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The Philippines

Your Guide To The Philippines

Beauty Pageants, Boodle Fights, and Beaches

The Philippines is a well-known destination in Southeast Asia for beach bums. The island chain, made up of three main island entities: Luzon (the largest island) to the north, Visayas in the middle, and Mindanao to the south, boasts large lengths of continuous coastline with white sand, as well as prime diving locations. The country’s capital, Manila, is a mecca for shopping enthusiasts, home to three out of the world’s top ten largest malls.

But aside from its call to nature lovers and urbanites, The Philippines also entices tourists with the unparalleled hospitality of its people. Plastered on most faces is a relentless smile, full of warmth. The locals refer to themselves as ‘Pinoys’ and ‘Pinays.’ For Filipinos, its about family, food, and friendsin that order. It’s also a society that values celebrating and having fun. The country’s tourism slogan, “It’s More Fun in The Philippines,” can be applied to everything from feasting to fighting. Just don’t take offense when Filipinos don’t show up on time as chronic lateness is a national epidemic.

THE HIGHLIGHTS

Swim with whale sharks in Donsol Bay
Surf the waves of Siargao
Party on the white sand beaches of Boracay
Dance in the Singulog Fiesta in Cebu
Go diving through WWII wrecks in Coron
Go island hopping in El Nido
Travel back in time in Intramuros in Manila
See the hanging coffins of Sagada
Trek the Banaue Rice Terraces
Join in a boodle fight (also known as kamayan)

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE PHILIPPINES

Language – Tagalog and English (English is widely spoken throughout the country)

Currency – The unit of currency is the ₱ Philippine Peso (PHP). Paper note denominations come in 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000 PHP. Coins are still used in the currency and range from 1, 5, and 10 pesos.

Transportation – Grab Taxis are the cheapest and safest way to get around (but you’ll need a working SIM card) and if you find yourself taking a regular taxi, make sure the meter is on and you jot down the license plate first (if traveling alone)alone. But be prepared–Manila has some of the worst traffic in the world, especially during rush hour. You can also try local modes of travel like jeepneys (refurbished army buses) or tricycles (motorized rickshaws.)

Climate – There are two seasons: the dry and wet seasons. The best month to come during the dry season (Nov-May) is January. April and May are the hottest months. The wet season (Jun-Oct) promises daily hourlong rain showers. But the unpredictable nature of tropical storms wreaks havoc all throughout the wet season.

Food – Filipino cuisine is relatively unfamiliar. The cuisine is punctuated by sour flavors, usually from vinegar or kalamansi (a small citrus fruit). The must try dishes are pancit, adobo, and lechon. This is not a vegetarian friendly cuisine.

Safety – The Philippines is on the active warning list for travelers due to its current president’s war on drugs and the terrorism and insurgency in southern Mindanao. Manila is not the safest come nightfall, so exercise caution when walking alone, or travel with a friend. For solo travelers, especially females, travel outside of Manila is generally safe, even in more provincial areas, although English might be a little more sparse.

HealthDon’t drink the tap water (not even if you boil it) and even avoid the ice. If you have a sensitive stomach, it’s best to stay away from street food. Also, use mosquito repellent. Many of the mosquitoes in The Philippines are carriers of diseases, like dengue fever.

WIFI/SIM Card – WIfi is not dependable in The Philippines, and is virtually non-existent on the islands, especially Palawan. There is no  public wifi. In arrivals, you can pick up a tourist simcard from local mobile providers, Smart or GLOBE. While Smart’s packages are cheaper, Globe has better data value (depending on your personal needs.) Both have a daily limit of 800 MB, so plan accordingly. As of 2019, you can get a FREE Traveler SIM with Globe if you fly with Philippines Airlines. You can pick up your complimentary sim card at arrivals and then access 300 MB of mobile data by texting MABUHAY to 8080. The Philippines is also on the KeepGo mobile hotspot list.

What To Bring HomeDried mangoes, handwoven rattan purses, capiz shell home decor, Arabica coffee, piña table runners, barong tagalogs, pearl jewelry

Travel Tips for The Philippines

COST PER DAY

Meals: $10-12
1-person hotel: $15-18
2-person hotel: $35-60
Transportation: $15-20
Tips: $1-2
Beers: $.50 – $2
Massage: $6/hr

TOTAL = $40-50 USD

MUST PACK

Sunblock
Sweater (for overnight bus rides)
Mosquito spray and anti-itch cream
Baby wipes/roll of tissue paper
Imodium/rehydration salts
Anti-nausea medicine
Power adapter
Dry bag (for island hopping)
Water shoes

GOOD ADVICE

Ordering a taxi at the airport – The safest way to order a taxi at the airport is at the Grab Taxi stand. You do not need a SIM card to order a taxi at this booth; an attendant will order a taxi through an app on their phone. Beware of the yellow taxis at the airport as they usually tout rigged meters.

