Is it really more fun in the Phillipines? It is the tagline they use to attract swarms of tourists to its beaches on Palawan and adventure seekers to the mountain province of its main island. The Phillipines was once a Spanish colony and then an American colony, you can see the marks left by the colonial rule from the Spanish. As Spanish words are embedded in Tagalog and American jeep cars are still being used as local buses. It is made up of over 7,100 islands and some would argue it has one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The Philippines is vast and caters to beach goers, mountain trekkers and foodies. If you go then decide what you want to do because there is a lot a choice.
As I was continuing my backpacking tour, I stayed in hostels and homestays. There are some cheap hotels you can rent for £8 a night and it is very good value. I will say there are some high quality hotels in the Philippines if you are looking to do it in luxury. The highlight of my stay was when I went full circle and returned to Manila. I stayed in the Lub d chain of luxury hostels, where it felt like I was staying in a 4 star hotel rather than a hostel. It cost about £7 a night but definitely worth it.
When to go
I went during the wet season which is July – August whereas high season is November-May. There are pros and cons to both, obviously going in high season, the weather will be decent everyday. However you will have to think about prebooking the tours that you really want to do because, it is highly likely that the islands will be overrun with tourists! The good thing about going in low season is that it is much quieter and you can afford to just wing it but then the weather will not be ideal sometimes. When I say not ideal, it wont rain for days on end, what I experienced was some rain almost always in the late afternoon for an hour or two and some days where there was no rain at all.
There are plenty of taxis and I would recommend downloading Grab which is the South East Asian version of Uber. It will either tell you a fixed price or a rough estimate for your travel route and you can then pay the driver or set your card up to your account.
If Grab is “on high demand” then I would recommend taking a metered taxi but they will add a hailing fee of roughly 30-70 pesos depending on which city you are in. This is a better option because Grab in peak hours will charge a higher fee for using their service.
Jeepneys are another great way to travel, it is the local bus and it is extremely cheap. The most I ever paid for a jeepney was 18 pesos and they will go far, however expect for them to constantly stop to fill up with passengers. Supposedly they are an invention from when the Americans colonised the Philippines and drove jeeps around. When the Americans left, these jeeps were turned into the local transportation method and still operate to this day. They are not hard to spot as they are huge and have some great graffiti painted on them from Disney characters to superheros.
If you are travelling in Manila then you can take the light rail, it is very cheap and covers a wide range. Usually a single trip costs 15 pesos but I usually opted to take a jeepney. However when traffic is sprawling then the light rail is more reliable.
Where to go?
- Manila – spend 2-3 nights to relax, go to some popular food spots and the malls there
- Banaue –the rice terraces, cultural village and hot springs
- Sagada – Hanging coffins, cave spelunking
- Buscalan – Home of Whang-Od, the legendary tribal tattoo artist and warrior
- Bontoc and Baguio – larger cities in the North province and transport hubs
- Palawan – popular island where you can do some island hopping
- Cebu – South island where you can savour the famous Lechon and visit places like Oslob, Moalboal and Mactan.
I started out in Manila, it is the most accessible international airport in the Philippines and you will have a good selection of times to fly in and out from here. However be warned, a lot of domestic flights flying out of the Philippines are usually delayed by 1-2 hours as their air traffic control is poor.
Manila reminded me of Delhi, very built up and dense. If I had to choose which city I prefer then New Delhi would win hands down. Manila didn’t have anything that really astounded me but sometimes you can get that with the metropolitan cities.
I would recommend staying one or two nights here and moving on. The most interesting parts I found were:
This is the old Spanish colonial portion in Manila and was actually recommended by the Grab driver, he said the architecture was slightly different and it is one of the more popular tourist sites. Once you get to the intramuros “walled” city, then you will probably be hassled by tuk tuk driver to go on one of their tours, it is up to you if you want to go on one of these tuk tours but you can easily do it by yourself. We decided to just walk to some of the sites like fort Santiago, San agustin church and Manila cathedral.
This portion of the city is pretty interesting but I would recommend reading up about intramuros before going or trying to find a local tour guide who will do a decent tour for a decent price!
Of course, every city has a Chinatown. Even Havana had a barrio chino but it was derelict. The chinatown in Manila isn’t massive and is mainly a series of streets with Chinese shops and restaurants. There is an outdoor market and street food which made the visit extra special! Also we managed to eat a restaurant called “Delicious”, when we asked the store clerk for a recommendation, we thought he misheard but we were glad he told us!
The food at the restaurant was cheap but really delicious, they had a range of food from beef mami, machang (Sticky rice) and pancit. It was more like Chinese food with a slight filipino twist.
A great thing about Manila is that the museums are free, some of the smaller museums charge a small fee but the main museums like the Museum of Fine arts, Museum of Anthropology and Natural history museum are all free. If you want a chill out day, I would recommend taking a tour of the museums and just chowing down some street food.
