Philippines is an island country in Southeast Asia, in an archipelago of more than seven thousand islands.
Over a hundred ethnic groups, a mix of foreign influences and a fusion of cultures have shaped the current Philippines identity.
Of the thousands of islands in the Philippines, the two largest are Luzon in the north and Mindanao in the south, with the smaller islands in between referred to as the Visayas. The major urban centers are Manila (Luzon), Cebu (Visayas) and Davao (Mindanao). The Philippines is largely mountainous, although there are extensive plains in Luzon north of Manila.
When the explorer Magellan set foot in 1521, the inhabitants were mostly animists, with some Muslims and Hindus. Magellan was Portuguese but the expedition was Spanish and the islands were claimed by Spain as a colony. Lapu-Lapu a native chief of Mactan Island was against the Christianization of the natives, he fought Magellan and the latter was killed in battle. The Philippines was named after the heir to the throne, Philip II of Spain, and most of the natives converted to Catholicism. Some Muslims in the south and various animist hill tribes, however, resisted the Spanish conquest.
Revolts against Spanish colonization followed. The flourishing of trade between the Spanish colonies (present-day Mexico, Peru, etc.), affected the country of the archipelago which gradually became “Hispanic”. The Philippines remained a Spanish colony for more than 300 years until 1899 when it was ceded by Spain to the United States after the Spanish-American War.
The struggle continued against the new occupiers and American colonization that manifested barbarities with American soldiers inciting torture and war crimes. In WWII Japan invaded the Philippines and an even more sadistic Japanese occupation was imposed. In 1946, after World War II ended victory of Allies, the Philippines finally gained independence.
The climate is tropical, with the hottest summer months from March to May. The rainy season starts in June and lasts until October with strong typhoons possible. The coolest months are from November to February. Locations directly exposed to the Pacific Ocean have frequent rainfall throughout the year.
The 2013 Typhoon Haiyan, known in the Philippines as Super Typhoon Yolanda, was one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded. It is one of the deadliest typhoons in the Philippines, killing at least 6,300 people across the country. According to UN officials, some 11 million people were affected and many were left homeless, while the country faced a humanitarian crisis. Many people are still missing.
Philippines has a rapidly growing population of 93 million. From its long history of Western influence, 377 years under Spanish and 49 years under Americans, its people have evolved into a unique blend of East and West in both appearance and culture. Filipinos are largely Austronesian, however, many residents have admixtures of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Spanish and American. Many Muslims in the Sulu Archipelago near Borneo have mixtures of Arab, Indian and Chinese races. Filipinos maintain close family ties that are said to have been passed down from the Chinese. The religion comes from the Spanish who introduced Roman Catholicism and managed to convert the vast majority of Filipinos. At least 83% of the total population belongs to the Roman Catholic religion. The Philippines is one of only two countries in Asia with a majority Roman Catholic population (the other being Timor-Leste)
The genuine and pure expression of hospitality is an inherent characteristic of Filipinos, especially the rural people, for which they are famous in Southeast Asia.
Luzon is the northernmost island group, center of government, history and economy and seat of the capital.
The Visayas is a central island complex, with major historical points of interest, rich biodiversity and the best beaches in the Philippines.
Mindanao is the southernmost island complex, which includes the indigenous cultures of the Philippines.
The capital Manila is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with all that entails in terms of pollution, crime, urban poverty and traffic congestion. Manila, unlike other major cities in East Asia, has no particular beauty or major points of interest to display. The everyday life and smiles of its citizens are, however, a good reason for the real traveler to visit.
Cebu is the first city established by the Westerners in the Philippines and is an important center for trade, industry, culture and tourism.
Banaue is a mountainous destination with 2000 year old terraced rice fields. Filipinos call it the 8th wonder of the world and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Boracay is a 10km long island. with white sand and is the most touristic seaside destination.
Coron is the important destination place for diving as well as enchanting islands in the wider area with an impressive coral seabed. Many Japanese ships were sunk here during WWII.
Palawan is perhaps the most beautiful island in the Philippines, with beautiful beaches and coral reef waters that are home to a wide variety of sea species. Here is also the underground river of Puerto Princesa, a cave with impressive stalactite formations.
El Nido is a seaside settlement and major tourist destination on the island of Palawan in the Philippines. Around El Nido are dozens of islands of majestic beauty where limestone cliffs rise, creating a setting similar to Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, Krabi in Thailand and Guilin in China. El Nido is a popular destination for locals as well. Beaches, clear waters, jungle, steep verdant cliffs and stunning coves create wonderful seascapes.
Malapascua Island, like other islands in the Philippines, has a beautiful coastline of white sand and coral reefs and is a major diving destination.
It is estimated that it would take about 20 years to spend a day on every island in the Philippines.
The archipelago of 7000 islands
Philippines was a destination I was dreaming of for many years. But the relatively expensive flight tickets, as well as alternative destinations tempting me in the meantime, had postponed the trip to this important part of Southeast Asia. So, as soon as the country restrictions due to the pandemic were lifted, this destination was added to my map and list of remarkable travel experiences. As usual, no particular planning preceded, preferring the freedom of an unscheduled trip.
