Friday, August 30, 2013

Beyond Boracay: 10 Philippine Places Worth Checking Out

The fact that the Philippines has 7,107 islands means that there are just too many nooks and crannies of breathtaking beauty that can be discovered. 

The country particularly specializes in the off-the-beaten path, the secluded, and the sublime. 

Check out these stellar spots scattered all over the Philippines, and remember that paradise awaits the better informed. 


photo by Kat Martinez 

Located off the coast of Cebu province, Camotes is the island of choice for the better informed. Its turquoise waters, pristine white sand and remote location gives its visitors the enthralling feeling of having their own private island.

Legend has it, that when the Spaniards first stepped on its shores, they asked the natives what the island was called. Thinking that the Spaniards were asking what they were farming, the natives answered "camotes" (sweet potatoes). And so this is what the island has been known as, ever since.

There are three islands that make up Camotes: Ponson, Pacjian and Poro and Tulang. And these three are some of the most unspoilt that the Philippines can boast of. On a regular day, you can have any of its stunning beaches  all to yourself, leading many to liken it to Boracay, before it was overrun with tourists and commercialism.

If solitude by the beach isn't your thing, Camotes has a couple of interesting spots further inland. 

There's Lover's Lake, the 700-hectare Lake Danao where boat cruises and picnics are popular. Cave exploration is an option as well. Bukilat Cave has magnificent stalactites and stalagmites, while the more adventurous can try Timubo Cave and its steep stairs and spring waters. 

There's also a bit of bird watching to be had, where you can observe the Philippine wild duck of the pretty purple heron.

Camotes in January and March comes alive with its festivals. Tagbo Festival in January commemorates the founding of Poro town with re-enactments and lots of merriment, while Soli-Soli Festival in March pays tribute to the soli-soli plant and the town's patron saint.

How To Get There

Take  a direct flight from Manila to Cebu, and then take the RORO boat, fast craft or ferry from Danao City to Camotes Island. 


Photo by Mr. Yone,

Most tourists overlook the town of Taytay when they are visiting Palawan. They only descend upon El Nido,  and never bother to see what Taytay has to offer. That's too bad. This sleepy town has its own share of charms and attractions to rival its more famous neighbor.

Situated 220 km on the northeast of Puerto Princesa, and 500 km southeast of Manila, Taytay is bound to the north by El Nido, to east by the Sulu Sea, to the south by San Vicente and to the west by the South China Sea. 

This old Spanish town, which was founded in 1623, used to be the seat of the Palawan government, and is in fact, the largest municipality in the province.  But even before the Spanish came, Taytay was already a flourishing town, rich in trade and activity.

One good way to glimpse Taytay's past, is by way of its famous fortress.  The Fuerza De Santa Isabel or the Fort San Isabelle was built by the Augustinians in 1738 as protection for the townsfolk against marauding Moro pirates. This remarkably well-preserved structure overlooking Taytay Bay, was built with corals and limestone. In its grounds, one can still see its old brass canons, and the remains of an old church. 

Older than the fort is the parish church of Taytay, the Sta. Monica parish church. Built in 1663, this working church is just three minutes away from Fort Isabelle, and is the center for all the religious activities and festivals in Taytay.

But the town's main attractions are of course, its natural treasures. Malampaya Sound, a stretch of water facing the South China Sea is the playground of Irrawaddy dolphins. These dolphins, which are known for their bulging foreheads and small beaks stay in small isolated populations in the waters of Southeast Asia, and they are very much endangered. According to WWF,  that there are only 44 of them left in the Malampaya Sound area. 

Of course, the trip wouldn't be complete without some island hopping. After all, Palawan is famous for its lovely islands, and Taytay has its fair share of them.

Elephant Island has a hidden lagoon that offers fantastic snorkeling, while Apulit boasts of a dazzling white sand stretch (since a resort has been put up here, permission from the management is needed when visiting the isle), while Tecas Marine Sanctuary, Isla Blanca and Quimbaludan are uninhabited islands that are worth a visit for their pristine shores. 

But, if salt water isn't your thing, there are several freshwater options in Taytay too. Canique Waterfall, which is  30 minutes away from the city proper,  has sparkling, clean  waters that cascade from a height of 12 meters. Then, there's Lake Manguao, Palawan's largest lake at 6.7 square kilometers. The lake's calm waters, lush greens and bird population is best experienced via a kayak. 

