If you’re exploring a country that has 7,641 islands, where do you even start?
For many, a trip to the Philippines can be quite overwhelming, especially for first-timers. There’s just so many beautiful places to visit and so many amazing spots to explore in this sun-kissed tropical paradise. White sand beaches, pristine islands, spectacular dive sites, majestic mountains, lush jungles, historic cities, and charming towns – how do you even choose where to go?
Luckily, you’ve found this.
This is a series of lists of places and points of interest in the Philippines that deserve a spot in your travel bucket list. It is split into many parts, each definitive, each in-depth, and each featuring five of the most amazing places in the Philippines that are certainly travel-worthy.
This is the FIRST PART of the series. Many more parts will follow.
1. El Nido
Some 420 km (260 mi) southwest of the capital Manila, in the province of Palawan lies a veritable Paradise on Earth – the heavenly El Nido.
El Nido is a coastal town situated in the northernmost tip of the island of Palawan. It encompasses the 45 surrounding islands and islets of the Bacuit Archipelago in Bacuit Bay. It is bounded to the north by the Linapacan Strait, to the east by the wide breadth of the Sulu Sea, and to the west by the vast expanse of the West Philippine Sea.
El Nido is named after the edible nests of the swiftlets that dwell among the steep karst cliffs ubiquitous in the area. These nests, nido in Spanish, are prized as delicacies, the main ingredient to the gourmet nido soup.
For a very long time, the beauty of El Nido lay hidden from the rest of the world, a secret known only to its indigenous tribal settlers. It was not until 1979, and only by chance – an accident at sea – that the secret was eventually revealed.
As the story goes, “a tuna line disabled a dive boat’s propeller in the middle of the night forcing it to drop anchor in an inlet. The following morning, the divers woke up to an amazing scenery of skyscraping dark cliffs, thick green forest, white sand beach, sparkling water and, rising above it, a series of magnificently sculpted jade islands.”
The fateful incident marked El Nido’s ascension to worldwide prominence. When the first tourists began to arrive, what awaited them was beyond their wildest imaginings.
They came upon a place of otherworldly beauty, immaculately preserved throughout millennia, unrivaled elsewhere in the world. It was a beauty befitting nothing short of Paradise itself.
Indeed, they took to calling El Nido a paradise on earth, a veritable tropical Eden. Thus, to this day, El Nido bears the appellation Heaven on Earth, and rightfully so.
El Nido, and especially the Bacuit, are a masterwork of nature, a resplendent tapestry woven of emerald isles and turquoise waters, and embroidered with shores of soft white sand, lofty cliffs of marble and limestone, lush jungles, enchanting lagoons, ancient caverns, and a vast wealth of flora and fauna.
Invariably, all adventures in and around El Nido begin at the Población, the town proper nestled in a sheltered bay along the mainland coast and bounded on one side by limestone cliffs and verdant hills on the other. Numerous boats lie at anchor within the bay, awaiting the tourists to be ferried to and fro the surrounding islands.
All along the mainland coast is an array of spectacular beaches. Duli Beach, with its ivory and gold sands and its excellent waves, is a favorite among surfers.
The Twin Beaches of Nacpan and Calitang are especially popular. Nacpan Beach, a very long strip of shore with fine white sand and crystalline waters, extends along the coast until it meets its equally beautiful but much shorter twin, Calitang Beach, on a hilly promontory that affords an impressive view of both beaches.
Seven Commandos Beach, a shoreline of soft, ivory sands and tall coconut palms, fronts the cerulean waters of Bacuit Bay. The beach, supposedly named after the seven Japanese soldiers who lived there for a time, is isolated by mountainous terrain and can only be reached by sea.
The true charm of El Nido, however, is found in its crowning glory, the Bacuit Archipelago, an array of 45 paradisiacal islands and islets set in the azure waters of Bacuit Bay.
Cadlao Island, the largest island and the closest to the Población, is home to the highest peak in El Nido. Around the island is a number of white sand beaches, among which are Pasandigan Beach to the south and Paradise Beach to the southeast. Nature trails wind through the island’s rainforests, leading to secluded coves and hidden lagoons.
