The Philippines feels different from anywhere else in Southeast Asia. With a unique mix of cultural influences and far from the tourist crowds of Thailand or Bali, it invites you to discover it your own way. Backpacking in the Philippines is not always quite as effortless as it is in mainland Southeast Asia (in part due to the added logistics of travelling between islands), but I think it’s also one of the region’s most rewarding destinations.
There are many reasons why I love the Philippines. It has some of the best beaches in Asia, and with over 7000 islands it’s an island-hopping paradise. Superb snorkeling, scuba diving, and surfing spots are scattered all across the archipelago. Beyond the beaches and reefs, you’ll find lush jungles, stunning volcanoes, and tropical pine forests in Northern Luzon that are perfect for hiking and caving adventures.
What also makes me a big fan is its cultural diversity. The Phillipines owes this to its many ethnic groups but also due to foreign influence, as it was once a Spanish colony and briefly a US one. The main religion on most islands is catholic, and you can find traces of Hispanic influence in many place names or on restaurant menus. If you squint your eyes, you can sometimes feel like you’re in Latin America. Contrasting to this is the Filipino’s love for American sports and pop culture, which you’ll quickly notice if you listen to any radio or pass by any karaoke booth. Jeepneys are also a living reminder of the US prescence during WW2; these heavily modified and colorfully painted US army jeeps still proudly serve as the local transportation.
While mainland Asia is hugely popular among Western backpackers, the Philippines is relatively less visited. Maybe this is due to its geographic separation from popular countries such as Thailand or Vietnam, or perhaps because it can seem more culturally familiar to Westerners at first glance. I discovered the Philippines after travelling elsewhere in Asia, and it ended up being possibly my favorite country in the region.
Keep in mind that due to fewer travellers and a fragmented geography, there is less of a clear-cut backpacker circuit. Particularly outside of popular Palawan or Bohol, it helps to be a bit adventurous and to follow your own path.
Where to go in The Philippines
The Philippines has many islands that are quite spread apart, and not all of them are conveniently connected. This makes planning a route a bit more challenging, but it can also makes things more fun, as you’re encouraged to hop around and no one follows quite the same route. The best places to visit are spread all over the archipelago, though if you’re pressed for time it makes sense to target only one or two islands.
Here is what some of the regions are most known for:
- Palawan for beautiful beaches, mangroves and caves near Sabang, spectacular island hopping around El Nido and Coron, and wreck diving around Coron. The route from Puerto Princesa to Coron is arguably the main backpacker trail with many including Palawan in their itinerary.
- Northern Luzon for hiking, caving, and the UNESCO world heritage rice terraces of Banaue
- Boracay Island is the most heavily advertised holiday destination of the Philippines. It’s the least ‘backpackery’ place. Expect lots of resorts and activities like para-sailing, banana boats, jetskis, water-skiing, etc. Prices are generally much higher here than elsewhere in the Philippines.
- Southeast Luzon (Bicol) has an impressive volcano near Legazpi which can be hiked. You can swim with whale sharks in nearby Donsol (if you’re lucky enough to find any).
- Bohol for visiting local villages, seeing tarsier monkeys, and the quircky Chocolate Hills (slightly overrated with apparently no walking paths around it, but still cool)
- Cebu is particularly of interest for scuba diving; check out Malapascua Island, and I’ve heard great things about Moalboal and Apo Island.
- Siargao is an emerging destination popular especially with surfers. I’ve been told the first backpacker hostels recently opened here.
- Mindanao: off the beaten track. This region has had some security issues due to separatist activity so check travel advisories before going here, though incidents have been rare and many do travel here, sharing enthusiastic reports.
This of course barely scratches the surface. The Philippines is like a collection of destinations wrapped into one, and this guide will cover only some of the most known ones (and the ones I was able to cover in the month that I spent there).
The most common entry point is Manila, either flying into its main airport (most long distance flights go here) or to Clark Airport near Angeles, 80km north of Manila (favored by regional budget carriers including AirAsia). Some flights also go direct to Cebu City, located more centrally in the Philippines.
The big cities are congested and stressful, and so they might not leave the best first impression. If you’ve only just arrived, keep in mind that those laidback beaches and smaller towns are going to feel very different.
Buses are the best way to get around on the islands, such as the largest island of Luzon where Manila is located. But to see a variety of places, you’ll inevitably have to cross some water.
As far as ferries go, the short ones are worth it: for instance between Bohol and Cebu or Cebu and Malapascua island. Taking a boat from El Nido to Coron Island is a particularly nice journey and is a bit of an attraction in itself. (You can also do this leg as a tour with an adventure company where you sleep in hammocks on deserted islands along the way, though this isn’t cheap.)
Ferries are not great for covering long distances however. Forget about taking a boat from Manila to Palawan for example; there’s a boat connection but it only goes once a week and takes a good 28 hours to get there. Because everything is quite spread apart in the Philippines realistically you’ll probably end up taking an internal flight or two if you want to see a lot. Fortunately local carriers offer pretty cheap flights: check Cebu Airlines, Tiger Air or AirAsia Zest.
