It’s tough to think of a more beautiful corner of the world than the Philippines, with white sand beaches, bath-temperature water, and incredibly friendly locals.
These islands, 7,107 of them to be exact, are worth a departure from the typical banana pancake trail in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam! The beaches are regarded as some of the best in the world, as are the diving opportunities, and the welcoming nature of the Filipino people is unwavering.
But with so many islets to choose from offering up various culture, adventure and culinary delights, where do you even start to plan an itinerary and figure out where to go in the Philippines? Well luckily enough, Charlotte and I have spent roughly two months in the Philippines and have wrapped up our experiences into one neat little package below.
Let’s get to planning your perfect Philippines itinerary:
It’s likely that you’ll begin your journey in the capital, Manila. A city bustling with people, Spanish colonial architecture, street vendors and Jeepneys. Many travellers use Manila simply as a gateway to other destinations in the Philippines but we would recommend spending at least a day there in preparation for the rest of your adventure. It will also give you enough time to purchase your bus ticket to the North of Luzon, acclimatize, and sample street food like quack quack (battered quail egg) and caramelized bananas.
Quick Tip: Take a Jeepney ride for as little as 10PHP to a random destination in town. Just get off where you feel spontaneous!
North Luzon (Banaue / Batad Rice Terraces)
North Luzon is very much overlooked in the Philippines with travelers opting for pristine white beaches and crystal cobalt seas instead. However, we would highly recommend a trip into the mountainous region for a glimpse into the World of the local rice farmers and stunning craggy landscapes. The UNESCO Banaue rice terraces are a key highlight of any trip to the North.
Top Tip: Most travelers visit Banaue due to the UNESCO title stamped across its name, however just an hour up the road (or up the mountain) lie Batad rice terraces which are just as beautiful and have far fewer tourists.
An overnight stay will allow you to live like the locals in a traditional stilt house built into the terrace. A trek to a neighboring waterfall is also on the agenda here and highly recommended! Wear a bathing suit and take a dip!
How To Get There: Overnight buses such as Ohayami run from the Sampoloc area of Manila for $19, which can be purchased a day in advance or on the day of (subject to availability). They leave at 9pm.
Stay: Batad Transient House (traditional stilt house) for just $11 with a delicious breakfast!
Home to the infamous hanging coffins, the Igoret tribes of the North have long practiced burying their dead in coffins nailed against the side of cliffs, believing they will be closer to heaven.
This tradition is slowly dying out, so this is a rare chance for a deeper glimpse into traditional tribal life. You can hop off at Sagada on a return bus trip to Baguio from Banaue.
Quick Tip: Sagada has VERY limited ATMs and the one we did find had zero money, resulting in frantic phone calls home to wire money to Western Union Transfer! Take enough cash for your trip to Sagada.
Baguio City (Mount Pulag)
No trip to North Luzon is complete without visiting its highest peak at 2,926m above sea level. If that sounds like too much trekking for some then do not fear! Most of the journey is done by Jeepney to a mountain village where you stay overnight in a local house before taking on the summit in the early hours. In total the trek takes approximately 4-6 hours after reaching the village with a couple of rest breaks before reaching “the sky of clouds”.
Quick Tip: Most tour operators will drop you back at Manila providing you advise that you want to be dropped off here INSTEAD of returning to Baguio. If you follow this itinerary chronologically, this is ideal as we’ll be flying down south next.
Siargao must be one of the most beautiful islands in the Philippines, and it’s the country’s surf capital. This island has a super laidback vibe, great snorkeling options, and island hopping excursions including the famous Sugba Lagoon. Located in the Mindanao region of the Philippines, Siargao is a laid-back paradise that’s just starting to explode onto the traveler scene.
How To Get There: Fly directly into Sayak Airport (IAO), or take a ferry from Surigao del Norte.
A small island in central Philippines, Boracay is the top tourist draw of the Philippines, and for good reason! White beach takes center stage framing a 4km slice of paradise, once voted the best beach in the world! An array of restaurants, resort accommodation and bars feature heavily along the main beach stations, while the back beach offers perfect conditions for water sports. Bar crawls, cliff jumping and ATV tours are all on offer here!
Quick Tip: We recommend spending 3 or 4 nights in Boracay. Once you have partied your way through the island it will probably be time to move on anyway!
