If you are considering a trip to Southeast Asia, you might be looking at Indonesia, Thailand, or Vietnam, and perhaps the Philippines is not at the top (or even the bottom) of your list. However, this beautiful, if a slightly off-the-beaten-path country has much to offer the adventurous tourist. Remaining off most American travelers’ radars, the Philippines welcomes you with stunning natural experiences you’ll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Add to this a welcoming local culture, widespread use of English, as well as dirt cheap prices for virtually anything and you have a great opportunity to explore a land few other US citizens get to visit.
While traveling to the Philippines for a corporate retreat with my company bsplegalmarketing.com, my kids and I took a few days off to visit the beautiful island of Palawan, a large island about an hour’s flight from Manilla. Here we found pristine beaches, an underground river, a fairy tale evening with the fireflies and even swimming with whale sharks. Come with me and explore the best things to do in the Philippines in 2022 and beyond.
How To Get to the Philippines
The Philippines, one of the most accessible countries in the world, allows citizens from 157 nations to come into the country without a visa. US passport holders can enter and stay in the Philippines for up to 30 days visa-free.
The Philippines is highly accessible with 10 international airports spread throughout the islands. Depending on where you are planning to tour in the Philippines, you might want to explore your options for point of entry to the country. Being an archipelago with most major islands being accessible only by plane or by ship, it’s worth doing your research to save you the money and hassle of doing multiple flight transfers. It’s also worth it to look up tourism spots on the same or nearby islands to be able to maximize your budget.
For most people flying into the Philippines, Manilla will provide the easiest access point. Here you will land at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) which services over 30 airlines flying in from different countries. Tourists coming into NAIA can enjoy easy access to urban sights and attractions. Many luxury hotels and shopping malls are available in the area, and the historical sites of Luneta and Intramuros are within a few hours of driving. Many local flights to the other Philippines Islands also arrive and depart from NAIA. If you don’t mind the traffic of the capital, NAIA may be the best bet for you.
The newly renovated Mactan-Cebu International Airport in Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu has regular flights from Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Doha, China, and other major Asian hubs. The MCIA is the primary entry point to the Visayas islands, a group of major islands that feature their charming tourism spots.
Davao International Airport is the premier hub for Mindanao. Mindanao features the most beautiful freshwater attractions, wildlife habitats, and hiking spots. Visiting Maria Cristina falls, the tallest waterfall in the country, and Mount Apo, the highest mountain peak, can be a refreshing break from the usual beaches and markets. Definitely, a place to check out if you’re eager to see the natural beauty of the Philippines. However, the state department advises US citizens not to travel to Mindanao due to civil unrest. Keep this in mind when making plans.
Palawan is home to some of the best-known beaches and nature spots in the country. Puerto Princesa International Airport services the whole island. The easiest way to get here is by flying into NAIA and then taking another flight to Puerto Princesa. More on this wonderful island later.
COVID Safety in the Philippines
As of writing this article, the Philippines has lifted restrictions on fully vaccinated tourists. However, for those not fully vaccinated with at least one booster shot, a negative RT-PCR test not older than 72 hours is required. Still, it’s a good idea to check airline restrictions in case they have a different advisory.
The requirement for the use of masks in outdoor open areas has been lifted but is still in effect for indoor locations and enclosed spaces. If booking your trip with a travel agency, it’s best to reach out regarding the current protocols as they are liable to change with short notice.
Is the Philippines Safe to Visit?
The Philippines, like some of its Southeast Asian neighbors, is a relatively peaceful and hospitable country. Communicating with the locals is easy as almost everyone has a grasp of the English language and street signs are also printed in English.
However, it goes without saying that tourists should still observe common safety precautions like planning ahead and doing their research. If you plan on using public transportation, it would be helpful to first research the routes and the price of fares before embarking on your trip. If you know a local, ask them to help you plan your routes. Some scams involving taxi drivers hiking up meters and shops doubling prices for unsuspecting customers are uncommon but still exist. Rideshare apps like Grab are popular and will let you see how much your trip will cost beforehand.
In terms of payment, shops that cater to cashless transactions are very rare. Cash is king in the Philippines, meaning you can’t rely on being able to use credit cards unless you’re in the metro.
Compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, the majority of Filipinos are devout Christians. It’s not necessary to cover up or dress conservatively when going around the country but make sure to remain respectful of the local customs and traditions.
The Philippines offers a lot of options for tourists. Whether you’re a foodie who wants to explore the local cuisines and specialties, a thrill seeker who likes to chase the ever-elusive adrenaline rush, or just someone who wants to enjoy a nice, fun time, in a tropical country, the Philippines has something for you.
It’s not usual that you’d find a place where you can enjoy all three, but Palawan, a province about an hour and a half flight away from Manila, has it all. The province itself is an island group, with Puerto Princesa at its heart. Puerto Princesa is an urbanized hub that has the amenities of any regular city but still with a quaint, laidback feel. It serves as the primary transit point to the other locations on the island. Palawan is considered a biodiversity hotspot and locals are very proud of the ways they safeguard their local tourist spots. It’s important to remember to refrain from littering and to be mindful of your surroundings when going around the island.
