Experts' top 18 backpacking holidays in the Philippines

Seasoned backpackers Ferdz Decena, Christian Sangoyo and Julian Rodriguez share their favorite adventures, from exploring the hidden El Nido in Palawan to going wild swimming in the Babuyan Islands

By Monica De Leon

Climbing Mt. Batulao in Batangas. By Julian Rodriguez

BLOGGER FERDZ DECENA’S FAVORITES LIST

1 BANAUE RICE TERRACES AND BATAD TOURS FROM P2,500 A NIGHT
Batad, Ifugao. By Ferdz Decena
 

Banaue in the Cordillera region, 458km north of Manila, is home to the famous rice terraces, now on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and Tappiya Falls.There are five clusters of rice terraces in the Philippine Cordilleras, with two of them in Banaue, one in Bangaan and another in Batad. The terraces are mountain after mountain of terraced rice paddies carved by the Ifugaos some 2,000 years ago using only their bare hands and primitive tools. Each village has its own planting and harvest season. Batad, one of the nearby villages and a UNESCO World Heritage site, offers the best views of the rice terraces in April when the rice paddies are lush green, and from June to July, when the rice fields turn golden brown. 

While in Batad, make time to see Tappiya Falls, a stunning waterfall about an hour’s trek from the main village of Batad. The trek will take you along slippery trails and narrow terrace walls. “Tappiya is a massive drop (about 230 feet) so from afar, what you will see is a slender body of water falling from the cliff top,” said Decena. "The waterfalls is the most beautiful I've seen in the Cordilleras." It does not dry up in the summer and its pool of water is great for swimming. Batad is also a good jump off point to villages like Cambulo, where there's a riverthat flows all the way to Tappiya Falls. 

Parana Tours offers a Banaue-Batad Tour that includes transfers from and to Manila, overnight stay, guides and fees, and tours to Banaue town, Banaue viewpoint, Batad and its rice terraces and Tappiya Falls. Fee is P2,500 (about US$58) per person per night for a minimum of 12 people. www.paranatours.com, tel +632 478 8172. Where to stay. Simon’s View Inn & Restaurant (www.facebook.com/simonsviewinn) has 16 basic but clean rooms and bathrooms, serves good homemade pizza, and has a fantastic view of Batad village. For more information, go to the Banaue Tourism office to get a list of hotels in the area, tour rates, and information on hiring guides. Or call the Department of Tourism Office, Cordillera Autonomous Region at tel +6474 442 7014. Accommodation in Batad is mostly homestay. Locals’ homes are Spartan, with communal bathrooms. For details call the Department of Tourism Office, Cordillera Autonomous Region at tel +6474 442 7014. To get to Banaue, take a Florida bus from Earnshaw Manila to Banawe, a nine-hour ride. From the town proper of Banaue, take a jeep or van for another 12km land travel to Saddle, the jump off point to Batad. The best time to go is April in the summer to see the lush green terraces or June to July when the rice fields are golden.

2 HANGING COFFINS AND SPELUNKING IN SAGADA
Trekking Sagada. By Ferdz Decena
 

Sagada, 450km north of Manila, still practices burying their dead in hanging coffins nailed to the side of cliff faces or inside caves, high above the ground. It’s not as popular now as it was 2000 years ago, but you could still see the hanging coffins from the town. To get a good view of the hanging coffins set against limestone rocks, take a 10- to 20-minute walk from St. Mary’s Church in the town center to Echo Valley, a great vantage point to see the coffins as well as a popular place to let out a primal scream if you’re so inclined. As its name suggests, Echo Valley has great acoustics, producing an astounding echo. Another must do is exploring Sagada's caves. Go on a six- to eight-hour spelunking tour from Lumiyang (burial cave) all the way to Sumaguing. Expect to get wet. At some point you’ll have to pass through narrow rock tunnels. Tour highlights include the stalagmite formations inside the cave, and a natural pool with clear waters, perfect for swimming in. For easier caving, try Sumaguing, which offers one to two hours of manageable trekking.Take time to trek Sagada’s two mountains — Kiltepan and Marlboro Hills (Kaman Baneng to locals). You can drive or go on a one-hour trek to Kiltepan. Marlboro is a longer trek, but will afford you a 360-degree view of the whole Mountain Province area, including Alab in Bontoc and portions of Halsema Highway, a 150km scenic road, the highest altitude highway in the Philippines.

For tours, book the Sagada Genuine Guides Association (SAGGAS ), one of two established Sagada-based tour operators. Tour guide rate for spelunking at Sumaguing Cave is P500 for a group of one to four people; tour guide rate for spelunking at Lumiang Cave is P800 per head; and for a sightseeing tour, with option to choose three sites to visit, the rate is P600 for a group of up to 10 people. Recommended guide is Gareth Likigan, www.saggas.org, tel +63929 556 9553. Where to stay Masferre Country Inn & Restaurant  at the main town center of Sagada has clean, comfortable rooms. Where to eat Sagada Brew serves coffee made from homegrown beans, and Gaia Café and Crafts  serves vegetarian meals. To get to Sagada, take a Florida bus from Earnshaw Manila to Banawe, a nine-hour ride. From the town proper of Banawe, take two-hour Immanuel bus ride to Bontoc, from where you can take a 45-minute jeepney ride to Sagada. You can visit Sagada all year-round but the best time to go is November-December to see the Festival of Lights on November 1, when locals light bonfires at the tomb of their departed as a ritual of remembering, or the first week of December during the Begnas festival, a thanksgiving ritual celebrated before the planting season, a time when all locals don their native garments.

