An Essential Guide to The Philippines

After spending 3 weeks in The Philippines, I can safely say it is my new favourite country in the whole entire world. The people are warm and friendly, the scenery is spectacular, the beaches are the definition of paradise and the scuba diving is the best I have ever experienced – I could go on! There are so many positive aspects of this beautiful country, but tourism is still in its infancy and planning a trip here can feel like a bit of a logistical nightmare.

When preparing for my trip to The Philippines I found that accurate and trustworthy online information was few and far between, so I collected most of my information from my trusty Lonely Planet Philippines book. In this post I’m going to share my amazing 3-week travel route, which covers 5 of the country’s most spectacular islands (Did you know Borocay and Palawan have just been #1 and #2 in US Conde Nast Traveler’s Best Islands in the World?). I’m also going to include all of the vital travel information you need to know to make your trip go without a glitch. But before I go on, here are a few key things to know about The Philippines before you travel there…

  • The Philippines spreads through a vast oceanic region made up of 7,107 islands, 2,000 of which are inhabited. These islands are brilliantly connected by planes and boats, but if you want to island hop, be prepared to loose whole days in transit
  • The first language is Tagalog (Filipino) but English is widely spoken by locals
  • Free 30-day visas are granted on arrival for most nationalities. They can be extended for a fee
  • There are three seasons in The Philippines; rainy season (June to September) shoulder season (May to November) and dry season (December to April). If you want guaranteed sunshine 24/7, don’t visit in rainy or shoulder season.
  • Whilst geographically located in South East Asia, The Philippines is a world away from the likes of Thailand and Vietnam. Tourism is still a fairly new concept but locals are embracing it with open arms.
  • Wi-Fi and electricity are both commodities in The Philippines, with many of the Islands running with no electricity in the daylight hours.
  • ATMs are extremely temperamental in The Philippines so it’s best to carry cash on you at all times

Being made up of thousands of Islands means that there is no obvious ‘beaten-path’ and quite honestly, the possibilities are endless. Make sure you do further research aside of this post, but if you’re looking for a route that encompasses the very best of The Philippine’s beaches, scuba diving, wildlife and landscapes (both at sea and inland), then my 3 week route could be perfect for you.

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Island 1: Palawan

Many domestic flights around The Philippines all run from Manila, so there’s a chance you may need to take 2 flights to reach your starting point. We flew into Manila from Ho Chi Minh City, then immediately took a second flight to Puerto Princesca airport in Palawan. Both flights were with Cebu Pacific, which is a budget domestic carrier in the Philippines and in my experience, this airline is great value for money. In total we took 4 flights with them, none of which were delayed. We decided to bypass Manila all together as our Philippines itinerary is all about beach and sea air, not city and smog.

Travelista Tip: There are two airports in Palawan; Puerto Princesa and El Nido airport. Flights into Puerto Princesa are always the cheapest option, but it means you have to take a 5-6 hour van journey to reach El Nido when you get there. We hadn’t done our research before we travelled which meant we had to take the dreaded van journey there and back. If you can stretch your budget, I would 100% recommend looking into flights direct to El Nido because it will save you so much time, and a long uncomfortable journey.

El Nido

Best For: Finding an Instagram-worthy paradise
Where we stayed; Buena’s Haven Hostel, Corong Corong
How many nights: 5

Our destination in Palwawn was El Nido, where we spent 5 incredible days (if you have more time on this island, check out Port Barton and the Underground River too). Whilst El Nido town itself is nothing to write home about, it’s the magnificent Archipelago of limestone islands that surround it, which attract travellers from around the world. El Nido is first on our itinerary as it is The Philippines biggest WOW-factor, and is guaranteed to set your trip off on the right foot.

The main thing to do in El Nido is to explore the Archipelago on a selection of boat tours. All travel agents in the town sell 4 tour packages which are uncreatively named Tour A, Tour B, Tour C, Tour D. Wherever you book the tours, the package and the price is always exactly the same (no need to shop around). I would definitely recommend prioritising Tour A and Tour C, both of which were incredible! I’d also recommend spending the day at Las Cabanas beach, which is one of the quietest and most unspoilt white-sand beaches I’ve ever seen. You can also do an incredible superman Zip Line here over turquoise water to a nearby island and back. End the day watching the sunset with a delicious cocktail at Las Cabanas Beach Resort (located at a peninsular at the far end of the beach).

Travelista Tip; Many of the swim stops on the tours have sharp coral and rocky sea beds with anemones that can sting. Either buy your own surf booties for the trip, or you can hire them from your tour operator in El Nido for a small fee.