Palawan’s Top Attractions Include:
1. Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park
A UNESCO heritage site, for me this attraction rates as highly as Cherry Blossoms in Japan, Glow Worms in New Zealand, and a Safari in Tanzania’s national parks. This is to say – a bucket list-worthy item you must visit if you have a chance.
One of the longest underground waterways in the world, the Cabayugan River would, according to our guide, take more than 3 days to traverse in a rowboat. Luckily for your arms, a much more user-friendly version is available. During your visit to the national park, a local guide rows a small boat (10 people maximum) into the giant cave structure. Here, under cathedral-like ceilings and surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites, bats effortlessly swoop for lunch directly overhead and thousands of their family members are sleeping on the ceiling. While you might be stunned and even scared at first at the proximity of so many of these mammals, you quickly get used to the sight and the entire activity feels very safe. The guides, who are all local people native to the region, point out interesting formations while an audio guide provides some great scientific and historical background for the activity. The cruise takes about 30 minutes but make sure to leave a free day for this activity because getting here is no easy feat.
How To Get to Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park
Visiting the Subterranean River requires advanced reservations as well as waiting several hours to be admitted to the cave, so a tour where your guide makes all the arrangements and reserves your spot in line is your best bet. You should stay in or near Puerto Princesa on the day of the tour. We were able to book the tour in our hotel for about $50 per person the day prior. If you want to save a few bucks (about $5 to $10) you can book a similar one in one of many small tourist shops in Puerto Princesa. The day will start early as a van will pick you up around 7 am. From here you will head out over some VERY windy roads (and I do mean windy, don’t be like me and forget your motion sickness pills) and will arrive in the general area about an hour and a half later. Your day is only beginning because this national park activity is kept at low numbers in order to minimize the impact of tourism. So, chances are you will make a few stops first.
Other Things To Do Around Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park
While the river remains a main attraction, while you wait for your admission time you can visit a nearby local cooperative where you will go for a boat ride in the Mangrove Grove, an environmentally friendly activity that benefits the community (about $7 per person). Nearby, a zip line activity is available for about $10 per person. Lunch is included in the tour, and here you will have a chance to try Tamilok, a local mollusk specialty only available on this island (more on that later).
2. Honda Bay Beaches Tour
Touring around Puerto Princesa might prove difficult as transportation options are limited. However, Honda Bay is accessible with just a local tricycle (the Philippines’ version of the tuk-tuk) or you can organize transportation with your hotel. The Honda Bay tour is a boat tour that takes you island hopping to the different beaches and islands in the bay.
You can avail of lunch on one of the islands or bring your own food. Luli Island, a sand bar fondly named because it appears and disappears (“lulubog-lilitaw” in Filipino) depending on the tides, features clear waters and a white sand beach. Snake Island and Starfish Island similarly feature picturesque waters and powdery beaches where you can go for a swim. Just be mindful of the nets which indicate the allowed swimming spaces. It’s also advisable to rent some snorkeling gear or aqua shoes if you don’t have them, as there can be some sharp rocks, broken shells, sea urchins, and stonefish in the water. The water is clear enough to see through but there are no lifeguards on the islands. As such, tourists are required to wear life jackets while island hopping.
Your likely last stop would be Cowrie island which features a makeshift market and cottages where you can shelter from the heat after a long day. Some sand sculptors also allow visitors to take pictures with their works for a small fee (about $1-$2). Camping is not allowed on the island and the locals close up shop at around 5 PM. While this may feel like an abrupt end to the tour, you still have a lot of time to explore Puerto Princesa after you come back from a day of exploring the bay.
How To Get to Honda Bay Beaches Tour in Palawan
If you have a smaller group, you might have to share a boat with other people to save money as renting one can be a bit pricey. There’s no need to transfer boats as, when contracted, the boats will take you around to all the islands and to a small snorkeling platform where you can observe a beautiful reef teeming with wild fish. It’s best to set aside a whole day for touring the bay. After the tour, you will be able to explore the city and try some of the local dishes and enjoy shopping.
Other Things To Do Around Puerto Princesa City
Given its proximity to the city, Puerto Princesa boasts some of the best seafood restaurants in the country. Tamilok, a local specialty, is a mollusk that grows in the numerous groves of mangroves all over Palawan. The taste is reminiscent of oysters and locals have found numerous ways to incorporate it into local dishes. However, it is best eaten fresh and raw with vinegar steeped in spicy chilies, called ‘kilawin’. Much like balut’s (fertilized duck egg) established notoriety as a test of wills, tamilok has established a reputation with culinary daredevils. You can try the freshest tamilok during lunch on the Honda Bay Islands tour.
