Updated: May 18, 2020
With over 7,000 islands to choose from, Philippines is one of the best holiday destinations!
Philippines is one of those places where you cannot get bored. There are so many different islands, so many activities and ways of exploring and you would probably need at least few months to explore the most important bits. And everything is so cheap here!
As you have probably noticed, the appearance of some of the islands is very similar to Thailand and maybe Vietnam. This is due to the fact that this whole area was once part of the same continent. The difference is that here is a bit less touristy and the empty places are more accessible.
Being such a complex destination, it suits all kind of preferences: having fun with the friends, relaxing with your family, island hopping, diving, kite surfing, scooter exploring, trekking, jungle exploring and even honeymoon.
We did a bit of research but obviously we didn`t have time to go everywhere so we limited our choices to Cebu and Palawan, which are among the most popular ones.
But the wild Balabac, the greeny Bohol, Leyte, Coron and so many others are craving to be explored.
Before going further, we have to say: if you are looking for some honeymoony white sand and turquoise water, this might not be the right place. Balabac might have something like it, but we can only tell from pictures.
However, there are plenty of accommodation choices: from luxurious resorts to accessible hostels and the services are pretty cheap and decent everywhere.
So let`s get started!
The gateway to the Philippines is obviously Manila. There are so many airlines flying there are because is such a popular destination, usually the flight tickets are quite acceptable and you often get discounts.
Once in Manila, the best way is to book inter-island domestic flights with Cebu Pacific or Air Asia which are cheap and go many times a day. Most of the flights are fairly short: 40 mins 80 mins maximum.
Manila is very well connected to pretty much everything but if you are flying in between other islands just check the airline schedule prior to make any arrangements. Some islands are better connected into then out of and so on.
For example, in our case it was better to go from Manila to Cebu and then from Cebu to Palawan because the service from Palawan to Cebu was less regular and most of the times was going via Manila anyway.
In what concerns the visa, usually is visa is on arrival or no visa at all depending on the nationality. However, be careful, as most of nationalities require passport validity of at least 6 months in order to enter the country!
We used Booking.com for all our accommodation and we were happy with it. Anyway, we are more into exploring than into great hotels so doesn`t matter a lot to us.
We did the mistake to book everything last minute, sometimes even 2 days in advance so our options were a bit limited as a lot of nice places were booked. So, our advice is, book your hotel at least 2 weeks in advance and you will be ok! ☺
However, our hotels were:
All of them were more or less ok and pretty good value for money less La Casa Teresa which we didn`t really like.
Don`t expect very high standards but the cheap prices make up for the rest. Generally, the breakfast is not the most tasty or healthy in the world but most of the places have decent stuff to offer. Rice with beef or fish is the standard Filipino breakfast but eggs and fruits are also available everywhere.
Which island to choose and why?
With so many options to choose from, probably anyone who is thinking to go to the Philippines will have the same dilemma: which island to choose.
We have been to only three of them: Luzon, Cebu and Palawan but after our experience over there we might have some ideas about the other islands as well. ☺
Luzon is the biggest island of all and is the host of the capital city, Manila. Here is nice to have a glimpse of the chaotic Manila, the famous rice terraces, the volcanoes and trekking on the volcanoes, the tropical forest and nature in general. I wouldn`t recommend Luzon in particular but if you have few days extra or some transit in Manila would be nice a day or two.
Palawan is quite a big area. El Nido and Coron are virtually the same, with the exception that El Nido is more touristy than Coron. The scenery is pretty much the same but if you are into more touristic places and parties choose El Nido and if you are more into wild places and nature choose Coron. As simple as that!
Balabac is also part of Palawan archipelago and is its Southernmost province. Is it more wild, harder to access and is famous for its turquoise water and the white sand of its archipelago of virgin islands. Unless you have a lot of time, probably you`ll need to choose in between Balabac and El Nido as they go in totally opposite directions, both having access from Puerto Princesa.
Cebu is more authentic and relaxed, with a lot of local villages and not as many tourists. Cebu is famous for its waterfalls, sardines run and whale sharks. However, while the waterfalls and snorkeling with the sardines can be fun, we DON`T RECOMMEND supporting the whale sharks business in Oslob as this is just increasing animal exploitation, endangering their habitat and decreasing animal welfare. So, before going considering going on a tour to swim with the whale sharks, please consider the impact of your actions first. You can read more about this here.
Other two popular islands featuring blue water close to Cebu are Malapascua in the North East and Sumilon on South West. You can do day trips as well, depending on your location in Cebu.
Bohol is just next to Cebu and you can visit both of them in the same trip.There are day trips to Bohol from Cebu but you could also stay there for few days. Bohol is known for coral reefs and unusual geological formations, notably the Chocolate Hills.
Boracay is probably the most popular and touristy island in the Philippines. It can be a nice destination for few days mostly if you`re into kite surfing or some other water sports. If you came just for the beach, the chances are you`ll start to get bored quite fast, as the island is super tiny.