3 HIKE MT. KUPAPEY AND ENTER A SEA OF CLOUDS IN BONTOC
Mt. Kupapey, Maligcong, Bontoc. By Ferdz Decena
 

Go to the sleep y town of Maligcong in Bontoc, Mountain Province, 412km north of Manila, and hike up Mt. Kupapey. The trek, which takes about one to one-and-a-half hours, will take you on a scenic trail, fringed with pine trees. The temperature is about 18 degrees celsius. When you reach the summit, a blanket of clouds will cover your path and once it clears you’ll see the quaint villages down below and rice terraces comparable to those in Banaue. Decena says “the stone-walled terraces of Maligcong spread far and wide from the side of the mountains”. And from the mountain top, the terraces appear like a “spiderweb with the village of Fang-Orao on top.” The place is still pretty much untouched by commercialism.


Stay at Maligcong Homestay and Coffeeshop (+63915 546 3557), a family home with two rooms rented out to guests. The verandah offers a fantastic view of the terraces. The rooms are big, and each is furnished with a queen-size bed. The toilet and bath are shared but clean with heated water. The owner Suzette is a good cook, serves good coffee, and is able to refer guests to local guides. To get to Bontoc, take a Genesis bus from Pasay to Baguio, from where there are GL Lizardo buses bound for Bontoc. The best time to go is August to September when the terraces are green, or October when the terraces have turned golden brown.

4 SWIM IN WATERFALL PLUNGE POOLS, GO WHALE WATCHING AND EXPLORE NEGROS’ NATURAL WONDERS WITH DUMAGUETE AS BASECAMP
Manjuyod sand bar, Bais Bay, Negros. By Christian Sangoyo
Dumaguete is a developed city
in Negros Oriental in the Visayas, 850km south of Manila, but it does not convey that big city feel and is still laidback. It’s a jump-off point to some of Negros’ top natural attractions. “If you want to explore Negros, Dumaguete can be your basecamp, where you can recharge and get your supplies, before going back to your explorations,” says Decena. Take a jeep or multi-cab from Dumaguete to the west in Valencia, then hire a habal-habal (local motorcycle) from the town center to take you to Casaroro Falls, with more than a hundred-foot drop, plunging into a natural pool, perfect for swimming in. It’s a 30-minute hike to Casaroro, difficult but manageable with an established trail. Other places to explore from Dumaguete are Siquijor, located southeast of Dumaguete, a sleepy province known for witchcraft and mysticism and pristine beaches, just a two-hour ferry ride away; Bais Bay, north of Dumaguete, where you can watch whales and dolphins; and Manjuyod, a seven-kilometer white sandbar in North Bais Bay in Tañon Strait, which only appears at low tide. There are a few bare houses built on stilts on the sandbar, which are available for rent through the Bais Bay Tourism Office.

For more information, ontact Negros Oriental tourism or Siquijor tourism office. Check out Boris Travel & Tours for Dumaguete tours with rates ranging from P1,000 to P3,000 per person for a group of 10 people. Some of the tours offered are a whole day tour of Dumaguete City and its countryside, dolphin and whale watching tour with lunch at White Sandbar, and Apo Island snorkeling tour. On offer too is a Siquijor Island tour, which costs P1,350 per person, minimum nine people per group. www.dumaguetetrips.com, +63906 555 4190. Book a stay at Harold’s Mansion on Hibbard Avenue, Dumaguete City. Harold’s has aircon rooms for P800 for a twin/double room for two, with breakfast and free use of lockers, and dormitories that cost P250 per person. It also has ecolodge, detached wood cottages that cost P500 per night. Gabby’s Bed & Breakfast in Daro Town, a 15-minute tricycle ride from the airport, is a backpacker-friendly bed and breakfast, which has colorful rooms with friendly rates that start at P600. Book a direct flight from Manila to Dumaguete on Cebu Pacific Air. Best time to go The summer months of March to May, when the seas are relatively calmer.

5 EXPERIENCE THE INDIE SIDE OF EL NIDO
Twin Beach, El Nido, Palawan. By Ferdz Decena
El Nido in northern Palawan ,
646km southwest of Manila, is more than just Bacuit Bay, its five-star resorts, white sand beaches, lagoons and karst formations. Decena says that there are still many beautiful places that remain unexplored such as the Nacpan-Calintang area in the northwestern side, about an hour’s ride from the main town. The area is home to the rather unique Twin Beach, two white-sand beaches separated by a hill. Nacpan has five kilometers of white sandy beach with gin clear waters. It’s ideal for swimming and surfing. Most people who visit are day trippers, who rent a habal-habal or bike or van from the main town. Electricity is only available from 6pm to 10pm. Calintang is smaller, like a little cove, with gentler waves. Lots of boats dock on this side because it’s close to a fishing village.

