Philippines. The mountains of Cordillera in Luzon Island are mainly covered by pine and deciduous forests, with more subtropical features, sometimes mixed with bamboo and banana trees.
In the lowlands, the coconut palms are dominating. On the north, in Luzon Island, the forests are tropical, but not “rainforest jungle” type, sometimes mixed with banana and coconut trees. And in the south, the wildlands are mostly covered by tropical forests with rainforest features, but still, not like the forests of Amazonia. Again, the coconut palms are strongly dominating. There are large areas, covered by coconut forests, forming a “tropical paradise” landscape, especially at the seacoast and the beaches.
History of the Philippines
All this environment has influenced the human history of the Philippines. As usual, I will make a short timeline of the historical periods of the country:
Archaic (Negritos) period: unknown to around 4-2 century BC (probably)
Nobody knows exactly what time the first settlers have come to the Philippines. All that is known, is that they were Negritos- short, black-skinned people with curly hair, closer to the Melanesians, Papuans, and the Australian Aborigines. Some of them still remain today. There are some tribes and societies of these people, living mainly in the mountains. From them, the most famous are Aeta people, living in and around Mount Pinatubo.
Early Austronesian period:from 4-2 century BC to 10 century AD
It is considered that the Austronesian group of people has come from Taiwan, more than 2000 years ago. First, they settled in the Philippines, gradually pushing the local Negritos to the mountains. From there, they migrated to the whole Sunda Archipelago, then to the east- to Micronesia and Polynesia, and to the west- to Madagascar, thus performing one of the largest migrations of people in the history.
They established their own states, scattered around the islands. Some of them become parts of the larger Hindu empires of Indonesia and Malaysia.
Muslim and Hindu period: from 10 century AD to 1565
Islam has come to the Philippines by the trading activity between the Arabs and East Asia in the Middle Ages. So it arrived in the Philippines too. Not only Arabs but mainly local Austronesian Muslims gradually set Islam around the islands of the country. They also established their Islamic states, among which the strongest was Maynila Sultanate.
Meanwhile some Hindu settlers established their states, of which most significant was the Singhapala Rajahnate of today’s Cebu. And some of them remained outside of the Islamic conquest until the coming of the Europeans.
Spanish period: from 1565 to 1898/1901
This period was preceded by the arriving of Fernando Magellan and his people, after their long travel around the Earth from Europe, around South America and through the Pacific Ocean. But Magellan was killed during a battle between the Europeans and the locals, near today’s Cebu city. Anyway, around 40 years later the Spaniards came again, lead by the conquistador Miguel de Legazpi, and soon established the Colonial Spanish state of the whole Philippines islands.
In the next 3 centuries, these islands gradually adapt to the Spanish culture in many aspects. One of the main is the spreading of Catholic Christianity. Many churches were built during that period. Now some of them are in ruins, but others stay and are active until now. Among them, you can find churches, which are unique in their history or architecture, and they have become tourist attractions today.
The only exception of this general historic development was Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, which remain mainly Muslim and outside of the Spanish territory, ruled by the Sultans of Lanao, Maguindanao Sultanate and the Sultanate of Sulu.
American period: from 1898/1901 to 1946
Following the decay of the Spanish Colonial Empire, there was a war between Spain and its successor Mexico, with the United States of America. At the end of the Spanish rule, a strong movement for independence arose in the Philippines, inspired and lead by the country’s national heroes Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, and Apolinario Mabini. This movement reached its peak with the establishment of the Tagalog Republic, in the gap between the Spanish and the American rule (1898 to 1901).
This independent republic, however, was put in the end by the Americans, who established their colonial rule, gradually including all the islands of the Philippines. The country has developed by the new rulers from the USA, who also contribute to the forming of the contemporary Filipino culture.
The country suffered a lot during the WW2 and the Japanese invasion. A lot of death and destruction came, especially to Manila, where the Japanese army committed a massacre. Anyway, the war was over and a new chance for independence appeared. And it happened in 1946.
Independent Philippines period: from 1946 until now
After a treaty between the newly independent country and the USA, the Philippines was a democratic republic, ruled by a President. The democracy has been suppressed only during the rule of President Marcos (1965 to 1968), who was more like a dictator, rather than a “normal” president. Anyway, its controversial role is considered differently by the local Filipinos even until now.
After Marcos, the Philippines gained more freedom, but at the same time- more corruption and problems with security. It was until the time of Rodrigo Duterte, the contemporary president, who, at least for now, has successfully found a good balance between freedom, democracy, “iron hand”, and the resolving of the problems with crimes and corruption.
Culture of the Philippines
All this nature and history have formed the Filipino culture that every traveler can see and experience, when comes to the Philippines. In two words- it is a “mixed culture”, influenced by the original Filipinos, Spaniards, Americans, partially by Muslims in the south, and the Chinese- in a “tropical paradise” with some volcanoes and typhoons. In other words- the Philippines has become the only “Latino country” in Asia, with many similarities with countries like Mexico, Colombia, Equador and Peru, but in its own unique Asian way.
You can feel these influences everywhere- from the food, historic remains, religion, and art, to the daily life and behavior of the local Filipinos, even their Spanish sounding names.
Exploring the geography of the Philippines
There are so many places to visit and explore in the Philippines. Some of the places are well-known and favorite destinations, and others are less popular, off the beaten gems. If you want to explore the main features of natural geography, you can find a great variety of landscapes. And if you want to explore the culture and history, there is a lot of opportunities too.
So, let’s zoom the map of the Philippines and see what we can reveal there. Let’s discover it from the capital Manila to the most remote and off the beaten corner of the country.
This is the largest island of the Philippines archipelago and the 15th in an area on the Earth. Luzon has diverse geography which offers a great variety of landscapes and spots to explore- mountains, beaches, valleys, volcanoes, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, caves and many more. The island is also the main cultural and political center of the Philippines. All this makes Luzon a place with a lot of places to visit, really worth to be included in your itinerary. But let’s start from its central part, where is the capital of the Philippines- Manila.
Usually, most of the Philippines itineraries start from Manila, then heading to the north, southeast, south or southwest. Seen from above, Luzon Island has an interesting shape, like a “big head of an alien with a tail stretching toward southeast”. And its central part is the area “below” its big “forehead”. There is the capital Manila, located at its “mouth”.
Geography of Central Luzon
The central part of Luzon Island is the whole area between Caraballo Mountains on the north, Laguna Lake and Manila Bay on the south, and both the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. In general, there are three natural areas. The first one is on the west- Zambales Mountains, with nice flat beaches of the South China Sea, and the famous Mt. Pinatubo. In the middle is the large Central Luzon Plain with the solitary Mt. Arayat in the middle. And on the east is the southern part of Sierra Madre mountain range, with some of the best surfing beaches in the Philippines at the Pacific Ocean coast. Finally, there is Manila, on its southern end.
Places to visit
The first place, of course, is the capital, Manila. There is a lot to see and experience in Manila, especially if you arrive in the Philippines for the first time. At least this is the place where you can get a first impression of the country, its people, culture, daily life, and reality. In Manila, there are two most important (and mandatory) areas to visit- the modern center of Ayala in Makati, and the historic Intramuros. Then, there are a lot of other places like Chinatown, Malacanang Palace, Coconut Palace, etc.
From Manila to the northwest, the first really worth to visit the place is Mt. Pinatubo, famous for its 1991 eruption. There is not a beautiful crater lake, and you can also touch the unique Aeta people’s culture.
