Exploring the Philippines: Travel FAQs

Last updated on August 2015

That the Philippines has more than 7,000 islands has never failed to amaze new friends. The common follow-up question — “So, for sure you always go to the beach?” –always leaves me wishing I really did have a string of amazing beach trips to speak of.   Because traveling around the country requires hopping from island to island, getting from one place to another has proved tricky (and expensive!).  It’s a good thing then that low-cost carriers and alternative transport are now more available for us wanderlusters!

TRAVEL INFORMATION:

Manila remains the first stopover or buffer zone for most newcomers to the Philippines, but there are also other potential (and existing) hubs that connect travelers to their chosen destinations without having to go through the capital.  Alternatively, international cities closest to us are Singapore, Hong Kong, and Kuala Lumpur, which have cheap daily flights to major cities in the Philippines.

When I worked in the Department of Tourism, I saw a handy brochure called The Philippine Tourism Highway (2005), and shared its contents online.

For more on logistics and transportation in the Philippines, visit Travel Resources.

FAQs

Here is a collection of my answers to common questions I get about travel to the islands. :)

1. What’s in the Philippines?

We have 7,107 islands — so what else but beaches, beaches, beaches!  We are in the tropics in Southeast Asia, with an estimated population of 100 million as of  the year 2015.

A bit of history:  we have always been tribal in nature, and had a strong and diverse set of indigenous tribes (over 100 ethno-lingustic groups!) with Malay and Chinese influences.  The Spaniards came and stayed for 300 years, the Americans for 40 years, and the Japanese for four years.  In the 1950s, we gained independence and have been trying to find our steady, united footing since.

To this day, each region remains different, but what is common to all are the kindness, spirituality, simplicity of the people–everyone is always with a smile–and of course, our love of singing!  I promise you, in any place you visit in the Philippines, you will encounter a videoke machine with its circle of enthusiasts, each one waiting for his turn with the microphone.

With so many islands, you can just imagine the wide range of customs and culture that we have!  We only know two seasons: sunny and rainy.  All yearlong, we can visit the beach, climb mountains, etc….  It is a phenomenal life for sure, but of course with its attendant problems.  We have congested cities, and the government is still struggling to uphold and sustain a stable and safe economy that will uplift the life of the common man or tao.

By far, we are the most “Westernized” among our Asian neighbors in terms of our democratic lifestyle / free society.  Filipinos speak English, some more ably than others, but it is spoken everywhere.  Social acceptance and belonging is of prime importance to Pinoys, and this national preference for the warm welcome is gladly given to any and all visitors to the country.

2. Where do I go in the Philippines?

The archipelago is divided into three big groups of islands:

1) LUZON

To the North. Luzon is home to the capital, Metro Manila, where I live.  Luzon has a massive mainland, and so travel by car or bus is readily available (but may be time-consuming).  There are options for air travel by plane to certain parts.  There are five political regions, each one with its peculiar curiosities.  Geography:  plains, with lots of rice fields, plateaus, mountain towns, volcanoes, and of course, beaches!

Popular destinations here are:  Baguio, Laguna, Tagaytay, Banaue (home of the famous Rice Terraces, eighth wonder of the world).   There are many more, and each province of course has its own surprise.

Majority of the people here speak Tagalog.  There are dialects in each region (trivia: The Philippines has about 119 ethno-linguistic groups in total!).

My Travels in Luzon
2) VISAYAS

The middle of the country, composed of smaller islands.
Popular destinations here are Boracay, Cebu, Bohol, and Iloilo.
To the west of the Visayas is Palawan, known for its amazing beaches.

The people here speak Bisaya, which has slight variations depending on the province.

My Travels in Visayas
3) MINDANAO

To the South.  In 2009 I went to Mindanao for the first time, with a good friend from Davao. I’ve written about my ziplining (flying!) experience in Camp Sabros, but there’s so much more to explore in Mindanao! My friends who are from there always say it is really beautiful…
Unfortunately, it is also known across the world for the bad: rebels and security issues.   The areas in Northern Mindanao are peaceful, with high security.

