The Best Things to Do in the Philippines

Not surprisingly, this chain of more than 7,000 islands holds a million wonders—wildlife, mountains, jungles, and the white sand beaches of your dreams. With so many places to go, you’ll have to make some tough choices. What can wait for the next trip? Will you go island hopping or stay put on one of the larger islands? Will you head for the Chocolate Hills and the chance to see tiny primates with giant eyes? Or will you swim with whale sharks and go scuba diving off the low-key island of Palawan? There are no wrong answers.

Bambike HQ, Plaza San Luis Complex. Real St .cor General Luna St. Intramuros, M, Intramuros, Manila, 1002 Metro Manila, Philippines
Hop on a lightweight bicycle and learn about the history of the Philippines on a guided bike tour around Manila’s old walled city of Intramuros. The bikes are handmade in the Philippines from bamboo, a natural vibration dampener, and fibers from the abaca plant (similar to a banana); Bambike Revolution Cycles won a Manila FAME Katha Award for Eco-Design in 2015. This is a unique alternative to a walking or bus tour, and takes you inside a walled city that is not normally accessible to bigger groups. Intramuros almost doesn’t feel like Manila: The Spanish influence is evident in the architecture, which includes some of the oldest baroque churches in the Philippines. Fort Santiago still houses underground dungeons as well as a tiny underground chapel, hidden at the end of a tunnel. At the Rizal Shrine you will learn about the life of José Rizal, the country’s national hero who played an instrumental role in the Philippine rebellion against Spanish colonial rule, and follow in the footsteps he made as he took his last walk in the fort from his cell to his execution.
Talisay, Philippines
Located in Tagaytay in Luzon, just an hour and a half by car from Manila, Taal Volcano has a complex and unique landscape and offers one of the most picturesque views in the Philippines. Taal Lake is a freshwater lake that partly fills the Taal Caldera, a large collapsed area formed during prehistoric eruptions. Within the lake is the nine-square-mile Volcano Island, which is the active part of the volcano and consists of at least 47 cones and craters, including the Binintiang Malaki cinder cone, which looks how you imagine a volcano should. In the center of Volcano Island is the crater lake, which hosts a small rocky island called Vulcan Point. So there is an island within a lake on an island (which is a volcano) within a lake on an island! (Vulcan Point is in the crater lake on Volcano Island, which is in Taal Lake, which is on the island of Luzon.) The volcano has not erupted since the seventies, though there are occasional signs of unrest. Visiting Taal’s crater lake is a great day-trip option: You hop on a boat across Taal Lake to Volcano Island, where you can hike or ride on horseback to the crater lake. Or you can simply take in the great vistas from Tagaytay, enjoying the cool weather and exploring the many places to eat.
Kilometer 47 Marcos Highway, Baras, Rizal, Philippines, 1970, Marcos Highway, Baras, 1970 Rizal, Philippines
The Masungi Georeserve is a conservation area in the rain forest of Baras, Rizal, just 30 miles from Manila. The landscape is a mix of jagged limestone rock formations (the reserve’s name comes from the word masungki, which means “spiked”), lush woods, and caves. There is a unique guided nature hike through this terrain that includes rope courses, suspended bridges, steps, and hanging rest areas. Taking around three to four hours to traverse, the trail does not need any special hiking skills—but does require that you be in decent physical condition. Scaling the peaks rewards visitors with breathtaking views of the Sierra Madre mountain range on one side and the Laguna de Bay lake (the largest in the Philippines) on the other. The rest spots are spectacular: The Sapot is like a huge spiderweb you can walk on, and there’s a shelter called the Patak dangling from a hanging bridge as well as a giant hammock called the Duyan. Reaching one of these spots in the late afternoon might just reward you with a great sunset. Rain-forest weather is hot and humid, so the best time to go is during the cooler months of November to February. Advance reservations are required.
Donsol - Pio Duran Road
Donsol, in southeast Luzon, is the perfect place to snorkel with whale sharks, otherwise known as butanding. Each year from November to May, possibly the largest school of whale sharks in the world migrates here to feed on the dense concentration of plankton and krill in the area. Donsol’s whale shark interaction is strictly regulated to protect the creatures and their natural habitat. They are not captive and are not fed by the local fishermen, so whether they appear or not is pure chance. A small boat takes you out to the bay and spotters cue you to jump in and swim alongside the whale sharks as they begin to near the surface. It’s an incredible experience to be so close to these huge beasts, which are typically four to 12 meters long in Donsol (though residents claim, of course, to have seen larger). They look like spotted submarines, but luckily have a gentle disposition and are surprisingly graceful.
Malapascua Island, Daanbantayan, Philippines
Malapascua, a tiny island in the Visayan Sea north of Cebu, is well-known for its thresher-shark cleaning station, where divers gather daily to see these beautiful creatures ascend from below to be cleaned by fish before returning to deeper waters. Reef sharks can be seen here, too. What fewer visitors know, however, is that behind the strip of resorts that line Bounty Beach is a traditional village. There are quaint shops and restaurants as well as a large church, and the people are wonderfully friendly and inviting. It’s a great peek into real Filipino island life, meaning Malapascua is a worthwhile stop even if you aren’t interested in the sharks.
Mountain Province, Philippines
Most visitors to the Philippines will learn something about the country’s Spanish and American colonial history; fewer will learn about the people who were here before. The mountains of Luzon are still inhabited by distinct indigenous ethnic groups known collectively as the Igorot, or “people of the mountains” (though today some prefer to use alternative terms). Despite hundreds of years of colonial rule, some indigenous peoples managed to maintain—and still continue—their traditional way of life. Sagada, a town in the Mountain Province, is a good place to witness this aspect of the Philippines. Many travelers check out the hanging coffins in Echo Valley, which are nailed to a cliffside and intended to bring the dead closer to heaven. But the real value of visiting Sagada is to interact with the Igorots and listen to their stories.
Batad Rice Terraces, Banaue, Ifugao, Philippines
Still in use today, the Ifugao Rice Terraces were carved into the hillsides of Ifugao Province by hand some 2,000 years ago, and are fed by an elaborate irrigation system that captures water from the forests above. While many people explore this famed landscape from the town of Banaue, the Banaue Rice Terraces cluster here isn’t technically part of the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras UNESCO World Heritage site. These terraces are, however, designated a National Cultural Treasure by the Philippine government and are undeniably spectacular. But probably the most impressive of all the terraces are at Batad, a tiny, remote village in the municipality of Banaue that is only accessible by foot. Thanks to their pristine condition, these terraces—along with four other clusters—are included in the UNESCO inscription. The reward for your hike up is a panorama of a kind of enormous amphitheater where each level is actually a rice paddy and where the village of Batad takes the place of the central stage at its base. Maximize your experience by staying in one of the indigenous huts and wake up to a view of the terraces before you even get out of your cot.
Coron, Philippines
The mountainous Coron Island, just northeast of Palawan, is part of the officially designated ancestral domain of the indigenous Tagbanua people (possibly descendants of the original inhabitants of the Philippines). They steward the land and sea, and control access to the island, much of which is off-limits to visitors. There is still plenty to attract travelers to the area, though: a small, sleepy town and clear lakes; limestone rock formations; and white-sand beaches. Those lucky enough to be welcomed into a Tagbanua community can learn about their culture and how they spearfish, as well as the special techniques for harvesting octopuses, seaweed, and sea cucumbers. For snorkelers, Siete Pecados offers rich coral reefs and the chance to spot dugongs, giant hawksbill turtles, and baby sharks. Divers can also hope to get a glimpse of puffer fish, eels, and giant clams. As well as the diverse marine life, there are numerous Japanese shipwrecks from World War II on view underwater. Add in the visibility of up to 80 feet, and this area is a superb playground for diving enthusiasts.
Puerto Princesa Underground River is set in a protected area of the St. Paul Mountain Range in Palawan. It’s a five-mile stretch of the Cabayugan River that runs through a huge limestone cave and directly into the West Philippine Sea near Sabang village (the bottom half of the river is tidal). Announced as one of the New7Wonders of Nature in 2012, it’s hard to fully envision unless you experience it for yourself. Reservations are required for the tours, which enter the underground river on a small boat. The boatman manually paddles you in as the light fades, the water becomes pitch-black, and you almost lose sight of the person beside you. The boatman will then start flashing his tiny light on the stalactites, stalagmites, and other rock formations you pass. The tour takes about 45 minutes and covers only a mile or so of the river (the inner portion is closed to the public).