How To Get There: Fly or ferry. We took the overnight ferry to save on accommodation and boarded from Batangas (reachable by 2 hour air conditioned bus from Manila). Ferries should be booked a few days in advance with 2GO Travel and they depart from 9pm and sail overnight to the port of Caticlan for $19 arriving at 7am dependent on sea conditions. From here passengers take a 10 minute boat across to the island.
Located in the province of Palawan, Coron is where you will find those Insta perfect dragon-esque landscape rock formations that penetrate the skies and inhabit turquoise lagoons below them. THIS is one of the reasons we first put the Philippines on our bucket list and trips to Barracuda Lake (fresh water lake), Kayagan Lake and the small and big lagoons are an absolute must on your visit here and can be booked one day in advance in the main town. Coron is also dubbed as the shipwreck capital of the World due to a large number of sunken Japanese vessels all within a 20-minute boat ride of the main town.
Quick Tip: The town is quaint and buzzing with other travelers. In our experience, we preferred to avoid the crowds and booked a private charter with another couple to take us to the best snorkeling spots when the hundreds of orange lifejackets had already left. This also means you can hand pick your sightseeing spots and all for as little as a $25 increase on the popular tours!
How To Get There: For approximately $90 we opted to fly from Caticlan (Boracay) to Coron and boy was it worth it! Boarding a small 12 seater Air Juan plane from Boracay you can swoop across the archipelago of the Philippines marveling at the tiny, Maldives like islets beneath you. A highly recommended way to see the Philippine landscape in all its glory!
Stay: If you’re confident in speaking with the locals by now, a cheaper alternative to a hostel on the main strip is to walk the quieter streets of the town and find a friendly local who will offer up his spare room for free or for half the cost of a hostel. Still to this day staying in ‘Sheila’s’ room while she was away at University was one of our favourite stays of all our travels!
Sticking with Palawan, El Nido is the next obvious destination to go to in the Philippines to get your jaw dropping landscape fix! The town is a traveler’s paradise, housing an array of budget accommodation, charming restaurants and bars and also ample diving opportunities. Take an island hopping tour, inclusive of small and big lagoons, 7 Commandos Beach, Snake Island and Cudugnon Cave. Tours start from around $26 inclusive of three or four destinations, oh and lunch is included too. Sold!
Quick Tip: If your budget allows, we would highly recommend putting some money toward an island hopping expedition from Coron to El Nido. Sailing in and around some of the smallest and most remote islets of the Philippines was truly breathtaking. Sandbar slices of paradise, camping on secluded beaches and snorkeling in some of the clearest waters in the World were some of our favourite moments from the whole of our Philippines trip, not to mention singing Karaoke in a locals home with only the local villagers and rum to keep us company! For us, this was THE way to see the real Philippines at its most authentic.
Go With: Buhay Isla run 3 and 4 night expeditions between Coron and El Nido ports.
Our visit to Cebu was mainly focused around one sight in particular, Kawasan Falls. This picturesque waterfall that plummets into the turquoise lagoon below has quickly become an instagram favorite and when you see it, you’ll understand why! We would highly recommend getting there early to avoid the crowds.
The falls can be easily accessed from the main entrance. Take a tricycle from your guesthouse and they will already know where you want to go!
Quick Tip: For the more adventurous traveler and for an alternative way in to the falls, opt for a canyoneering experience where you will be thrilled with 2-10m cliff jumps into the azure waters below. Taking a dip in such mesmerizing waters is highly recommended in any case, but to do it all with a rush as you jump and jolt from the limestone cliffs above is all the more exhilarating! Your experience ends at Kawasan Falls; the perfect end to such an adventure.
How To Get There: Vans regularly leave from the town of El Nido to Puerto Princesa every hour directly to the airport. You can choose to either explore Puerto Princesa or fly directly to Cebu.
Go With: We opted to canyoneer with Highland Adventures and found them to be reliable with all safety measures and equipment in place.
Swimming with whale sharks in a natural environment is a dream of many. In the Philippines, you can realize this dream in Oslob or Donsol. Based on our research and testimonials from people who have visited both places, Donsol makes a better choice, though it is still far from perfect. Be My Travel Muse generally does not support animal encounters that alter the animal’s natural behavior. As it was part of the writer’s experience in the Philippines, we felt remiss to leave this off of the itinerary. This article is here to provide information rather than encourage you to participate.
