While most travellers head straight to known tourist spots like Boracay or Bohol, Huub shares with us his impressions of some Philippines islands in the Visayas that are still very much under-the-radar.
The Visayas is one of the three island groups in the Philippines. On the map, this archipelago forms the spine of the country. Thanks to its rich nature, many different languages, beaches and vibrant festivals, the Visayas group is representing the Philippines heart at the same time. Explore some of the lesser known, but astonishing Filipino gems.
The complete tropical picture
The sixth largest island of the Philippines has the potential to be an all-round backpacking destination, but only a small trickle of tourists seems to find their way to Panay.
Most visitors head straight for the picture-perfect island Boracay, northwest of Panay. Boracay ended up becoming a polluted party place, which made the government decide to shut down tourism for 6 months and organise a massive clean-up. Late November 2018, Boracay reopened after the locals said goodbye to loud beach parties and tons of trash.
But there’s more to Panay than the recovered, powdery beaches of Boracay. Head south to the Iraynon Bukidnon rice terraces in the town of San Remigio, surrounded by the stunning central Panay mountain range. These lovely terraces are unique in the Visayas and worth going to Panay for alone. The best travel buddy you could possibly bring to this place is a camera, since the lush mountains and waterfalls in western Panay are appealing beyond imagination. San Remigio is a short taxi ride away from the town of San Jose de Buenavista. This coastal town can be reached in two hours by bus from the island’s biggest city, Iloilo City.
A Philippine island isn’t a Philippine island without a proper fiesta. The people of Panay party hard in the city of Kalibo during the annual Ati-Atihan festival held on the third Saturday of January. Combining Catholic aspects with the tribal traditions, this fiesta is called the Mother of Philippine Festivals. Kicking off with a holy mass, this day is dedicated to Santo Niño, the Infant Jesus. The centre of Kalibo then overflows with passionate drummers and dancers dressed up in tribal costumes that refer to the ethnic group Ati.
Attending Ati-Atihan requires some decent planning because hotel rooms will be fully booked months in advance — for some tips, be sure to check out our guide.
Iloilo City in the east of Panay is the jumping-off point to Negros, but don’t forget to hit the province Iloilo before taking the ferry to the neighbouring island. The streets of the Iloilo province are cramped with honking vehicles, but this fast-growing urban area has some undeniable charming pieces of architecture. Miagao Church was founded in 1731 and built with odd material such as limestone, coral and eggs. The sticky egg was used as a natural cement to hold the other elements together. The ochre cathedral has stunning decoration, such as carved images of saints and plants. Miagao Church is one of the oldest Spanish colonial churches in the Philippines. Buses between Iloilo City and the Antique pass by Miagao, making it an easy stop along the way.
Home to the tallest mountain
After an easy 1,5-hour boat ride from the Iloilo City dock, the journey through the Visayas continues to Negros, an island divided by two provinces: Negros Occidental and Negros Oriental. The ferry arrives in Bacolod in Negros Occidental, and the one-way ticket fare starts at 200 Philippine pesos.
Bacolod is a crowded city, but don’t worry: Negros enchants its visitors with generous nature.
Bacolod does have a fascinating fiesta though, called MassKara. This vibrant festival dates back to 1980, a year full of disaster with low sugarcane prices and a ferry crash tragedy where 750 people died. The masks were meant to put the smile back on the Negrenses’ faces. Every October MassKara transforms Bacolod into a multi-coloured place of an affair, featuring parades, roadside bars, decorated cars and dancing performances by people from surrounding villages. The villages will compete for the prestigious title of being Bacolod’s best dance act for at least one year.
If you don’t want to spend time in Bacolod, it’s easy to escape the busy city by taking a bus from the northbound or southbound terminal. In the northbound terminal, you can take a bus to San Carlos via Don Salvador Benedicto, and travel the most scenic road on the island. It’s worth taking a break from moving at the tall Malatan-og Falls.
The trip from Bacolod costs 80 pesos, and you can ask the conductor to be dropped off at the Malatan-og viewpoint. From the entrance, you can already see Malatan-og revealing itself in the rugged centre of Negros. It takes about 40 minutes to reach the foot of the falls, where a jump in the natural pool might be the ultimate reward. The entrance fee to the trail is 50 pesos.
