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With its 7107 islands providing ridiculously beautiful beaches, world class diving, and some of the most beautiful landscapes you’ll ever see, I’m not surprised you’re thinking of planning a trip to the Philippines. But let’s be honest, figuring out a backpacking route to navigate these stunning vistas isn’t that easy. If only there was a tried and tested backpacking route in the Philippines that could help?! Look no further…
This backpacking route is based off our trip in May 2019, where although the Philippines is getting more and more built for tourism every day, it still needed a fair bit of forward planning to make the most of our time. This itinerary could be for anything from a two week holiday to one month plus of adventuring. Ideally, I’d recommend about three weeks for the ultimate backpacking route in the Philippines – you’ll LOVE it.
- 1 Fly into Manila to begin your backpacking route in the Philippines
- 2 Learn to dive in Bohol for the ultimate backpacking Philippines experience
- 3 Canyoneering in Cebu to find your inner adventurous backpacker!
- 4 Surfing in Siargao
- 5 Crystal Clear Waters of Coron
- 6 El Nido Beautiful Boat Trips, the perfect end to the Philippines backpacking route
Fly into Manila to begin your backpacking route in the Philippines
No matter where you’re flying from, it’s likely you’ll need to fly internationally into Manila first, the gateway to the rest of the Filipino islands. We chose to just use the capital as a stopover – I’m personally not that into city exploring, and Philippines has so much more natural beauty to offer once you head out.
Where to stay in Manila
We found a great place to stay just near the airport, walking distance from T3 (with shuttle buses that run, albeit irregularly, between the terminals). After being on the road backpacking for 5 months by the time we reached Manila, I was desperate for a comfortable bed and a kitchen to cook my own food – One Palm Villas has all of that and more, even a pool! I can’t recommend it enough.
Learn to dive in Bohol for the ultimate backpacking Philippines experience
Next, get a cheap domestic flight from Manila to Tagbilaran, Bohol. Our main reason for heading straight to Bohol was the abundance of diving centres in Alona Beach. It’s a pretty cheap place to obtain your PADI open water diving licence. As one of the best diving spots in the Philippines, it really is an underwater heaven. From Tagbilaran Airport, it’s just a 10-15 minute taxi journey to Alona Beach.
Where to stay in Bohol
We based ourselves out of Alona Beach, at a great hostel called Moon Fools. It’s sociable and they serve free cocktails everyday at 6pm – what more can you want?!
Things to do in Bohol
Aside from diving, there are some excellent things to do around Bohol. Moon Fools Hostel will arrange day trips for you, and it’s possible to see pretty much everything in one-two days. Highlights include:
- The Chocolate Hills: Made from coral thousands of years ago, these amazing lumps of earth are quite the site. Tip: GO EARLY. The main viewing platform gets so busy from 9am onwards. Beyond the main viewing platform, there isn’t a whole lot to see, so I’d definitely recommend splashing out a little to do the quad biking here – we really regretted not doing it.
- Tarzier Sanctuary: BE CAREFUL there are two! One has the tarziers in cages, and one is a proper sanctuary. Make sure you are taken to the more ethical one! And don’t be disappointed by the fact these cuties are nocturnal so will be sleeping in the day. It was closed when we went so we weren’t able to see them, so check in advance!
- Firefly kayaking: it says it all!
Tip: All of the above are very easy to organise locally, just arrange it the day before you want to go.
Where to eat/drink in Bohol:
- Shaka: Think smoothie bowls, vegan nachos, and delicious veggie burgers. It’s right next to Moon Fools and it’s DELICIOUS.
- Giuseppe Pizzeria and Sicilian Restaurant – a 10 minute walk back from the beach along the main road and you find this amazing Italian. Albeit the most expensive pizzas I had in the Philippines, it was worth every penny and I’d really recommend it for a treat!
- Every night the beach bars attract a decent crowd for reggae music and a good boogie. Any one of them is a good time!
Canyoneering in Cebu to find your inner adventurous backpacker!
From Bohol, it’s easy to get a ferry from Tagbilaran Pier to Cebu city, taking approximately 2 hours. The main reason for visiting Cebu are the waterfalls and hiking opportunities – and trust me, they’re SO good. This means you need to head out of Cebu City and get yourselves down to Moalboal.