How to get there

There are regular direct flights to Puerto Princesa, Palawan from Manila. From Puerto Princesa, a bus or van can take you straight to Taytay, and the travel time takes approximately 4-5 hours.  From El Nido, Palawan, there's also a bus or van that travels to Taytay, and the trip takes around 2-3 hours. 

Photo by Jun Garcia, WikiCommons

Nestled atop the Cordillera Mountains, getting to Sagada is quite a journey. It lies 275 km north of Metro Manila, and it takes 12 hours by land to get there. But the long trip is worth it. This mountaintop town is popular among backpackers for its cool climate, clean surroundings, low crime rate, beautiful mountain scenery, and its overall, easygoing vibe. 

The best way to get around Sagada is on foot or on a bike. This allows tourists to take their time and appreciate the scenic mountain views. Besides, there's no need for a mad rush from one site to another -- most of the town's must-see spots are within easy reach of each other. 

Some of the places to visit here are remarkable glimpses into the life of the native Ifugao who have lived in Sagada for centuries. Take for example, Lumiang Cave. The cave is the 2,000-year old burial ground of Ifugao elders. Its coffins are smaller than usual, because the Ifugaos traditionally bury their dead in the fetal position, in keeping with their belief that the dead should leave this world in the same manner that they entered it.

 Meanwhile, a 20-minute walk away is the Echo Valley and the famous Hanging Coffins of Sagada. As its name suggests, the sound of your shouts will bounce around in Echo Valley, but in contrast, it's probably best to keep a respectful silence at the Hanging Coffins.

This is another burial ground of the Ifugaos, but this time, the coffins (which are hollowed-out pine logs) are hung from either the face of a cliff or inside a cave. The tribe believes the higher the coffin is hung, the closer the dead Ifugao is to heaven.

Those caves that do not function as Ifugao burial grounds can be enjoyed for spelunking and trekking. Sumaguing is one such cave, with its entrancing limestone formations and cold spring waters.
Other places worth visiting in Sagada include Lake Danum for its pretty sunset views, Bomod-ok (Big Falls), for its 200-foot waterfalls, and the Sagada rice terraces. Even though the terraces here are not as grand as its Batad counterpart, they are still quite breathtaking.

How to get there:
While there are no direct trips from Manila to Sagada, what people usually do is travel first to Baguio, Banaue, or Bontoc. From either Baguio or Banaue, catch a ride to Sagada. From Bontoc, you can take the iconic rooftop jeepney ride to Sagada. 


The best thing about the group of islands called Caramoan, which lie off the coast of Naga City in Camarines Sur, is that you can have these islands all to yourself. Not just because it is relatively less popular than other beach destinations in the Philippines, but because the islands are a little bit challenging to get to.  But if only people knew -- the long trip is all worth it.

From the Cubao bus terminal, it takes an 8-hour bus ride to get to Naga city. From Naga, there is another shuttle bus that takes an hour and a half to get to the pier. There, the boats leave every hour, for the two-hour journey to get to Caramoan itself.

Accommodations are located in the Caramoan town proper. There are many low-key hostels, inns and homestays here that can be booked as part of your tour package. And unless you book at the exclusive resorts in Gota or Honongan Island, the main town will also serve as your jump-off point for the island hopping adventure that awaits.

The key is to get the best tour guide – and there are several that can be recommended, just make sure that they are licensed by the local government.  If you get a good one, then allow him to lead you to Caramoan's best spots. Your guide ought to know the best time to swing by the shimmering white sand bars of Manlawi, so that you don’t have to share this piece of paradise with anyone else. He also should know secret spots such as Tinago Cove, which is only accessible when the tide is at a certain level.  He should bring you to islands that are as varied as they come. There's one that is made entirely of flat, round rocks. Another called Guinahoan, replicates the rolling hills of Batanes, and overlooks the beach. 

There are islands like Lahus, which is a strip of sand with limestone formations on both ends, and flanked by the sea on either side -- making for two white beaches. There are also the various islands that have been used for one location shoot or another. Plus there are islands where you can rock climb or explore a bat cave, if you are so inclined.

It's been said before that  Caramoan is Luzon’s answer to the beautiful powdery sand of Boracay and the limestone cliffs of Palawan.  It is actually many other things besides.
So it's really not surprising that the international versions of the reality series, Survivor (Israel, France, and most recently, U.S.A.), have chosen Caramoan as the setting of their show. And if these foreigners, who have come to appreciate our islands will endure the thousands of miles just to get to them, then we who call this country home, have no excuse.

