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The Ultimate Philippines Travel Guide

As a part of a new series, I will be putting out travel guides for a few of my favourite places. These are the places and trips I get asked about the most. I am not here to tell you how you should travel, but this is how I did it and hopefully it will inspire adventures of your own! This is the Ultimate Philippines Travel Guide

 

I travelled to the Philippines in May 2016. It was my first ever solo trip, and I spent a month exploring 5 of the most popular islands in the country. These are some of the highlights of my experience and tips I gathered along the way.  I encourage you to use this as a jumping off point to design your own dream trip!

 

The Philippines Travel Guide

Located in the South China Sea, this South East Asian country is made up of 7,000 tropical islands. The Philippines is home to volcanos, towering emerald rice terraces, blinding white sand beaches, limestone cliffs, deep jungle, legendary surf and rich marine life. From relaxing beach vacations to adrenaline adventures to pristine waters, there is something for everyone. Often missed by the usual South East Asia backpacker route, this country has recently been growing in popularity. The beauty of these islands off the beaten track, is that it is not full of the gap year crowd thats taken over Thailand, Vietnam Cambodia and Laos. If you crave more space, authentic adventures and jaw dropping scenery then the Philippines should be your next stop!

 

THE BASICS

Most countries get a 1 month visa on arrival, but be sure to have a flight out booked as you may be asked to prove that you will be leaving within 31 days. Local SIM cards are easily purchased and incredibly affordable. Don’t stress over shitty, unreliable wifi, buy yourself some data and post your jaw dropping photos from anywhere. I had no trouble using ATMs to get cash out and felt safe using them at banks. Some travellers I met from other countries ran into issues with card compatibility, so ensure you have a couple card options to make sure you don’t get caught without money. If all else fails there are Western Unions located around the country that can be used if nothing else works.

 

In general, the Philippines is a safe country to travel around. While Mindanao and the southern tip of Palawan have seen extreme political unrest and terrorist attacks in the last year, most tourist attractions are far from these locations. Manila also has a reputation to be a little on the sketchy side, but it is easy enough to avoid with some planning should you wish to skip it.

 

With the relatively recent influx of tourists, you will find that most locals want to help you out. As one man told me on a bus, “tourism has done such wonderful things for our country and if we make sure you have a good time, you will tell your friends to come!” (He was right about that!) I travelled the Philippines solo and never once felt unsafe or nervous. In fact, I had more people helping me than I ever expected. Read about how two ladies helped me navigate the local buses in Cebu Here.

 

WHEN TO GO?

High season lasts from November to May with rainy season running June to October. And while this can bring massive monsoons and typhoons, you will benefit from the savings from visiting during low season. One thing to keep in mind is that this may make some things like hiking the famous Rice Terraces or jumping off Kawasan falls impossible.

 

HOW MUCH WILL IT COST YOU?

Backpacker budget: $40/day

If you plan on doing a lot of tours or activities I would increase this to $50/day

How much for…

Hostels: $10-$15/night for a dorm

Boat from Cebu City to Bohol: $6-$12 depending on which boat company

El Nido Boat Tour A (lagoons, beaches, snorkelling and lunch included): $30

Meal out at a restaurant: $6-10

Scuba Dive: $25-$35/dive with a divemaster

Flight from Manila to Boracay: $25 booked in advance

Beer: 60cents/beer in the store; $1-$3/beer in a bar or restaurant

Cambugahay Waterfall, Siquijor Island

Tips to help you save….

Eat at local spots or hostels. The prices will be lower than restaurants here. If you can’t find any local spots, hostels can offer good basic budget options. Also look for hostels that offer free breakfast. Spin designer hostel in El Nido was a budget buster but they offered free breakfast. A big breakfast and some snacks for the beach later and we were able to save ourselves $10-$20 on food.

Use local transportation. Filipinos are incredibly helpful, and are more than happy to help you navigate their beautiful country. Don’t be afraid to rock up to the local bus station. Be warned, you may end up sharing a seat with a chicken or having to stand. But you will save a heap of money and meet some characters!

