Backpacking in the Philippines, an experience very different from travelling around the rest of South East Asia. Seven thousand islands and change, The Philippines is a vast country stretching across the vast North Pacific Ocean. This is a land of pirates and smugglers, of ancient tribes and mysterious jungles.
Whenever my friends ask me where they should go in South East Asia my response is the same; you simply cannot go wrong with The Philippines. Cheap beer, beautiful beaches, adrenaline pumping activities and some of the most friendly, genuine, people in all of Asia; The Philippines truly captured my heart. I made some truly incredible friends in The Philippines and I have to say; in general, it is one of the easiest countries in the world to travel around as the locals are so friendly.
But where exactly should you go and how much should you spend? I was in The Philippines for just a month, I am aiming to return for at least three months as part of my next adventure, and I managed to see some truly stunning sites despite only being there for a short period of time. Travelling around the country is relatively easy; cheap flights are available with either Air Asia or Cebu Pacific for the longer distances and for shorter distances you can zip from town to town on top of local jeepnys or on one of the many buses connecting the provincial capitals.
- Accommodation: Guesthouses and cheap hostels are definitely the way to go whilst travelling in The Philippines. There aren’t that many guesthouses with a ‘party vibe’ but it’s relatively easy to find a cheap place to crash for just a few dollars a night, in general I found I was able to stay in dorms for about $8 a night.
- Food: Food is very cheap and street food is hands down the way to go, be sure to try balut! Beer can cost as little as $1.
- Transport: Buses can be fairly prices and ferries, if they are not booked in advance, can really smash your budget – we’re talking $40 for some relatively short journeys. Luckily, you can usually book journeys in advance by perusing the local guesthouses and seeing what can be arranged. Flights are cheap, sometimes as low as $30, if you book them in advance; keep an eye out for Cebu’s frequent 1 peso sales.
- Activities: You need to bring your haggling A-game when it comes to arranging activities within The Philippines; it’s possible to get a full days fun caving, surfing or island hopping for around $10 but you need to be on the ball; some folks will try to charge way over the odds. For a full list of epic activities, check out this Philippines bucket list…
Top Things To See & Do
- Manila: Chances are, your adventure will begin in Manila. Manila is a bustling metropolis of fancy shopping malls, trendy bars, beautiful people and fancy restaurants. Theres plenty to do in Manila but, ultimately, I recommend spending the majority of you time exploring the more rural parts of the country. I stayed in a couple of hostels in Manila, as I passed through three times, the best was without a doubt Z Hostel.
- Mt Pulag: A six hour bus journey from Manila is the legendary Mt Pulag and the truly stunning sea of clouds. The trek is very, very, very easy and takes just two days (one night spent sleeping on the mountain; it’s more of a big hill to be honest). On the first day you will spend perhaps three to four hours walking before setting up your tent and crashing for the night. The second day, arise early (really early if you want to have it all to yourself) and walk for another hour (bring a head torch!) to get to the summit where you can watch the sun rising over a gorgeous valley filled with clouds. It will be cold; pack appropriately, I was very uncomfortable due to being dressed in just a tank top and light fleece. You have to head up Mt Pulag as part of a tour group but in reality you can trek by yourself and leave the rest of your group, and the guide, to do their own thing. You would have to try very hard to get lost; it’s a simple trail. Take snacks. I booked my Mt Pulag trip through Travel Cafe, definitely one of the cheapest options out there. You will need to base yourself in nearby Baguio for at least one night; I crashed in Newtown Plaza Hotel.
- Sagada: From Baguio it is around a four hour bus journey onwards to the adventure capital of The Philippines; stunning Sagada. It is also possible to travel to Sagada by overnight bus from Manila. Sagada is hands down one of my favourite places to stay in all of The Philippines. I crashed in Olibhanan – an amazing place with warm vibes and an epic view from the balcony, it’s opposite Kimchi Bar; the best place to hang in the evenings. The best meals are to be found in Banan Cafe. There is so much to do in Sagada; I definitely recommend checking out the cave link connection as well as heading out on a trek with a local guide to explore the Echo Valley and check out the hanging coffins. For more adventourous souls, have a crack at the crystal cave – it costs 2500 pesos but is a true adventure and will test your caving skills; climb up raging underground waterfalls and squeeze through tight gaps to find yourselves amongst mammoth crystal formations. One of my favourite things to do in Sagada was to simply take to the hills and hike for an afternoon; there are stunning views and you will probably have them all to yourself.
