Top 5 Philippines Experiences to Get Off the Beaten Path

Map of our travels through the Philippines.
Map of our travels through the Philippines.

The Philippines is a bit of a mystery. Being somewhat removed from the rest of Southeast Asia, this beautiful country rarely lands on the itinerary of the typical backpacker. And for good reason: the roughly 7,000 islands are difficult and relatively expensive to navigate as ferries are virtually nonexistent. Despite this, the Philippines enjoys a strong tourism industry fueled primarily by domestic travelers, and in recent years the Department of Tourism has even began to successfully lure more international travelers through their “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” campaign.

With an ever increasing flux of tourists, it won’t be long before the Philippines becomes the next Thailand. The island of Boracay has already developed an international  reputation as an amazing beach resort destination, and although an exciting and/or relaxing trip to Boracay is highly recommended, it is no longer the hidden gem of yesteryear. Below are our top 5 unique Philippines experiences to get off the beaten path.

1. Trek through the Ifugao Rice Terraces (The OTHER route).

Ifugao rice terraces, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ifugao rice terraces, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site located about 300 miles north of Manila is certainly not a secret. Most travelers take a 12-hour overnight bus from Manila to Banaue (the main village of the Ifuago region) and spend a day hiking around the famous 2,000 year old rice terraces.

Trekking map for the Ifugao rice terraces.
Trekking map for the Ifugao rice terraces.

The general recipe is to hitch a ride from Banaue on a sidecar motorcycle to a semi-paved road and do a 1-2 hour hike up and over a ridge to the village of Batad. However, this hardly would have satisfied our itch to get off the beaten path, so we were determined to seek out a more extensive trek with less tourists that would take us through the more remote areas of Ifugao.

Braving the narrow ledges and steep inclines.
Braving the narrow ledges and steep inclines.

Luckily, a local celebrity by the name of “Randy” clued us in on one of the other routes; one that would take us on a 3-day adventure over the mountains and down river through the villages of Pula and Cambulo and past Batad, ending in another remote village called Bangaan.

The hut we slept in in Cambulo.
The hut we slept in in Cambulo.

The journey had us traversing precarious terrace ledges, sleeping in traditional village huts, and waking up before dawn to the morning routines of the village dogs, then roosters, then children. We bathed in the rivers, drank the fresh spring water, and spent our evenings with some warm home-cooked pork sinigang (pork soup) and an occasional plug of moma (tobacco and betel nut leaves coated with lyme powder), courtesy of the villagers.

Rice terraces in Banaue.
Rice terraces in Banaue.

Hiking the Ifugao backcountry is one of the most unique cultural experiences we’ve ever had and tops the list of our favorite Philippines adventures. 

TOP TIPS

Days needed:
4 nights (Start and end in Banaue, with 1 night in Cambulo and 1 night in Batad).

Best place to stay:
Banaue – Randy’s Brookside Inn 
Batad – Hillside Inn 

Estimated costs (January 2016):
A guide for 3 days/2 nights: 1,200 pesos / $25.00/day (Randy or the local Tourist office in Banaue can arrange a guide for you).
Accommodation for two in a private room: 500 pesos / $10.50/day.
Typical meal for two: 300 pesos / $6.36.
Transportation to/from trailhead: 1,000 pesos / $21.00.

Don’t miss:
The villages of Pula and Cambulo.


2. Ride on top of a jeepney at sunrise.

Right before departure, freezing our butts off.
Right before departure, freezing our butts off.

To save time, most backpackers heading back to Manila from Banaue opt to trade comfort for convenience on one of the tightly packed overnight busses. The trend is so common, in fact, that one would be hard pressed to find a direct bus from Banaue during the day.

IMG_4899
A typical Jeepney.

Since we prefer to take bus trips during the day in order to see the landscape, we decided to try out the much less convenient “local” method of transportation by hopping on a jeepney (an ex-military truck turned mini-bus) at 6:00am from Banaue to the main highway and then flagging down a passing bus to take us the rest of the way to Manila. Little did we know that the first leg of this simple bus transfer would land on the #2 spot of our Philippines favorites.

Jeepneys can usually fit roughly 20 people inside at a time, and when they fill up, locals will often climb aboard anyways and just ride on the roof or hang onto the back. We thought it would be awesome to see the sunrise from the roof, so, with the encouragement of the locals, we both jumped on top of the roof of the jeepney and sped down the mountain, freezing our butts off atop this retired military truck, smiling and waving to stunned villagers on the way down.

The scenery was unparalleled, and as the little mountain villages stirred to life, school kids and workers began to join us on the roof, appearing quite perplexed by our little cameo on their daily commute.

3 hours later, time to get off.
3 hours later, time to get off.

Even weeks after we left the Philippines, we found ourselves overcome with fits of spontaneous joy at the memory of this ride, and it further reinforced our belief that the easy route is not always the best route.

TOP TIPS

Days needed:
Less than one day.

Best place to try:
You won’t be allowed to ride on top of a jeepney anywhere near a city, so make sure to get out to the more remote parts of the Philippines.

Estimated costs (January 2016):
3 hour Jeepney ride: 100 pesos / $2.12 each.
Jeepney ride in the city: 20 pesos / $0.42 each.


3. Island hop around El Nido, Palawan.

The Bacuit Archipelago around El Nido, Palawan.
The Bacuit Archipelago around El Nido, Palawan.

Most travelers are well aware of the famous booze-fueled island hopping tours of south Thailand (complete with obnoxious Aussie gap-yearlings and hoards of selfie stick-toting Chinese tourists). But relatively few travelers are aware of the much more low key, but equally spectacular island hopping options in the Bacuit Archipelago off the northern coast of Palawan.