Another spot in El Nido not known to many is the eastern side. Tapik Beach, about one-and-a-half hour’s ride from Sibaltan, is not developed but a good spot for swimming. The beach has lots of seagrass, and is a good jump off point for island hopping and snorkeling. Go to Imorigue Island, the only karst island in that side of El Nido, surrounded by snorkeling sites. Further out to the east is Maosonoan Island, a small fishing island with pristine white sand beaches. There are three empty huts on the beach where you can take shelter from the sun.

Book a stay at Tapik Beach Park, a rustic resort with standalone cottages perched on a hill and by the beach, located east of El Nido, in Sibaltan. Rates are from P500 per night. Tapik is the only island hopping operator in eastern El Nido. To get there book Air Swift, formerly Island Transvoyager, tel +632 851 5664. Roundtrip Manila to El Nido airfare is about P13,000. Another alternative is to book a Cebu Pacific Air flight to Puerto Princesa, Palawan (roundtrip airfare from Manila is about P3,000), and take a five-hour El Nido bound shuttle van (P700 per person). Lexxus Shuttle Services’ vans can pick you up at Puerto Princesa Airport. To get to Nacpan-Calintang, take a jeep (P50) from the El Nido town terminal. Jeeps ply once daily at about 10am. To get to the eastern side of El Nido, hop on a bus from the terminal in the main town of El Nido at around 11am and get off in Sibaltan. Travel time is about one-and-a-half to two hours, but can take up to four hours depending on the frequency and length of stops. It’s best to rent a bike in El Nido town for P800 for a whole day’s use. The best time to go is from March to June when the waters are calmer. Contact the El Nido tourism office at +63917 841 7771.

6 GO EAST OF BOHOL TO SEE AN IDYLLIC BEACH AND A MYSTICAL ISLAND

Burial Cave in Limanoc Island off Anda in Bohol. By Ferdz Decena
“Anda is the next big thing in Bohol,” says Decena. Anda is a peninsula in Bohol in the Visayas, 940km south of Manila. It’s a little out of Bohol’s touristy path on the eastern side, and is a three- to four-hour drive from Tagbilaran. It has a beautiful beach located just across the town plaza. The four-kilometer beach is fringed with Talisay trees, has fine white sand and is a favorite place for swimming. Right after a swim, head to the town plaza for a picnic meal. In Barangay Badiang you will find the mysterious Limanoc Island, a protected area that is home to indigenous monkeys and a mangrove forest, which you can explore on foot along a manmade boardwalk that connects to the bamboo pier. At the end of the island, there are boats for hire to take you to the mangrove area. If you book ahead a tour guide will be able to take you island hopping and show you a cave with ancient sketches on the wall. It’s this same cave where shamans from all parts of the Philippines congregate before the Holy Week for their rituals. Other caves in the area serve as burial places, where boat coffins or logs carved like boats serve as vessels for the dead.

Bohol Best Tours offers a 10- to 12-hour tour of Anda that includes a visit to Anda church, Anda beach, and mangrove and cave trekking. For details, email bohol-besttours@gmail.com, tel+63939 916 2624. Visit www.boholbesttours.comBook a stay at Little Miami Beach Resort in Anda, which has clean aircon native style cottages with private room, kitchen, living room and en suite bathroom with hot and cold shower, strong water supply, and stable Wi-Fi for as low as P800. It’s set in a perfect location, by Quinale Beach, with a beautiful sunrise view, and minutes away from the main town and the market. Book a flight on Cebu Pacific Air, which has direct flights from Manila to Tagbilaran City. To get to Anda from the airport, take a van for a two-hour land travel (P150 fare), or a bus for a three-hour land travel (P130 fare). You can go to Anda year-round, but best time to visit is from March to May for fine weather to enjoy the beaches.

7 FORGET VOODOO AND ENJOY SIQUIJOR’S FINEST BEACHES
Sandugan Beach, Siquijor. By Ferdz Decena
Siquijor island,
located southeast of Dumaguete and 876 south of Manila, has pretty much been off the tourist radar, which is just as well. You can tour the island in a day and enjoy its beautiful unspoilt beaches, caves and waterfalls. Go to Sandugan Beach in Larena, a white-sand beach ideal for swimming. At sunset, the horizon turns into fiery layers of tangerine, while the calm water in the foreground turns steel-grey, with a mangrove patch jutting out of the water. Salagdoong Beach on the east side of the island is a small cove with lots of mahogany trees. The beach sand is mostly crushed corals and the water is the bluest of blue, covering a gently-sloping seabed ideal for swimming and diving off a nearby cliff.

Boris Travel & Tours offers a Siquijor Island tour, which costs P1,350 per person for a minimum of nine people per group. www.dumaguetetrips.com, tel +63906 555 4190.

Book a stay at Coco Grove Beach Resort. It has native style aircon cottages and villas with verandah, swimming pools, restaurants, and a dive center. And it has a beachfront location, facing 800 meters of white sandy beach. Room rates start at P2,950. Book a flight on Cebu Pacific Air  for direct flights from Manila to Dumaguete City. From Dumaguete, take a 50-minute Oceanjet fastcraft to Sijuijor. The ferry ride (P210 open air; P360 business class) is daily at 12:50pm only. The summer months of March to May are the best time to go to be assured of calmer waters for the two- to three-hour ferry ride from Dumaguete to the island.


