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Travel Guide Philippines

The Philippines
by May Tancinco Reyes

The Philippines is an archipelago of over 7000 islands a few degrees above the equator in South East Asia.
It is divided into three main regions: Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. Each region is comprised of a large main island and the smaller ones clustered around it.
Over the centuries, The Philippines has been occupied by Spain, America, and Japan as well as having trade relations with China and neighboring countries. There is evidence of infl uence scattered throughout the country. The influences are as strong in architecture and religion as it is in basic social interaction.
Present day Philippines is a study on how all these different cultures have been forced to coexist and meld together and how we Filipinos have tried to build our own identity amidst all of this. The Philippines and its people are beautiful although not in a typical sense. It is Spanish Catholic and Islam, chaos and serenity, natural and cosmetic, poor and extravagant, dark and alight with smiles, obvious and elusive. It is chiaroscuro in action where both the light and dark enhance the character of the full picture and neither is more important than the other.
To enjoy a visit to the Philippines, one can either skim along the surface and enjoy what it has to offer or take a deeper and more intimate look how this mélange of cultures and influence has shaped our collective psyche. Although very regionalistic, it is safe to say that majority of us are conservative Catholics who like to sing US Pop hits on Karaoke machines that are made in China. As a patriot I can proudly say we are a hard-working, resilient, good hearted and creative people.

Luzon Visayas Mindanao
Luzon Metro Manila Quezon City Makati City City of Manila
Where to go? Outdoor Activities Scuba diving Hiking & Climbing Kitesurfing


The island group of Luzon comprises Luzon island itself Mindoro, Marinduque, Masbate, Romblon, Palawan and the Batanes and Babuyan groups of islands in the north. It houses the capital city and the entire metropolis of Manila.
It is geographically diverse as the cordillera mountain range and the Sierra Madre range runs through it alongside plains and it’s coastlines. Luzon is also home to 3 active volcanoes Mt. Mayon which is almost a perfect cone shape, Taal Volcano which juts out from a lake and whos crater also houses a lake and Mt. Pinatubo whose recent eruption in the late 90s scattered volvanic ash throughout the country and buried it’s sur-rounding areas in lahar.
A must see in Luzon is the Cagayan Valley ensconced between the Sierra Madres and the Cordilleras. There are a couple of outfitters that offer white water rafting and tour packages. The areas surrounding the Cagayan river seem to have been frozen in time and everyday at sunset, you can witness the circadian flight of thousands of bats from their cave homes as they venture out to hunt for the night. Another must see is the Rice terraces in Banawe in northern Luzon and Sagada, a mountain community visited for it’s beauty as well as its reputation for mysticism.

Metro Manila

Metro Manila is the most densely populated and developed region in Luzon. It covers the capital city of Manila, main business districts such as Makati and Pasig and commercial cities such as Cubao and San Juan.                        
As with many central cities in developing countries, social extremes have found a way to live in close proximity to each other in Manila. Mansions and shanties are a stone’s throw apart and street children beg for change from people in BMWs and prostitutes are pimped along the perimeter of old churches. It is a way of life that has shocked and been moralized by many but beneath it all, there is a deep and strong sense of life and survival that makes it endearing or at the very least, interesting.
Metro Manila is one of the most “tourist-ready” areas in the country. Restaurants, lodging, entertainment and transportation services for all tastes and budgets are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To some degree, most Filipinos treat tourists with a mix of much hospitality, some distrust and a lot of curiosity. Be prepared to be asked many questions ranging from mundane to very personal.

Quezon City

Once the capital city of the Philippines and a bustling commercial hub, Quezon City is working hard to regain its lost glory. Presently, it is gaining ground as being the entertainment district as 2 of the country’s biggest media companies have based their stations there. The area of Tomas Morato and Timog Avenue is now a booming restaurant and club row. It is ideal for bar-hopping as the mix of venues is very eclectic and not contained in one commercial complex.
Another recent development is the Gateway complex in Cubao where the 2 railway lines converge. The character of Quezon City is very down to earth given that it’s population is very transitorial. One can experience both sides of the spectrum by merely walking a few meters in any given direction.
The University of The Philippines in Quezon City also influences it’s surrounding areas with the raw talent and idealism of campus life. Several NGO’s have also set up their bases in the area.
When in Quezon City (or QC as the locals call it) visit Xymaca bar on Timog Avenue for a dose of reggae music and culture, Bedrock bar for a more pop atmosphere or take a short trip to 70’s Bistro or Freedom Bar on Anonas Street for a taste of alternative, harder edged music and ambience.

