How to travel in the Philippines

Photo: Linus Escandor

What comes to your mind when you hear someone saying “the Philippines”? Paradise beaches, coconuts, diving sites and islands? No doubt you can find all of this in the Philippines, but there is so much more hidden behind this already amazing façade. What to do, when and why – read it through and pack your bag! The country’s motto gives you a hint: “It’s more fun in the Philippines.”

Location: The island country consists of 7641 islands and is located in the western part of the Pacific Ocean approximately 1000 km from Eurasian continent.

The Philippines is located on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

East of the Philippines is brushed by the waves of the Philippine Sea, on the west side by the South China Sea and on the south side by the Celebes Sea. The Philippines shares maritime borders with Taiwan to the north, Japan to the northeast, Vietnam to the west, Palau to the east, and Malaysia and Indonesia to the south.

The Philippines itself is divided into three regions: northern part is called Luzon, middle part Visayas and the most southern part Mindanao.

The Philippines’ location on the Pacific Ring of Fire and close to the equator makes the Philippines prone to earthquakes and typhoons, tropical storms, floods and volcanic eruptions. The Philippines is on the fourth place in the world for having high level of natural disasters. On the other hand the location and lush nature is home for various plant and animal species including harboring a life of one of the tiniest primates’ – tarsiers.

Fishermen bringing their early catch to the market.

Population: ca 105 million

Capital: Manila that is located on Luzon islands in the Manila Bay. Manila is one of the 16 cities that all together form Metro Manila. In Metro Manila there are about 20 million residents.

Language: Filipino and English. Overall almost 200 different languages/dialects are spoken in the Philippines. If you can handle some English you will be fine. If that should fail body language will be there to help you out and of course smiling – that will always get you far. Filipinos love to smile.

People: As mentioned – they love to smile. And to compliment. Filipinos are the friendliest and most hospitable nation I have come across and they will make everyone feel at home in a second. Their humor is very playful, they are polite, yet can be rather direct in some matters. Local taxi drivers or locals selling their products on the markets aren’t too pushy towards tourists. Simple “no” is easily understood and people are respectful.

Joy of life is already coded into Filipinos’ genes. Children in on of the slums of Manila – Tondo.

Religion: The Philippines is one of the two Catholic countries in Asia (the other one is East Timor). They have 83% of Catholics, 9% of Protestants and 5% of Muslims. Due to some religious clashes in Mindanao region (South of the Philippines) it is not recommended to travel everywhere. But as said, there are more than 7000 islands in the Philippines so that a few conflict areas shouldn’t be an obstacle.

Currency/Prices: Used currency is peso (PHP), 1€ = ca 57 pesos (December 2019). Prices differ greatly between the capital and touristic places compared to provinces. You can spend a night in a hostel for 300 pesos as well as 1000 pesos. Hotel prices start from 2000 and 3000 pesos for a night. Grocery store prices in Manila shopping centers are slightly cheaper than in Estonia, however dairy is much more expensive. On the markets and streets you can find cheap seasonal fruits and veggies that are again much cheaper in the provinces.

In the cities it is possible to pay by card (not on the streets obviously), but carrying cash with you is recommended. ATMs you can find in most of the bigger places. For each withdrawal you need to pay like 250 pesos, so it is wiser to take out a bit bigger amount straight away.

Metro Manila at night: Makati city – mostly known for its night life

Safety: Travelling in the Philippines is safe, but don’t leave your common sense behind and avoid few places in Mindanao. As usual you should be aware of the pickpocketing as you would in your home town. I would recommend to follow local weather report PAGASA and avoid travelling to other islands during typhoons (air and marine traffic can be disrupted and leave you somewhere stuck, power outages are common and during bigger disasters evacuation is required).

Health care/Vaccines: In Manila and bigger cities there are outstanding hospitals and clinics, smaller clinics in the provinces provide basic first aid.

Before your trip you should also consult your doctor or a specific clinic about which vaccines you might need. You should already have done all the regular vaccines (tetanus, hepatitis etc.). They say it is also recommended to get vaccinated against Japanese encephalitis (it is a very rare disease, so ask your doctor if it’s needed for short term holidays). There are some rabies cases, but most common disease is Dengue fever, which is spread by mosquitos and there is no vaccine against it. Generally it is not a life threatening condition, for prevention you can wear long pants and long sleeved shirts addition to mosquito spray. Malaria occurs in very few locations.

Drinking tap water is not recommended.

In the islands the life moves in its own pace.

