After seeing photos of beautiful turquoise waters and stunning islands, the Philippines had been on my bucket list for a long time. I didn’t think I would actually ever get to visit, let alone spent a few days on a secluded private island. Here’s my itinerary, tips and tricks from our visit.
- Choose your islands based on what activities you want to do – snorkelling, diving, surfing – each island has its specialities
- Fly between islands if you can – it saves a lot of time and you’ll get some spectacular views
- Pick up a local sim card when you arrive in Manila, but still make sure to cache your maps because phone signal is difficult to find in some parts
- If your accommodation doesn’t have free snorkelling equipment, pick some up early in the trip or bring it with you. You’ll have a much better time without a leaky mask.
Which islands to visit?
After talking to friends, I had a list as long as my arm of must visit places in the Philippines, but after spending the last few months moving from place to place every few days, it was time to settle down and not be on the move so much.
I chose to visit Coron, El Nido and Pacmillian island, a tiny island off the coast of Bohol.
Which islands you choose to visit depends a lot on the activities that you want to do. We are neither experienced surfers or divers and we weren’t sure that we wanted to spend much time doing either, so I didn’t bake this into the itinerary. But I’m told that Sirgiao is great for surfing and Coron is amazing for diving.
If you want some inspiration of itineraries, or if you want someone else to arrange it altogether, check out STA Travel or GA Adventures. Both offer groups adventures, or you can do what I like to do and use them as a starting point for creating an itinerary.
Travelling between islands
There are relatively cheap flights between most of the islands but the more budget friendly option is to take the ferry. We chose to save time and fly.
I booked the inter-island flights relatively last minute and the price was still less than £100 per person per flight.
In Manila and some big cities, Grab (like Uber) can be used to get relatively cheap taxi’s around. On the islands you’ll need to use the tricycles which are a great adventure and cost next to nothing. Just go to a main road and wave.
For some reason lots of travel blogs focus a lot on getting to the Philippines and various islands, so I won’t go into that.
Roaming on O2 in the Philippines is pricey, so we picked up local SIM cards. There are two main companies, Global and Smart. Both have stands right next to each other in the arrivals area of Manilla airport. Choose your favourite (we picked up a SIM card from each vendor incase one had better coverage), and they will pop it in our phone and check it works.
We paid 2000php (about £30) for 30gb of internet for 30 days, and it included 1GB free per day for Facebook and Instagram. I was surprised to have amazing 4g coverage even on secluded islands in the middle of nowhere, and then poor internet in some of the towns.
We travelled in mid October which is shoulder season and much less busy. If you don’t like crowds, avoid the Asian holidays – apparently many places are completely full unless you book well in advance.
Manila – 1 night
Arrive in Manila, and get the next flight to Coron. For us this was the next day so we stopped the night near the airport in a cheap and cheerful air Bnb.
TOP TIP – Whilst you have wifi in Manila airport, download the Grab app for booking your ride to your accommodation.
Coron Town – 2 nights
Roughly an hours flight from Manila we landed in Coron. From here, leave the airport and you’ll find lots of minivan drivers. It seems like there is a set rate of 150php per person to get to your accommodation in a shared mini van. Hop in and off you go.
Coron town is a busy, energy filled bustling little town. Whilst nothing fancy, the prices in a lot of bars and restaurants are equivalent to European prices – coffee around £1.50 and a meal in a fancier place around £20 per person.
We stayed at Pirates Diving Resort. Whilst still under a bit of construction it was a brilliant choice. Paul, the owner from Leeds, made us feel very welcome. They offer diving and PADI certification here, though we didn’t dive so can’t comment on it.
There’s a brand new pool perfect for cooling off and live music in the bar each night. It’s away from the hustle and bustle of the town so feels a bit more chilled out. Getting into town is a 10-15 minute walk, or about 50p on a tricycle (flag one down from the main road).
After wandering around the town and walking up Mt Tapyas to watch sunset (takes 10-20 minutes, arrive 15 mins before sunset), you’ve probably seen most of what Coron town has to offer. The real beauty of Coron is seen on the tours.
Note – There are also hot springs that everyone seems to go to after walking up Mt Tapyas. Whilst it’s probably nice on a rainy day, it was far too hot whilst we were there to consider.
There are countless tour companies all offering roughly the same tour for roughly the same price. Whilst the islands listed tend to be the same for each tour, the captain will decide which islands you visit based on the tides. We were very lucky and ended up on a tour with just one other couple, and our captain and tour guide took us on a different route to the majority of the boats so we were almost on our own on every stop.
After visiting a few island and beaches around the Philippines, the beaches we saw on this tour were by far the most stunning.
Top tip | Whilst untested, I have a theory that if you show up to the port later than all the other tours depart, you’ll probably end up on a boat that doesn’t get filled up, leading to a much more enjoyable experience that’s less than the price of hiring a private boat. Worth a try if you hate following the crowds.
On our tour we visited Waling Waling beach which a tiny little island with a sand bar, a few huts for shade and a chap selling beers. We had the whole place to ourselves and it was bliss.
