To many travellers, Cebu conjures up impressions of a dream tropical vacation, with idyllic white sandy beaches, steamy jungles and rough mountainous trekking. To top it off, cheap food, affordable accommodation and friendly locals make independent travel here a breeze.
If you’re looking for a quick getaway to an exotic locale far from the dreary urban sprawl, this is it. This itinerary explains how to pack in a week’s worth of sightseeing in 4 days, covering the main sights of Cebu and nearby Bohol. Be prepared for a couple of sleep-lite nights, but you’ll end on a high relaxing by the beach.
Getting into Cebu
If Cebu is your first stop in the Philippines, you’ll need to take a flight into Mactan-Cebu International Airport (MCIA). Located on the island of Mactan and connected to Cebu by a bridge, it takes around 30 minutes by taxi to reach Cebu City’s downtown district. Cebu suffers from the same traffic gridlock that is all too common in Manila, so factor in an additional 30 minutes on weekdays and Saturdays.
As you leave the arrival hall, turn right and walk past the private minivan/car touts lining the street. You’ll pass a 7-Eleven, which is a good place to buy a bottle of water to keep yourself hydrated. With a tropical climate and humidity averaging around 80%, you’ll be sweating soon after stepping out of the airport.
There’s a proper taxi stand further up, served by yellow and white taxis. The white taxis are cheaper, but the queue is going to be way longer. If you can afford the additional dollar or so, save time and take a yellow taxi. The taxi industry is regulated and most drivers will use the meter without making a fuss – if they don’t, take note of the license plate number and lodge a complaint with the taxi company.
Day 1a – Whale watching at Oslob
To maximise your time, book a flight that lands in Cebu just after midnight. From there, ask your taxi driver to drop you off at Cebu South Bus Terminal. Intercity buses run throughout the day and night from Cebu City to Bato, passing by the small town of Oslob (Ceres Liner, 4-5 hours, runs every hour/half-hour).
Oslob is (in)famous for the daily swimming with whale shark experience. While it’s gotten a pretty bad reputation, the visitor centre still sees thousands of tourists everyday. Check out this detailed guide to swimming with whale sharks in Oslob for more information.
After that, you can visit the heritage area in Oslob, where some Spanish fortifications, a church and an uncompleted barracks stand facing the sea. In the afternoon, many visitors cool off at the nearby Tumalog Falls, or visit one of the many other waterfalls in the area.
Day 1b – Camp at Osmeña Peak and catch the spectacular evening sunset and morning sunrise
In the late afternoon (3pm is ideal), leave most of your belongings in Oslob and hire a habal-habal (motorbike taxi) or rent a scooter for the next 24 hours and ride to Osmeña Peak. At 1,013 metres, this is one of Cebu’s highest peaks and is a popular trekking and camping spot for both local and foreign tourists.
Getting there is pretty straightforward, as it first involves a 1.5 to 2 hour road trip along the coast and then up the mountains inland. Stopping off where the road ends, a rocky trail will guide you to a small hut, where you’ll need to pay an entrance fee of 30 Pesos per person.
Try to set up your tent before sunset, s it’s a lot harder when you’re fumbling around in the darkness. Also, you’ll want to linger at the peak during sunset and sunrise, so it’s best to reach earlier and prepare the camp well in advance.
Day 2a – Go canyoneering at the Kawasan Falls
The next day, cut across the mountains of Cebu as you pass by small villages, huge plantations and winding roads to reach the other side of the island. Kawasan Falls is a popular 3-tier waterfall near the coastal road, and is renowned for its clean turquoise waters.
While many visitors are content to soak in the cold refreshing pool to recover from the tropical humidity, the best part of the falls is further upstream. Canyoneering is an action-packed sport that involves clambering over boulders, climbing up ledges and jumping into plunge pools and deep rivers – with the ultimate goal of reaching the end at the last waterfall.
For novices, engage a guide and be properly equipped for canyoneering. The risks of drowning, impact injury and falling off slippery rocks is very real, so stay safe while navigating the surrounding canyons and in the river that runs through it.
A guided tour lasts for 3 hours, includes a post-activity lunch, and costs 1,500 Pesos per person. With a guide assigned for every 2 people, that’s a reasonable price to pay for an adrenaline-packed morning activity. Kawasan Canyoneering is a reliable and experienced operator in this sport.
Day 2b – Return to Cebu City
Most canyoneering trips end by 12pm, followed by lunch at a dive resort. You’ll need to return to Oslob to collect your belongings, which will take another 1.5 hours riding along the coastal road. In all likelihood, you’ll reach Oslob by mid-afternoon.
Once there, pack your stuff and head to the main road to flag down any Ceres bus heading towards Cebu City. With no bus terminal in Oslob, intercity buses will stop anywhere to drop off or pick up passengers. You have a 4-hour ride ahead, so take a nap to recover from the flurry of activities that happened in the past 48 hours.
Where to stay in Cebu City
There is no lack of accommodation in Cebu, and prices are lower than those in Oslob or other tourist towns in the Philippines. Check out the latest deals on Booking.com here:
Day 3a – Take a ferry to Tagbilaran City in Bohol
Wake up early in the morning, and make a beeline for Pier 1 in Cebu City. Buy a ticket for the ferry heading to Bohol – it should cost 500 Pesos per person at the counter. For your convenience, you can book it online to ensure you get a seat. It’s pricier at 800 Pesos per person, though.
Tagbilaran City is the largest city in Bohol, and a good staging point to explore the island. However, most visitors will head to Panglao Island, and Alona Beach in particular, to enjoy the sun, the sea and the white fine sand.
After the crazy adventure packed itinerary for the past 2 days, I’ll thoroughly recommend spending some time at the beach too.
Day 3b – Explore Bohol and visit the Chocolate Hills
In the afternoon, hire a tricycle or rent a scooter to make the ride to the Chocolate Hills. While most drivers will tout their day package, you don’t really need to visit the 7 tourism spots. In just half a day, the Tarsier Sanctuary and Chocolate Hills are worth spending the few hours of your penultimate day in Cebu (well, technically Bohol).