At the western seacoast: you can enjoy some beautiful beaches, such as Hidden Beach, Montemar, Lindamar, Sunset Beach and Olanen. There is also a scuba diving sanctuary, called Masinloc Oyon, and a maze of small islands (again great for scuba diving) in the Gulf of Lingayen, called „Hundred Islands”. But again, the most important reason to visit the coast is Botolan, one of the starting points for Mt. Pinatubo trekking.
The Central Luzon Plain is one of the most developed areas of the Philippines. There is not much to explore in the plain, except for a few towns presenting some Spanish architecture and Mt. Arayat.
Then, finally- on the east is Sierra Madre and the Pacific coast. In this area, the most important destination is Baler- one of the best surfing spots in the Philippines. Then, there are some small remote beaches, on the foot of the mountains which are really charming and only to reach them is an adventure. Besides this, you can make some trekking in Sierra Madre, reaching the sea coast.
How to travel there
Since this is the central part of the country with the capital Manila, it is also the easiest part of traveling. Manila itself is full of transport options. Although a bit different than most of the big cities (for example there are buses of public city transport but without numbers), but still it is very convenient.
Then, for the places outside of Manila, again, there are plenty of choices- buses, jeepneys, rental car companies (I would recommend Gaano Rental Car in Clark, Angeles) and tricycles. Only the area of Mt. Pinatubo is different. It is a national park, located within a military zone and you need a travel permit to go there. The best way is by a local travel company (we used Pinaykeypoint).
Finally, the most difficult to access places are the eastern slopes of Sierra Madre, to the Pacific coast. There are almost no roads and the only way to reach some of the places there is only by boat or by adventurous trekking through the mountain.
This is the “forehead” of Luzon Island. It is the coolest and one of the wildest parts of the Philippines
Geography of Northern Luzon
Geographically, the territory of Northern Luzon borders the South China Sea on the west, the Pacific Ocean on the east, the waters where the sea and the ocean mix on the north, and Caraballo Mountains on the south.
The western part of Northern Luzon is covered by Cordilerra Mountains, where you can find the highest peak of Luzon- Mt. Pulag (2922 m). These mountains are a labyrinth of valleys and summits, quite cool in winter. As in many other mountainous areas in the Philippines, you can find caves, waterfalls and many other natural formations.
Then, the eastern part of Northern Luzon consists of Cagayan Valley and the northern part of Sierra Madre. Cagayan is the largest river in the Philippines, and Sierra Madre is the longest mountain range. The sea coast is relatively plain in the west and north, and steeper in the east. Most of the beaches are located on the west and north.
Places to visit
All these natural areas in Northern Luzon have their best and representative destinations which you must include when you build your itinerary.
If you travel along the sea coast, you can see a lot of beaches and other beautiful places. But there are some spots which are really worth- the most important places on the coast. On the west, there is San Juan, another surfing center, then Vigan- a beautiful city full of history and Spanish architecture. Finally, you can see the only mini-desert in the Philippines near Laoag- Payay Sand Dunes.
On the northern coast, there are two important destinations: Pagudpud and Palaui Island. Pagudpud is a beautiful sea resort, and Palaui is a stunning island with an authentic nature. Finally, the eastern coast is the wildest area of Luzon. There are not many beaches, and almost no roads to this area, which makes it really adventurous.
In the Cordillera Mountains, there are three important destinations: Baguio, Sagada and Banaue Rice Terraces. Baguio is a beautiful mountain city, full of colors. Sagada is a small town with caves and the mysterious “Hanging Coffins”. And Banaue Rice Terraces are considered one of “the 8th wonders of the world”. Besides these three places, there are several natural parks and again- Mt. Pulag.
Finally, in the east, there are not some “important” destinations, but Sierra Madre is full of adventures and hidden off the beaten gems like rainforests, caves, waterfalls, and gorges.
How to travel in Northern Luzon
There are buses from Manila to the main destinations in Northern Luzon. But the most convenient way to travel is by rental car. However, have in mind that most of the roads are narrow and curving on the mountain slopes, so the trip can be very long, even for some 40-50 km distance. And finally, in Sierra Madre and some other areas- as I mentioned above, there are no roads, but the coastal places are reachable only by boats, or by trekking and adventures.
Southern Luzon, with the nearby surrounding islands
This is “the tail of Luzon”- the part of the island with the most complicated shape, as well as with many other islands surrounding it from everywhere.
Geography of Southern Luzon
Southern Luzon begins from Laguna Lake and gradually turns into the long Bicol Peninsula (the tail of Luzon). The peninsula stretches southeastward, reaching its extreme point at Culasi village. Its coastline forms multiple bays and peninsulas, with many surrounding islands. There are not high mountainous areas on the Southern Luzon like in the north, but mainly low mountains and hills, covering the whole territory. However, there are some exceptions- volcanoes. There are several volcanoes, of which the most beautiful one is Mayon.
There are also two large lakes in the Southern Luzon- Laguna Lake (actually dividing Southern and Central Luzon) and Taal Lake, which is formed by volcanic activity, and there is the smallest volcano in the Philippines- Taal.
Besides, there are a lot of surrounding islands. The largest ones nearby are Polillo, Catanduanes, and Marinduque (Mindoro, Coron, Palawan, and Masbate are considered also as a part of the Luzon island group, but I will share about them later).
Places to visit
Southern Luzon is relatively easy to explore because it is a narrow strip of land, so you just have to follow its southeastern direction.
The first important destinations on these directions are Taal Lake and Volcano with Tagaytay and Batangas. The first one is a unique natural formation and the second- a nice sea resort city with many historical and natural spots inside and near it.
Then there are several significant and must-visit places at the end of the Bicol Peninsula. On the northeastern coast of Bicol is Caramoan with its Gota Beach and other stunning natural sea coast formations- pools, rocks, all covered by rainforest. Then another very important place is Mayon Volcano– considered as the most beautiful volcano on Earth. Other really worth to visit places, all in this area, are Donsol (the best place to watch wild whale sharks), Sorsogon, and the volcanic mountains of Isarog and Malinao.
Of the nearby surrounding islands, Catanduanes is a good place to be included in your itinerary. It is mostly famous for its surfing spot at Puraran Beach. Another worth to visit island is Marinduque, with its beaches, caves, and mountains, including some historical sites like the Red Mountain.
How to travel in Southern Luzon
The transport in the mainland of Luzon is well arranged. Buses and domestic flights are connecting Legazpi with Manila. And there are a lot of local transport options to the various places around the island.
There are ferries, speed, and slow boats to the bigger islands too. But for the small islands usually, you just have to arrange local boats for island hopping. In general, the whole Southern Luzon and the islands nearby are easy to access.
Mindoro is the next and the nearest to Manila piece of land other than Luzon. And like all other larger islands of the Philippines, it is surrounded by many other small islands. Let’s take a closer look at Mindoro.
Geography of Mindoro Island
Mindoro is the 7th largest island in the Philippines. In general, it is a mountainous land, with mountains rising to more than 2500 m altitude. There are some beautiful beaches, especially on its north coast, where you can find the island’s most popular resorts.
And near the main island, you can see several small islands and isles. The largest ones are Lubang Islands on the northwest. Other smaller islands can be seen south of Mindoro- Ilin, Semirara, Caluya, Sibay and many other small isles around them, as well as Concepcion Island on the east. But maybe the most beautiful pieces of land are west of Mindoro- the coral Apo reefs, a great scuba diving spot.
