Before I migrated to and retired in the U.S. 20 years ago, I lived in the Philippines from the time I was born, all of 54 years. I really do know this archipelago of 7,641 gorgeous islands by heart. It’s organized into three island groups: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. The archipelago has the fifth longest coastline in the world behind Canada, Norway, Indonesia, and Russia. How can all these islands be best covered?
Along with its five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, here are my suggestions for the best experiences in The Philippines, separated by its three major groups of islands.
Luzon: The Northern Island Group
Luzon is in the north and is the largest and most populous (ranked 15th in the world by area and fourth by population). It includes six other smaller islands. More than half of the country’s population of an estimated 114 million live here.
1. Metro Manila
Get a flavor of Metro Manila, the cosmopolitan capital complex of 16 cities and towns. I lived in its three prime cities: Manila, Quezon City, and Makati. Choose to stay in the latter; it’s nearest to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
It’s a shopper’s paradise. Global brands, Philippine crafts and designs, cheap Chinese goods, and fakes that are so like the originals (especially in Divisoria) give you the best value for your money. Two of the 10 largest shopping malls in the world are in Manila. It’s also a culinary haven. Think of any cuisine and you can get it in the entire budget range. Filipino food is also fast gaining popularity with native Malay, Chinese, Spanish and American influences. You will also love the nightlife. Being at the top of the world’s call center industry, Metro Manila buzzes with activity all day.
2. Corregidor Island
One of the first places where I took my husband was Corregidor Island at the mouth of Manila Bay. Only one and a half hours by fast hydrofoil from Metro Manila’s reclaimed area, Americans made it an “impregnable fortress” and played a significant role in the invasion and liberation of the Philippines from Japanese forces in WWII.
It’s the best place to relive the Pacific Front. Skeletons of the Mile-long Barracks (the longest single military barracks in the world housing 8,000 soldiers) and the cross-shaped hospital destroyed by the Japanese despite war treaties remind the visitor of the gruesome five-month battle. The Malinta Tunnel, the headquarters of General MacArthur and the seat of the Philippine government at the time, is now an important museum. Many memorials salute the heroism of the American and Filipino soldiers who fought together.
3. The City Of Vigan In Ilocos Sur
North of Manila in the province of Ilocos Sur is the one place in the country, and even Asia, where the 300 years of Spanish rule remains painted in the 17th-century homes preserved as a Heritage Village, undamaged even by war. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, there is St. Paul’s Cathedral, built in 1641, and the Crisologo Museum, the ancestral home of the town patriarchs, depicting life during the Spanish colonial rule. In fact, kalesas, or horse-drawn carriages, still ferry tourists on the narrow-cobbled roads.
4. Baroque Churches Of The Philippines
A group of churches in the Philippines forms a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Three of them are in Luzon: San Agustin Church in Manila, Santa Maria Church in Bulacan, and Paoay Church in Ilocos Norte just after Vigan. The fourth, Miagao Church, is in the Visayan province of Iloilo. I have not seen Miagao, but am amazed and proud that we have historic sites comparable to some of those in Europe. In serving as the political backbone of Spanish colonial rule, churches were subject to attacks by local revolts. Thus, Philippine baroque architecture appears like fortresses with large imposing buttresses at the sides. It is also a unique interpretation by Chinese and Filipino craftsmen.
5. Rice Terraces Of The Mountain Province
Farther up north in the mountains of northern Luzon, there are five clusters of rice terraces in four municipalities of the Mountain Province. Together they are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the most intact of those created by the Ifugaos, a minority ethnic group that has lived in the Philippine Cordillera Mountains for more than two thousand years. They are a sight to behold — especially since they reach a higher altitude and are on steeper slopes than the other rice terraces around the world. Made of stone and mud walls, the elaborate old farming system is still maintained cooperatively by the mountain villagers of today.
6. Mayon Volcano
The most beautiful volcano in the Philippines is also its most active; it last erupted in 2019. Mayon Volcano, in the province of Albay in the southeastern part of Luzon, is endowed with a symmetric conical shape that makes it “the most perfect volcanic cone in the world.” Sacred in Philippine mythology, it became the Philippines’ first national park. A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, its designation as a World Heritage Site is pending.