The first stop is the Tarsier Sanctuary, a 1.5 hour ride from Alona Beach. This is a native animal on the island, and is endangered from habitat destruction and interference from Man. While several places offer Tarsier sightings, the most ethically-run establishment is the Tarsier Sanctuary in Corella. If your tricycle driver says otherwise, he’s probably getting a commission from wherever he’s taking you to.
After visiting the Tarsier Sanctuary, continue on the road for another 2 hours to the Chocolate Hills. So called because they turn brown in the hot season, resembling mounds of chocolates from afar, this is one of Philippines’ top tourist attraction. One of the tallest mound has been converted to a viewing platform, and you’ll need to pay 30 Pesos per person to get in.
From the top, the view is remarkable and well worth the distance travelled to get there. Hundreds of tourists seem to think so too, as you jostle your way to the front for a selfie. If you still crave for some thrilling adventures, you can rent an ATV and tear up the tracks in an open area at the foot of the mound.
By 4pm, start to make your way back to Panglao Island to catch the sunset. Chocolate Hills may be pretty, but the sunset is not as spectacular. Also, it’s a pain to drive in the darkness on country roads.
Where to see the sunset in Panglao Island
The best place, according to a well-informed local, is at Linaw Beach Resort or Equation Dive & Travel. Both are classy places with a nice restaurant and bar, so what a way to spend your last evening in Cebu!
If you can afford a bit more, Linaw Beach Resort is a good choice. Affordable by western standards, this is slightly out of town, but the facilities and rooms are first rate. See the latest prices here.
There’s a lot more accommodation options on the island too, catering to a wide range of budget and expectations. Check out these deals from Booking.com:
Day 4 – Sightseeing in Cebu
On your last day, spend a few hours lazing by the beach before heading back to Tagbilaran City. If you can, catch the 1140 ferry back to Cebu, and you’ll have some time in the afternoon for a spot of sightseeing.
Cebu City was where the Portuguese first landed in 1521, and still preserves many historic landmarks near the city centre. Leave your baggage first at SM City Mall (10 mins by taxi, ~70 Pesos by meter), and grab a quick bite in this massive shopping mall. The baggage deposit is a free service, and you just need to collect it before the mall closes. But keep it to yourself – or this little secret won’t be around for much longer!
Your first stop should be the Basilica del Santo Niño, one of the earliest churches in the Philippines and was definitely built to impress. Today, the compound has been expanded to an outdoor area where mass is conducted, so thousands of devout Catholics can gather at once during the Sunday service.
Walk through the church and see the spot where a wooden cross was first planted on the island. The original wooden cross is purported still encased in the frame that currently stands.
Slightly further down, Fort San Pedro is a small triangular compound that was first built by the Spanish. If you’ve been to the mega forts in Europe and other colonies around the world, it may be a bit underwhelming, but on there may be interesting exhibitions held inside occasionally.
If you’re still feeling cultural, head to the Cebu Taoist Temple to see how a the Chinese community worship in this predominantly Catholic country. Afterwards, climb up to a nearby hill and visit the Temple of Leah. Inspired by Roman architecture, this is a relatively new structure that is still under construction.
From here however, you can enjoy the sweeping views of Cebu City and reflect on the whirlwind trip that has taken you from tropical jungles to mountains, and then to pristine beaches. It’s been hectic, and Cebu deserves a bit more time.
At 1,013 metres, Osmeña Peak is one of Cebu’s highest peaks and is a popular trekking and camping spot for both local and foreign tourists. It offers an amazing vantage point to view the surrounding mountains and sea on both sides, and the sunsets and sunrises are spectacular.
Most visitors make a day trip out of Cebu City or Oslob to reach the summit. But spending a night here is an entirely different experience. This guide will explain how to prepare for an overnight camp, and what to expect while spending a night in the Mother Nature’s backyard.
Getting to Osmeña Peak
Getting there is pretty straightforward, as it first involves a road trip (1.5 to 2 hours from Oslob, 3 to 4 hours from Cebu City) along the coast, turning off at the town of Dalaguete and then up the mountains inland. Stopping off where the road ends, a rocky trail will guide you to a small hut, where you’ll need to pay an entrance fee of 30 Pesos per person.
If you’re coming by the Ceres bus serving the Cebu City – Bato route, ask to be stopped at Dalaguete Junction and hire a habal-habal (motorcycle taxi) from there.
Gearing up for camping
Before heading to the hut though, enquire at the nearby shops / food stalls about renting a tent for the night. It should cost 400 Pesos, and you should also purchase any additional supplies for the overnight stay. At the very least, purchase 2 liters of water per person and some snacks for dinner and breakfast.
A proper hot meal can be a morale booster when camping in the great outdoors. Campers are not allowed to make bonfires, so bring along a gas stove or a solid fuel stove to cook. Oh, and ingredients to cook of course. Alternatively, stop by Dalaguete along the way and buy all the cooked food you’ll need for dinner. Getting whole grilled chicken from the street vendors is highly recommended, and it only costs 200 Pesos.
Trekking up and setting up camp
From the hut, embark on a 20-30 minute easy trek to the top of the mountain. At the hut, you can also hire a guide to show the way, and take awesome photos along the way and at the summit. The recommended price is 200 Pesos for an official guide, or a small tip of between 50 to 100 Pesos if you engage any of the young kids loitering nearby to be your informal guide.
Before you complete the final 50m push to the top, you’ll need to set up camp at the nearby campsite. For the novice camper, your guide can help you with the task of selecting a good ground and setting up the tent.
On weekends, the campsite will be pretty busy with locals making camp for the night. If you lack something, a fellow camper might be able to help. But on a weekday, you might end up being the only ones pitching a tent there. Well, I speak from experience:
Catching the sunset from the top
After the tent is set up and secured, make you way up the peak and join the crowd of other visitors jostling for the best photo-taking spot. As the sun sets over the horizon (and yes, you can literally see the horizon from Osmeña Peak), people will start leaving before the place turns pitch black.
Since you’re all prepped up to camp overnight, you can now have the peak all to yourself (and your fellow campers). Soak in the views from all around, and pay attention to the jagged peaks sticking out of the ground in the distance. Very similar in appearance to the famous Chocolate Hills of Bohol, this adds yet another layer to the surreal and starkly beautiful landscape.