Places to visit
The most popular destination in Mindoro Island is Puerto Galera. It is a famous resort which has become well-known due to its great beaches. In general, there are not too many other important destinations in Mindoro, but just some natural parks like Mount Calavite, Pinamalayan, Mount Igit-Baco (where the highest peak of Mindoro is located), and Parola Park.
There are also some other nice beaches, far from the crowds of Puerto Galera. On the western coast, you can enjoy Ragara Beach, and especially Pandan Island, near Parold Park. On the eastern coast- Suguicay, Buktot, and Bulaklak beaches. And if you are looking for something historical or cultural, you can visit Simbahang Bato- the ruins of an old Catholic church from the 17th century with a smaller chapel within the ruins.
And on the smaller islands, there are some relatively minor but still nice places to visit. In Lubang Island you can try Onoda Trail and Caves, as well as Kansulit Beach. There are some beaches on the other small islands near Mindoro. But the best place to visit is the Apo Reef.
How to travel in Mindoro
There are regular domestic flights from Manila to San Jose, on the southern end of Mindoro. But for the northern part of the island, particularly Puerto Galera, the most popular way is by ferries and speed boats from Batangas. Then, from Puerto Galera, you can find a lot of on-land transportation to the rest of the island- jeepneys, buses, tricycles, etc.
For the smaller surrounding islands, there are speed or wooden boats from the nearby settlements. If you want to reach Lubang, however, you have to do it from Manila or Batangas. And for Apo Reef, you have to go to Sablayan. From there, the only way is to join a day trip or a reef safari, organized by the local dive shops.
Coron and the nearby islands
Looking on the map of the Philippines, you can see a chain of islands stretching southwestward from Luzon and Mindoro. The first island cluster of them is the group of Coron, called Calamian Islands, part of Palawan Archipelago. Let’s see what can we discover there.
Geography of Coron and the nearby islands
This group of islands is scattered between Mindoro and the long Palawan Island. The largest one of them is Busuanga. Coron and Culion are its larger neighbors. And Linacapan is closer to Palawan. These islands are hilly and most of them are covered by limestone. In fact, you can see a real labyrinth of karst rock formations, bays, isles, cliffs and reefs, which forms great conditions for scuba diving.
And there are some other smaller islands and reefs, south of Coron, much inside the Sulu Sea, called Cuyo Archipelago. The largest of them is Cuyo Island, and the second-largest- Agutaya Island. Most of them are uninhabited and in general, hard to reach, which makes them a challenge for beautiful adventures.
Places to visit
The most popular place to visit is Coron Island. It is now turned into a National Park, managed by the local Tagbanuas people. And there are a lot of stunning landscapes, such are Twin Lagoon, Kayangan and Barracuda Lakes, as well as some small pristine beaches. There are also a lot of paradise-like spots on the neighboring small islands too.
Another area to visit is Cuyo Islands. Cuyo Town, located on the largest of the islands, is the oldest town in the large Palawan Archipelago, which has preserved its unique culture due to its remoteness. And all this is surrounded by stunning paradise kind of landscapes. It is a place for adventurers.
How to travel in Coron and the other islands of the group
There are two ways to reach these islands from Manila- by air and by ferries. First, you reach their main transport hubs- the airports and main seaports of Busuanga for Coron, and Cuyo Town for the rest of the islands.
Then, in Coron, you can take a tricycle, jeepney, van or bus to the areas within the main island of Busuanga (or rent a scooter). But if you want to visit the neighboring islands, especially Coron Island, you have to join a tour.
And for Cuyo Islands, there are only tricycles within the main island. For some of the other islands, there are local boats, and island hoping opportunities.
Let’s proceed further in this direction- to the main island of Palawan (and its surrounding islets), which is one of the most famous tourist destinations in the Philippines.
Geography of Palawan
Palawan is a long and narrow strip of land, almost reaching the Island of Borneo in Malaysia. It is a part of the Palawan Archipelago, which includes also Coron and the other smaller islands. And like all other larger islands in the Philippines, Palawan is surrounded by smaller pieces of land too. They are almost missing on both sides, but are a continuation of its main mountain range. The last group of them is called Balabac, and the two last Philippines islands in this direction are North and South Mangsee islands.
Much of the northeastern part of Palawan is covered by limestone, forming the breathtaking El Nido karst area. There are also a lot of beaches on both sides of the island. And the mountains in the island’s interior are rising to more than 2000 m altitude. Another interesting fact is that the forests and the animals of Palawan are more like those in Borneo, rather than in the other main islands of the Philippines.
Places to visit
The most popular place to visit in Palawan is El Nido- an area around the town with the same name, well known for its stunning karst formations- lagoons, rocky cliffs, small hidden beaches, rocky islets and peninsulas, covered by lush tropical rainforest. It is located at the extreme northeastern part of the island.
Then moving to the southwest, the karst landscape gradually changes, turning into high mountains and multiple narrow pristine beaches on both sea coasts. Along the beaches, you can find a historic site- the Spanish Fort Santa Isabel near the town of Taytay.
Further southwest is the largest city of Palawan- Puerto Princesa, where you can visit its Underground River, then see a wildlife sanctuary, a firefly watching site, called Iwahig, and a little further in the mountain- Salakot Falls.
On the South China sea coast, you can find Tabon Caves. Then, further southwest is Mt. Mantalingajan, the highest peak of Palawan. Finally, the main island ends and there are Balabac Islands. There is nothing really popular on these islands, but their remoteness is a great condition for those who love off the beaten paths.
How to travel in Palawan
First, to reach Palawan, you have to arrive at one of its two main points- El Nido or Puerto Princesa. You can do it by plane or by ferry/boat, from Manila, Cebu or Mindoro Island. Or you can reach El Nido from Coron as a part of a southwestern Philippines itinerary. Then, you can explore the interior of the island by jeepneys, tricycles, rental car or van. There are also some daily island hopping trips to some nearby small islands.
Beyond Palawan, the islands of Balabac group are more remote. There is some local boat transportation from the main Palawan Island. And the most difficult to access and the extreme Mangsee islands, since there is no public sea transport to them. But you can reach them only by a private boat from Balabac.
Batanes and Babuyan Islands
Now, let’s go to other extreme pieces of land in the Philippines- the northernmost islands of the country, located north of Luzon Island. They are Babuyan and Batanes Islands.
Geography of Batanes and Babuyan Islands
Batanes and Babuyan are two archipelagos of several small islands. Babuyan Islands are located right north of Luzon Island They are five larger islands and a few small islets around them, arranged in a semi-circle. The largest one is Calayan Island. In general, they are sparsely populated, mostly covered by tropical forest or grassland.
And Batanes Islands are north of Babuyan. The islands of Batanes are a chain of three larger and several smaller islands. Most of them have a volcanic origin. And the northernmost island of the Batanes group is Amianan. It is almost at the northern edge of the tropical zone of the Earth and in very clear weather you can even see Taiwan in the far distance.
Places to visit
Both Batanes and Babuyan are remote, off the beaten pieces of land, far from the popular tourist destinations of the Philippines. In Babuyan, the most interesting place is Babuyan Island, especially its Smith Volcano. On the other islands of Babuyan Archipelago, there are only some fishing villages, small beaches, and forests.
Batanes are a bit better developed. There is even a small city in this group, in Batan Island, which is the administrative center of Batanes Province. And again, just exploring some of these islands, and the culture of the local Ivatan people is worth. You can see inactive volcanoes, small remote beaches, lagoons, grasslands, and forests. And just for a geographical purpose (which could be enough exciting itself) you can visit Amianan Island and try to see Taiwan in the north.