I couldn’t wait to show my husband Palawan. The fifth largest island in the archipelago, it juts out such that it has the westernmost point of the country. It has two UNESCO World Heritage Sites and has consistently stayed on lists of “Top 10 Best Islands in the World.” Even the Iwahig Penal Colony, a “Prison without Walls” fascinates visitors and, of course, the world-class beaches and resorts like El Nido and enchanting islands like Coron and those in Honda Bay.
The first of the World Heritage Sites is the Tubbataha Reef, one of the world’s best dive spots just 150 kilometers off Puerto Princesa, the capital. It’s an atoll reef with a very high density of marine life, featuring a 100-m perpendicular wall and two lagoons. The other is the world’s longest (8.2 kilometers) navigable Underground River, only two and a half hours from Puerto Princesa. A short walk through a green forest inhabited by monkeys and monitor lizards will take you to the phenomenon of the river pouring straight into the sea, set amid the lovely limestone karst mountain landscape outside and the stunning formations inside its deep chambers.
Visayas: The Central Island Group
Between the northern and southern island groups, the Visayas is composed of nine islands on the Visayan Sea. In the east are Leyte, Samar, and Siquijor; center: Bohol, Negros Oriental, and Cebu; and west: the provinces in the island of Panay and Negros Occidental. Considered the capital of the Visayas, Cebu City has its own international airport.
8. Boracay Island Off Panay Province
Boracay is dubbed the “Party Island.” With an area of only 4 square miles, it’s famously known for wide, white powdery sand beaches, relaxation options, and a bustling nightlife. Just off the northwest coast of Panay in the Western Visayas, it is a favorite venue for corporate celebrations and personal vacations. Just like Palawan, it has stayed on the list of the “Top 10 Best Islands in the World.”
Bohol in the Central Visayas and nearest Cebu should be, too. It includes 75 minor surrounding islands like Panglao, routinely listed as one of the top ten diving locations in the world. Bohol is also proud of its Chocolate Hills, numerous mounds of brown-colored limestone formations, and the Philippine tarsier, the world’s smallest primate.
Mindanao: The Southern Island Group
Mindanao is the second-largest island after Luzon and the seventh-most populous in the world. It’s the country’s major breadbasket, producing eight of the top ten agricultural exports from the Philippines. It includes the Sulu archipelago which looks like a land bridge to Borneo, Indonesia.
For my first marriage, our honeymoon was at a treehouse in the Zamboanga peninsula adjacent to Sulu. I also took my children to Dakak, a beach resort and pearl farm there. Today, however, both of these provinces are Muslim-controlled and are no longer considered tourist-friendly.
The safest place to visit is the province of Bukidnon. When I was the managing director of a software company, I visited our software installation at the Del Monte Corporation facilities in Camp Philips, one of the world’s largest pineapple plantations. I loved the golf course amid the vast pineapple fields and will not forget the taste of pineapple-fed steaks at the country club. Move over, Wagyu!
Occupying a wide plateau in north-central Mindanao, Bukidnon means “highlander” or “mountain dweller.” Bukidnon is the major producer of rice, corn, pineapples, bananas, and sugarcane, making it the fifth richest province in the Philippines. Mount Dulang-Dulang, the second highest mountain in the country, offers many adventures and the Monastery of Transfiguration is the best for quiet retreats.
If you want to experience world-class diving and beaches, land at the Cebu International Airport and visit the Visayan islands. If you want to explore the rich heritage, culture, and history of the Philippines, go to Luzon. If you want to backpack the whole country, there is a roll-on/roll-off integrated network of highways and ferry routes. Wherever you go, you will be treated by the warmth and hospitality of the Filipino people. Everyone in the customer service chain speaks English or Taglish, an understandable blend of Tagalog and English. So, it should be easy. You will not be disappointed and will see that “It’s more fun in the Philippines.”
For more information on visiting the Philippines, check out these articles: