The most amazing places in the Philippines - Part 2 featuring Coron in Palawan, Panglao in Bohol, Underground River in Palawan, Vigan City in Ilocos Sur, and Sagada in Mountain Province, Philippines

The Most Amazing Places to Visit in the Philippines – PART 2

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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 most amazing places in the Philippines that are certainly travel-worthy.

The FIRST PART of this series features the paradisaical El Nido in Palawan, the ancient Rice terraces of Ifugao, the famed Siargao Island in Surigao del Norte, the delightful Chocolate Hills of Bohol, and the enchanting islands of Batanes.

This is the SECOND PART of the series. Many more parts will follow.

1. Coron

PROVINCE: Palawan

About 297 km (185 mi) southwest of the capital Manila, in the province of Palawan is found one of the last few pieces of Paradise on Earth – Coron.  

Crystalline bay surrounded by limestone cliffs overhung with vegetation beneath a blue sky in Coron, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
Coron is renowned for its magnificent white sand beaches, emerald islands, crystalline turquoise waters, dark limestone cliffs, pristine lakes, and an immense wealth of flora and fauna || Photo by David Kohler on Unsplash (edited)

Coron is the name given to a town encompassing numerous remarkable islands sprawled on the northern reaches of Palawan, including the eastern half of Busuanga Island, all of Coron Island, and about 50 of the surrounding islets. Coron forms part of the stunning Calamianes, the archipelago that separates the waters of the West Philippine Sea from that of the Sulu Sea.

The town proper, the Población, flourishes on the southern coast of Busuanga, along sheltered bays and inlets where numerous boats lie in anchor, awaiting the tourists to be ferried to and fro the surrounding islands.

Sun setting over bays, inlets, and islands in Coron, Philippines
The town proper, the Población, is founded on the southern coast of Busuanga, along sheltered bays and inlets || Photo by Jah Cordova on Pixabay (edited)

On the northern outskirts of the Población rises Mount Tapyas, at a height of 210 m (689 ft) the second highest point in all of Coron. Upon its grass-clad slopes is built a concrete stairway of more than 700 steps, bounded on either hand with a railing and interspersed with concrete benches. The stairway climbs all the way to the summit, where hikers are afforded a panoramic and uninterrupted view of the town proper, the entirety of Busuanga, and the neighboring islands.

Along the south-eastern coast of Busuanga, amidst a mangrove forest not far from the Población is Maquinit Hot Springs, one of a handful of natural saltwater springs in the world. The springs’ heated waters flow into a series of rough-hewn stone pools before eventually spilling into the ocean. Numerous tourists are drawn to the steaming spring waters, a dip into which soothes and eases the strains and aches of a daylong adventure.

Grassy mountain overlooking a town with more mountains in the distance in Coron, Philippines
The grass-clad slopes of Mount Tapyas afford a panoramic view of both the town proper of Coron and the surrounding islands || Photo by Ron Atory on Unsplash (edited)

Off the south-eastern shores of Busuanga lies the dive site Siete Pecados, the name of which is Spanish for “seven sins”. The dive site is so named because the seven rocky outcrops rising above its cerulean waters are rumored to mark the spots where seven children who went swimming against their mother’s wishes drowned. Its ominous name, however, belies its wondrous beauty – no other dive site in Coron holds a wealth of marine life as diverse and colorful as that in Siete Pecados!

To the south of Busuanga is Coron Island (not to be confused with the namesake town), a rugged and mountainous island encircled with mighty karst cliffs and crags, and ringed with gentle shores of soft white sand and colorful stones.

Outrigger boat near a white sand beach backed by limestone cliffs overhung with vegetation in Coron, Philippines
Banol Beach is a beautiful strip of fine white sand along the north-western coast of Coron Island || Photo by Allan Ascaño on Flickr (edited)

Along Coron Island’s north-western coast lies Banol Beach, a spectacular beach of crystalline waters and ivory sands. Behind its white shoreline looms a mighty wall of dark limestone cliffs clad and crowned with verdure.

Nestled within the cliffs and crags of Coron Island are several majestic lakes, only two of which are accessible to tourists. The first is Kayangan Lake, a resplendent brackish lake settled within a ring of towering limestone cliffs overhung by dense vegetation. With turquoise waters of such clarity as to afford visibility to depths of 10 m (33 ft), Kayangan is renowned as the cleanest and clearest lake in the Philippines and elsewhere in Asia. The lake is home to numerous multicolored fishes and other marine life.

Crystalline lake surrounded by limestone cliffs overhung with trees and other vegetation in Coron, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
Kayangan Lake is regarded as the clearest and cleanest lake in the Philippines and in Asia || Photo by Matt Kieffer on Flickr (edited)

Kayangan’s equally beautiful but less popular sister, Luluyuan Lake, lies alongside it, separated only by a long and narrow ridge. Luluyuan is better known as Barracuda Lake, after the brackish lake’s fearsome dwellers that divers venturing beneath the crystalline waters are loath to encounter. Besides barracudas, the lake is home to various colorful marine wildlife, as well as fascinating underwater features and formations, making for a truly remarkable dive site.