Next stop was Coco Beach which is where we had lunch. I still can’t quite believe the feast that our crew cooked up in a tiny kitchen on the back of the boat. Incredible food, and worth the price of the tour for this alone.
Last stop was Malcapuya beach, a long white sandy beach. Make sure the cross over to the other side of the island to where the boats pull in. Beautiful clear waters and white sand. Most tours will stop here first so its crowded, but our captain brought us here last and there were only two other boats.
There are other tours in Coron including the lakes and lagoons. We didn’t do them, but from speaking to others they came very highly recommended.
Bamboo Private Island – 4 nights
After a pretty hectic travel schedule over the last 4 months, it was time for some enforced relaxation so we booked into Bamboo Private Island for a few nights. I’m torn about writing about the place because it really is a magical paradise and feels like it should remain a secret. It’s a tiny island with some of the most incredible snorkelling I’ve ever done less than 10 meters from the shore. After a day of being whisked around the other beautiful islands on the tour, it was so nice to get left on one.
Within 24 hour of arriving on the island, we have some incredible experiences. On our first night a sea turtle crawled onto the beach to lay her eggs, the next morning I saw more varieties of fish in 10 minutes of snorkelling than I’ve seen in my entire life, and that evening I saw the most stunning sunset.
However if you need your creature comforts like hot showers and air conditioning, it’s probably not for you.
El Nido – 2 nights
After leaving Bamboo Island with a heavy heart, we got the boat back to Coron and caught the ferry to El Nido which takes around three hours. We chose to stay at an Air BnB near Nacpan Beach which included a scooter.
Since we extended our stay in Bamboo we didn’t have time to do the recommended tours and spent our one full day exploring Nacpan Beach and El Nido town.
El NIDO TIPS
- Getting a flight out of El Nido airport is an amazing experience – you get to see the amazing islands from an entirely different point of view. Well worth it.
- In addition, the airport serves the best espresso we had in the Philippines from the coffee shop before you check in. Grab a cup before you join the masses inside and enjoying looking out at the lush vegetation.
- Altrove Pizza in El Nido town is highly rated but often full – if it is, there’s a sister Altrove Express one block down, follow the signs. We had great pizza here.
- La Plage is a newly opened Indo-French restaurant and boutique hotel. Its a few minutes walk from the beach in El Nido town and serves delicious food and has lots of comfy areas to chill out with a harbour and island view. It also had fast wifi, something which was quiet difficult to find elsewhere.
Pacmillian Island, Bohol – 6 nights
Our decision to visit this island was based firmly on a friend sending a reply to a facebook request of where to visit in the Philippines. She said if was the best place she had been on her trip to the Philippines, so I booked it immediately.
At £26 a night plus meals at £4.50 each, this desert-island cottage is a real gem. Expect barely any neighbours, friendly housekeepers, lush sunsets, and a 25 minute walk across the island to swimming with huge sea turtles.
We spent 6 days here, had 2 meals a day, went on a snorkelling trip with sea turtles, both had massages and large bottle of beer per day and it came to a grand total of £350, including private boats to and from the island. Find out more in my post about How to spend £400 for a week on a paradise island.
The island is famous for its whale and dolphin watching tours. We didn’t partake since we had already experienced an incredible dolphin watching tour in the Azores, but the reviews seem great.
Panglao, Bohol – 1 night
From arriving back on the shores of Baclayon we took a tricycle to Panglao. We lucked out with accommodation again, staying close to Momo Beach at the top of a one-of-a-kind tower. Again, whilst nothing fancy, the sunset and sunrise views above the tree tops were well worth it.
Just 15 minutes on a scooter from where we were staying was Hinagdanan Cave, an underground cave containing a crystal clear lake that’s perfect for swimming. If you manage to time it such that you avoid the tour groups, you might be lucky enough to get the place to yourselves. Its 25 php to get in plus 100 php if you want to swim (highly recommended) and 15 php to park a motorcycle.
Panglao was a beautiful place to explore and we enjoyed travelling around by scooter. It’s incredibly green, friendly and colourful with friendly locals. In fact, at Poblacion, the big church in town, expats and locals apparently play soccer on Tuesdays and Fridays at 4:30 if you want to join in.
For an instagrammable and healthy breakfast, check out Shaka – known for its coffee (v. good) and smoothie bowls. The cakes here are vegan and delicious.
Manila – 1 night
A short flight to Manila, and it was clear out island hopping trip was over. Gone were the luscious leafy streets, bright colours and the odd roadside cow. Whilst I’m sure Manila has some great place to explore, I would always choose to spend that time island hopping.
We had intended to make our way to Agimat Foraging bar for a night of arty cocktails but on discovering it is closed on Sundays (boo) we retreated to the cosiness of our Air Bnb. After 3 weeks of sleeping metres for the ocean under mosquito nets, there was something really quite luxurious about spending the night with air conditioning and a cosy duvet.
What are your favourite places in the Philippines?