The Philippines really feels like it’s not on the generic traveler itinerary for the masses. Unlike almost must/will do Asian destinations like Thailand, I rarely see fellow travellers posting much about this wonderful country. STA have only just added a tour package for here too, which means it’s likely to quickly become a popular destination for 18-35 year olds from Europe. For a country that is so beautiful and full of an abundance of unique activities this surely won’t last long! It still feels very untouched in contrast to others we’ve visited, for so many reasons that I’ll discuss in this post.
I’ll start by saying I’m blown away by this country, in a similar way I was to India, but strangely opposite (I know that sounds meaningless but please read on). It’s a total fucking nightmare to travel around, the food is one dimensional and very un exciting in contrast to its local counterparts, and I feel like I’m getting constantly ripped off. But regardless of all of that, I’m totally in love. Seriously, wow. Two countries have blown me away in particular have blown me away for their beauty on this trip; Vietnam and New Zealand: The Philippines has a perfect amalgamation of both landscapes, exchanging the vast mountain regions of NZ for more volcanic formations, but it seems to be untouched apart from the odd town and bamboo hut.
With every positive though there’s a negative close by, and that’s why I’m writing this blog for those considering venturing here.
EDIT: I need to stress, after writing this I read this again and it seems super negative. Believe me This place is incredible and absolutely worth committing a big chunk of travel time to! It’s one of the few places on a year long trip I’m 100% coming back to because there’s so much to see and do! Don’t take take this post as a negative push, but it’s genuinely things I wish I’d known about before coming. Take the tips, plan ahead, and have one hell of a time
There’s no quick way to do anything here when it comes to travel. That’s just a fact. Even a bus journey to a nearby town can take hours longer than you expect! Getting to port Barton from Puerto Princessa was supposed to take 3 hours, but once we got stuck in the mud we took nearly 5. Main roads tend to be one lane, are nearly always in a state of disrepair, and expect random stops from police, livestock, or locals undertaking DIY roadworks.
Island hopping is inevitable here, with over 7000 islands making up the country. Obviously the two options are boat and plane, boat being cheaper and taking longer. Normally planes cost quite a bit, and nearly ALWAYS go via Manilla or Cebu as main ports. Planes are often delayed so the probability of missing a connecting flight are quite high if too close together. Fortunately check in processes are particularly relaxed here so you really don’t need long to get through security etc (we arrived 30 mins before our last flight with no issues at all). We discovered an airline called air Jean that can save time and money. Remember, air Asia and Cebu Pacific don’t fly from all airports; many journeys only go from the major airports. Air juan does the non traditional routes, and the tiny planes are a must do if you can, so I honestly highly recommend! Just remember, they all charge for baggage on top!
Boats you need to think about too. The big boat journeys can be HOURS, and in some cases days long. During bad weather they are regularly cancelled, and even more regularly delayed! We found with many we just couldn’t justify time against cost so just got a flight. Also a REALLY important factor is boats don’t always run every day, and often run once or twice on a specific day.
I’m all for finding a place when I arrive, but sometimes that’s a bad idea. Do some research on where you’re going, especially the smaller places. I’d suggest comparing agoda to Couchsurfing then marking some places of interest on google maps. You’ll often find more places that’ll pop up that aren’t on big sites, and almost certainly find more when you arrive. I am now of the mind that says book a place online for the night you arrive though, just to remove that stress after a long journey, even if it’s a bit more expensive.
Finally, the cities are total pigs (for numerous reasons). We spent two hours in a taxi getting from Cebu airport to Cebu city, a mere 7km. Give yourself plenty of time to get around. Über and grab are good options for taxis in the major cities, and you can pay on card (a rarity here).
1. For major journeys, don’t leave things till last minute. If you’re flying from Cebu or Manila out of the country, DO NOT assume a flight before that will get you there on time. Give yourself plenty of time to get to airports (think how long it should take, double it at least, especially during rush hour and key holidays or religious events). Get to the city the night before, it’ll save money and LOTS of stress
2. Plan your routes taking into consideration when boats run. I’ve met people who assumed they could just rock up to a boat port and get on one the same day, and got stuck in a town with nothing going on for 3 days! Don’t be stuck in the same situation, it properly sucked for them!
3. The ‘tourism tax’ as I’ve come to call it is rife here. You’ll pay airport taxes, boat taxes, marine mark taxes, little boat taxes, the works. We honestly paid 4 additional Charges just to get to one island, after our initial plans, bus, and boat journeys. Just expect this, often this is somewhat regulated (apparently) but if not, it’s how people make a living. The extra 40 pesos you may pay for small boat to the shore may buy a local dinner. Also don’t expect the locals to pay the same! Don’t be afraid to challenge or just refuse additional charges though that our obviously additions.
4. Two common forms of travel are jeepneys and trikes (effectively a custom built metal box stuck to a 125cc bike). They are both fine but uncomfortable. If you’re tall or of a larger build, you’ll be uncomfortable for sure. I’ve hit my head a lot and I’m 5’10. I’d suggest you avoid for long journeys.