How to travel in Batanes and Babuyan
Although Babuyan Islands are closer to Luzon, they are more difficult to reach. The only way is by ferry from San Vicente, or by cargo boat, called lampitaw, from Claveria, Aparri or Santa Ana in Luzon. No flights to Babuyan, since there is no airport there.
The situation in Batanes is different. Currently, there is no ferry or other sea transport to Batanes, but only domestic flights. You can take a plane to Basco from Manila. Once you arrive in Basco, you can explore Batan Island by tricycle, scooter or bike. Then, there are boats to the nearby islands. Maybe the most difficult to reach is Amianan island, which is now a military zone. Obviously, you need a permit which is difficult to obtain, and the only way to reach this island by military sea transport.
Panay, Tablas, Romblon, and Sibuyan
The Philippines like a broken pitcher, scattered into more than 7000 pieces. So, let’s back to the south, particularly to the middle of the country and explore one of the larger pieces, called Panay, along with its smaller surrounding pieces.
Geography of Panay, Tablas, Romblon and Sibuyan islands
Panay is the sixth-largest island in the Philippines. It has a triangular shape and belongs to the Visayas group of islands. Its western part is mountainous, with the highest peak rising to 2117 m (Mt. Madia-as), and the eastern part is mainly flat. The island is covered by tropical forests and agricultural land. Its largest city is Iloilo.
There are many small surrounding islands and islets around Panay. Of them the largest one is Guimaras. And the most popular (and most beautiful) one is Boracay. Among the other small islands, one of the most remote is Mannequin, located quite inside the Sulu Sea.
Then, if you start from the northern end of Panay, there is an island chain after Boracay, which proceeds to several relatively larger islands- Carabao, Tablas, Romblon (or Romblon-Romblon) and Sibuyan. They are again like many other classical islands in the Philippines- mountainous inside, with narrow beaches and rocky cliffs on the coast, covered by tropical rainforest and coconut palms. And, as usual, they are not „alone”, but again surrounded by smaller islets nearby.
Places to visit
The most popular place to visit in this part of the Philippines undoubtedly is Boracay- a famous resort with great sand beaches. Everything else in this area is much more „off the beaten”, at least compared to Boracay, and lies „behind the shadow” of this resort.
In Panay Island, the main interesting places for exploring are natural, not cultural or historical. There are a lot of beaches on the coasts of the island, some of them turned into small resorts. Of them, I would mention Curvada (at the west coast), Basang Basa, and especially Sandbar Island in the southeast. In the interior of Panay- head to the western mountains. There you can see a tropical rainforest, small waterfalls and rock formations such as Liktinon White Rocks.
Then, from the surrounding islands, the most stunning is the remote Mannequin Island. In Tablas Island maybe the most beautiful part is in its extreme north, the area of Tinagong Dagat lakes, with a beautiful combination of beaches, rocky cliffs, and forest. Other than this, you can enjoy some waterfalls there.
In Romblon-Romblon and Sibuyan, again, there is nothing more special and different, but at the same time- incredibly beautiful as everywhere. If you visit Sibuyan island, don’t skip Mt. Guiting-Guiting, a peak in a national park, rising to 2037 m altitude.
How to travel to Panay, Tablas, Romblon, and Sibuyan
Panay is well-connected to Manila and the rest of the Philippines. There are three main airports- Caticlan, Kalibo, and Iloilo. Another way is by ferry and speed boat. Caticlan Jetty Port is the main sea gate from the north and Iloilo- from the south. Once you arrived at some of the entry points in Panay, there are a lot of transport options- bus, jeepney, tricycle, van or rental car, to the whole island.
There are also constant boat rides from Caticlan Jetty Port to Boracay. But to the other islands, the boats are rarer. There are ferries from Caticlan or Batangas to the islands of Tablas, Romblon, and Sibuyan. And only island hopping tours to the smaller islands and islets nearby.
Masbate, Burias, and Ticao
Now let’s look to three other islands, located between Luzon and Panay (and their smaller satellites, as usual). These are Masbate, Burias and Ticao.
Geography of Masbate, Burias, and Ticao
These three islands are narrow strips of land, oriented in direction northwest to southeast. Masbate is the largest one, and Burias with Ticao are like „its two little brothers” beside it. All they are hilly, but not high. There are no unique formations like karst hills or a labyrinth of lagoons, but there are some nice beaches and marine sanctuaries in the area.
Places to visit
There are not many interesting places to visit in these three islands. Maybe the most beautiful spot in the area is located in Ticao Island- at its northwest extreme point. There is Halea Nature Park- a stunning marine landscape with small rocky islets and crystal clear waters.
And another place worth to visit, aside from the nice beaches on the coast is Bat-Ongan Cave, in the interior of Masbate Island. But again, the lack of special and popular destinations always has its own advance, at least in the Philippines. It makes the area quite off the beaten and much more authentic.
How to travel to Masbate, Burias, and Ticao
There is only one airport- in Masbate Island, reachable by domestic flights from Manila and Cebu. But the main way to travel to these three islands is by sea because they are in the middle between Cebu and Luzon Island. So, numerous ferries and boats are connecting Masbate with Cebu Island, and the mainland of Luzon at Bicol. There are also boats between these three islands.
From the islands’ entry points, there are as usual a lot of jeepneys, tricycles and other kinds of transportation. And usually only private boats to the smaller satellite islets.
The Sulu Sea isolated islands- Cagayan and Mapun
The Sulu Sea is a large body of water, located mostly within the Philippines, between the islands of Palawan, Mindanao, Sulu Archipelago, Visayas and Borneo-Kalimantan or Malaysia, and Indonesia. But it is not 100% „empty”. There are a few small isolated islands, deep in its interior. These are Cagayan and Mapun islands, as well as some other small reefs and satellite islets near the coast of Borneo, but still belonging to the Philippines.
Geography of the isolated islands in the Sulu Sea
There are a few isolated islands in the Sulu Sea. The northernmost of them is a small archipelago, consisted of Cagayan (Cagayancillo), Tanusa, Dondonay and Calusa islands. They are very small and almost flat, without forests.
Some 130 km southwest of them you can find maybe the most beautiful spot in the middle of the Sulu Sea. This is Tubbataha Reef- an atoll structure with small rock formations, mini islets, and sandbars, considered as one of the best diving spots on the Earth.
Then, on the other side of the Sulu Sea, you can find Mapun- a small island with smaller satellite islets around it. In fact, it is much closer to Malaysia than to the other parts of the Philippines.
But that’s not all. There are several other reefs, located north, and northeast of Mapun. They are Basterra, Bancoran Manuc Manucan, Bancauan and Valparaiso reefs, and all they are great diving spots. And finally, there is a group of small islets much near to the coast of Borneo. They are called Turtle Islands. Actually, only 7 of them belong to the Philippines. Some are inhabited, some not, and the uninhabited ones are turned into a sea turtle sanctuary. Another interesting feature of these islands is the mud volcanoes- the only phenomenon of this type in the Philippines.
Places to visit
Needless to say, all these places are incredibly beautiful and a serious challenge for visitors. The most stunning of these spots are the coral reefs like Tubbataha, where you can literally dive into another world.
How to travel to the isolated islands of the Sulu Sea
It’s difficult. In some cases- very difficult. There are two mini-airports (or airstrips) in Mapun and Cagayancillo, only for Cessna flights. All other options are by sea, and it is also a challenge. There is no regular ferry or boat service to these islands. Yes, there are boats, departing from Palawan, but they usually leave when full.
