Although it’s not part of the typical banana pancake backpacker trail of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the Philippines is an amazing country that absolutely deserves to be on every traveler’s bucket list. However, with over 7000 islands offering endless opportunities to suit just about everyone, it’s a bit hard to know where to start when you want to plan a trip to this still-exotic Southeast Asian destination.
I spent just over two weeks traveling solo through this epic place, and while this wasn’t nearly enough time to fully explore such a diverse country, I did manage to have an amazing trip packed with adventure. I found the Filipinos to be some of the friendliest locals I’ve met, the country easy to navigate, the natural world truly spectacular, and the cost of travel to be very budget-friendly. Keep reading to check out my itinerary, travel highlights, and top recommendations!
Coron, palawan (5 nights)
Get there: I caught a flight from Manila to Busuanga airport ($72 with Cebu Pacific), then a (very cheap) tricycle ride into the town of Coron. It's also possible to make the trip via ferry.
Where to stay: I stayed in an apartment above Corto Divers, who I dived with. I had a huge private bedroom in a multi-room apartment with shared bathroom, kitchen, and common areas. It was under $20 per night, which was a great deal. I used the kitchen to cook some of my own meals, which also saved money. If you want more luxury, Corto Divers also owns Hotel Corto del Mar, which is lush... but since I stayed at the dive shop apartment I got to use the hotel pool and facilities for free...#win!
What to do: Coron itself is a pretty basic little town with a decent selection of hotels and restaurants, but it's not much of a destination in itself. Instead, I used this as my home base as I went on adventurous day trips. Coron is known for it's many shipwrecks, and I was excited to get in a few wreck dives. I went out for a day with Corto Divers, doing 2 epic WWII wreck dives and also diving Barracuda Lake, which is a mix of fresh and salt water, and has huge temperature thermoclines ranging from 28-39C (I also did get to see a great barracuda in the lake, which was lucky)! I highly recommend Corto Divers; they were professional, helpful, friendly and arranged for me to have a private guide (at no additional cost) since I was a more experienced diver than the other customers. It was only $83 for three dives, which was a great price for these excellent dives!
If diving isn't your thing, snorkelling is your next best bet. I spent two days island-hopping to Twin Lagoon, Kayangan lake, and other small islands with beautiful coral reefs and sandy beaches. The tours are easy to arrange in person at any of the many travel agents in town, and they are quite cheap... I paid a total of about $85 for two full days of island hopping and snorkelling. One of these days did include a trip to the Calauit Wildlife Safari park, which is marketed as a sanctuary, and which was one of my main reasons for going to Coron. However, it was pretty awful, and I highly recommend avoiding this place. I initially had fun feeding giraffes and snapping photos of zebras, all who were free to roam in open spaces (the park is over 9000 acres, i.e. huge), but I was later taken to another part of the park, where various African animal species were kept in tiny, filthy cages with no access to food or water. Tourists were encouraged to hold baby crocodiles, who were clearly in distress, and the visitors were also allowed to feed plastic wrapped junk food to monkeys (I can't believe I just wrote that...). I had done my research beforehand, of course, but didn't come across anything online about this, and to say I was disappointed with myself for accidentally supporting this non-sanctuary is a massive understatement.
On a more positive note, I went for a beautiful sunset hike up Mt Tapyas. It's a short, easy (though uphill) hike, taking only about 30-40 minutes. It's easily accessible by foot, from town, and a popular activity for both locals and tourists. Bring some water and a camera then enjoy stunning views as the sun descends over the surrounding islands.
Where to Eat: I have to admit, the food in the Philippines isn't exactly my favourite, especially since living in Thailand has me spoilt with an endless supply of creamy curries and spicy salads. Still, I managed to eat really well in the Philippines. I actually had one of the best pizzas of my life at Altrove Coron, and since I pigged out on the entire pizza I was basically full for the entire next day. I also loved the gelato at Pedro's Gelato (mint chip yaaaaasssss!) and every morning went to Coffee Kong for good, strong coffee, which makes up approximately 43% of my blood, and which is therefore a vital necessity. Lunch was always included in the day trips, and typically featured fresh fish, maybe some veggies, lots of rice, and fruit. Since I had a kitchen at my accommodation I also made some simple meals of canned tuna with eggplant or carrot if I could find some from the little roadside stalls.