Dilumacad Island boasts white sand beaches, towering limestone cliffs, and lush vegetation. It is better known as Helicopter Island, as its steep karst cliffs, when viewed from a considerable distance, resemble the shape of a helicopter.
Matinloc Island is the longest island in the Bacuit. On its northern end stands Matinloc Shrine, an abandoned convent now rumored to be haunted by ghosts. The island is ringed with beautiful white sand beaches, among which is Hidden Beach – a pocket white sand beach accessible only through a narrow crevice in an encircling wall of steep rock cliffs.
Miniloc Island is famed for its enchanting lagoons. Along its north-eastern coast are Big Lagoon and Small Lagoon, their crystalline pools of turquoise waters walled by lofty limestone cliffs clad and crowned with verdure. On its southern coast is Secret Lagoon, so named because it can only be reached through a very small opening on the seaside cliffs that conceal it.
Shimizu Island is home to ivory beaches, dramatic limestone outcrops, and crystal clear waters. It is one of the favorites among snorkelers.
Pangulasian Island has stretches of white beaches all along its coast, as well as excellent snorkeling and diving sites within its azure waters. A trail through the island’s midst leads to the island’s peak, which affords an impressive 360-degree view of the surrounding islands.
Vigan Island is better known as Snake Island because of its white sandspit (s-shaped sandbar) that ‘snakes’ to the mainland coast. The sandspit is clearly visible only when the tide is low.
These aforementioned locations form only a small part of what El Nido has in store for tourists and sightseers, a drop in the ocean, as it were. Indeed, it does not even begin to capture the full majesty of El Nido and its innumerable sights and sceneries.
Every inch of El Nido is imbued with a surreal and sublime beauty, primeval and pristine, one that harkens back to ancient times. To call it a Paradise on Earth would be neither presumptuous nor exaggerated, but rather only just and fitting.
2. Rice Terraces
Over 250 km (155 mi) north of the capital Manila, in the highland province of Ifugao are built ancient engineering wonders that have stood the test of time – the world-renowned Rice Terraces.
The rice terraces are carved into the exceedingly precipitous slopes of the Cordilleras – the long and lofty mountain range in Northern Luzon that encompasses several provinces, including Ifugao.
Soaring to heights of 1,500 m (4,900 ft) above sea level, the terraces resemble emerald steps ascending into the skies, or ‘stairways into heaven’, as many sightseers who have gazed upon the engineering marvels would afterwards fondly recall.
The rice terraces sprawl across several towns and villages in Ifugao. The most famous of these terraces is the cluster found in the town of Banaue. This cluster, known as the Banaue Rice Terraces, has been declared a National Cultural Treasure of the Philippines.
It is said that when the ‘steps’ of the rice terraces in Banaue are put end to end, these would be enough to encircle half of the globe. Such a claim is well founded, as reports estimate the terraces’ total length at around 20,100 km (12,500 mi) – roughly half the Earth’s circumference!
Other remarkable rice terraces in Ifugao are the Batad Rice Terraces and the Bangaan Rice Terraces in the town of Banaue, the Mayoyao Rice Terraces in the town of Mayoyao, the Hungduan Rice Terraces in the town of Hungduan, and the Nagacadan Rice Terraces in the town of Kiangan. These five clusters, collectively known as the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, have been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It is thought that the terraces were first devised some 2,000 years ago as an ingenious solution to the scarcity of suitable land for farming in the rugged and mountainous province of Ifugao.
The terraces were built by the ancestors of the Ifugaos – the indigenous tribes who inhabit the namesake province – largely by hand and using only primitive tools and equipment. The terraces were masterfully carved following rigorously the contours of the hills and mountains, a remarkable illustration of perfect harmony between nature’s designs and human engineering.
To sustain these terraces, the ancient Ifugaos devised an elaborate irrigation system that harvests the water issuing from the springs and streams of the rainforests atop the mountains. The water is then conveyed along an intricate array of irrigation canals descending through the terraces. Retaining walls of stones and rammed earth keep the terraces from eroding.