The camping experience
As twilight turns to darkness, head back to camp for dinner and rest. This campsite does not come with proper facilities nearby though – so you’ll need to figure out the best time and place to do your Number 1 and Number 2. (This is a world away from the campsite at Doi Angkhang)
At night, the temperature will drop dramatically, reaching a low of 16°C in the middle of the night in March. Wear enough layers and winter wear, or bring along a proper sleeping bag to keep the heat in.
Throughout the night, low clouds will roll in and out. If you’re here to stargaze, you’re in luck as the night skies are absolutely amazing. But when it turns foggy, retreat into your tent and hang in there. With luck, the stars will return in an hour or so, or just set your alarm every few hours to check on the visibility conditions outside.
You’re more or less on your own at the campsite, and any help will take time to reach you. Stay safe and do not venture up the peak or near the mountain edge in darkness.
Here’s more tips for an enjoyable and safe camping trip:
Do not feed stray dogs in the campsite, unless you want to spend the night with a four-legged companion following you everywhere.
Bring a headlamp and free up your hands. You’ll need both of them to hold your plate and eat, and more importantly, to steady yourself while you wipe after doing a Number 1.
Don’t throw food out of the tent. You may attract wild animals to come to the campsite.
Mark your trail and bring a buddy, if you need to walk out in a fog. If you venture too far, you may lose your way and end up far from the campsite.
Be the first to see the sunrise
In Cebu, the sunrise happens before 6am. Set your alarm for 5.30am and start dressing up for a chilly morning. You’ve braved the night in Osmeña Peak, so enjoy your reward of catching the sunrise view all to yourself.
As you perch yourself at the lookout point, day visitors will start streaming in. These are the equally determined folks who have woken up at 4am, hired or rented a motorbike to make the trip up the mountains, and made it in time for the sunrise. But no matter… you got here first.
As the shades of red and pink melt into white, it’s time to pack up and leave. In 2 hours time, you’ll be launching off rocks and jumping into plunge pools upstream from the Kawasan Falls.
Oslob is (in)famous for the whale shark experience, which can get environmentalists really riled up in a hurry. The local fishermen used to hunt migrating whale sharks for their fins and meat. In recent years however, they’ve reinvented themselves as whale shark guardians and tour guides, taking thousands of tourists daily to snorkel or dive with these gentle giants.
Over the course of this article, you’ll learn more about booking a seat on the boat out, what to expect when swimming in the sea, and get tips to help make the most of your whale shark experience.
Reserving a seat on the boat
This industry is tightly controlled and is centered around the Whale Shark visitor centre in Tanawan, located 9km from Oslob town. The locals work with the police to make sure every visitor pays the standard price (500 Pesos for locals, 1,000 Pesos for foreigners) to swim with the whale sharks. Anyone caught sneaking into the bay without a guide risks a hefty fine and dealing with an angry mob of fishermen. After the entry price, there’s the lucrative add-ons, like underwater camera rentals, flippers, personalised tours etc.
Every day at the crack of dawn, visitors start queuing up at the visitor centre before 6am. The worst time to visit is after 8am, when the average wait time extends to 2-3 hours. Amid the flurry of activity and din of confusing instructions, visitors are shuffled between sections, handed over to various official-looking employees, and then on to a quick briefing on what NOT to do when in the water. Basically, you just can’t wear sunscreen or touch the whale sharks, as some of them have started to show signs of skin damage from human contact.
From there on, you’ll put on a life vest, collect a tired-looking snorkel kit and herded onto a boat packed to the brim with 10 to 15 people. Despite appearances, this is a well-oiled tourism machinery that runs on a tight ship (pun very much intended). The boatman will paddle 50m out to join over 30 other similar boats, and then the party begins.
Swimming with whale sharks
Each dive session lasts for 30 minutes. After reaching an unoccupied area, the boatman will anchor the boat to a buoy and tell everyone to get into the water. There’ll be a momentarily pause as everyone looks at one another, before the first brave soul steps gingerly into the freezing waters. The rest of the group follows soon after.
The whale sharks aren’t hard to spot. A row of fishermen in their own boats nearby will toss chunks of plankton into the water at regular intervals, attracting the whale sharks to swim over. It takes barely a minute before the first squeal of excitement breaks the monotony of concentration. From somewhere far away, a huge silhouette looms forward and breaks the surface with a sinister fin sticking out.
An average whale shark grows to 4m in length, which is an impressive sight as it glides past awestruck observers. The boatman will alternate between shouting at overzealous visitors to stay closer to the boat, and helping to take photos underwater. At times, a curious whale shark will swim in the path of tourists, scattering them and leaving a trail of flailing limbs and bubbles in its wake.
The half hour passes quickly, and the tourists are quickly gathered back on the boat. Without missing a beat, the boatman steers the boat back to shore, all ready for the next batch of tourists waiting patiently in line.
Staying safe in the water
While the boatman does look out for potential hazards, it’s hard to keep track of so many excited tourists running amok around the boat. You’ll want to keep these tips in mind as you swim with the sharks:
Wear long sleeved rashguard if you have one. Jellyfish are known to swim in the same waters, and visitors do get the occasional painful sting.
Stay close to the boat, and always pay attention to where you are. Many tourists will drift away with a slow current, so keep an eye on your boat even as you peer down into the water.
Bring your own snorkel kit, if you’re sensitive to hygiene and cleanliness. It’s doubtful that any of these swimming equipment are sterilised before reuse.
Don’t force yourself to swim, if you’re uncomfortable being on the water even with a life jacket on. You can choose to stay on the boat and observe for a smaller fee (300 Pesos for locals, 600 Pesos for foreigners).
The environmental debate
Many environmental protection groups decry the abuse of the whale sharks, and are petitioning for the authorities to reduce heavy tourism footprint in this activity. Part of the reason is that by keeping the whale sharks in the bay and feeding them, they are disrupting the migratory patterns that help these animals regulate their mating cycles. Far from maintaining an authentic wildlife experience, the whale sharks are now trapped in a virtual cage in an open air zoo.
