Out of the 60+ countries I’ve been to, the Philippines is one of my top favorites! It has some of the best beaches and islands of the region and with over 7000 islands it’s an island-hopping paradise.
Backpacking the Philippines is definitely worth it if you like spending time in and around its tropical waters. Many travelers in the Philippines are there to scuba dive or surf, though there is much more to enjoy than beaches and islands.
Above all, I love the Philippines for its unique cultural mix. It’s quite different from what you’ll find on mainland Southeast Asia, having its own combination of influences.
This comes in part from its many ethnic groups but also due to foreign influence, as the Philippines 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. 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.
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.
Backpacking the Philippines is simply incredible, though with so many places to choose from, it can be difficult to decide where to start! The following travel tips can help you plan your trip and discover the best of the Philippines.
Where to go in the Philippines
Some countries make it super easy to create a route touching all of the major highlights, but the Philippines is not necessarily one of them.
You see, it’s all about the geography. Take a country like Vietnam for instance: its long shape means you pretty much just have to draw a line between the north and south as it’s the only way to travel. But the Philippines has over 7000 different islands, making it quite geographically dispersed. Planning your route can thus be a bit more of a puzzle, but that makes deciding where to go also quite a bit more fun.
There are ferries between many of the islands, but this is slower than overland travel, and in some cases, the best practical option is to fly between distant islands. It might make sense to focus on particular regions of the Philippines, or else you could just end up pin-balling all around the archipelago (and having to take a few too many flights or ferries).
I’ll share three popular itineraries with you here, each of which can make a great 1-to-2-week holiday. But if you’ve got plenty of time to spare then you can easily chain these together to create one big route — or add in some of the other individual locations mentioned at the end.
Itinerary #1: Palawan & Coron
Go here for: Beaches, lagoons, the subterranean river, wreck diving, snorkelling, island hopping, waterfalls
Time needed: at least 1 week for just Palawan (2 weeks for the whole thing)
Palawan in the western Philippines is an archipelago of its own with some 1,780 islands and islets. It’s a long but narrow strip of some of the best beaches and marine life you will see in Southeast Asia.
From Manila, it’s approximately an hour plane ride to the capital Puerto Princesa. The city is relatively urbanized compared to the rest of the province, but you’ll meet a lot of foreigners here who now call Palawan their home.
For many though, Puerto Princesa is only a gateway to the province’s more majestic features. Top on the list is El Nido, which is located four hours north by bus or van. This town nestled among tall karst cliffs is a very popular departure point for island-hopping tours… so much so that the number of tourists exploded in recent years. But if you steer clear of El Nido during summer (March to May), you can enjoy the islands in relative quiet. From El Nido it is a 4 to 8-hour ferry ride to Coron, which has more lagoons and uninhabited islands, as well as some spectacular snorkelling and scuba diving sites.
I think Palawan is great for first-timers, as it packs a lot of stuff into a tight route. It’s also rapidly becoming the most popular backpacking route in the Philippines, so you shouldn’t expect to be alone — in particular in El Nido. The region is well-known for its exceptionally Instagrammy beaches and lagoons, though other parts of the Philippines might be a bit more interesting from a cultural perspective. The Visayas (see below) is another great region to consider for a beaches-and-nature focused trip.
Read more tips for Palawan in our dedicated guide.
Itinerary #2: Northern Luzon
Go here for: rice terraces, unique culture, mountains, hiking trails
Time needed: at least 7 days for the rice terraces + Sagada (but plenty more to explore if you have the time)
The Philippines is not just about beaches! Up in Northern Luzon is a mountainous area called the Cordillera Region. Here, it’s greenery as far as you can see.
It’s the perfect region to go if you’re looking for mountains and nature, but it’s also interesting from a cultural point of view. If you don’t know yet, the Philippines was colonized by Spain for over 300 years and was also invaded by Japan and America immediately after. Yet, because of the Cordillera’s mountainous geography, invaders found it difficult to break its defences. Outside influences like religion didn’t make it here until the 1970s, a time when the country was already enjoying decades of independence. The culture in the Cordillera stands out in their clothes, rituals, and daily life.
The impressive rice terraces at Banaue and especially at Batad are a major highlight in Northern Luzon. The small town of Sagada also makes for an excellent base for trekking and caving tours.
Get more tips from our Luzon itinerary.