SIM card: Getting a local number is very easy and you can find a sim card already in the airport (main providers are Globe and SMART). I can’t comment on Smart, but they have a saying that “Smart people use Globe” (serious joke). When topping up your SIM card it is useful to use different PROMOTIONS.

Visa: Estonian citizens can travel in the Philippines visa free for 30 days, like most of other countries’ citizens in the world.

There is no Estonian embassy in the Philippines.

Closest embassy to Estonia is in Warsaw.

Clothing: Mostly casual, naturally some suggestions are to be followed when entering holy places.

It is impossible to have a meal without rice. Like potatoes for Estonians.

Food: The Philippines have been blessed with generous selection of tropical fruits, from mangoes and avocados to pineapples and coconuts. Traditionally they eat a lot of rice, noodles and meat. In the cities the quality of food is not that high as there are many fast food restaurants, oily and carb filled dishes. Traditional breakfast consists of fried rice, fried egg and deep fried chicken or fish and pork. Lunch and dinner are basically the same just the meat option differs. In provinces seafood is more popular and you are able to add some more greens to your meal. In the cities and more popular places you can find almost everything – from pizzas to smoothie bowls. Filipinos do love sweets, for example pasta Bolognese we know is sweet in the Philippines. On the streets you can find balut eggs – commonly boiled chicken or duck egg which has a developing bird embryo inside. One of the most popular desserts is halo-halo: crushed ice covered with condensed milk and topped with all possible sweets from jelly to ice cream and fruits.

For eating mainly fork and spoon are used.

Popular concept Boodle Fight means that there is a lot of food spread out on a banana leaf and people around it use hands for eating.

Historically Filipino cuisine and culture has been influenced by Spain and America.

Northern provinces produce coffee.

Using a bike for getting around is rather bothersome, mostly because of the heat but also because of busy traffic.

Transportation

Flying: Obviously you can fly to the Philippines. There are two bigger airports in Manila and countless smaller ones on the islands. Domestic flights are typically cheap, especially from Manila to Cebu and Palawan islands. Main airlines are Cebu Pacific and Air Asia. Often they host fun quizzes or even karaoke on board, because like they like to say “It’s more fun in the Philippines”.

Taxi/Grab: In the Philippines you can find quite different types of taxis. Mostly it is recommended to take white taxis, or yellow ones from the airport. Prices are cheap, just be mindful of checking up on the driver to turn on the taximeter. Most comfortable would be to use Grab application (similar to Uber).

Local transportation: Main things to be seen in traffic besides cars are tiny tricycles (motorized traditional rickshaw or a bicycle with three wheels, similar to tuk-tuks in India; can be also ordered as taxis) and very loud jeepneys that are open on the sides (they have their certain routes but not times). Local transportation is way cheaper than taxis but come at a certain cost (rechecking the route, probably breathing in more exhaust fumes from the traffic etc. but could be more convenient in the provinces). Jeepney price depends on the distance, but is usually between 10 and 30 pesos, tricycle is a bit pricier.

Bus: Cheap and quite comfortable. You can opt for air conditioned and ones without. Driving approximately 100 kilometers out of Manila should cost you around 100 pesos, but depends on a bus and the location.

Train: There aren’t so many train routes in Manila, but they are cheap and comfortable when you manage to avoid rush hours (extremely crowded) and you happen to be close to a train stop.

Ferries: Ferry traffic is active between various islands and the prices depend on the age of the ferry, travelling distance, your seat etc. For instance, two-hour ferry ride should cost around 200-400 pesos.

General tip for Metro Manila traffic is to have a lot of patience because staying in a traffic jam for hours isn’t anything out of ordinary. If you want to leave Manila by land it would be recommended to leave early in the morning or late in the evening and try your best to avoid rush hours (ca 7.00-11.00 and 16.00-20.00). A lot depends also on a day and holidays. If you need to be somewhere or plan something be sure to take into account some extra time. Avoid Friday and Sunday evenings.

Once out of Manila it is easier to get around.

Camping is allowed almost everywhere so you can set up your hippie camp in almost every beach. Though often you need to pay a small amount for it.

Accommodation: You can find very luxurious and fancy hotels as well as hostels out of which the cheapest are around 300 pesos (ca 5 euros). Camping is allowed in most of the places. CouchSurfing and Workaway are also active platforms.

Economy: After Second World War the Philippines was one of the most developed countries in Asia. Now the economic growth has declined (staying stable), but the country faces now its biggest problem – corruption. Its part has also numerous natural disasters.

Main export articles are electronics and semiconductors, transportation equipment, clothes, copper products, petroleum products, coconut oil and fruits.

