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The Philippines is a tropical paradise in the Pacific Ocean made up of more than 7,000 islands that offer a natural park for the traveller. Its landscapes feature a variety of natural wonders, from volcanoes and rice terraces to underwater rivers and limestone caves, along with beautiful beaches.
Each of the islands has something unique to offer, whether you’re looking for a great place to dive and snorkel or want to explore the historical landmarks of cities like Manila or Vigan, which have a rich colonial history.
We’ll begin our tour of the Philippines with the city that you’re most likely to visit: Manila. Most folks can’t wait to get out of town and head to the islands, which, in my opinion, is a tremendous mistake. Manila is home to some of the Philippines’ most interesting and unusual attractions, and it would be a shame to miss out on them. It also has the best nightlife and culture, as well as the best venue to try local cuisine.
Visiting the old city of Manila will give you a deep insight into the rich history and culture of the Philippines. Taking a day to tour this place will enrich your entire vacation and make you see everything in a completely different light.
This area, also called Intramuros, is basically the old fort that the Spanish conquistadors built when they landed on the island. Intramuros is home to many museums and ancient cathedrals, including the Iglesia de San Agustín, one of the oldest in the country and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then you can also cross the Pasig River and head to Binondo, the oldest Chinatown in the world. This trip will help you learn about the unique mix of Hispanic and Asian traditions that dictate life in the Philippines to this day.
Many people consider the Banaue Rice Terraces to be the “eighth wonder of the world” and it’s easy to see why when you start to see their sheer magnificence. The terraces are 2,000 years old and were carved out of the Ifugao Mountains with the use of very few tools. Locals still use the terraces today to plant their vegetables and rice, as they are naturally irrigated by the surrounding tropical forests. Spectacular landscape sculpted by the hand of man. It is worth visiting the area with a local guide.
The Chocolate Hills, a geological wonder on the island of Bohol, are a one-of-a-kind natural phenomena. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a protected area with over 1,200 tiny mountains that have risen above the ground over hundreds of years. The area used to be beneath the sea, and these unusual hills sprawl out in every direction.
They are green for much of the year, but during the dry season, they turn chocolate brown, hence the name chocolate hills. A convenient path leads to the top of a viewing area, which provides the best view. Be sure to check out the many delicate flowers along the path that are unique to this area.
It only takes an hour to get to Bohol Island from Cebu, so visiting it can also be easily done as a day trip. That said, since Bohol is another popular tourist spot and a fantastic island to stay on, you might consider spending a night or two there. The island offers beautiful beaches, mainly in the Pangalo area, as well as world-class diving and island tours.
Visiting Vigan City, another UNESCO world historic site, is like stepping back in time. Casa Crisologo is Asia’s best example of a Spanish colonial city, with its well-preserved architecture. There are numerous museums in the neighbourhood, as well as small workshops that produce local goods. Vigan is a popular tourist destination for locals, but not so much for foreigners, which is unfortunate given that it was named one of the world’s seven new wonder cities.
On the island of Luzon there is an active volcano called Volcán Mayón, which is also known as Mount Mayón. The volcano has acquired the nickname “Perfect Cone” due to its symmetrical cone shape. There are frequent eruptions at the volcano leading to large evacuations from neighbouring towns as ash and mud rain down on the people below. The most serious eruption on record was in 1814, which led to more than 1,200 losing their lives. The volcano and surrounding areas are part of a national park that is certainly worth a visit while in the Philippines.
Extreme climbers can apply for a permit to climb the volcano, but it’s a difficult journey through the jungle and the summit produces deadly gases, so approach with caution. Outside of the rainy season, the ideal months to visit are March through May. You can take an organised excursion from Manila to get here.
Once you feel like you’ve got enough dry land and it’s time to hit the islands, there’s no better place to start than Boracay. This tiny island has 4 square miles of perfect beaches and fun activities, so it’s no wonder it has dominated top magazine lists of the best islands in the world. If you are looking for the perfect beach experience, Boracay is one of the best places to visit.
This island is also the Philippines’ most popular tourist destination, so expect a Thailand-like atmosphere. White Beach’s entire promenade is lined with bars and nightclubs that stay open till daybreak. Boracay is one of the few areas in the country that offers a fully developed, tourism-oriented experience, thanks to its excellent reputation. There are over 400 resorts strewn across this small island, so finding a suitable place to stay is simple, and cheap Boracay trip packages are also widely available online.
If there is one thing you must see in the Philippines, it is the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River in the province of Palawan. The five-mile-long river is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as one of Nature’s New7Wonders. The river flows through an outstanding limestone karst cave system and was thought to be the world’s longest until a considerably larger one was recently discovered near Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
Exploring the underground river of Puerto Princesa on a guided tour is a great idea. Knowledgeable guides lead you through the National Park and into the river cave system in small boats narrating fascinating facts you might otherwise miss. While it’s tempting to take a dip in the crystal clear blue-green waters, swimming in the river is not allowed. Puerto Princesa, not just the underground river, is a popular tourist spot in the Philippines, so don’t expect to find yourself alone there or in any of the other must-see places.
It’s a trek to reach the hanging coffins at Sagada, located in the northern Cordillera mountains , but the sight is something most people in the world will never see. Hanging coffins, some centuries old, are suspended from the cliffs of Echo Valley. These ceremonial burials were reserved for the wealthy of the tribes.
Getting to the mountainous region requires some travel time and physical stamina to walk the steep and narrow trails to the secluded coffins. You’ll want sturdy shoes, and you may want to train before your trip to adjust to the high altitude more quickly. The reward is a show you’ll never forget and well-deserved bragging rights.
If you can’t decide what to do or where to go in the Philippines, an island tour may offer the perfect combination. You still have to narrow down the options, but an organised tour of the islands allows you to see a collection of islands.
You can try snorkelling, swimming, sightseeing and local food at multiple locations and take the hassle out of trying to plan it yourself. Many of the island tours span multiple days. One of the most popular island tours is to the Caramoan Islands, made famous after being featured on the hit TV show Survivor.
Apo Island is located off the coast of the city of Dumaguete, the capital of Negros Oriental province. The entire island of Negros is considered a diving mecca, where you can see whale sharks and other large mammals thriving in their natural habitat. As a protected marine sanctuary, Apo Island stands out above all the rest as the best diving spot in the area. It is a small island, practically uninhabited, where diving is basically the only thing you can do.
Apo’s specialty comes from its large population of sea turtles, an endangered species that is usually very hard to find. Here, these gentle creatures live in peace, unaffected by the environmental dangers of humanity. The great thing about Apo’s turtles is that they often come and swim along the beach, so even if you don’t dive, you can easily see them swimming or snorkelling off the shore.
Author – John Gentry