A set of 7,107 volcanic islands to the North of Malyasia in the Pacific Ocean, the Philippines is an overlooked tourist destination with much to offer a traveller looking for beaches, culture and natural beauty.
The islands are populated mainly by Malay people, but there is a pronounced Chinese influence from the traders who settled there in the 9th century AD. In the 16th century the islands were colonized by the Spanish, who launched a successful campaign of converting the natives to Catholicism. The Spanish occupation leaves the Philippines as the only Christian country in Asia. The United States bought the set of islands from Spain in 1898 for $20 million, and set up their only colony. The islands saw fierce fighting between Japanese and American forces during World War two, and were eventually liberated and declared independent in 1946. Since then, the islands have had a turbulent transition towards democracy. President Marcos ruled the country as a dictatorship for 20 years, and after he was deposed in 1986, there have been numerous uprisings, insurrections and guerrilla campaigns.
The official language is Taglog, or Filipino, which is an indigenous language originally spoken in Manila, the capital. Spanish and English are the other official languages, as ruling powers have used both at various stages. There are another 170 indigenous languages and dialects spoken across the islands.
The Filipino Peso is the unit of currency. As of 20th October 06, 1 USD buys 50.10 pesos, 1 GBP buys 94.251 and 1 Euro buys 63.189. You can use the islands 6000 cash machines to withdraw pesos providing you bank operates on Switch, Visa or Mastercard. Exchange bureaus are not common, except in tourist areas where they may not pay a competitive exchange rate. It is better to use one of the many banks, which are open from 9.00 until 15.00.
The islands have a tropical oceanic climate, which makes them prone to typhoons in the rainy season, which last from June until October. The temperature ranges from 25 degrees Celsius to 32 degrees Celsius, and the relative humidity is 77%, although this increases dramatically during July and August. From March to May is a hot and dry period, and November to April is usually cooler and dry.
The Philippines boast some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. These include the popular Borcay Beaches, which regularly appear in travel guides’ lists of favourite beaches. This is due to the fine white sands, which reputedly never get hot, even in the glaring midday sun. The waters are clear and inviting, and a haven for snorkelling and scuba diving. However, you might wish to check on the water quality before bathing as various studies have found the waters to be contaminated with waste from the nearby infrastructure of bars, restaurants and resorts.
Cebu Island was the first land to be claimed by Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan. Cebu City acts as de facto capital for the southern portion of Islands, and contains many attractions of a cultural and religious nature including churches and Fort San Pedro. There are 75 diving centres on this island, which can provide you with various levels of support, including equipment hire, tuition or just advice.
Manila is a cosmopolitan city with a population of over 1.5 million. Up until the Second World War, it was known as Asia’s most beautiful city, but the American and Japanese bombardments left the majority of the city’s heritage in ruins. One of the most popular tourist destinations within the city is ‘Intramuro’, which is a group of buildings within the ruins of an old Spanish fort. The walls contain Manila cathedral, which is the centre of the Roman Catholic Church in Asia. There are also museums documenting the city’s history, cafés and restaurants.
Outside the walls of Intramuro is the Luneta, a park which attracts joggers, people watchers, and is a prime picnic spot. There is an open-air theatre which stages free performances of classical pieces.
If you are after adventure, try trekking up Mt Natib, which has fantastic views of Manila. There are wonderful hikes all over the Philippines, the volcanoes creating a fascinating landscape covered with interesting flora and fauna.
To get a real taste of the Filipino way of life, try walking around a city market (known as tiangge) and bargaining with the vendors. You can buy all kinds of native crafts including woodcarvings and linen weaved with unique and colourful designs. Manila is famous for its huge malls, which are more than just shopping centres, containing cinemas, restaurants, and bars. Some even have medical facilities, schools and libraries.
Manila had a vibrant 24-hour club scene until 1994, when a new mayor was elected, who frowned on the decadence of the club’s patrons and began clamping down on disorderliness and licensing laws. Much of Manila’s nightlife now takes place in the Pasay mall, which contains several western-style bars and clubs. The popular beaches usually have an active nightlife; at certain times of the year all night beach parties will take place.
The quality of roads in the cities is excellent, but they become extremely crowded at the beginning and end of the working day. There is a disregard for driving regulations and traffic lights that to a British driver may seem remarkable.
Food and Drink
Travellers should be wary of the large amount of street food vendors, as they have no regulation, and frequently operate in unhygienic conditions. ‘Balut’ is the deep-fried foetus of duck, and may be a little repugnant to western palettes, but is very popular among Filipinos. Much of Flipino cuisine is based around seafood, and you can eat a high quality sit-down seafood meal for $10.
Tourist InfoPhilippine Convention and Visitors Corp, Manila
- Tel: +63 (0)2 525 9318
All car hire locations in Philippines
- Angeles City
- Cagayan De Oro Airport
- Cebu City
- Diosdado Macapagal International Airport
- Francisco Bangoy International Airport
- General Santos
- Labo Airport
- Loakan Airport
- Mactan Cebu International Airport
- Ninoy Aquino International Airport
- Quezon City
- San Fernando Airport
- Subic Bay International Airport
- Tambler Airport