With a population of over 100 million scattered across roughly 7,640 islands, the Philippines is defined by much more than sunny beaches, natural disasters, and a boisterous, corrupt president, Rodrigo Duterte. Straddling the Ring of Fire, this island nation is blessed with rich biodiversity and awe-inspiring landscapes. The remoteness of the many mountainous islands led to the creation of hundreds of unique cultures with distinctive languages and dialects. Contemporary culture is noticeably influenced by Spanish and American occupation, such as the popularity of tortas and Spam (separately, of course). It can be overwhelming knowing where to start in planning a trip to such a vast and diverse country, so we’ve assembled a list of nine regions to help you out.
This elongated island lies on the western edges of the Philippines, just north of the island of Borneo. Palawan is an ecological wonder, home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park and the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River. The former offers excellent diving opportunities, while the latter is the longest navigable underground river (the largest was discovered in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in 2007). The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River has received further accolades, being named to the New 7 Wonders of Nature, along with the Amazon rainforest and Vietnam's Halong Bay, among other sites. Visitors can traverse a section of the river through organized tours. The majority of excursions take kayaks or small boats into the first 1.5 kilometers of the cave system. The stalagmites, stalactites, and rock formations won’t disappoint.
Puerto Princesa is also the name of the island’s provincial capital and main entry point. It’s a convenient base for exploring the mangrove islands in Honda Bay, but the most beautiful spots are farther afield. To the north lie the stunning Bacuit archipelago and lagoons of El Nido. Even farther north, the Calamanian islands offer some of Asia’s best diving among World War II wreckage. The south is even more remote, rewarding adventurous visitors with solitude, views of Mount Mantalingajan, and a chance to see the endangered Philippine cockatoo.
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The Philippines’ capital city sits roughly in the center of the winding island of Luzon. The majority of international flights land here, with a variety of local and discount airlines offering connecting flights to surrounding islands. The mega city, home to approximately 15 million people, is quite unlike the rest of the country. Pollution and income inequality are immediately apparent between the congested streets, high end shopping malls, begging children, and the glitzy skyscrapers of Makati. Intramuros and Makati make for convenient bases to see the main historical sites while being close to quality nightlife and restaurants. We recommend heading through a 7-Eleven storage room for a cocktail at Bank Bar, a speakeasy housed in the RCBC Savings Bank Corporate Center. Something to keep in mind when you're ready to head to new destinations in the country -- if departing Manila by bus, be wary of late afternoon departure times to avoid idling in bumper to bumper traffic for hours.
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3. Northern Luzon
The Philippines' largest island could captivate visitors for weeks, if not months, so we’ve split the region into two sections. The portion north of Manila encompasses a densely mountainous interior, stretches of beaches (both unspoiled and resort-strewn), colonial towns, and surfing outposts. A relaxed resort atmosphere awaits along the Zambales coast. Farther north, the Lingayen Gulf is dotted with over one hundred islands in Hundred Islands National Park, which is perfect for island hopping. Take a break from the stunning coastline and stop in Vigan, an extremely well preserved colonial city, where you can wander the cobblestone streets. The city incorporates and interesting mix of Chinese and Mexican architectural styles.
The northeast is the least explored region, though surfers and hikers will be delighted with the coastal town of Baler and the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park. Arguably the main draw for the region is the interior, which is home to the mountain village of Sagada, known for its hanging coffins, as well as the gorgeous rice terraced valleys in Banaue. The terraces, which are depicted on the 20-peso bill, can be explored by foot. Villages, which offer accommodation, are connected by footpaths along the scenic terraces. The remarkable scenery in Banaue is worth a trip in itself.
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4. Southern Luzon
Heading south and southeast from Manila, Southern Luzon lures many visitors for natural and cultural attractions alike. Hikers will be happy to know that Mount Banahaw is a dormant volcano, apt for trekking with spectacular views. For more volcano action, Bicol is home to several. Active volcanoes include the symmetrical beauties that are Mount Mayon and Mount Bulusan -- both of which are situated in protected areas. The Bicol region also has a large concentration of whale sharks, with peak time to see them being February through May. Excursions to snorkel with the whale sharks are possible, but please be certain to adhere to the safety precautions, as whale sharks have one monster tail fin.