To the coral reefs, there are only organized boat trips, again from Palawan. And maybe the most difficult to access are the Turtle Islands, because they are in the sea border area with Malaysia, and also because they are a natural protected area. They are accessible only by a special permit and hardly arrangeable boat tour.
Negros, Cebu, Siguijor, and Bohol
Now let’s “back to the civilization”. Negros, Cebu, Siquijor, and Bohol (and of course the other smaller surrounding islands) are one of the most developed and touristy areas in the Philippines. So let’s see what makes these pieces of land so attractive.
Geography of Negros, Cebu, Siquijor, and Bohol
These four islands and their smaller satellites are a significant part of Visayas, the middle part of the Philippines. Negros is the largest of them. Cebu is the longest, being a narrow strip of land. Bohol is relatively round and Siquijor is the smallest and the southernmost of the group.
Negros and Cebu are more mountainous, while Bohol and Siquijor are more hilly and flat. All of them are highly populated, and the rainforests in their interior are mixed with agricultural fields.
Bohol is famous for its specific karst formations, forming the Chocolate Hills, which are conical karst type of hills. All other „tropical paradise” features are well-presented on these islands- beaches, waterfalls, jungles, crystal clear waters with corals and rich marine wildlife, as well as sand bars, of which the most famous one is Manjuyod Sandbar. And finally, there are a lot of small satellite islands, of which the best two are Bantayan and Malapascua.
Culturally and historically, this area is the core of the Spanish influence, particularly in Cebu City, which the third-largest city in the Philippines and the main transportation hub. It is also famous as the oldest living city in the country, with the oldest street, and the oldest church and Spanish fortress. But most significantly, it is well-known for its symbol- Magellan, the notorious explorer, who died here some 500 years ago.
Places to visit
Needless to say, there are really a lot of places to visit in this area. Many of these places are now popular tourist destinations, while others are more off the beaten.
In Negros, the main and most important places are Bacolod City, especially with its beautiful historical building remnant, called „The Ruins”. North of it is Silay, with its classical European architecture, making it „a museum city”.
And the island and its surrounding small islets are full of natural places to visit. In its interior, the best place is Mt. Canlaon, the highest peak of Negros, and Balinsasayao Twin Lakes. Then, there are a lot of paradise-like spots on and near its coast. Of them, the best places are Manjuyod Sandbar and Apo Island with its great diving features, located near Dumaguete. Near the western coast are Danjugan and Turtle islands, and near the northern coast- Lakawon Island. All they have great beaches with excellent sand.
Cebu is the neighboring of Negros island. Its main place to visit is Cebu City itself, with the nearby Mactan Island. Then, the two other main attractions are Moalboal- a great place with beaches and diving spots, and Oslob, well-known for its whale shark watching. And in the interior, don’t skip Kawasan Falls- one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Philippines.
Bohol is mostly famous for two things. The first one is called Chocolate Hills, one of the island’s symbol. And the second one is not a place, but an animal, called Tarsier, one of the smallest and cutest mammals on the Earth. There are also beautiful rainforests and rivers, of which the most popular one is Loboc River. And talking about beaches, the best of them are in the Bohol’s satellite Panglao. They are some of the best in the whole country.
Siquijor is known as a mysterious island for its unique culture. And again, it is full of beaches and diving spots. But the best natural spots are its waterfalls, of its the most popular is Cambugahay Falls.
And finally, there are many other smaller islands and islets in the area. Of them, the most attractive are Bantayan and Malapascua, known mainly for their excellent diving conditions.
How to travel in Negros, Cebu, Bohol, and Siquijor
Usually, the starting point for traveling in this area is Cebu City. There are regular transport connections by air and sea to its airport (which is an international airport) and seaport. From Cebu, there are a lot of ferries and boats to Bohol, Negros, and Siquijor. Within Cebu City and the whole island itself, there are also a lot of options- buses, tricycles, jeepneys, and vans.
Then, in Negros Island, the main entry point is Dumaguete. From there you can travel around the island, as well as to Siquijor. Bacolod is also another entry point, but not as popular as Dumaguete because it is better connected with Panay (Iloilo).
In Bohol, the main entry point is Tagbilaran, with regular flights from Manila and boats from Cebu. Then, there are also a lot of options for exploring the interior of the island.
And finally, Siquijor’s transport connection, as well as the connections to Bantayan and Malapascua, is less developed. These islands are accessible by boats too, and their interior doesn’t have such more options as in Cebu, Negros, and Bohol.
Samar and Leyte
The central part of the Philippines is not over. Looking on the map, east of Cebu and Bohol can be seen two other large islands, almost joined together. These islands are Samar and Leyte. Although not such popular as the area around Cebu City, they also have a lot to reveal.
Geography of Samar and Leyte
Samar and Leyte are a part of the Eastern Visayas region. They are separated with an extremely narrow strait, called San Juanico. Both islands face the Pacific Ocean from the east, strongly exposed at its typhoons and big waves. Samar is larger and flatter, with better surfing conditions on its east coast. Leyte is smaller and more mountainous, also covered by more tropical rainforest.
These two islands present all the typical features of the Philippines- rainforest, beaches, reefs, and shoals for diving, waterfalls, caves (in some small karst areas) and mountains. And since they are a bit aside from Cebu, they remain much off the beaten than the islands of the Western Visayas.
As usual, there are again many smaller satellite islands. Of them, the largest ones are Biliran, Poro, Daram, and Homonhon. The environment in these islands is not too different than in mainland Samar and Leyte. Homonhon, Kabani, and Batag provide surfing conditions since they are directly exposed to the wave of the Pacific Ocean.
Historically and culturally, these two islands also reveal some events and sites. They are the first lands of the Philippines, seen by the expedition of Magellan. And Leyte was the starting point of the American offensive against the Japanese during WW2 in the country.
Places to visit
There are not highly popular and touristy places in these islands, but some of their points of interest are not less beautiful and attractive than the famous ones. Most of the places to visit are natural. In Samar, there is the biggest cave system in the Philippines, called Langun-Cobingob Caves near Calbiga Town. Another interesting cave is Lobo Cave near Jiabong. Of the waterfalls, the best of them are Pinipisakan Falls. And there is Samar Island Natural Park- a great place for hiking adventures.
As for beaches- Malajog beach is one of the best on the quiet western coast. But if you look for big waves- Hilangagan Beach and Kabani Island and White Sand Beach are the best. In the smaller nearby island, don’t skip Homonhon Coral Reef, a great diving spot. And of the other attractions, I must mention San Juanico Bridge, connecting Samar with Leyte, the longest bridge in the Philippines.
There are similar natural spots in Leyte too. Of the caves, I would mention Hindang and Cambaro caves. The best waterfalls are Hindag-an, Tumpag, and Malagiucay. Alto Peak (the highest peak on the island) is a great place for hiking, as well as Mahagnao Volcano. Here in Leyte, I have to mention Danao Lake too- the most beautiful lake in these two islands. Of the beaches, the best ones are Molopolo White Beach, and the remote Digyo Island, west of mainland Leyte. And there is an important historical site too- MacArthur Landing Memorial Park, related to WW2.
How to travel in Samar and Leyte
Since Samar and Leyte are not such a touristy-developed area, the transport connections to and within these islands are less regular than the area of Cebu, Bohol, and Negros. Yes, there are flights and ferries from Cebu to the main cities in the islands- Calbayog and Tacloban, but not such often. There are air and sea connections also to Legazpi in Bicol and Surigao in Mindanao Island.