Coron Island is also known for the enchanting Twin Lagoons, a pair of magnificent lagoons separated by a towering karst wall. The first and the larger lagoon leads to a smaller and secluded lagoon through a small hole upon the rocky barrier. The hole is visible only during low tide, allowing tourists to swim through to the inner lagoon. At high tide, the hole is completely submerged, and tourists must climb the wooden ladder dangling upon the sheer rock wall to cross to the other side.

Limestone cliffs overhung with vegetation rising above turquoise waters in Coron, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
The approach to the famed Twin Lagoons are marked by limestone cliffs jutting above crystalline waters || Photo by Matt Kieffer on Flickr (edited)

Coron is best known for its fascinating wreck diving sites. Underneath the waters of Coron Bay, off the western coast of Coron Island lie the remains of several Japanese Imperial Navy ships that were sunk by aviation elements of the U.S. Navy in 1944. Divers from across the globe troop to this serene watery graveyard to explore the well-preserved World War II shipwrecks, which host an incredibly rich and colorful marine biodiversity. The world-renowned wreck diving sites include the Akitsushima Maru, Irako Maru, Kogyo Maru, Kyokuzan Maru, Nanshin Maru, Okikawa Maru, Olympia Maru, Terukaze Maru (hitherto the East Tangat Gunboat), and the Lusong Gunboat.

Corals, fishes, and other marine life in Coron, Philippines
Colorful and diverse marine wildlife flourish among the wrecks lying beneath the waters of Coron Bay || Photo by David Petit on Flickr (edited)

On the farthest southerly reaches of Coron lie the three most popular destinations for island-hopping enthusiasts – Bulog Dos, Dicalabuan or Banana, and Malcapuya Islands.

Bulog Dos Island is a tiny islet that has a small patch of white sand beach dotted with clusters of rocks and ringed by crystal-clear waters of an aquamarine hue.

Patches of rocks overlooking a white sand beach surrounded by crystal clear waters with several boats in anchor in Coron, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
Bulog Dos is a tiny islet that has a small patch of white sand beach dotted with clusters of rocks and ringed by crystal-clear waters of turquoise and aquamarine hues || Photo by Jah Cordova on Pixabay (edited)

Dicalabuan Island is better known as Banana Island, as its shape resembles that of the tropical fruit when viewed from afar. The island is fringed with a stunning white sand beach.

Island fringed with white sand beach and coconut palms in the middle on clear waters beneath a blue sky in Coron, Philippines
The shape of Dicalabuan Island is reminiscent of a banana when viewed at a certain angle and distance, hence its nickname Banana Island || Photo by Allan Ascaño on Flickr (edited)

Malcapuya Island, the largest among the three, boasts shores of fine white sand arrayed with tall coconut palms on one side and the warm waters of the sea on the other. A viewing deck built upon a rocky outcrop in the midst of the island affords an impressive 360-degree view of the spectacular surround.

Outrigger boat moored close to white sandy shore in Coron, Philippines
Malcapuya Island is the largest of the three popular destinations for island-hopping tours within Coron || Photo by Allan Ascaño on Flickr (edited)

These are only some of the more popular sights and attractions in Coron. Beyond these, there’s more to see, to feel, to explore, and to experience in this resplendent tropical jewel. That Coron is renowned to many as a living Paradise is no exaggeration. It is a truly remarkable place, the very likeness of Eden itself – home to a world of innumerable wonders masterfully wrought by Nature unbounded.

2. Panglao Island

PROVINCE: Bohol

Nearly 637 km (396 mi) southeast of the capital Manila, in the province of Bohol lies a veritable paradise for beach bums, sun worshippers, scuba divers, snorkelers, and all sorts of water lovers – Panglao Island.

Coconut palm trees leaning over a white sand beach fronting blue and turquoise waters with numerous boats in anchor in Panglao, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
Panglao Island, with its white sand beaches, crystalline waters, and spectacular dive sites, offers a unique and unforgettable tropical beach and island experience || Photo by Magalhães on Wikimedia Commons (edited)

Panglao Island is situated off the south-western end of the far larger island of Bohol, hemmed in on all sides by the deep and vast Bohol Sea. Two bridges span the narrower waters on the island’s eastern coast, linking Panglao to Bohol.

The island has a terrain that ranges from plain, hilly, to mountainous. Its coastlines are marked by numerous sandy beaches. Beneath the crystalline waters surrounding the island, marine life flourishes in remarkable wealth, wildness and wonder.

Panglao is one of the premier tourist draws in the Philippines, offering a spectacular tropical beach and island experience, and an abundance of attractions, including beach bumming, island hopping, scuba diving, snorkeling, kitesurfing, and fishing, to name but a few.

