The Philippines -- an archipelago country made up of 7,641 islands. The Philippines has a really interesting history that’s built up one of the most unique countries in the world. Once colonized by Spain, The Philippines feature huge Spanish influences in the language, cuisine and architectural aesthetic of the country, blended seamlessly with traditional Filipino customs and traditions from before the conquest. It’s located in the subtropical region of the Pacific Ocean and therefore has immense biodiversity, with crystalline beaches, dense jungles, limestone outcroppings and coral reefs. There is literally so much to see in the Philippines that you could visit all 7,641 islands and still miss out on some incredible sights, but let’s try to distill the highlights into two weeks.
Food & Drinks to try in the Philippines
Pancit Canton- tasty and delicious Filipino street food. It’s made of stir-fried egg noodles, tossed with veggies and meat.
Lumpia- Filipino spring rolls, usually filled with veggies & sometimes meat. I had about 3,495 of these on my trip.
Bicol Express- A stew made from chiles, pork and coconut milk, sometimes with shrimp paste in it. I had a jackfruit version of this that was very tasty.
Sisig- a dish usually made with pork and chicken liver, season with calamansi (tiny limes) chili peppers and onions.
Halo-Halo- a cold dessert usually made with ube, coconut and cheese. Surprisingly delicious.
Cassava Cake- Really tasty cake made from shredded cassava and combined with coconut milk and sweetened condensed milk. A Filipino favorite.
Balut- Not for the faint hearted. It’s essentially boiled chicken embryo and believe me when I say that it looks exactly like it sounds.
Lanzones- small, brown, potato-looking fruit with a white inside that tastes like lychee. My absolute favorite fruit.
Jackfruit- By itself, not so tasty, but when used as a meat-substitute, it gets the job done really well.
Yellow Watermelon- Am i the only one who didn’t know these exist???
Calamansi- tiny little limes native to the Philippines. Great for cocktails and garnishing food.
Safety in the Philippines
The Philippines isn’t widely regarded as one of Southeast Asia’s safer countries, with major crimes happening pretty frequently in some parts of the country. The government is currently wrapped up in a huge anti-drug campaign that’s turned violent and even been labeled terroristic. However, having said that, anywhere you’re likely to visit in the Philippines (and certainly anywhere on this list) is nowhere near these major crime centers, so it’s very unlikely you’ll run into any trouble. As always, just be safe, smart and alert. And please, you guys, leave the drugs at home. Southeast Asia as a whole has some of the strictest drug-trafficking and possession punishments in the world, so coming into the country with some could land you some serious jail time, if not much, much worse.
2-Week Philippines Itinerary
Day 1: Fly to Puerto Princesa; Van to El Nido
Welcome to the Philippines! Chances are you’ve flown a long way to get here, so let’s cut right to it so you can fast-forward to you laying on a beach in El Nido. The first thing you’ll want to do is make sure you fly into Puerto Princesa, which will almost certainly mean a layover in Manila. I know that flights to Puerto Princesa from out of the country can be expensive, so if that's the case, you can always book a flight to Manila, and then book a separate connecting flight to Puerto Princesa. Nice little travel hack for you right there.
Once you arrive in Puerto Princesa, head outside the tiny airport and walk across the street to find the vans that head north to El Nido. The vans will look empty, but don’t be fooled. They will not budge until they’re 110% full of passengers. Even if you start driving, you’ll certainly stop somewhere else to pick up more people or even get switched to another van that’s almost full. It’s just how it works in this part of the world. Don’t worry, these vans run almost all day so regardless of when you arrive in Puerto Princesa, you’ll have no issues finding a ride to El Nido. The drive will take you about 6 hours, so have some podcasts or music at the ready and try to shake off that jet lag.
Days 2-4: El Nido
You made it! After all those flights, layovers and van rides, you can finally relax on the beach and enjoy this truly tropical paradise island. Completely surrounded on all sides by sloping limestone cliffs, El Nido is a town located on the northern tip of the island of Palawan, and features dozens of white sand beaches, hidden lagoons, coral reefs and underwater caves. El Nido is one of those lucky spots that is very much popular on the backpacker trail, but remains unspoiled by overcrowding and garbage, mostly because it takes so long to get to. It’s truly a lovely and warm place to unwind after a few days of travel, and there’s certainly enough to do to keep you around for far longer than the 2 days that we have scheduled. So having said that, let’s get started.
What to do in El Nido
Island Hopping Tours (A, B, C, or D)
Because tourism has become such an integral part of El Nido’s economy, tour companies have made it easy & convenient for you to access all the hotspots around this lovely island town. Each tour takes you to 5-6 islands, and they almost all include swimming, snorkeling and kayaking, often with lunch included. Tours A and C are the most popular, but each of them have their own pros and cons. Do a little bit of research to see which one(s) you’d like to try
Small Lagoon, Big Lagoon, Secret Lagoon, Shimizu Island & 7 Commando Beach
Snake Island, Pinagbuyutan Island, Entalula Beach, Cudugnon Cave & a snorkeling site.