For animal lovers, the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center houses a crocodile farm and a mini zoo that is open to the public for a small fee (about a dollar). It features the preserved skin and skeleton of a 17 ft. long crocodile and numerous other reptiles, mammals, and birds housed in the center.
If you’re interested in bringing home some unique souvenirs, you might want to check out the local stores selling Philippine South Sea pearls. Palawan is home to the Philippines’ pearl farming industry and it’s common to find local salesmen walking around selling bracelets or jewelry sets with real pearls.
3. Iwahig River Fireflies Night Cruise
It bears repeating that locals in Palawan are proud of the way they have maintained the island’s natural beauty while being able to share it with the world. Palawan is not called the Philippines’ last environmental frontier for nothing. Their efforts to continue this practice shows in the Iwahig River Fireflies Night Cruise. Located just about half an hour from busy Puerto Princesa, the sudden shift from the bright lights of the city to a dimly lit environmental preserve can be whiplash-inducing but rest assured it’s for a reason. Light pollution is one of the reasons fireflies are becoming increasingly rare even in rural areas. Artificial lighting in the area is kept minimal and there might be a wait as the guides keep each boat’s occupancy low – about 4 to a boat – in the interest of safety. Flash photography is strictly prohibited throughout the ride but it’s likely you won’t miss the photographs anyway. There is something magical with the way you’re sailing in the river with the glowing fireflies above you and the bioluminescent plankton in the river below. The cruise is the perfect cherry on top to wind down after a long day of touring. A buffet dinner is available at the location but take note that given the limited allowed artificial lighting, it might be beneficial to get a quick bite before going to see the fireflies.
How To Get to the Iwahig River Fireflies Night Cruise
You can easily organize a trip to Iwahig River through your hotel or one of the tour kiosks scattered around Puerto Princesa. You can also book your visit online or rent a tricycle to the reserve. The boat ride costs about $10-$12 for a person and fits 3 people plus a guide.
4. El Nido
El Nido is an island a few hours away from Puerto Princesa featuring stunning limestone formations that are considered a geological marvel. Conde Nast Traveler and CNN have included the island in their lists of the most beautiful beaches in the world. What’s most astonishing is the fact that, despite being one of the most popular tourist spots in the country and the world, the local ecosystem has been maintained. Visitors can enjoy different water activities like snorkeling, which showcases the beauty of the island’s surrounding coral reefs, as well as kayaking through the limestone islands into lagoons. The Big Lagoon is a particular point of interest, with crystal clear waters that allow you to see the colorful fish swimming underneath.
The island’s protected area status is not for show. El Nido is home to no less than 20 endemic species and is considered the sanctuary of many endangered and threatened animals. Aside from visitors traveling for its beaches, it is not uncommon to travel to El Nido and meet nature enthusiasts eager to see these magnificent animals out in the wild.
Scheduling a 3-day trip just to explore the island of El Nido is a must as one day is not enough to get acquainted with the island’s wonders.
How To Get to El Nido
El Nido is accessible by air and has its own service airport but the more popular modes of transportation to and from Puerto Princesa are buses and vans. A one-way trip takes about 5.5 hours for a van and as long as 7 hours for a bus, depending on the traffic. Local tourism establishments offer dedicated packages to El Nido. Luxury hotels and resorts are also available for reservation online or through package inclusions. Electricity and other amenities on the island are limited and the hotels are of the eco-friendly variety.
5. Swimming With Whale Sharks in Palawan
Due to Palawan’s unique and plentiful biodiversity, you can have the opportunity to have a close encounter with one of the biggest living animals in the world. The Philippines is home to a large whale shark – or butanding, as referred to by the locals – population.
Whale sharks can reach a length of 20 meters long and can weigh up to 15 tons. Despite their intimidating name, they are harmless to humans and feed on a diet of krill and plankton. Killing the rare and magnificent whale sharks has been criminalized and they have been given endangered status to further promote their conservation. However, poaching still exists despite the local government’s efforts.
Unlike similar activities in nearby Oslob, Cebu, whale shark viewing in Honda Bay, or El Nido, Palawan is a highly regulated affair. There is no guarantee that you will encounter a whale shark for the day’s tour, even if you’re one of the lucky few people who get accepted. The reason for this is that Palawan tour guides keep the tours very limited so as to not disrupt the whale shark’s routines. Given that the tours do not practice chasing or corralling the animals for tourism, the time that tourists may be able to experience swimming with the animals is also limited. The best times to come and see the whale sharks are from April to October in Honda, Bay, and December to February in El Nido. The sharks commonly appear around the time of the full moon.
Even if you do not get to meet the butanding, you will still be able to see a variety of marine animals like turtles, dolphins, manta rays, and other tropical fish. However, do take note that the tours can be canceled due to inclement weather conditions and that diving or scuba equipment may be necessary for the experience. Feeding or touching the whale sharks is also not allowed. Tour prices typically range from $45 per person which is refundable in case of inclement weather. You can schedule a whale shark tour through local shops or through online portals.