On the winding road to San Carlos, you can see gorgeous rice terraces and trucks loaded with pineapples suffer on their way up. Just of the coast at San Carlos lies a perfect escape from urban life called Sipaway, a small island on the east coast. Although its white beaches don’t compare to those on other Philippine islands, they lack the crowds you’ll find elsewhere, and they’re still pretty scenic. A nice way to get around Sipaway is by tricycle cab. Do haggle for an appropriate rate, which should be about 200 pesos for half a day.
Further south you’ll find the whale watching capital of the Philippines, Bais City. This city is connected to Bacolod’s southbound terminal. Rent a boat and go search for dolphins and pygmy sperm whales who call the Tañon Strait their home. You can ask the boat driver to stop at the Manjuyod Sandbar, a picturesque tropical getaway where you can snorkel in the surrounding reefs. A boat tour will set you back 3000 pesos, so make sure to bring friends to share the costs.
The adventurous travellers going to Negros can feast on 3-day trekking to the summit of Mount Kanlaon. Standing at 2465 meter this stratovolcano is the highest mountain in the Visayas. Mount Kanlaon literally is the lone highlight in Negros, so the views on top of the brutal crater rim and even along the way are spectacular. Tour operators offer a package which includes transportation, conservation fees and guides. Prices range from 5000 to 10.000 pesos, depending on the company and the addition of meals and porters.
Enchanting and relaxing
Siquijor is commonly known as the Enchanted Island, as it plays a part in many Filipino tales that tell Siquijor is home to witches and evil beings. One thing is for sure; to foreigners who don’t believe the ghost stories, this place is one of the most laidback isles in the country.
The ultimate way to get around small Siquijor is to rent a motorbike and go with the chill flow. Most travellers who visit this island, go to Cambuhagay Falls in the south. A scenic trail leads to a fairy pool with turquoise water and the rumbling falls, where you can do cliff jumping and rope swinging. The falls are quite peaceful and lush, making for an excellent spot to take a dip.
If you follow the main road to the west, you’ll undoubtedly bump into a massive tree. The Century Old Balete Tree is over 400 years old and is said to be enchanted. Right next to the extensive root sits a fish spa, where carps and smaller fishes will tickle your feet. There are several stalls with souvenirs and snacks such as buko – young coconut – for 30 pesos.
While driving around Siquijor, you’ll encounter many subwoofers producing loud music and vocals. Karaoke is the favourite hobby of many Filipinos. Don’t hesitate to stop by one of the houses to sing a few songs, before continuing your journey. The locals will be amazed and most of all welcoming. If you wish for a more private setting, go to Guiwanon Spring Park. Here you find the karaoke place with the best scenery you could dream of. From the main road, you walk across a bamboo bridge through a mangrove forest, before you arrive at the karaoke bar that’s atop bamboo stakes. Practically you sing your guilty pleasures right above the sea. Since the bar is located on the west coast of Siquijor, you’ll be treated with wonderful sunsets at night. Don’t forget to bring plenty of 5 peso coins to feed the karaoke machine. With one coin you get to sing three songs.
An outdoors paradise
The eastern Visayan island Leyte is mostly known as the centre of disaster during the extremely destructive typhoon Yolanda in 2013, that left a deadly trail and a hardly healed wound until today.
Leyte does deserve attention for different reasons. The island has a rough, mountainous interior that is a playground for adventurous travellers. One of the most exciting activities is trekking to the iconic Alto Peak in Ormoc province. Start your hike from the scenic Lake Danao. The trail leads through green bushes and has very steep parts, making this a fairly tough hike. From the summit, you can see Leyte’s lowlands stretching out. On the way back, it’s worth considering to enjoy a calm boat ride on the lake or rent a canoe to peddle your way around. You can reach Lake Danao by renting a taxi or jeepney (convenient with big groups) from Ormoc City.