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Island 2: Cebu

After El Nido, we flew from Puerto Princesa to Cebu City. Cebu City itself is known as a ‘mini-Manila’, so again we moved straight on out. From the airport we hopped in a taxi to the South Bus Terminal (located across town, costing about 200 pesos). From the South Bus Terminal we caught a Ceres Liner bus to Moalboal, which took 3-4 hours. Other than private cars, the Ceres Liner buses are by far the cheapest and most convenient way to get around Cebu. Half of them are new, air-conditioned coaches and half of them are hot old-school buses with snug seats and open windows. The air-conditioned coaches are 100 times more comfortable, but you never know which one will turn up first!

Moalboal

Best for: Scuba Diving
Where we stayed: T Breeze Coastal Resort, Moalboal
How many nights: 3 

Moalboal is one of the best places to scuba dive in the whole of the Philippines, and is famous for its swirling vortexes of sardines and abundance of sea turtles. Whilst most travellers flock to hostels in Pangsama Beach, we based ourselves a little out at T Breeze Coastal Resort (perfect if you want an affordable and secluded hideaway). The best thing about T Breeze Resort was that it was located right next to a fantastic dive resort called Asian Belgian Resort, where we did all our diving. Both resorts are located right by a spectacular coral reef, and a little further down the coast is an open water turtle sanctuary. I’ve dived in Thailand, The Caribbean and The Maldives and the diving experience in Moalboal trumped all of them hands down.

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Oslob (Tan-awan)

Best for: Whale shark watching
Where we stayed; Sharky Hostel, Tan-awan
How many nights: 1

Next we caught the Ceres Liner for a further 2 hours down the coastal road to Tan-awan in Oslob for the once-in-a-life-time experience of whale shark watching. The non descript roadside town of Tan-awan has financially boomed in recent years, purely because of the whale shark activity. The experience itself costs 1000 pesos, includes snorkelling equipment and lasts 30 minutes. A longboat takes you about 50 meters offshore at 6am, where a huge school of whale sharks are being fed by fisherman.

The experience of being in the water with these huge, gentle creatures is exhilarating and captivating in equal measure. Unfortunately you do have to share the experience with boat loads of other travellers, making your photos look like a slightly less majestic moment. As with any tourist activity involving animals, there is also a controversial side to the whale watching in Oslob as the animals have stopped migrating, but I am going to talk about this more in a separate post. Other than the whale shark watching there really is nothing else to do in Tan-awan so I would recommend staying for 1 night and then moving straight on.

Island 3: Siquijor 

Best for; Going somewhere a bit different
Where we stayed; Coral Cay Resort, San Juan
How many nights: 3

Siquijor is the island that feels most ‘off-the-beaten-path’ in this itinerary. To get here from Tan-awan is quite a complicated journey but it can be done in about half a day if you research your ferry times in advance. Firstly, you need to catch another Ceres Liner bus from Tan-awan to Liloan port (30 minutes), where you take a short ferry over to Sibulan port on Negros Island (40 minutes). After arriving at Sibulan port, take a trike across town to Dumagete Port (20 minutes). From here you can catch a ferry to Siquijor (2-4 hours depending on the type of ferry you take).

The mystical island of Siquijor is somewhat of a talking point across The Philippines, as it’s known of the mystical island of witchcraft and magic. The majority of Filipinos on do not dare to ever step foot on this island as they fear paranormal consequences. It’s true that white magic, black magic and ‘spiritial mountain healers’ are all very much still a part of this intriguing island. But if you’re not interested in that sort of thing, a few cocktails on the beach at sunset can also feel equally as healing. Whilst we didn’t go in search of the mountain healers, there was definitely a different energy in Siquijor that made you feel like anything could happen.

Other than a few resorts in Siquijor Town and San Juan, tourism in Siquijor is extremely undeveloped. The best thing to do in Siquijor is hire a moped and do some independent exploring. You can drive around the whole island in 1 day simply by following the coastal ringroad (the only actual tarmac road on the whole island!). On your tour be sure to go in search of the hidden Lugnason Falls, the larger Kawasan Falls and the 400-year-old enchanted Banyan Tree.

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Island 4: Bohol

Up to this point, the itinerary has very much been focused on beaches, but our 4th island takes you inland to discover the delights of Bohol. From Siquijor we caught an Ocean Jet ferry over to Tagbilaran Port in Bohol which took 3-4 hours. Once in Tagbilaran, we shared a van transfer with another couple over to our base of Alona Beach.