Donsol, located in Luzon in the northern Philippines, is a protected area for whale sharks, and its eco-tourism has an ethical reputation with strict regulations monitored by WWF and marine experts. Visitors count on their luck to have an encounter with whales sharks, but there is a higher chance of spotting them during the whale shark season from November – February. No food or bait is used to lure the whale sharks, and according to the regulations stated, only 6 people are allowed in the water in the presence of 1 whale shark. That being said, Donsol is far from perfect. A common complaint from visitors is that they allow way more people in the water than stated, and a few people said that visitors were allowed to get closer to the whale sharks than advised.
We swam with whale sharks in Oslob as part of a tour we were doing. Although we were not 100% happy to swim with whale sharks while they are being fed, they are indeed some of the most beautiful creatures we have ever laid eyes upon, as they graciously swoon in the waters collecting fish that are being served for them. We caved into the experience here as we justified the experienced based on the sharks being allowed to come and go as they please, but we do not recommend doing this in Oslob.
Often referred to as ‘Siquihorror,’ Siquijor in the Central Visayas Region is known as the mystical island. It’s a small island full of shamans, witches, and magic. Most tourists go for the dreamy waterfalls and the laid-back atmosphere, but locals will often pay a visit to Siqujor in search of love potions, or with the intention of casting a curse on someone, or getting one reversed if they fear one has been casted on them.
It’s a friendly place that you can see most of within just a few days.
Getting there: The easiest way to reach Siquijor is to fly into Dumaguete and then take a ferry over to Siquijor. Ferries leave multiple times per day and only cost a few dollars.
An off the beaten path island that is often overlooked by many taking the main tourist trail but conveniently located north east of Cebu. Still a hidden gem, locals will welcome you into their guesthouses with open arms for you to explore powdery, undeveloped white sand beaches, local cafes, fish markets and of course skydiving! Yes, you read that correctly, Bantayan island is home to the only place to skydive in the Philippines and of course we had to try it!
Quick Tip: Although we were there largely to skydive, Bantayan ended up one of our favorite destinations in the Philippines due to the untouched landscape, local food, secluded sands, and of course the friendly Filipino people. Take a bike ride between Santa Fe and the neighboring village and stop off at the local cafes (which are essentially villages houses) and take in the local life sipping on cheap, cold beer. You can thank us later!
How To Get There: Take a taxi to Cebu North bus terminal. Board a bus to Hagnaya (3 and a half hour from Cebu City for $3.62). At the Hagnaya terminal boats to Bantayan island leave every hour up until 4pm and cost $3.85.
Always check your visa requirements before entering the country but for most, you can enter the Philippines without a visa for up to 30 days, providing you have evidence of onward travel.
Extending your visa is a simple enough procedure however. You can apply to do so at the Bureau of immigration to allow 59 days. We would recommend not doing this in Manila and opt to extend on one of the smaller islands such as Boracay as the procedure is much more simple and a lot quicker.
Getting around: Luckily, travel in and around the Philippines is relatively inexpensive, though may require some forward planning.
Buses: Many destinations within provinces can be reached by bus, especially in the North and at short notice too should there be availability. All are air conditioned, cheap and some even provide a snack! We recommend an overnight bus as the perfect way to save on accommodation while getting from A to B. What’s not to love!
Jeepneys: Do take a Jeepney when possible! Not only is a good way to sample local transport in a pimped out American armored vehicle but it is also cheap too.
Boats / Ferries: Given the Philippines has some 7,000+ islands, this should be no surprise. Many online agents provide bookings in advance (1 or two days is sufficient) and overnight ferries in particular are comfortable and air conditioned depending on class. You can also buy tickets directly at the port to save on fees, but during holidays expect to have to wait a few days to be able to book!
Flights: Flying between provinces isn’t actually as expensive as it first sounds, should you fly at the right times and between the right destinations. It also allows you to see the archipelago from above too! We think that’s worth the money all by itself.
Taxis: Many city provinces such as Manila and Cebu have taxis, however the cheaper alternative is a tricycle (motorbike with side cart). Tricycles are a great way to zip around and are also considerably cheaper than taxis. Always ask to journey on the meter and it is always worth researching how much they should charge per km to avoid overpricing.
So have you fallen in love with the Philippines yet? These secluded white slices of sand, the clearest waters in the world, the culinary local delights, and the spirit of the Filipino people all make this country one of our favorites in the world. All this, coupled with the relative cheapness to many other similarly beachy destinations and ghe ease of getting around makes it an absolute must visit!
We hope this helped you put together an itinerary and figure out where to go in the Philippines, but please feel free to ask any questions you have in the comments below.