Itinerary #3: Central Visayas
Go here for: Scuba diving, swimming with whale sharks, island life, waterfalls, canyoneering
Time needed: up to you… but you can easily spend many weeks here
The Visayas is the second largest island group in the Philippines. For Filipinos, Cebu and Bohol were the must-visit destinations way before Sagada and Palawan became famous. Dumaguete and Siquijor have also been rising in popularity in recent years.
Cebu is the second largest city in the Philippines and with its large airport, it’s easy to reach. There are even some international flights going straight to Cebu without needing to transfer in Manila. From Cebu, you can go in many different directions and island-hop to your heart’s content.
While the Visayas might lack those big karst cliffs and lagoons that really put Palawan on the map, the islands are nonetheless extremely scenic and home to many gorgeous beaches and waterfalls. I recommend exploring these parts if you want to avoid the usual Palawan backpacker trail and get a true taste of the central Philippines. Whereas Palawan has you traveling in one set direction, the Visayas invites you to explore its different islands in any order you like.
If you’re a scuba diver like me, you’ll adore the Visayas. Don’t miss Malapascua Island, possibly the world’s only place where you can reliably meet the majestic thresher sharks. Apo Island, towards the very south of the Visayas, is another must-dive location. The same goes for Moalboal, famed for its epic sardine run. Unlike the ones in South Africa, in Moalboal it can be experienced year-round. You can get to the more remote dive sites with a scuba diving liveaboard, where you stay on a boat for several nights.
Other amazing places to visit
The aforementioned itineraries combine highlights that are more or less clustered together. But there are several other popular spots, which are slightly disconnected from the rest, that are worth mentioning.
Siargao is a tranquil surf town in the southern Philippines. For the longest time, its charm was in its being unknown and unspoiled. It’s a very hip town but parties are often low-key and happen only at one bar per night. For non-surfers, just experiencing the Siargao vibe is already a treat in itself. But there are also other activities like island-hopping, cliff-diving, food-tripping, and the opportunity to meet a diverse group of people united by their love for surfing.
Many backpackers end up staying longer than planned. Siargao is, as they say, one of those places you can “get stuck”. Though new direct flights from Manila have recently opened in 2018 making it more accessible, which could mean that it will change. The flight is still a bit expensive for local tourists which keeps the crowds at bay, but cheaper airfares to Siargao may lead to it getting much busier in the future.
Bicol is a known tourist destination for Filipinos, though it’s less known among foreign tourists. It’s worth basing yourself in Legazpi, Albay from where you can do sightseeing in the area.
Different spots let you enjoy great views of Mt Mayon, a volcano famed for having a perfectly symmetrical cone. It was spewing ash plumes for some time in 2018, which made it unsafe for hiking activities, but it seems to have stopped rumbling again now. It’s a scenic 2-day trek to the peak and back. You can also view it from afar by the Cagsawa Ruins, remnants of a church destroyed by one of its many eruptions. There’s also an option to rent an ATV and explore the unspoiled lands around Mayon.
There’s just one backpacker hostel in town – the Mayon Backpackers Hostel – which has a fun family-like atmosphere and that I loved staying at.
Less than two hours to the west of Legazpi is Donsol, a former sleepy fishing town now famous for whale shark watching. You can also take firefly watching boat tours here at night, which are pretty magical – you’ll see some trees along the river covered in thousands of them, all pulsating in unison.
Meanwhile, a six-hour land and sea travel up north will bring you to the Caramoan islands, popular as the filming location of Survivor in 2012. Its popularity has died down in the past few years, which means you won’t have to compete for space while exploring its many white sand beaches and lagoons. You’ll love your evenings here – listening to the sound of crickets while looking up to thousands of stars above.
Camiguin is a small volcanic island in the Southern Philippines. You can enjoy hiking its volcanoes (it has seven!), and its many waterfalls and hot springs. There aren’t a lot of white sand beaches on the island although the iconic sandbar just two kilometres from the mainland is absolutely stunning. If you’re into flying, you might want to see all these from above in a propeller plane – while twisting and turning in an aerobatic flight. This is a bit expensive but totally worth it!
For some reason, the mystical Camiguin doesn’t get as much hype as it deserves. It’s as if every tourist who ever visited it unconsciously agreed to keep its magic a secret. Let’s say no more…
And so much more…
It’s kind of crazy how many great places there are to explore in the Philippines. This page merely gives you some of the better-known hotspots, but there is so much more to see. I feel like the Philippines is one destination that won’t run out of unspoiled places any time soon.
If you want to be a trailblazer and do something different, I recommend checking out the many Filipino travel blogs out there. There’s a big scene of locals writing about their own country in English, which lets you easily unlock a wealth of information on all of the different provinces.
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Getting to the Philippines
For international flights, the most common entry point is the capital Manila. Its main airport receives most of the long-distance flights, while shorter haul budget carriers like AirAsia usually favour Clark Airport near Angeles, which is about 80km north of Manila. Some international flights also go directly to Cebu City, another major city that’s located more centrally in the Philippines.
The Philippines is not always as well-connected with direct flights as some other countries in the region. You might find that the best way to get there is via another hub, like Singapore or Kuala Lumpur.
When you arrive, expect the big cities to be congested and stressful. They might not give the best first impression. You honestly might not want to waste too much time in Manila or Cebu as the best aspects of this country are the smaller towns and laid-back islands.
How to get around
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, when you’re briefly crossing a bay or strait to get to another island. But if you’re imagining covering long distances by boat, this is not so convenient or worthwhile. 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.
One exception to the rule might be the boat from El Nido to Busuanga Island (Coron). There are some faster boats operating there now, and it’s a particularly nice journey and is a bit of an attraction in itself.
Because everything is quite spread apart in the Philippines you’ll probably end up taking an internal flight or two if you want to see a lot. Fortunately, local carriers offer cheap flights: check out Cebu Airlines, Tiger Air or AirAsia.
To get around town, be sure to take a Jeepney. 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. Since all passengers share the same seating area you might end up having some chit-chat with the locals. Some Jeepneys even require some passengers to sit on the roof, which can be a slightly unnerving but amazing place from which to survey the landscapes around you (especially on the windy mountain roads in northern Luzo!).
Where to stay
Enjoying your trip is as much about where you’re staying as where you’re going. The Philippines has some great accommodation; a tinge more expensive than in mainland Southeast Asia (e.g. Thailand, Vietnam), but often good quality.
If you like to stay in hotels or guesthouses, you can find some great options on sites like Booking or Agoda. As far as backpacker hostels go, check out the recommendations below (for some of the popular starting points and destinations in the Philippines), or browse all hostels at Hostelworld.
Suggested hostels in the Philippines
A relaxing refuge from the busy streets of Manila, with rooftop bar and swimming pool.
Modern newly built hostel with lots of amenities. Dorm beds and some private rooms.
Some ways south of Cebu, on its own beach away from touristy areas. Dorms and private beach cottages.
$$ El Nido
The top rated backpacker hangout in Palawan’s island hopping hub.
$$ El Nido
Located on the more secluded southern beach with spectacular sunset views from its two decks.
Boracay may be a resort island, but this hostel brings low prices and good vibes.
Philippines travel tips
It’s easy to meet locals
You’ll run into plenty of other travelers in places like Manila, Palawan, Banaue, Siargao, and Boracay… but elsewhere, you might bump into much fewer Western travelers. In some places there aren’t many backpackers at all, only scuba divers or surfers.
Fortunately, contact with locals is easy as at least 60% of the population speaks English. Filipinos are known to be incredibly welcoming and friendly, and you’ll probably end up meeting many locals or domestic travelers. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, it can be hard to make true local connections due to the language barriers, but this is a lot easier in the Philippines.
Expect the 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 real thrill. But in Manila, you just end up stuck in traffic a lot and frequently feeling quite frustrated. Some of the neighborhoods have a bad safety reputation, and I think the historical sights around Intramuros are only of mild interest.
This is not saying that you can’t have a nice time in Manila, but the city can be more stressful than expected and doesn’t make the best first impression on everyone. The second biggest city, Cebu, is less hectic than Manila, but suffers from some similar issues. I recommend not lingering in the big cities too long, as the truly good stuff is in the countryside.
The food is a mixed bag
My apologies to Filipinos who are clearly proud of their food, but… the cuisine doesn’t always appeal to foreign taste buds. It seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it thing among travellers and expats. From my point of view, many dishes do 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. Some travellers don’t really take to the Filipino fare but keep your nose peeled and you can certainly eat well.
For some inspiration, check out these 30 must-try foods in the Philippines at bkpk.me.
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