Leyte is one of the best Visayan Island to discover the wonders of the underwater world. Sogod Bay in the south draws divers with some exciting wall diving. Padre Burgos is a good starting point to explore the bay, offering several diving resorts and excellent dive spots just a short boat ride away. Sogod Bay is famous for its reef walls dotted with an abundance of macro life and countless types of hard and soft coral. Sea turtles and large pelagic fish like groupers, tuna and jacks often show their faces, and you might even get lucky spotting whale sharks. The coral gardens are breathtakingly colourful and unspoiled.
The Philippine beaches you see in the travel brochures can be found on Leyte as well. For a leisurely trip to milky white sandy beaches including palm trees, it’s best to hit Digyo Island, near the west coast of Leyte. The azure water is perfect for swimming and snorkelling since Digyo has its own marine sanctuary. For a tropical breakout, you can stay overnight in cottages – prices ranging from 300 to 500 pesos – and you can also rent a tent for 150 pesos per night. There are a bunch of small stores on the island and a grill, where you can prepare fresh fish sold by the local fishermen. Digyo Island is a short boat ride away from Inopacan on mainland Leyte.
For an even greater castaway experience, you can opt to visit Kalanggaman Island. This tiny spot on the map probably won’t ever make it to any travel guide, but that’s hard to justify when you first witness the snow white sandbars and experience the laidback vibe. Fun activities here include swimming, kayaking and snorkelling. If you wish to extend your stay on Kalanggaman, there are cottages and tents for rent. This island can be reached by boat from Palompon on the west coast of Leyte. A roundtrip costs 3000 pesos per boat, so it’s wise to find company. Also keep in mind that the entrance and conservation fees only are 500 pesos in total, making this isle a unique but pricey destination.
Travelling under the tourist radar
Samar is, after Luzon and Mindanao, the third largest island in the Philippines, and therefore it has an incredible amount of sights.
Being the most north-eastern part of the Eastern Visayas Samar has some influences from the Bicol region on nearby Luzon. The fact that the explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed here first under the Spanish flag gives Samar’s culture and people the longest Spanish related history. Same parts of the island are still trying to pick themselves up after the desolating typhoon Yolanda arrived here in 2013, but that doesn’t temper the spirit of the people, and it’s abundant nature. Most of all, Samar is heaven for nature lovers.
At the very core of the island lies the most extensive cave system in the Philippines called Langun Gobingob. During the trekking to the cave, you can see the gigantic ‘mouth’ from miles away. If you join a guided group tour, you’ll be entertained with full-day trekking. The lunch spot is legendary: an enormous cave chamber, accurately called the Football Field. The name is slightly deceiving; this hall is way more substantial than a football pitch. The fantastic stalagmites and stalactites are impressive, and so is the size of this cave system. To organise a tour, you can reach out to tour operators in Catbalogan City. The highly rated company Trexplore offers 1-day tours departing from Catbalogan City or Tacloban City on neighbouring Leyte (price 3500 pesos per person).
Close to Calbayog City, several waterfalls are begging to be discovered by a broader audience. Bangon-Bugong drops a staggering 60 meters, spread over several beautiful cascades. The falls has a large pool at its base for a refreshing swim. It’s advisable to arrange a tricycle in Calbayog City and ask the driver to bring you to San Joaquin. From here it’s approximately a 45-minute walk to the falls. Budget alarm: so far there’s no entrance fee. Very nearby you’ll find the equally impressive Tarangban Falls, surrounded by mountains. The natural cascades make this falls look like a gigantic staircase, a reminder of Samar’s perfect charm.
Samar’s magic is best shown at the Bel-at rock formation near Biri Island, in the northern tip of the Samar province. Walking over a footbridge, you’ll pass by some beautiful mangrove forest, when eventually the rocks show up. Changing tides and wind have carved strangely shaped rocks out of coral. At low tide, the true wizardry reveals itself: a tidal pool that might be on your list of ‘best natural pools in the world’.
Getting to Biri Island is a bit of a hassle, but going there is a no-brainer for the determent traveller. Most travellers will start their journey from Catarman, the biggest town in Northern Samar. From here you can take a jeepney heading for Allen, although you should hop off in Lavezares. From the small pier, you can take a ferry (50 pesos) to Biri, where you can flag down a motorbike taxi to go to the Bel-at walkway.