Banaue – Bontoc – Sagada – Buscalan
If you decide to head up North to visit the famous Banaue and Batad rice terraces then you won’t be disappointed. I did a two day trek with some fellow travellers and even though it rained, the view and experience was immense. There is more to do in Banaue then just see the rice terraces as you can visit their hot spring and also ethnic village another day too but I do have some tips for you.
Getting to Banaue
There are several coach services going up to Banaue, the cheapest being Ohayami and other operators being Codaline etc. If you are worried you won’t get a seat, you can actually reserve a seat online on 2go or 12goasia but you will have to pay a transaction fee of 70-100 PHP. I went to the terminal and bought a ticket 20 minutes beforehand from the Ohayami conductor for 490PHP. The travel time was 8 hours and the air con was powerful!
Once you get dropped off at the terminal, you can either walk to the centre or get a free shuttle service to the shuttle (its not far) but there is a catch, they will take you to a tourist office to discuss tours. I would recommend getting the free shuttle and information. I arrived at 6.30am and the tour guide told me that a two day trek up to the rice terraces including accommodation would cost 2200 pesos, folks put on your bargaining face because you can haggle here. I chatted to the other travellers and the prices varied from 1800-2100 and afterwards I chatted to the tour guide and he said the costings were 2400 per guide, 500 for one nights stay and then 300 for the drivers. I think the best price you may be able to achieve is probably 1600-1700.
I liked Sagada, it wasn’t too busy and there were some good activities. The fascinating hanging coffins are located here. These coffins were placed to respect family members and warriors where they believed that if they hung the coffins from the side they were be away from predators/animals who may try to disturb their graves. The tour guide told us that you can even purchase a slot on the side of the mountain to this day.
Another popular activity in Sagada is to do some spelunking, this is a 3-4 hour activity and the tour guide will literally take you into the cracks and crevices of a cave. If you are claustrophobic then definitely give this a miss.
I didn’t stop off in Bontoc but it is one of the main transport hubs, if you want to take a bus to any location then this is the best location. I was advised that if I wanted to go to Buscalan then I would have to go to Bontoc to take a jeepney there.
I wasn’t originally going to head up here as it was very out of the way to get to but a lot of locals were chatting about the famous Whang-od. She is a 102 year old woman who is the last of her tribe, the Mambabatouks. These tribes famously fended off colonial invasion and also fought for their land and were rewarded with tribal tattoos to signify their kills and also for their bravery. It was said, in the past that Whang-od would only tattoo people in her tribe/village and rumors were she would only tattoo you if she liked you. If more recent years, I think she allows foreigners to be tattoo’d by her.
I decided that I really had to go meet Whang od and get a traditional tattoo. Here are the methods to get there:
- Rent a motorbike
- This was my original plan but it was so difficult to find someone to rent me a bike. As soon as I told them I was going to Buscalan they were worried about their bike being robbed. They may be more chilled out if you are just travelling around Banaue. I was informed the usual rate is 1000PHP a day – no guarantee of a full tank but you may be able to get it for 800PHP. I would advise against travelling long distances on the motorbike and go for a local transport method.
- Take a jeepney or van
- Cost effective and you don’t have to worry about the roads. However the vans will not leave unless they are full, so you may wait longer than the actual leaving time but if you have time to spare and you want to save some dollar then this may be your option. Also you will get the chance to ride on top of the jeepney and take in some fantastic views.
- Private car
- The priciest option, if you have numbers then this may be cheaper than a jeepney or van. However you will probably be expecting to pay 5000PHP for the car/van.
- Private motorcycle
- Another option offered to me at the last minute. I was given the offer of 1200PHP for a one way trip to Buscalan which was supposedly dropped from 1500PHP. I trusted my tour guide as he said it was a fair price and I did this as I wanted to not waste any time as I was only in the Northern province for a week. The ride was quite treacherous as there were many landslides and definitely isn’t a ride for novices.
Once I reached the Buscalan junction, I had to hire a guide to go into the village. It is mandatory as Whang-od won’t tattoo you unless you are with a local. The price is 1000PHP but if you have numbers you can split the fee. The hike up to Buscalan was pretty bad because the path had been destroyed by the extreme weather and a makeshift path was made – which was just mud and rocks. Once you enter the village you pay an environmental fee of 75PHP and the guide will tell you when you can get a tattoo.
I stayed one night at a homestay for 300PHP and it was basic but the people were friendly. I chatted a few locals and they gave me the story of Whang-od, since she became famous there would be hoards of people making the trip to go see her and you may wait hours to get a tattoo by her or one of her grand-nieces (Elyang or Grace). I was lucky to see Whang-od later that day and the wait was only twenty minutes (I was the only foreigner that day!).
It was quite a site, as you get tattooed in a balcony hut overlooking the mountains. The process was that you choose which tattoos you want and then you wait in line. Whang-od then chooses a fresh lemon or pomelo thorn to tattoo you with and it begins! The process isn’t that painful and if you only want her 3-dot signature then it will be over in two minutes.