Another contentious issue is the impact of having thousands of tourists appear before these shy creatures daily. Besides the stress on these animals, the whale sharks have also shown sign of skin disease from skin contact and chemicals in the waters. To reduce the risk of further damage, the whale shark visitor center a limit on the number of visitors daily.
Many people are calling for a boycott on visiting Oslob, and to visit Donsol instead for an authentic and ethical whale shark diving experience. In Donsol, local guides need to seek out whale sharks, and are not allowed to encourage them to stay in the area. The trade-off, of course, is that sightings are not guaranteed. If you’re keen to check this out, check out this 10-day itinerary in Luzon instead.
Travel tips for budget travellers
The dive resorts in Tanawan are more expensive than those in Oslob town, due in no small part to its close proximity to the whale shark visitor centre. If you can wake up early and find a habal-habal or motorcycle taxi (50 Pesos each way, 10-15 mins drive) to the visitor centre, you can save a fair bit on accommodation.
If you’re just heading into Oslob as a day trip, you can keep your bags and personal belongings in any of the dive resorts for 100 Pesos per person. This package includes a locker, baggage storage, shower facilities, transport to the whale shark visitor centre and a resort staff to facilitate the whole process. If you’re not keen on figuring out everything or are tight on time, this is a relatively inexpensive option to consider.
There’s also plenty of shops and guesthouses renting scooters at 700 Pesos per day. Gasoline is also very affordable in the Philippines, so you can save a lot on transport if you ride along the coastal road along Oslob on your own scooter.
Where should I stay in Oslob?
There is a wide range of hotels and guesthouses in Oslob, catering to varying budgets and tolerance for cleanliness. Many enterprising locals have also converted their landed homes into guesthouses, opening up one or two bedrooms for tourists.
Oslob is really small, and the only 7-Eleven in town serves as the de-facto town centre. This is where local kids hang out after school and tourists shop for cheap and familiar food. Outside, habal-habal and tricycle drivers hang out waiting for customers.
For a very affordable place to put up at, Castro Verde is run by a couple of chaps looking to get in on the tourism trade. A basic room with a bed and a fan costs 600 Pesos per night, and you can rent a motorbike or scooter for 700 Pesos a day. The place is also located right smack in the middle of town though, and just 3 minutes from the 7-Eleven. You’ll need to manage your expectations though – this place really looks like someone’s home, and the room can be truthfully be described as spartan.
If you rather stay in a proper tourist-friendly place, check out these guesthouses and hotels deals currently on Booking.com.
Oslob is also the best place to base yourself at, since there’s more shops, restaurants and places to see in town. If you prefer to be where the main action is at though, a dive resort in Tanawan is your best bet. Aaron’s Beach Resort is located just a stone’s throw away from the whale shark visitor centre, and prices start from 1,200 Pesos for a non air-conditioned room.
If you start early enough, your whale shark experience should end by mid morning at the latest. For the rest of the day, you can take a walk in the Oslob heritage district and explore the ruins of an uncompleted Spanish barracks, visit the impressive Catholic church just beside it, and take a slow walk along the fortified coast.
Just off the coast, you’ll see Sumilon Island. Famed for its sandbar and gorgeous beach, you’ll need to hire a boat to get there. If you’re going it alone, a boat will cost 1,500 Pesos. To save costs, wait for more tourists to arrive and try to share a ride and split the costs. A Wanderful Sole has a detailed write-up on this.
Alternatively, hire a habal-habal driver for 120 Pesos and visit the Tumalog Falls. However for a truly magical (if crowded) experience, you’ll want to visit Kawasan Falls, located 1.5 hours away from Oslob by car or motorbike.
While you’re at it, squeeze in a visit to Osmeña Peak and see Cebu from a different vantage point. As the highest point on the island, you can be assured of gorgeous views… as long as the weather holds.
There’s more to Oslob than just whale sharks, so plan ahead and make the most of your trip here!
Located in the mountainous region of central Luzon, the ancient rice terraces of Banaue and Batad is just 10 hours away from Manila by bus. With some terraces dating back to 2,000 years ago, these man-made marvels are among the elite group of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Amazingly, these rice fields are still used for agriculture today. The local Ifugao people, who have inhabited these lands for the past two millennia, continue a tradition of farming in this remote and hilly terrain.
This guide will explain how to get to Banaue, and then on to the picturesque landscape terraces of Batad.
Getting to Banaue
For most travellers, an overnight bus is the easiest way to get from Manila to Banaue. Ohayami runs a daily long-distance service between Manila and Banaue, starting at 10pm and reaching Banaue at around 7-8am. Tickets cost 490 Pesos each way, and you can make reservations online.
Alternatively, you can board a bus from Baguio City to Banaue. The Ohayami bus does pass through Baguio City, but there’s no option to book it online. Instead, drop the company a message to arrange for it.
What to see and do in Banaue
Banaue is relatively easy to get around on foot, although it is built on slopes that are pretty steep at some stretches. Located near the centre of town, the Tourist Information Centre should be your first stop to pay for the 20 Pesos environmental fee. While you’re there, you can hire local guides to tour around the area, get information on sightseeing spots, or arrange for transportation onwards to Batad.
Generally speaking, the main attraction in Banaue are the massive rice terraces located along the slopes. You can easily see them from any vantage point in town, although you can get the best views from scenic lookout spots nearby.
Banaue is also a staging point for further exploration into smaller and more remote rice growing villages. The most popular ones are Batad and Bangaan.
Where to stay in Banaue
There are many guesthouses in Banaue, all centrally located near the Tourist Information Centre. For a comfortable stay, book a room at Rice Homestay right in the middle of town. The rooms are clean and affordable, and the staff are really friendly. Check the latest rates and available rooms here.
Booking.com has more options for accommodation. Check here for the latest deals on rooms and beds.
Getting to Batad
While getting to Banaue is relatively easy by direct bus, Batad is a small village that takes a bit more effort to reach.
Step 1a – Take a tricycle to the end of the road
You’ll first need to arrange for a tricycle at the Tourist Office, which will cost 700 Pesos each way. Enjoy the 45 minute ride along a winding and occasionally very steep road. At certain stretches, you may need to exit the tricycle and walk some distance on foot, ostensibly for your safety. Eventually, you’ll reach the end of the road (quite literally). From this point, it’s a 20-minute walk downhill to the village proper.