August is the month when I can have several vacation days, but for the Philippines it’s the most rainy season and an increased chance of typhoons. As it takes a lot of time to explore even a few parts of this huge island country, I finally decided with my travel buddy to take the risk of the weather conditions. An advantage of the rainy season combined with the recent opening of the country since the pandemic, is the minimal number of foreign tourists. Nevertheless, there were plenty of domestic tourists at the main points of interest.
On the large island of Palawan we toured with a rental car, while for the next parts, ships, planes, buses and motorbikes were used. The cost of living in the Philippines is relatively low, accommodation averaged €20 per day, domestic flights from €30 to €60 and the rental car cost around €200 for a week including full insurance and return of the vehicle to a different location. Throughout the country the English language is spoken by almost everyone and only in a few cases there was a struggle in communication. Filipino cuisine turned out to be below my expectations. Although in some places the fish and seafood were excellent, the typical local dishes, despite my great culinary tolerance, were disgusting. For example, American-style fried chicken is common, an even worse dish is pork bellies – disgustingly greasy, even ice creams usually contain marshmelons!
After a few short-day stops in other parts of the world, with another visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Bangkok, Thailand, I set foot on the territory of the capital Manila, which I had also visited before.
The tour of the capital city will be left for the end of the trip, so another flight will take us to the starting point, Puerto Princessa, on Palawan Island. Fortunately the gap until the flight is long enough to face an unexpected adventure during customs control. While I get easily through the procedures and receive a smile from the nice Muslim clerk, my travel buddy faces a stressful incident. She receives a bunch of annoying questions about the purpose of visiting the country, the professional status, some stamps in the passport. It should be noted that my passport contains visas for Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, countries that were more likely to raise suspicions, but it is purely a matter of the employee’s displeasure. I try to intervene in the situation but they strictly forbid me from entering the control area. They lead her to a special area to undergo interrogation. Fortunately there is free wifi at the airport so we can communicate with each other. The employees behave rudely and annoying, without giving any explanation. After much pressure they supply some drinking water. We try to keep our temper because any offense in a customs area is known to carry heavy penalties. After 1 hour and 30 minutes, and after I locate the supervisor and invoke the intervention of the Greek embassy, we are allowed to enter the country.
The waters of the South China Sea alternate from deep blue to light turquoise around the scattered islands and islets, viewed from the airplane window. After an hour’s flight, the north coast of Palawan comes into view. The weather looks sunny in most places, calming my stress.
You’ve probably seen pictures of the stunning limestone formations around El Nido that rise majestically above the turquoise waters. Located on the northern tip of Palawan, it is one of the most popular destinations in the Philippines and for good reason, due to its stunning natural beauty of nearby islands and beaches.
To travel from El Nido to Coron there are few options. Montenegro Lines high-speed boat runs the route 3 times a week (Sun-Tues-Fri) for ₱2800 (€45). Surprisingly the AirSwift flight is cheaper, but there are no seats available. The ship is relatively old, but the comfort is satisfactory. At the port passengers go through a thorough screening under the presence of a drug-detecting dog, so if you have such a thing in mind, forget it. The estimated duration is 3.5 hours, but it finally reaches 5.
The next leg of the journey is decided based on the cost of the air ticket. The flight to Manila is quite expensive and moreover the weather can prove to be a deterrent at the highlands of Banaue. So a flight to Cebu and from there some islands north, will be next. From the airport of Busuanga we fly to the city of Cebu, the 2nd largest city in the country but maybe first in ugliness. We will not spend time in the city but will head by bus to the north of the island and from there to other smaller islands. To do this we will have to wait in a long cue for a bus to the intercity station. From there, Hagnaya port is a 5-hour night journey. Ferries to Bantayan Island run almost 24 hours a day, cost as little as ₱280 and take about 1.5 hours. On the exterior of the ferry, there are bunk beds that alleviate the sleepness somewhat. We have called from earlier to a rent room housekeeper so that the key will be waiting for us at the door.
We are unable to find a boat to take us directly from Bantayan to Malapascua, so we have to take the ferry back, then mini bus, wait at an intersection for another mini bus that will pass by and end up at the New Maya port. In order for the boat to depart, however, it must be filled with at least 10 passengers, otherwise the remaining passengers are asked to pay the difference, which of course we all refuse.
Malapascua Island, is a tiny island in the northern part of Cebu. With a length of just 5 kilometers and a width of 1 kilometer, you can easily explore the whole island. What makes this small island famous is that it is the only place in the entire world where you can dive with Thresher sharks almost on a daily basis.
The capital of the Philippines, unlike other Asian megacities, is not famous for its charm. Indeed, the picture is of a dingy, dirty, chaotic concrete urban place with a high percentage of homeless and relatively dangerous. Most travelers overlook it on their way to the country’s beautiful island destinations.
Personally, I love to be absorbed by scenes like this, to be carried away by the pulse of countless souls that sometimes look at me strangely and sometimes smile heartily at me.
Philippines is a very special country in Southeast Asia that will reward the visitor with its natural environment of amazing beauty and the friendly and hospitable citizens. I hope someday to visit again and explore even more parts of it.