Makati City

Makati is the central business district in the Metro. It is also the most highly developed and most expensive city to live in. The culture here is predominantly western. Many expats reside and work here so most commercial outlets cater to that taste.
Makati also houses most of the most affluent residential villages. Developed by the Ayala family, who trace their roots and wealth to a conquistador, Makati reeks of “opulent beauty”. If you are in the market for Gucci, Louis Vuitton, this is the place to be. Greenbelt 3 is a relatively new commercial development where one can go to browse the Ayala Museum, dine, drink and shop in style.
A must see is the Saturday outdoor food market in the Salcedo Village Park (between Leviste and Tordesillas streets) in the heart of the business district. Every Saturday from 7 a.m to 2 p.m., local food manufacturers, many of which are home based,organic farmers and small restaurants sell their wares from tents and visitors can shop and dine al fresco.
If you are missing supermarket items from home,Santi’s delicatessen which has several branches in the Metro offers food items imported from Europe.
For a more casual night out, many tourists fl ood to Makati Avenue and P. Burgos Street. This is an “un-offi cial” red light district with many girly bars and pubs and about as many tourists as there are locals. If you fi nd yourself hungry in this area, visit Ziggurat, a 24 hour restaurant that offers middle eastern cuisine. Also visit Handlebar a sports bar set up by Harley enthusiasts on Burgos St. They have pool tournaments every Wednesday night and showcase live bands every Saturday night.
If you are into the alternative/ New Boheme scene, catch the bands and performances at SaGuijo bar in San Antonio Village.

City of Manila

The capital city of Manila is rich in history and cultural diversity. Here you will find Chinatown, the walled fortress city of Intramuros built by the Spanish, the commercial area of Quiapo which is predominantly muslim, the American Embassy and the Cultural Center of the Philippines all sharing its western perimeter that is Manila Bay.
The entertainment center in Manila is Malate with restaurants, casinos and clubs that stay open 24 hours a day.
Downtown Manila is mind-blowing for bargain hunters. Divisoria and Ongpin in China-town is the wholesaler’s paradise. Goods from China and Korea are sold here at half the price of retail stores. Be warned that the low cost of goods is in opposite proportion to the cleanliness and safety of the area so be ready to see dirty, jam- packed streets and take good care of your wallets. Mall 168 in Divisoria is best for knock-offs and textiles and the surrounding streets offer everything from pearls to kitchen equipment.


The Visayas region located just south of Luzon boasts of the most popular beaches in the country. Its’ most developed city is Cebu where the Spanish conquistadors first landed and began their conquest of the country.
Visayas is divided into three main regions and then into 16 provinces. Western Visayas includes Panay and Negros Occidental. Central Visayas includes Cebu, Bohol and Negros Oriental. Eastern Visayas includes the islands Leyte and Samar. The mayor islands are Panay, Negros,Cebu, Bohol, Leyte and Samar. The typical tour in the Visayas starts and ends in Cebu City and includes Cebu, Negros (Dumaguete Area), Siquijor and Bohol.


The region of Mindanao is the southernmost part of the Philippines. It is known as the seat of Islam in the country. Although presently predominated by Christians, the underlying infl uence and reputation of the region is muslim. Throughout history, the pendulum has swung between peaceful coexistence to independence at all costs in these muslim states.
Although considered economically poor and highly under-developed, the Mindanao region is one of the richest in natural resources and culture. It is also shrouded in mysticism. The Moros have proved to be superior warriors. The Spanish could hardly gain a foothold in this region as they had to face the “Juromentados”. The word is now slang for someone who goes into a maniacal violent fit but its true meaning is “an oath”. These warriors are legendary for being powerful and seemingly undefeatable. Although grossly outnumbered, these warriors took on invaders with superior fi re power armed only with machetes and calls to Allah. One little known fact is that the .48 calibre had to be adopted by the US forces here in the Philippines as the .38 calibres that was their standard was useless against these warriors.
The Mindanao region has been equated with violence and fear. Not many people dare to venture into the heart of Moro country but those who have, claim to have witnessed the most beautiful ethnic music, delectable food and a highly developed sense of society.
Many parts of Mindanao are now “open” to other infl uences. There are several tourist friendly areas such as Davao and Cagayan de Oro where one can get a mild taste of Filipino Muslim Culture.




Graced by dazzling beaches, year-round sun and numerous opportunities for diving, island-hopping and surfing, the Philippines has long attracted a steady stream of foreign visitors. Yet there’s far more to these islands than sand and snorkelling. Beyond the coastline are places to visit of a different nature; mystical tribal villages, ancient rice terraces, jungle-smothered peaks and crumbling Spanish churches. Look closer and you’ll see the influence of the island’s rich stew of cultures – Islamic, Malay, Spanish and American – in an exuberant array of festivals, tantalizing food and elegant colonial towns that has more in common with Latin America than the rest of Asia.