Along the west coast, White Beach is backed by palm trees, bars and restaurants. On the east coast, strong winds make Bulabog Beach a hub for water sports.
There is obviously a lot of information that is missing and more information to be added about the rest of the islands as well but we would end up having a book instead of an article! ☺
So this is just a quick guide to have a better idea of what to research further.
When to go
The most popular time to go is during the dry season, which is in between November and April, when the country is fully accessible. The higher temperatures are during March and April and the cooler months are December to February. The wet season falls between May and October, but the rain isn’t constant and rarely impacts on travel plans. The shoulder months of May and November can represent good value for money – you’ll miss the crowds, the weather’s still pleasant and flights will be cheaper than during the high season. The weather can be unpredictable in the Philippines, and typhoons can sometimes occur as early as August or as late as January.
Cebu was our first stop in the Philippines and we stayed there for 5 nights. The first night was the night of our arrival and the last night was the night before our departure to Puerto Princesa so we had to spend them in Cebu City.
For the rest we went to Moalboal, a chill area on the Northern side of the island where we spent 3 nights.
In Moalboal there are 2 main beaches: Panagsama beach and White Beach. Panagsama is the place where you can find everything ( restaurants, shops, tourist agencies, scooter rental etc ) so it would probably be a good idea to stay around it. Panagsama beach itself is actually very small and we personally didn`t like it. White beach is the actual beach, which is more like a proper beach but still is not amazing.
Anyway, we realized that despite the fact that is an island, Cebu is not really famous for its beaches but the small islands around it can promise more.
We rented a motorbike from Panangsama and went to the famous Kawasan falls and to explore the surroundings. The falls are indeed beautiful but the huge amount of tourists around tends to make you feel less excited.
The second day we booked a day trip to Pescador island and snorkeling with the sardines. We were expecting to go further away but Pescador island is actually 15 mins by boat from Panangsama and the sardines run is just in front of Panangsama. This is not because the people are lazy but this is the actual place to find the sardines.
Snorkeling was pretty good and we managed to see tome turtles among the sardines.
Palawan is quite a huge archipelago which extends from Balabac to Coron. Is probably one of the top places in the Philippines and offers plenty of options regarding what to do. We booked our tickets to Puerto Princesa, its main city, and afterwards we were trying to decide whether to go to Balabac or El Nido.
While Balabac looked super appealing, getting there is not that easy and being quite a remote area one needs to organize quite a bit in advance so we were left with the option of going to El Nido.
Puerto Princesa itself is not too bad also. While is not a popular beach destination, there are several day trips from Puerto Princesa that can be done. We chose only Iwahig Firefly watching and going on a day trip to the Batak tribe but there are many other such as Underground River Tour and Honda Bay Island Hopping
El Nido is about 6 hrs drive from Puerto Princesa and there are various mini vans that provide this service regularly. We bought our tickets in the Cebu Pacific airplane, on the way to Puerto Princesa.
El Nido itself provides plenty of options: from island hopping tours to self kayaking, beach exploring and motorbike exploring.
We personally found the motorbike exploring quite useful as we could do our own schedule and stop whenever we wanted.
There are several areas to stay in El Nido but the main ones are the main town center and Corong Corong. While the center can be more useful by having everything you need it is very noisy and crowded also. Corong Corong is not too bad and is more quiet.
Bear in mind, the only ATMs you can find in the area are in the center but there are plenty of tricycle taxis willing to drop you to the center wherever you are.
In El Nido there are few beaches that worth exploring: Nacpan beach ( the most famous ), Duli beach, Mariposa beach and Verde Safari beach. They are pretty much in the same area but you need a scooter or motorbike to get around.
We went only to the first two. They are pretty nice and empty but Duli beach has pretty strong water currents so swimming is not really recommended.
We also reached Dipnay by motorbike, which is pretty much the tip of Palawan island.
Regarding the island hoping tours, there are 4 tours in El Nido:Tour A, Tour B, Tour C and Tour D. The trouble with these tours is that they are taking A LOT of people and there are so many agencies that do the tours at the same time and in exactly the same order. So, in the end, you will end up on a tiny beach or lagoon or whatever with a large number of boats full of people. As soon as you leave you`ll notice that everyone is leaving and the place is nice and quiet again.
So, one solution to this problem might be doing perhaps tours C and D only, as everyone sticks to the first two.
Another solution is to rent a kayak and do island hopping on your own, what we did. The islands are relatively close to each other and they are easy to be reached by kayak. We went to the western side of Cadlao island, which is just in front of El Nido, in Bacuit Bay.
The only problem occurs in the afternoon, when you`ll probably return together with all the big boats that will made the sea quite rough. We struggled a bit but managed to get back to the port.
Tip: a DRY BAG is a must whether you go kayaking or just normal island hopping.