Within the islands, there are buses, jeepneys, and tricycles, but again, not so regular. For example, it is much more difficult to find any schedule information on the internet about bus routes. And there are boats to some of the more visited smaller satellite islands, but not to all. Some islands and areas can be reached only by private boats.
Siargao and Dinagat
Now, before we head on to the southern island of Mindanao, let’s take a look at two small islands (and again- their smaller satellites) between Mindanao, Leyte and the endless interior of the Pacific. These islands are Siargao and Dinagat, of which Siargao is the most popular one.
Geography of Siargao and Dinagat
These islands are actually northeastern satellites of Mindanao, but I prefer to look at them separately, because they are not so small, and from cultural and tourist points of view are different than mainland Mindanao.
Dinagat is the northwestern one of the two islands. It is more mountainous than Siargao, and in general, it doesn’t have something exclusively to attract tourists and travelers. There are some small beaches, but most of its coast is rocky. Its interior is covered by rainforest, coconut palms, and rural areas.
Siargao is much more popular. Due to its location, directly exposed to the currents of the Pacific Ocean, it has great conditions for big waves. This feature has made it the “Surfing capital of the Philippines”. The island is relatively low and hilly, covered almost entirely by a coconut palm forest, so it has been called “the Island of Palms” by the Spaniards. There are also some pristine narrow beaches and coral reefs. There is also one of the largest mangrove forests in the Philippines.
From the smaller satellite islands nearby, the best one is Bucas Grande (Socorro) Island, featuring a stunning labyrinth of lagoons, caves, and hills rising from the water, covered by lush tropical jungle.
Places to visit
Almost all the important places to visit in this area are in Siargao and its neighbor Bucas Grande (Socorro). The most popular tourist spot in Siargao is called Cloud 9, which is considered as one of the best surfing spots in the world. In Siargao you can also visit the Magpupungko Rock Pools, the pristine beaches nearby, to trek into the coconut palm forests, or to make island hopping, of which the most popular are the three islands of Guyam, Daku and Naked.
In Bucas Grande (Socorro) the most important place is Sohoton Cave National Park. A similar place can be found on the western side of Siargao (but without the caves), called Sugba Lagoon. In general, these places are the most important reason to travel to this area, and they are really worth it.
Concerning Dinagat, although it is not so popular place, there are also some hidden gems. You can find many small pristine beaches, rock formations, and caves, hidden in the jungle. Of them, I would mention Talisay Beach and Hagaknak Cave. There are also some lagoons and waterfalls, such as Legazpi Falls and Quano Blue Lagoon.
How to travel in Dinagat and Siargao
Due to its popularity, Siargao is well-connected with the rest of the Philippines. There are flights from Cebu, Davao and Manila, and speed boats from Surigao. Once you arrived in Dapa, Siargao, you can move around the island by tricycle or rental scooter. No jeepneys on the island. As for the neighboring smaller islands, there are a lot of boat trips, mainly from General Luna,
Dinagat is not such as well connected to the rest of the world as Siargao, but there are still ferries from Surigao. Then, again, you can find some local options, such as tricycles and scooters for the interior of the main island, and boats to the nearby smaller islets.
Finally, we reach the southern part of the Philippines, consisting mainly of Mindanao, the second largest island in the country. It also has a complicated shape, and while looking up at it, I can divide it geographically into three parts. But before that, let’s overview it as a whole one island.
Geography of Mindanao Island
Mindanao is the second-largest island in the Philippines, forming the southern part of the country. Its largest city is Davao, known as one of the largest in area (but not in population) cities in the world.
This is the most diverse and exotic part of the Philippines. Here you can find the highest peak in the country- Mt. Apo (2964 m). There are many other mountain ranges, as well as volcanoes. In Mindanao, you can also travel through high plateaus and wide valleys. And again, there are a lot of waterfalls, caves and other karst formations, gorges, rice terraces, and lush tropical rainforests. Needless to say, its coasts are also full of stunning beauty- beaches, cliffs, coral reefs, and lagoons- all at the main island and the surrounding smaller islands.
Culturally Mindanao is again the most diverse part of the country. There are a lot of ethnic groups, languages, and religions. Some live in rural areas, others live mainly in the larger cities, and some live in the forests or the remote nearby islands. All this makes Mindanao a great place to explore. However, not everything is like a paradise. Unfortunately, there are some tensions between some of the Muslims, and the other people, which causes occasional unrest and terrorist attack, making some parts of the island dangerous for traveling.
Now, let’s take a closer look at Mindanao
The eastern part of Mindanao is the whole area east of Agusan River (the third largest river in the Philippines) and the Davao gulf. The valley of Agusan and the area north of the gulf are a lowland, with some marshes and swamps with rich wildlife. In the north, there is the Diwata mountain range. In the southern part of this area is Mt Tagubud, and in the extreme south- Mt Hamiguitan, known for its unique ecosystems, including a pygmy forest. And the eastern coast of the island, being directly exposed to the Pacific Ocean and the Philippine Trench, face the more severe giant waves and currents.
Places to visit
There are a lot of stunning places on the eastern coast of Mindanao. In most of the beaches, you can see giant waves coming from the ocean. Among the best of them are Cabuyawan, Daquit, Masepit, Coalargo Beach, Britania Beach, and Islets, as well as Laswitan Lagoon. But the most unique place at the coast is the mysterious Enchanted river near Hinatuan Town, which changes its colors.
In the interior, there are a lot of adventurous options in the mountains, through mountain peaks, gorges, caves, waterfalls, and endless jungles. Paco Volcano is located in the north. Then the mountains of Tagubud and Hamiguitan are also great places for hiking. If you want to enjoy waterfalls, some of the best in this area include Pangyan, Marangig, Aliwagwag and Curtain Falls. Finally, there is the Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary in the Agusan Valley.
How to travel in the eastern part of Mindanao
This is the safest part of the island, although some terrorist attacks and kidnapping are possible. The main entry points for this area are the cities of Davao in the south and Surigao in the north. From there, as everywhere in the Philippines, you can use buses, jeepneys, tricycles or rental-car to the most places around. But some areas, especially in the mountains or along the Pacific coast are reachable only by boats or adventurous trekking.
This is the largest part of Mindanao Island, between Agusan Valley and Davao Gulf in the east, and Marawi area in the west. There are several mountain ranges and isolated peaks or volcanoes in the area. One of them is the highest point of the Philippines- Mt. Apo, near Davao. Other mountains include Balatukan, Mangabon, Piapayungan, Dulang-Dulang, and Dusa. There is also a large plateau, surrounding the mountains and volcanoes in Bukidnon Province. The rest of the area is lowlands and valleys, again with some marshes.
In the north, this area reaches the Mindanao Sea, dividing Mindanao from Bohol. And in the south is the Celebes Sea. There are several small satellite islands. Of them, Balut Island from the Sarangani Archipelago is the southernmost of the area, and one of the southernmost points of the whole country. As everywhere in the Philippines, the coast is full of stunning beaches, lagoons, and reefs.
Places to visit
The main place to visit in this area is Davao City, the largest city of Mindanao. There is not much to see in Davao. Its main attractions are San Pedro Cathedral and Jack’s Ridge. But its surroundings are full of stunning natural spots, including Eden Nature Park, the Crocodile Park, and Gumamela Caverock Farm. But the most interesting place is Mt. Apo, the highest mountain in the country.