Pre-plan your itinerary. While I am not normally a fan of setting out specific itineraries for backpacking trips, this is a huge way to save yourself some money in the Philippines. Being a country made up of 7,000 islands, flying will be a necessity for most trips. Flights between the islands when booked in advance can be as low as $20. But wait and do it a few days before and you can expect to pay around $75-$100. You can plan your flights in advance still leave your itinerary a bit more open by giving yourself ample time to explore each island.

 

WHERE TO STAY…

View from the floating swim platform at JJ’s Backpackers on Siquijor Island.

Boracay: Frendz Resort ($8/night for dorm)

From traditional nipa huts, steps from white beach with an epic party vibe, head to Frendz Resort in Boracay. This backpacker haven is a little slice of tropical paradise. Soft sand pathways lead to a central bar/restaurant at the heart of the complex. Affordable food, cheap drinks and nightly parties create the perfect social atmosphere. And there is no better way to shake the hangover than to head down to the hostels dedicated beach loungers and take a dip in the turquoise waters of the famous White Beach.

Cebu: Noordzee Hostel ($15/night for dorm)

Situated on the south-west coast of Cebu between Boljoon and Oslob this is the perfect spot to start your adrenaline adventures. With a rooftop restaurant serving up everything from delicious local cuisine to spaghetti bolognaise calzones the size of your head, you won’t go hungry here. The private beach boasts cabanas and sun beds to ease tired muscles. Close proximity to Oslob means swimming with the whale sharks is only a short local bus trip away. It is also possible to do a day trip to Kawasan falls from here as well. Two local busses will get you to the entrance where you hire your guide and set off on the 6-hour canyoneering adventure!

Read about my experience swimming with the Whale Sharks here.  Read about my Kawasan Falls Adventure here!

Siquijor: JJs Backpackers ($7/night for tent, $10/night for dorm)

This quiet beachside hostel located on the islands best beach in San Juan is the perfect base camp for exploring this small magical island. If they run out of beds in the dorm or private rooms, sleep under the stars in one of the beachfront tents. The seaside restaurant offers a variety of super affordable, fresh and delicious meals including fresh caught fish. The shallow reefs just off shore are perfect for snorkeling and little floating dock is a dreamy place to lay and watch the day go by. Grab a couple cold ones from the hostel and head onto the beach at sunset and watch as the mirror like sea reflects the unbelievable colours of the sky. Truly the best sunsets I have ever seen.

Read about my Adventures on Siquijor chasing waterfalls and spiritual healing. Also check out my Globe and Mail story about trying to get off the island in Could Be Worse.

Bohol: Bohol Coco Farm ($8/night for Dorm)

5km from bustling Alona beach, this backpacker haven set on an organic farm is the perfect place to slow down. Traditional Nipa huts line stone pathways leading from the large central restaurant that serves up the best, and freshest, local dishes. Made from organic produce harvested from the farm it is incredibly fresh and flavourful. They run a wide range of tours from the hostel, and the guides are wonderful. I booked the Chocolate Hills tour through the farm and had one of the most fun day tours of the trip!

The staff here are incredible as well and deserve a massive shout out.While here I met an English girl, who was travelling alone and had been in a horrible motorbike accident a few days before. Not only did the staff look after her when she returned from the hospital, but they visited her a couple times a day in hospital bringing her food and water. When you check into Bohol Coco Farm, you become family.

El Nido: Spin Designer Hostel (SPLURGE!) ($27/night for Dorm)

The most epic hostel I stayed at, and also a huge splurge at $27/night, was the ultra-mod Spin Designer Hostel in El Nido. From a free buffet breakfast that would rival most hotels to spacious 4-bed dorms complete with air conditioning and ultra-comfy beds, this place was heaven. You are also able to book boat tours through the hostel, which also means there tends to be more backpackers on the trip. Nightly events run through the week from jam night to BBQs to movie nights. A short walk from the main beach restaurants and a quick 15min tuktuk to the picturesque Las Cabanas beach makes it super convenient and worth every penny!

Tour group from Bohol Coco Farm visiting the famous Chocolate Hills.

WHERE TO GO FOR….

Beaches: Island hop around the Bacuit Archipelago in El Nido.

