The Philippines is one of the destinations that has surprised us most in recent years for the beauty of its beaches, its exuberant nature and a truly fascinating fusion of cultures. Although we had already travelled to many countries in Asia, this archipelago is completely different from the rest. Culturally it is a very interesting mixture, since it is a country where the majority religion is Catholicism, but that has been influenced culturally by the United States (it was occupied from 1898 to 1946) and still conserves some vestiges of the passage of the Spaniards through this archipelago, especially in the toponymy and vocabulary.
This jewel of Southeast Asia is still evolving touristically and it is relatively easy to find dreamy corners away from mass tourism. However, moving between islands (and also around them) is often an arduous task, an experience that is part of the journey itself and that you should take it easy. For this reason, it is a destination that requires several days and a good prior selection of the places you will visit. To help you with your planning, we will recommend 10 experiences to enjoy a first trip to the Philippines.
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10 essential experiences to enjoy in the Philippines
There are thousands of reasons to visit the Philippines. Perhaps the most famous are its famous white sandy beaches bathed by turquoise waters and impressive coral reefs. However, it is important to choose well when planning a trip, since this island country is made up of 7,107 islands.
Beyond diving or film beaches, in the Philippines you will find a land with a unique culture and contradictions. Lush green rice fields, chaotic cities, volcanoes, incredible subterranean rivers and caves, wildlife and friendly and fun people make up a menu hard to match in other parts of the world. Let us show you some of the most interesting places and experiences in the Philippines.
Enjoy Nacpan Beach at El Nido
We begin our journey to the north of Palawan Island, specifically in the municipality of El Nido where some of the most paradisiacal beaches in the Philippines are located. Perhaps the best known of all is the spectacular Nacpan Beach, which more than lived up to your expectations of this Southeast Asian destination.
Nacpan Beach is located just 15 kilometers north of El Nido, although depending on where you are the journey in tuk tuk or private van can be about an hour. We visited her after a rainy night and saw people who had trouble getting there on motorbikes due to the poor condition of the road surface and the mud puddles. When going by van we were much luckier and soon we arrived at this kilometre-long virgin beach of fine white sand, crystal clear waters and palm trees that give it a bucolic appearance. Although there are no buildings that spoil the landscape, at the entrance there is a small beach bar where you can eat and buy drinks.
Island hopping at El Nido
The first time we heard about the Island hopping concept was during our trip to the Philippines. These are excursions that can last a whole day in which you visit different islands and beaches by boat in which you have the possibility of doing very interesting activities to explore them. For example, snorkel, kayak, dive or even eat a freshly cooked fish on a lonely beach.
Of all those we did in that island country of Southeast Asia, the most spectacular of all was the one we did in El Nido. People usually share the traditional Philippine banka or boats, although we as a family of four had our own boat. There are four circuits to get to know the small islands and beaches of the Bacuit archipelago and which bear such original names as tour A, B, C and D. When going by private boat we combined A and C and told our crew to try to avoid crowds of people. The result was an unforgettable day doing activities at sea and visiting some of the most amazing beaches we have ever seen, completely transparent water lagoons and coral reefs.
Visit the Underground River of Puerto Princesa
In addition to El Nido, another of Palawan Island’s major attractions is the Puerto Princesa Underground River National Park. This peculiar and diverse ecosystem was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999, as well as being chosen by popular vote as one of the seven natural wonders of the world in 2011. Its main attraction are the peculiar caves that can be accessed by sailing in small boats.
The area is a true treasure of biodiversity as a beautiful karstic limestone landscape, reminiscent of the Ha Long Bay formations in Vietnam, coexists with an underground river that flows directly into the sea surrounded by one of the most important jungles in Asia. In almost 6,000 hectares you can find up to eleven different ecosystems with an impressive variety of flora and fauna. The Puerto Princesa Underground River National Park is home to a wide variety of endangered endemic animals such as the pheasant, fox bat, small pandas, civets and badgers.
Relax in Boracay’s White Beach
As we said at the beginning, in a country with 7,107 islands it is very important to organize the tour well and also leave whole days for relaxation. One of the most famous islands in the Philippines to disconnect is Boracay, but Travel+Leisure magazine chose it as the best island in the world in 2012. Boracay is only seven kilometers long and less than a kilometer wide at its narrowest point, so you have a tropical paradise the size of a postcard.
But the place that has helped put Boracay on the map is White Beach, a 5-kilometre-long sandbank covered by a blanket of white coral sand and crystal-clear waters of various hues. The area is packed with resorts for all budgets, bars with live music and beach bars for a cocktail on the beach or a good cold beer until late in the morning. Of course, if you are looking for something more than just relaxation you have all the water sports known to man at your disposal.
Biting the Hills’ Chocolate in Bohol
Although Bohol also has amazing beaches and soaking excursions (as we’ll see later), this island captivated us with its lush, jungle interior. This is a perfect destination for lovers of adventure sports, experiences ranging from scuba diving, hiking, kayaking, zip lines through valleys and any activity related to the enjoyment of nature. It has exuberant places like the Man Made Forest, flowing rivers like the Loboc that are crossed by hanging beads or some shelters where you can see up close (and in silence) the smallest of all primates: the tarsier.