Helicopter Island, Matinloc Shrine, Secret Beach, Star Beach & Hidden Beach
Ipil Beach, Cadlao Lagoon, Paradise Beach, Pasandigan Beach, Natnat Beach, Bukal Beach
Drink your face off on a Booze Cruise
If you’re feeling in a party mood, El Nido has quite a few different booze cruises, all with unlimited alcohol and snacks. The cruises will take you to a few different beaches where you can swim, snorkel (that seems like a bad idea), and relax on the beach with other travelers. The boat leaves at 11:00 AM and returns at 6:00 PM, just in time to catch the sunset on the beach. I didn’t get the chance to do this and, not going to lie, am sort of regretting it now.
Take a Tricycle up to Duli Beach
Just an hour north of El Nido is Duli Beach, a totally undiscovered and pristine white sand beach with few to no tourists. It’s enormous (about 2km long), and has nothing but palm trees, white sand, and occasional bars and beachside restaurants. I don’t know that I’d recommend eating at any of them (let’s avoid food poisoning), but the beach itself is really quite gorgeous and a perfect spot to try your hand at surfing, as the water is shallow pretty far out.
Head up to Nacpan Beach
Nacpan Beach is just 45 minutes away from El Nido, and it’s become somewhat of a paradise hub for backpackers ever since the Mad Monkey Hostel opened up there. The beach is enormous, definitely big enough to offset any crowds, but it’s also a perfect place to view the sunset from. For this one, I’d recommend hiring a tricycle driver so you don’t have to ride back in the dark.
Day 5: Back to Puerto Princesa
Once you’re sufficiently sunburnt, hungover, or both, take the morning van back down to Puerto Princesa and check in to your flight the next day. Puerto Princesa itself isn’t all that special. It’s kind of like the necessary industrial portion of Palawan that doesn’t have many attractions of its own, but it’s a decent place to get a good night’s sleep before your flight to Cebu. Check into a hostel and unwind before a long travel day.
Day 6: Flight to Cebu; Bus to Oslob
Okay, folks, buckle up because this is going to be a long day. The next destination on our list is Siquijor, which is a beautiful island off the southern coast of Cebu, but it’s a hell of a spot to get to. Wake up on this day and head to the airport, where you’ll have a quick 1-hour flight to Cebu City. From there, catch a tricycle or cab to the bus station and hop on a bus heading towards Oslob. Oslob is a destination of its own, in particular with people looking to swim with whale shakes (don’t go here for this; they overcrowd and trap the sharks in the bay so they can make money off the animals year-round). However, we’re headed to Oslob just as a way to get to Siquijor, as the ferry that takes us there is only a 20 minute drive from the town. The bus from Cebu City to Oslob takes about 3 hours...not too bad.
Once you arrive in Oslob, check into your hostel and get a good night’s sleep before you head over to Siquijor the next day. You earned it!
Days 7-9: Siquijor
The next morning, wake up and ride a tricycle over to the port in Liloan to catch your ferry to Siquijor. The ferry ride will take about 3 hours, but trust me, it’ll be worth it. When you finally arrive in Siquijor, you’ll see why. Siquijor is a really fascinating island because it's inhabited primarily by indigenous people, and it has a reputation for being into witchcraft and voodoo. However, it’s also known for being yet another untouched paradise island where you can kayak, swim, snorkel and cliff dive from pretty much any beach. What I personally loved about Siquijor is how quiet and remote it is. It feels like one of those destinations that hasn’t yet been spoiled by tourism the way some other ones are. It’s a lovely place to unwind and lay out on the beach or dive headfirst into a waterfall.
What to do in Siquijor
Relax on the picturesque Paliton Beach
If you opened up a textbook to the word “tropical island,” Paliton Beach would likely be the picture next to the definition. Paliton Beach is a stunning stretch of sand with incredibly tall palm trees wafting overhead. Head here for a full-day beach day, or just come here for sunset. If you’re staying at Love Shack Hostel, this beach is a quick 10 minute walk from your dorm.
Cool off at the Cambugahay or Lugnason Falls
A quick scooter ride away from your hostel, these falls are lovely sets of waterfalls and pools that are perfect for soaking in when the sun gets a bit too toasty. Pay a reasonable fee to use the swing they’ve set up, and test your fear of heights by taking on the three different rope swings.
Scoot over to Salagdoong Beach
All the way on the other side of the island, Salagdoong Beach is a really nice big beach with crystal-clear water and some cliff diving spots. Whether you brave the jump, go snorkeling (plenty of fish here) or just lay out on the beach, Salagdoong is a really nice activity to do on a hot, summery day.