Climate: Tropical marine climate. There are three seasons: tag-init or tag-ara is the hot and dry summer season; tag-ulan is the rainy season (June to November); tag-lamig is the cooler dry period (December to February). Temperatures are mostly between 21 and 32 degrees (Celsius), but vary on the season and the area. Coolest month is January and the hottest is May (as a compensation it is the best mango season!). Baguio city in the north is called the summer capital, because contrary to our summer capital Pärnu in Estonia where to people rush to enjoy summer, here people love to escape the heat (the city is located at 1500 m above the sea level and the average temperature is 18 degrees).

The Philippines is famous for diving opportunities: visibility is excellent and corals are colourful; if they aren’t dead…

Nature: Highest peak is located in Mindanao region, Apo (2954 meters).

What to do in the Philippines? Diving, hiking, laying on the beach, snorkeling, swimming, rowing with a boat, camping on the islands, eating, watching stars, saving turtles, visiting art museum, climbing a coconut tree, surfing, driving with a scooter, kitesurfing, laying in the hammock, helping others, cleaning beaches from trash.

When you get bored of the beaches go to the mountains!

Where and why to go?

Metro Manila: huge and highly populated city, where are many traffic jams and air pollution. I wouldn’t recommend to stay there as a tourist more than few days (and even these you can calmly skip). It is more fascinating to discover Manila city (so-called Metro Manila old town: Intramuros; as well as the China town next to it). Main night life you can find in Makati city (Poblacion) and in BGC city. Near Manila (in Antipolo, an area grown together with the city) you can find a spectacular and more alternative art museum (Pinto Art Museum).

Luzon: The Philippines’ most northern part where you can find several mountains to climb (for hiking I would recommend Baguio and Sagada areas; popular also for world-known rice terraces in Banaue – north of Manila). If you are interested in surfing check out Aurora and La Union coastlines. Closer to Manila it is worth to hike in Rizal region. The northern part of Luzon’s landscape has been compared with the nature in New Zealand. Cute little town to visit is Vigan. Kalinga and Isabela provinces are known for producing coffee.

South of Manila, Batangas area you can hike around Lake Taal and then on top of a volcano island in the middle of it. In Batangas you can also find perfect places for diving and snorkeling. Not so far from Manila (3h bus + a ferry) is a lovely town with its surrounding landscapes (waterfalls, beaches) Puerto Galera. PS. Often you are required to hire a guide for a hike, because in many places it is not allowed to go out alone. Luckily prices are again rather cheap.

Man-made forest in Bohol island. Most reasonable is to rent a scooter for getting around.

Visayas: Most popular destinations are Cebu (diving, snorkeling, waterfalls, beaches etc) and Bohol (chocolate mountains, waterfalls, beaches, local ice cream factory). Between both of them you can travel by a ferry. And of course Palawan (watersports, unbelievable nature, beaches, food, sunrises and sunsets). Getting around on the islands it is easiest to rent a scooter or use the local transportation.

More popular places and islands to check out: Boracay, Coron, Siquijor, Apo (highest peak in the Philippines, 2954 meters), Surigao, Siargao etc.

For how long to visit? You can easily spend there at least a month. But if you are planning a shorter holiday you can see a lot in two weeks as well.  

Deep green water river, in Bohol island.

If you have any possibility to help local nature/people while your stay there, please go for it.  By picking up the trash from the beaches or buying products from the local people who have been affected by the natural disasters, you can make a bigger change you might think. The Philippines is considered to be one of the most vulnerable countries to be affected by the climate crisis. Starting from dead coral reefs (I really recommend to watch a documentary called Chasing Coral) and ending with increased storm winds and unusually high temperatures. Big concern is also a waste issue, mainly plastic and lacking know-how to create waste management systems.

Best time to travel: November to April.

Maculot mountain, one-day hike, perfect for a short get-away from Manila.
One of the thousands of beaches in the Philippines.
Pinto Art Museum in Antipolo.
Sunrise on Palawan island.
Children in the slum. Photo: Linus Escandor
Shadows of the palm tree.
When you find your way from extreme heat into cool air, higher than the clouds. Lake Taal which has a volcano island in the middle.
Eating coconuts yesterday, today and every day! By the way, fresh coconut wine is also delightful.
Domestic flight – done! Cebu City -> Manila
This never-ending summer…
Sunscreen is necessary. Sun in the Philippines is more intense than during the Estonian summer. Please, use the sunscreen.
Puerto Galera is close enough to Manila if you can’t wait to get to the beach.

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