As it has been during its creation, the upkeep of the rice terraces requires intensive collaboration and cooperation among the Ifugaos. To ensure the survival of the rice terraces, the indigenous farming knowledge and practices which have made possible the existence of the terraces are passed from one generation to the next. Thus, to this day, the Ifugaos still tend to the rice terraces in much the same way as their ancestors did millennia ago.
The rice terraces are of utmost significance to the Ifugaos, a keystone of their society and indeed their very source of life. The terraces are intertwined with their culture, which encompasses an intricate system of practices, rituals and festive events revolving around rice, from its cultivation to its consumption.
The ancient and enduring beauty of the rice terraces draws thousands from across the world to the highland province of Ifugao. But to get there, adventurers must be prepared to undertake a lengthy and grueling journey through rugged roads and difficult terrain. After all, Ifugao is one of the Philippines’ most remote provinces.
Nonetheless, a trip to the terraces is well worth the hard journey. The sight alone of the ancient wonders standing mightily and majestically is enough to make even the weariest of travelers forget their exhaustion.
There are pathways across the paddy fields by which adventurers can trek through and climb up the terraces. However, ascending the ‘stairways into heaven’ is no easy matter. The terrain is difficult, the paths are demanding, and the climb is long and arduous, often taking hours and hours to finish. Those without guides also risk getting lost.
But those who are willing to brave the difficult hike and endure the taxing climb are rewarded with breathtaking views of the terraced valleys. Moreover, along the paths are pools and streams of cold water where the weary can take a refreshing dip and ease the strains and aches of the hike.
A trek through the terraces is akin to a journey through history. The old pathways through the terraced paddies, the vivid green of the rice fields, the wild flowers along the banks, the flowing streams and gushing fountains, the towering mountains, the culture, and the people – all speak of a thousand year old tale of harmony between man and nature.
3. Siargao Island
PROVINCE: Surigao del Norte
Roughly 763 km (474 mi) southeast of the capital Manila, in the province of Surigao del Norte is an island famed for its waves, white sands, and wealth of natural spectacles – Siargao.
Siargao is a teardrop-shaped island off the north-eastern coast of the province of Surigao del Norte. Along its eastern coast is a shallow fence of reefs, upon which the deep swells and mighty waves of the Pacific crash and break, making for excellent surfs.
It is these exceptional surf breaks that have firmly established Siargao as a premier destination among surfing enthusiasts both in the local and international scenes, earning the island recognition as the Surfing Capital of the Philippines.
The most popular surf spot in Siargao is found just offshore of the town of General Luna, along the island’s south-eastern tip – Cloud 9, the island’s first claim to fame.
Cloud 9 is a right-hand reef break with thick hollow tubes. Steep, swift, and solid, this wave is best left to the experts, although intermediates can manage it during the summer off-season.
Cloud 9 consistently ranks among the ten best surf spots in the world, and is the site of several domestic and international competitions, foremost of which is the annual Siargao Cup.
Other quality surf spots in Siargao include Jacking Horse and Quicksilver for beginners; Cemetery, Rock Island, Salvacion, and Stimpy’s for intermediates; and Burgos, Pacifico, and Tuason’s Point for experts.
Apart from its world-famous surf breaks, Siargao is also known for the spectacular white sand beaches dotting its coastline. One such beach lies in the remote, northerly town of Santa Monica – Alegria Beach, a very long stretch of white and cream sand beach, bounded by rows of coconut palms on one side and the vast expanse of the Pacific on the other. Far removed from the clamor and the crowd of the busier beaches in Siargao, Alegria’s impressive length affords visitors ample space and freedom to do as they wish, even during the beach’s peak days.
Besides its mighty waves and magnificent beaches, Siargao is endowed with other natural wonders that merit a trip or two. Mangrove swamps, coconut palm forests, enchanting lagoons, and secluded pools – every inch of the island is worth exploring, whether by motorbike, bicycle, or even by foot for the most hardy.