How to get to Moalboal
From wherever you are in Cebu City, probably the port, hop in a taxi and ask them to take you to South Bus Terminal. Here, go to counter 10 and ask for a bus to Moalboal. They run every thirty minutes, but AC buses are only every few hours. The journey takes 3-4 hours, and it’s not particularly pleasant. The bus costs 150 pesos (approximately US$3) per person, and then you need to get a tricycle from the bus stop to Moalboal itself. By the time you’ve done all that faffing around (!) I’d say it’s definitely worth paying a bit more and getting a taxi from Cebu to Moalboal! The lowest price we heard of people paying was 2200pesos (US$44) for the car, but we couldn’t get it any lower than 2500pesos (US$50).
Where to stay in Moalboal
West Coast Beach House was our favourite – reasonably priced, central location, and a nice free breakfast
Moalboal Backpacker Lodge – also very central and reasonable, but no AC in the dorm.
Things to do in Moalboal and around Cebu
Sardine run: Snorkel just 20m off the shore in Moalboal, and you’ll find schools of literally tens of thousands of sardines. A bit closer to shore and we found turtles too – it really is a pretty special snorkelling experience.
Kawasan Falls: Pearly white water falling into milky blue lagoons – it can’t get much better than that? Well it can, because there’s a whole range of falls here, and you can get a guide to go canyoneering for either a full or half day with you! Canyoneering here is not for the faint hearted (like me!) but does look like so much fun. We met loads of people that did it, and absolutely loved it. Meanwhile, I just enjoyed swimming and a few little jumps!
Osmena Peak: I’d say this is even better than Bohol’s Chocolate Hills, and has some great hikes around the area. Pro Philippines Backpacking Route tip: hire a driver to take you to the Peak, but check the weather in advance. We went for sunrise and we were just in a cloud and had to go back later in the day! And if you get motion sickness, take tablets as the road up there isn’t great.
Surfing in Siargao
This was by far my favourite island in the Philippines – it really does have it all. Siargao is teetering on the edge of becoming an incredibly popular tourist destination. With more regular flights into the island, there are more and more foreigners flocking to its palm lined beaches. BUT, it absolutely still holds its natural and authentic charm, and is quite unlike anywhere else I’ve visited in Asia. We got a direct flight from Cebu City to Siargao.
Where to stay in Siargao
The two main areas to stay in Siargao are Cloud 9 and General Luna. Only ten minutes apart by moped/tricycle, it doesn’t hugely matter which one you stay in. Cloud 9 is traditionally the surfer’s paradise, whilst General Luna has a more backpacker vibe. We stayed in General Luna and loved it, albeit our accommodation was very basic. That seems typical in SIargao, so it’s probably better to choose a sociable hostel in a good location over swanky amenities. We stayed at Salty Nomads, which definitely fits those two priorities, but is definitely on the more basic side.
Where to eat/drink/party in Siargao
The main street in General Luna has tons of food options. My personal favourites were:
- Café Honest – vegan, vegetarian and budget friendly asian health foods on a gorgeous upstairs terrace.
- La Carinderia – genuinely good Italian food, with fresh and homemade pastas.
- Kermit Surf Resort and Restaurant – round the corner from Salty Nomads Hostel and off the main street, this was my favourite place in General Luna. Think fresh smoothies, eggs benedict, burcher muesli and pancakes for breakfast, and a proper pizza oven at dinnertime. Pro tip: go early for dinner, or be prepared to wait 45 minutes to an hour for a table – it’s worth it!
If you’re into smoothie bowls, Shaka is the place to go in Cloud 9, right on the beach front. With several branches across the Philippines, you can’t beat Shaka for a healthy and delicious breakfast or afternoon snack!
With regards to nights out, Siargao does this really well. Every night there’s a different bar scheduled as the place to go. People tend to pre-drink in their hostels and then head out together. Nights end early though for the early morning surfers!
It would be impossible to write a Siargao guide without talking about surfing – what this beautiful island is most famous for. Siargao hosts some of the best waves in the Philippines, and attracts the pros. Cloud 9 is the main surfing area, and there’s plenty of board rental companies on the beach. The main break is out on the reef, and is therefore for experienced surfers only. Most companies will take you out to the reef on a boat.
As a relatively inexperienced surfer, I headed to Jacking Horse in Cloud 9, the smaller and safer swell. Pro tip: it gets incredibly busy here for surfing, so go early in the morning. Reef shoes are essential, and I’d recommend having a lesson unless you really know what you’re doing.
Scootering around Siargao
By far my favourite thing to do in Siargao was to hire mopeds and scooter round the island for the a few days. Check out my post here with a detailed itinerary of where to go! You’ll see viewpoints of endless palm trees, rope swings above palm lined rivers, crystal clear rock pools, beautiful beaches, waterfalls…. Everything.
