There are 7107 islands to explore in the Philippines. 7107 different places with beautiful beaches, crystal clear lagoons, rich green rice terraces, 120 different dialects, cultural traditions, natural healers, impressive coral reefs, breath-taking rock climbing sites, volcanoes to climb, whale sharks to snorkel with – the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, I didn´t manage to visit all 7107 islands. However, throughout my six-month stay in the Philippines both backpacking and working, I collected tons of great memories. In this post I tried to break it all down to five absolute highlights that I would highly recommend checking out when you find yourself in the Philippines.
1. Rice Terraces (Batad, North Luzon)
Batad is a remote village in the Ifugao province, very close to Banaue. The rice terraces are said to be the best and most well-preserved in the Cordillera mountains. They are more than 2000 years old and were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Together with a guide, you may actually hike through the terraces and get an idea of how hard people had been working for centuries to keep these rice terraces in such good condition. Hidden behind the rice terraces you will find a small taste of paradise – a waterfall with a crystal clear water pool. Many tourists are disputing whether exploring this waterfall is really worth the effort. If you have time and the weather is good, I´d definitely recommend including it. Otherwise, you may also spend the rest of the day checking out different viewpoints around and in between Batad and Banaue.
How to get there: Banaue serves as a gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. You can find all kinds of accommodation there. From Banaue either take a tricycle (round trip approx. PHP 800-1000) or jeepney (round trip approx. PHP 40-50) to the starting point of the rice terraces trek in Batad. Of course, the jeepney is way cheaper than the tricycle. However, taking a tricycle has the advantage of being able to stop anywhere along the way (there are a couple of viewpoints on the way to Batad) and the driver may also be able to give you some information on the rice terraces and life up in the north. To get to Banaue, it’s easiest to take a night bus (e.g. Oyahami) from Manila. The ride is 9hrs and costs approx. PHP 490. Make sure to book at least one day in advance, so that they still have seats available and not just plastic chairs in the aisle. The price for the plastic chairs is the same. First come – first served. 😉
Tips ‘n’ tricks: Consider the weather conditions in North Luzon when packing your backpack or suitcase. It’s only about 20°C up there and might be even colder when it rains. It’s also very chilly at night. Also, make sure to bring good shoes for trekking. After a few days of rain, hiking in the rice terraces may be very muddy and slippery. The availability of ATMs in the Banaue area is very poor, so remember to bring enough cash.
2. Nacpan Beach (El Nido, Palawan)
Palawan and the area around El Nido are famous among travelers from all over the world. As it is such a magnet for tourism, it can get quite packed in El Nido now and then. If you want to escape the crowds, a great alternative to island hopping around the Barcuit Archipelago is definitely relaxing at a white, sandy beach. Located about 20km north of El Nido, Nacpan Beach is totally worth a day trip. Its shallow waters make it a great spot for swimming. There’s also a pretty rural twin beach, Caitang Beach, east of Nacpan Beach, with a lovely beach bar from where you can enjoy the sunset with an ice cold beer while lazing in the sand.
How to get there: Either rent a scooter in El Nido for PHP 400-500 / day or take a tricycle and ask the driver to wait for you to take you back at night otherwise you’ll be stuck on Nacpan Beach. If that happens, the twin beach bar has a few affordable rooms to stay in. Make sure to pay the driver when you get back to El Nido, otherwise, some of them might not wait for you. Remember to negotiate the price beforehand, but try and aim for PHP 1000-1500 (return trip).
3. Coral Diving (Balicasag & Siquijor)
The Philippines are famous among divers from all over the world. There are many great dive locations all over the Philippines with a variety of marine life to see. Malapascua in the north of Cebu is mostly known for being the only spot in the world to see treasure sharks, Coron has all those amazing Japanese shipwrecks from World war II and Apo Island is a popular sea turtle sanctuary. For coral wall and coral garden diving in less touristy areas (less than 5 dive boats per dive site), I would suggest going to the southern dive spots of Balicasag Island near Bohol and/or to Siquijor Island. Especially Siquijor Island has numerous unique dive sites, such as the Paliton Wall, a coral wall with a cave in a depth of 31m or Sunken Island, a coral-covered island under water. Diving in Siquijor is great and adventurous for beginners as well as advanced divers.
How to get there: To get to Balicasag Island, it’s easiest to board a ferry to Tagbilaran, Bohol, from either Cebu City or Dumaguete. If you want to dive at Balicasag, book a dive trip there with one of the dive shops at Alona Beach on Panglao Island (connected with Bohol by bridge). If you want to spend some time diving in Siquijor, get a ferry to Siquijor Town or Larena from Dumaguete or Tagbilaran. There’s also a cheap ferry (Lite Ferries) from Cebu City to Larena via Tagbilaran three times a week. Most dive sites are in the south of the island, so try to find an accommodation close to San Juan. For more information on Siquijor, check out this travel guide.
4. Hanging Coffins (Sagada, North Luzon)
Sagada is a beautiful little town in the Cordillera mountains, west of Banaue, and mainly serves as a gateway for hikers. From there you can explore the Hanging Coffins in the Echo Valley, some of which are 400 years old. Most of them are high up the rock face and it´s hard to imagine people had actually been able to put them there centuries ago. For an even better experience, check out Lumiang Burial Cave, which is a 10-15 minute walk south of the main village. Right at the entrance, you´ll find over 100 coffins stacked near the entrance. The best way to see all the important places and caves is the adventurous Cave Connection Tour, which takes you to both Lumiang Cave and Sumaging Cave. It takes around 4 hours and is only for the courageous of you. 😉 You will have to crawl through a number of tunnels and swim through underground pools. A local guide can be arranged at the tourist office for PHP 800.
How to get there: It´s best if you connect your trip to Sagada with a trip to Banaue as both towns are only 2-3 hours apart. You can reach both Banaue and Sagada by night bus from Manila. Sagada to Manila is a good twelve-hour bus ride offered by CodaLines. The regular fare starts at PHP 720.
Tips ‘n’ tricks: Again, keep in mind weather conditions in North Luzon. Bring a sweater and rain jacket as well as decent shoes for hiking.
5. Sugar Beach (Sipalay, Negros)
Sugar Beach is probably one of the most beautiful beaches in the Philippines and my second-favorite beach in the world after Leleuvia Island. Sugar Beach´s best feature: it is completely off the beaten path! If you want to unwind, simply laze on the beach, enjoy some water activities like snorkeling or diving, this is the ideal place to do so. There are only a handful of resorts at Sugar Beach and two dive centers that also offer snorkel trips. The Sipalay River divides the town of Sipalay from the beach making it only accessible by boat. I spent over a week at Sugar Beach, simply because there was pure relaxation and delicious food. Mind you, the food at Sugar Beach is more expensive than in many other places around the Philippines, but accommodation prices are very fair and with not many expenses for activities (unless you go diving every day), it is comparably low-priced.
How to get there: Take a Ceres bus from Dumaguete to Sipalay. The fare for the air-con bus is PHP 300. From Sipalay either take a tricycle (PHP 150-200) to the river and cross the river by paddle boat or small banka (PHP 100) or simply call your resort and ask them to send you a shuttle boat. The shuttle boat will pick you up at the waterfront in Sipalay (5min walk from bus terminal) and costs between PHP 300-400. If you’re a group of people, you can obviously divide the price.
Island trips are your thing? Check out this island-paradise in the Pacific which you can also travel to on a budget. Specifically interested in diving? Head over to my budget dive guides and learn how you can dive the world´s oceans in an affordable way.