Scuba diving is another thing you should try when in El Nido or in Puerto Princesa.
Top diving spots in Palawan include Puerto Princesa, El Nido, Coron Island, and Tubbataha Reef. All around Palawan, you can expect water temperature that ranges from 79-86˚F (26 - 30˚C) and as for visibility, it depends on where you are. Palawan’s rainy season is during June to December with June to October being the wettest months. It is still safe to visit during rainy months although do keep an eye on the typhoon forecasts. Puerto Princesa and El Nido are located in bays and are great for new divers.
The best time to head here is from May to November as visibility is at its best at about 65ft (20m). At El Nido, you will be able to access the Bacuit Archipelago and its stunning limestone islets and world-class beaches.
We did diving for a day in El Nido and we used Turtle Divers. We were happy with our experience just we though we were a bit too many people in the boat and the gear was pretty used. ( compared to our experience in the Maldives )
Diving itself was nice but we went in March so the visibility was not great and we couldn`t spot so many types of corals and species. Definitely Maldives beats it.
Coming back from El Nido, we stopped in Puerto Princesa for 2 nights to do the Iwahig Firefly watching and go to the Batak tribe.
Again, we rented a motorbike and did everything by ourselves.
With the fireflies things are pretty easy as you just turn up at Iwahig Firefly Watching Mangrove Ecotourism And Wildlife Park and put your name on the list for the tour. Average waiting could be 1-2 hrs, but you could visit the villages nearby or the river itself in the meantime.
The experience itself was simply AWESOME! The tour is made 2 by 2 in small and quiet boats. We had a guide which was explaining to us different stuff about the fireflies and about the area. Everything was so quite and peaceful and we could see all these trees full of fireflies under the stars. It`s an experience everyone should try when in Puerto Princesa.
We couldn`t take quality pictures unfortunately as our cameras aren`t great in low light conditions.☹
Batak tribe visit is not that easy as you basically need a guide. There is not so much info on the internet but we found some agencies that were asking for a lot of money for bringing us there so we just thought we could try doing it on our own.
The Batak are one of about 140 indigenous peoples of the Philippines. They are located in the northeastern portions of Palawan, a relatively large island in the southwest of the archipelago. There are only about 450 Batak remaining according to a 1990 census.
We headed to Batak Cultural Center by motorbike. It`s around 30 km from Puerto Princesa. Sometimes Google Maps is not very accurate but there are indicators on the way. In the Cultural Center we were quite lucky to find a guide to take us to the tribe and we were lucky that the tribe was not so far away. They usually change their camping location.
In order to reach them, our guide told us we need to bring them some presents such as rich and sugar and then we had to hike through the forest to reach their camping location. The hike was easy as it was dry season, but we heard that in the wet season it might be necessary to cross some rivers, so slippers are a must.
If you`re stopping by in Manila for a bit, you could go to Makati city for a walk. It is close to the airport and it`s just incredible to see how come they managed to build such a Western city in such a poor country.
If you have even more time, you could do a day trip to Taal Volcano and perhaps even some trekking on the rim of the volcano.
Over all, Philippines is a nice experience but we didn`t find it so breath - taking as Maldives or Seychelles. Probably because it is a totally different place.
If you want to do island hopping in the Philippines, just make sure you have enough time. Although traveling is fairly cheap and easy, we lost a lot of time to and from the airports and this left us with less time to visit. We visited only 2 islands ( Cebu and Palawan ) in 2 weeks and we still thought the time was short. Probably you could do more than us but at the expense of less sleep.
Philippines is like any other country in South East Asia: cheap. The accommodation, food, tours, transportation are all having a decent price.
Food, however, although is cheap, is not one of their best things.
There is a not a so fortunate mix between Asian and Western cuisine and everything has a lot of white sugar or white flour in it or is deep fried.
Fish and sea food can be very nice plus they have a wide range of fruits and fresh juices. Be careful, when you buy yourself a juice, tell them not to add sugar in it as this is the default for them.
Also, be careful with tender coconuts. They are delicious but sometimes they are stored in the sun and they tend to get rotten and can cause serious problems.
If we think about changing something, probably we would go to Bohol instead of Cebu and maybe Coron instead of El Nido. But in the end, all the islands are different and have their own particularities.
In general, both Cebu and Palawan don`t really have beaches that are good for snorkeling. Here, is mostly about doing island hopping and trying to find magic spots on tiny little islands around.
In Palawan, there are small islands in Bacuit Bay which can be reached by boat or kayak which are good for snorkeling.
We haven`t been in so many places in Cebu, but Moalboal doesn`t really have a good beach for snorkeling. If you swim further away from Panangsama beach or take a boat you can find snorkeling places.
Next you can find our photo gallery.
Apart from the usual Olympus OM-D M5 and Samsung NX-1, we added another guy to the family: Mavic Air drone. ☺