Top 8 Things to Do in the Philippines
Featured destinations: Philippines, Boracay, El Nido
Published 14 February 2017
An archipelago of 7,107 idyllic islands around 700 miles southeast of Hong Kong, the Philippines are separated from the rest of Southeast Asia by both geography and culture. True, their warm turquoise waves gently lapping on pure white powder beaches, and their undulating interiors coated with emerald rice terraces, are more than a little reminiscent of Thailand, but explore a little further and you’ll also find volcanic crater lakes, Spanish colonial architecture, and an exciting mix of Islamic, Hispanic and American traditions not seen anywhere else in the world.
Here are our top eight suggestions of things to do while you’re here:
Tucked away among the towering karst peaks of Palawan Island, El Nido’s clear azure seas and colourful marine critters draw scuba divers and beach loungers from all over the world. Island-hopping around the Bacuit Archipelago, with its spectacular cliffs and jungle-covered rocky outcrops, is the number one reason to visit the region, with rock climbing and sea kayaking coming a close second. El Nido, meaning ‘nest’ in Spanish, is named after the numerous swift nests found here.
Totally tropical Boracay is a tiny island less than half a mile wide. Although it has a reputation as a party place, you only need head to the lovely, shell-scattered Puka Beach to find peace and quiet. Snorkellers and divers will be in their element here, with countless operators offering trips to see the lionfish and moray eels off Crocodile Island, so-called because it looks like a sleeping crocodile. If you’d prefer to just chill, Boracay has plenty of luxury hotels to choose from as well.
Banaue Rice Terraces
On the island of Luzon, the Banaue Rice Terraces are a UNESCO World Heritage site, listed for their spectacular natural beauty and 2,000-year-old history. Built by the indigenous Ifugao people using their bare hands, this tiered agricultural land, found 1,500m above sea-level, is still used to grow rice and vegetables, although these days terrace tours and hiking trips generate more revenue than the sale of crops. Come in November and December to see what is locally known as ‘mirror time’ – when rainwater fills the paddies and gives the fields a glassy look.
Also on the island of Luzon, Mount Pinatubo lay dormant for centuries. This all changed on 15th June 1991, when the entire cone blew apart in a catastrophic eruption that shot ash and rock more than 25 miles into the air and caused a two-year 0.5 °C drop in global average temperatures. The explosion left a huge caldera in its wake, which later filled with rainwater to create Lake Pinatubo. Today you can climb to the 1,450mhigh peak of Mount Pinatubo and peer down into the crater lake, an easy four-hour return trek.
Usually coming pretty high up the bucket list, swimming with whale sharks is an unforgettable experience. The so-called whale shark is in fact not a whale at all but the largest fish species in the world, growing to lengths of up to 12 metres. They are still classified as sharks though, although they are filter feeders, eating mostly plankton, so are completely harmless to humans. For a close whale shark encounter, head for Donsol Bay between November and June, where a number of responsible outfits ensure that these magnificent creatures are not exploited by tourists.
North Luzon is home to Vigan, another of the country’s World Heritage sites and might we say a charming town too. With its cobbled streets lined with Spanish colonial architecture, including some impressive wooden mansions, the best way to explore is by kalesa, or horse-drawn carriage. Once you’ve checked out the houses in the Mestizo District and the eight-sided belltower of St Paul’s Metropolitan Cathedral, take your seat at a streetside café and order a jug of sangria – you might just think you’re in Spain.
Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park
Exploring the caves and clear waters by boat is a must-do in Puerto Princesa, a national park which plays host to what is thought to be the longest underground river in the world. Unfortunately the park’s caves are not much of a secret, so you’ll likely share their beauty with plenty of others. But despite the crowds, it’s still worth taking a ride through the darkness, surrounded by birdlife, bats and low-hanging rocks.
There are two main reasons to visit Bohol Island. First up is the tarsier. For those not in the know, the tarsier is a small primate just 8-16cm long with enormous, scared-looking eyes. Drop by the Philippine Tarsier Research and Development Centre to see the cute creature in its natural habitat.
Secondly, we have the Chocolate Hills, a collection of over 1,200 giant triangular mounds protruding from the ground. The green grass carpeting the hills turns a rich chocolate-brown during the dry season, giving rise to the unusual name. Another popular diversion in Bohol is paddleboarding on the Loay River – do it at night to watch the fireflies dance on the riverbanks.
To explore the Philippines, set off on Round the World Experts’ Philippine Discovery Journey, which includes stops in El Nido and Boracay, plus a day’s island hopping on the Bacuit Archipelago.