How to get there

There are 45-minute flights from Manila to Naga City, the capital of Camarines Sur. Otherwise, get on the bus from Manila to Naga, which takes around 10 hours. From Naga, take the one hour shuttle ride to Sabang Port. From Sabang, there are boats that can ferry you to Caramoan, which take an hour and 45 minutes. 


Photo from

Tubbataha Reef and Natural Marine Pa
rk has been ranked time and again as one of the best dive spots in the world. This UNESCO World Heritage site, has been put under the protection of the Department of National Defense, effectively shielding it from the destructive practices of illegal fishing and coral collection which were once common in the area.

With its more than 130,000 hectares of stunning coral reef systems and a diverse marine life population, Tubbataha is a diver's dream come true. Here, divers can marvel at more than 350 species of corals and around 500 species of fish. There are a number of shark, dolphin, whale, and bird species, too. In fact, the Tubbataha Reef and Natural Marine Park is also the nesting ground of Hawksbill and Green sea turtles, and one of the last remaining breeding reserves of seabirds in the region.

The park is actually composed of Tubbataha's North and South atolls, and the much smaller Jessie Beazley Reef.  Each of Tubbataha's atolls have a small island that have shallow pools, hugged by about 500 meters of reef flat.

Divers are spoilt for choice in their options for marvelous dive spots here in Tubbataha. On the northern side of the atoll, is Bird Island  -- the favorite gathering place of seabirds. This dive site has a depth of up to 60 meters, with a water current that is quite strong. But if you brave the dangerous waters, you will be rewarded with the sight of barrel sponges, soft corals, blacktip and whitetip sharks, as well as surgeonfish, groupers, and Moorish idols. Manta rays are common in the waters here too.

Amos Rock, on the other hand sits on the southern part of the north islet, with waters that are up to 70 meters deep. The dive here begins on a soft slope that is blanketed with corals , which then leads up to another wall, this time covered with whip corals and gorgonian fans. Some of the marine life you can encounter in the waters of Amos Rock include mackerels, snappers, angelfish and Moorish idols. Manta rays and eagle rays, plus turtles are also known to frequent these parts.

Meanwhile, even if Jessie Beazley Reef is a mere half a kilometer in diameter, it makes up for its size by its stunning underwater sights. The shallower parts contain Porites and Acropora corals, which support reef fish, while the deeper areas abound in blacktip sharks and tuna. From time to time, hammerhead, mako and thresher sharks can also be encountered.

How To Get There

From Manila, take a plane to Puerto Princesa. Tubbataha Reed and Natural Marine Park is accessible only by a ten-hour trip on live-aboard boats from Puerto Princesa. The best time to visit is towards the end of March until mid-June. 


Photo by Yvette Tan for PRRCFI

Little known Danjugan Island is a marine and wildlife reserve located in Barangay Bulata in Cauayan, which is 150 km south of Bacolod City.  This 43-hectare island is home to a diverse population of marine and terrestrial animals, and boasts of unspoilt lagoons, limestone forests, and coral reefs.

Visitors here can have an intimate and unforgettable encounter with nature at its most pristine. Despite its relatively small size, the island is teeming with biodiversity. There are more than 70 bird species here, including a nesting pair of White-breasted Sea Eagles, Tabon scrub fowls, blacknape orioles and night hawk owls. There are also different species of bats, butterflies, and fish. Its surrounding waters are frequented hawksbill turtles, blacktip reef sharks, and even manta rays and whale sharks.

It is in this type of environment that learning about nature is most conducive. And this is precisely what the Philippine Reef and Rainforest Conservation Foundation Inc (PRRCFI) has capitalized on. They hold regular marine and wildlife camps for young people, teaching them about environmental awareness and protection.
The campers listen to lectures on the importance of protecting mangroves and coral reefs, and learn about the ways that they can respond to the threat of climate change. They also engage in activities like snorkeling, birdwatching and even a beach clean-up. They sleep in open air cabanas, with a communal toilet, and are encouraged to use only one pail of water (collected rainwater) a day.

