An insider’s guide to the Philippines
Separated from mainland Southeast Asia by a stretch of sea, the 7,000 islands of the beautiful Philippines may as well be a world away from their neighbours.
With a predominantly Catholic culture from years of Spanish rule, the intriguing architecture and lively traditions of the friendly locals with their vibrant town fiestas make this one of the continent’s most interesting destinations – even for the most experienced of travellers. An exploration of these diverse landscapes reveals stunning peaks, bustling cities, towering volcanoes, crystal-clear waters and rich rice paddies a vibrant colour of green that can only be seen in this tropical part of the world.
Arriving in Manila, the gateway to the Philippines, it’s easy to believe that you’ve somehow strayed and ended up in a South American town rather than a city in Southeast Asia. That is until you are greeted with ‘mabuhay’ from the incredibly friendly locals. In this intriguing city by the sea, the influence of a Spanish heritage is evident in the historic architecture and abundance of traditional Catholic churches. If you’re feeling active, the best ways to explore is to hop on a Bambike (a bicycle made of bamboo) before strolling through the streets of Chinatown to sample the delicious cuisine. At the end of a long day of exploration head to Makati, where some of the country’s finest luxury hotels overlook the picturesque Manila Bay.
A trip to the Philippines wouldn’t be complete without a ride in one of the iconic Jeepneys. Originally adapted from American Jeeps left behind following World War II, this common mode of public transport evolved with a Filipino flare. Roofs were added for shade, benches squeezed in to accommodate passengers and colour splashed across each in a unique design, often incorporating the route. Simply hop aboard and shout “para” when you want to jump off. Fun, quirky and a symbol of a multi-cultural nation, a ride aboard a Jeepney is certainly a must-do. Although it’s perhaps best reserved for cities as long-distance travel is much more comfortable aboard more spacious, air-conditioned coaches.
Escape to the mountains
Southeast Asia’s most popular countries are known not only for their picturesque beaches, but their cool mountain escapes - and the Philippines is no different. Locals and visitors alike flock to the city of Baguio, gateway to Sagada, Banaue, Kalinga and the Luzon Rainforest to get some relief from the hotter, more humid climate of the south.
A giant stairway chiselled out of the land, the Banaue rice terraces to the north of Manila on the island of Luzon are a magnificent man-made wonder that journey skyward through the highlands. Painstakingly crafted 2,000 years ago by the indigenous Ifugao, the region’s ancient inhabitants, these mud-walled paddies cover over 4,000 square miles of steep mountainside. Here, the low call of the water buffalo (Carabao) can be heard drifting across the air whilst the bulol, iconic rice guardian statues carved from wood, stand watch over the Cordillera’s life-sustaining crop.
The country’s best-kept secret
Walking through the nature-rich montane forests of the north, the beauty found here is often an added bonus for the travellers that head north to escape the heat and see the remarkable rice terraces. Blanketed in lush green vegetation that stretches across the horizon, the canopy is broken only by towering peaks. Here, the large saucer-like eyes of the tiny Philippine tarsier stare out at you from between the trees, and the intriguing red beak and black and gold plumage of the Rufous hornbill can be spotted amid the canopy. This is by far one of the Philippine’s best-kept secrets.
After the bustle of Manila and the forested beauty of the north, the islands of the south offer a relaxed and idyllic respite. With feet buried in powder-white sand, you can gaze out across crystal-clear waters that fade into a deep blue and breathe in the salty air, waiting for the sun to sink behind the horizon and colour the world in red and orange.
A quiet getaway
Limestone cliffs rise dramatically out of turquoise seas to stand against brilliant white beaches on a gentle cruise around the 19 breathtaking islands of El Nido. Dotting the tranquil waters of Bacuit Bay, each serene isle offers the perfect secluded escape, with soft palm-fringed beaches stretching to green-covered peaks above and seas as blue as sapphires beyond. Sliding into the crystal-clear waters, snorkellers and divers are greeted by flitting shoals of colourful fish, graceful reef sharks and orchid-walled lagoons.
Home to an array of superb restaurants, bustling streets and thriving island nightlife, as well as swathes of white sand beaches, Boracay has it all. Drawing visitors from across the globe, this small island is awash with life; from the colourful creatures darting below the surface of its pristine waters, to the Filipino fire dancers lighting the night sky with a dazzling display. Days can be spent relaxing on the quieter stretches of Diniwid Beach to the north, or out embracing the various watersports on offer at Bulabog Beach in the east, while nights are liveliest out at White Beach, where picture-perfect sunsets are followed by spectacular local displays, live music and dancing into the night.
An extraordinary archipelago of over 7000 islands – many of which still remain undiscovered by tourism – the Philippines offers spellbinding landscapes, unforgettable diving and buzzing cities bursting at the seams with life.