It’s quite a steep challenge to compile a list of 10 of the best places to visit in the Philippines when there are practically thousands of others to consider. But like destinations the world over that have earned renown, these places – both emerging and well-established tourist attractions – deserve special mention because of their unique and/or superlative character that, taken together, define what the Philippines and Filipinos are all about.
Here are the Philippines’ 10 best, listed in no particular order.
If there is one thing that anyone of limited vacation time should explore first in the country, it should be Palawan. Palawan is the Philippine’s last frontier, and as such, abundantly blessed by all imaginable attractions that a traveler could possibly wish for.
If you ever wonder if there is such a litter-free city in the midst of a jungle, all you need to do is set foot in Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa. White sand beaches are scattered in wanton abandon in this province, and so are karst limestone formations that rise out of emerald-turquoise waters yet unspoiled by commercial fishing and irreverence of the sea. Are you aching to get more action underwater? Drop anchor at Tubbataha Natural Reefs, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. How about a subterranean (mis)adventure? Try the recently proclaimed member of the New7Wonders of Nature, Puerto Princesa Underground River. Do you want to shake hands – or maybe just observe up close – one of the earliest aborigines of the Filipino people? Then visit the vanishing Batak tribe on northeastern Palawan. The list of possibilities could go on. With Palawan comprising more than 1,700 islands, the list of attractions and activities might as well be endless.
As the northernmost province of the Philippines (and the smallest too), Batanes has easily escaped the Filipinos’ imagination for wanderlust because they did not know there was Eden there! Batanes has only come to national attention when brave adventurers started coming back from these islands of far north and shared tales of rapture and longing at the sight of Batanes’ pristine and rugged landscapes, idyllic rolling pastures, nature-compatible architecture, and a distinct culture suggesting Austronesian and Taiwanese ancestry. Rising out the blue Pacific Ocean and China Sea, Batanes is more than postcard-worthy. The unspoilt natural beauty is more than just skin-deep: The Ivatans, as the people of this province are called, are famed for their culture of honesty, a rare value reflected in unmanned “Honesty Cafe” where shoppers can just come in, serve themselves or pick up needed merchandise, and leave their payments in a drop box.
3. Davao City
You haven’t seen the Philippines if you have only been exploring its capital city, Manila. Travel to the country’s south and you will see that (almost) crime-free urbanization, discipline and cleanliness can all coexist in one place in the very region reputed to be the political hotbed of the Philippines. That place is Davao City in Mindanao. It is the embodiment of a livable city, the gold standard (outside of Palawan’s Puerto Princesa) of how a city should be. Davao has three categories of adventure for the intrepid (and the faint of heart) traveler: wildlife, ‘mild life’ and colorful life.
Davao City is home to the Philippine’s highest peak, the almost-3,000-meters-above-sea-level Mt. Apo. It is also home to the rare Philippine Eagle, bred here in captivity. Being a city, Davao offers all the ‘mild life’ pleasures to tourists who may be used to creature comforts back home: night life is thumping yet safe, and shopping can be fun yet budget-friendly. Davao’s ‘colorful life’ can be summed up in its ‘Kadayawan’, a thanksgiving festival inspired by Davao’s ‘lumad’ (ethnic tribes living at the foot of Mt. Apo) when they give thanks to their deities after a bountiful harvest. Chavacano, Davao’s dialect, is a variant of the only Spanish-based Creole spoken in Southeast Asia.
4. Mountain Province
This landlocked province in Northern Luzon has long been a tourism favorite. It was the site of the original Filipino pride, the rice terraces, before they were eclipsed by Palawan’s subterranean river. There is more to Mountain Province though than meets the eyes: A traveler who looks closely enough might chance upon coffins hanging on mountainsides containing even the recently deceased. This rather unique burial practice is mostly found in Sagada where natural rock formations – above and below ground – abound.
Bohol is the Philippine’s “chocolate” factory for its carefully scooped mounds of earth rising out of the plains by the thousands, known to everyone as the Chocolate Hills (because the green grass wither in the summer). It would have been less mesmerizing if there are only a dozen of them, but these perfect creations of natural phenomena spread out for miles and miles that you cannot believe the hills were an accident of nature. Beyond the hills, Bohol is also fringed with the requisite white sand beaches that easily rival Boracay’s. These beaches are rather touristy, so one can enjoy the comforts of civilization while enjoying the gifts of nature. For a romantic day trip, tourists can wine and dine at the Loboc River after they ‘play’ with the tarsiers.
A destination of choice for investors (outside of Manila), Cebu attracts talented labor pool from all over the country and is well-equipped with the necessary infrastructure to keep pace with the demands of the foreign market. Culturally, Cebu has one of the most colorful religious festivities in the Philippines, being the first province that Magellan landed on when the Spanish arrived in 1521, an achievement of the Crown represented by Magellan’s Cross. It also doesn’t hurt that off the coast of Cebu lies some of the most delectable beaches in the country.
7. Vigan, Ilocos Sur
If there is one place in the Philippines where Spanish architecture remains intact and well-preserved on a citywide scale, it is in the city of Vigan in the province of Ilocos Sur. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vigan boasts of cobblestone streets that have been first laid down when the Spanish arrived in 16th century, and colonial houses complete with furniture from that era. Everywhere a visitor looks, he or she is transported to a world that is barely surviving in other parts of the country – all the more important to tick off Vigan on your bucket list.
8. Camarines Sur
Long before ‘CamSur’ came to Filipino attention as a tourist destination, Naga, its capital, is already famous as the home of the miraculous “Lady of Penafrancia.” Today, CamSur is better known for literally making waves in the surf- and wakeboarding arena. Caramoan Islands off the coast of CamSur came to media attention when “Survivor” chose it at its Philippine location. Even with this worldwide endorsement, Caramoan remains barely explored and retains an obvious natural charm that gives “getting lost in the wild” a new meaning.
9. Donsol, Sorsogon
All over the world, there are only a few places said to be highly concentrated with whale sharks. Donsol, Sorsogon, once a lethargic fishing community, rose to tourism prominence when pods of whale sharks or “butanding” were “discovered” off its shores in 1998. Locals have seen these whale sharks for over 100 years, but believed they could harm when approached. A chance encounter with a diver proved otherwise. Since then, Donsol has become a mecca for “butanding” watching and even interacting (although you would be well-advised to keep distance from these gentle giants of the deep for reasons of keeping them truly wild.)
10. Negros Occidental
Popular to Filipinos as the home of authentic chicken “inasal” (grilled chicken), Bacolod, Negros Occidental’s capital, entices visitors with more than just a generous helping of juicy “pechopak” (chicken breast and wing) and garlic rice. Home to the majestic – and active! – Mt. Kanlaon, Negros Occidental delights travelers of all colors and stripes with jaw-dropping views of the volcano’s summit, breathtaking vistas of the Sulu Sea from Sipalay to the south, and well-preserved Spanish-era mansions in Silay to the north. It also doesn’t hurt to come during the wildly bacchanalian MassKara Festival in mid-October, when the province’s full colors are showcased without reserve. More than the painted smiling faces of Bacolod, the true gem of Negros Occidental lies in its varied geography and natural wealth hidden in its jungles and excavated from its bosom. The real deal-maker however is its people – warm, welcoming and generous, even in the face of adversity.
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