An Introduction to Backpacking The Philippines
The Philippines – where do we start? The place will not only surprise you but leave a lingering and unforgettable impression. For no good reason this group of 7000+ islands has been somewhat neglected from the typical “south east Asian” circuit. Note to all backpackers – this stunning archipelago, easily comparable to the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, should NOT be missed! Low cost carriers and an extendable 3-week visa on arrival, pave the way for some serious exploring.
- EAT! – Fresh seafood: 7000+ islands means it isn’t hard to come across! Or heed the advice of the Black Eyed Peas “Bebot” song and try out the chicken adobe, a big hit with the locals.
- DRINK! – Shake it: Mango shake, coconut shake, durian shake, anything shake, mango daiquiri, anything daiquiri. Or if you’re partial to beer you can’t beat a San Miguel. You can find it – anywhere. Oh and watch out for Red Horse and Tanduay, alcoholic content varies considerably from bottle to bottle.
- WEAR! – Bright colours: beach gears; no fears, no cares.
- BEWARE! – Karaoke: Stay away from the karaoke microphone! Unless your voice is up to it? It’s a national obsession and competition is fierce in these parts!
Check out our travel guides to the best places to visit in The Philippines below!
Scroll further down and you’ll find some important travel info (visas, the best time to visit etc.) as well as an overview of each region and a clickable map!
7,107 Islands – Which One to Choose?
The neat thing about the Philippines is you don’t have to go far to get off the beaten track and you can easily find a deserted beach, (or island for that matter!) all to yourself! If the tropical scene on land isn’t enough for you, then plunge into the depths and see unimaginable amounts of corals and tropical fish.
If you love diving, you will delight in islands such as Malapascua, Balicasag (Bohol), and Apo. Even if you’re not a diver then a simple mask and snorkel will be enough to view the magnificent whale sharks of Donsol, or the never ending tropical reefs dotted around most of the islands abundant with turtles, tropical fish and even shipwrecks.
It doesn’t stop there though.
The heart and soul of the Philippines is buried within the 90 million inhabitants who will be some of the friendliest and happiest people you come across on your travels.
English is widely spoken, meaning that you can often have good yarns with any locals you come meet. They’ll be more than happy to share stories and will be genuinely interested in yours too. While there isn’t a set backpacker route in the Philippines, the English factor, combined with the accommodating nature of the Filipinos makes for some fairly easy travelling conditions. Filipinos, by nature, are extremely optimistic people (and great singers!) and travelling through the country you can’t help but be lifted by their positive attitude.
Beach Parties, Kite Surfing and Sunsets…
If you want to ease back into beach life, but aren’t quite ready to part with civilization, then Boracay is your place. After a stunning sunset over western facing White Beach, Boracay is transformed from a carefree beach scene into one heck of a wild party! Restaurants and clubs line the 4km length of beach, so you can wine and dine with the feel of sand between your toes. There’s no time to be hungover either with kite surfing winds blowing on the other side of the island from November-April and dive certificates being handed out to those on courses. If you’re feeling unhealthy after too many nights clubbing then best to head over to pristine Palawan for some detox time – many people claim this to be the best of the Philippines! (The island won “best island” recently in our readers poll of the 50 best islands in Southeast Asia!)
Getting around: Bancas and Jeepneys…
Every part of South East Asia seems to have its own style of “homemade” transport. In the Philippines, if you want to go by sea then look no further than a “banca.” These boats will be your gateway to many an island paradise.
Tricycles are the Filipino version of the tuk tuk and can be found on most of the islands in various shapes and colours, offering cheap and easy transport. Jeepneys, whilst not doing much for the pollution in some of the big cities, are a fun way to get from A to B and you have to admire the creativity that goes into the paintwork!
Hiring a scooter/motorbike is the best way to get around on your own terms.
Nightlife, Culture and Karaoke!