Just south of the Mayon Volcano, Legazpi City is an excellent base for exploring the volcanic peak and island hopping out in the Albay Gulf. For those visiting during Easter, the tiny island of Marinduqe (just south of Luzon) puts on a lively display at the Moriones Festival. This weeklong affair, which runs from Holy Monday to Easter Sunday, is characterized by colorful Roman warrior costumes, complete with helmets and weapons. It is a deeply religious event -- it’s customary to see a re-enactment of Christ’s suffering, and you might also see groups of men whipping themselves in atonement for their sins.
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Located in the Visayas south of Luzon, this long, narrow island is home to the Philippines’ second largest city, Cebu City. It’s the main transportation hub for the region, with numerous flights here from Manila and nearby countries, as well as connections to smaller islands by flight and ferry. There isn’t much in Cebu City to make one linger, so head out to the superb beaches for some sun and snorkeling. The best beaches in the north lie just offshore Cebu on the islands of Malapascua and Bantayan.
The south may not measure up to the north in terms of beaches, but there is ample reason to embark south -- you can explore fishing villages and partake in offshore diving. In the southwest, Moalboal’s diverse marine life draws divers and snorkelers. Back on land, the affordable resorts on Panagsama Beach promise post-dive relaxation. Independent exploration is possible through reasonably priced taxis, as well as the local option of jeepneys or tricycles. Jeepneys are the main form of public transport throughout the Philippines -- they're essentially a stretch-limo-sized Jeep, with metal bench seating and elaborate, flamboyant exterior paint jobs. Tricycles, comprising a covered motorbike and sidecar, are ideal for individuals or a duo.
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Bohol is a mere two-hour ferry from Cebu, making for an ideal side trip from the resort life on Cebu. The island of Bohol is best known for the popular and aptly named Chocolate Hills. Depending on whether your visit coincides with rainy or dry season, these bizarrely uniform hills will be green or brown, respectively. There are over 1,200 individual hills scattered across the island. Scientists have not reached a clear consensus on the hills’ formation, while a local legend attributes the large mounds to the result of a stone throwing brawl between giants. There are accessible viewpoints for visitors at Carmen and Sagbayan Peak, which can be visited as part of a guided tour or independently reached by tricycle or taxi.
Bohol is also home to the endangered tarsier, a wide-eyed primate species weighing less than one pound, which is thought to be the inspiration for Star Wars’ Yoda. The Phillippine Tarsier Foundation controls a sanctuary and research center for the tiny primates, with visits offered at the research center. It is the only ethical operation offering tarsier visits on the island, so beware of other offers. Beyond these unique attractions, Bohol’s appeal stems from minimal tourism development, with the exception of the scenic beaches at Panglao.
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Despite being just shy of a mere four square miles in size, this island attracts droves of international and domestic visitors. White Beach, an appropriately named two-mile expanse of sand lined with international hotels, restaurants, scuba outfitters, and bars, serves as the main drag on Boracay. While there's sunbathing, boating, and diving by day, Boracay is all about the party after sundown. Live music blares, fire twirlers show off, and the alcohol flows. For some respite from the crowds and noise, head just north to Diniwid Beach. Just to the south you’ll find Panay, a sizable island whose coastline and mountainous jungle have been spared from overdevelopment.
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Located in the heart of the Visayas, Negros embodies the diversity of cultures and languages found among the island region. The island of 3.5 million inhabitants has two distinct languages on opposite sides of the forested, mountainous interior: Cebuano in the east and Ilonggo in the west. Negros grows the majority of the Philippines’ sugarcane, with plantations spanning from the coast to the bottom of the volcanic mountains. Mount Canlaon is both the highest peak on the island (and, in fact, in the whole Visayas archipelago) at 8,087 feet. Excellent hiking and climbing opportunities await the adventurous both here and at Mount Silay to the north. Beach lovers will want to orient themselves in the southern half of the island, where stretches of sand and offshore diving await. The provincial capital of Dumaguete is the regional hub and is near quality beaches, but consider exploring the remote swaths of sand on the southwestern shores for idyllic white sand and quiet.
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The Philippines’ seventh-largest island sits just off Luzon’s southwest shore, a mere four-hour drive and ferry ride from Manila. The ferry from Batangas drops passengers in Puerto Galera, where the vast majority of visitors remain. The town is worth a stop for nightlife and scuba diving, but more rugged scenery and coastline can be found around Mindoro. Even better diving spots can be found off the west coast in the Apo Reef, with common sightings of hammerheads, sea turtles, barracuda, and hundreds of coral species. The interior and coastline are ripe for intrepid exploration, particularly in Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park.
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