How to Travel the Philippines

If you are planning to travel the Philippines, especially if it is for the first time, you may have a number of questions and chances are you are trying to answer as many of them as possible by looking for them online, through blogs and different social media channels like Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram.

There are more than 7000 islands and tourism has increased considerably over the last decade.  Compared to many of its neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, many of the popular tourist destinations have only become as busy as they are over the last decade.  As you, most likely, have already seen online, most people tend to end up visiting Palawan (Coron, El Nido, Port Barton), Boracay, Bohol (Panglao Island), Siquijor, Siargao and Camiguin, and trying to design an itinerary to see as much as possible can be one tedious task.

When planning a trip around the Philippines, it is important to be aware of the fact that getting from one place to another, may require time and also careful planning.

How long will you travel the Philippines for?

Whether you are a local, planning a long weekend getaway, or a foreigner, on vacation, one should take into account that time is key.  Some islands are much bigger than others and the fact that your preferred destination may be small, may not mean that you can cover everything in just a couple of days.  While most map apps will calculate travel times (by road) based on average speeds of 100 km/h or 60 m/h, traveling 100km in the Philippines may take 2 to 3 hours or more.

Where to start and where to end?

Another important thing to have in mind is that at the time of writing, the Philippines has 3 international airports (Ninoy Aquino International airport, a.k.a. N.A.I.A. in Manila, Clark International Airport, formerly known as the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport, and Mactan–Cebu International Airport).  There are international airports on the way in both Panglao Island, Bohol and in Siargao and other airports like Kalibo and Iloilo offer very limited international flight connections.

Most foreign tourists will start  to travel the Philippines arriving in either Manila or Cebu, and will exit the country from those airports too, so planning your itinerary will very likely include, at least one night at one or both of these cities.

What to see in the Philippines?

This is usually where the confusion starts.  It is hard to feel that after having made up your mind to fly to the Philippines, one may be missing out on those places that look so amazing on Instagram.  But at the same time, one may want to visit a less well known place with less tourism and therefore, much less information to help one plan accordingly.  Who do you trust?  Be brave, a little research will show you that there are plenty of options and it is hard to not find a beautiful place which is yet to become the next big thing.

How to travel the Philippines?

As much as flights may be the fastest way to get from point A to Point B, many itineraries in the Philippines, may require you to take a flight to Manila or Cebu and then fly to the next destination.  Sometimes, traveling by road is the best option, not to mention you will be able to see more in less time.

Be realistic about time and geographical location.  If you have x amount of days and you really want to see a particular place, start with that one place and design your trip around it.  The islands in the Philippines are generally well connected by ferries and roro (roll on roll off ferries) and it is usually not hard to design a good loop that will take you to and from one or both international airports. Check out our map of the different ports in the Philippines.

Is it dangerous to travel in the Philippines?

Don’t be afraid.  The media tends to focus on a number of issues that may affect a country, but that does not mean that the whole country is a dangerous place and you should not go.  News is news and T.V. stations need to sell commercials and unfortunately, the worst stuff is usually what keeps the audience stuck to that screen.  Check out Youtube, and read travel blogs and you will see that the reality is very different.  Many foreigners live in and travel the Philippines all the time, and they live normal lives.  Remember that just because there was a terrorist attack in Paris, London or Las Vegas, it does not mean that it happens all the time.  Anything can happen, anywhere, any time.

What’s the weather like in the Philippines?

The weather is unpredictable.  You can look at statistics, you can read about seasons, you can learn about climate zones… but still, no one can control nature and sometimes it rains.  Rainy season does not mean it rains every day, dry season does not mean it does not rain.  The Philippines has a number of climate zones, some say 4, some say up to 6, but usually the weather is dictated by the Northeast Monsoon (Amihan), or the Southwest Monsoon (Habagat).  Most information will say that Amihan, from November/December till May/June, is the dry season, but this is mainly around the Mimaropa, Eastern Visayas, Central Visayas and The western half of Luzon and Mindanao.  The Eastern coast of the Philippines sees less rain during the Habagat season (May/June to November/December).

Typhoon season is said to take place during the Habagat season or the northern hemisphere summer months, however, it is not unusual to see the last typhoons hit the east coast and travel across the islands during the months of November and December.  Unfortunately, typhoons in the Philippines usually affect the poorer parts of the Philippines and more often than not, being in a concrete structure will keep you safe from the strong winds and rain.  Again, dont let weather conditions be a deterrent and stop you from traveling to the Philippines, and know that by taking the same precautions you would take anywhere else, you should be fine and able to enjoy yourself regardless of what happens.  Do check out our video on Cloud 9 in Siargao, recorded during tropical storm Urduja in December 2017.

Sakay & Co specialises in designing itineraries around the Philippines, contact us and tell us how long you want to travel and what you would like to see and we will make sure you travel the Philippines the best possible way.