BLOGGER CHRISTIAN SANGOYO’S FAVORITES LIST

8 BEACH HOP IN ROMBLON
Banton Island, Romblon. By Christian Sangoyo
Romblon province in the Visayas,
416km south of Manila, has 20 islands and islets scattered around Sibuyan Sea and Tablas Straight. It’s made up of three main islands: Tablas, Sibuyan, and its namesake, Romblon. The province is famous for its marbles and a idyllic beaches not known to many. Banton Island, which lies in the northern area of the Sibuyan Sea, in between Marinduque Island and Tablas Island, is made up of the main island of Banton, along with three uninhabited islands. Banton has beautiful snorkeling sites, teeming with marine life, and a pristine white beach hugged by emerald waters. Bonbon Beach in the municipality of Lonos is about five kilometers away from the main town in Romblon, and located on its eastern side. It’s a privately owned property with creamy fine sand, calm, clear turquoise waters and gently sloping seabed. Tourists hardly reach this gem of a beach, ideal for swimming. From the beach, you get a breathtaking view of Tablas Island and a fantastic sunset. At Bonbon beach you’ll find a row of trees and if you walk through that you’ll find it opens to a kilometer-long sandbar that connects Bonbon to the uninhabited island of Bang-Og. According to Sangoyo, there’s no development on the site so if you intend to make a day of it, you'll have to pack a mat and a cooler filled with ice cold drinks. 

Contact the Romblon provincial tourism office at +63920 629 5838. Book a stay at San Pedro Beach Resort (tel +63928 273 0515) in Talipasak, which has eight native-style cottages perched on a hill with views of the sea. A room night here costs P800. The cottages don’t have aircon but they’re clean and have private toilet and bath, and garden. Book a flight on Philippine Airlines for regular direct flights from Manila to Tugdan Airport in Romblon. From the airport, take a shuttle to the port of San Agustin from where you can take a motorized boat (8am and 1pm only) or an MV Querubin ferry (6am only) to destinations in Romblon and Sibuyan islands. Another way is to take a bus from Manila to Batangas International Port, from where you can tickets on any of three shipping lines that ply the Batangas-Romblon sea route. 2Go Travel  shipping is the most comfortable. The best time to go is August to January. The Ati-Atihan Festival in Romblon is a local mardi gras that takes place usually in the second week of January.

9 GO OLD WORLD IN MARINDUQUE
Boac Cathedral in Marinduque. By Christian Sangoyo
Marinduque
is a lovely heart-shaped island province in Luzon, located 208km southeast of Manila. It’s famous for its quiet beaches and the Moriones Festival, a weeklong Lenten celebration that sees locals parade in colorful costumes and masks, depicting Roman soldiers in the story of the Passion of the Christ. Lesser known, however, is its quaint town, Boac, in the western side of the province, which Sangoyo describes as Vigan in the north. Boac has ancestral Spanish houses still being used as local residences and historical landmarks. The centuries-old fortress church Boac Cathedral is a well-preserved church built in 1666 in Honor of the Blessed Virgin of Biglang-Awa. It’s set on a promontory, surrounded by a wall, designed to protect it and the locals from Moro invasions back then. Sangoyo says that when you hike your way up to the church, you’ll be greeted by the church’s old wooden doors, handcarved with cherubs and images of evangelists John, Luke, Mark and Matthew. The old bell, while no longer functional, is still on display. There is also a National Museum branch housed in a 1987 building located near the town plaza. Opened in 1995, the museum showcases artifacts found in caves, old Moriones masks and costumes gathered from galleons that are still buried in the waters between Pingan and Melchor islands, and antique photographs.

Contact the Marinduque provincial tourism office at +6342 754 0136. Book Boac Hotel (+63916 271 3463) in Barangay San Miguel in Boac, the oldest hotel in Boac, Marinduque, is known for its character features and vintage decor. It is homey and affordable, has 16 rooms, with fan rooms as cheap as P500, and aircon rooms as low as P1,200. Rooms have cable TV, private bathroom with shower heater, and Wi-Fi (suites on the third floor have the strongest connection).

To get to Marinduque, take a JAC Liner  bus from its Cubao terminal to Lucena City in Quezon. From Lucena City’s main pier, take a three-hour ferry ride to Marinduque. Montenegro Lines or Starhorse Shipping Lines depart for Marinduque, usually every two to three hours. The best time to go is Holy Week, when the province celebrates the Moriones Festival. In 2016, the Holy Week starts on March 24 (Holy Thursday).

10 HIKE UP THE HILLS AND GO WILD SWIMMING IN THE BABUYAN ISLANDS
Nugdungan Hills in Calayan, Babuyan Islands. By Christian Sangoyo
Calayan, the largest island in the Babuyan group of islands on the northern tip of mainland Luzon and south of Batanes province, is just a speck of land in the Luzon Strait, and perhaps a place that time forgot. Sangoyo recalls that he fell in love with it the first time he saw it.