In eastern Siargao, in the sleepy town of Pilar lies the stunning Magpupungko Rock Pools, an impressive array of dramatic rock formations and deep rock-cut basins along the northern end of Magpupungko Beach.
The rock pools in Magpupungko are tidal pools. Hence, these must be visited during low tide, when the rock basins are filled with crystalline seawater left over by the ebbing tide, creating natural swimming pools of enticing beauty. Caves and cliffs abound in the area, making for thrilling cliff-jumping and swimming experiences.
Pilar is also home to Tayangban Cave – two cenotes, or natural sinkholes formed from the collapse of limestone bedrock that expose groundwater underneath. Within the cave are stalactites and stalagmites of remarkable shapes and sorts. The cave leads to the clear Tayangban Cave Pool, which is ringed by steep limestone cliffs overhung by vines and vegetation.
Off the western coast of Siargao, in the town of Del Carmen is the enchanting Sugba Lagoon, which sits in the midst of a vast and sprawling mangrove forest, the second largest of such forests in the Philippines. Rising above the crystalline waters are massive hills and towering cliffs of limestone, impressively clad and crowned with lush verdure. All about the lagoon is a serene and soothing ambience.
Sugba hosts an immense number of flora and fauna, not least in colorful and diverse marine wildlife which makes the place ideal for snorkeling. As well, tourists can dive, swim, kayak, and standup paddleboard in the tranquil waters.
To the north of Siargao, in the town of Santa Monica is Tak Tak Falls, said to be the only waterfall in the entire island. Its clear waters cascade from a high cliff overhung by dense vegetation, and into a shallow pool.
For those looking to indulge in an island-hopping adventure, three islets off the south-eastern coast of Siargao await – Daku, Guyam and Naked Islands.
Daku Island, the largest of the three, boasts a shoreline of fine ivory and golden sand, wider than it is long, surrounded by turquoise waters. A number of little thatched huts line the beach, and behind these stand scores of coconut palms.
Save for its few inhabitants – chiefly fisherfolk and their families – Daku is fairly free from crowd at most times, affording tourists an idyllic ambience and freedom to do as they wish. Besides beach bumming, tourists can swim, kayak, snorkel, and even surf here.
Guyam Island is a lot smaller than Daku, but equally beautiful. It is covered with coconut palms, and has a small stretch of white sand beach fronting the pellucid waters of the Pacific. The islet has impressive coral and rock formations that merit snorkeling.
Naked Island is the more popular name of Pansukian, a tiny white sandbar surrounded with clear waters. The island is literally bare, or naked, devoid of any tree, shade or structure, and entirely exposed to the tropical sun, hence its name. There is not much to do here, except perhaps to get a good and thorough tan.
But while the destinations afford rewarding experiences, the journeys are equally fulfilling. The routes and roads to each tourist spot are just as scenic, and might even yield yet uncharted pockets of beauty. Driving through roads lined with palm trees on either side, trekking along rugged tracks through picturesque landscapes, and traveling off the beaten path under a night sky of a million stars – these alone hold a beauty of their own.
Siargao began its reputation as a haven to surfing enthusiasts, but now it has grown beyond just that. In this veritable island paradise the troubled mind finds solace, the broken heart finds healing, the weary soul finds rest, and the wandering feet find home.
4. Chocolate Hills
More than 630 km (392 mi) south of the capital Manila, in the midst of Bohol lies an awe-inspiring geological wonder – the famed Chocolate Hills.
The Chocolate Hills is the main draw in the island province of Bohol. It is a very curious geological formation, and while its name alone is enough to excite the imagination, the very sight of it is utterly surreal.
It is a rolling landscape of hundreds of hills perfectly formed in the likeness of haycocks, rising above the surrounding plains and extending as far as the eye can see. The hills are largely of a symmetrical conical or dome-shape, such that each seems to be an absolute copy of the other. Most of the hills stand anywhere from 30 m (98 ft) to 50 m (164 ft) high, while the tallest measures 120 m (394 ft) in height.