However, the place that usually attracts all eyes in Bohol are the so-called Chocolate Hills. These 1268 limestone domes covered with grass that are almost symmetrical in shape and height can be found near a municipality as Spanish as Carmen. We visit these picturesque hills in summer, although during the dry season they take on a brown hue similar to the chocolate that has given them their name. In Carmen there is a viewpoint that you can access to see them, although we dared to walk to the top of one of them to get another perspective different from the usual.
Sighting of fireflies on the Abatán River in Bohol
Another of Bohol’s experiences that we liked best (especially our children) was sailing the Abatán River at night in search of fireflies. Before the excursion we told our children that once these bioluminescent insects were easily seen in field areas near where we grew up, but man’s action and pollution has practically wiped them out. In this area of Bohol the opposite happens, there are trees that grow next to the river that are plagued by large groups of these small miracles of nature.
The boat ride on the river is complemented in the dark thanks to the expertise of the boatmen who know all the nooks and crannies of this place like the palm of their hand. During our excursion we did not have much hope because it had been raining shortly before sunset. After a few minutes, however, the trees began to twinkle as if they were decorated with Christmas decorations. A thrilling game of small lights that were turned on and off in the dark, turning the roof rack ride into a kind of dream in the middle of a vigil. By the way, taking a picture of this phenomenon at night and in movement is practically impossible so I put a picture of the tarsier who is another of the most famous inhabitants of Bohol.
Swim near sea turtles in Balicasag
We have already told you that in Bohol we saw the little tarsiers and fireflies, but we needed to tell you that we could swim and snorkel near the beautiful sea turtles. From Alona Beach in Panglao there are boat trips to the island of Balicasag where these magnificent animals live. Normally the banka docks on this small island and you get into a smaller rowed boat where they equip you with snorkeling gear.
Once in the water it is relatively easy to spot turtles a few meters below your feet on the reefs. The experience is really exciting because the combination of corals, tropical colored fish and sea turtles is indescribable. On our way back to Alona Beach we also stopped at the peculiar Virgin Island, a beautiful sand only island that floods completely depending on the tides. The curious thing is that when we visited the tide had flooded this tongue of sand where traders had their souvenir stalls and grills cooked fish and seafood.
Tour the quiet island of Malapascua
Malapascua is a small island located north of Cebu that has become a real paradise for diving lovers. The reason for this is the curious and elusive thresher shark that lives in the waters close to this island and that attracts hundreds of divers every year with the desire to contemplate it. However, you don’t need to know how to dive to enjoy Malapascua. For us it was a haven of peace in the final part of our journey.
Beyond diving, Malapascua’s main attraction is its quiet life. As it has only three square kilometers of extension can be easily traveled on foot or by motorcycle. Most of the accommodations (which are built around the diving centres) are in the south of the island, but it is in the north where the best beaches are found in an almost virgin environment. There we enjoyed long walks through the sand of Langob Beach and splashes in its clear waters. In the area there is also a lighthouse that is on a high point and gives you good views. However, the best of Malapascua are its happy hours, sunsets and conversations with divers who tell you about the wonders they have seen that day.
Walking on Kalanggaman’s sand tongue
In addition to its tranquility, one of our objectives when visiting Malapascua was to make the excursion to the island of Kalanggaman and its famous tongue of sand. We enlisted on a diver’s boat to visit the small island while they explored the seabed. The first surprise of the trip (which lasts approximately two hours) came during the journey, as we spotted a large group of dolphins that jumped beside us and flying fish that came out of the water at full speed.
The island of Kalanggaman is very small, as from end to end there will be just over 700 meters and it is easy to walk. The ride was neither fu. nor fa, especially compared to its beautiful tongue of white sand that can reach a third of the island depending on the tides. How did we spend time while the divers were returning? Snorkeling in the southeast of the island where the almost transparent water sheltered an endless number of colorful tropical fish, sea turtles and very special coral beds. Watch out for the currents near the tongue of sand, but be warned with signs only get into the water where the guides tell you.
Intramuros in Manila
I’m sure you’ve heard that Manila is a chaotic city, of exaggerated proportions and that its crazy traffic makes it impossible for you to enjoy the capital of the Philippines. All this is true, although as it is most likely to land or take off in Manila you can use the time to visit some of its attractions. The most interesting is the area of Intramuros, a legacy of the passage of the Spaniards through the city dating from the sixteenth century. This walled city is one of the best models of a medieval fortress outside Europe.
In Intramuros you can visit the Church of San Agustín, declared World Heritage by UNESCO, and the Museum of San Agustín. Another highlight is Casa Manila, a lifestyle museum that replicates a house from 1800. It’s easy to see buggies with people dressed in vintage costumes, so take a picture with them and then enjoy a cool San Miguel or Red Horse before returning to the chaos of the city.
Did you like these 10 experiences to enjoy a first trip to the Philippines? Do you have another recommendation? Tell us in the comments, we are looking forward to discover yours in the comments.