Guests who are not taking part in the camp  stay in equally rustic accommodations -- mud houses made of clay, straw and lime, supported by a bamboo frame. Activities here revolve around getting close to nature, while making sure not to harm it. There's kayaking on the serene lagoons, where the waters are clear enough to see the tiny fish that dart through the water. You can also go trekking  through the limestone forests, to cross to the other side where Turtle Beach is. If you're lucky, you'll get to see some of the turtles who come here to lay their eggs. Snorkeling is highly encouraged too, as there are a plethora of underwater wonders to be seen -- giant clams, seagrasses  and a variety of fish. If you're the more daring kind, bat caving might be the best activity for you. Of course, you can also just simply lie on the beach and just allow Danjugan to work its magic on you.

How To Get There

Take the direct flight from Manila to Bacolod City. From there, you can either rent  private car or hop aboard a bus to go to Bulata. From Bulata, there is a 30-minute banca ride to Danjugan Island -- which have to be pre-arranged. 


Photo from
It was once a sleepy island in Mindanao, but  in the 1980s, American and Australian surf enthusiasts discovered the world-class waves of Siargao. Photographer John Callahan captured  Siargao's gigantic waves, and soon enough, the photographs landed on the pages of Surf magazine in 1993. The island's  dramatic reef breaks captured the attention of the surfing world, and the rest as they say, is history.

This was how Siargao became one of the darlings of the surfing world. 800 km from Metro Manila, in the province of Surigao del Norte, the island drew, and continues to draw surfers from all over. Their most popular gathering place is Cloud Nine, whose dramatic waves crash dangerously into craggy corals, and is clearly the territory of professionals and the stout of heart.

Visitors to the island swell during the latter parts of September and the early weeks of October, during the annual Siargao International Surfing Cup. Cloud Nine's long boardwalk fills up with surfers and spectators who gather for their fill of exhilarating surfing. During this time, locals joke that Cloud Nine has been transformed into "Crowd Nine."

And Siargao's popularity show no signs of losing steam. Recently, it was named by CNN Travel as one of the top ten surf spots in the world, calling the waves of Cloud Nine a "death ride" where "fearless surfers will experience a slice of paradise or hallucinations as waves wrap over them like a liquid cocoon."

Aside from Cloud Nine, there are other surf-worthy spots in Siargao. Tuason Point is one, which has a pier that makes it more accessible. The reef here is mossy and with some rocks, but not so rough that one needs to wear a booty. Another spot is called the Jacking Horse. This one has waves that range from 2 to 7 feet, which then crash into a shallow reef.

But contrary to what people may think, Siargao offers several adventures other than surfing. The island also attracts the game fishing community, with its annual event where enthusiasts try their luck  at reeling in the many tuna, mackerel, and marlin that populate the island's surrounding waters.

There are also picturesque little islands such as unspoilt Naked Island, named so because it is stripped of all possible traces of civilization. While there, swing by to nearby Daku Island, which has lovely white sand, that is fringed with swaying coconut trees.

The great thing about Siargao is that all of these -- the world-class waves, the pristine islands and the waters teeming with fish, can be enjoyed without breaking the bank. The different resorts, restaurants and establishments here are relatively inexpensive, in keeping with the laid-back surfing vibe.

How to get there

By air, there are direct flights from Manila to Siargao Island. By land, buses ply the routes from Butuan, Davao, and Liloan to Surigao City. Another option is to board the RORO bus from Manila. By sea, there are ships that sail regularly from Manila to Surigao. When you get to Surigao, hop on a ferry to  Siargao. 


Photo by John Ryan Cordova, WikiCommons

The resort town of Ilocos Norte is home to a place that people have taken to calling the "Boracay of the North." Granted, Pagudpud's  white sand beach does merit some sort of comparison to its neighbor down south. But this popular municipality is so much more than a Boracay clone.

Located on the northernmost tip of the Ilocos Norte province, Pagudpud's coastline is as long as it is dazzling -- it is reputedly the longest contiguous white sand stretch in the Philippines.  Most of the crowds flock to Saud Beach, which has a pretty, coconut-lined shore. But if you want a more secluded spot of sand, hie off to Blue Lagoon in Barangay Balaoi. Here you can pretend to be a castaway, and enjoy an undisturbed time on a gorgeous beach.

 For the more rugged and adventurous types, why not try the longest zip line over open water? At Hannah's Beach Resort in Barangay Balaoi in Malingay, this zip line will have you zooming giddily over a kilometer of water.

Other attractions include Kaibigan Falls, which is a 30-minute trek away, where the water is crystal clear and cool. Anuplig Waterfalls meanwhile, can be visited in Adams, after a trek through rivers and hills. Another waterfall is Abang Falls in Bangui, whose water cascades in a curtain-like fashion, meriting comparisons to Hinulugang Taktak Falls in Rizal.