The hills are sprawled over an area some 50 km (31 mi) wide; most are spread throughout the towns of Batuan, Carmen, and Sagbayan, while a few others are found in the towns of Bilar, Siera Bullones, and Valencia. Exactly how many of these dome-shaped hills there are is disputed, though figures range anywhere from 1,268 to 1,776.
Contrary to its name, the hills are not actually made of chocolate or any kind of confection for that matter. Rather, the hills are karsts, or limestone formations.
The base of each hill is ringed with trees, but the dome is bare, save for a cladding of cogon grass and a scattering of ferns. It is this grass overlay that lends color to the hills. During the rainy season, the grass flourishes green, affording the hills a verdant hue. But at the onset of the summer, the grass withers to a shade of brown, causing the hills to resemble an assortment of chocolate bonbons and thus earning the hills their delightful name.
The hills are not meant to be scaled individually. Rather, these must be viewed from decks especially designed to afford a commanding outlook of the entire landscape. Two of these decks have been built, one in the town of Carmen and the other in Sagbayan. From these observation decks, the uninterrupted view of the Chocolate Hills is absolutely as delightful as its name makes it out to be.
Legends abound as to the origin of the hills. One such legend imagines that the hills are formed after a fierce battle between two feuding giants, who hurled massive rocks and boulders at one another. The battle raged for days and exhausted the giants, who eventually agreed to forget their quarrel. They made peace between them and departed the place as friends, but forgot to tidy the mess they made.
Another legend surmises that the hills are the tears of Arogo, a giant of old. As the story goes, Arogo fell in love with Aloya, a beautiful mortal maiden. When, as all mortals must, Aloya died, the giant in his sorrow wept mighty tears for her. His tears eventually dried up and formed the famed hills.
Still another legend supposes that the hills are the overlarge droppings of an overlarge carabao (water buffalo). As the story goes, a village was beset by a colossal carabao that laid waste to the villagers’ farms and devoured the villagers’ crops. To rid themselves of the monstrous beast, the villagers devised a cunning plan. They gathered all of their rotten food in one huge mound and lured the carabao into eating all of it. The carabao suffered a terrible stomach ache from all the rotten food, and tried to ease its pain by excreting all the contents of its stomach. The beast eventually fled, but not before leaving behind huge mounds of dung, which thereafter hardened and became the hills.
Geologists, however, beg to differ. While there is no one definite explanation as to the origin of the hills, the consensus among the scientific community is that the hills are marine limestone uplifted above sea level and subjected to weathering and erosion by rainfall and groundwater throughout a long period of time.
In recognition of its exceptional beauty and scientific significance, among others, the Chocolate Hills has been declared as a National Geological Monument, the third of such monuments in the Philippines. It has also been submitted for inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, pending approval.
Surreal, exceptional, and sublime, the Chocolate Hills is unrivaled elsewhere in the world. Its beauty sweeps one back to a time when people believed that giants and monsters truly walked among them.
5. Batanes Islands
Around 660 km (410 mi) north of the capital Manila lies an enchanting land where time, it seems, have stood still – the islands of Batanes.
Sprawled on the northernmost reaches of the Philippines are the ten islands of the province of Batanes. Only the three largest – Batan, Itbayat, and Sabtang – are inhabited, albeit only sparsely. The provincial capital, the town of Basco, lies on the main island of Batan.
The islands are bounded to the north by the Bashi Channel, and to the south by the Balintang Channel. To the west stretches the breadth of the West Philippine Sea, and to the east lie the unfathomable depths of the Pacific Ocean.
Powerful, treacherous currents surround Batanes, rendering it difficult to access by light seacrafts. Besides, mighty winds sweeping from the seas barrage the islands relentlessly, earning Batanes the name Home of the Winds.
Far removed from the main lands of the Philippines, and sundered by a vast expanse of water, Batanes is a world of its own, with change coming slowly, and only slightly. Time, it seems, have stood still on these northerly islands.
The people of Batanes, the indigenous Ivatans, retain many of the ways of their ancestors. They are a peaceable folk, good-natured, sincere and accepting, and given to a life of honesty and hard work as farmers and fisherfolk for the most part. They are imbued with a deep respect for nature, taking only the resources they need for survival and nothing in excess.
