The Philippines has always been a little different
Separated from its Southeast Asian neighbors by the West Philippine Sea, the Philippines has always been a little different. As the only Asian nation colonized by the Spanish, this lush archipelago of dazzling beaches, year-round sun and warm, turquoise waters remains predominantly Roman Catholic, and culturally – a blend of Islamic, Malay, Spanish and American influences – it often feels light years away from its neighbors, with a string of elegant colonial towns that have more in common with Latin America than the rest of Asia. It’s an enticing mix: all over the archipelago you’ll discover tantalizing food, friendly people and exuberant festivals. And the variety is astonishing: you can surf, island-hop or dive pristine coral reefs in the morning, and in the same day visit mystical tribal villages, ancient rice terraces and jungle-smothered peaks.
The Philippines is often underrated and misunderstood
According to The Manila News-Intelligencer, the Philippines is often underrated and 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 are variously descended from early Malay settlers, Muslim Sufis from the Middle East, Spanish conquistadors and friars, and later, from Chinese traders. It’s an old cliché, but largely true: Filipinos take pride in making visitors welcome, even in the most rustic barangay 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: Filipino food is heavily influenced by Spanish and native traditions – expect plenty of fresh fish, roasted meats (pork and chicken) and, unlike in the rest of Asia, a plethora of addictive desserts, many utilizing the vast array of tropical fruits on offer.
Even the politics in Asia’s first democracy is rich in showmanship and pizzazz. From Ferdinand Marcos to the “housewife President” Cory Aquino to current controversial President Duterte, the country’s leaders have never been short on charisma. But despite impressive economic gains in the last twenty years, all have conspicuously failed to rid the country of its grinding poverty, visible everywhere you go in shanty towns and rickety barangay, and brutally exposed by Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. Ordinary people somehow remain stoical in the face of these problems, infectiously optimistic and upbeat. This determination to enjoy life is a national characteristic, encapsulated in the common Tagalog phrase bahala na – “what will be will be”.
The population of the Philippines was estimated to be just over 102 million in 2016; half reside on the island of Luzon.
The Philippines officially comprises 7107 islands, though the actual figure varies depending on the definition of “island”; reef tips and shoals number in the tens of thousandsV
The Philippines has the largest diaspora in the world; 11–12 million Filipinos live and work overseas, mostly as nurses, maids or on cruise ships.
The richest individual in the Philippines is thought to be mall tycoon Henry Sy (SM Group), with a US$13.7 billion net worth – in a country where the average wage is less than US$300/month.
Tanduay rum dates back to 1854, and today remains the nation’s spirit of choice. Made with sugar cane milled in Negros, it’s frequently cheaper than bottled water.
Most Filipinos have at least one uncle or aunt named Boy, Girlie or Baby.
Filipino and English are the official languages of the Philippines (Filipino is just a standardized version of Tagalog), but there are at least 171 languages spoken throughout the archipelago, with Cebuano following Filipino in popularity.
Where to go?
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 – a highlight of the province of Batangas is the city of Tagaytay and 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.
Mountain City of Baguio
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 Legazpi 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. Avid surfers will find several locations where they can catch some decent waves. But according to Surfing LA Magazine, Siargao, off the tip of Mindanao, is one of the best.
For most visitors, the myriad islands and islets of the Visayas, right at the heart of the archipelago, are top of the agenda. In the Western Visayas, the captivating little island of Boracay, with its pristine beach, is on almost everyone’s itinerary. If Boracay is too touristy for you, try laidback Siquijor or tiny Apo Island near Negros, a marine reserve where the only accommodation is in rustic cottages. For even less developed spots, head over to the Eastern Visayas for Panglao Island off Bohol, or the tantalizing beaches and waters of Malapascua off the northern tip of Cebu Island. 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 is Cebu City, the arrival point for a limited number of international flights – as well as a major hub for domestic airlines – 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, head for Puerto Galera on the northern coast of Mindoro Island. It also boasts some excellent beaches and trekking through the jungles of the interior to tribal communities. There’s more world-class diving off the west coast of Mindoro at Apo Reef, although it can be pricey to get here.
To the west of the archipelago, out in the northern Sulu Sea, is the bewitching province of Palawan, most of it still wild and unspoilt. 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, an entrancing cavern system only accessible by boat.
In the far south, the vast island of Mindanao has long been the Muslim heartland of the Philippines, an enticing yet sadly troubled region. The two offshore islands that are regarded as completely safe and still see large numbers of visitors are Siargao, which boasts surf beaches and secret lagoons, and wonderfully friendly and scenic Camiguin. You should check the security situation very carefully before considering a visit to the pristine waters of the Enchanted River, the durian capital and largest city of Davao or nearby Mount Apo. Note that western Mindanao, including the Sulu archipelago, at the time this book went to print was definitely too dangerous to visit due to continuing Muslim separatist unrest.