The Philippines is comprised of over 7000 islands. This raises the question where one should go. Travelling the Philippines, though fun, is not as straight-forward as in Vietnam or Thailand, where the main choice is North to South or vice versa. One has to decide where to start? Which places should one visit first in order tonot waste time going back and forth? What do you want to get out of your stay in the Philippines? What is your travelling style? Do you value good infrastructure and a lot of like-minded travellers? Or ar eyou more keen on exploring islands off the beaten path, where you wont find all the necessary information online? In this article I am presenting two itineraries I followed myself:
If someone were to ask me how many days they should spend in the Philippines, my answer would be: 20 days at the very least, if you want to travel to different places and get to know different aspects of the country. 20 days because you will spend a lot of time on airplanes, or if you are a budget traveller, on buses or ferries. Three weeks, however, should be enough to get a first impression of the country and to visit the most popular tourist destinations without having to rush.
90 % of all travellers to the Philippines will start in Manila – simply because it has the biggest international airport and thus the cheapest flights. Like I wrote here, most visitors avoid Manila at all costs. And rightfully so. The city definitely has its nice spots, like the free museums and parks, but I would not recommend spending mor than 2 days here.
First time visitors to the Philippines are often advised to start in the Visayas because of the easy accessabiliy. This might sound patronizing, but I think it is sound advice for the following reasons: 1) Cebu can be reached quite easily and cheaply from Manila. 2) Being the most popular tourist spots, these islands provide a good infrastructure. What is more, most of the information on hostels and sights is available online which makes research easy. 3) The Visayas are home to a lot of attractions that are typical of the Philippines: white sandy beaches, Snorkeling spots, lush forested mountains, caves… These attractions are also compareably closeby, making travelling around quite convenient.
(If you have more time and always wanted to see an active volcano, you can make a detour via Legaspi, and get a cheap flight from there to Cebu, instead of departing in Manila.)
Your route in the Visayas could look like this:
2.1 Manila – Cebu City
It takes just an hour to go from the capital to Cebu City. However, I would only spend one full day in the biggest city of the island, because it has not much to offer for tourists, and you will have more time for the true gems of the Visayas.
2.2 Cebu City – Oslob
The closest tourist spot from Cebu City is Oslob, roughly 4 bus hours away. The place is most well-known for its Whale Sharks, which can be seen all year round. However, even if you do not want to go Snorkeling with these giants, you should still visit Oslob for the scenic Tumalog-Falls.
2.3 Oslob – Moalboal
If you want to discover the fascinating underwater world of the Philippines, Moalboal is the place for you. The town is 2 hours away from Oslob and sports some of the most beautiful Snorkeling spots and corral reefs in the country. Here you can see a lot of colourful fish, swarms of sardines and even sea turtles. Alternatively, you can explore the famous Kawasan Falls on foot or on a Canyoneering Tour.
2.4 Moalboal – Siquijor
If you are looking for a quiet, yet easily accessible island paradise, you have to take the ferry from Cebu to Siquijor. This island, known for its witchcraft, has a relaxed, laid-back feeling and sports a wide variety of sights: beaches, waterfalls, caves and a beautiful back-country. Just renting a scooter and cruising through the scenic landscape is an absolute highlight.
2.5 Siquijor – Bohol
Hardly any island in the Philippines sports as many famous locations as Bohol. Here you can find the Chocolate Hills, the Tarsier Sanctuary, the Man Made Forest and Panglao peninsula. And these are only the most well-known sights. The island is quite big, so that you can easily spend 2-3 days here.
3.1 Bohol – Puerto Princesa
If you want to see the most beautiful landscapes and islands in the Philippines, you cannot miss Palawan. From Bohol you can take the ferry to Cebu City, and from there hop on an airplane to Puerto Princesa. Here you should definitely visit the Subterrean River, an UNESCO heritage site, and book an Island Hopping tour in Honda Bay.
3.2 Puerto Princesa – Port Barton
Palawan is a big island and the roads are not always excellent. Therefore it can take up to 8 hours to get to El Nido in the North. The small town of Port Barton is perfect for a stop. Here, far from the masses of tourists in El Nido, you can spend a few relaxing days, enjoy the unspoilt nature and take a bout trips to the most beautiful corral reefs in the country.
3.3 Port Barton – El Nido
El Nido is arguably the most popular spot in Palawan, due to its breathtaking landscape, the majestic lime stone rocks, and some of the most beautiful beaches in the Philippines. While the town itself is not very pretty, crowded with tourists and slightly overprized, an Island Hopping Tour to some of the most spectacular rock formations and islands in Asia will make up for this.
It is hard to say how long one should spend in the different locations. As a rule of thumb, I would suggest spending 10 days in the Visayas and 10 days in Palawan. In El Nido you can take a flight back to Manila or to other destinations in the Philippines.
On my first trip to the Philippines I took the plane from El Nido to Manila. However, if you have more time, you can take the airplane or ferry to Coron. The island is said to be one of the most beautiful of the Philippines.
4.1 San Jose à Sablayan
From Coron you can take the ferry to San Jose on the island of Mindoro, and from there take the bus to Sablayan. The tourism industry in Mindoro is just developing, but you can already find some affordable hostels and a wide variety of sights, for example North Pandan Island where you can even spot sea turtles on a Snorkeling trip.
4.2 Sablayan – Puerto Galera
With the bus and the ferry you can venture into the North of Mindoro. Puerto Galera provides the perfect mix of white sandy beaches, beautiful scenery and secluded waterfalls. The town is not yet crowded with Western tourists, but my prediction is that this will change pretty soon.
There you can hop on a bus that takes you to Manila. Alternatively, you can stop at the Taal Volcano, which is situated on a large lake.
If you have time, you should definitely spend some time in the North of the Philippines. The rugged mountaneous terrain is very different to the rest of the Philippines, but just as beautiful as the lush djungles and palm trees below. Banaue, rougly 9 hours from Manila, is mainly known for its impressive rice terraces. Not far from there lies the town of Sagada. Here you can go hiking in the marvelous mountain forest and have a look at the famous Hanging Coffins. All in all, these two places were the most pleasent surprise on my trip to the Philippines, so you should save some time to head north.