Thus, from the Ivatans’ high regard for nature, and from their simple manner of living, much of the natural beauty of Batanes has been preserved.
A vast array of scenic natural landscapes renders the islands of Batanes picturesque at every turn. Amidst this remarkable natural backdrop are impressive man-made structures, some of which harken back to ages long gone – vestiges of the islands’ ancient past and the long history of its people.
Northeast of the town of Basco in Batan Island stands the majestic Mount Iraya, the northernmost active volcano in the Philippines. Rising to a height of 1,009 m (3,310 ft), Iraya is the highest point in Batanes. Heavily forested and home to endemic flora and fauna, Iraya is steeped in the lore and legends of the Ivatans, who revere the mountain as hallowed.
Iraya draws numerous mountaineers to its steep slopes and forest-clad trails, and to its summit, which, on a clear weather, affords an unrivaled view of the entirety of the beauty of Batanes and the encircling seas.
West of Basco are the Vayang Rolling Hills, the most renowned and the most recognizable image of Batanes. Vayang is a dramatic landscape of verdant, grass-clad hills extending in gentle undulations, and ending in steep cliffs beneath which foam and froth the waves of the sea. From here, the three major island municipalities – Batan, Sabtang, and Itbayat – can be viewed all at once.
South of Vayang are the Naidi Hills, upon which is built the 20 m (66 ft) Basco Lighthouse. The raised hills, once the settlement of ancient Ivatans, and especially the lighthouse, afford a commanding outlook of the town of Basco, the entirety of Batan, and nearby islands.
The rocky shores of Chadpidan to the northwest of Basco, and that of Chanpan, popularly known as Valugan, to the southeast are also famed. Both beaches are strewn with boulders and gravel disgorged by Iraya in its ancient eruptions, which were then smoothed and polished over time by the waves of the surrounding seas.
A landscape akin to Vayang is found along the south-eastern coast of Batan, in the town of Mahatao. Overlooking the blue waters of the Pacific, Rakuh a Payaman, dubbed as Marlboro Country, is a vast expanse of gently rolling hills – wind-swept, grass-clad, and every bit as picturesque as Vayang.
Along the western coast of Batan, between the towns of Mahatao and Ivana is Maydangeb Beach, or simply White Beach, a secluded cove ringed by lofty rock cliffs. Its beach is made of white sand and strewn with colorful pebbles. On one side of the cove stands an immense boulder, beyond which is hidden the Homoron Blue Lagoon.
Northwest of Batan is the larger Itbayat Island. Along its eastern coast lies the primeval Turungan Cave, the most ancient dwelling of the ancestors of the Ivatans who first settled here some 4,000 years ago. Above the cave are the Turungan Hills, the burial grounds of the cave’s earliest settlers.
Along Itbayat’s north-eastern coast rises Rapang Cliff, a mighty wall of towering cliffs and rocky hills rising above the verdure and overlooking the vastness of the Pacific. Here lies the Stone Bell, a flat stone lying upon another stone, which when struck with yet another stone creates a sound not unlike a bell’s.
Southwest of Batan is the smaller Sabtang Island, known for its Morong Beach, a pristine cove with a beach of soft white sand, upon which stands the remarkable rock formation of Nakabuang Stone Arch.
Also in Sabtang are Chavayan and Savidug, picturesque villages where the traditional houses of the Ivatans stand in scenic array along paved lanes. The quaint houses are built out of stone, and their roofs are thatched with cogon grass. About the houses are low walls and little yards with well-trimmed gardens and hedgerows.
Beyond all these scenic locations, Batanes has even more to offer – too many, in fact, to even list here. There are more sights to see and spots to explore within the three main islands. Even the seven uninhabited isles hold a beauty of their own, reserved only for those daring enough to cross the wild and capricious seas just to get there.
Sundered and secluded, a world unto its own, the beauty of Batanes is long-lived. These northerly islands and their hardy people have endured all – waves, winds, weather, and most of all, the test of time.