- Whang Od: A tribal tattoo from a living legend; what’s not to like. Please treat this wonderful lady and her accommodating neighbours with the respect that they deserve. You can reach Whang Od by taking a couple of jeepnys, be sure to ride on top, and then trekking deep into the Kalinga jungle. From Sagada, bank around eight hours. Read up on all the details of how to visit Whang Od here.
- Puerto Princessa: After spending two days with Whang Od, I caught a night bus back to Manila via Baguio and then caught a cheap flight out to Puerto Princessa; the gateway for Palawan. I spent a few days here, visiting the underground river; ultimately, I was unimpressed; it was extremely touristy. I moved on quickly.
- Port Barton: Hands down one of my favourite places in all of The Philippines. A difficult journey from Puerto Princessa; I screwed it up and ended up paying through the nose to catch a boat after being dropped in the middle of nowhere by an unfriendly bus driver. It should be possible to ride a bus all the way to Port Barton from Puerto Princessa but, from what I heard, many backpackers had a hard time making this journey. Port Barton itself is well worth the effort though; a sleepy fishing village just a stones throw away from uninhabited islands where you can snorkel and even stay overnight. Gaga, a local fisherman, can hire out tents and will arrange for you to crash on an island for a night, complete with a cooked fish dinner, for as little as $30 a person. You can reach him on (0949) 467 2204 – Tell him I sent you and he will reward you with one of his legendary smiles. There are lots of cheap places to crash in Port Barton but I recommend treating yourself one night and heading out to White Beach; there is a small resort there and it is totally deserted; gorgeous beaches, crackling bonfires and swaying palm trees; it makes for a magical evening – it is possible to walk here, bank two hours, from the main beach. Sunshine House, on the main beach, has good food, fast internet and cheap rooms.
- El Nido: Beautiful but crammed with tourists. Everybody ends up at El Nido one way or another… I recommend staying in Hakuna Matata, you will HAVE to book in advance. Be sure to go on a cruise of the nearby islands and, if you find it, to show your manliness by swimming through some underwater caves – ask the local lads to show you; it’s in the lagoon and although dangerous is a lot of fun. There is plenty of epic climbing around El Nido and some stunning viewpoints that can be reached by hiking; check out Taraw Peak for some gorgeous views.
- Coron: One of the best places to go wreck diving (or snorkelling!) in The Philippines and a great place to kick back with a beer or two for the day, Coron is a backpackers paradise. Stay in Marley’s Place, you won’t regret it. You can get to Coron from El Nido by taking an eight hour ferry; this can get expensive if you don’t book it in advance; I managed to get it for 1000 pesos, a hell of a lot cheaper than I expected, by haggling hard at Hakuna Matata. From Coron, it’s an easy flight back to Manila. There is plenty of things to do in Coron and it’s a great place to explore by motorbike.
The Philippines is absolutely FULL of incredible islands and one of the best things to do in this amazing country is to simply go with the flow and head off on an island-hopping adventure. I hope to build a boat next year and try to sail all around The Philippines…
Backpack The Philippines for free
Perhaps one of the best options for backpackers wanting to explore The Philippines long-term and experience living in this truly incredible country is to get a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course online. TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world. To find out more about TEFL courses and how you can teach English around the world, read my in-depth report on teaching english abroad.
Passionate about scuba diving? Get qualified as a Dive Master ! With some of the best diving in the world The Philippines and wider SEA region offer a good opportunity to extend your stay with this skill, in return for accommodation, food or payment.
Even if you are only going on a short trip, you should always travel with insurance. Have fun on your Philippines backpacking adventure but please do get insurance – take it from someone who has racked up tens of thousands of bucks on an insurance claim before, you need it.
As a wise man once said, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you shouldn’t be travelling – so be sure to get your backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on your Philippines backpacking adventure! Travelling without insurance would be fucking stupid. I highly recommend World Nomads.
If you only have two weeks to spend backpacking in The Philippines, consider checking out this itinerary.
And so there you have it budding adventures; admittedly my notes on backpacking in the Philippines are somewhat garbled but I have to say; it’s a hell of a country, the people truly are lovely and the beaches truly are pristine; head on over now whilst you have the chance. Peace and love amigos :)