Philippines Travel Guide: The Philippines in a (Coco) Nutshell

With over seven thousand islands, it's no surprise sand and sea comes to mind for most people when they think about the Philippines. Although the Philippines have that in abundance, it does the country disservice as it is a diverse land in a small package. Here are 10 of the things not to miss when visiting the Philippines.

1. Boracay - Probably the best beach you've never heard of. Clear turquoise waters, swaying palm trees and white sand so fine, it's like stepping on powder. It's off the coast of Panay and 350 kilometres south of the capital Manila. Only about 7 kilometres long and 1 kilometre wide at its narrowest point, don't let the small size fool you. The island is packed full of delights for every traveller. Whether you just want to enjoy the sun and lie on the beach or to water sports or a buzzing nightlife, Boracay offers these and more.

2. Banaue Rice Terraces - Rice paddies carved out of the mountains by the Ifugao people using primitive tools available 2,000 years ago. It is an awesome site with what looks like gigantic stairs stacked together. In fact, the Ifugaos call it the "Stairway to Heaven". The terraces are part of the UNESCO World Heritage list.

3. Diving - You can't go wrong with 7,000 island to choose from and it doesn't come as a surprise that the Philippines is one of the premier dive spots in the world. One of the best dive spots is the Apo Reef Marine Natural Park off the west coast of Mindoro. Sightings of sharks, barracuda, tuna and turtles are fairly common. Most of the Philippines' 450 species of coral can be found here, from tiny bubble corals to huge gorgonian sea fans and brain corals, along with hundreds of species of smaller reef fishes such as angelfish, batfish, surgeonfish and jacks.

4. Chocolate Hills - The Chocolate Hills are the island of Bohol's most famous attraction. They look like giant mole hills or as some would say, women's breasts. There are around 1,200 of them, mostly uniform in shape and around 30 - 50 metres high. The hills are covered with grass and during the dry summer months, the unforgiving sun turns the vegetation brown hence, the name.

5. El Nido - White sand and clear blue waters set amidst majestic limestone cliffs provide the visitor a choice of relaxation and adventure. El Nido is considered as a showcase of the Philippine's geology and diverse wildlife. It is home to hundreds of species of tropical fishes and corals and 3 species endangered sea turtles. El Nido's forests are host to more than 100 species of birds, a large number of which are endemic to the island of Palawan.

6. Intramuros - Located in the heart of Manila, this old walled city was constructed in 1571, during the period of Spain's colonization of the Philippines. It comprises of European buildings and churches heavily influenced by Spanish architecture. It was once one of the most preserved medieval cities, unfortunately, World War II took its toll. The site is a timeless journey through forts and dungeons, old churches, colonial houses, and horse-drawn carriages.

7. Ati-Atihan Festival - The most famous of the Philippine fiestas, the Ati-Atihan, held every third sunday of January in the town of Kalibo in the province. Participants paint their faces with soot, and wear colorful and outlandish costumes as they dance in the street in revelry for the last three days in a two week long festival.

8. Mount Mayon - Located near the town of Legaspi, the majestic Mayon volcano is considered one of the world's most perfect cones. It is popular with climbers and campers and is surrounded by its own park - the Mayon Volcano National Park.

9. Swimming with whale sharks - Donsol in the province of Sorsogon is host to one of the highest concentrations of whale sharks in the world. Although whale sharks or "butanding" as they are locally known are enormous in size, reaching around 15 metres in length, they are remarkably gentle and docile that it's generally safe to swim alongside them. It is an unforgettable experience and all you need is some basic snorkelling gear since these whale sharks swim very close to the surface of the water.

10. Vigan - Time has stood still in this town in the north of the Philippines. It is included in UNESCO's World Heritage list for its unique fusion of Asian design and construction with European colonial architecture and planning. In the old town, streets and pavements are cobbled and buildings in impressive Spanish colonial architecture. In some areas of the old city, only the "calesas" or the horse-drawn carriages are allowed pass through, aiding to that old world ambiance.


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