Indeed, cut off from the main Southeast Asian overland route by the South China Sea, the Philippines is often misunderstood by travellers and its Asian neighbours, casually dismissed as a supplier of maids, tribute bands, mail-order brides and corrupt politicians, epitomized by the gaudy excesses of Imelda Marcos. Don’t be put off; while poverty and corruption remain serious problems, the Philippines is far more complex – and culturally rich – than the stereotypes suggest.

The Filipino people, who speak more than 150 languages and dialects, are variously descended from early Malay settlers, Muslim Sufis from the Middle East, Spanish conquistadors and friars, and later Chinese traders. It’s an old cliché, but largely true: Filipinos take pride in making visitors welcome, even in the most rustic barrio home. Equally important is the culture of entertaining, evident in the hundreds of colourful fiestas that are held throughout the country, many tied to the Roman Catholic calendar. Never far behind partying is eating and Filipino food is heavily influenced by Spanish and native traditions – expect plenty of fresh fish, roasted meats (pork and chicken) and unlike the rest of Asia, a plethora of addictive desserts, many utilizing the vast array of tropical fruits on offer.

Where to go in the Philippines

Most flights to the Philippines arrive in Manila, the crazy, chaotic capital which, despite first impressions, is worth at least a day or two of your time. The city’s major historical attraction is the old Spanish walled city of Intramuros, while the best museums in the country can be found in nearby Rizal Park and skyscraper-smothered Makati. There are also some worthwhile day-trips from the city; top of the list is the island of Corregidor in Manila Bay, which was fought over bitterly during World War II and, with its now-silent guns and ruins, is a poignant place to soak up the history of the conflict.

Within easy striking distance of Manila – about two hours south by road – the province of Batangas features Tagaytay with its mesmerizing views over Lake Taal, the picture-perfect crater lake with Taal Volcano in the middle. Around the small coastal town of Anilao you’ll find the best scuba diving near Manila, while the adjacent agricultural province of Laguna is known for its therapeutic hot springs and luscious buko (coconut) pies.

To the north of Manila the theme parks, beaches and wreck dives of Subic Bay make a tempting break before the long bus ride to the extraordinary attractions and spell-binding mountain scenery of northern Luzon. From the mountain city of Baguio, it’s a rough but memorable trip north along winding roads to tribal communities such as Sagada, known for its hanging coffins, and Banaue, where you can trek through awe-inspiring rice-terrace countryside. Off Luzon’s northern tip are the alluring islands of Batanes, one of the country’s greatest secrets, while along Luzon’s west coast you can surf around San Fernando or explore the ravishing colonial town of Vigan, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Head south from Manila through the Bicol region and you’ll reach perhaps the best-known of Philippine volcanoes, Mayon, an almost perfect cone that towers over the city of Legaspi and is a strenuous four- or five-day climb. Around Donsol you can swim with whale sharks, and in Bulusan Volcano National Park trek through lush rainforest to waterfalls, hot springs and volcanic craters. Even further off the tourist trail, Catanduanes offers excellent surfing while Marinduque is a pastoral island backwater that only gets touristy for the annual Moriones festival, held at Easter.

For most visitors, the myriad islands and islets of the Visayas, right at the heart of the archipelago, are top of the agenda. The captivating little island of Boracay, with its pristine beach, is on almost everyone’s itinerary. If Boracay’s a little too touristy for you, try Panglao Island off Bohol, the tantalizing beaches and waters of Malapascua off the northern top of Cebu Island or tiny Apo Island near Negros, a marine reserve where the only accommodation is in rustic cottages. For trekking and climbing make for Mount Kanlaon National Park on Negros, one of the country’s finest wilderness areas. The largest city in the Visayas, Cebu City, is the arrival point for a limited number of international flights – as well as a major hub for domestic flights – making it a good alternative base to Manila. It’s friendly, affordable and has a buzzing nightlife scene, with great restaurants and live music.

If you’re looking for some serious diving (see also Diving in the Philippines), head for Puerto Galera on the northern coast of Mindoro Island. It also boasts some excellent beaches, and trekking through the jungled interior to tribal communities. There’s more world-class diving off the west coast of Mindoro at Apo Reef, although you’ll have to join a liveaboard boat to get here.