Bohol (5 nights)
Get there: From Busuanga airport, I flew to Tagbilaran, which is Bohol's airport, then caught another cheap tuk-tuk to my accommodation. The flight was with Philippine Airlines, and connected via Manila... it was also (wait for it)... a whopping $225!! Yes, it was more than the combined cost of my inbound + outbound international flights... but, it was by far the most efficient way to get to Bohol, and PAL is a boutique airline; checked baggage is included in the price, and they gave me delicious brownies to snack on during both of my flights, so it was money well spent, as far as I'm concerned.
Where to stay: Thanks to the recommendations of my friend Alex in Wanderland, I knew the best place to stay in Bohol was the Bohol Bee Farm. I absolutely adored the 5 nights I spent at this hotel/ organic farm/ paradise, and it was absolutely worth the $60/night (including breakfast) price tag. I had another massive room, with herb gardens out front, pools nearby, friendly kittens wandering around, and all-day access to the incredible local ice-cream made on-site. I was slightly disappointed to learn that there aren't actual beehives at the farm anymore; they've been moved to another location to keep the bees away from any pesticide contamination from surrounding farms. The bee farm is pretty massive; tour groups come in daily, although they are restricted from accessing the areas with hotel rooms, so they're not a bother, and there's a great little souvenir store that sells homemade baked goods (carrot muffins OMG!), honey-infused peanut butter, local coffee, homemade body products, chocolate, and other local treats.
What to do: One of the best decisions I made in the Philippines was to rent a motorcycle to explore the relatively large island of Bohol. I found this place before my trip, and the owner met me at the bee farm upon my arrival with a shiny new Yamaha YBR125 (and helmet), which only cost me $70 for 5 days!
I used the bike to take myself on a day trip to explore some of the local attractions, including the infamous Chocolate Hills, the Tarsier Sanctuary, the manmade mahogany forest, and the Bohol Habitat Conservation Centre. All of these were worth a visit, and came with super cheap price tags (a couple of dollars each, max). To be honest, riding the motorcycle was my favourite part of checking out these sights, though. Most people access them via big group tour buses, overcrowding each site as they arrive. I set out early in the morning with some water and snacks, and was able to take my time cruising from one spot to the next, avoiding the hoards of tourists and getting the attractions mostly all to myself. The roads were very nice to drive on, both because they were in great condition, and because, unlike in other SE Asian countries (not to mention any names...), the other drivers are courteous and follow road rules. I did attract a fair amount of attention; the Filipinos were clearly not used to seeing a foreign woman with lots of tattoos driving a big motorcycle on her own, but the attention came in the form of curiosity and excitement, no bad vibes at all!
Bohol's got some great diving, too, so I spent a day with Alona Bohol Diver's Club, located on Panglao Island, a 20 minute bike ride from the bee farm. I paid less than $75 for three dives at nearby Balicasag island, which had colourful reefs and loads of aquatic life, including a huge green turtle. The dive shop is located on Alona beach, which is where most visitors to Bohol stay. I wandered around the area a bit, but was very glad I was staying at the bee farm; Alona is a typical tourist beach, crammed with bars, restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops. It's a good place to stay if you want to be in the middle of the action, but I prefer to chill somewhere more secluded.
On another day I took my bike for a 90 minute road trip to Loboc, to join SUP Tours Philippines for a full day adventure combining SUP and mountain biking (costing only about $53). This ended up being one of my favourite days in the Philippines! I was the only person booked in that day, so my guide, Chris, and I set out with our paddle boards and traveled down the Loboc River, taking in the beautiful scenery, and stopping occasionally for a swim and a chat with some of his friends. He took me to a little secret spot and we left our boards on shore, then hiked a short way to the top of a little waterfall and took turns jumping in to the river below... so fun! After a morning of paddle boarding, we returned to the SUP Tours headquarters and I was fed a fresh, massive feast, before Chris and I traded in our paddle boards for mountain bikes and set out through the forests and through little villages, stopping to check out a few sights along the way, before making it to the sea for a quick swim, then cycling back to our starting point. I had a great time with SUP Tours Philippines and definitely recommend checking them out! They've also got bungalows to stay in if you prefer forest to beaches, and offer a variety of tours and retreats (including SUP yoga)!
Where to Eat: The bee farm, obviously! After sort of struggling with the food scene in Coron, I was beyond delighted to have fresh, organic food available at the bee farm's restaurant, Buzz Cafe, and ate here the whole time I was in Bohol. There's a serious honey theme going on... breakfasts included waffles with honey and back bacon with chili infused honey, the salads made with veggies from the garden were topped with honey vinaigrette, and the bread brought out as an appetizer came with different types of honey spreads. The ice cream made at the bee farm was the best I've ever had, and I sampled as many flavours as I could (including... you guessed it... honey!)