White sand beach with coconut palms fronting clear waters with boats in anchor in Panglao, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
Alona Beach is Panglao’s most popular beach spot, a stunning shoreline of brilliantly white and exceptionally fine sand extending for some 1.5 km (0.9 mi) || Photo by Magalhães on Wikimedia Commons (edited)

Panglao is especially renowned for its white sand beaches, of which the most prominent and popular is Alona Beach, a stunning shoreline of brilliantly white and exceptionally fine sand. Alona extends for 1.5 km (0.9 mi) along the island’s south-western coast. On either end of the beach is a wall of rocks, and along its length is an array of tall coconut palms, some of which lean and extend outward over the turquoise waters.

Alona is the most developed beach in Panglao. Numerous resorts, restaurants, and various other shops line the beach. Near the shore are moored several outrigger boats, awaiting the tourists to be ferried to and fro the nearby islets.

Alona is also a choice snorkeling and diving spot, noted for its extensive reefs teeming with colorful corals, resplendent fishes, and other marine life.

White sand beach with coconut palm trees in Panglao, Philippines
All along the length of Alona Beach stand line upon line of tall coconut palms || Photo by Gene Paul Quevedo on Flickr (edited)

West of Alona is Danao Beach, a rugged and rocky shoreline encompassing several patches of fine white sand punctuated by walls of rocks, small trees, and shrubs. A few resorts line the shore. Danao is a popular diving and snorkeling site. The beach fronts clear waters wherein lies a “house” reef alive with vibrant aquatic life, all visible even without diving equipment.

East of Alona is White Beach, a 3 km (1.9 mi) stretch of white sandy shoreline encompassing both Dumaluan Beach and Libaong Beach. White Beach fronts warm, serene, and beckoning waters. All throughout the shoreline are coconut palms swaying gently in the sea-breeze, and thatched cottages affording shade from the tropical sun. Fewer people frequent White Beach, more often locals rather than tourists.

Woman using her phone while sitting on a white sand beach fronting blue and turquoise waters in Panglao, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
White Beach is a 3 km (1.9 mi) stretch of white sandy shoreline encompassing both Dumaluan Beach and Libaong Beach || Photo by Felix Dance on Flickr (edited)

On the island’s south-eastern coast is Bikini Beach, a strip of fine white sand no longer than 500 m (1,640 ft). Coconut palms and other trees abound along the shore, looking towards azure waters teeming with resplendent fishes and other marine life. Bikini Beach is another favorite among locals; on weekends, many families are wont to gather here beneath the shade of coconut palms, or in thatched huts furnished with benches.

On the island’s north-western tip is Doljo Beach, a lengthy expanse of white sand stretching for some 3 km (1.9 mi). The beach is bounded on one side by sweeping coconut palm forests, and on the other by the clear blue sea. Numerous seashells of beautiful shapes, exquisite designs, and resplendent colors adorn the sandy shore.

Outrigger boats moored close to white sandy shore in Panglao, Philippines
Running along Panglao’s northern coastline are several white sand beaches, foremost of which are Doljo Beach and Momo Beach || Photo by The Wandering Angel on Flickr (edited)

Despite being home to several resorts, some of which are among the most prominent in Panglao, Doljo Beach is steeped with an idyllic and even rustic aura.  The beach is noted as a favorite diving and snorkeling destination, with several remarkable dive sites just offshore, all brimming with diverse marine wildlife.

East of Doljo is Momo Beach. Soft white sand, tall coconut palms, and crystalline waters are par for the course in this fine patch of tropical beauty. With very few resorts present, many people, especially locals, favor the quiet and solitude afforded by the beach, the perfect place to relax and unwind. Momo is also known for its excellent dive sites.

Panglao also offers the perfect destinations for island-hopping enthusiasts; off the island’s south-western coast lie three fascinating islets – Balicasag, Gak-ang, and Virgin Islands.

Aerial view of an island fringed with a white sandy shoreline with a coconut palm forest in the middle amidst blue and turquoise waters in Panglao, Philippines
Balicasag Island is famed for its white sandy shoreline, and for the spectacular and colorful dive sites within its surrounding waters || Photo by James Connolly on Unsplash (edited)

Balicasag Island, the largest of the three and the farthest from Panglao, is a small, flat, and round island, covered in coconut palms and bougainvillea, and ringed by a white sand beach. A small community – chiefly fisherfolk and their families – inhabits the island.

Balicasag is famed as a veritable diving paradise, drawing crowds of divers from across the globe to its crystalline waters which abound with colorful marine life. Surrounding the island are several spectacular dive sites, which include Black Coral Forest, Cathedral Wall, Cavern and Turtle Point.

Gak-ang (Gakang) Island is a tiny, rocky, and uninhabited isle. While there is not much to do on the isle itself, save perhaps to sunbathe in its little patch of sand, the clear waters surrounding the isle teem with diverse and resplendent aquatic life – perfect for snorkeling!

Nearest to Panglao is Virgin Island, known as Pontod (Pungtud) Island among locals. The island is fringed by a white sand beach that becomes completely submerged during high tide, leaving only the palm trees in the midst of the island visible.