Step 1b – Take a jeepney to the saddle and walk in for 30 minutes
Alternatively, a jeepney leaves for Batad in the morning and up till around 2+pm in the afternoon. Tourists need to pay 150 Pesos per person for the ride there. You may be dropped off midway at a location called the saddle. It’s a 15 minute walk from here to the end of the road. For unlucky tourists, the jeepney may drop you off even earlier at a location called the junction. This is 3km away from the saddle, and will add on an additional 30 minutes to the journey.
Step 2 – Walk in for the last 15 minutes
The last bit of walking downhill may be tricky, as Batad is built across the face of a hill. Double check with locals on the way down to make sure you’re on the right track towards your guesthouse. Also, try to reserve a place higher up, since it’s a pain to make the journey back up on your return journey.
What to see and do in Batad
You’d think that after visiting the manicured rice terraces of Bali and Vietnam, it’s going to be the same everywhere else. Well, Batad will very likely astound you nevertheless.
Over two millennia, the local Ifugao people have carved rice terraces across the face of a hillside 1500 above sea level. From the gentle valley floor to the steep slopes in the middle of the hill, the resulting landscape is absolutely astounding in beauty and scale.
Most tourists will hike along the terraces, climbing up or down the terraces to get around. You’ll be better off engaging a guide to lead the way, as the maze of terraces are deceptively complex. It’s easy to get lost and find yourself facing a mound of soil at a dead end, while you gingerly avoid fragile banks and rice samplings. A guide will also help explain more about the unique Ifugao culture and the traditional process of rice growing.
Most visitors will take a circuit that leads first to the lookout point near the end of the terraces. This offers a sweeping view of the valley below, while mountains part in the distance to reveal rugged mountainous terrain stretching outwards.
If you’re up for a bit of exercise, you can then carefully climb down steep and narrow stone steps to the floor of the valley. At some parts the steps do not have any railings to hold on to, so you may want to carry along a trekking stick for balance. At the bottom, the Tappiya waterfalls thunders down into a river, and brave (or foolish) visitors can take a refreshing dip into the waters after the strenuous hike.
The last bit will be to head back to your guesthouse, walking a different route across the valley floor. Here, rice terraces are wider and you’ll get a different feel as the surrounding mountains loom over you. For most hikers, the round trip will take 3 hours, which is more than enough to make your thighs feel the strain for the next few days.
How do I engage a guide in Batad, and how much is it?
English-speaking Ifugao farmers supplement their income by guiding visitors. Many station themselves at the start of the walk into town, so they have a 15-minute head start to follow you and pitch their services. If you rather not engage a guide, or prefer to have one recommended by your guesthouse, just tell them firmly that you are not going to hire them. Some can get pretty persistent though, as they have all day to wait for a client.
A guide can cost 1,000 Pesos for the standard 3-hour trek, but you can bargain for a cheaper price if you’re serious about engaging them. But considering that this money goes directly to the community, sometimes the extra dollar goes a long way to encourage the Ifugao to keep their traditions alive.
Unfortunately, mobile reception is almost non-existent in Batad, so you can’t call ahead or arrange for a local guide. That also means you don’t have internet or cell phone service while chilling in your guesthouse – which can be a good thing, as you take in the view and just take a break from the chaos of the urban world for a day.
What to eat in Batad
Food and drinks are generally more expensive in Batad, as everything has to be carried in on foot. Most guesthouses and restaurants cater to tourists, so ingredients for western dishes like pizzas need to be purchased elsewhere.
It’s not too exorbitant though. 300 Pesos can get you a full meal with beverage, and then some change to spare.
Of course, do try the rice dishes. Most of the harvest in Batad is meant for local consumption, so you probably can’t get it anywhere else in the Philippines.
Where to stay in Batad
If you’re looking for a unique experience, head to the Batad View Inn and stay in one of the unique Ifugao huts. Built on stilts and accessible only by a ladder, this is one of the more interesting places to spend the night. There’s no electricity, so illumination is provided by a candle. You’ll need to walk out to use the bathroom in the main guest house compound, so make sure you clear your bladder and bowels before turning in for the night. It may sound tedious, but this is definitely a memorable experience, and a change from bland dormitories and generic hotel rooms everywhere else.
Visit Booking.com for more accommodation options. These are some of the latest deals:
Tips to staying in Batad
Note that the Batad View Inn is located higher up the village, so you walk less to get in and out. That’s a good thing. If you end up choosing a place lower down the hill, prepare to trek up steep slopes with your backpacks when you arrive and depart. And yes – it’s best to bring a backpack, unless you feel strong enough to lug a trolley luggage up and down narrow stone steps.
Also, book your accommodation in advance. As there’s no internet in the village, the guesthouses need to send someone to Banaue every other day to receive new reservation requests online. If you book a place at the last minute, there’s a high chance your reservation may not be received.
Otherwise, you can also take the chance and find a place to stay when you’re in Batad. Just be prepared to deal with the local touts urging you to their aunt’s / uncle’s / cousin’s guesthouse, while you trudge down the village enquiring about available rooms.
Getting out of Batad
From Batad village, it’s at least a 20 minute climb uphill back to the road. There’s no bus terminal or frequent service, except a regular morning jeepney every morning at 9am. If you’re planning to leave at any other time, make sure to arrange with your tricycle driver to pick you up at the same place he drops you off. Otherwise, there really is nothing but a few hours of walking on steep slopes to get back to Banaue – just this one time, the ubiquitous Uber and Grab apps can’t save you, even if you’re willing to pay 100x for surge pricing!
The tropical paradise of Philippines is often associated with amazing beach resorts, lush sweltering rainforests and secluded islands. With friendly locals and a wide range of travel options catering to all budgets, this is one place that appeals to everyone.
In this itinerary, you’ll learn what to see and do in Luzon, a huge island in the north of the Philippines. Home to ancient rice terraces, colonial towns and the chaotic sprawl of Metro Manila, you’ll visit the main highlights of the island in an ambitious 10-day trip.