And while you're in Bangui, you might want to drop by one of the most iconic sights in Pagudpud -- the Bangui Windmills. This row of bone-white, 70-meter high windmills span the length of the beach, making for pretty, postcard-perfect photographs.

Another spot for your snapshots is the Cape Bojeador Lighthouse, just outside of Burgos town proper. This 160-meter, Spanish colonial lighthouse was built in 1890, and was used as a guide by Spanish galleons sailing in the South China Sea. The lighthouse actually still works today, and has a small museum where visitors can learn more about its history.

How to get thereBy land, you can drive to Pagudpud via Maharlika Highway. The drive is 12 hours, but once you get near the town, it is  a pleasant one, accompanied by such pretty scenery as rolling hills and brilliant blue waters. Buses can also bring you to Pagudpud, just hop on one at the Cubao terminal Manila. By plane, it is a 45-minute flight to get to Laoag, the capital city of Ilocos Norte. From there you can take a bus or jeepney to Pagudpud. 


Photo from

Its abundant firefly population has earned it the nickname, "Isla del Fuego" or "Island of Fire." This island province in the Central Visayas region has a reputation that precedes itself.

Tales of sorcery, black magic and mystery surround Siquijor, but those who dare to step onto her shores will find themselves  enchanted by her natural charms.

Its 72 km of coastline makes for some really pretty beaches, whose laidback vibe is best experienced by lazing on the shore. But if this isn't private enough for you, there are secret swimming spots you can have all to yourself, such as -- Kagusan or Salagdong beach. Tulapos Marine Sanctuary meanwhile, boasts of a fine, white stretch of sand and abundant marine life.

 There are fantastic dive spots here too, especially on the western part of the island. Three submarine caves can be explored in Salagdoong Beach, where dazzling coral formations can be seen, while in Sandugan and Tongo Point, the reefs are particularly breathtaking. For more diving options, Apo Island is just close by, with its world-class dive sites.

For freshwater excursions, there's the multi-tiered Cambugahay Falls, or the natural spring park in the town of San Juan. If you're up for a bit of a hike Mt. Bandilaan Nature Park has a trail, where you can explore natural springs, caves and a butterfly sanctuary.

But if you'd like to get a little glimpse of why Siquijor has earned its infamous reputation, the island willingly obliges by way of its eerie, centuries-old, balete trees, its shops that sell charms and love potions, and its many faith healers and their healing oils and incantations.

How To Get There 

There are direct flights from Manila to Cebu or Dumaguete. Siquijor can be reached by fast craft from Cebu which takes five hours. Closer is Dumaguete, where boats can ferry you to Siquijor in 45 minutes. 


Photo by Charmaine Magcalas

The main draw of Calaguas, a group of 17 islands that are two-hours away from Vinzons Municipality in Camarines Norte, is its beaches. They are some of the most stunning in the Philippines. The sand is dazzling white, and waters are crystal clear for miles on end. Visitors here are few and so you can have long stretches of sand all to yourself. It's so secluded that it's hard to believe that this is all within reach by bus  from Manila. It seems that such remoteness belongs to destinations further down south.

And while each island here is as beautiful as the others, each one has their own particular charm. Pinagcastillohan has a snaking white sandbar, for example, and nothing but the ocean all around. 

Tinaga Island, on the other hand has Mahabang Buhanging (Long Sand). This beach is 5 km of powdery white sand, patches of volcanic rock and teal blue waters where the sunlight dances. Here, camps can be set up for overnight stays, and campers can cook their own meals and pitch their own tents. But if you want a bit of an upgrade, there are cottages that you can rent.

Because there's no electricity  and only weak cellphone signals, days spent at Mahabang Buhangin let visitors unplug and unwind: long walks on the beach, all-day snorkeling and swimming, drinking fresh fruit juice,  eating the fresh catch of the day and watching the sunset.

Still, others opt for beach sports such a volleyball or frisbee. And a few content themselves with taking lazy naps by the shore. But while there are an endless array of unhurried pursuits on the island, to be sure, scrolling on a smart phone is not one of them.

How To Get There

There are direct flights from Manila to Naga City in Camarines Sur. From Naga, take a van to Daet which can bring you there in two hours. There are also buses from Manila to Daet, which take 10 hours. From Daet, hop on a boat either in Paracale or Vinzons, which will take you to Calaguas.

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