Outrigger boat moored on a white sand beach, beyond which lies an island with coconut palm trees in Panglao, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
The white sandy shoreline of Virgin Island is visible only at low tide; when the tide rises, the beach is submerged, leaving only the coconut palms in the center of the island visible || Photo by Gene Paul Quevedo on Flickr (edited)

For those looking to take a break from beach bumming and island-hopping, spelunking at Hinagdanan Cave is the perfect diversion.

Situated on the island’s northern coast, Hinagdanan Cave is an impressive subterranean cavern measuring some 100 m (328 ft) in length. The cavern’s ceiling is adorned with magnificent stalactites, and its floor is bedecked with majestic stalagmites. In its midst is ensconced an enchanting pool, cold and clear, mysterious and alluring, not wide but fairly deep. Sunlight filters through holes in the cavern’s ceiling, illuminating parts of the cave and its beautiful rock formations in spectacular hues of gold and scarlet.

Darkened cave with bright stalactites and stalagmites in Panglao, Philippines
Spelunking at Hinagdanan Cave is the perfect distraction for those looking to take a break from beach bumming in Panglao || Photo by Qaalvin on Wikimedia Commons (edited)

Panglao by itself is already a paradise. What makes it even more remarkable is that it sits on the very doorsteps of beautiful Bohol, magnificent Cebu, and mystic Siquijor, serving as a gateway to the rest of the islands of the Philippines.

3. Puerto Princesa Underground River

PROVINCE: Palawan

Roughly 539 km (335 mi) southwest of the capital Manila, on the western coast of the island of Palawan is found one of the world’s most impressive subterranean landscapes – the Underground River of Puerto Princesa.

River with turquoise and green waters flows out of a cavern delved on the side of sheer limestone cliffs overhung with verdure in Puerto Princesa Underground River, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
The Underground River of Puerto Princesa is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature || Photo by Carrie Kellenberger on Flickr (edited)

The underground river forms part of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a protected area situated some 80 km (50 mi) north of the city of Puerto Princesa, the capital of the province of Palawan.

Set within the rugged Saint Paul Mountain Range, the National Park extends over an area of approximately 22,202 ha, encompassing spectacular limestone karst landscapes and an impressive range of forest formations.

Reflections of oconut palms on a lake, beyond which rises towering mountains beneath a dark sky in Puerto Princesa, Philippines
The Underground River, and the National Park within which the river flows, is located within the Saint Paul Mountain Range || Photo by Rawen Balmaña on Flickr (edited)

Beneath this mountainous and forest-clad terrain lies the Saint Paul Underground River Cave, a vast and sprawling network of subterranean caverns, halls, and vaults measuring some 24 km (15 mi) in length.

Several of these underground caverns are remarkably immense and spacious. The largest – the Italian’s Chamber – is 360 m (1,181 ft) long, 140 m (459 ft) wide, and 80 m (262 ft) high, and is one of the largest cave rooms in the world.

Found within these subterranean chambers is a wonderful array of speleothems. Magnificent stalactites of every size, shape, and sort are suspended on the caverns’ ceilings. Majestic stalagmites of diverse forms and figures protrude from the crystalline waters.

River in an underground cave with jutting rocks from its ceiling in Puerto Princesa Underground River, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
The Saint Paul Underground River Cave is a vast and sprawling network of subterranean caverns, halls, and vaults spanning some 24 km (15 mi) in total length || Photo by USAID Biodiversity & Forestry on Flickr (edited)

Through the Saint Paul Underground River Cave flows the mesmerizing Cabayugan River (sometimes Saint Paul Underground River). Its enchantingly pellucid waters meander beneath dark halls and dim grottos, and pour through secluded pools and secret ponds. Smaller streams and rivulets diverge from the river, and into the darkness. But its main course holds on to a lengthy journey of some 8.2 km (5.1 mi), before eventually spilling out into the waters of Saint Paul’s Bay in the West Philippine Sea.

A recent expedition of environmentalists and geologists resulted to the discovery of, among other findings, a second floor of the underground river, which led them to believe that there are small waterfalls within the cave.

Boat laden with tourists sailing through a river in an underground cave with massive rock formations in the ceiling in Puerto Princesa Underground River, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
The Cabayugan River, or the Saint Paul Underground River, flows through the Saint Paul Underground River Cave for 8.2 km (5.1 mi), before eventually spilling out into Saint Paul’s Bay in the West Philippine Sea || Photo by Jam A on Flickr (edited)

Because it flows right into the open sea, the lower half of the underground river is brackish. Remarkably, its lower half is subject to the influences of ocean tides, distinguishing it as a uniquely significant natural global phenomenon.

The Cabayugan River is one of the longest navigable underground rivers in the world. From the sea, boats may sail up to 4.3 km (2.7 mi) in, through a yawning entrance on the seaside cliffs overhung by dense vegetation.