“We went to Sibang Cove one afternoon after riding a kuliglig (hand tractor) and I was astounded by the scenery — the beach went on forever and had fine, creamy sand. The seabed drops off abruptly and the waves are strong so you have to be careful when swimming. On one side of the shore, there’s a cliff called Nadugungan Hills, a good place to clamber up to, about more than a hundred feet above the shore. An outrigger boat could take you to the other side of the island where there are three caves at the bottom of a cliff rock.” 

At the main port Calayan is a beautiful snorkeling opportunity. “We didn’t expect the water in the port area to be like an underground forest. There are seaweeds and it’s thriving with fishes that are not afraid of people,” says Sangoyo.

Book a homestay, the only type of accommodation on the island. San Jose Inn & Mini Grocery Homestay (tel +63921 534 9231) has spacious family and private rooms with electric fan, running water, shower and a flushing toilet, and costs P250 per person. The two other homestays, which have the same owner, are Calayan Travellers Inn and TPS Homestay (+63920 837 5737 or +63929 837 5737). Expect to eat homecooked meals, mostly seafood, cooked by your host. Hosts provide guests a local guide and transport. Boat hire costs P3,000 for a two-day tour. Take a motorbike to get to Sibang Cove. A bike hire costs P200, roundtrip.

Book a Philippine Airlines flight from Manila to Tuguegarao, then take a tricycle to the Tuguegarao Central Bus Terminal from where you can take a three-hour bus or van ride to Claveria. From Claveria, it’s a six-hour boat ride (hop on a local boat at Tagal Lagoon; fare is P500 to Calayan. Or, hop on a Florida bus from its Sampaloc, Manila terminal for a 14-hour ride to Claveria. Fare is P700. Boat schedules are erratic and are weather dependent. If boats can’t cross and you happen to be stranded, don’t fret. A few local inns (rates from P400) are available near the beach. The best time to go is March to May when the Babuyan Channel is at its calmest.


GAMEPLAN HOST JULIAN RODRIGUEZ’S FAVORITES LIST

11 EXPLORE THE ISLAND PARADISE OF DANJUGAN IN NEGROS
Danjugan Island, Negros. By Julian Rodriguez
Go to Danjugan Island, a 43-hectare island and marine sanctuary
in the southeastern coast of Negros Occidental, 790km south of Manila to exlore the wildlife or go kayaking, scuba diving, or snorkelling. According to Rodriguez, it’s run by the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation, a group passionate about marine conservation. Danjugan used to be a threatened island, where lots of areas have fallen victim to over-fishing, but these days — thanks to the foundation — the area’s waters are teeming with marine life. Danjugan is 1.5 kilometers long, with five lagoons, lots of coral reefs and limestone forests, home to several wildlife species, including at least 72 bird species, at least 10 bat species, 22 butterfly species, at least 17 mangrove species, 572 fish species, 244 hard coral species, eight species of seagrass, and 74 species of macroalgea.Rodriguez says you can find all sorts of species in Danjugan — bats, and underwater, giant corals, sea turtles, two feet wide giant clams, different species of sharks, and occasionally, dolphins.  Visitors to the island not only enjoy exploring the wild life, but also get to learn lessons in conservation, including how to plant mangroves. Tours here are very organized, led by trained guides. 

Book island tours by the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation. A day trip (P1,750 per person) includes lunch and two snacks and drinking water, roundtrip boat transfers from and to Bulata, the mainland, guided trekking and snorkeling, and use of kayaks and snorkeling gear. Or, book an overnight stay (P2,750 per person per night), which includes the same items offered on a day trip but with room for the night, three meals and two snacks per day plus drinking water, and tour of the island by boat on the first day. For rooms, you can either get billeted in an eco-cabana (up to four people), or bed space in the dormitory. www.danjuganisland.ph. To book tours or tours with overnight stay, email experience@danjuganisland.phBook a Philippine Airlines flight from Manila to Bacolod-Silay Airport, from where you can take a cab to take you to the South Ceres Bus Terminal. Then take a Hinoba-an bound bus ride (P180 for non-aircon; P250 for aircon) and tell the driver to drop you off at the Crossing Remollos-Quadro de King, where Danjugan’s boatmen will meet you. From the shore, it’s a 30-minute boat ride to Danjugan. You can go all year round although the summer months of March to May are always best. January is a good time to visit too if you’d like to join the local festival Dinagsa in Cadiz City, and Sinulog Festival in Kabankalan City in honor of the Child Jesus, Sto. Nino, believed to have intervened to protect Christians from Moro pirates in the olden days.

12 GET TRADITIONALLY INKED IN BUSCALAN, KALINGA
Getting a traditional tattoo in Buscalan, Kalinga. Courtesy of Julian Rodriguez
Buscalan is one of 20 villages
that sit high on top of the mountains in the town of Tinglayan in Kalinga, 464km north of Manila. It’s one heck of a challenge to reach this place but after you’ve mustered the half-a-day land travel plus an hour or so of difficult trek — which includes passing through narrow mountain side trails right next to deep ravines, steep climbs, and if it suddenly rains, slippery muddy paths — you’ll find that the cultural encounter in the village will take all your tiredness away.