If you need a break from the beaches and want to get back to a sense of civilization then just head to one of the major hubs such as Manila or Cebu. Here you will find lively nightlife and probably won’t be able to avoid the pull of the karaoke microphone, especially if you’re out with locals! Given the fact that most Filipinos sing before they can talk you’ll find some amazing live music wherever you go, with most bars having solid acoustic sets to kick off the night.
As well as being born to sing, Filipinos also seem to be born to shop. A favourite weekend pastime in the big smoke is spending time at the nearest shopping mall. Whether it’s for shopping, or just a solid dose of air conditioning – who knows!? There is some great shopping to be done in Manila and gems can be found even on a backpacker budget.
The Intramuros area of Manila will take you back to a time when the Spanish ruled the country, while the Ayala museum will remind you that Filipinos have also been at the mercy of the Americans and Japanese over a fairly turbulent history. The Spanish influence in the Philippines also provoked the massive spread of Christianity through the region, which can be seen in the large, immaculately presented churches dotted around the country. Religion is a big part of Filipino life and many celebrations and activities surround certain religious events.
The Future of Tourism in the Philippines?
While international tourism isn’t quite as developed in the Philippines as in other areas, the domestic tourist market is strong and adventure tourism packages are growing. There are so many incredible travel experiences on offer for backpackers that you’ll be wondering why the place isn’t swarming with people! The country has a little bit of everything to suit every taste…
Trekking in the rice fields of Banaue, quad biking around Mt Mayon, hitting the wakeboard park at Cam Sur or surfing in Siargao will ensure that you burn off all those cocktails you’ve been drinking on the beach. In short, if one thing’s for sure, you won’t want to leave this paradise!
- Currency: Philippines Peso
- Exchange rate: Find up to date exchange rate here.
- Capital city: Manila
- Main religion: 95% Christianity, 81-85% Roman Catholic
- Main language: Tagalog (although there are 100 plus local dialects)
- Telephone code: +63
- Time: GMT +8 hours
- Emergency numbers: Ambulance, Fire, Police: 117
4 Random Facts about the Philippines
- The USA bought the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam from Spain in 1898. The Filipino-American Independence War from 1898 to 1902 ensued. 4,234 Americans were killed, while 16,000 Filipinos were killed in action and 200,000 died from famine and pestilence.
- While the Philippines national language is Tagalog, it is the biggest English speaking country in the world after the US and the UK.
- The Philippines is the largest producer of coconuts in the world.
- The highest paid athlete in the Philippines is boxing champion Manny “Pac-Man” Pacquiao.
Philippines Language Essentials
This one is a bit tricky as it is likely that the language will change as you travel through the country. Tagalog is the official language of the Philippines and most people will know this as well as their local dialect. Some common phrases (in Tagalog) are shown below:
- Goodmorning/afternoon/evening: Magandang Umaga/Magandang hapon/Magandang Gabi
- Thank-you (very much): (Maraming) Salamat po (po is used for respect)
- Kumusta ka?: How are you?
- Can I have the bill please?: Maaari ba akong magkaroon ng check? (or make a funny envelope shape with your hands)
- How much?: Magkano ho ito?
- My name is… Ako si…
Philippines Visa Information
Tourist Visa: Most nationalities, including Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and most Europeans receive a free 3-week tourist visa upon arrival into Philippines. Your passport must be valid for at least 6 months upon entering and you must have proof of your onward flight (don’t be caught out because most airlines seem to require this to let you board the aircraft). If you don’t know when you are going to leave you can always just purchase the cheapest ticket you can find out of the country.
Visa extension: Visas can be renewed for up to a year, as long as you are prepared to pay. Immigration often changes the fees and regulations but currently; first extension for 38 days (3000P), second extension for 59 days (4760P), third extension for 2 months (2810P), and so on!!
Penalty for late departure: Last time we checked this was 500P/month plus the fees that you would have had to pay for extending your visa. While it’s not a big fine you can be at risk of missing your flight if they make you pay this at the Bureau of Immigration instead of the airport.