Adventure: Cliff jump into the turquoise blue waters at Kawasan Falls in the jungles in Cebu.

Witchcraft and Healers: Visit the Spiritual Healers on mysterious Siquijor.

Nature: Trek through the incredible Ifugao Rice Terraces near Banaue.

Surf: Surf the iconic Cloud Nine break on Siargao Island.

Diving: Malapascua Island for thresher sharks or Coron for epic wreck dives.

 

Top Ten Things to Do in the Philippines

  1. Explore the jungles of Cebu on an epic canyoneering tour to Kawasan Falls.

    • Cool Turquoise water, cliff jumps from 15-50ft in height, and unreal jungle surrounds. Go in a smaller group and hire your own guide at the entrance. They will get you past all the huge tour groups so you get sections of the river and jumps to yourself. Bring a Go Pro to capture all the action and get ready for the best day of your trip!
  2. Trek the iconic Ifugao Rice Terraces in Northern Luzon.

    • The UNESCO World Heritage site is sometimes called the 8th wonder of the world. Seeming to defy gravity, the terraces etched into the steep mountainside is truly the most dramatic landscape in the country. Base yourself in Banaue and explore the surrounding wonders over a few days. Or head to Sagada to see the hanging coffins of Echo Valley.
  3. Go island hopping in the Barcuit Archipelago in El Nido.

    • Mix up a bottle of rum and coke, grab a few friends and head out on one of the epic island-hopping tours from El Nido. From pristine beaches and secret lagoons, to snorkelling at stunning coral reefs and enjoying an epic seafood lunch on the water this is the perfect way to spend the day. A bit of a splurge at $30, pick the tour that appeals to you the most. Or if you have money to spend try a new tour each day!
  4. Sing Karaoke with the Locals.

    • While some places will recommend that you stay away from the local karaoke joint due to some confrontations in the past. There is no shortage of Karaoke spots that welcome locals and travellers alike. Grab a red horse and listen to the locals belt out 80s and 90s classics. And if you’re feeling brave, join in one of the country’s greatest traditions and have a go yourself!
  5. Watch the sunset from Baha Bar on Siquijor Island.

    • Down a path, past some hotel rooms there is the perfect little perch for a sunset beer. The Baha Bar sunset deck is the perfect way to end a day of spiritual healing. Grab a cold beer from the cool box on the deck, put your money in the lock box and enjoy the view. We were the only people down here most nights and enjoyed unobstructed views of the incredible cotton candy sunsets over the glass like ocean off the South West of the island.
  6. Learn to surf at the famous Cloud 9 on Siargao Island.

    • Join a surf camp, lose yourself in the chilled-out island vibes or surf the most famous surf break in the Philippines. Siargao is a surfers paradise in the truest sense of the term.
  7. Party on White Beach in Boracay.

    • Find a spot at one of the many beach front bars and watch the sunset as you gear up for a big night. Pre-drink at the party hostel Frendz Resort before hitting one of the many clubs located just off the beach.
  8. Explore the incredible underwater world.

    • Snorkelling, diving or swimming with gentle giants, you will be able to find world class underwater adventures in the Philippines. Snorkel with the Sardine run at Moalboal. Wreck dive world war II ships near Coron. Swim with Whale sharks in Oslob or Donsol. Dive with thresher sharks in Malapascua. There is no shortage of underwater adventures, it’s just a matter of figuring out which one is for you.
  9. Hang with the locals.

    • The Philippines to some of the friendliest people, so spend some time getting to know the locals. You never know what doors a casual conversation might open up. We ended up at a community end of year dance at an elementary school in the highlands of Siquijor. We were 4 of about 8 foreigners in attendance, and it ended up being one of the best nights out on the trip!
  10. Island hop.

    • With 7,000 islands to choose from, there is no shortage of combinations. Do some research into the activities you love and I guarantee there will be a few epic off the beaten track options for you! Pick 4-5 islands to conquer over your month long visa and have an epic time!

 

Thanks for reading!

Did this help you? Anything you think I missed? What were your Philippines highlights?

Leave me a comment below! I want to hear from you!

xo Jen

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