Top hostels in the Philippines
Enjoying your trip is as much about where you’re staying as where you’re going. If you like to stay in backpacker hostels, there is a good bunch of them around. Affordable guesthouses or beach bungalows are easy to find as well (the resort island of Boracay is expensive, though). The following are some of the best low-budget places to stay:
|Pink Manila Hostel||Manila||Relaxing refuge from the busy streets of Manila, with rooftop bar and swimming pool.|
|Z Hostel||Manila||Modern newly built hostel with lots of amenities. Dorm beds and some private rooms.|
|Our Melting Pot||El Nido||The top rated backpacker hangout in Palawan’s island hopping hub.|
|Frendz Resort||Boracay||Boracay is a very commercial island, but this backpacker hostel is the place to go for low prices and good vibes.|
|Noordzee Hostel||Cebu||Some ways south of Cebu, on its own beach away from touristy areas. Dorms and private beach cottages.|
|Nipa Hut Village||Bohol||Loved staying here at the heart of Bohol island. No WiFi, but a peaceful place away from the touristy Panglao beach.|
|Mayon Backpackers Hostel||Legazpi||The first and only hostel in Legazpi. Homely living room feel in a residential neighborhood.|
|Tree House Inn||Puerto Princesa||Recommended hostel in Puerto Princesa City, where flights to Palawan arrive.|
All of the above links go to Hostelworld.com. Another great site for budget accommodation is Booking.com, as it has the biggest inventory of independent hotels and guesthouses. Be sure to filter by budget in the left column of any results page. If you’re looking for places with a social vibe or a bit of extra charm, sort the ratings by ‘solo traveller’. Even if you’re not travelling solo, this is a great trick to quickly find the most welcoming places.
Places to visit in the Philippines
The following are just some of the best places to visit and top destinations in the Philippines:
- Hop between stunning islands in the Bacuit Archipelago
Vietnam’s Halong Bay may be impressive but it’s also overcrowded. Want to have the place a little more to yourself? Then go to the Bacuit Archipelago to the north of Palawan. The peaceful islands, secret beaches and karst cliffs are simply drop-dead gorgeous, and you can have some incredible snorkeling to boot. Some great island hopping tours depart from El Nido on Palawan and from Coron Island.
- Visit Echo Valley and the Hanging Coffins in Sagada
Hit up Northern Luzon and you might feel like you’re in a whole different country. As you get higher up in the mountains the feeling of tropical summer recedes, turning gradually into more of a gentle European spring with the smell of pine trees in the air. Sagada is a good base for trekking and caving.
- See the impressive Ifugao rice terraces
A UNESCO world heritage site, the rice terraces near Banaue in Northern Luzon are a major tourist attraction. I recommend making the hike to nearby Batad instead; this village can only reached by foot, but you will be rewarded with the sight of stunning amphitheater-style rice terraces that are even more impressive than the ones at Banaue.
- Go to a tarsier monkey sanctuary on Bohol
The island of Bohol is home to the rare tarsier monkeys, small nocturnal and giant-eyed creatures. You might be lucky enough to see them in the wild, though the semi-wild sanctuary on Bohol is your guaranteed way to see them.
- See the Chocolate Hills on Bohol
While I don’t recommend going to Bohol just to see the Chocolate Hills (they’re a little overrated), they are still a fun curiosity. For some unexplained reason the landscape in central Bohol is dotted with little Super Mario esque hills, which are chocolate-coloured for part of the year.
- Snorkel with whale sharks
These gentle giants are not dangerous to humans; they only eat plankton. But they are also the largest fish in existence and their scale is truly something to be appreciated. Donsol in Southeast Luzon and Oslob on Cebu are places where you can go on a boat and jump in the water right next to these huge creatures. Keep in mind however that sightings are by no mean guaranteed (even in season).
- Visit the Subterranean River National Park
Sabang on Palawan is home to one of the longest cave rivers in the world. The boat tour is interesting–you will see some cool rock formations and a lot of bats. Also of interest is the nature surrounding Sabang. Walk westward along the beach and you’ll find a small waterfall that leads into the sea, and you can see hundreds of mudkicker fishes hanging onto the rocks here. Wake up early and take a boat tour of the nearby mangrove forest to see lots of snakes, crabs and tropical birds. Around the cave entrance, you can easily spot monkeys and giant lizards.
- Learn to Scuba dive in Puerto Galera, near Manila
While you can get Open Water certified in tons of different locations, a popular place for Scuba training at highly competitive prices is Puerto Galera on Oriental Mindano.
- Dive the great dive sites of the Philippines
The Philippines is truly a diver’s paradise. Come face-to-face with rare thresher sharks around Malapascua Island (don’t worry, they don’t bite!), discover amazing WW2 wrecks around Coron Island, or dive the world’s second-largest contiguous coral reef system of Apo Reef in Mindano. Bohol has some good wall dives around Panglao Island, and some unique dive sites around Bien Unido where hundreds of statues of the Virgin Mary can be found on the ocean bottom, creating surreal underwater scenes.