Day 1: Touchdown in Manila
For most travellers, Manila is often the first stop when arriving by plane. The Ninoy Aquino International Airport (known locally as NINA) is made up of 4 terminals serving both international and domestic airlines.
Getting out of NINA, there’s enough places to see in Manila for at least a day. Intramuros is a small preserved section of town that retains its Spanish architecture, albeit crumbling at some parts. You’ll find respite from the madness of downtown Manila, as you explore the small alleys and local businesses serving this small community. Walk on to the end of the town and explore Fort Santiago, which was first built by the Spanish to guard the newly established walled city of Manila.
After a few hours of walking the streets and peeking into churches, head out and visit the SM Mall of Asia. Touted as one of Asia’s largest malls, this is where you can do a spot of shopping in case you forgot to bring something, or grab a bite from one of the restaurants there. Once done, take a walk along the Roxas Boulevard, a 7.6km-long seaside promenade running along the Manila Bay. On Fridays and weekend evenings, the promenade is filled with locals chilling and digging into street food from the many vendors lining the path.
As you head back towards Intramuros, take a right at the end of the Roxas Boulevard and visit Rizal Park. As the day winds down, locals gather in force at this expansive park to picnic and people watch. Grab some food and settle down on the grass patch as well, or see if there’s a concert happening in the nearby open-air auditorium. Filipinos love their music, and regular performances happen in this venue.
End the night with excellent local cuisine and cheap beers at Hott Asia Bazaar. Popular with locals with a party atmosphere to boot, this is not on most tourist itineraries, so come prepared to make friends with Filipinos. But this is just your first day, so take stock of your alcohol intake and get ready to fly out the next day – you’ll be in the northern side of Luzon in less than 12 hours time!
If you have more than just a hurried day, check out Girl, Unspotted for some ideas on how to spend 3 days in Manila.
Where to stay in Manila?
Makati Junction Hostel offers clean and cheap dormitory beds for budget travellers. There’s also a nice common area that doubles up as a cafe, so you can chill there with fellow travellers. Check the latest rates and available rooms here.
Manila is a big city, and there’s many more options all over town. These are the latest deals on Booking.com:
Day 2-3: From Laoag To Vigan
Getting around Laoag
Situated in the northwest corner of Luzon, the province of Ilocos is subdivided into the north (Ilocos Norte) and south (Ilocos Sur). The capital of Ilocos Norte is Laoag, a relatively small city that’s big enough to get by as a transportation hub.
Most travellers come in by plane. From the airport, take a 15 minute tricycle to the city centre. Alternatively, overnight buses from the Cubao Bus Terminal in Manila start from 800 Pesos, and take between 10 to 13 hours for the trip. Check out Farinas, Florida and Partas for the latest schedules and fares.
Laoag is a relatively small city with a decent local market and colonial architecture. The main highlight of Ilocos Norte is outside Laoag, though. From anywhere in town, you can hail a tricycle (literally on the street) and immediately embark on a half-day tour around the region. Of course, you can also DIY it with buses, which is a lot more painful to arrange.
If you’re planning to head out to sightsee, check out:
Pagudpud, a beach with fine white sand comparable to the more famous Boracay beach
Bangui Windmills, which are modern ones (not the quaint Dutch type)
Paoay, a small town famed for its church
The Patapat Viaduct, which hugs the northern coastline
Most tricycle drivers will take you on a planned route if you can’t decide. For 600 Pesos, you can choose to travel to:
The South Tour – Cape Bojeador Lighthouse, Kapurpurawan Rock Formation & Bangui Windmills
The North Tour – Kabigan Falls, Bantay Abot Cave, Patapat Viaduct, Blue Lagoon Beach
Generally tricycles in the Philippines allow for 2 passengers in the carriage, although it can get a bit squeezy. A third passenger can ride as a pillion on the motorcycle. Sharing costs will bring down the price per passenger, at the expense of comfort of course.
Travelling to Vigan
Vigan is another excellent day-trip destination from Laoag. Famed for its well-preserved Spanish colonial street stretching across half a kilometer, the Calle Crisologo is flanked by a row of two storey shophouses selling mostly tourist trinkets. No vehicles are allowed on it, so you’ll only need to avoid the occasional horse-drawn cart.
To get to Vigan, regular buses leave Laoag every hour from the city bus terminal (2 hours, 130 Pesos, hourly frequency, Partas). You could spend half a day to explore Vigan, so it’s best to leave early and return to Laoag by evening to catch the Saturday market in the city centre.
Alternatively, you can try to catch an overnight bus leaving Manila to Vigan (10 hours, 750 Pesos, Partas).
Laoag is a small city with fewer accommodation options. If you’re not picky about in-room amenities, People’s Inn is newly renovated and located just 10 minutes away from the city centre. It’s also cheaper than most other accommodation options in town. Check here for latest rates and available rooms.
Visit Booking.com for more deals in Laoag and Vigan:
Day 4 and 5: Make your way to Sagada by bus(es)
Finding a direct bus route from Laoag to Sagada is almost impossible, given that there is a huge mountain range in between. Instead, you’ll first need to take an overnight bus to Baguio City (6 hours, 466 Pesos, Partas), which reaches Baguio City at 3am.
From there, take a cab and get to the GL Trans bus terminal, which connects you on the onwards journey from Baguio to Sagada (6 hours, 220 Pesos , departs hourly from 6am to 1pm, GL Trans). For the latter, you’ll need to buy tickets on the bus, as there’s no online reservation channel yet. Rest assured that at 6am, you’ll have plenty of seats to choose from. Enjoy the scenery along this leg of the journey, as you climb higher into the mountains.
Sagada is a small town that runs along an incline, so get ready to huff and puff your way around. In the centre of town, the Tourist Information Centre provides everything – from price-regulated tours to the bus and jeepney timings for outward journeys to Manila, Bantoc and Banaue. It’s well run and provides a fair means of income for a town with a heavy dependence on the tourism industry.