Rodriguez says “you will love the place because you’re in a society that’s not influenced by commercialism. It’s a place where people value things we normally take for granted like matches or tools like a shovel, which they use for work. After the long trek, you’ll find a gate that’s more like a fence to keep free-range pigs in, the landmark to Buscalan. And from there you’ll see a whole new way of life — elevated houses with crops on the roof; old ladies offering you food. If you are a visitor and guest in a household, they take care of you the whole time you’re there.” The main draw of Buscalan is the art of batok or traditional tattoo. There are other artists around but it’s best to get it from the legendary Whang-Od (pronounced Fang-Od), the oldest living tattoo artist at 96. The mountain people in Kalinga have a headhunting past. Part of the tradition was for village warriors to decapitate their fallen enemies’ head to end their spirit powers continuing on in the afterlife. Severed heads are displayed and left to dry in the sun. Warriors also get a tattoo as a sort of trophy for battles they’ve won. Tattoos for women are more like accessories.

You can ask Whang-Od to follow your own design, or you can choose from her bible of designs. Rodriguez got himself a tattoo of a zigzag line, circling his arm like an armband. Rodriguez shares: “Whang-Od used bamboo sticks that were about eight inches long to clip hold a thorn taken from a dalandan tree. With one hand, she held the bamboo stick to position where the needle would prick into my skin, and used the other to gently (but surely) pound on the rear of the bamboo stick. The thorn is used instead of a needle. The ink used was extracted from burning a special kind of pine wood.”

Book at the Riverside Inn in Old LupaLupa, Tinglayan. Overnight stay costs P250 per head while meals (homecooked, depending on ingredients that are available) are at P100 per head. Contact Mang Johnny (tel +63915 283 7885) to arrange your stay and your tour guide. Take a Genesis bus bus from Pasay to Baguio, from where there are GL Lizardo buses that travel to Bontoc. From Bontoc, take a jeep to Tinglayan (P110 fare), which usually leaves at 8am and 1pm. The best time to go is all year-round.

13 DIVE IN ANILAO, BATANGAS

Rodriguez recommends diving in Anilao in Batangas, 123km south of Manila, because Anilao, about a two- to three-hour drive. Anilao has long been a favorite of divers being so close to the city. Underwater photographer Gutsy Tuason says “Anilao has the best coral varieties on the planet. Spots like Beatriz, Bahura and Twin Rocks offer endless attractions.” Go to dive site Cathedral, which has two giant pillars, like a church, which you can explore diving up, down and around it. “It’s filled with fish you won’t get tired of looking,” says Rodriguez. Cathedral is also known for its wide array of nudibranchs, soft-bodied marine gastropod mollusks, notable for its vibrant colors and edgy forms. “We have the highest count of nudibranch species there,” Rodriguez adds. He said every year a marine wildlife watch group goes to the site for conservation purposes and always discovers an unidentifiable species. Twin Rocks is another dive spot Rodriguez recommends. It features schools of trevallies. Tuason says that “at the deeper end of Twin Rocks, there is what looks like a soft coral plantation that stretches on for a hundred meters, some as tall as a meter.” Mainit Point is another worthy dive. The water’s warm, being volcanic, according to Rodriguez. Diving website www.anilaodiving.com says diving in Mainit Point is 99 per cent with current (moderate to strong) because it’s adjacent to Maricaban Straight. It has shallow sandy bottom with soft and hard corals, and a sudden drop off to a slope of more than 30m. The drop off is a rocky wall covered with corals teeming with fishes like barracuda and surgeonfish. Close to the bottom are dog tooth tunas, and occasionally, white tip grey reef sharks.

Book a stay at Bambu Villa Resort  has 15 contemporary style rooms, with fullboard room rates starting at P3,200 per person per night (room shared by four), and P4,000 per person per night (room shared by two). Bambu Villa also offers diving, with rates starting at P1,350 per person, minimum of three divers. The rate includes one boat trip, two dives, dive master and tank. To get there, take any Batangas City bound bus from the LRT -Gil Puyat Station in Manila and get off at the Batangas Grand Terminal. Travel time is about two-and-a-half hours. From the terminal, take a Mabini-bound jeep (travel time may take an hour due to the traffic situation in the area). In Mabini, take a tricycle to the resort you’re booked in. You can go all year-round however the summer months of March to May promises better sea conditions.

14 SEE THE LAIDBACK SIDE OF BORACAY ISLAND IN AKLAN
Puka Beach, Boracay Island, Aklan. By Christian Sangoyo
Boracay Island in Malay, Aklan, 401km south of Manila, has more to it than just the four-kilometer White Beach, and the beach parties in the peak months of April and May, and late December. Rodriguez recommends two of his favorite beaches in Boracay, which are backpacker friendly: Bulabog Beach on the island’s eastern side, directly opposite White Beach, and Puka Beach on the northern part of the island.

“Bulabog Beach is where to go for the best sunrises,” says Rodriguez, “and in this part of Boracay, the wind constantly blows. The back part of the beach is where you’ll find windsurfers and extreme sports enthusiasts, mostly Russians, eastern Europeans, and Australians.”