Crystal Clear Waters of Coron
At the time of our trip to the Philippines in May 2019, there were no direct flights from Siargao to Busuanga, Coron. Instead, we had to connect via Clark Airport (just north of Manila). Don’t let this deter you, as getting over to Coron and later, El Nido, is an essential part of any Philippines backpacking route.
Where to stay in Coron:
- For the more budget minded travellers, Avisala Hostel is great. Only 5-10 minute walk from the main street, it’s a clean and very comfortable option.
- Hop Hostel is where it’s at. One of the best hostels I’ve ever been in, it’s got a rooftop bar, comfy beds, HOT SHOWERS (rare for the Philippines!) and even a mini cinema room. It’s more expensive, but worth the sociable atmosphere.
- For those looking for something more upmarket, check out Funny Lion or Sophia’s Garden Resort. We visited their swimming pools and they’re gorgeous.
Things to do in Coron:
Coron is the Filipino home of wreck diving and swimming in the perfect crystal clear blue waters of the multiple lagoons on the islands surrounding Coron. Coron Town itself is not so nice, and beyond a fairly pretty viewpoint behind the main drag, there isn’t much to write home about. BUT as soon as you get on one of the boat trips.. wow.
I’d recommend the Ultimate Tour Two – it hits all the main spots in one day and is the best value for money. There are literally hundreds of places to arrange the boat tours, all offering similar day trips for similar prices.
Pro tip: Don’t go to Coron expecting to have beautiful beaches right on your doorstep. You’ll need to go on a boat trip to get to the good bits, so budget accordingly. Most boat trips range from 900 pesos (US$18) to 1700 pesos (US$34) depending on the stops.
El Nido Beautiful Boat Trips, the perfect end to the Philippines backpacking route
From Coron, hop on the 4 hour ferry to El Nido, where boat trips get even more beautiful. I personally preferred El Nido to Coron – I felt it had a bit more to offer… and I’ll explain why.
Where to stay in El Nido:
El Nido is a small town on Palawan Island, which is actually huge. Lots of people have very differing opinions about what area to stay in, but for me there’s an obvious answer: Outpost Beach Hostel. Yes it’s not cheap, but it’s SO good. Very comfortable dormitories and a selection of private rooms, a beach front location, and such a sociable atmosphere. The staff here are incredible, and crucially, they run boat trips to the most amazing places with literally no one else there.
This is what sets Outpost in El Nido apart from Coron for me. In Coron, you go out on the boat trips and very often there are 50 other tourists in the location, wearing bright orange life vests and let’s be honest, totally ruining my zen. But the Outpost tours totally avoid this. What’s more, they provide free rum and coke, and clearly everyone has an amazing time. Not to mention, the snorkelling here is excellent, with some of the best corals we saw in the whole of our Philippines backpacking route.
Most of the people we met in Philippines said they were heading to Mad Monkey Hostel up at Nacpan Beach, a 45 minute tricycle ride north of El Nido. We hired scooters one day and drove up there to see what all the fuss was about. Okay, the beach is incredible and much better than the one at Outpost, but beyond that I really wouldn’t want to stay up there. It’s MILES away from literally anything, the food is expensive and pretty awful, and the facilities are basic. I’m sure it’s a fun night out, but honestly Outpost has a lot more to offer. For something more luxurious but still in a great and sociable location, check out Panorama, right next to Outpost.
At the end of your time in El Nido, you’ll need to get yourselves back to Manila to fly home. This involves a 5.5 hour van journey (600 pesos, US$12 per person) to Puerta Princesca, and then a domestic flight. Allow a full day of travelling.
And that’s it! A full guide to backpacking route in the Philippines. A few final Pro Tips:
Philippines Backpacking Route Tips:
- Book domestic flights as early as possible. They aren’t as cheap as elsewhere in Asia, and it’s worth securing better prices early. Try to book them all on one ticket with Philippine Airlines (much more reliable) and tends to make things a lot cheaper. Use their multi-city service here.
- Book ferries at least 5 days in advance. We met lots of travellers who ended up stuck on certain islands for longer than they intended because the ferries were fully booked. We booked all of ours through 12goasia.com
- If you like health foods (smoothie bowls etc) there’s an awesome chain of restaurants called Shaka that have branches in Bohol (the best one!), Moalboal, SIargao and El Nido. We loved them!