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The Philippines consist of 7,107 separate islands. Set off now and you might be able to visit every single one before the next millennium. Alternatively, our insider’s guide will highlight a more manageable selection of must-sees.
Intramuros Citadel, Manila
First thing’s first, Manila is misunderstood. A metropolis of sky rises, traffic and tumbling shanty towns, look beyond the ugly and you’ll discover undeniable beauty in unexpected places. Places like Intramuros; a former Spanish-built city and Manila’s oldest district. A 64-hectare citadel comprising stone palaces, churches, monasteries, small museums and rickety old houses, it’s a little nugget of colonial Spain in the heart of the Philippine capital. Once ruled by militants and almost destroyed by the Second World War, its walls speak of a painful history but its beauty shouts loudest.
HOT tip: Take a guided bambike tour through Intramuros. These locally made bikes are hand built from dried bamboo. Leave early to avoid the midday heat and stop mid-morning for ensaymada (savory brioche) and Spanish hot chocolate.
Avid time travellers will want to jump on the 8am ferry from Manila's terminal at CCP Complex and take a trip back in time to Corregidor Island. Green, lush and only one hour and 15 minutes from Manila, it’s also home to barracks, gun emplacements and memorials to those who lost their lives fighting Japanese forces in WWII. Many of the landmarks, including Malinta Tunnel, which served as a supply war depot, hospital and headquarters, have never been renovated; standing as they always have, and as a stark reminder of a troublesome past.
HOT tip: The last ferry to depart Corregidor leaves mid afternoon. Complement a day of history at Binondo, a famed district of Manila and home to the world’s oldest Chinatown.
Palawan's Puerto Princesa Underground River
Reputedly the longest underground river in the world, Palawan's Puerto Princesa Underground River winds for 8.2km underneath extensive mountain range before empting out into the South China Sea. Visitors can access 2km of this eerie waterway on-board a streamlined fiberglass boat with a maximum of 12 passengers. Weaving between stalactites and stalagmites, you’ll traverse damp chambers and pass water-sculptured rock formations, as well as numerous swiftlets and cave bats, including extensive deposits of their earthly cave poop. Well, it is one of the main reasons you’re wearing a helmet!
HOT tip: Travel 90 minutes by car from downtown Puerto Princesa to Sabang and from there you can take a short ferry ride to the underground river.
Bohol’s chocolate hills
Bohol’s chocolate hills and Philippine’s premier tourist attraction might be a busy one, but it'll blow your retinas out of their head sockets. Boasting an assortment of 1,776 perfectly formed bulbous hills, it’s little wonder the Teletubbies don’t emerge from these bumpy Bohol hummocks. In winter they’re green, but come summer, when the dry season parches them dry, the grass turns brown and they resemble giant chocolate truffles. There are many theories surrounding the origin of Bohol's limestone hills but they continue to baffle both scientists and admirers alike.
HOT tip: Located in the Visayas, the Chocolate Hills are two hours from Cebu. There are also a handful of restaurants, souvenir shops and the “Chocolate Hills Resort” hotel in the region.
Caramoan Island Hopping
With a global population of 7.4 billion people, the idea of a deserted, tourist-free beach (and an idyllic one at that) is enough to make you grab your belly and chortle. And yet, in the Philippines, the perfect platinum-white beach is always on the horizon. In particular, the beaches that define the Caramoan Islands are blissfully isolated. Just one hour and 45 minutes by boat from Palawan’s Sabang Port, ten astoundingly perfect islands glisten in the ocean. With sugar-fine sand and emerald water tickled by forest-clad cliffs, they are the quintessential Robin Crusoe hangout. From snorkelling to diving, island hopping and rock climbing, escapism abounds in the Caramoans.
HOT tip: One of our favourite islands in the Caramoan archipelago is Matukad Island. Void of hoards, the sand is golden, the ocean is crystal clear and if you climb the limestone rocks, you’ll discover Utopian views you’d sell your soul for.
Mt Apo Hiking in Davao
At 2,954 metres, Mt Apo is the highest mountain in the Philippines, so if you have thighs of steel and a passion for tramping, you can spend two to three days hiking to its summit. The Kidapawan-Magpet trail is regarded as the easiest trek, passing through thick forest, jungle terrain and the swampy yet picturesque shores of Lake Venado. Push for a sunrise summit and you’ll be rewarded with views you’ll want to lock into your memory forever. For those with aching limbs, the Mainit Hot Springs – with supposed medicinal powers – are a reward you’ll have definitely earned. You’ve just climbed a potentially active volcano – how’s that for life affirming?
HOT tip: Pack plenty of water, but also stock up on a bottle of the local sweet tasting brandy. Nights drop cold on the way up Mt Apo. You know what to do.
Mactan Island Diving
The diving opportunities off Mactan Island read like an A-Z diving checklist. Drop offs, deep walls, slopes, mounts, plateaus, seagrass beds, caves, caverns, wrecks – we’d go on, but this guide has a word count. With various diving sites all within a 45 minute drive of the airport, Mactan’s easy accessibility, coupled with numerous operators facilitating every level of expertise, make it an ideal diving destination. Whilst shore-based diving is readily available, we highly recommend the Talima Dive Site, with its shipwreck and wall that drops off more than 100 metres, as well as Nalusuan Island Sanctuary, which boasts up to 40 metres of fish-abundant visibility.
HOT tip: Certain dive spots are available for summer diving only - check before you wiggle into your wet suit.
Tarsier Sanctuary in Bohol
Whether you think they’re cute, creepy or just plain psychotic-looking (The Gremlins – just saying) tarsiers are a big part of Bohol’s wildlife. It’s not that they’re ugly per se, it’s just that one look at those gogglys and huge ears and you can’t help but feel most other animals fared better than the tarsier. Admittedly they’re fascinating to look at, which you will have ample opportunity to do at Bohol’s Tarsier Sanctuary in Corella. Boasting 10 hectares of natural outdoor space, the tarsiers are all wild, meaning they can come and go as they please. Visitors only access one hectare of the total sanctuary, which is not only plentiful, it also promotes a more peaceful habitat for the Gremlins. Sorry, tarsiers, we definitely meant tarsiers.
HOT tip: Don’t get tarsiers wet. Or feed them after midnight.
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