Bulabog during the Amihan season, which starts in November or December, becomes an extreme sports heaven because of the quality of winds brought about by the northeast monsoon. It’s also that part of Boracay that’s less crowded.

“If you want to be alone in Boracay, go to Puka Beach; take a hammock or a tent if you want, and just laze about,” says Rodriguez. Puka Beach is located on a quiet side of Boracay. The beach has an interesting shoreline, made of crushed puka shells. The waters are not very calm and the seabed’s slope is not as gentle as White Beach’s. The wind gushes rather fiercely too. From the shore, you can see part of Romblon province. 

To get to Puka Beach, hire a tricycle. Rodriguez suggests biking your way to the beach. Contact the Boracay Tourist Center (+6336 288 3704). A tour guide is often not necessary in Boracay because public transports are available all day until the wee hours. Tricyle drivers know most of the tourist sites — this being a small island. A tricycle will cost you a minimum P40, but if you can wait for three other passengers you can split the cost, four way. You can rent a tricyle by the hour if you’re going to off-the-beaten places like Puka Beach. Rental can be anywhere from P100 to P300, with additional P100 for each hour of waiting. It all depends on your negotiation with the driver. You can also rent a bike at the rental shop behind D’Mall de Boracay. Rental cost is P100 per hour.

Book a stay at Zuzuni Boutique Hotel , a charming boutique hotel on White Beach, Boat Station 1. It’s a mid-range resort with 14 rooms and a restaurant called Cozina that serves good breakfast and traditional Spanish fare. Book a flight on Philippine Airlines for direct flights from Manila to Kalibo Airport from where there are Caticlan-bound commuter vans. From Caticlan jetty port, take a boat to Boracay Island. From the main port of Boracay, Cagban, there are tricycles and multicabs that can take you to the resort you’re booked in. Boracay Island is an all-year-round destination but the best time to visit is summer, from March to May, and during the Amihan season, which starts as early as November.

15 A HISTORY LESSON IN CORREGIDOR
Malinta Tunnel in Corregidor Island, Bataan. By Christian Sangoyo
Corregidor or “The Rock”
is a tiny island located 48km west of Manila, right at the mouth of Manila Bay. It’s an island fortress where Filipinos, alongside the Americans, fought bravely against the Japanese during the second world war. In 1941, under the military command of General Douglas McArthur, Corregidor became the Allied Forces’ headquarters and seat of the Philippine Commonwealth government. Corregidor is where you can get an in depth glimpse of Philippine History during the World War II, according to Rodriguez. But he also suggests doing a bit of reading before going to this the island to better appreciate the sites to see.

Said Rodriguez: “The island was designed to look like a battleship. They built forts to defend Manila Bay during the war. Malinta tunnel, dug out from solid rock, designed to protect Filipinos and Americans, is one of the last strongholds during WWII . It has a giant wall, where you enter from one side of the mountain and exit the other. That tunnel held supplies and became a make-shift hospital. The Japanese attacked the fort and drove away the Americans. And when the Americans came back, the Japanese blew themselves instead of surrendering.

“Visiting the tunnel during one of the night tours offers a different kind of experience, with the smell of the place and the sight of the exploded area. You’ll see frogs hopping around.” The tunnel has 10 laterals in its hospital wing, which used to house 1,000 beds for patients who were injured during the war. There had been accounts of some ghostly experiences from tourists too. Corregidor can be explored in so many ways. If you hike or jog around the island, you can get a good look at the ruins. Specific areas have monkeys. You can also rent a bike and see old canons, museums and beaches.

If you wish to stay the night at Corregidor Island, book at Corregidor Inn, a classic Filipino themed hotel smack in the middle of Corregidor Island. Sun Cruises offers Corregidor tours, from historical walking tours to adventure tours around Corregidor Island. www.corregidorphilippines.com. From any point in Manila, take a cab to Esplanade Seaside Terminal at SM Mall of Asia in Pasay and take the Corregidor-bound Sun Cruises ferry. The ferry ride costs P1,400 for roundtrip transfers on a weekday, and P1,500 on a weekend. Ferry fare includes entrance fee to the island. You can go all year-round, but the period from November until the summer months of March to May is the best time to go, avoiding the rain.

16 STEP BACK IN TIME IN VIGAN IN ILOCOS
Calle Crisologo in Vigan, Ilocos Sur. By Christian Sangoyo
Vigan is a city in the province of Ilocos Sur
in North Luzon, 407km north of Manila, famous for its well-preserved cobblestone street, Calle Crisologo, and centuries-old heritage houses with colonial European architecture. In fact, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the only surviving historic city that dates back to the 16th century Spanish colonial era.

Vigan is once a center for trade, even way before the Spaniards came. The Chinese would sail all the way from their land through the South China Sea to the island to barter off their goods with our own goods, usually mountain products from the Cordilleras. In the 1570s, Augustinian missionaries came to Vigan to evangelize and establish a Spanish city.

Rodriguez says Vigan is super laidback. There are a lot of areas where backpackers hang out. You can walk in peace, stop by a quaint café and enjoy local delicacies, or go on a kalesa (horse carriage) ride. Nighttime is the best time to explore the city to avoid the crowds.

