5 adventures to experience in the Philippines
1. Trek to Osmeña Summit
Osmena is Cebu’s highest peak. At 1013m it’s not too difficult and only a 20 minute walk if you start from the park entrance. Yet as you climb the final indentations of pitted limestone, your reward is a rare panorama of verdant hills stretching to the horizon. If you’re looking for a longer adventure, the seven-hour hike from dazzling Kawasan Falls to Osmeña lets you take in the beautiful countryside along the way. Finish by camping overnight near the summit, to see the land below bathed in golden mist as the sun rises.
2. Dive the remote Tubbataha Reef
Tubbataha Reef Natural Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is unique. Home to half of the world’s coral species, its remote location (10-12 hour cruise from Puerto Princesa) has meant that this part of the Sulu Sea has been virtually inaccessible to local fishermen for generations. It was left to thrive, and still thrives today thanks to its protected status. Today, its 700 species of fish, turtles, sharks, mantas and reefs make for a wild diving experience, whether joining the predators at Shark Airport or exploring the Deslan Wreck. Surrounded by nothing but ebbing water and the odd drifting whale shark, it feels like a whole other world.
3. Discover an enchanted river
It is not difficult to understand why they call the Hinuatan of Mindanao the “enchanted river”. Its iris-blue waters of incredible clarity come from deep underground and emerge barely 300 m before flowing into the estuary. It’s like a magic trick: blink and you miss it. Most of the submerged cave system it pours out of is still unexplored, so it’s no surprise that legends of fairies and mysterious fish have grown up around these waters. It’s not hard to reach though, and after a 10-minute walk through the jungle, you can jump into the refreshing river and spot huge schools of silvery fish congregating at its mouth. Magic.
4. Go bird watching at Ilocos Norte
The northwest end of Luzon is where the Cordillera Mountains are simply lacking in land. It is perhaps best known for its beaches, with the white sands of Saud Beach in Pagudpud hailed as the “Boracay of the North”. But if you look up to the horizon, you might spot one of its lesser-heralded delights. The coast, and Lake Paoay in particular, offer sightings of rare species of local and migratory birds. Visitors like the declining Chinese egret or endemic Philippine ducks, notable for their orange heads and blue beaks, are just a few of its prized spots.
5. Explore the Chocolate Hills
The ‘Chocolate Hills’ take their name from the laconic brown hue that the summer sun bakes into the herbs of Bohol. Yet it is not the color but the scale of the hills that makes this natural wonder so unique. More than a thousand rounded grassy limestone mounds dot the flat jungle floor here, resembling the world’s most ambitious bubble wrap. Some rise up to 500m, with the entire complex stretching for miles. The views of Carmen Town and Sagbayan Peak are worth the scramble, especially when you arrive at dawn and sunset.
3 must-see beaches in the Philippines
Offshore Caramoan Peninsula lies a marvelous archipelago of islets with green tufts surrounded by milky white sand. Local boats can drop you off at lonely shore points surrounded by caves and grassy hikes inland. But, for a truly serene getaway, head to tiny Matukad’s sandy lagoon – its setting is as close to perfect as it gets.
Another attractive island chain is Calaguas, found in the province of Caramarines Norte. Its white shores are on par with even Boracay, though far less developed, and the 2.5km Mahabang Buhangin on Tinaga Island is one of the few beaches you can camp on, waking you up to views over the ocean backed by lush, jungle-covered hills.
Finally, what the traveler wearing sandals hasn’t heard of Boracay. Its whitewashed shores are hailed as the gold standard by which most others are measured. These days it’s full of luxurious resorts, but when you tire of the rest, you can always take boat trips around the islets or go snorkeling alone in its incredibly clear waters. Happiness.
3 cultural experiences to have in the Philippines
1. Explore the Banaue Rice Terraces
Hand-hewn for more than 2,000 years, the Banaue Rice Terraces are almost a living testimony to life in the Cordillera Range. The villages of the Ifugao people dot these hills. Some are only a few miles away, but they might as well be on another island, with unique cultures, festivals and traditions completely removed from their neighbors. Multi-day treks allow you to spend more time among these communities, where planting and harvesting seasons are paramount. Try to arrive in time for April’s Triennial Imbayah Festival (next in 2022) and you’ll witness a host of traditional games and parties – there’s even a hand-carved scooter race!
2. Discover the historical melting pot of Vigan
This UNESCO-listed 16th-century town of Vigan is everything the Spanish colonial towns of Asia aspired to be: orderly, civilized and elegant. Than its historic center – all the hardwood mansions, plentiful cobblestones and horse-drawn carriages (calesas) – survived so much history intact is a miracle. Yet there is more here than colonial relics. Local potters still make their famous burnay pots, a legacy of pre-colonial Chinese immigrants, and outside Calle Crisologo and its historical museums, a typical Filipino town comes alive on the outskirts, albeit fragrant with the great culinary heritage of the conquistadors – empanadas.
Explore the colonial heritage of Cebu City
Cebu City grew out of the original Spanish colony in the Philippines, built in 1565. Its docks even still house the old fortifications, rebuilt in stone in the 18th century. Fort San Pedro served as a garrison, prison and even a zoo, but it is surprisingly well preserved. You can also visit the first church on the islands, the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño de Cebu. Rebuilt in the Baroque style, it contains a famous Flemish statuette offered to the explorer Ferdinand Magellan, a complicated character in the Philippines but still considered the first to introduce Catholicism here. Magellan’s revered cross, housed in a pavilion in Plaza Sugbo, is said to contain fragments of the original crucifix he planted on the shores of Cebu in 1521.
What to eat in the Philippines
Seafood is everywhere here, although the town of Roxas in the province of Capiz is often dubbed the “seafood capital” of the islands thanks to its mix of Sibuyan sea and waterlogged coast sheltering thousands of fish farms. For a local take on surf ‘n’ turf, try the pork-stuffed calamari (rellenong puse).
Despite an abundance of seafood, the cuisine of the islands is quite rich in meat, with adobo (meat simmered in a tangy marinade) among the most famous dishes. For a real treat, try the crispy pata, fried pork leg where the meat and crackers are then dipped in a soy vinegar dip.
Start the day with a classic ‘silog‘, fried egg and rice usually accompanied by either dry corned beef (tapsilog), pork belly (tocsilog) or corned beef (cornsilsog). A real breakfast of champions.