5. Roads are bad in some places. When I say bad, I mean non existent. Scooter hire is a great way to get around but if you aren’t experienced on one, just hire transport to take you somewhere.
6. If you like to just rock up to a place and find somewhere to stay, do that, but at least book a place to stay the first night. I’m so done with spending two hours going to every place on an island trying to get a good deal when I’m hot, sweaty, and have a 15kg bag on!
7. Many places have Zero Internet. At best, it’s LTE (4G) but it’s patchy. Without a doubt, GLOBE have the best coverage here. Don’t rely on hostel or hotel wifi either, they are often glorified hotspots with daily data limits and a restriction on how many customers can connect at once, so expect regular throttling of connections. Avoid the stress, get a GLOBE sim, top up every few days from a local shop (by far the cheapest way to do it here) and don’t rely on anything that requires Internet (like topping up cash cards or booking essential flights) wherever you go.
We arrived in typhoon season; definitely the worth time to come here so I admit I’m coming from a biased situation. Sadly this is just the way our trip panned out. It was either come here then, or not at all. Whilst we’ve not been slammed by a typhoon we easily could have!
The weather here regardless of time of the year can change in seconds. It’s HOT, and the sun will spank you! Seriously dudes, it’s gonna burn you here. The humidity is intense and when it rains, it really rains! Be prepared for four seasons in a day if out of peak season in particular.
These variable and adverse weather conditions can really impact plans quickly. Flights and boats are regularly cancelled, black outs are common, especially on the smaller islands.
Many places primarily rely on generators on islands. 4G is patchy outside of the cities and non existent in some places like El Nido. Be prepared for the worst if you’re here in low season.
With all this though, when the weather is good, it’s incredible. I think low season is worth the punt.
1. Pack an umbrella, and ideally a good strong one
2. Have a contingency if you can’t get to your next destination. Again, don’t rely on a connecting journey to get you to a major flight on the same day (I can’t stress this enough).
3. Download a GOOD weather app or two. I have been keeping an eye on the Philippines meteorological website daily alongside a great app called weather radar, that shows the weather patterns too. Rely on this rather than your in phone weather app. I also downloaded an app for wind and tidal conditions just to be sure.
4. Download Twitter and follow Filipino news companies like CNN Philippines. These have been invaluable for me in keeping updates coming in on typhoons. Reddit was also very useful.
5. Expect days and days of rain in low season particularly in the north Luzon areas. Plan ahead and either stay in a place that you don’t mind being stuck in, or be prepared with a stack of movies or to shows downloaded on Netflix. I booked into a party hostel with a pool in Boracay (mad monkey) for just this reason and it stopped me going insane (beer pong really helped).
6. Roads flood, and so do the sewers in towns and cities ! Unless you enjoy standing barefoot in stagnant shit filled water maybe pack appropriate footwear!
7. Power outs happen. Have a BIG power bank (like 10000mAh at least) to charge your stuff.
I’m a massive foodie, there’s no doubt about that. Half our trip was planned around food, but not in the Philippines.
Food here is 90% meat based. If you are a veggie, you’re going to struggle. If you’re vegan, you’re basically screwed (I met a vegan who had lived in pot noodles minus the noodles for 5 weeks, needless to say she wasn’t in a great way). Fruit will be your friend, if you can find a variety. Mainly, mangoes, pineapple, banana and coconut grow here, so I was very happy. Just consider the seasons of course.
Sing said that even as a carnivore, I struggled here. The nose to tail cooking here will turn many travellers stomachs, especially if like me you accidentally munch on an inconspicuous meat skewer and discover mid bite it’s intestine on a stick! Also, they love the fat! Normally this wouldn’t put me off, but when you order a dish that ends up being 90% pork fat you may feel short changed (note: Sisig, a popular Filipino dish. It’s very tasty though).
If, like me, you try to eat local food most of the time, be prepared for the cantina approach that’s common here. Most of the places we went pre cook all their food in the early morning, and you just rock up, ask for a plate, and get it. This often means you’ll be eating meat that’s been sat in 30+ heat most of the day. If you have a sensitive disposition you may wish to avoid this. Likewise, be prepared for very random cuts of meat.
On islands food can be stark and expensive especially in very touristy areas, expect a very high markup on grub, like 3-4 times the local prices, especially on western food.
Be careful with water too, many places don’t have drinkable water. Fortunately cases of water bottles being re filled with bad water here are rare.
1. Be prepared for a meat heavy diet! Also don’t be afraid to eat stuff you wouldn’t normally eat. Unless you primarily eat fruit and only drink bottled water, it’s unlikely you’ll be keeping at bikini body long!
2. If you like spicy, come prepared with chilli sauce. The Chilis can be hot here, but they often come whole on the side. I haven’t found a spicy meal here.
3. If you aren’t adventurous with food, stick to fruits. Veg is somewhat limited here especially with local food. Fish and pork are very common.
4. Bring a water filter like a life straw. In some places like El Nido I wouldn’t even trust that. Our hostel told us to brush our teeth with bottled water. Those I know who didn’t were wiped out with turbo shits for days.