Most tourists take the standard walking tour to visit the hanging coffins near the town cemetery, which is usually coupled with a visit to St Mary’s Church near the town centre. Adventurous trekkers can opt for a 1.5 hour or 3 hour spelunking session in the nearby Sumaguing Caves, which promises to be a thrilling and exhausting experience for most visitors. If you’re short on time however, the Adventure Trail is the best of both worlds, as you get to see the hanging coffins, followed by a 3 hour hike to visit a small easy section of the caves, and then finish off with a cliff jump into a small waterfall.
Getting out of Sagada
While this place deserves more time, you’ll spend at least a night here before taking a scheduled jeepney to Bantoc in the late afternoon. From Bantoc, hop aboard another jeepney to get to Banaue. It sounds more complicated that it really is, so don’t worry! You’ll figure out easily when you’re there. Note that jeepneys will leave early if they fill up ahead of time, so don’t leave everything to the last minute if you’re on a tight schedule.
If you miss the last jeepney connection to Banaue at 1pm, there’s always a 2pm Coda Lines bus service that leaves Sagada for Manila, passing by Banaue en-route. You can usually buy tickets on the spot, although it’s best to reserve a seat in advance for the bus. The Coda Lines office is just a 1-minute walk up from the Tourist Office.
Where to stay in Sagada?
Sagada is a small town, and your best bet is to stay in a guesthouse. Check out Agape Log Cabin and Restaurant, located a short 10 minute walk from the Tourist Information Centre. Find the latest rates and available rooms.
You can also consider these deals from Booking.com:
Day 5 and 6: Get lost amidst the stunning rice terraces of Batad
Banaue, along with the village of Batad, boasts of some of the world’s most amazing rice terraces. The scale is at times unbelievable, as terraces cut across entire mountainsides. With a history stretching back two thousand years, rice farming is not just a touristy thing, but a way of life for the Ifugao people.
While Banaue offers easy access to these rice terraces, Batad holds an even more impressive set of terraces… if you can get there. It’s not easy though. For starters, you’ll need to take a 45 minute hair-raising tricycle ride along twisting steep roads. At certain sections, your tricycle driver will ask you to step out and walk up or down a stretch of slope for your safety.
You’ll eventually come to a point where the road stops. From here, walk in for another 20 minutes to get to the village proper. Guesthouses are scattered around town, so book one ahead or just enquire on the spot. There are no street lights or mobile phone reception in Batad, so it’s wise to get in before dark. Alternatively, engage a guide to help you. There should be plenty of local Ifugao guys on standby at the entrance of the village.
Most people stay in Batad for a day, which gives them enough time to explore the rice terraces here. Neatly carved from steep mountain slopes that slowly ease into a gentle valley, Batad offers a panoramic view of the terraces from literally anywhere in town. You should also hike down to the Tappiya Waterfall, although the steep steps might put a strain on your thigh muscles when climbing back up.
You’ll also need to deal with vertigo at certain spots where the steps descend sharply without anything to hold onto. If possible, carry a hiking stick along, and engage a guide to lead you along the right way down. It takes roughly 3-4 hours for a hike down to the waterfalls and back up, and the going rate for local guides is roughly 1,000 Pesos. There’ll always be a group of tourists who decide to go without a guide, and you can spot them wading through flooded rice fields eventually after losing sight of the trail.
There’s a lot more trekking trails to nearby villages as well, if you’re keen on exploring the area. Just make sure to engage a local guide, as the mountains can be very unforgiving if you get lost at night.
Where to stay in Batad?
As Batad is spread out on a hillside, your choice of accommodation will mean the difference in climbing 20 minutes to your guesthouse, or climbing up to 45 minutes on steep stone steps. The Batad View Inn and Restaurant promises (and delivers) an amazing view of the rice terraces from higher ground, which means an easier time getting there too. You can also choose to stay like a local in an Ifugao hut, which is an unforgettable experience for a slightly higher price. Check here for the latest prices and available rooms.
You can also search Booking.com for more accommodation options:
Day 7: Return to Manila and head east to Legazpi
From Batad, return to Banaue using the same way as you arrived (i.e. 20 minute uphill climb, followed by a 45 minute tricycle ride). Ohayami Transport runs an overnight bus service to Manila (7pm, 490 Pesos, 10 hours, Ohayami Transport), and the office is located a short uphill walk from the Tourist Office in Banaue.
You’ll reach the Sampaloc bus terminal in Manila the following morning at around 5am. If you’ve got only a week to spare, it’s time to head back home. If you can afford another couple of days, head east to Legazpi.
There are several ways to get there. If you want to save time, make a beeline to the airport and catch the earliest flight out. Alternatively, regular 10-hour bus rides depart regularly from Manila. Alas, you’ll waste a day just watching the world go by from the window of a bus.
Sightseeing in Legazpi
Generally, everything touristy in Legazpi centres around Mount Mayon, an active conical stratovolcano that erupted as recently as early 2018. Two places are especially popular for viewing the volcano – the 16th century church ruins of Cagsawa at the outskirts of the city, or from an elevated vantage point at the top of Ligñon Hill.
When the volcano is not actively erupting, there’s much more to do. If you’re looking for a thrill, you can rent an ATV and rumble up the black volcanic soil towards the mountain. Organised tours can also take you closer to the volcano, instead of just admiring it from afar.
There are also lush rice plantations and interesting villages to explore. Rent a scooter for 800 Pesos per day from Bicol Bike Rental (contact Richard at 09275505828), or hire a private driver if you can afford it. After a week of constant travelling, take some time off to relax as well.
Day 8: Dive with whale sharks in Donsol
Just one and a half hour away by car, Donsol is one of the best places in the Philippines to watch a whale shark in action. Unlike the touristy whale shark experience in Oslob, Cebu, the scene in Donsal is well regulated by the local marine authorities. They even have an office to enforce responsible whale shark tourism!
Getting from Legazpi to Donsol is relatively easy. Minivans leave for the town at regular intervals throughout the day from 6am. The last van departs at 4pm, although the last van returning from Donsol to Legazpi sets off at 1pm. If you’re intending to visit as a day trip, leave very early or stay overnight in town. Alternatively, rent a scooter (see Day 7 above) and make the journey yourself.