Malapascua island (4 nights)
Get there: Malapascua is an isolated island, so getting there is part of the fun! The dive resorts are able to arrange private transfer, with a price tag of about $100-$150. I suppose if you're going in a group and can split the cost, it's worth it, but I used public transportation and it was easy, and I think it only cost something like $7 (I could be a bit off, but not by much). From Bohol, I took an early morning tuk tuk to the pier, where I caught the ferry to Cebu. Then I hired a taxi to drive me a short way to the Northern Bus Terminal, where I found a bus heading north to Maya (the Ceres bus line is the best... just ask someone for help if you're unsure). The bus takes a good few hours but was comfortable... just bring snacks. The bus' final stop is the Maya port, so I got off there, to catch a boat to Malapascua. I had heard that you have to wait for the boats to be full before they'll go, which can mean hanging around for quite a while, but fortunately there was already a little crowd of people waiting to go, so I hopped on the long tail boat and we headed to Malapascua. It was low tide so partway through we crossed over into a smaller boat, then had to wade through a bit of water to get to shore. Then I just walked to my hotel along the beach, though I could have hired a motorbike taxi for less than a dollar... The journey took the majority of the day but was smooth, and again, the Filipinos were all happy to help anytime I had a question.
Where to stay: After emailing a few dive resorts I settled on Evolution Dive Resort as my home base on Malapascua. I booked my room via Agoda, as the price was considerably cheaper than booking with the resort directly. It still wasn't cheap, at about $75 per night, but it was worth it for convenience and comfort. Evolution's bungalows are new, clean, and spacious, and the whole resort strives to be as environmentally responsible as possible, which I appreciate.
What to do: Malapascua is a diving island... and the main draw here is the opportunity to dive with endangered Thresher sharks; Malapascua is the only place in the world where you can dive with thresher sharks every day! I adore sharks, and knew I couldn't come to the Philippines without making the trip to see these unique beauties underwater. Diving with threshers is much easier if, like me, you're a morning person, as there's a 4:30am wakeup call to be on the boat and then in the water for sunrise, since it's in the early morning hours that the sharks are most active as they come to Monad Shoal's cleaning stations on the reef. The encounter is totally natural, as the sharks aren't baited or fed, and divers are only allowed passive interaction at a distance; we stay behind ropes to avoid spooking these timid creatures. Strobes are not allowed, so it's tricky to get great photos, especially during the early morning hours, because of low light, but it's also nice to enjoy the time spent with them without staring through a lens. I had a beautiful dive with these gorgeous fish, and was back at the resort in time for breakfast!
The next day I did another two dives, this time at Gato Island, with large white tip reef sharks, and lots of macro life. Again, I didn't have a good underwater photo setup with me, but loved my dives. Evolution was a great choice, with a knowledgeable, professional dive team.
Apart from diving, there's not much to to on Malapascua aside from chilling on the beach, or exploring the island on foot a bit. I spent a lot of time working on my tan, enjoying the solitude and quiet of this little piece of paradise.
What to eat: Given how isolated Malapasuca is, and since great food isn't exactly abundant in the Philippines in general, I was prepared to live off instant oats and protein powder during my stay on this little island. However, I ended up having some incredible meals on Malapascua. My first meal here was at The Craic House, which is Evolution's restaurant, and it was so good I just kept eating there the rest of the time! The menu was varied, and everything was so delicious, from fresh feta salads to jalapeño tuna burgers. The service was also exemplary, with each member of staff taking the time to get to know my name and making sure I had everything I needed at all times. The beachfront location and excellent music didn't hurt, either.
cebu (1 night)
I had a morning flight from Cebu to Kuala Lumpur, so I had to spend a night in Cebu city. I left Malapasuca in the morning to complete the reverse journey back to Cebu (minus the ferry to Bohol, of course), and once back at the Northern Bus Terminal I got a taxi to the Bayfront Hotel Cebu. The hotel staff were very friendly, room was clean and modern, and the hotel facilities were great too - I went to the gym for a good sweaty session, then walked across the street to a big mall where I went to the cinema and then enjoyed eating way too much at a buffet restaurant with a DIY frozen yogurt station, which I have a strange obsession with. The next morning the hotel's shuttle service took me to the airport, sending me off with a packed breakfast since I left before the included buffet breakfast started (probably for the best, to be honest).
I went to the Philippines not really knowing what to expect, and found nothing but friendly people, good vibes, and great adventures! I had an amazing time, and absolutely recommend planning a visit of your own!
Is the Philippines on your travel wish-list? Do you have any tips to share?
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