Further from Davao, you can make trekking in the mountain areas of Mangabon, Piapayungan, and Katanglad. Other interesting places are Balatukan Range Park, Datu Atiyakaw Heritage Park, and Lebak Katunggan Eco Park. And for adventurous explorers, one of the most challenging areas is the land of T’boli minority and Sebu Lake, where you can experience the unique culture of these people.
The beaches are quite off the beaten, far from the most touristy areas in the Philippines. Of them, the best ones are Balut Island Beach, Maganal Beach Nama Beach, as well as many other beaches on the Celebes Sea coast. Camiguin Island in the north is another beautiful place to visit, for its mountains and waterfalls.
How to travel in the central part of Mindanao
The main entry points to this area of the Philippines are Davao City in the south, reachable by plane from Manila and Cebu, and Cagayan de Oro in the north, with good sea transport connections to Cebu. Another option is to make a round trip by rental car or bus, starting from Surigao. Then again, there are a lot of buses, jeepneys, and tricycles to most of the places in the interior, as well as boats to the small nearby islands.
This area is more unsafe than the eastern part of the island, and there have been unrests and even battles in some places, including Davao City. So, if you travel there, it is highly recommended to prepare accordingly. Have in mind that some tourists have been kidnapped for months and years, some were even killed.
This part of the island consists mainly of the long Zamboanga Peninsula, and to the east reaches Lanao Lake. The peninsula divides Sulu and Celebes seas. It looks like a giant finger pointing to the southwest, and Zamboanga City is located on its extreme point. The area is mountainous, but the mountains are not as high as those in the central part. There is another plateau on its eastern side, in Lanao del Sur Province. And all this area is again rich in all other stunning places that can be seen everywhere in the Philippines.
The area around and south of Lanao Lake is established as the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, due to the larger Muslim population living there. The main minority in this region is Moro. There are other minorities and religions, which is the main reason for the tension and the unrest, caused mainly by Muslim terrorist groups.
Places to visit
The most unique place to visit, different than all other natural spots, is Lanao Lake. There is the Salikata National Park near its coast, as well as Marawi City. The highest mountain in the area is Mt. Malindang. And Watershed Reservation near Zamboanga City is another great place for hiking.
In the coastal areas, you can enjoy Adam and Eve Beach near Iligan City, Misamis Occidental Aquamarine Park, Dolongin Beach, Bolong Beach, Linguisan Beach, and Calibao Beach. Baga Falls is the most beautiful waterfall in the area.
And finally- Zamboanga City, called “The City of Flowers”. It is a colorful city mainly for its mixture of cultures and languages. There are a lot of places to see in this city, from the historic Fort Pilar to Santa Cruz Islands with their pink and white sand beaches.
How to travel in the western part of Mindanao
Zamboanga is the main entry point for this area- by both air and sea. Another way to explore it is from Cagayan de Oro in the north, and again- Davao from the south. Then, again, there are a lot of the traditional transportation options within the area.
As I mentioned above, here is the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, which is a place full of problems. Due to the unrest and terrorist activities (mainly by the Abu Sayyaf organization), you have to be prepared well if you want to travel there. For travelers, the biggest problem remains the kidnapping.
This is the last remaining area of the Philippines in this post. Sulu is an off the beaten area for several reasons, although it is full of beauty. Let’s take a look at this last frontier of the country.
Geography of Sulu Archipelago
The Sulu Archipelago is a chain of islands, located between Zamboanga of Mindanao and the coast of Kalimantan (Borneo). They separate the Sulu Sea from the Celebes Sea. Some of them have a volcanic origin. The islands are segmented in several smaller subgroups, as one of the subgroups- Pangutiran Islands is north of the main direction of the other islands.
As in all other parts of the Philippines, Sulu Archipelago is a tropical paradise too, with all its features. But unfortunately, currently, these pieces of land suffer from Aby Sayyaf’s terrorist activities, especially in Jolo Island. But sooner or later these crazy things made by crazy people will stop, and nature will remain nature, full of beauty to enjoy.
Places to visit
There are a lot of places to visit in the Sulu Archipelago, and they would probably become popular destinations if there was no unrest. So, if you want to travel there, just be prepared for dangers. Only then, you can enjoy some really breathtaking places.
Basilan is the largest island in the archipelago, and beside the stunning beaches and reefs, there is Basilan National Park with Bulingan Falls. In Jolo Island, the best is Maubu Beach. Cabucan and Hegad Islands are classical ring-shaped atolls, great for diving. There is Siondoh Beach on Siasi Island and another coral reefs area at Siasi’s southeastern side. Tawitawi Island is covered by a splendid tropical rainforest, great for trekking. And finally, Frances Reef is not only a great diving spot, but also it has geographical significance because it is the last piece of land of the Philippines, and its southernmost extreme point.
How to travel in the Sulu Archipelago
The transportation to the Sulu Archipelago is not so developed, mainly because tourism is blocked by the unrest. There are several domestic airports- in Tawitawi, Jolo, and Isabela (Basilan), as well as seaports with connections to Zamboanga and Davao. And only boats to some of the islands. Many of the uninhabited islands and reefs are almost inaccessible unless you find a private boat. And within the larger islands, again, the main way to move is by local tricycles or motorcycles.
But the main problem is the unrest by the Muslim terrorists. The last event was on 27 Jan 2019, when the terrorists bombed a cathedral in Jolo.
Fortunately, these dangerous areas in the Philippines are small and scattered. All the rest of the country, which is more than 90% of its territory, is safe and great to explore. So, you can build your Philippine itinerary, and the options are really countless.
Planning a Philippines itinerary
Knowing all of the above, it is no wonder that one could expect really A LOT of places to see and things to do when he or she goes on a trip to the Philippines. Some of the places are more related to nature- beaches, diving and surfing spots, wildlife watching places, caves, waterfalls, lakes, forests, and volcanoes. Other places are more related to history and culture- old churches, ethnic neighborhoods, shrines, forts, museums, as well as destinations, presenting the modern life of the country. And the things to do in the Philippines, consequently, are really a lot.
In fact, if you want to explore all the Philippines’ basic destinations, it is impossible to do it within a short 2-3 weeks itinerary. It is impossible even for a month. We made our Philippines itinerary for 26 days and we covered only some parts of Luzon, Negros, Cebu, Bohol and Siargao. Maybe 3 or even 4 whole months would be enough to try everything essential for the country, but without “diving into details”.
When you choose the destinations of the Philippines that you would like to visit, you have to consider two things:
– What do you want to do?
– The geographical map of the Philippines with its real distances
WHAT THINGS DO YOU WANT TO (AND CAN) DO IN THE PHILIPPINES
Here are only the most popular ideas:
Relaxing on the beach
As a tropical island country, the Philippines has a lot of beautiful beaches, “decorated” with coconut palms. The seawater in most of the beaches is very pure and transparent, providing a beautiful blue color in various nuances. You can find a lot of excellent beaches, some with white sand, others with coral and rock formations.
Some of the best beaches are located in Boracay Island (the best white sand), Panglao Island near Bohol, Siquijor Island, Siargao Island, Puerto Galera near Batangas, San Juan in Luzon Island, Pagudpud on the extreme north, Camarines Sur and many other places.
It is a great activity of floating to some small nearby islands, islets and sand bars. There are a lot of island-hopping opportunities in Siargao and Camarines Sur, as well as Coron and Palawan. The best sand bar is Manjuyod, near Bais, in Negros Island. Normally you rent a boat and the boatman is serving you for a day or a few hours.