Boat laden with tourists sail along a river towards a gaping cavern beneath limestone cliffs in Puerto Princesa Underground River, Palawan
The Cabayugan River, or the Saint Paul Underground River, flows out of a yawning cavern, through which tourist boats may, in turn, sail up || Photo by Benson Kua on Flickr (edited)

Beyond the navigable length, the narrowing of the underground channels and the shallowing of the river begin to restrict the passage of boats. Indeed, in certain spots within the deeper recesses of the cave, it becomes possible to wade through the river. Those of a mind to explore the further length of the underground river – the unnavigable 3.9 km (2.4 mi) stretch – can do so, provided they first obtain a special permit.

The accessibility and navigability of the underground river allows it to be experienced by tourists by way of a pleasant river cruise offered by local tour agencies. The entrance to the subterranean river is accessible via ferry from the coastal village of Sabang. From there, tourists borne on tour boats are sailed up the silken waters of the river into the depths of the cave, where they can stare at the spectacular subterranean chambers and marvel at the magnificent rock formations.

Sea waves lap against a sandy shoreline with coconut palm trees, and in mountains in the distance beneath a cloudy sky in Puerto Princesa Underground River, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
From the coastal village of Sabang, tourists are ferried via outrigger boats to the entrance of the Underground River || Photo by Benson Kua on Flickr (edited)

Tourists are especially drawn to curiously-shaped speleothems resemblant of distinct objects and images. For instance, one massive speleothem is nicknamed the T-Rex as it resembles, somewhat, the head of that fearsome dinosaur. Another is known as the Pegasus, while a further two are vaguely reminiscent of a crocodile and a horse. Still others resemble various sorts of fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, or other things. One passageway holds the rock formations dubbed as The Giant Candle and The Holy Family, and even one of haunting likeness to the Apostles seated for the Last Supper.

Stalactite hanging from the ceiling of an underground cave in Puerto Princesa Underground River, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
Fascinating stalactites and stalagmites of diverse forms and figures adorn the subterranean cavern, many of which are resemblant of real-life objects || Photo by Jam A on Flickr (edited)

A diverse array of wildlife calls the cave and the river home. Millions of bats dangle by their feet from the roofs of the underground caverns and chambers. Swiftlets flit in and out of the dark of the cave by the thousands. Giant lizards and massive snakes crawl and slither along the banks of the river. The riverine waters teem with colorful fishes and other marine life. In the dense forests above, and along the sandy shorelines, troops of the frolicsome long-tailed macaques caper and cavort, even among the presence of tourists.

Close-up image of a 'bayawak' or a water monitor lizard crawling among dried leaves in Puerto Princesa Underground River, Philippines
Large numbers of water monitors are among a diverse array of wildlife found within the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park || Photo by Maks Karochkin on Flickr (edited)

Indeed, the vast expanse of the National Park is home to an incredible diversity of flora and fauna – over 800 species of plants, and more than 200 species of animals. Of the latter, 165 species of birds of the total of 252 known to inhabit in Palawan are found in the park. Besides, 30 species of mammals and 19 species of reptiles are also recorded. The region encompasses a full mountain-to-the-sea ecosystem, and hosts some of the most important forests in Asia.

Mangrove Swamp in Puerto Princesa, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
Vast swaths of mangroves swamps are among the several forest formations encompassed within the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park || Photo by Dan Lundberg on Flickr (edited)

Because of its impressive array of distinctive landscapes, and the rich and diverse ecosystem it harbors, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park has been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The National Park has also been designated as a Ramsar Wetland Site, as it plays host to a wetland site inhabited by waterfowls and considered of international importance.

Moreover, the Underground River, and indeed the entirety of the National Park, has been chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature by the New7Wonders Foundation.

Outrigger boats moored beneath a towering limestone cliff overhung with vegetation
Outrigger boats are moored beneath towering limestone cliffs overhung with verdure while the boatmen wait for the tourists to return from the Underground River and be be ferried back to Sabang || Photo by shankar s. on Flickr (edited)

Primeval and pristine, a journey through the subterranean river into the depths of the cave is akin to a journey back in time, when all things were new and the world was still young. The crystalline waters, the cavernous halls, the glittering rocks, the haunting silence, and the unfathomable darkness are steeped in an ancient and enduring beauty, all making for an exceedingly spectacular experience unrivaled elsewhere in the world.

4. Vigan City

PROVINCE: Ilocos Sur

Some 337 km (209 mi) north of the capital Manila, in the northerly province of Ilocos Sur stands an enduring reminder of the Philippines’ colonial past – the City of Vigan.

View of an array of horse drawn carriages on a cobblestone street lined by old Spanish colonial houses in Vigan City, Philippines
The City of Vigan in the northern province of Ilocos Sur is an enduring reminder of the Philippines’ colonial past || Photo by Dan Lundberg on Flickr (edited)

Vigan is the capital city of the province of Ilocos Sur in Northern Luzon. The city is built along the western coastal plains of the province, upon an expanse of land looking towards the sweeping waters of the West Philippine Sea. It is hemmed in to the north by the Govantes River, bounded to the south and east by the Abra River, and bisected by the Mestizo River.