While the island tours in Thailand put you in the water with hundreds of tourists, effectively spoiling the experience altogether, each stop on the El Nido island hopping tours was shared between no more than 3 boats. A number of stops require you to swim or crawl through a tiny opening in a cliff face to access the hidden beaches and lagoons on the other side. And with the option to rent a kayak at many of the stops, you can explore the more remote corners of the lagoons in almost complete solitude.

Delicious, fresh food cooked right on the boat!
Delicious, fresh food cooked right on the boat!

If you have around 8 or more people in your party (easy if you’re staying in a hostel), you have an option to arrange your own boat charter, allowing you to spend as much or as little time at each spot as you like (and allows you to be strategic about what time to go to avoid running into the tour groups).

For a reasonable price, you can spend a full day on the water exploring some of the most beautiful beaches and lagoons in the world, complete with a hearty hot lunch cooked fresh on the boat with fresh tropical fruit for dessert. It is an experience not to be missed, and we suggest you go before the rest of the backpacking community catches on!

TOP TIPS

Days needed:
4 days (2 days exploring the remote islands and 2 days exploring the beaches near El Nido).

Best place to stay:
Our Melting Pot Hostel 

Estimated costs (December 2015):
Island Hopping Tour A & C : 1,400 pesos / $30.00 each (Includes 3 stops, hot lunch, fruit, snorkeling equipment, and required environmental fee).

Don’t miss:
Bacuit Archipelago: Big Lagoon, Small Lagoon, Hidden Beach, Secret Beach.
El Nido: Nacpan Beach (for swimming and relaxing) and Las Cabanas beach (for sunset).


4. Motorbike through the remote villages of Cebu.

Village kids stopping to check out what we were up to.
Village kids stopping to check out what we were up to.

Having budgeted 6 days on the island of Cebu, only to find that the available attractions were either stupidly overpriced (like the $60/person canyoneering trip) or operated on questionable morals (like swimming with whale sharks that are hand-fed daily), we resorted to one of our favorite budget forms of entertainment: renting a motorbike to explore the countryside. This was probably the best decision we made in Cebu, and although the coastal regions of the island are heavily traveled, the center of the island is virtually untouched!

Our very own private waterfall for the day.
Our very own private waterfall for the day.

After stopping off at a remote waterfall far beyond the reaches of any tourism infrastructure for a picnic lunch (seriously, we were the only ones there), we continued on dirt roads into the remote villages of central Cebu. Judging by the looks on the villagers’ faces, we were some of the only white people to have ever been seen in the village. Kids would come running to the road side to wave at us and show off some of the most incredibly genuine smiles we’d ever seen. On a few occasions, the road would run right through the middle of a basketball or volleyball game, but the players didn’t seem to mind.

A typical village house.
A typical village house on Cebu Island.

We found there really wasn’t much else to do on Cebu Island (unless you’re an avid scuba diver), but we thoroughly enjoyed just driving around and exploring the small villages around us. Highly recommended if you’re looking to do something unique and you’re on a budget.

TOP TIPS

Days needed:
1 day (Start in Boljoon on southeast Cebu Island and drive west). Ask hostel how to get to some of the remote waterfalls nearby.

Best place to stay:
Boljoon – Noordzee Hostel 

Estimated costs (December 2015):
Daily motorbike rental: 600 pesos / $12.71.
Motorbike gas: 41 pesos / $0.87.

Don’t miss:
Waterfalls, basketball games, smiling children.


5. Camp on a private beach in Port Barton, Palawan.

Our decked out campsite.
Our decked out campsite, steps from the beach.

The Filipino/Canadian couple Thelma and Toby recently erected 7 covered campsites on their private beach near Port Barton on the island of Palawan, and they have begun welcoming guests to join their family for a few days at a time. The campsites are beautiful, generously spaced, and equipped with a semi-permanent large tent with a bed and nightstand, along with private sitting area and hammock, just feet from the beach.

Sunset volleyball game at the campsite.
Sunset volleyball game at the campsite.

For an all-inclusive price, you’ll get your own private campsite, three delicious gourmet buffet meals (some days they cooked fish they had caught that morning! Definitely the best food we had in the Philippines), free drinking water, as well as unlimited use of their kayaks, snorkeling gear, and volleyball court.

Another discovered waterfall.
Another discovered waterfall.

It’s not easy to get to Port Barton. The roads are VERY bumpy, long and there’s no direct route connecting it to El Nido or Puerto Princesa (the most touristed destinations on Palawan). However, they’re in the process of building a paved road, which should be completed within a year, much to the excitement (or disdain) of locals, which should cause a surge in development and tourism in the area. Hurry and get here before prices increase and the local charm is lost!

TOP TIPS

Days needed:
4 nights (1 night in Port Barton and 3 nights camping on private beach).

Best place to stay:
Thelma & Toby’s Camping Adventure

Estimated costs (December 2015):
Private campsite, including 3 gourmet meals and activities: 1,600 pesos / $33.89 each per day.
Round trip boat transfer to/from Port Barton to private beach: 1,200 pesos / $25.42.

Don’t miss:
Kayaking to remote waterfall nearby, playing volleyball at sunset, and going fishing for dinner with Toby.


When you visit the Philippines, you get the impression that there are endless undiscovered beaches, caves, mountains and reefs that you could spends months exploring; and there are! Travelers are starting to hear about the overlooked natural beauty of this country, and before long all those undiscovered gems will be overrun with tourists. We would highly recommend planning a visit before everyone catches on, because it’s DEFINITELY more fun in the Philippines.

Want to see more pictures of our adventures in the Philippines? Check out our Facebook pictures here.