To the west of the archipelago, out in the northern Sulu Sea, is the bewitching island of Palawan, most of it still wild and unspoiled. Many visitors come for the superb scuba diving, especially on the sunken World War II wrecks around Coron Town in the Calamian Islands to the north of Palawan proper. Palawan itself is home to the seaside town of El Nido and the Bacuit archipelago, hundreds of gem-like limestone islands with sugar-white beaches and lagoons. From Puerto Princesa, Palawan’s likeable capital, strike out for the laidback beach town of Port Barton or the Underground River, a entrancing cavern system only accessible by boat.

In the far south, the large island of Mindanao has long been the Muslim heartland of the Philippines, with enticing destinations ranging from the surf beaches and secret lagoons of Siargao Island, to the pristine waters of the Enchanted River and tribal homelands of the T’boli people around Lake Sebu in the south. Off the island’s northern coast, one of the area’s major attractions is the wonderfully friendly and scenic island of Camiguin. Mindanao’s biggest city is durian-capital Davao, from where you can head inland to Mount Apo, the tallest mountain in the archipelago and a tough ascent even for experienced climbers. Note that much of western Mindanao, including the Sulu archipelago, is dangerous to visit because of continuing Muslim separatist unrest.

Outdoor activities in the Philippines

There are some superb wilderness areas in the Philippines and dozens of volcanoes and mountains to be climbed, from the tallest in the country, Mount Apo (2954m), to more manageable peaks close to Manila in Batangas and Rizal provinces, some of which can be tackled in a day-trip. The country also offers opportunities for caving, whitewater rafting, surfing and sailing. When it comes to sport, basketball and boxing are among the biggest passions in the Philippines.

But for a sizeable proportion of the tourists who visit the Philippines every year, the main attraction is the scuba diving. The abundance of exceptional dive sites and the high standard of diving instruction available have made the archipelago one of the world’s foremost diving destinations.

Scuba diving

Diving is one of the most popular activities in the Philippines and one of the best dive sites in the world. It’s possible year-round here, with surface water temperatures in the 25–28°C range, the warmest conditions being from February to June. On deeper dives temperatures can drop to 22°C due to the upwelling of deeper, cooler water, so a wet suit is essential. During the typhoon season from June to November, be prepared for your plans to be disrupted if a major storm hits and dive boats are unable to venture out. Visibility depends on water temperature, the strength of the current and wind direction, but generally lies in 10–30m range, as good as anywhere in the world. Popular locations include the coast around Palawan, the wrecks around Coron Town, Puerto Galera, Padre Burgos, Anilao and the more remote but scintillating reefs at Tubbataha and Apo.

Hiking and climbing

The Philippines offer plenty of opportunities to explore pristine wilderness areas. Luzon, for example, has the Sierra Madre and the Balbalasang-Balbalan National Park in Kalinga, both rarely visited by tourists and offering exhilarating trekking through dense rainforest and across dizzying peaks. In Bicol there are some terrific volcano climbs (Mount Mayon and Mount Isarog, for instance), while Mindoro, Palawan and the Visayas between them have dozens of national parks, heritage areas, wildlife sanctuaries and volcanoes. Mount Kanlaon, an active volcano in Negros, is one of the country’s more risky climbs, while the nearby Northern Negros Forest Reserve is a raw, mesmerizing landscape of peaks, waterfalls and fumaroles, typical of wilderness areas throughout the archipelago.

The country actually has more than sixty national parks and protected areas, but because funds for their management are scarce, you won’t find the kind of infrastructure that exists in national parks in the West. While the most popular climbs – Mount Apo in Mindanao and Mount Pulag in Mountain province, for example – have trails that are relatively easy to find and follow, it’s important to realize that trails are generally poorly maintained and hardly marked, if they’re marked at all. There are seldom more than a few badly paid wardens or rangers responsible for huge tracts of land. Where accommodation exists, it will be extremely basic. Some national parks have administrative buildings where you might be able to get a bed in a dorm for the night, or where you can roll out a mattress or sleeping bag on the floor. They may also have basic cooking facilities, but the closest you’ll get to a shower is filling a bucket and washing outside. Deep within park territory, the best you can hope for is a wooden shack to shelter in for the night.

This lack of facilities means you’ll need to hire a reliable guide. Often, the place to make contact with guides is the municipal hall in the barangay or town closest to the trailhead. Fees range from P800–1500 per day depending where you are, plus food and water, which you’ll have to bring with you as it’s unlikely you’ll come across anywhere to buy anything once you’re on the trail.

There are some outdoor shops in big cities – mainly Manila – where you can buy a basic frame-tent for P3000 and a sleeping bag for P1500. Other essentials such as cooking equipment, lanterns and backpacks are also available, and you may be able to rent some items, though the range of gear on offer is limited even in the best shops.


