A First-Timer’s Guide to the Philippines
I first went to the Philippines at the recommendation of a friend, who told me all about the country’s spectacular beaches and friendly locals, and I’m telling you now, her rave reviews didn’t even come close to encompassing the wonder of this country! My absolute favorite experience while I was there was the cooking class that I took in Manila, but that’s my favorite only because when I travel, I love to experience the local flavors! From the time I arrived in the Philippines to the time I departed, I had so many incredible, unique experiences exploring and diving, and despite the month that I spent there, I still feel like I barely scratched the surface.
Of course, it took me some time to fall in love with the country. My first impressions were of Manila: a city that is loud with the sounds of traffic and music, a chaotic frenzy of people and vehicles going every which way, and almost claustrophobic in its heavy heat. I arrived there without a clearly-defined plan of what I was going to do for the next month; I just knew I wanted to experience as much of the local culture as I could. But little by little, things fell into place, and I found myself falling more and more in love with this kaleidoscopic mishmash of cultures.
Without further ado, here’s a quick guide to help first-timers get started:
Visas & Regulations
As long as you plan to stay in the Philippines for fewer than 30 days, you may not need a visa to enter the country, but you will likely be required to furnish proof of onward travel to your airline prior to boarding your flight and/or to immigration upon arrival. Also note that your passport must be valid for a minimum of six months after your intended exit date. If you plan to stay for longer than 30 days—or if you plan to work or study in the country—you may need to acquire a visa prior to your arrival. Also, make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to recover from jetlag. I spent the first few days totally exhausted because not only did I change so many time zones at once, but my time in transit was something like 35 hours!
As for technology regulations, geo-blocking is a problem that travelers often encounter due to copyright restrictions. For example, if you try to watch Netflix shows abroad, you’ll receive an error message saying that you can’t stream from your account in your current location. But in the Philippines, government censorship of the internet is also known to be a possible issue. You can get around most forms of geo-blocking and censorship though by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to hide your location. A VPN sends your information through a third-party server located in the country of your choice, and the site then sees the IP address (and its location) as your location, rather than seeing where you’re truly located. A VPN also encrypts your internet connection so that you’re less likely to be a target of identity thieves when you access public WiFi networks on your trip. Thus, it’s highly recommended that all travelers set up a VPN prior to their departure.
Cost of Living
The Philippine peso is a relatively weak currency compared to the US dollar, euro, etc. One US dollar is equivalent to roughly 50 pesos. You’ll generally find that food, accommodation and other costs in the Philippines are lower than they are back home. For example, you can find a decent meal at a cheap restaurant for under $5, and transit tickets around Manila cost less than $1 each. Or if you’re interested in diving or other activities, you’ll find that the prices are a lot cheaper than they are in other countries of the world. This doesn’t mean your trip to the Philippines is guaranteed to be cheap, but if you’re a budget traveler, you should still be able to enjoy plenty of activities and get really immersed in the culture without paying through the nose.
Having traveled through the United States prior to this trip, I was so happy to be able to enjoy museums and dining out without worrying about a bunch of $20+ admission fees or meals. And actually, one of my favorite activities during my trip—lounging on the beautiful beaches—was totally free!
The easiest and quickest way to get between the islands is to fly, and you’ll find plenty of budget routes offered by airlines such as Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines. That said, you’ll generally find cheaper options on buses and ferries. Once you’re on the islands, you’ll find a variety of methods for getting around the cities—everything from taxis to tricycles to horse-drawn carriages and more, depending on where you go. The different destinations in the Philippines are often surprisingly different from one another, so it’s definitely worth exploring as many places as you can with the time and funds that you have!
The capital city of the Philippines is Manila, and many people choose to fly into there. The Intramuros district is the oldest district in the city and is where you’ll see the old Spanish buildings. Key sights are Manila Cathedral, which is one of the most important churches in the predominantly-Catholic Philippines; the seventeenth-century San Agustín Church; and the Palacio del Gobernador. Personally, Manila seemed a little cramped and hectic to me, and I was happy to get out to other cities in the Philippines, but I do recommend that you spend at least a day or two there to soak in the atmosphere.
Manila is far from the only city to visit, though! If you have time, definitely make sure to stop by Vigan, a UNESCO Heritage city thanks to its many wonderful examples of Spanish architecture. Wander through its cobbled streets, and you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. Make sure to keep out of the way of the many horse-drawn carriages that take visitors and locals around the city and out to surrounding villages! This was hands-down one of my favorite stops in the country.
Another great city to visit is Cebu, which is famous for its stunning beaches and metropolis. It’s home to a number of historical sites and museums, but you can also get out of the city to do some excellent diving, sun tanning and more. It’s a popular city for ESL schools and tourism, so you’ll find a nice mishmash of traditional Filipino and international cultures—which makes for a lot of great nighttime entertainment and dining options.
Beyond the Cities
While you’re in the Philippines, you should definitely make sure to get out of the cities for at least part of your trip! The UNESCO Heritage site of the rice terraces at Banaue is one of the most famous non-metropolitan places to visit in the Philippines, but options abound. The island Boracay is another popular destination for its picturesque white-sand beaches and turquoise waters. It’s a great place for diving, kite boarding and more. If you’re looking for an active vacation, Sagadais a great choice. I could have stayed there a lot longer than I did! There’s a ton of hiking, caving, rock-climbing and more in the area. Or if diving is your primary interest, check out some of the wrecks near Coron. Honestly, you have so many stellar options that no matter where you choose to go, you’re sure to have the trip of a lifetime!
If you haven’t already got the Philippines on your 2016 bucket list, it’s definitely time to start planning your trip there! It’s got an amazingly rich culture and history for you to explore, and the beaches are some of the best in the world. Whatever island(s) you visit, you’re sure to have an amazing time—so get going!