Bohol

Bohol is the 10th largest island of the Philippines. It has become extremely popular among local and foreign tourists for its Chocolate Hills, the tiny Tarsier monkeys (smallest apes in the world) and the infamous Alona Beach in Panglao Island.  However, Bohol is big enough to keep you busy for weeks, and if you venture a little, you will discover plenty to do away from the masses while enjoying its beautiful nature.

Scuba diving and snorkelling in Bohol

If you are looking for an off the beaten path experience, you should stay as far away from Panglao Island, and especially Alona Beach, as possible.  There is one reason, however, for which this should be a place to include in your itinerary.  Balicasag Island is perhaps one of the best places to dive or snorkel with turtles in the Philippines.  Some say it is like Apo Island (off the coast of Dumaguete) on steroids.  Only 150 divers are allowed to dive in Balicasag every day, and it does fill up, so do plan and book in advance.  If you don’t get a spot to dive Balicasag, you can find a number of great dive sites around Cabilao Island, Anda and of course Panglao Island.  Pata Negra Divers could be one of the best dive centres in the area.  Tucked away in a back street close enough to Alona Beach and far enough to keep it out of the hustle and bustle.  The staff is very professional, friendly and they go the extra mile to ensure your experience is one you won’t forget.

Nature in Bohol

Bohol is majorly known for the Tarsiers and the Chocolate hills which can be seen in a day trip during which one can also see the man made forrest.  But Bohol has much more to offer.  White sand beaches, cave pools and waterfalls are some of the many sights one can see in this gorgeous island.  Anda is slowly becoming more and more popular, but it is safe to say it is still a place to get away from the crowds and enjoy its beautiful beaches, cave pools and diving. Another popular tourist destination to enjoy nature is the town of Loboc.  Here, one can go on a river cruise or visit Loboc Church which was badly damaged, along with Baclayon Church, by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in 2013. However, if you are looking for a different and interesting way to see Loboc River and get a bit of exercise too, try your hand at Stand-Up Paddle.

Where to stay in Bohol

Depending on your budget, there many lodging options to choose from. Best value for money would probably be Bohol Sea Resort which is beachfront and offers decent sized air conditioned and / or fan cooled room with cable TV, Internet, hot & cold shower, and a really comfortable bed. The resort is located 15 minutes’ walk from Alona Beach where all the bars and restaurants are.

Where to eat in Bohol

There are a few go to places in Panglao for good food. Enjoy the vegetarian dishes offered at Bohol Bee Farm and to round off your visit, book a massage with them with views of the sea. Shaka Bohol offers breakfast bowls and shakes and this branch in particular also offers heftier meals if you are really hungry. There is a “carinderia” that serves well-priced and tasty Filipino food and it can be found along the road that leads to Pata Negra Dive Center and Eco Hotels.If you are craving Italian pasta dishes and / or pizza then head to Oca Golosa.

A plus for motorbike riders is the fact that most roads are well paved and going around Bohol is eaiser on two wheels when it gets congested. Not only that, you get to explore places on the island that not a lot of visitors get to see and since it’s a rather large island, there is enough road to travel. One road worth the mention are the twisties through the man-made forest that takes you to both the Tarsier Sanctuary as well as Chocolate Hills in about an hour and a half or the beautiful coastal road from Panglao or Tagbilaran (2-3 hours). they are not only picture perfect spots but very enjoyable rides as well.

Geting to and from Bohol

If you are not flying and are travelling by road, Bohol is well connected to its neighbouring islands.  From the port of Tagbilaran, you can get to Siquijor, Cebu and Dumaguete.  Fastcat operates the Cebu – Tubigon line and you can also go to Camiguin from the port of Jagna or Bato, in Southern Leyte from the port of Ubay.

Check out our map of the different roro ports in the Philippines.

Ati-Atihan

The Ati-Atihan Festival in Kalibo, Aklan on the island of Panay is, according to many, the “Mother of all Festivals in the Philippines” honouring the Santo Niño in the Visayas Region. Held annually in the first month of the year, like the Sinulog in Cebu and Dinagyang in Iloilo, it ends on the third Sunday with lots of celebrations in the form of eating, drinking, parades with street dancing in colourful costumes and / or painted faces to the beat of the drums all day and a good part of the night. The name Ati-Atihan means “to be like Atis”, the name of the Aeta natives (a Negrito ethnic group) who first settled in Panay and other parts of the country.

One story of the festival’s origin dates to 1200 A.D when ten Malay chieftains (Datus) were granted settlement by the Ati people and to honour their darker-skinned compatriots the Datus smeared their faces with soot to resemble them. The other story starts with the chief minister of one of the Datu’s forging a deal with the natives and buying their land in exchange for brass, cloth and jewellery. The Ati’s then moved up to the mountains. However, they were forced to return to the lowlands after a very bad harvest. In exchange for food and being allowed to stay they danced and sang for the Datus. Same elements but two very different stories.  The religious element came in many years later when the Spanish missionaries arrived and introduced Christianity and to this day Ati-Atihan is celebrated as a religious festival.