It’s hardly surprising that caving – spelunking – is a growth industry, as there are huge caves to explore throughout the country. The largest cave systems are in northern Luzon – in Sagada and in Cagayan province near Tuguegarao, where the Peñablanca Protected Area has three hundred caves, many deep, dangerous and not yet fully explored. The other exciting caving area is the Sohoton Natural Bridge National Park in Samar.

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It’s hardly surprising that caving – spelunking – is a growth industry, as there are huge caves to explore throughout the country. The largest cave systems are in northern Luzon – in Sagada and in Cagayan province near Tuguegarao, where the Peñablanca Protected Area has three hundred caves, many deep, dangerous and not yet fully explored. The other exciting caving area is the Sohoton Natural Bridge National Park in Samar.


Whitewater rafting

Whitewater rafting is becoming more popular in the Philippines, notably along the Cagayan River and Chico River in northern Luzon and Cagayan de Oro River in Mindanao. Zip lines have mushroomed all over the islands, but some are much tamer than others – some of the best are near Cagayan de Oro and Davao. You can also take a thrilling ride in a microlight near Cagayan de Oro.


Surfing is also becoming popular, with good waves in eastern Bicol, Catanduanes, eastern Mindanao (especially Siargao Island and Tandag), and around San Fernando in La Union. There are also any number of hard-to-reach areas in the archipelago that are visited only by a handful of die-hard surfers, such as Baler in northern Luzon, or around Borongan in eastern Samar.

Kite Surfing

Surfing is also becoming popular, with good waves in eastern Bicol, Catanduanes, eastern Mindanao (especially Siargao Island and Tandag), and around San Fernando in La Union. There are also any number of hard-to-reach areas in the archipelago that are visited only by a handful of die-hard surfers, such as Baler in northern Luzon, or around Borongan in eastern Samar.


The Filipinos embraced basketball as they did everything else American, from pizza to popcorn. Every barrio and town has a basketball court, even if all it consists of are a couple of makeshift baskets nailed to wooden poles in the church plaza. The major league – the equivalent of the NBA – is the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA;, founded in 1975. Ten teams compete for honours, all of them sponsored by a major corporation and taking their sponsors’ name. You might find yourself watching Meralco Bolts play Powerade Tigers, or San Miguel Beermen take on Talk ’N Text Tropang Texters. PBA games are all played in Manila for details.

The San Miguel Beermen is the most successful team, while the Barangay Ginebra Kings is the most popular. The players are household names to most Filipinos; James Yap (with the Derby Ace Llamados), Jayjay Helterbrand (Barangay Ginebra Kings), Kelly Williams (Talk ’N Text), Willie Miller (Barangay Ginebra Kings) and Dondon Hontiveros (San Miguel Beermen) command huge attention.


Boxing has been big business in the Philippines since the Americans introduced the sport in the early twentieth century. In recent years, one name stands out in particular: Manny “the Pacman” Pacquiao, the poor boy from Mindanao who became world champion. Though you are unlikely to see the great man himself, fights are held almost every week, with major venues in Caloocan (Manila), Cebu City, Mandaluyong (Manila), Tagaytay City, Victoria (Negros) and Taytay in the Luzon province of Rizal. Tickets are cheap and often sell out; whenever there’s a bout of any significance Filipinos gather around every available television set. You can check schedules for fights at

In addition to Manny Pacquiao, at the time of writing the Philippines could boast another four world champions: Nonito “The Filipino Flash” Donaire, Gerry Peñalosa, Donnie “Ahas” Nietes and Brian “Hawaiian Punch” Viloria.


Cockfighting is the Filipino passion few Westerners get to see or understand, for obvious reasons. It’s a brutal blood sport where fighting cocks literally peck and jab each other to death as onlookers make bets on the outcome. The fight begins when the two roosters are presented to each other in the pit. Both have a razor-sharp curved blade three inches long strapped to their leg. The fight is over in a burst of feathers in no more than a few minutes, when one rooster is too bloodied and wounded, or simply too dead, to peck back at its opponent when provoked. To make the evening last, most major cockfights feature seven contests. Anyone who likes animals should definitely stay well away.

If you do attend a cockfight (sabong in Tagalog), you’ll be experiencing Filipino culture at its rawest – at the very least it might make you think again about how much “American influence” dominates the culture. It’s best to start at one of the major cockpits in Manila, or ask your hotel for the nearest place to see one. Entrance fees are minimal, but you’ll rarely see women attending – the cockpit is the exclusive preserve of men, who see it as an egalitarian refuge from the world’s woes, a place where class differences are temporarily put to one side and everyone wears flip-flops and vests. In Manila foreign females should be OK at the main venues, but in the provinces you’ll probably feel more comfortable with a male companion.












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