Deciding how best to negotiate the Philippines’ 7,000 islands can be daunting. With easy connections from the capital, Manila, to the surrounding islands, it's possible to enjoy a really varied trip. One day you might be trekking through dense forest or admiring Spanish baroque architecture and the next bobbing alongside a pod of dolphins.
My most memorable experience in the Philippines wasn’t wandering along the soft-sand beaches – although they are wonderful. Rather, it was days spent evading the crowds with a private tour of Corregidor Island’s fortress or trekking through isolated rural communities in Mayoyao, accompanied by an experienced guide. I’ve chosen activities that really stood out for me as ideal ways to appreciate the culture, history and wildlife of the archipelago.
1. Trek the rice terraces of Mayoyao in the Ifugao Province
View along a river valley of rice terraces, Ifugao Province, Luzon
Woman planting rice, Hapao, Ifugao Province, Luzon
En route to Mayoyao, Ifugao Province
Visiting the rice terraces of north Ifugao is an experience I would highly recommend, as, in my opinion, you’ll see some of the Philippines’ best scenery. Staying in the central town of Banaue, most visitors to the region head to the hamlet of Batad or Bangaan. The surrounding rice terraces are often cited as the best in the country by virtue of their steep walls and crisply cut terraces. But, if you’re willing to tackle the bumpy three hour drive from Banaue, I’d recommend visiting the terraces of Mayoyao instead.
An isolated rural community, Mayoyao is unspoiled by tourism, yet surrounded by the same style of rice terraces as the more popular sites. Arriving in the main village, I was greeted by a crowd of children who dragged me onto the local basketball court. After a few embarrassing misses, I was laughed off the court – but I’ve never felt quite so welcomed.
My local guide and I passed through people’s backyards and around clusters of buildings to walk up onto the rice terraces. Up close, I found an appreciation for the complexity of the terraces’ irrigation system and the sheer scale of the engineering needed to build them. Out in the rice fields, you’re treated to views right across the valley, the rice terraces following the contours of the hills.
2. Search for the Philippine tarsier on Bohol
The rare tarsier, Bohol
Chocolate Hills, Bohol
To the Eskaya people, an indigenous tribe of the island of Bohol, the Philippine tarsier brings bad luck. It’s a local belief that has saved the tiny mammal from extinction, providing a refuge for an animal that’s hunted across Asia. Often kept as pets, the Philippine Tarsier and Wildlife Sanctuary on Bohol was set up by Carlito Pizarras, fondly known as the Tarsier Man, to recuperate mistreated animals.
A visit to the sanctuary is an ideal way to see the species up close, as well as a chance to learn more about these secretive creatures. My guide, Cecile, a good friend of Carlito, makes a habit of calling the sanctuary before every tour to make sure there aren’t any tour groups present. When we arrived at the sanctuary, it was just me and the tarsiers. I also met the Tarsier Man himself before exploring further.
The sanctuary is in a pocket of secondary forest, which has been given protected status to support the local wild tarsier population. We left the sanctuary to follow a trail for a few hours through the dense woodland to a viewpoint above the treeline. It’s a humid, uphill hike, but you’re rewarded with views right across the forest – the sanctuary a tiny blip on the horizon.
3. Sail to Pamilacan Island, Bohol
Alona Kew White Beach Resort, Bohol
The island of Bohol has gained a reputation for having some of the most beautiful beaches in the country. I’d argue that the surrounding islets and sandbanks have even more to offer, and judging by the amount of boat tours in the area, many agree. Groups tend to sail to the island of Balicasag, but as its popularity grows so do the crowds. I’d recommend taking a private tour to the nearby island of Pamilacan instead.
Located an hour off the south coast of Bohol, I sailed to the island by private boat with my guide and skipper. We stopped just before we reached the island. As the water settled, I could see a pod of bottlenose dolphins gliding through the water. It’s also common to spot the more curious spinner dolphins, which like to flip right in front of boats. If you travel between February and June, there’s the added chance of seeing whales.
The island itself was once a Spanish lookout point, and the remnants of a tiny fort are still visible on the northeast coast. It’s now a peaceful, palm-fringed island dotted with the bright-red roofs of local homes. You’ll be able to explore the local village with your guide, as well as having time to relax on the beach.
4. Tour the colonial town of Taal
View into Taal Volcano crater and lake, Luzon, Philippines
Basilica de San Martin de Tours, Taal
Manila is a cacophony of traditional handicraft markets and fortune tellers, gleaming skyscrapers and opulent five-star hotels. It’s mesmerizing, but I’d suggest escaping the chaos by heading three hours south to the Spanish colonial town of Taal. Accompanied by my local guide, I spent the day dipping into dimly lit Spanish churches and admiring the baroque architecture of the villas and public squares.
Learning about the town’s Spanish heritage was fascinating but, for me, discovering Taal’s idiosyncratic side was even more so. An unassuming house turned out to be the Galleria Taal, a museum of vintage cameras. The owner, Mr Manny Inumerables, has dedicated his life to collecting hundreds of rare cameras and prints, eventually filling every nook of his home.
Nearby, we visited the tiny workshop of a panday (blacksmith) who made balisong knives. A popular Philippine export, the knives are known internationally as butterfly knives, named after the split handle that encloses the blade. I watched the panday hand-forge these traditional knives, using anything that came to hand to make the handles. Early knife handles were made from broken pieces of water buffalo horn, but I was shown examples made from bone, recycled steel and polished wood.
5. Take a private tour of Corregidor Island, Manila
One Mile Barracks, Corregidor Island
World War II 12 inch gun, Corregidor Island
Sitting in Manila Bay, Corregidor Island became an offshore fortress when heavy fortifications were built to protect the capital, Manila. The island’s network of tunnels and defences was tested to extremes during the Battle of Corregidor in World War II, the final act of Japan’s conquest of the Philippines. Filipino and American soldiers resisted a heavy onslaught but, as the island was starved of food and water, were forced to surrender in 1942. The island was recaptured from the Japanese in February 1945.
An hour long ferry ride connects Corregidor to the mainland, and I found most people visit the 6.5 km (4 mile) long island on a group tour, riding on open top trams. It’s a quick-fire way to tick off the main sites, but you can’t linger if you find something particularly interesting.
The alternative is a private tour of the island with an experienced guide, where your transport is an off-road jeepney (old American army 4x4). My guide chose a quiet route, and we often had points of interest completely to ourselves. With no set timetable, I had the chance to examine the decommissioned guns (a legacy of the battle) at leisure, which were in surprisingly good condition despite the fragments of shrapnel embedded here and there.
Our off-roader could also reach sites that most visitors just can’t get to, including Corregidor Hospital, isolated by the surrounding thick forest in the middle of the island. It was eerie walking through the concrete skeleton that’s left of the building, its walls still bearing the urgent scrawls of graffiti from past imprisoned soldiers.