How Do You Say... in Tagalog

How are you? – Kumusta? (koo-moo-stah)

Thank you (very much) –  (Maraming) Salamat (ma-ra-meeng sah-lah-maht)

Yes – Opo (oh-poh)

No – Hindi (hin-deh)

Delicious – Ang sarap! (ahng-sah-rahp)

Older Man/Older Female – Kuya/Ate (koo-yah/ah-teh)

Let’s eat – Kain tayo! (kah-een-tah-yoh)

Let’s go!Tara na! (tah-rah-nah)

I don’t know – Hindi ko alam (hin-dee-koh-ah-lahm)

Where is… – Nasaan ang… (nah-sah-ahnh-ahng…)

How much is this? – Magkano to? (mag-ka-know-toe)

Sige! – Okay! (see-geh)

Navigating A Menu in the Philippines

PANCIT

This dish was originally introduced to the Filipinos by the Chinese. There are two main versions: pancit bihon, which uses thin cellophane noodles, and pancit canton, which uses thick egg noodles.

ADOBO

Adobo is a type of marinade consisting of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, oil and bay leaves. You can braise anything adobo-style, even vegetables, but chicken and pork are the most common. Every household has its own adobo recipe.

SILOG

‘Silog’ is the standard three-part Filipino breakfast made with garlic fried rice (sinangág) and a fried egg (itlog), and a meat protein. You attach the meat’s name to the beginning of silog (eg. hot dog = hotsilog; dried beef/tapas = tapsilog)

LECHON

This roast pig is the centerpiece of every special occasion. A whole pig is roasted on a spit over an fire pit for several hours before being paired with Mang Tomas, a local all-purpose condiment with a tangy, earthy flavor. Find the best lechon in Cebu.

LUMPIA

These little fried egg rolls were brought over by the Chinese and the most popular variation, the Lumpiang Shanghai, is a delivery of ground pork mixed with vegetables, wrapped in rice paper, then deep-fried until the outer shell is extra crunchy.

SISIG

A bar food for the masses, sisig is a mixture of pork bits (i.e. head, liver, cheeks, snout) served in a sizzling hot plate and mixed with onions and chilis. Squirt some calamansi and top with an egg.

HALO-HALO

The name of this shaved ice treat, “halo halo,” tells you how to eat this dessert. Just “mix mix” the medley of ingredients like ube ice cream, sweet beans, jackfruit, chunks of leche flan (Filipino egg custard) and nata de coco (jellied coconut) with the evaporated milk at the bottom of the glass.

JOLLIBEE

A Filipino cultural institution, Jollibee is the only fast food restaurant in the world that outsells McDonalds. For budget travelers, this is a satisfying local food chain. Order their signature Chicken Joy, and for something truly “Filipino,” try the JollySpaghetti.  Don’t skip the mango peach pie.

Plan Your Trip

Because the Philippines is made of 7,000+ islands, you’ll likely find yourself taking several different flights while traveling around the country. The most popular and affordable airlines include Cebu Pacific and AirAsia. Flights are usually reasonable in price, but do increase around major holidays (Christmas/Easter). Since roads are not always in tip-top shape, I highly recommend spending the extra money and book a plane ride, not only to save time, but also for safety concerns. You can also take ferries to different islands.

WHERE TO FLY INTO

Nonoy Aquino International Airport, or NAIA for short. The airport code is MNL. The terminals at Nonoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) are not connected. There is a free shuttle but it is extremely slow so you are better off taking a taxi from one terminal to the next, but plan accordingly especially with tight flight connections.

VISAS FOR AMERICANS

30 day visa upon arrival, with proof of an outgoing ticket.

LOCAL TRANSPORT

Overnight buses: $15-20 USD (usually 10-12 hour rides)
Domestic flights: $50-100 USD

SUGGESTED TRAVEL DAYS

Get out of Manila as fast as possible and enjoy more leisurely time in the islands.

Manila – 1 to 1.5 days
Boracay – 3 days
Palawan – 1 week
Cebu – 3 days
Cordilleras – 4 days

Capital of the Philippines

Manila

The capital city of Manila is located on the island of Luzon. The traffic can be maddening in the urban sprawl, but don’t let it turn you off. Manila its full of surprises such as the world’s oldest Chinatown, Binondo, and well-preserved Spanish colonial enclave, Intramuros.

Manila is actually a mega city called Metro Manila comprised of sixteen smaller “cities.” The main city is Quezon City. Most tourists tend to congregate in Makati, the financial hub of the capital and known for its awesome nightlife. One thing you wouldn’t think about doing but really should is visit one of the malls in the city. Did you know? Manila is home to three of the world’s largest mallsSM Megamall, SM North Edsa and SM Mall of Asia. If you want a taste of local life and escape the oppressive humidity, pop into a mall.