Alona Beach, Panglao Island

Best for: Boat trips, nature and adventure 
Where we stayed;
Chillout Guest House and Villa Kasadya, Panglao Island
How many nights: 3

Alona Beach is a small, tourist friendly town with plenty of options for accommodation. It’s also a great spot to base yourself to explore the famous Chocolate Hills of Bohol. Depending on the season, the hills are either brown or green and get thei

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The Chocolate Hills

Most people visit the Chocolate Hills on day trips from Alona Beach, although there is some accommodation closer to the hills e.g. Nuts Huts. There are a few options for the day trips depending on how much you want to spend (options being private driver, go as a group and split the cost of a private driver or book through an agent and go with a coach tour). All tour prices are for the transport only, and then you pay for the entrance fees and activities as you go. Tours can vary slightly but most will factor in adventure activities such as zip lining and quad biking through the Chocolate Hills (we did both).

Another highlight of the Chocolate Hills is going to visit the bug-eyed Tarsiers, which are endemic to The Philippines and now under threat as a species. Tarsiers are nocturnal, solitary animals and if they get distressed they actually commit suicide (I know, can you believe it?). For this reason it’s important that the animals aren’t disturbed by tourists. The Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary in Corella does a great job of controlling the animal’s natural habitat whilst allowing tourists to take a unique glimpse at the animals. This place is by far the most eco-friendly way of viewing these incredible creatures, so make sure it’s on your day trip itinerary.

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Island 5: Boracay 

Best for: Partying and picture perfect beaches 
Where we stayed;
 Shangri La Borocay Resort and Spa
How many nights: 3

From Tagbillaran we caught a final ferry back to Cebu City (3 hours) and caught a flight to Boracay. Boracay is a tiny 7km island with no airport, so the only option is to fly into either Kalibo Airport or Caticlan Airport and take a 15 minute ferry from Caticlan Port. Similarly to Palawan, flights in to Kalibo are cheaper because the airport is located further away. The drive from Kalibo Airport to Caticlan port is about 2 hours.

In terms of recommendations for Boracay, I can’t share all that much from personal experience. This is because we spent our time in a secluded part of the island, otherwise known as Shangri La Borocay Resort and Spa! As part of an exciting campaign with Kuoni, we ended our 6-week trip in total luxury and enjoyed the peaceful amenities of the resort. Whether you want to end your trip chilling out in paradise or partying the night away, Boracay is the perfect place to do both. If you want to know more about White Beach, be sure to check out this great White Beach Guide from Boracay Compass Blog.

What did you think of my essential guide to The Philippines? Are you planning your own trip or have you also visited recently? If you enjoyed this post or have any more questions about The Philippines, please leave me a comment in the box below! Jess x 

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8 Comments

  1. 6th November 2016 / 10:28 pm

    The Philippines is definitely one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been! We just stayed on one island but I would have loved time to see more of it.

    • Jessica
      11th November 2016 / 11:35 am

      It really is just so beautiful Angie! Which island did you go to? I’m sure you’ll get chance to go back and see more. It’s amazing how undeveloped the tourism still is there. Give it 10 years and it will feel like a different place x

  2. 6th November 2016 / 11:35 am

    Awesome rundown of your trip – brought back many sunny memories of ours, although now you’ve given me a few more islands to visit! I loved our little jaunt to the tarsier sanctuary though got really worried about disturbing them after finding out about their suicidal tendencies!

    • Jessica
      6th November 2016 / 11:38 am

      Hey Connie! Thanks for your comment. Glad I’ve helped you add a few more islands to your list! Yes it’s a debatable subject with the Tarsiers, they’ve been exploited for far too long but the sanctuary I recommend really does ensure they’re in the very best habitat and you’re taken around by guides in very small groups. It’s well controlled so definitely the best place to do it xxx

  3. 6th November 2016 / 10:33 am

    What an amazing trip! Beautiful photos, hope to visit one day! x

    • Jessica
      6th November 2016 / 11:38 am

      Thanks Margita! It really was an experience I’ll never forget. Hope to go back one day x

  4. 4th November 2016 / 3:35 am

    Gosh, I’m a Filipino and I haven’t been in Bohol and Palawan. Thanks for sharing your tips and places where you stayed. So happy you loved Philippines! Pls come back to explore more islands. haha!

    • Jessica
      4th November 2016 / 11:57 am

      Hi! Thanks for your comment 🙂 you’re so lucky to have Bohol and Palawan on your doorstep (in terms of the world!). I hope you get to visit these beautiful parts of your country some day. I’d love to come Back and see more! X