Of old, Vigan was an island, sundered from the mainland by the three rivers. Along its shores flourished an expansive trading post where seafaring merchants from China, Japan, the Malay lands, and elsewhere in Asia came to trade with the natives.

The island of Vigan was known to the Fujianese traders of China as the “Beautiful Shore”, in their language Bee Gan. They built settlements in the area, alongside those of the natives. These afterwards grew and prospered, enriched by seagoing trade. By the time the Spaniards arrived, Vigan was already fairly advanced, the flourishing center of an array of towns and settlements all along the coasts of Ilocandia.

Old Spanish colonial homes and buildings line a cobblestone street where tourists walk along in Vigan, Philippines
Even before the Spaniards came and established Vigan as a Royal City, it was already a flourishing settlement frequented by merchants from China, Japan, the Malay lands, and elsewhere in Asia who came to trade with the natives || Photo by Ray in Manila on Flickr (edited)

The first Spaniards who came to Vigan arrived in 1572, led by Captain Juan de Salcedo. As it is often told afterwards, upon his arrival, Salcedo asked a native for the name of the place. The native could not understand a word he said, for Salcedo spoke in Spanish. But since Salcedo also pointed to the ground, upon which grew abundantly a certain tuber plant known as bigaa, the native took it to mean that he was asking for the name of the plant. The native answered “bigaa apo”, and thereafter the Spaniards called the place “Bigan”. Since the Spaniards interchanged V and the B to refer to the /b/ sound, they spelled “Bigan” as Vigan, the name used to this day.

Facade of an old Spanish colonial house in Vigan City, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
The lay of the Royal City of Vigan was patterned after that of Intramuros, the Walled City in Manila || Photo by Reguero87 on Wikimedia Commons (edited)

For his services to the Spanish Crown, Salcedo was accorded for his own the old Ylocos Province, which encompassed the modern-day provinces of Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, Abra, La Union, and part of Mountain Province. He founded the royal city of Vigan, and established it as the capital of Ylocos. He patterned the lay of the city after that of Intramuros, the Walled City in Manila.

Today, much of the old urban design of Vigan has endured, making the city the most intact example of a planned Spanish colonial town in Asia. Its architecture is exceptionally unique, born from the union of cultural elements from the East, chiefly from elsewhere in the Philippines and China, with those from the West, notably from Spain and Mexico.

Spanish colonial homes and buildings line a cobblestone street where tourists walk along in Vigan, Philippines
Today, much of the old urban design of Vigan has endured, making the city the most intact example of a planned Spanish colonial town in Asia || Photo by Ray in Manila on Flickr (edited)

Most of the colonial-era structures that have endured are found in the Mestizo District, the beautifully preserved historic core of the city also known as the Heritage Village. The Mestizo District encompasses numerous ancestral homes of the city’s elite arrayed along gridded streets and alleyways paved with cobblestones.

Facade of an old Spanish colonial house in Viagn, Philippines
The Mestizo District, otherwise known as the Heritage Village, encompasses many of the ancestral homes of the city’s former elite || Photo by Ricky Li on Flickr (edited)

Running through the Mestizo District is Mena Crisologo Street, or Calle Crisologo, a broad cobbled street extending for four blocks, hemmed on either side by the grand mansions of the families of the Filipino-Chinese merchants who amassed their wealth from the Manila-Acapulco maritime trade.

Tourists walk along a cobbled street lined with old Spanish colonial houses in Vigan City, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
Mena Crisologo Street, or Calle Crisologo, is lined with the mansions of the Filipino-Chinese merchants who profited from the Manila-Acapulco trade || Photo by Troy Alyson Espiritu on Flickr (edited)

The mansions are two-storied. The ground floor is built of stone, and once housed the shops, offices, and storerooms from where the merchants conducted their businesses. The upper floor, with its wooden walls and floors, housed the living quarters, the chief feature of which was the capacious and well ventilated living room, or sala. The mansions have roofs of red tiles, airy verandas, leafy inner courtyards, intricately wrought balconies, and sliding capiz-shell windows as tall as the doors.

Lamps hang on wrought-iron posts on Spanish colonial houses in Vigan City, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
Most of the mansions along Calle Crisologo are two-storied, with the ground floor wrought of stone and the upper floor mostly of wood || Photo by Troy Alyson Espiritu on Flickr (edited)

Calle Crisologo is the premier draw in the Mestizo District, and in all of Vigan. A number of the old houses have been repurposed as museums, inns, cafes, and shops. During the day, numerous tourists crowd the entire length of the street, striking poses and snapping pictures, flitting in and out of the shops, and parting only to make way for the calesas, or horse-drawn carriages, which are a common sight in the city. At night, lamps held aloft posts, or hung on walls, illuminate the street in soft hues of gold and vermillion, making for a lovely setting.