Getting Around

Stick to GrabTaxi. You’ll see tricycles and jeepneys but unless you are versed in the local tongue, it’ll be hard to convey where you need to go properly. Taxis can be somewhat sketch, especially at nighttime.

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The rehabilitated party island

Boracay

Boracay was named The World’s Best Island in Condé Nast Traveler’s 2016 Readers’ Choice Awards. The island getaway has been greatly transformed by the effects of tourism within the last decade but you can’t beat the beautiful sunsets that paint the sky come dusk. Also, Boracay boasts predominantly white sand beaches, which means seriously Instagram-worthy shots. Check out Jonah’s Fruit Shake and Snack Bar for the best milkshakes in town that come served in water bottles. This is a party island so if you’re looking for some peace and relaxation, you’re better off jetting to Palawan.

How To Get There

No direct flights are available so you must fly to to either Caticlan or Kalibo. Caticlan is closer to Boracay, only a 10-20 minute boat ride from Caticlan Jetty Port, while flights to Kalibo are cheaper but the airport is 60-km away.

An untouched paradise

Palawan

It is my personal suggestion that if you have time to experience only one place in the Philippines, make sure its Palawan. This island chain is home to Puerto Princesa Underground River, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the world’s longest underground river; the gorgeous limestone karsts of El Nido, and the perfectly isolated Coron famed for its incredible collection of WWII-era shipwrecks that one can admire not only as a certified diver, but also as a snorkeler. The conservation efforts have been so rigid that the nature offered by Palawan is so pristine and unaltered. Throngs of tourists have yet to invade the island, which is why it has been hailed as “The Last Frontier” in the Philippines.

How To Get There

Fly to Puerto Princesa by way of Manila, Cebu, and Iloilo. It’s an hour and a half flight. El Nido is a six-to-eight hour drive from Puerto Princesa depending on roadside conditions. I highly recommend Daytripper for a private van service from Puerto Princesa to El Nido. If you are thinking about heading to Coron or El Nido only, it’s better to fly there directly from Manila to save time however, the prices are a bit more inflated compared, to flying into Puerto Princesa.

A land of enchantment

The Cordilleras

Postcard-perfect beaches are almost the first thing that pops up in people’s minds when thinking about the Philippines has much to offer for the intrepid spirit. The Cordillera Highlands in northern Luzon are home to some of the most culturally-vibrant ethnic minorities, such as the Igorot, “the earth people” who guard the famous Banaue Rice Terraces carved into the mountainside. There are also popular tourist destinations such as Baguio, a perfect summer retreat due it relatively cool climate and Sagada, the site of Echo Valley’s mysterious hanging coffins.

How To Get There

The road to the north from Manila is incredibly strenuous overland, with the journey taking anywhere between 8-10 hours to Banaue and 12-14 hours to Sagada. The route to Sagada is filled with hairpin turns so pack that anti-motion sickness medicine if you’re sensitive. You can fly to Tuguegarao, the nearest commercial airport to these locations and proceed on a road trip by bus. From Tuguegarao to Bagiuo, it’s about a 600 PHP (approx $13 USD), 5-6 hour bus ride and Banaue and Sagada are along the way.

The capital of the Visayas islands

Cebu

The capital of the Visayan islands, Cebu is the best jump-off point to kickstart your island hopping adventure in the Philippines. The city is known for hosting a number of festivals such as the Sinulog Festival, one of the grandest cultural festivals in all of the Philippines. There are a number of first-class diving spots and insanely beautiful waterfalls, like Kawasan Waterfalls. A word of caution: Oslob’s whale shark industry, is for the most part, very unethical, as the whale sharks are force-fed to a point where its fatal to these creatures. If you want to swim with whale sharks, go to Donsol Bay in Luzon. Instead, an alternative and more environmentally-friendly option is to take a ferry to the island of Bohol to enjoy Mother Nature’s tastiest creation, The Chocolate Hills, a series of geographic formations that look like mounds of chocolate cake in the summertime thanks to the dried grass.

How To Get There

A one-hour flight from Manila. The country’s largest budget carrier, Cebu Pacific, operate several direct flights throughout the day to Cebu City. You can also reach Cebu directly from a number of Asian destinations. If you want to get to smaller islands, you can take local ferries.

Disclaimer: I don’t usually write about places I haven’t been to, but I would be failing my readers if I didn’t share information about Cebu.

Watch My Highlight Reel

MY PACKING LIST FOR THE PHILIPPINES

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Millette Pulido is a Bay Area-based, Boston-bred Filipina who loves to vagabond. At 29, the former expat has traded in her nomadic ways for a semi-grounded life in San Jose, CA. Recently married, she's focusing on balancing travel with a full-time job and a destination wedding side hustle, all while planning her honeymoon in 2020. She lives for good times, good food, and good peeps. Find out her #wheretonext on Instagram @thenextsomewhere.

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