The three dots represent the last in her tribe which consists of herself, Grace and Elyang. However there are a range of designs and you can mix them as well. The cost for getting her signature and a tribal design cost me 500 pesos. Also you can take a picture with Whang od (I wish I did!) but I read on a lot of blogs she dislikes it or it is disrespectful, its not true, she openly had pictures with Filipino tourists and I have seen Europeans posing with her online as well!
After I was finished in Buscalan, I met a young Filipino couple (Carl and Mau) who were kind enough to give me a lift to Sagada and we had planned to go to Baguio but as I had left my bag in Banaue, the trip would be a U-turn trip for them.
As if by fate however, a Codaline bus going to Banaue and then Manila appeared. I paid 300PHP to Banaue and 550PHP to head to Manila. I then booked a flight to go to Cebu but be warned if you book an afternoon flight with the domestic airlines then chances are that you will be delayed.
What I liked about Cebu
Apart from the traffic, everything about Cebu was great. There are certain hotspots you should go visit like Oslob, Moalboal and Lapu-Lapu. I met some great people in the Shejoje poshtel hostel (which was also a very good hostel) and we spent a few days exploring together. Also not to forget, the lechon there and Sugbo mercado was amazing!
How should I go around seeing things
- Book a tour: we booked a tour with islandtours and they took us to Oslob (whale shark swimming), Moalboal and Kawasan falls to do some canyoneering (jumping into waterfalls). The overall cost was pricey -5500PHP including food
- Rent a motorbike and tour each area separately – if you have time I would highly recommend this method.
- Jeepney it: I didn’t hear much about taking jeepneys or vans across the island but I am sure that you can do it
This is probably the main reason why travellers come to the Philippines. The star island has some of Philippines most beautiful beaches and island hopping activities are bountiful here.
The best way to get to Palawan is to fly into Puerto Princesa and then get a van up but some flights will go to El Nido. The tricycles should typically charge about 8-9 pesos per km but tourists will get charged triple, so just try your best to haggle the price down. To get to the different towns, you can take a van and, in some cases, a jeepney. The prices can vary from 350-600PHP, if you are looking for a well known company then look for the recaro van company, their van rides are reasonably priced and fairly comfortable. However, im warning you now, wear your seatbelt because the drivers absolutely blast it down the highway!
I would highly advise staying in the centre because the tours are by the port and if you stay further out then you will need to get a tricycle in everytime you want to eat at the beachfront or go on a tour.
The tours are broken down as tour A,B,C,D but I did see some new tours such as tour Z and N.
TOUR A: 1200PHP – Small Lagoon – Big Lagoon- Secret Lagoon – Shimizu Island – Commando Beach
TOUR B: 1300PHP – Snake Island – Pinagbuyutan Island – Entaula Beach – Cudugon Cave
TOUR C: 1400PHP – Helicopter Island – Matinloc Shrine – Secret beach – Star beach – Hidden beach
TOUR D: 1200PHP – Ipil beach – Cadlao lagoon – Paradise beach – Pasandigan beach – Natnat & Bukal beach
I would recommend doing a combination tour of A&C and then choosing a solo tour to do. The prices are not fixed and you can definitely haggle. However remember that you have to pay an “environmental” fee of 200PHP.
This is another spot which I would highly recommend visiting, it is quiet but there are still tourist activities to do which involve island hopping. When I was there, the number of tourists there were was probably just breaking double digits (though I only saw one or two at a time).
There are tours here also and the prices are much cheaper than El Nido.
The restaurants and pubs here are tailored towards tourists as they serve burgers and pasta but I managed to find a restaurant called Gacayan which served a lot of authentic Filipino food at local prices. The pork tocino was so good that I didn’t eat anywhere else during my stay.
The food selection in the Philippines is vast and very interesting, like many Asian countries they use everything from head to foot and it is reflected in their cuisine today. Some of the food may not appetize the Western palate but you can always give it a try as food is generally quite cheap. However I found the food in Indonesia to be very cheap and the value for money was incredible.
There’s going to be a separate blog on the food because was was just too much!
- Use Grab – the taxi and tricycle drivers here are on par or maybe even worse than in India. So many times I tried to bargain a fair price but they usually tried to charge me triple than the usual fare.
- In Puerto Princesa there is no Grab and a tricycle driver tried to charge me 5x the actual price (as I checked with two locals), I even pointed on on his fare sheet that the distance matched the usual price but he stuttered saying that it was because I was only one person. I offered him double the fare but he wouldn’t budge
- If Grab is overrun by bookings and you cant get a ride then get a metered taxi – they will charge a fair price overall
- Try to bargain if you are in a bigger group – as a solo traveller, I didn’t have any bargaining power and I found tour prices on Palawan were tight. If you have a large group then you can bargain for tours and even a private boat which may be more economical.
- Don’t spend too long in Manila – the only worthwhile things to see are Intramuros and the museums – it is a big city with plenty of shopping malls and bars but if you are either looking to chill or drink your heart out then get out of there to see what the Philippines really has to offer