Don’t sleep on this southeast Asian destination.
By Elliot Owen
Earlier this year, I spent 19 days honoring the #wanderlust within by traveling to a dozen islands across the massive archipelago known as the Philippines. This is my opinion: the Philippines is among the most underrated travel destinations in the world.
Having visited multiple countries in North America, Europe, and Africa, I have a few reference points. While the Philippines was my first southeast Asian country, my inclination is it gets overshadowed by Vietnam and Thailand, kindred countries to the east that draw exponentially more tourists.
Regardless, the Philippines is next level, especially if your daydreams include a tropical island paradise so holy in nature, God crosses your mind whether you’re a believer or not.
My friend and I divided our trip into three legs based on three regions we visited. If you decide to book a flight, don’t sleep on the following sites and activities.
Siargao is a small tear drop-shaped island off the coast of larger island, Mindanao. Known mostly as a world-class surfing destination, Siargao is relatively absent from most tourists’ travel itineraries which is why you should go. Once airlines start flying direct flights to Siargao from Manila, the Philippine capital, tourists will be all over this charming hideaway.
Town-like, slow, and carefree, Siargao is island living at its best. We were lucky enough to have a friend living in the island’s main municipality, General Luna, which is how we got the inside scoop.
Island hopping is just that, island hopping. We hired a boatman in General Luna’s marketplace to take us to three islands: Naked Island, Daku Island, and Guyam Island. We swam, ate a Filipino lunch, drank beer, and walked palm tree-lined island trails.
Cost: boatman, 1500 PHP ($32.14) + 6 beers, 210 PHP ($4.50) + Daku Island hut rental, 350 PHP ($7.50) + lunch, 360 PHP ($7.71) = 2420 PHP ($51.85) for three people or $17.28 per person.
Stand Up Paddleboarding
Much simpler than surfing, stand up paddleboarding (SUP) is a great way to explore waterways at your own pace. With a few other travelers and a guide we hired at Harana Surf Resort, we floated the mangrove forests via SUP near Del Carmen. Speaking of Harana, this Filipino American-owned resort and restaurant serves the best halo-halo (a traditional Filipino dessert) on the island. Get yours after a serene SUP adventure.
Cost: board rental + guide, 750 PHP = $16.07 per person.
Magpupungko Rock Pools
Just an hour and a half from General Luna are the dreamiest tide pools you’ve ever seen. During low tide, the ocean recedes, trapping sea life within rock enclaves that fill with emerald-green seawater. Swimming and snorkeling are popular here. Tip: have a vegan smoothie bowl from Shaka Siargao for breakfast before heading to the crystalline natural pools.
Cost: round trip motorbike fare, 800 PHP ($17.14) + rock pool entry fee, 50 PHP ($1.07) = $18.21 per person.
Aside from the crowded but beautiful beaches of Panglao, Bohol is a mostly quiet pastoral island known for the old Spanish churches scattered across it. Scuba divers and snorkelers come here from all over the world to embark on underwater excursions that can include whale sharks, manta rays, and sea turtles. Dolphin-watching is also popular off Bohol, the tenth largest island of the Philippines.
Over 1,200 naturally formed mounds of earth dot the landscape of Bohol’s interior. Called the Chocolate Hills, a reference to the brownish color they turn during dry season, they string out between three towns and stand as tall as 170 feet. We took a bus from Bohol’s port city, Tagbilaran, to the Chocolate Hills where we picked up a motorbike guide who drove us around the island for a negotiated price.
Cost: bus fare, Tag → Chocolate Hills, 80 PHP ($1.71) + Chocolate Hills entry fee, 50 PHP ($1.07) + misc. transport fees, 200 PHP ($4.29) + van fare, Carmen → Tag, 400 PHP ($8.57) = $15.64 per person (does not include negotiated motorbike costs).
Danao Adventure Park
This ecotourism preserve is deep within the heart of Bohol. Stretching across jungle that’s veined by the Inabanga River, the park offers everything from exploring caves, rappelling down the root systems of trees, to ziplining through the rainforest canopy. We rented kayaks and floated down a stretch of the Inabanga, saying hello to water buffalo and children from nearby villages on our way.
Cost: kayak rental and guide, 300 PHP = $6.43 per person.
Balicasag Island is off the coast of Panglao, home of the highly-trafficked Alona Beach. We needed some time away from the touristy hustle and bustle of Alona so we booked one night’s stay at Balicasag Island Resort. I wish we’d stayed longer. While a few tourists visited the island between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., we had the whole island to ourselves otherwise. The snorkeling was out of this world — sea turtles, jelly fish, tropical fish, and radiant coral forests freckled with starfish and nudibranchs.
Cost: round trip boat fare, 800 PHP, ($17.14) + Balicasag Island Resort, 1 night ($68.70) = $85.87 for two people or $42.94 per person.
Named The Best Island In The World by Travel + Leisure, Palawan is the quintessential tropical paradise. It’s FernGully meets Avatar with a little Jurassic World sprinkled on top. After flying into the capitol, Puerto Princesa, most people head north to explore El Nido or Coron.
Puerto Princesa Underground River
Real talk, the Underground River is a tourist trap. It’s nearly impossible to visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site without going with a tourist group, so be prepared with headphones. Thing is, taking a boat into a deliciously eerie and energetically-charged subterranean waterway buzz-chirping with the sounds of bat echolocation isn’t something to miss.
Cost: tour package (transport to/from Puerto Princesa, lunch), 1800 – 2100 PHP =$38.57 – $45 per person.
Nacpan-Calitang Twin Beach & Nagkalit-kalit Falls
You can’t visit Palawan without staying in El Nido for a few nights. Spanish for “the nest,” El Nido is the jump-off point for the many breathtaking sites in the area. While many of the town’s businesses can hook you up with a tour group going to Nacpan-Calitang Twin Beach and Nagkalit-kalit Falls for 700 PHP per person (lunch included), we hired our own tricycle driver which was undoubtedly more fun.
Cost: roundtrip tricycle fare, 600 PHP ($12.86) + Nagkalit Falls entry fee, 50 PHP ($1.07) = $13.93 per person.
MORE Island Hopping
Island hopping in the Bacuit Archipelago is what most people travel to northern Palawan for, and it doesn’t disappoint. Tours of the archipelago are packed into four main trips (A, B, C, D) that focus on different aspects of the area. We took Tour A, which includes a series of white-sand beaches and incredible aquamarine lagoons bordered by towering limestone spires covered in overhanging greenery. It’s also possible to skip the crowds and rent a kayak to explore the limestone islands on your own.
Cost: Tour A (includes lunch, drinking water, snorkeling gear), 1200 PHP = $25.71 per person.