After a short interlude from backpacking around Asia, Tim and I are resuming our Asian adventure! Our last and final stop is a second “homecoming” of sorts, to the place of my birth and the country I will always love most, the Philippines.
After five months of extensively exploring Asia, I’m really looking forward to being tourist in the country of my origins. And even though this is not my first rodeo in the Philippines, what sets this trip apart is the company in tow! I’ll be joined by my boyfriend, Tim, along with my close high school friend Carolyn, and a married couple we befriended during our time in Korea, Jeremy and Cait. I’ve dreamed about the day my American and Philippine lives would intersect and now its finally happening!!! On the agenda: my cousin’s wedding where Tim will be introduced to my Dad’s side of the family (ayyyyyy!), an overload of water-related activities starring my post-holiday body, and visiting the beach house my dad built for the first time after his passing. As Filipinos are known to be the most dramatic and emotional people on the planet, this trip is going to be without a doubt, full of tears, laughter, loudness, and a whole lot of feasting. As they say, its always more fun in the Philippines.
I know everyone in the Philippines is happy.
– Manny Pacquiao
Mapping out the country
This is the first time returning home where I’m not a balikbayan, but an actual tourist. For the last twenty-five years, I’ve been shielded from the headache of organizing transportation around the country. Now, as I plan my trip independently, I find myself consulting my 81-year-old Lola (grandma) to ensure that I get from point A to point B in one piece. As an American, you are given a 30 day visa upon arrival provided you have an outgoing ticket. Domestic flights are relatively cheap and since infrastructure is not always in tip-top shape, I suggest anyone who plans to visit to spend the extra bucks for convenience’s sake. People tend to forget that the Philippines is an archipelago made of more than 7,000 islands and getting around is not always the easiest feat. With only three weeks, I decided to organize the trip into three parts: seeing the capital, an island getaway, and family fun time.
- Touchdown in Manila (1 day)
- Tagaytay (3 days for cousin’s wedding)
- Manila (3 days of touring around friends)
- Puerto Princesa (1 1/2 days to see the Underground River)
- El Nido (4 days of beach side relaxing)
- Sanchez Mira (4 days visiting parents’ hometown)
- Vigan (1 day for sightseeing)
On The Itinerary
Ride a Kalesa on the Streets of Vigan
Its no surprise that Vigan is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites — a stroll down one of Vigan’s many enchanting streets is like taking a walk back in time! The town was built in the 16th century and remains incredibly well-preserved. The historical heart of Vigan is filled with many haciendas, the mansion-esque estates evoking the time of Spain’s colonial rule in the Philippines. My bucket list moment: getting the perfect shot of Calle Crisologo, its most famous street, without any pedestrians. Selfie sticks vs. Izzy… GAME ON!
Hike to the Lake at the Top of Taal Volcano
Located south of Manila near the highland getaway of Tagaytay is Taal Volcano, the second most active volcano in the Philippines and the smallest active volcano in the world! Geologically bewildering, within the main island chain of Luzon lies Lake Taal. Inside the caldera of Lake Taal is a small island aptly named Volcano Island. At the summit of Volcano Island, sits the world’s largest island, Vulcan Point, within a crater-filled lake. My mind is a little frazzled trying to process that as well! The hike up Crater Lake is not too demanding and can easily be done in a few hours time. There’s also the option of tackling the ascent by horse!
Float down the Underground River
In 2012, Puerto Princesa’s Underground River was among a select few to be named the New 7 Wonders of Nature. This elite list includes Amazonia, Jeju Island, Halong Bay, Table Mountain, Komodo Island, and Iguazu Falls. It is the longest subterranean river in the world spanning 5.094 m/8.2 km in length. It winds its way under a mountain range and through an underground cave system. Due to an influx of tourists after being awarded its New 7 Wonders title, the National Park limits the number of tourists per day so book your trip in advance to secure a place on the daily queue. You also need to have the correct permits for your visit or else you will be denied entry. You can do the trip independently for much cheaper but for a hassle-free experience, it is recommended across the board to go with tour agency. Actually all blogs give the same three words of advice: 1) patience is a virtue; 2) don’t open your mouth looking upwards in the cave; and 3) bring a plastic bag = death by a pack of rabid monkeys.
Get Fortune Read in Quiapo
Many Filipinos practice a version of Catholiciscm called “Folk Catholicism,” reflecting the fusion of Christianity with a supernatural belief in ghosts, apparitions of angels and demons, black magic, and psychics. Fortune tellers are some of the many interesting characters that congregate around Plaza Miranda in downtown Manila. In the local tongue, they are called the manghuhula — those who can read one’s future through divination. These masters of the cards can determine your fate through the methods of tarot, palm-reading, and dream interpretation. There are even those who claim to be faith healers, chanting prayers to channel divine intervention and heal physical ailments. Whether or not you believe in these practices, its an intimate way to experience a faith system that was forged from a resistance of total colonial oppression.
Dare Friends to Eat Balut
‘Balut’ was first introduced to the western world via the popular game show, Fear Factor, where contestants squeamishly reacted to the challenge of eating two soft-boiled eggs of undeveloped duck embryo. It’s true: being handed what looks like a normal hard-boiled egg and finding the face of a baby duck, with fully-formed wings cradling its muted body, might revolt even the bravest of hearts (even with $50,000 on the line), but in the Philippines and most of Southeast Asia, it’s a national delicacy! With enough beers and the combination of salt and vinegar, balut transforms into a great late-night snack. Let’s see which of my traveling companions can stomach the challenge!
Take a Sunset Stroll along Manila Bay
Without fail, in every cheesy rom-com produced by the Filipino entertainment industry, the two protagonists take a stroll down Baywalk. Baywalk is a seaside promenade adjacent to Roxas Boulevard that offers the most magnificent view of the sun setting over Manila Bay. It also is the best place to observe how the local people go about their day. The act of people-watching is only made better while eating “dirty ice cream,” the unbecoming local nickname given to coconut milk-based ice cream served by street peddlers in either waffle cones or bread buns. Once the sun sets, the area is transformed into a happening nightlife venue with open-air cafes teeming with onlookers watching street performers drown out the background noise of Manila traffic with their incredible Frank Sinatra-esque vocalizations.
Visit my Parents’ Hometown
Both of my parents hail from the tiny Ilocano town of Sanchez Mira, located at the northernmost point of the Philippines in the province of Cagayan. Many of my relatives still live there but given its rural coordinates, I never have enough time to get there during short sprints visiting. It’s been a decade since my last visit but I’ve heard not much has changed according to my Lola who returns there every year to tend to her home, aka the house my mother grew up in. Luckily, Tim and I will be staying with my Lola to help her with some home repairs while touring around the spaces that defined my parents’ childhoods.
Go Rock Climbing El Nido
El Nido is a nature lover’s paradise. Apart from the allure of its stunning translucent waters, the majestic limestone cliffs that tower over El Nido are a draw for those seeking the most breathtaking displays of natural beauty. I was first introduced to the activity on an episode of The Amazing Race and now there’s the chance I get to try it out for myself! The Taraw Cliff in El Nido is one that can be done independently without prior knowledge of rock climbing since you do it freehand but you need to take a guide with you. Guides are 500 PHP for the entire run and can accommodate 2-3 people max. The climb itself is physically demanding and can get pretty dangerous in some areas (note: jagged limestone crags) so make sure you’re insured! They say the hardest things in life are often the most worthwhile and from the pictures I’ve seen of the views from the top, the climb is definitely worth it.
For things to do in Manila, check out Top Five Things To Do in Manila.
Press play for a highlight reel of my time in The Philippines