As with most of Asia, there isn’t really a summer and winter, but more a period of “hot” or “hotter”, “dry” or “rainy”. While it is hard to generalize Philippines weather as conditions vary across the group of islands, you can expect more rain from May/June until October when the summer monsoon is present. The wet season consists of short hard downpours which shouldn’t affect travel enjoyment too much. It should be noted that this period also coincides with Typhoon season in the Philippines, with Northern Luzon and the Eastern Visayas the worst affected areas. If you are travelling to the Philippines between July and October you will probably find better weather in the Central/Southern areas. Unless you’re looking for waves that is!
Getting To The Philippines
Thanks to the good guys at Cebu Pacific, Air Asia, Jetstar Asia and SEA Airlines, getting to the Philippines has never been cheaper. No matter if you’re coming from Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Korea, or KL, just jump on one of these low-cost carriers and find yourself in Phili! It should be noted that at this time Cebu Pacific and JetStar (as well as generally more expensive Philippine Airlines and Cathay Pacific) are the only ones that fly into Manila, whereas Air Asia and SEA Air land at Clark Air base. Wala problema (No problem)! A couple of hours on a bus from Clark and you’ll be in the big city.
The autonomous region of Mindanao is a little-visited region in the Philippines due to ongoing conflict between Muslim militias and the Filipino government. Governments in the US, UK and other parts of Europe do not advise travel to Mindanao as there have been a number of bombings and terrorist attacks to both political leaders and civilians in recent years.
Therefore, as things remain troublesome in this beautiful region, we only have one destination guide at the moment! But it’s a corker! Siargao is a paradise island with a castaway feel, that’s a heaven for surf addicts. As far as we know, there are currently no security problems on the island and hundreds of surfers from all over the region head there each October for the annual Siargao surfing cup!
The Visayas (The Centre)
The Visayas are a group of islands located in Central Philippines, the major islands being Samar, Leyte, Bohol, Cebu, Negros and Panay.
This group of islands are famous for having a passion for festivals, and you’re bound to come across one during your stay, whatever time of year it is, whether it’s Sinulog in January in the busy city of Cebu or Pintados Festival in June.
Perhaps the most famous beach in all of the Philippines, White Beach, is located on the island of Boracay, a place which is also famous for its pumping nightlife and cool kiteboarding scene. With it’s soft and unbelievably white powdery white sand, White Beach has often been described as the most beautiful beach in the world. (So Starbucks reckoned when they plonked down their branded tables and umbrellas on the beach!)
This region also offers some authentic islands, such as Bantayan Island, that has hardly been touched by tourism, where you will find deserted beach after beach and a local fishing culture that’s been the same way for hundreds of years. Like many other parts of the Philippines, the Visayas have incredible opportunities for divers, with the chance to swim with thresher sharks in Malapascua Island and huge sardine shoals in Moalboal.
Head to Siquijor if you’re looking to seek out the Philippines’ supernatural side where its rumoured that shamans and witches practise black magic! Or if you’re looking for more of a laid-back holiday feel, head to the beautiful island of Bohol and neighbouring Panglao Island for a relaxed time!
Luzon (The North)
Luzon is the largest and most densely populated region of the Philippines. Here lies the capital Manila, a megacity, and the economic and political heart of the country. Luzon refers to the largest island in the north of the nation, (which is the fourth most populated island in the world with approx 50 million people) as well as many outlying islands, including the remarkably beautiful Palawan in the far west of the country.
For adventurous backpackers, Luzon offers a myriad of exciting opportunities…
…exploring Spanish colonial architecture in Manila, trekking amidst UNESCO World Heritage rice terraces in Banaue and Sagada, surfing and kitesurfing in San Juan and Caramon (Caramines del Sur), diving in Puerto Galera, wreck diving in Coron, snorkeling with whale sharks in Donsol and exploring castaway islands in Palawan… as well as the backpacker hubs of El Nido and the bustling city of Puerto Princesa.