Sunday merrymaking kicks-off with a mass at 7.00am and right after, the first sadsad panaad starts, a street dancing competition between the Ati tribes only while other revellers get to stay around to enjoy the dancing and bright native costumes on parade. The festivities restart in the mid-afternoon with another sadsad open for everyone and anyone to join. Ati-Atihan has been nicknamed, “The Filipino Mardi Gras” and can also be described among other commonly heard words like fun, crazy, wild, and colourful as well as informal, disorganized and all-inclusive.  This peculiar characteristic is probably what makes it so attractive in the first place. It is also quite normal to be approached by strangers offering you alcohol. Regardless of the ammounts of alcohol involved (most locals will say that it is the one time when everyone can drink in excess, in public, without being frowned upon), it is really worth saying that there were mostly positive vibes and no fighting.

Finding accommodations during the week-long celebrations itself could be an absolute nightmare as hotels, hostels, inns and pensions are all booked months in advance. If you find yourself planning last minute, ask local friends from Kalibo to help you ask around as their neighbours, relatives or friends might be renting out spare rooms during those days. You might also like Roz and Angelique’s Inn & Suites, Marzon Hotel, Papierus Pensionne, or Ati-Atihan Festival Hotel. Most places take advantage of the influx of local and foreign guests though by publishing higher rates so one way to avoid this by booking ahead of time.

Since getting around can be quite difficult during the festivities you must try to plan meal times as well and check out restaurants some distance from the plaza where everyone congregates (in the case you don’t end up eating at a local resident’s home). Otherwise if you don’t mind eating at fast food places which will be overflowing with people looking for a quick bite. It’s quite easy to eat something “light” on the streets as there are tons of corn, peanuts, and refreshment vendors either walking about or with stands. Some offer delicacies like deep fried cow intestines.

It is apparent that more than a few things have been modernized through the year like the choice of playing pop music or dressing up the Sto. Niño in different costumes. It also begs asking: When did the practice of carrying statues of baby Jesus while drinking or being drunk begin? Has it always been like that? On the flip side, there is something uniquely Filipino that is ever present even during Ati-Atihan – it is the hospitality and openness of the people (in this case the Aklanons) which is most specially felt when a complete stranger can be invited to their homes to partake of food and drinks. It doesn’t really matter that they just met you in the streets that very day. It can also be said, how amazing it is, that a feast which is at least 800 years old is still celebrated this way today. At the end of the day, each person’s experience is unique and therefore you decide what takeaways you have from Ati-Atihan.

Hala Bira! Viva kay Señor Sto. Niño!

Moalboal

Moalboal a small but lively coastal resort, popular among travelers in the Philippines.  It’s located around 90 kilometers from Cebu City. It has a lot to offer, from a coastline lined with  bars and restaurants where you can have a drink or two while watching the sunset, and gaze over the azure waters in front of you and at the distant hills of Negros to a number of trecks and adventure activities in the nearby Kawasan Falls. Directly offshore is a stupendous coral wall, which you can either snorkel and/ or scuba dive, and immediately greets you with outstanding marine life — including Moalboal’s world-renowned sardine run. The area where all the tourist resorts are found is called Panagasama Beach and the actual town of Moalboal is located a few kilometers away along the highway.

Moalboal is best known among tourists as a scuba diving and snorkeling destination and as well as the famous sardines in the house reef, one can dive at the nearby Pescador Island, which is home to some great dive sites full of tropical life.

Away from diving there are other attractions such as Kawasan Falls in the Barangay of Matutinao in the municipality of Badian. Depending on your pace, it is an easy and quite pleasant 15 to 30 minutes walk from the national road. Along the way, you will want to stop and  jump into river as the water is so clear that you can see all the way to the rocks sitting calmly in the bottom. Sometimes, the rocks take on a blue shade which in turn gives the water this nice tint. The waterfalls are three-tiered, and as with most fresh water sources, one must expect to jump into cool and very refreshing water. The longer and more physically demanding route to get to Kawasan is from Canlaob, Alegria. Sign-up to go Canyoneering. Enjoy while you travel downstream jumping from heights (some are optional while others are not), rock scrambling, swimming (you will be provided with life jackets) and hiking. Again depending on your pace, the tour can take between 3 to 6 hours.

After a long and tiring day of activities it always helps to have a clean and comfortable room to return to with a hot shower to boot! Moalboal has plenty of options for accommodations, to fit different budgets and preferences, and most of them can be found in or around Panagasama Beach. If you are looking for a place that might have all you need, under one roof: a restaurant, swimming pool, rooms, beach and a dive/ snorkeling center check out Quo Vadis.

The 96 km that separate Cebu from Moalboal, are a fun ride, especially once you get away from the city, and pass Carcar.  Real fun starts on the Santander-Barili-Toledo Road with some uphill and downhill slopes, twisting roads and a beautiful coastal road leading up to Moalboal. From Moalboal, you can also enjoy an even better ride going to Santander (where you can board a roro ferry to Siquijor or Dumaguete) as you have the killer views minus the traffic from beginning to end.

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