Palawan, Philippines
The municipality of El Nido, on the northern tip of Palawan, is known for the jagged limestone cliffs that spike up from the turquoise waters and that are home to the island’s endemic swiftlets. Known locally as balinsasayaw, these birds use threads of their saliva instead of twigs to build their nests in crevices on the cliffs (El Nido means “nests” in Spanish). Climbers called busyador scale the cliffs each day to collect the edible birds’ nests, which are mostly sold to China, where the nests are believed to contain a high level of natural minerals that provide health benefits. But the recent decline of the swiftlet population has caused the deterioration of the industry, and many busyador have shifted to tourism instead. El Nido attracts millions of visitors each year to its beautiful white-sand beaches and unspoiled natural landscapes, which include caves and hidden lagoons as well as the legendary cliffs. Activities here include hiking, sea kayaking, snorkeling, and diving, and everything is a lot more low-key than at busier destinations like Boracay.
Tarsier Sunctuary Rd, Corella, Bohol, Philippines
The province of Bohol seems to encourage the bizarre. It contains one of the world’s strangest landscapes, a collection of some 1,700 hills in a 20-square-mile area called the Chocolate Hills. It is also home to a peculiar creature called the Philippine tarsier (locally referred to as the mawmag or mamag), one of the smallest known primates, no larger than an adult man’s hand, with giant round eyes and a tail that is longer than its body. These adorable beasts are spread across various islands in the southeast of the Philippines, surviving in rain forests with thick vegetation. They are nocturnal, can leap as far as 10 feet from tree to tree, and (like owls) are able to turn their heads 180 degrees. Unfortunately, habitat destruction via logging and mining threatens the Philippine tarsier with extinction. The best place in Bohol to see them and support their conservation at the same time is at the Philippine Tarsier and Wildlife Sanctuary in Corella. Run by the Philippine Tarsier Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to tarsier conservation and education, this small but successful sanctuary provides the best possible environment to allow these tiny creatures to survive and thrive.
Caramoan, Camarines Sur, Philippines
The Caramoan area, on the eastern tip of the Caramoan Peninsula in Bicol, is a rugged and remote landscape of white-sand beaches, rich woods, swampland, lakes, and caves. Numerous seasons of the reality TV show Survivor have filmed around this region, including at Gota Beach. Most travelers explore the pristine Caramoan Islands by small outrigger boat. There are too many to scope out in one trip, but don’t miss famous Matukad Island with its pure white sands, exotic rain forest, limestone rock formations, and even a hidden lagoon. Another must-visit is Manlawe Island, a one-kilometer-wide sandbar surrounded by ankle-deep water. Other highlights include Cotivas Island, Gota Island, and Sabitang-Laya, a triangular landmass with powdery sand, caves, and superb snorkeling. Accommodations in Caramoan include family-run inns that are equipped with modern amenities but rustic enough to accentuate the region’s remote and unspoiled ambience.
Baler, Aurora, Philippines
Fans of the movie Apocalypse Now probably know it was shot in Baler, some 150 miles northeast of Manila. At the time, locals were already well aware of the area’s killer waves, which caused trouble for the fishermen. But attitudes toward the waves slowly changed, thanks to the film: Residents used the surfboards left behind by the crew to learn to ride them. Surfing culture in the Philippines was born, and the big waves were no longer considered a threat, but rather an opportunity to bring in surfing tourism and events each year from October to February. But Baler has a lot to offer for the non-surfer, too, even if you just sit on the beach and watch the ocean. Couples love the long stretch of sand at Sabang, which is perfect for romantic beach walks, and the sunrise here is a must-see. From a historical perspective, Baler is significant because it was the last stand of Spanish forces in the Philippines; the yearlong siege that began in July 1898 is one of the longest in the country’s recorded history. The undermanned Spanish troops, not knowing the war was over, held onto their fortress in the only stone building in the area, the San Luis Obispo de Tolosa church, for 337 days.
Loay Interior Road, Carmen, Bohol, Philippines
One of the more bizarre landscapes in the Philippines is Bohol’s Chocolate Hills, a 20-square-mile area that contains some 1,700 hills. To date, these natural formations still baffle geologists, though legend claims the hills are rocks once thrown by battling giants, or tears cried by a giant who lost his love. The hills are green during wet season and turn into brown mounds during the dry season, hence the name. Climb up to the viewpoint to get a 360-degree view and unleash your imagination. Some people say the hills look like giant Hershey’s Kisses; others just see mounds left behind by enormous moles. Before you leave, buy some local Peanut Kisses to help you remember your visit—perhaps inspired by the Hershey’s chocolates, they are shaped like the hills.
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