Southeast Asia done a little differently
Dive into the multi-faceted delights of the Philippines and be dazzled by the diversity of wildlife, scenery and humanity. More than 7,000 islands straddling the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’ are lapped by limpid waters, topped by volcanic peaks and swathed in the verdant greens of dense jungle and rice paddies. There’s a thrilling melange of cultural influences here too, from Malay to Spanish and several points in between. Undertones of Latin America bubble up here in the form of colonial architecture and catholic fiestas, all adding to the sense that this is a corner of Asia like no other.
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Top things to do in the Philippines
There are many wonderful experiences to be had in this scattering of islands. For further inspiration take a look at the trip ideas put together by our trusted local experts, but in the meantime here are our top things to do in the Philippines.
Island hop to your heart’s content
With 7,000 slices of tropical paradise to choose between, there is an island to suit all amongst the Philippines’ many jewels. From tiny slivers of silvery sand to jungle-clad lands where volcanoes reach skyward. Right in the centre of the Philippine archipelago, the Visaya Islands offer a manageable way to see some of the many aspects of Filipino life, from festivals and rustic Spanish churches to volcanic mountain ranges. Don’t forget to pack your fins - you’ll likely spend just as much time underwater as on land.
Admire bountiful Banaue and beyond
In northern Luzon sections of the mountains have been whittled over the centuries into picturesque rice terraces, stepping up the flanks of the green hills surrounding the village of Banaue. Introduced 2,000 years ago by the Ifugao People, these ancient terraces are still in use today and are UNESCO-protected. Trails allow access to the shimmering scenery; stride out a little further into the surrounding countryside to find some of the more secluded hamlets.
Explore two cultural capitals
Manic Manila is not for the fainthearted. This densely populated megacity can be hard to get to know, but if you take the time you’ll find its creative heart beating strongly amidst the madness. For an altogether calmer vibe, head north to the coastal city of Vigan - one of the oldest settlements in the Philippines. Here, along cobbled streets and alleyways you’ll catch a glimpse of colonial times.
Lesser-known things to do in the Philippines
While there are many well-known things to do in the Philippines, what about the lesser-known highlights? Our local experts have shared some of their top tips for where to go and what to do if you fancy a bit of an alternative island adventure.
Get a taste for the Chocolate Hills
The deliciously named Chocolate Hills are a curious phenomenon in Carmen, in the Bohol region. Verdant and grassy in the wet season they turn rich shades of brown in drier climes, thus their moreish moniker. A remarkable example of conical karst topography, the region is listed as one of the Philippines’ three National Geographical Monuments and has been nominated for UNESCO status. There are upwards of 1,260 hills (though agreed total numbers vary), with established rice fields, caves and springs to be found in between their conical peaks.
Look up Sagada’s macabre hanging coffins
Undertake an unusual cemetery tour in Sagada. Though predominantly a Roman Catholic nation today, many tribes used to populate what is now the Philippines. One of them, the Igorot tribe, had a peculiar but practical custom. In efforts to bring their dead closer to their ancestral spirits – while keeping the bodies safe from wild dogs and head-hunters – their coffins were suspended on mountain sides. View this vertical vestige of a lost custom and explore the caves nearby.
Discover the adrenaline-fuelled Philippines
Though tropical beaches and idyllic retreats abound in the Philippines, the country’s adventure menu is equally appetising. The impressive Paoay and La Paz sand dunes in Ilocos Norte can be experienced by 4X4 or all-terrain vehicle (ATV), with epic views over the undulating sand ridges back-dropped by the South China Sea. The dunes’ imposing slopes also attract extreme sports aficionados, with sand boarding and sand tobogganing a hit with happy hedonism-seekers.
When is the best time to visit the Philippines?