Scuba diving and marine wildlife watching
There are a lot of spots for such activities. Some of the best are located in Palawan and the islands of Visayas. I can mention Malapascua Island, Anilao, Palawan, Moalboal. And some more adventurous and exotic- Tubbahata Reef in the middle of the Sulu Sea. For whale shark watching the best-known places are Oslob and Donsol. And the best way to enjoy this activity is by LiveAboard cruises, which can take you to the best scuba diving destinations in the Philippines.
The best and most popular surfing spot in the Philippines is Cloud 9, in Siargao Island. Besides it, there are also Baler, San Juan, Real and a few more. They are generally located on the east coast of the Philippines islands, which are directly exposed to the vast Pacific Ocean, or on the northeast- to the South China Sea.
Normally, if you are looking for nightlife- parties, bars or other activities of this kind, you should look to the more touristy places like Boracay, Palawan, Cebu, and Manila.
Exploring the historical sites
There are a lot of historic traces, left from the last few centuries. They are mostly churches, forts, and some historic museums. You can find them mainly in Manila and especially Cebu, which is the oldest colonial city in the country.
There are a lot of karst terrains and the caves are an important feature of these terrains. Some of the best caves that you can find are located in the Cordillera mountains of Luzon Island, an example is Sagada. There are also some caves, located in the sea. Some of the most beautiful of them are in Palawan, Coron, also near Siargao (Sohoton Cave), Pagudpud and Panglao Island.
The waterfalls in the Philippines are not so big or high, but are very picturesque, with nice pools under them. Usually located in virgin forests, they create great tropical paradise landscapes. I can mention Cambugahay Falls in Siquijor Islands, but there are many more.
The mountains in the Philippines are not too high, but some of them are quite challenging. One of the most difficult hiking trails is in Mayon Volcano (if it is opened for hiking). But there are many more- Mount Pulag, Mount Apo, Mount Pinatubo, and others.
These are only the most popular activities in the Philippines. But there are many other things that you can do. For example- kite surfing, ethnic and culture sites watching, biking, fireflies watching, visiting unique animal sanctuaries, river cruises and many more. The opportunities look endless. And all they more or less contribute to explore and know this country better.
Looking on the map of the Philippines
But of course, experiencing all of the above requires a really long time. Maybe 2, 3 months or more. Maybe even a year. In fact, most of the local people also haven’t experienced everything that their own country offers.
So, if you are planning a trip to the Philippines and want your trip to be exploring, intending to know more about this country, you can just choose only a part of it. You can identify the various spots, where your desired activities can be done. Then you can draw a route, which depends on your time, money, and some other factors that I share below.
The transport in the Philippines is more complicated than in most of the other Southeast Asian countries. First, it is due to the geography of the country- it consists of islands, so moving from island to island requires sea transport or airplane. Second- the transport on the road is quite slow because most of the roads are too narrow and too full of slow vehicles like trucks, tricycles, and jeepneys. And third, about the transport in the cities- there is no “city bus transport” with bus numbers.
When we planned our Philippines itinerary, we had to use various kinds of transport. Here are the main transport vehicles that we used during our trip. We traveled by rental car in Luzon Island, by buses through the smaller islands and to the rental car company northwest of Manila. Of course, we also traveled by ferries between the islands, and by boats for island hopping. In the other much smaller islands like Siargao, Siquijor and even Bohol we traveled by tricycles and scooters. And within the cities (in one case- between Donsol and Legazpi) we traveled by jeepneys, taxis and light train (in Manila). Finally, we also used domestic flights two times.
And since it is an important part of our (and your) itinerary, I wrote an entire post dedicated to transportation in the Philippines, so you can read it for more information.
There is a wide range of accommodation prices. You can book from Booking and Agoda (but as I said, unless you are sure that you can arrive on the reserved date, better book it as later as possible). And you can find everything for your taste- from luxury hotels to cheap huts in the jungle or adventurous types of hostels with many backpackers in one room- down to even 200-300 PHP per bed.
Special packing list
If you want to explore the Philippines, trying various activities in various destinations, you would also need to prepare your “special packing list“. What I mean is to bring with yourself something more than just the basic everyday things like clothes, shoes, toiletry, etc. To bring the necessary accessories, by which you can do the activities that the Philippines offers. For example- bring your underwater mask, snorkel and fins to try and explore at least the edge of the fantastic underwater world around the islands of the archipelago! Or bring something for hiking, or trekking in the forest!
Food small tips
The Philippines cuisine is a mix between East and West. There is a lot to say about the food in the Philippines and if you are a travel food lover, you can find more information here.
However, we are not “foody lovers” and we were simple. For breakfast, we often ate local breakfast, offered in hotels and small restaurants- rice, meat, and egg. And depending on the meat it is called chicksilog, tapsilog, hamsilog, etc.
For lunch and dinner, if you want to be simple like us and don’t spend money especially for food- try Mang Inasal restaurants. They can be found in many cities and towns. There you can eat delicious chicken with rice and some additional spices.
But one of the most spread and cheap places to eat, which I can say, has become almost like one of the symbols of the country, is Jollibee. You can see Jollibee everywhere in the cities. It offers again chicken or beef, with rice or spaghetti, and some other additional things like ice cream or sweets, strongly reminding of MacDonalds or KFC- a real joy for the kids.
Other options that we often used in our long trip were just shopping from a supermarket- some bread, some tomatoes and cucumbers, some crisps, biscuits or other small things. Thus we not only saved money, but we were more mobile and flexible, ready to eat everywhere.
Internet and mobile
It is well known for the travelers and locals, that the quality of the internet in the Philippines is VERY low, often totally missing. You can find a little better mobile internet in Manila and Cebu, but it is still far from the standard of many countries. Wifi is a problem too. Yes, most of the hotels have WiFi, but it is not always good. It often just stops (especially in the evenings) and starts again in an unknown time.
Concerning mobile communication- there are two main mobile providers in the Philippines- Globe and Smart. I made a mistake to buy a Smart SIM card immediately from Manila Airport, which was not only expensive, but with painfully slow internet, and another problem- I couldn’t call Globe numbers. For more information, you can see here.
Safety and scams
Generally, the Philippines are a very safe country. Except for some parts of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, which suffers some tensions due to some Muslim groups’ activities, the rest of the country is pretty stable and safe. While we were on our trip, we heard about a bomb blast in a church in Sulu, when dozens of people died. At that time we were in San Juan, and this news didn’t make any effect on our daily life almost nobody heard about it there. In fact, it is almost impossible for a terrorist to penetrate the non-Muslim part of the country, or even he succeeds, he can’t do and organize any activity.
Concerning scams- yes, they are possible, just like everywhere in the world. Scams and crimes like money cheating, pickpocketing, robbing are rare, but you still have to be careful. For more scams, you can read here. Be wise! Anyway, if it happens to fall in a scam, don’t think too much about it. If it doesn’t harm your money seriously, your documents or even your health and people who are with you, just forget it, don’t let it destroys the pleasure of traveling!
No matter for what reason do you want to travel in the Philippines, and what are you going to do there, I can warn you- you may fall in love with this country and would not want to leave it! When you back home, you would miss the smiling and friendly people there, saying “Hi Sir/Hi Ma’am! How can I help you?” You would miss the deep blue sky, the green coconut forests, and the clear seawater and white sand! It is a place that you would like to visit at least once more!
Get more inspiration from the Philippines!
Check out some travel and inspiration books about the Philippines!
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