Philippines travel guide
The main reason to come to El Nido is the mesmerizing archipelago right of the coast in Bacuit Bay. The jagged limestone islands offers high vertical walls, stunning white beaches, and hidden lagoons, while the azure waters is home to vibrant coral gardens and - with luck - manta rays and whale sharks. The amount of day tours offered seem to be as plentiful as the number of islands, but you can hardly go wrong. Since one tour "only" takes you to 4-5 places, you might have to do several tours, if there are some specific places you absolutely must see, which could be Pasandigan Beach (picture), Snake Island, one of the lagoons, or Helicopter Island.
Bali Beach is one of the possible stops on a day tour from El Nido to Bacuit Archipelago. It's one of the less visited of the many picture-perfect beaches with white sand and fringed by tall coconut palms. You might even get this deserted paradise all to yourself (and the rest of your tour group). There are natural pools in the black rocks at the south end. The water here is tub warm, but you have to make the bubbles yourself.
It's not just the many stunning beaches, which has made El Nido the gem of Palawan. It's the stepping-stone to explore the even more stunning Bacuit Archipelago. However, ramshackle El Nido is no longer a hidden secret and the simple bamboo bungalows are getting replaced with proper hotels. But the beaches and the islands are as stunning, as they have always been.
Photo by Jeff Werner under CC
Up in the mountains in northern Luzon lies the village of Sagada, surrounded by pristine hills and pine forests. It's a refreshingly cool little place famous for its caves and hanging coffins. The deceased were put in a hollowed trunk and then placed high on a projection of the cliff or piled on top of other coffins. This ancient funeral custom is no longer practised, but it's still possible to visit the burial site where coffins of all ages and states of decay hang. You can even peek at the bones through the cracks, but no touching (some people do).
Beautiful, mountainous Kalinga Province is famous for its ancient warrior culture which has survived into the present. Some villages have gongs made of human jaw bones and people covered in full body tattoos that were awarded for success in headhunting raids. Although these practices have now ceased, tribal warfare is still a large part of life here, and in the remote Tanudan area people openly walk around with Uzis, M16s, pump-action shotguns and the like. Kalinga is certainly not for the faint-hearted and that goes for the drive here too. The first seven hours from Manila is a deceptively smooth ride on perfect tarmac, then the road becomes a dirt track for the next six hours and shoots off into the mountains, reaching heights of over 2250 m before descending into Bontoc. After Bontoc, only the occasional jeepney goes the last eight hours north to Kalinga but the scenery is utterly spectacular. The orangey-brown track streaks up and down mountainsides into and out of the clouds as if there were no tomorrow, millennia-old rice terraces cascading down the lush green slopes all around.
Throughout the Philippines the Jeepney is the public transport of choice. The private own rebuilt jeeps run fixed routes, which are stated on the car. Originally, they were made from U.S. military jeeps left over from WWII, but today most jeepneys are built from second hand Japanese trucks. They are usually pimped out in colourful paint with flamboyant chrome bodywork and high powered sound systems. A trip in Manila costs about 9 pesos (less than 0.2 USD) and you pay when entering.
Not many has Manila as their favourite place (maybe besides sex tourists), but nevertheless most travellers to the Philippines end up here for a night or two. It's a spread out and congested mega city with many ramshackle houses and bumper to bumper traffic, but Manila isn't without charm. The area within the old city walls, Intramuros, is probably the most interesting with a few cobbled streets and colonial buildings. Fort Santiago is also located here and the Rizal Park lies just outside the walls. Another interesting place is the North Cemetery, which is like small town of tomb houses shared by both living and dead. Else you can always do as everyone else in Manila, eat and drink your time away.
Photo by nozomiiqel under CC
You might be wondering how a suburban street like this can qualify as an attraction, and what it has to do with a cemetery. Well, it's a cemetery and all those fine little houses are not for the living, quite the opposite. They are mausoleums for some of the deceased wealthy Filippinos, and they come in all sizes from mailbox size to multi-storey houses with toilets and air-con. The cemetery is actually made up three different cemeteries; the Chinese Cemetery, La Loma Catholic Cemetery and the North Cemetery. And they are not just for the dead, as there are thousands of people living within the cemeteries. Some are caretakers living inside the mausoleums, while others are squatters living in shacks between the graves. It's best to visit on Sundays, when families come by to honour their ancestors, and it gets really lively on All Saints Day, the 1st of November.
Mindoro as a tropical island travel destination really has it all. Yet, bar the trashy resort in the north, it is almost totally devoid of tourists. At villages such as Bulalacao, it's easy to find a huge, golden-sand, palm-lined beach lapped by see-through turquoise waters and have it all to yourself. What's more, on low-key beautiful Pandan Island, snorkelers regularly swim with giant turtles. A bit further out, Apo Reef has world-class diving. But that's not all. Away from Mindoro's only road, which runs around the coast, its interior is inhabited by 100,000 Mangyan people. Those nearer the coast accept visitors if brought by someone they know. Others living further inland wear only a loincloth or go completely naked, live in extreme isolation and will run away from outsiders on sight. Sablayan is a good base to visit Pandan, Apo and Mangyan villages. Nearby Bulalacao are some markets visited by the Mangyan and a few Mangyan villages. Be warned: interior Mindoro, away from the road, is highly malarial and infested with anti-government rebels.
Once a year on the 5th November, the town of San Carlos on the island of Negros explodes into one of the most frenetic street festivals in a country renowned for its frenetic street festivals. Hundreds of dancers clad in a dazzling array of extraordinary costumes make their way through the town, performing spectacularly well-choreographed dances while on the move. Flowers are the theme of the day, and you'll see them painted all over the faces, bodies, arms and legs of the dancers. Some groups make human flower formations, their dances physically resembling the opening of a flower, and there may even be few giant bees hanging around to pollinate them. You won't find any slow, pretty waltzing here, though - these dances are fun, fast, full of life and in some cases a little crazy. The atmosphere in the town is absolutely wild, with karaoke bars full to the brim and overflowing onto the streets that the dancers pass through.