My Travels in Mindanao

3. Any recommended places for specific activities?

TREKKING

There are many places for trekking! My top picks:

  • The volcanoes of Mt. Pinatubo, as well as Taal in Tagaytay (the smallest volcano in the world, nestled in a lake crater).  Those two places are near Manila (1.5-3 hours by car).  There are also many local mountaineering groups that organize climbs.
  • The islands northernmost of the country, called Batanes, are lovely, showcasing a simple and rural life, but spectacular.  Perfect for biking and trekking.
SCUBA DIVING and SNORKELLING

Popular places for scuba diving are:

  • Anilao, Batangas (3 hours from Manila by car)
  • Bantayan, Malapascua y other island in Cebu (1.5 hours from Manila by plane),
  • Palawan islands (1.5 hours from Manila by plane), including Tubattaha Reef, Coron, El Nido
MOUNTAIN LIFE
  • Baguio, a city on top of a plateau is 5 hours from Manila by car.
  • Five more hours from Baguio is Sagada, and its neighboring province, Banaue, home of the famous “Rice Terraces”.  A more off-the-beaten track option is Batad, which involves a half-day hike through hills and rice fields.
A LITTLE HISTORY
  • Ilocos in the north (Vigan is a heritage city).
  • Iloilo and Cebu in the Visayas are also interesting places to visit for history.
  • In Manila, there is the walled “city” of Intramuros (it is not that big).  There are also museums in Manila, which are a good starting place for any visitor.
A LITTLE (OR LOTS OF!) BEACH

I believe one whole week is an easy spend in these beaches!

  • The most popular is Boracay, which I visit more than once a year with friends and family.
  • Other top beaches are those in Cebu, Bohol, and the crown jewel of the Philippines, Palawan.

I hope this information help you start your travel plans to visit!

4.  Can you give a Sample Itinerary?

Here’s a sample itinerary I made for a friend who visited for a month in 2009.  He was a first-timer, traveling solo, and he wanted to do trekking and scuba.  I told him to start by heading north, to the terraces of Banaue and neighboring Sagada, a quaint mountain town.

His itinerary went something like this:

Manila
Banaue
Sagada
Baguio
Manila
Cebu
Bohol
Bicol (Legapsi to see the volcano, Mt. Mayon, and the whalesharks of Donsol–> best seen from February to June)
Mindoro
Manila

In Cebu and Bohol, there are many options for scuba, such as Malapascua, Bantayan Island, Apo Reef.  Palawan was in his plans initially, but he decided to make another trip altogether just for Palawan.

There are many options, and the best travel plans unravel on their own.

Sample itinerary to Sagada from Baguio: http://www.visitsagada.com/2008/03/29/my-sagada-via-baguio-itinerary/

and Coron, PALAWAN: http://www.couchsurfing.com/group_read.html?gid=414&post=2421370

5.  When is the best time to visit?

Depends on what you want to do.

Summer in the Philippines is from April to May.   Be prepared for hot, humid weather (up to 40 degrees Celsius).  The rains usually come in June, but this has changed in recent time.

Avoid the Crowds

There are peak seasons, and there are super peak seasons.  National holidays are travel times for both locals and balikbayans (Filipinos based abroad who come home to visit).  This means hotels and flights are most expensive, everyone is in holidaymania, and the likelihood is high for travel delays: long waiting lines and airport/street congestion.

  • Super Peak:  Holy Week, Christmas and New Year’s
  • Peak: Summer break (April-May), Semestral break (last weeks of October until All Souls Day in November 2), popular festivals

The ideal time to avoid the crowds also varies from place to place.  For example, I like going to Boracay from late October to February, when there are less party-goers and the beach is more beautiful (no seaweeds!).

Flexibility is key

There is always something to do here, anytime of the year.   I have friends who drive to Batangas (3 hours from Manila) and windsurf every weekend.

Other places need more preparation.  Batanes, for example, is beautiful but prone to typhoons.  The best time to visit are February to June when rains and winds are more predictable.  The whalesharks in Donsol, Bicol, only pass through the area from February to May.

If you wish to experience local festivals, time your trip to coincide with these.  Cebu is famous for the festival of the Sto. Nino (Child Jesus), called the Ati-atihan, every February.  A similar honor is given to the Sto. Nino in Iloilo, also a province in the Visayas, on the last week of January.

Christmas in the Philippines is also quite an experience — with the initial sentiments felt as early as September, lasting all the way until mid-January.   It’s a time of coming together and festivities literally everywhere, most especially in the weeks leading up to Christmas in December.

Good luck!


 

Useful links

Introduction to the Philippines with Travel Suggestions (in Spanish)
Filipinas en wikipedia

Philippine Travel Blogs:

www.pinoytravelblog.com – a group blog by Pinoys with detailed and updated travel information
www.backpackingphilippines.com – for the budget traveller
www.topblogs.com.ph/travel – list of  other travel blogs in the Philippines
www.visitsagada.com – travel blog dedicated to Sagada, with updated information including contacts and transportation options
www.birdwatch.ph
– webpage of the Philippine birdwatching club
www.ivanhenares.com – list of Philippine destinations visited and reviewed by by Filipino blogger, Ivan.

Government tourism sites:

itsmorefuninthephilippines.com – official site of the Department of Tourism

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manilarat

manilarat

Manilarat is my ode to Manila, the city we love to hate, but also the city we love. I am an artist, educator, and advocate of all things slow: slow travel, slow food, slow conversations.

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