Cobblestone street lined by old Spanish colonial houses lit by yellow and orange lamps at night in Vigan City, Philippines
At night, lamps held aloft posts, or hung on walls, illuminate Calle Crisologo in soft and lovely lights of gold and vermillion || Photo by Adrian Enriquez on Pixabay (edited)

North of Calle Crisologo stands the grand Saint Paul’s Cathedral, which was a mere wooden chapel with a thatched roof when it was first erected in 1574 upon the behest of Salcedo. The impressive Cathedral that has endured to this day was completed by the Augustinian friars in 1800, and was built along the distinct ‘Earthquake Baroque’ architectural design of the Ilocos region.

Directly opposite the Cathedral is Plaza Salcedo, the oldest monument in Northern Luzon built in honor of the conquistador Salcedo. In the plaza’s midst stands the Salcedo Obelisk, which once served as the focal point of the old layout of the city. The plaza is renowned for its spectacular display of ‘dancing’ fountains of water illuminated by resplendent lights, spewing, streaming, and spurting to the accompaniment of music.

View of a statue on a pool with fountains, beyond which stands an old Catholic church in Vigan City, Philippines
Plaza Salcedo, the oldest monument in Northern Luzon, is built immediately in front of the grand Saint Paul’s Cathedral || Photo by Ray in Manila on Flickr (edited)

Beside the Cathedral lies another plaza, Plaza Burgos, a monument dedicated to the martyr Father Jose Burgos, an illustrious son of Vigan and among the three Filipino scholar-priests who were garroted by the Spaniards for championing reforms in the Catholic Church. The plaza is home to numerous stalls, kiosks, and stands vending local delicacies, especially empanadas (meat and vegetable-filled pastries), okoys (shrimp patties), and bibingkas (variants of rice cakes).

A line of calesas (horse-drawn carriages) wait while their drivers rest in Vigan City, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
Calesas (kalesas), or horse-drawn carriages, are a popular mode of transport in the City of Vigan || Photo by Myra Siason on Flickr (edited)

The entire city of Vigan was later inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage City after being declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. It is a member of the Organization of World Heritage Cities (OWHC). In May 2015, Vigan was officially recognized as one of the New7Wonders Cities by the New7Wonders Foundation.

5. Sagada

PROVINCE: Mountain Province

A little over 278 km (173 mi) north of Manila, nestled within the pine-clad highlands of Mountain Province is a small town with an exceptional beauty – the Municipality of Sagada.

View of the town of Sagada and the Cordillera mountains, among the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
Sagada, the ‘Shangri-La of the North’, is a small, idyllic, highland town nestled deep within the lofty and pine-clad mountains of the Cordilleras || Photo by Jose Nicdao on Flickr (edited)

This rugged town is set on a small valley high in the Cordilleras – the long and lofty mountain range in Northern Luzon that encompasses several provinces, including Mountain Province. Its high elevation, some 1,524 m (5,000 ft) above sea level, affords it a cool climate not unlike those in temperate countries.

Sagada is known as the Shangri-La of the North, a serene and tranquil setting far removed from the tumults of the metropolis. Its people, the indigenous Igorots, are given to a peaceable and simple living, growing crops and rearing animals on small family-owned farms carved along the mountainsides.

A rustic, idyllic town small in land area, population, and economy, Sagada’s true wealth lies in its many natural wonders, and in the rich culture and heritage of its people.

The people of Sagada, the indigenous Igorot tribes, possess a rich culture and a proud heritage handed down by their ancestors, one of the very few peoples in the Philippines who have successfully thwarted Spanish colonization || Photo by Jose Nicdao on Flickr (edited)

The most renowned of all the sights in Sagada, and indeed the most iconic, are the Hanging Coffins at Echo Valley. On the exceedingly precipitous sides of the rock cliffs within the valley are suspended – precariously, it seems – an array of coffins fashioned from pinewood. Within the coffins are laid in fetal position the remains of the ancestors of the Igorots.

The hanging coffins are among the most recognizable manifestations of the thousand-year traditions of the Igorots, a people who fiercely and purposefully defended their ancestral homes and heritage against the Spanish conquistadores. To be buried within a hanging coffin is a high honor among the Igorots, reserved only for a select few. Not everyone is qualified; among other things, one had to have been married and had grandchildren.

Pinewood coffins strapped on cliffsides in Sagada, Philippines
Wooden coffins containing the remains of prominent tribespeople hang on the sheer cliff sides of Echo Valley || Photo by Jose Nicdao on Flickr (edited)

Kiltepan, a lofty ridge on the eastern side of Sagada, offers a spectacular view of the sun rising resplendently above a sea of clouds. It does take a long hike at dawn to get there, but those willing to brave a wearying journey in the dark and cold hours are richly rewarded. The glorious rising of the sun is best welcomed with a cup of Sagada’s world-famous organic coffee brew.

