The Philippines is divided into northern, central and southern regions by the three island groups of Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao. As many as 2500 Philippine islands are not named and the nearest neighbours are Taiwan in the north, eastern Malaysia and Brunei to the southwest, and Indonesia in the south.
The archipelago has a dramatic and varied landscape, ranging from volcanoes to narrow coastal plains and waterways, ancient rice terraces, rugged coastlines and fine white beaches. In addition to its natural assets, the Philippines has a rich history and unique culture resulting in a multitude of festivals and celebrations.
Capital and major centres
The capital and by far the largest city, Metro Manila, has a population of more than 10 million. Located in the northern region of Luzon, it is the capital and principal centre of government, commerce and education. Baguio City is five hours from Manila, in the Cordillera Mountains of Luzon. From March to May it experiences a population surge, and during Holy Week its population has been known to triple. Cebu City is the capital of the Visayas, at the centre of the Philippines’ major island group of 167 islands. Davao City on the lush island of Mindanao is one of the largest cities in the world in terms of land mass.
The people are mostly of Malay stock with a sprinkling of Chinese, American, Spanish and Arab blood. Most of the population claims to be Christian, and 80 percent are Roman Catholic. Muslim communities make up around five percent of the population and most live in Mindanao and the Sulu Islands.
The Philippines has white sandy beaches, lush green forests, mountain peaks and clear blue waters teeming with marine life. An incredible 80 percent of tropical fish sold worldwide are from the Philippines. The yellow flowering narra is the national tree of the Philippines.
The nipa palm is seen all over the country and the orchid could also stake its claim as the national flower, with almost 1000 endemic species, including the WalingWaling variety of Mindanao. There are only about 100 of the magnificent haribon (Philippine Eagles) around Mt Apo, and the once abundant dugong are now rare, however, small gravity-defying geckos can be seen everywhere. The tarsier, one of the smallest primates in the world, can be found in Corella in Bohol.
Popular with travellers are Boracay and Banaue, but the Philippines offers a host of other attractions, such as Camiguin’s rainforest and reef, Cebu’s beaches, sunsets over Lake Sebu, the burial caves of Sagada and a trip to Mt Pinatubo which erupted violently in 1991.
When the Spanish moved the capital of the Philippines from Cebu to Manila in 1571, they built Intramuros, the Walled City, as the seat of Church and State. This fortress complex is well worth a visit.
Another important landmark is the theme park Nayong Filipino, which has smallscale replicas of Bicol’s Mayon Volcano, the Banaue rice terraces, the Chocolate Hills of Bohol and Magellan’s Cross in Cebu.
Clusters of houses, representing architecture from a mix of regions, are grouped together in miniature villages now located in Clark, Pampanga. The Banaue Rice Terraces of the Ifugao Province have been dubbed the eighth wonder of the world, covering an incredible 22 400 kilometres.
Palawan, called the country’s ‘last frontier’, is a mini archipelago of virgin islands, home to rare species of flora and fauna. The Tabon Caves in southern Palawan are acknowledged as the ‘cradle of civilisation’ of the Philippines.
At Calauit Island, a wildlife sanctuary has been breeding African animals for nearly 20 years. It is home to around 500 animals, including giraffes, zebras and gazelles to name a few. In the Visayas, Bohol is a small island famous for its Chocolate Hills—more than 1000 oval limestone mounds spread throughout the towns of Carmen, Batuan and Sagbayan.
In Aklan province in the Western Visayas there are two attractions worth noting: the Ati-Atihan Festival and Boracay Island. Every third week of January, in the streets of Kalibo, locals celebrate Aklan with wild, mardi gras-style revelry.
Where to stay
The Philippines offers a wide range of accommodation for all budgets. Metro Manila has everything vistors need from deluxe hotels and serviced apartments to hostels and homestays.
There are comfortable deluxe hotels in all the big cities, first-class resorts in Batangas, Palawan, Cebu, Boracay and Bohol, and Davao in Mindanao.
The variety of bus services running are generally very economical, and departures are frequent, although buses sometimes leave early if they’re full. Making a reservation is recommended. There are more buses in the morning, as people try to beat the heat.
Roads often have potholes and it takes a while to get anywhere but hire cars, taxis and the colourful and individually decorated jeepneys are easily found. Although jeepneys are the cheapest way to negotiate the traffic, they do tend to be driven at an alarming and erratic speed and are not air-conditioned. The elevated Light Rail Transit (LRT) system, also known as Metrorail provides the best and most efficient way to travel from Baclaran in the south to Caloocan City in the north.
The Metro Railway Transit (MRT) traverses the length of Edsa and connects Quezon City to Pasay City, passing through the major arteries of Makati’s financial district.
Food and entertainment
Filipino cuisine has Chinese, Malay and Spanish influences, making dining quite an adventure. Rice is the staple, usually served with meat and vegetables that are fried or sautéed.
Soups of every kind are popular, as is the delicacy, crispy pata (deep fried pork knuckle).