See the Old Enchanted Balete Tree
Okay, so full disclosure -- this is a missable attraction. The tree is impressive for sure, but the entire area is set up in a very tourist-trap sort of way, with overpriced souvenir vendors all around, and a huge western food restaurant right next to the tree. The only reason I’d recommend coming here is because at the base of a tree is a fish spa, where little fish swim around and chomp on the dead skin on your feet. Definitely weird, but also weirdly relaxing.
Okay, I know it’s not Filipino food, but this delicious restaurant is only a 10 minute walk from Love Shack Hostel and has the best Italian food you’re going to get in the Philippines. The reason for this is because the owners are a couple of expats from Italy who have moved to Siquijor to open a bed and breakfast. The food is seriously good and moderately priced given the quality. Definitely worth a meal here.
Days 10-13: Bohol
Once you’ve scooted enough around Siquijor, head back to the port and catch a ferry to Bohol. Bohol’s major port is called Tagbilaran, so don’t be alarmed if you’re shepherded onto a boat that says that rather than Bohol. You have a few options here. You can take the cheaper slow boat (about 3 hours) or splurge for the ocean jet (1 hour), but regardless of how you get there, you’ll land in Tagbilaran port. Take a tricycle from there to your hostel (likely in Panglao city), and check into your hostel.
Bohol is a fascinating island. Largely famous for its tarsiers and chocolate hills, Bohol has become a centerpiece in the Filipino tourist industry, and therefore can be pretty touristy and crowded at times. I’m not going to lie to you, I still don’t know how I felt about Bohol. Some parts of it were lovely and remote, but others were overpriced and felt like tourist traps. I think it all boils down to what you wind up doing.
What to do in Bohol
Visit the Chocolate Hills
The Chocolate Hills are synonymous with Bohol, and for good reason. These strangely shaped mounds erupt from the ground in a way that looks like they’re from a Mario game. Come during dry season and they’re brown (hence the name “Chocolate Hills”), but come any other time of year and they’re a bright green -- still very nice to see. I’d recommend scooting over there on your own rather than booking a tour. The tour that I took was rushed, unpleasant, and rather tight. Much better to scoot on over there at your pace and experience the hills for as long as you’d like.
Swim in Hinagdanan Cave
Do (another) Island-Hopping Tour
If you’re looking to take a chilly dip in a cave, then Hinagdanan is the spot for you. Head there early (to avoid the crowds) and snap some pictures of this beautiful cave. If you’re brave enough to take a dip, be warned, the water is absolutely freezing.
While El Nido may have had an endless variety of island tours, Bohol has one that may be equally as impressive. Start the day early in order to spot some dolphins (if you’re lucky), and then head over to Balicasag Island for some seriously impressive snorkeling. The reefs here are spectacular and the water is crystal clear. While snorkeling here, a sea turtle swam within one inch of my face, so now I can die happy and hopefully you can too after going here. Finish out the tour with a ride over to Virgin Island, a sandbar that’s only navigable during the low tide. Walk around the shallow waters and spot some neon-colored starfish (but don’t take them out of the water!). Your tour will end on Alona Beach, a central location and walking distance from your hostel.
Visit a Tarsier Sanctuary -- but the right one
There are a few tarsier sanctuaries around the island of Bohol, but some are better than others. The one that I (unwittingly) went to was essentially a zoo that caged dozens of very unhappy-looking animals. I’d recommend avoiding this at all costs, so you don’t support businesses that take advantage of the wildlife for profit.
From a quick internet search, it seems that the best one to visit is the Philippine Tarsier and Wildlife Sanctuary, which claims to rescue tarsiers and keep them in their natural habitats on the grounds rather than shuttle them into cages for tourist photo-ops. I’m not going to lie, I haven’t heavily vetted this spot, so do your own research, but I implore you to do your best to support the right kind of organization. Tour companies in Bohol will tell you anything to get your business, so make sure you look into it before booking any tours. I made a mistake and trusted them, which is how I ended up going to the wrong spot.
Day 14: Back to Cebu City
Once you’ve finished up in Bohol, catch the ferry back to Cebu City from Tagbilaran port, and check into a hostel for your last night in the Philippines. If you’re looking for one last hurrah, check out Mad Monkey Cebu City for some awesome partying, but if you’d prefer something a bit quieter and more luxurious, Murals Mactan Hotel is not only a few blocks away from the airport, but it's also cheap and incredibly clean.
Day 15: Fly Home
Hopefully despite the short two weeks, you’ll feel like you got a pretty good taste of what the Philippines has to offer. We only covered 3 islands out of the 7,641, but hey, that means you’ll have to come back soon for the remaining 7,638.
If you’re interested in seeing other parts of the world (or more of Southeast Asia), you can always check out my other itineraries right here. Happy travels, my friends!