5. Give it a go! If in doubt, stick with the widely available western foods!
6. As with anywhere in the world, follow the locals. They know the good local spots.
Filipino people are amazing! But many are poor, like really poor. The poverty divide is evident everywhere here that’s for sure. I’ve seen places that look like they blow away if I farted in their general direction that house a large family.
They will try and rip you off because western tourists are obviously seen as rich. Regardless they are wonderful people, just expect this, haggle a bit, but expect it to happen. You’ll get a feel for prices of things if you ask around.
Drugs are a NO. I haven’t been on the hunt on this trip at all, but here it’s seriously a place to avoid them, and if you’ve come from places like Thailand it’s literally light years away. Smoking a joint can result in some serious issues, including death (no joke guys, just don’t take the risk). If you want more info just google Philippines and drugs, it’s pretty shocking!
Don’t get in a fight with locals. This goes without saying anywhere, but I met a British lad who had too much booze in Boracay, got lary with a local and got a proper beating. Apparently there’s been reports of locals beating lary foreigners with belts in gangs! Just don’t be a dick, simple really.
Hospitals are rare on the islands, if they are there at all. If you have medical issues come prepared! Access to medication can be scarce! Diving is popular here, and things like decompression sickness do occur, you really don’t want to spend two days on a boat getting to a decompression chamber now do you? Again plan your diving and trips accordingly.
Health and safely here lacks somewhat. Whilst boat journeys will probably make you wear life jackets to please coastguards, on tiny boats they’ll pile them high and totally to capacity. The last journey I had on a tiny row boat (with a motor) there were ten of us, a scooter, all our stuff and the captain. Just be prepared. You’ll also probably have to sign your life away to do many activities that attract many people here (from diving to cliff jumping, to swimming with whale sharks).
In the past it’s been well documented hat you can haggle hotel prices down by 30-50%. Being here now I’d argue this isn’t true, and locals are wise to this. Many places we’ve been don’t budge or try to rip you off initially! Just don’t expect a super cheap trip if you come in low season.
ATM and access to cash can be challenging. If a place takes card, they’ll inevitably charge 5% minimum. Many places don’t have ATM, and I’ve had real issues with my international bank cards not being accepted at many ATM. In one case I had to rock up to a tiny island with less than £100 for two people for 5 days! If in a city, withdraw as much cash as you’ll possibly need! Maybes before setting off consider getting different cards that offer different exchange rates and transaction charges too, just so y can play the financial system. I recommend Recolut and Monzo for UK travellers.
The places to visit
With 7000 islands here, there’s simply too much to do. Many people come here for short trips rather than spending months here, so you need to think abut the places to visit carefully normally. I wish I had more knowledge about what’s around before we booked flights!
But consider the ethics of activities you do. For example in Oslob you can snorkel with whale sharks. What isn’t widely publicised is you can do this here because they’re fed, so don’t migrate! This isn’t natural activity and if you are an ethical tourist should be avoided.
If you dive, you’re laughing here basically. Coron has some of the best shipwrecks to dive in the world, and in abundance! Likewise malapascua is like a divers Mecca! We’re here now, and I must say even though I don’t dive it’s the most stunning place we’ve been to date in this country (although it’s a total faff to get here). And that’s just two of literally hundreds of amazing spots!
Siargao is THE place for surfing hands down. It’s up there as having some of the best breaks in the world, but also caters year around to beginners and intermediate surfers too. Again, a faff to get to (plane and boat at best from Cebu, two planes and boat at best from Manila) but it totally sounds worth it.
Cebu is just another city really, but the island itself has an abundance of activities on it, from snorkelling with millions of sardines, to stunning landscapes, swimming with whale sharks to island hopping, so it’s a good base in general. Manila on the other hand, doesn’t.
The weather in general seems better in the south. If I had a choice I’d fly into Cebu next time 100%.
South Mindanao is currently a NO GO for foreigners. The U.K. Foreign office have placed this on a black list of Places to go due to terror activity. Keep an eye on local consulate websites before you book flights to find out what’s going on.
Weather dependent, some areas may also be no go areas. We planned to spend a week in north Luzon when we arrived, but everything we wanted to do was pretty much impossible because of landslides caused by bad and very wet weather.
If I could start again…
My route would be something like this (for 3-4 weeks) in low season.
Land in Cebu, stay a night, do day trips to oslob, moalboal, and Bohol (for a few days)
Take a bus to Maya, a boat to Malasapcua. Dive till you can no longer dive anymore, then chill on the stunning white sandy beaches and enjoy the diverse snorkelling and village life). Dive with TSD and eat at Oscars (best Filipino food I’ve had here hands down
Fly from Cebu to Siargao for a week of surfing. Even if you don’t surf apparently it’s stunning. I’m absolutely gutted we didn’t get here and would have sacrificed all of the north to go.
Head back to Cebu, then fly to Puerta Princessa. Go to the prison, then bus it to port Barton. Chill there a few days, before heading to El Nido. A day of island hopping there, then either to Coron for diving or bypass and head to Manila for a night before flying out.
After all of this, still can’t wait to return!