Adobo—stewed chicken, pork or squid pieces in vinegar—is a national dish, and inihaw (grilled fish or meat), fresh or fried lumpia (spring rolls), siopao (Chinese-style pork or chicken bun) and pancit (noodles) are widely eaten. Gata (coconut milk) is used in just about everything!
While most dishes are heavier on the meat than vegetables, the country’s vast coastlines ensure Filipino restaurants also offer an abundance of seafood: shrimp, rock lobster, crab, oysters, squid and fish.
A wide range of international food is available from fast food outlets and fine dining restaurants. For dessert, halo-halo is made from crushed ice mixed with sweets and fruits, and smothered in evaporated milk and topped with ice cream.
For something less indulgent try fresh fruits such as mango, pineapple and papaya. In Metro Manila there are nightly show bands, cultural/folk dance presentations, and in some places bands of local singers play original Filipino music.
The incredible mountainous landscape of the Philippines offers many appealing climbs including Mayon, a 2450 metre active volcano in Bicol, Southern Luzon which takes several days to climb. Mt Taal, in Tagaytay, described as the smallest and most dangerous volcano in the world, is one hour from Manila. You can also explore Mt Pinatubo’s crater in Zambales as well as the Philippines’ highest peak, Mt Apo. There are wonderful trekking opportunities along Luzon’s Pacific Coast, especially in Bicol and Quezon provinces.
Philippine waters are attracting growing numbers of scuba divers, especially at Boracay, Bohol, Palawan and Apo. The Camsur Watersports Complex in Camareines Sur offers international standard wakeboarding facilities. Canoeists can shoot the rapids in Pagsanjan, featured in the film Apocalypse Now. The Philippines has some of the finest golf courses in the world, or there’s bird watching, cave exploration and photo safaris. History buffs will enjoy exploring the museums, the century-old colonial monuments and churches.
March to May is hot and dry with temperatures ranging from 22°C to 32°C. June to October is rainy and November to February is cool with temperatures from 22°C to 28°C. Light casual garments are recommended. Warmer clothes are needed for the mountain regions.
Philippine peso is the local currency. Most foreign currencies are easily exchanged in the cities. Outside Manila, Philippine pesos for payment are preferred. Tipping is generally expected, the standard practice is 10 percent of the total bill.
There are a lot of rice terraces in Asia, but the Philippine Cordilleras is a unique World Heritage Site that should be on any serious traveller's bucket list.
Cordillera Central is located on the Filipino island of Luzon. Its dramatic mountain ranges span slopes of 70 degrees and altitudes of 1,500 metres, and offer world-class hiking trails.
The region comprises four rice terraces. There's Banaue (Batad and Bangaan), Mayoyao, Klangan (Nagacadan), and Hungduan.
Let's check them out in turn…
The Visayas have a number of tourist attractions that will surely appeal to children. Guimara Island is a must visit if you plan to do some island hopping. The Visayas are also known well known for their diving spots. Camotes Island, Balicasag, Mactan, Malapascua and MoalBoal are especially famous.
Visayan cuisine is very simple. If you want to be free of processed food or artificial flavors/chemicals in your food, then Visayan food is for you. Dishes like binignit which is a yam snack in coconut milk, sinugba which is barbecued and spiced meat or fish and seafood kinilaw will have you licking your fingers in delight.
Even though you can find plenty of interesting things to do in Manila, absolutely nothing beats the experience of being inside the same waters which are home to the whale sharks. The locals call these beautiful creatures ‘Butanding’ and they can be found in the Donsol Bay from November till June.
Boracay is one of the most sought-after islands for tourists around the globe, and you cannot tell if it is the azure ocean, the coconut palms that gently sway to the wind or the sun-kissed sand that makes it so appealing. Restaurant and bar chains have not gone a deaf ear to the tourist racket in Borocay, and neither have the tourists to them.
Filipino cuisine has strong Spanish influences (from the 35-decades of Spanish rule that the country saw) and ones from other native traditions as well. Many Westerners are pleased when they learn that Filipino cuisine scores the lowest on the spicy food scale among South East Asian food.
Although the Philippines has numerous modes of travel, the safety aspect of transit modes such as buses, ferry boats and taxis can be a point of concern. It is a good idea to seek the advice of the locals on the best mode of transport at a location. For instance, traveling by plane or ferry is advised for places like Misamis Occidental and Zamboanga del Norte.
The Philippines observes a tropical climate. The holiday seasons, New Year’s, Christmas and Easter are when the Philippines is packed with tourists. During the peak season (December to May), you will find that hotel prices have increased by almost three-fold, but that does not deter tourists from holidaying in the country. You would do good booking months in advance, if you plan to visit the Philippines during the peak season.
If you’re visiting the Philippines, it is recommended that you explore the varied cuisines of its’ different regions. But if you’re particularly in the northern part of Philippines in Luzon, try the cuisine of the Ilocos region where the most popular dish is a plate of mixed vegetables that are flavored with the addition of bagoong or fermented fish instead of salt. This Ilocano delicacy is famously called pinakbet.