If you have a PADI certificate, or are planning to join a diving course, then there are several dive schools to check out. Giddy’s Place is run by a professional crew with their own equipment, so you know you’re in good hands. They also run a short discovery dive session in shallow coral reefs. Try that out if you don’t have enough time to complete a PADI course.
A full-day leisure dive will run from 6.30am to 3pm, before returning to shore just before 5pm. If you have your own transport waiting, hop onto your bike or car and return to Legazpi. Hurry and catch the last overnight bus back to Manila at 7.30pm or 8.30pm (if available). It’s might be a bit tight, but it’ll squeeze out yet another an extra day!
Where to stay in Legazpi?
As you’ll be catching a couple of buses while staying in Legazpi, it pays to be near the bus station. Lotus Blu, a newly renovated hotel sharing the same building as a shopping mall, is a full-serviced hotel with good views of Mount Mayon. More importantly, it is only a short 5 minute walk away from the bus station. Check here for the latest rates and available rooms.
You can also visit Booking.com to look for discounted deals:
Day 9: Surf’s up in Real Quezon
If you had dived the previous day, you shouldn’t take a flight for the next 24 hours. It’s good though, as you have the chance to test out your surfing skills in Real Quezon, which boasts of surf-worthy waves coming from the Pacific Ocean.
Real Quezon is at least 3 hours away from Manila by car. Buses will easily take up to 5 hours for the journey though. Raymond Transport runs this route from their bus terminal in Legarda (5 hours, 160 Pesos, hourly service with no online reservations, Raymond Transport), or check out the minivan service located nearby for a potentially faster commute (3-4 hours, 220 Pesos, vans leave when filled with passengers).
For the last leg of this trip, end it by spending the night in a campsite. By and large, the most popular place or locals to be at is the PaRK, or the Pacific Recreation Kamp.
Staying overnight at the campsite is pretty affordable. A tent rental will set you back 500 Pesos, and each person adds on another 50 Pesos. If you have your own tent and sleeping bag, it’ll be even cheaper.
Most facilities, like the bathrooms and barbeque pits, are shared. A small cafe is well stocked with cold beer, water and snacks like instant noodles. If you’re too lazy to head down to the nearby wet market, fret not. The proprietors can also prepare hot food like rice and basic Filipino cuisine. That is unlikely, however, as the smell of freshly grilled seafood will tantalise your tastebuds.
If you’re new to surfing, instructors run classes during high tide for a small fee. There’s also a nice beach to chill, mingle around a bonfire, or just soak your feet in the ocean water. It’s therefore no surprise that Real Quezon is a popular weekend getaway for city folks in Manila!
You can also check Booking.com for discounted deals:
Day 10: End your trip with fond memories of Luzon
At last, your trip across Luzon would have come to an end. It’s been a manic one and a half weeks of overnight buses and outdoor activities. While some people holiday to relax, you might actually recover from this trip by heading back to work!
Alas, Luzon has way too many interesting places to explore and 10 days is barely enough to scratch the surface. If you can spare an extra day in Laoag or Sagada or Banaue, it’ll be definitely worth your while. Otherwise, try out this itinerary and let me know how it worked out for you in the comments!
More information about travelling in Luzon and the Philippines
Is it safe to travel in the Philippines?
Luzon is very safe, and isn’t representative of the negative press coverage you read about. Outside of Manila, you’ll most likely be a victim of overpaying a tricycle driver rather than a from a mugging. Just be careful of your belongings, especially in tourist areas like Vigan and Sagada.
Also, don’t do drugs. There is currently a concerted effort by the authorities to stamp out drug abuse, and penalties are harsh. Stick to legal stuff like tobacco and alcohol when in the Philippines, please.
What should I eat in the Philippines?
If you’re seeking a local Filipino experience, you’ll need to have at least one meal at Jollibee. This ubiquitous restaurant is present in almost every street corner in Manila. Of course, Filipino food fans will be aghast at this remark, but it needs to be mentioned nonetheless.
Traditional Filipino cuisine is heavy on rice and meat. Everyone knows Lechon, which is shredded fatty slices of suckling pig. But there’s more than just that! Try pork or chicken adobo, which is shredded meat simmered in garlic, soy sauce and vinegar. Tapsilog is also a local favourite, made of sun-dried pork or beef marinated with salt and other spices, and served with garlic fried rice (sinangag).
Up north in Ilocos, try Bagnet (fried pork skin), Longganisa (pork sausage made up of ground pork fat stuffed in an intestine sausage) and Empandana (crispy fried turnover filled with cabbage, minced pork and sometimes a variety of other ingredients).
For dessert, you have to try halo halo. This sweet icy concoction comes with evaporated milk for that extra oomph. Watch the calories though, they accumulate fast if you have it every day!
Do I need to reserve bus tickets, and where can I do so?
It’s best to reserve bus tickets, but there will be many operators who still sell their tickets on the bus or at the counter only. Check Biyaheroes and PHBus for the list of operators who sell their tickets online.
What are the overnight buses like?
First Class overnight buses are not, as they suggest, first class. Forget luxury seats and onboard toilets though. Mostly it’s just a normal bus with the occasional movie screening during the day.
Every few hours, long distance buses will stop for toilet and snack breaks. Usually at around 1am or so, the lights will turn on to rouse bleary-eyed passengers. As with most buses in tropical countries, the air-conditioning is set to the lowest temperature dial. If you’re afraid of the cold, bring along a sweater, scarf or small blanket. Long pants and socks are also advisable if you’re petrified of cold temperatures.
Any tips especially for travelling in the Philippines?
As with many Southeast and East Asian cultures, saving face is important for Filipinos. Avoid direct confrontations, as it will seldom end well for you. Work towards a win-win situation, and smile throughout your ordeal.
Be patient, as some locals may have a different concept of time. While many service providers are reliable, they might just take more time to reply to you, or tend to your requests. You can insist on service or a response, but again, so it with a smile.
In Manila, mass public transport like jeepneys might be cumbersome as traffic snarls will delay your commute. Use metered taxis or private car hire apps like Uber and Grab instead.
Avoid talking about politics and policies initiated by the current government. Just enjoy the scenery and travel experiences, and leave the politicking to world leaders and internet trolls.