Sprawled beneath Kiltepan are the verdant Kilong Rice Terraces, one of several clusters of rice terraces carved along the valleys and hills of Sagada. The beauty of the rice terraces is best viewed during sunrise, when the glistening waters of the terraced paddies reflect the luminous sunlight and mirror the unfurled majesty of the skyscape.

Sunlight shines on green terraces paddy fields of the KIlong Rice Terraces in Sagada, Philippines
Golden sunlight illuminates the verdant paddy fields of the Kilong Rice Terraces, one of several clusters of rice terraces carved along the valleys and hills of Sagada || Photo by Jose Nicdao on Flickr

An alternative to Kiltepan is Kamanbaneng Peak, a rugged and hilly land overlooking the entirety of Sagada, the neighboring towns, and even the provincial capital Bontoc. Kamanbaneng, more famously known as Marlboro Country after the herds of wild horses that once roamed and ranged here, affords a view of the rising sun just as resplendent as in Kiltepan.

For those in search of a thrilling spelunking experience, more than 60 caves in Sagada await adventurous explorers. The biggest of these caverns, Sumaguing Cave, or The Big Cave, is also the most renowned. At a depth of more than 152 m (500 ft), it is thought to be the deepest cave in the Philippines. Within its dark, cavernous expanse are crystalline pools, waterfalls, cold streams, and a magnificent array of rock formations of diverse shapes and figures.

Stalactites and stalagmites at Sumaguing Cave in Sagada, Philippines
Sumaguing Cave, dubbed the ‘Big Cave’, is thought to be the deepest cave in the Philippines, housing crystalline pools, waterfalls, cold streams, and a magnificent array of stalactites and stalagmites || Photo by Jose Nicdao on Flickr (edited)

Another famed cavern is Lumiang Cave, a burial ground of the Igorots. At the entrance of the cave is an array of pinewood coffins thought to be over 500 years old. Inside the coffins are laid in fetal position the remains of the ancestors of the Igorots.

For those seeking to test their mettle, the Cave Connection offers an exceedingly challenging spelunking adventure. Enter at Lumiang Cave, and from there, traverse a diverse range of difficult obstacles – treacherous trails, narrow passageways, slippery rock walls, and unfathomable ravines – and finally exit at Sumaguing Cave. Warning: this is not for the faint of heart!

Stack of pinewood coffins at Lumiang Cave in Sagada, Philippines
At the entrance of Lumiang Cave are pinewood coffins thought to be over 500 years old, within which are laid the remains of the ancestors of the Igorots || Photo by Jose Nicdao on Flickr (edited)

A number of splendid waterfalls are to be found anywhere in Sagada. To the north, the waters of Bomod-ok Falls, or The Big Falls, cascade from a dizzying height of 200 m (656 ft) and into a cold, crystalline pool. Here, the weary can take a refreshing dip and ease the strains and aches of the hike.

Its smaller cousin, Bokong Falls, is dubbed as The Little Falls, as it drops from only a height of 6 m (20 ft) and into a smaller but deeper pool. Its waters are warmer than Bomod-ok.

Further to the south is Pongas Falls. Its waters issue down a range of rocky boulders and finally into a cool and clear pool.

Waterfall cascading along a high cliff overhung with vegetation, and into a rocky pool at Sagada, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
The waters of Bomod-ok Falls, or the ‘Big Falls’, cascade from a dizzying height of 200 m (656 ft) and into a cold, crystalline pool || Photo by Jose Nicdao on Flickr (edited)

If the sunrise at Kiltepan is splendid, then the setting sun at Lake Danum is utterly magnificent. The lake itself is only scarcely larger than a pond, and is set in the midst of a grassy field ringed by tall pines and other trees. Come twilight, the rays of the setting sun illuminate the waters of the lake in spectacular hues of deep gold and vivid scarlet.

Lake Danum with grassy banks and bordered by tall pine trees in Sagada, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
Lake Danum is scarcely larger than a pond, and is set in the midst of a grassy field ringed by tall pines and other trees || Photo by Jose Nicdao on Flickr (edited)

All these scenic locations may be reached by setting out on foot along rugged trails bounded on either side by tall pine trees. In between long walks, camps may be pitched and bonfires may be lit at night. Indeed, perhaps one of the best moments in Sagada is camping out amidst the pine trees and the cold air, underneath the vast expanse of the night sky all aglow with the light of a million stars.

Pine trees on a hill, beyond which lies a town within a valley in Sagada, one of the most amazing places to visit in the Philippines
With its rugged terrain, pine forests, and crisp mountain air, Sagada is a stark contrast to the rest of the Philippines || Photo by Aadil Ayub on Unsplash

With its rugged terrain, pine forests, and cool climate, Sagada stands in stark contrast to the typical image of the Philippines – white sand beaches, coconut palms, and balmy weather. Steeped in rich ethnic culture and history, and endowed with an array of natural wonders, Sagada is a breath of fresh air not found elsewhere in the Philippines, as fresh indeed as the highland town’s crisp mountain air.

 

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