- Hike a giant volcano
The Philippines is home to some impressive volcanoes. There are several around Manila that can make for good day-trips (like Taal Volcano). I hiked Mount Mayon near Legasbi, which has one of the most symmetrical cones in the world (and is still a little active).
- Be a beach bum
Need a break from your active travelling? There are beaches a-plenty to relax. Boracay Island is the prime beach resort location, though it’s more for holidayers than for travellers. You’ll find great beaches all over the country.
Filipinos love karaoke. Even in tiny villages with bamboo huts you may hear tunes like Livin’ On A Prayer blast from the speakers after work hours. Filipinos are known to be very musically gifted, and it’s said they’re born with a guitar in their hands. Should you be invited, bring some rum and share the fun.
Philippines travel tips
If you’re travelling solo but want to meet people, you might have to put in a bit more work than in mainland Asia. There are backpacker hostels, but certainly not everywhere. Manila, Palawan, Borocay and to some extent Bohol are the easiest areas to meet travellers. Elsewhere, you might not run into as many other travellers.
Contact with locals is easy as at least 60% of the population speaks English. Filipinos are known to be welcoming and friendly, and you’ll probably end up meeting many locals or domestic travellers.
Riding jeepneys is cheap and fun
You will find jeepneys all over the Philippines. These colorful converted jeeps serve as local hop-on-hop-off buses following set routes. Simply jump on board by entering through the back, then pass the money to the driver in front. Jeepneys are inexpensive and ideal for short distances (along with the ubiquitous tricycles which you can hail on many streets). Do take care at night in Manila though as taking Jeepneys reportedly isn’t always safe and taxis are recommended at night.
Since all passengers share the same seating area it’s a nice way to be among locals and potentially make some chit-chat. Some Jeepneys let you sit on the roof as well, which can be fun and adventurous especially when driving around windy mountain roads.
Expect cities to be stressful
Manila is a busy, congested and chaotic city. Sometimes such chaos can be interesting, such as in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam where seeing seemingly infinite shoals of honking scooters flowing through the streets can be a thrill. But in Manila you just end up stuck in traffic a lot. Some of the neighborhoods are a little rough, and the historical sights around Intramuros are only of mild interest to foreigners.
This is not say you can’t have a good time in Manila (for instance, its nightlife seemed good), but the city can be more stressful than expected. The second biggest city, Cebu, is less hectic than Manila, but not by much.
I recommend finding a nice hostel or hotel in the cities so that you have a relaxing home base. Explore the cities a little, but then head on to the countryside where the Philippines truly shines.
The food is a mixed bag
With my apologies to Filipinos who are clearly proud of their food, but the cuisine doesn’t always appeal to foreign tastebuds. It seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it thing among travellers and expats. From my point of view, many dishes get smothered with too much salt, too much sugar, or too much fat. American-inspired fast food is also ubiquitous in the cities which makes healthier options more difficult to find at times.
There is in fact some great food in the Philippines if you look around, or if you ask locals what’s best. It’s also helpful to consult travel guides or Tripadvisor for the best dishes or restaurants. But it’s a bit different from a country like Thailand where a delicious pad Thai is only ever a street corner away.
Given that the ocean is never far away, it’s probably no surprise that you can find some amazing seafood. Even though I personally wasn’t a fan of every Philippines dish (and yes, I know it’s a matter of taste!), I couldn’t get enough of the fresh grilled fish or fried calamari along the coasts.
Researching your Philippines trip
Hopefully this page has already given you some ideas. It can also be worth picking up a travel guide, as it’s not always obvious where to go next or how to get there. You can buy a paper guidebook, or an ebook version to keep on your phone, tablet or laptop.
For detailed expert advice on topics such as packing, planning, vaccinations, insurance, safety, budgeting, solo travel, and more, be sure to take a look at my own in-depth guide to travelling. It has a 4.9 star rating on Amazon and it’s honestly the best guide to backpacking you can find.
By the way, don’t feel like you have to go to the places mentioned here or in other overviews. There are many roads-less-travelled, and finding them can be its own reward. Many Filipinos blog about their own country in English, so a great way to find out about alternative destinations is to follow these blogs. Probably the biggest of them is Pinoy Adventurista, which covers all of the provinces. Two Monkeys Travel is co-written by a Brit and a Filipina, and their top 40 filipino travel blogs can lead you to countless tips and stories about places all over the country.
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- Southeast Asia Backpacking: Cost Of Travel Overview
A breakdown of travel costs for every country in the region, including Thailand
- A Mini Guide To Visiting Palawan And El Nido
Since Palawan is one of the top destinations in the Philippines, I share some more information in this separate post.
- South-East Asia Itinerary Suggestions For 2 Weeks To 2 Months
Going on a larger trip in South-East Asia? Or want to know what’s next after Thailand? Then check out this post.
- All my posts about The Philippines
Every post that’s been tagged with the Philippines. Browse all my stories and tips.
Around the web
- 30 Must-Try Street Foods When Traveling In The Philippines – Bkpk.me
- More useful links as and when I find them!