Boris Travel and Tours offers Ilocos tours that include Vigan. The three day Pagugpud-Laoag-Vigan Tour Package, which starts at P9,997 per person, for 10 people, includes a two-night stay at Laoag Parklane Hotel, airport transfers (from Laoag Airport) Pagudpud day tour with lunch, Laoag and Vigan tours with lunch. Tour highlights are are Calle Crisologo, Syquia Mansion, Pagburnayan Pottery, Crisologo Museum, Baluarte ni Singson, Plaza Burgos, Heritage Village, Marcos Mausoleum, Paoay Church, Malacañang of the North, St. William Cathedral, Sinking Bell Tower, Museo Iloco. www.ilocostours.com.

Book a stay at Hotel Luna (www.hotelluna.ph) located on Crisologo Street. The hotel is a design mix of colonial Spanish and modern.

Take a Partas bus (www.facebook.com/Partas-Trans-Co-196736753687753/) from Partas’ terminal in Cubao in Manila. The bus directly takes you to Vigan. In Vigan, commuting is easy enough. There are jeepneys, tricycles and horse  drawn carriages for hire. You can visit all year-round but you may also time your visit during the first week of May when Vigan City celebrates its Festival of the Arts.

17 JOIN MALASIMBO FESTIVAL IN PUERTO GALERA IN MINDORO

Puerto Galera in Oriental Mindoro, 141km south of Manila, has always been known as a backpacker’s destination, with diving and the beach life as its main draw. Five years ago however, the island found its fame as venue for the Malasimbo Music and Arts Festival, the first international music and arts festival of its calibre in the Asia Pacific, attracting local and international artists from indie to mainstream.

For Puerto Galera tours, contact Puerto Galera Online Services, a reputable tour operator. Its tours include an island tour, which covers beaches and coves; an inland tour, which takes you to places like the Tamaraw Falls; and a tour of Tukuran Hidden Paradise. www.puertogalera.org. Book a stay at Lan-sei Water Resort, a homey resort with 16 rooms, with rates from P1,500 for two per night. The rooms are clean and have a private bathroom with heated shower. Wi-Fi is available in the common area. It’s a five-minute walk to the main White Beach, and a five- to 10-minute ride to the drop off point in Malasimbo. If you’re booking for Malasimbo, book as early as January to avoid disappointment. You can also pack a tent and pitch it in the camping area of Malasimbo. How to get there. Take any Batangas City bound bus from the LRT -Gil Puyat Station in Manila and get off at the Batangas Grand Terminal. Travel time is about two-and-a-half hours. From the port, proceed to Terminal 3 to buy your ferry ticket; proceed to the passenger terminal; and hop on the one hour and 15 minute ferry ride to Puerto Galera. Take the ferry that docks at White Beach if you’re staying at the White Beach area. The best time to go is, of course, March, during the Malasimbo Festival.

18 IMMERSE IN LA UNION’S SURF CULTURE

La Union in the north, 269km south of Manila, is a thriving surfing community. Rodrigues describes it as a fun place even though there are lots of tourists. The area between Flotsam beach resort and the main beach is a popular surfing area attracting both beginners, experienced, and professional surfers. La Union-based celebrity surfer Luke Landrigan recommends surfing sites such as Poro Point and Bacnotan for beginners. Urbiztondo is best for beginners and pros alike. If you’re not into surfing, there are lots of water sports available in the area, from body boarding, skim boarding, diving to snorkeling.

For surf lessons, contact San Juan Surf School, Luke Landrigan’s surf school in La Union. Contact La Union tourism tor call +6372 888 2797. Book a stay at Flotsam and Jetsam Hostel, which blogger Kim Jones describes as a boutique hostel with great vibe, good food, and bunked beds in thatched cottages on the beach. She recommends getting an outdoor massage from Big Momma. How to get there. Take a La Union bound Partas bus from Partas’ terminal in Cubao in Manila. The best time to go is October to January, the surf season.

OUR INSIDERS

Ferdinand Decena
is a blogger with 10 years of backpacking experience behind him. He won the grand prize for the travel photography category, The World Around Us, at the 18th TNT Travel Writing and Photography Awards in 2008. His blog Ironwulf.net won several awards locally at the Philippine Blog Awards in 2008, and the Nuffnang Blog Awards held in Singapore in 2009. Visit Decena’s blog, www.ironwulf.net.


Christian Sangoyo
is an experienced backpacker, having backpacked his way to about a third of the Philippines’ provinces for the past seven years. His blogsite Lakadpilipinas.com won the Best Travel Blog and Best Photo Blog in the Philippine Blog Awards in 2011, Luzon division. He was also one of the finalists in the 2014 Bloscars in the Skyscanner Travel Blog of the Year category. Visit Sangoyo’s blog, www.lakadpilipinas.com.


Julian Rodriguez
is a photographer, filmmaker and host of the online adventure show Gameplan. He worked as assistant cameraman and challenge tester for US reality show, Survivor. Visit Visit Rodriguez’s online tv show, www.whatsyourgameplan.tv

Originally published in Inflight Traveller December 2015-February 2016

 

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