The best time to go to the Philippines is during the dry season from November to April. Sun-worshippers should go in March and April - though do be aware that it can be hot hot hot - whilst people who like a gentler climate should travel in the cooler (and sometimes breezier) months of November to February, which are perfect for the more active holidays but still have plenty of warmth and sun for beach breaks. The rainy season in the Philippines is from May to October, but the rain is far from constant and doesn't often impact travel plans. The shoulder months of November and May are arguably great times to travel as accommodation and flights are cheaper, there are fewer tourists, the sun still shines and the scenery is fabulously lush. Do be aware that the weather in the Philippines can be unpredictable and typhoons can occur from as early as August to as late as January.
Interesting facts about the Philippines
The Philippines islands all combine to make a fascinating country. But did you know any of our top facts about it?
- The Republic of the Philippines is named after King Philip II of Spain. The country’s adjective is Philippine, and its people are called Filipino.
- The Philippines is Asia’s only majority-Christian nation. Over 80% of its population is Roman Catholic.
- Almost 109 million people live in the Philippines and it’s one of the world’s fastest growing countries. Demographically, it’s one of the youngest with a median age of under 25 (the USA’s median age is 38 for comparison).
- Several of the world’s largest shopping malls are found in the Philippines including the SM Megamall, SM City North Edsa, and SM Mall of Asia.
Insider tips from our trusted local experts
Being local, our experts have an extensive knowledge of the secrets to experiencing the 'real' Philippines. Here are a few of their top tips - ask them for other recommendations when you enquire to ensure you have the most in-depth experience whilst on holiday!
Night kayak to the light…
Paddle a kayak through the inky waters of the Abatan river after sunset to see a unique nocturnal phenomenon. Glowing fireflies engulf the trees all around, creating an other-worldly scene that’s bright with bioluminescence. On this hypnotic voyage fringed by dense mangroves, you’ll learn about the local river environment and the locals’ efforts to protect the precious fireflies and their habitats.
Jump on a jeepney…
Unmistakably Philippine, jeepney’s are to the Philippines what the tuk-tuk is to Thailand: inextricably linked. Notoriously packed with people, they are a signature way to travel. The jaunty jeepneys are rainbow hued and festooned with festive decorations, drapes, name badges and light systems. Black cabs they are not! Take coins to pay the fare which is traditionally passed from passenger to passenger to reach the driver.
Try Tibiao’s ‘wok’ hot tubs…
Enterprising locals in Tibiao, Antique, have transformed a traditional sugar cooking vessel into a quirky hot tub experience. If your limbs are aching from a terraced trek or the exertions of an excursion, slip into a soothing ‘kawa’ to feel relaxed and revived. Surrounded by the glistening green of the tropics, these are essentially giant, human-sized woks, with a fire pit beneath designed to keep the water temperature toasty.
What to read before you go to the Philippines
If you're looking for something to get you in the mood before you set off on your travels to the Philippines, we've gathered a list of our favourite books to inspire you.
'America’s Boy: The Marcoses and the Philippines' by James Hamilton-Paterson
In real life, author Hamilton-Paterson spends several months a year on an uninhabited Philippine island, surviving on his wits and spear-fishing skills. He describes the motivations for this unusual existence in his other excellent book, Playing with Water. In America’s Boy, he considers the wider political conditions in the Philippines that made the rule of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos possible, contending that they were simply the latest corrupt leaders to grip a country long ruled by oligarchies.
'Noli Me Tángere' by José Rizal
Rizal is a national hero in the Philippines and his novel Noli Me Tángere (Touch Me Not) is widely perceived to be one of country’s greatest. Begun in 1882 and set during the country’s colonization by Spain, this ardent love story is framed by the omnipresent issues of the time including the behaviour of those in the Catholic church, governmental repression, torture and murder.
'Dusk' by F Sionil José
This is the first, though last to be published, book in José’s five-book Rosales saga, each novel being individual but interrelated. Originally released in the Philippines as Po-on, our narrator transports us to the heart of the Samson peasant family, who leave their home to escape a corrupt Spanish priest and the oppression and persecution of the colonial authorities. This is an evocatively embellished take on the reality of life in the 1880s, a tumultuous time in Philippine history.
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