The country offers warm tropical waters, coral gardens with beautiful marine life and dramatic drop-offs on the sea bed.
The Philippine Islands are a cluster of 7,107 islands, lying north of the Malay Peninsula in South East Asia. Most of the population of the Philippines lives on just 11 islands. From north to south, the archipelago extends over nearly 1850 kilometers. Philippines is of volcanic origin, it has more than 20 active volcanoes, and regularly experiences earthquakes. The country offers warm tropical waters, coral gardens with beautiful marine life and dramatic drop-offs on the sea bed.
The islands were occupied by the Japanese between 1942 and 1945, during WWII, only achieving independence in 1946. The country has suffered from frequent natural disasters, and has pockets of violent rebellion. Poverty and the country’s debt burden are also very high, explaining the high number of Filipinos residing abroad.
Infrastructure projects involving airports, expressways, inter-island transport and even the currently almost non-existent railway system are part of a 10-point development agenda until 2010. Travel and tourism will surely benefit, as airports nationwide are being constructed or renovated to accommodate larger planes and more visitors.
Cheap and cheerful
With a reputation for being chaotic and corrupt, the Philippines has something of an image problem. But most who make the journey pleasantly surprised by their beauty and by the friendliness of the people.
Most of the Philippines is laidback, stable and relatively safe. The locals are an exceptionally helpful bunch and there are fantastic reefs and fish. On top of this, transport is cheap, the food is good, accommodation is plentiful and English is widely spoken.
Mobile phones are used throughout the archipelago. Foreigners can buy "pre-paid" SIM cards for their cell phones for temporary use in the country to avoid costly roaming charges. Also, foreign currency can easily be converted into Philippine Peso and all major credit cards are accepted in major establishments.
A festival of recent vintage, the Masskara Festivals, held on Negros Island, takes place in October every year. This festival was originally conceived of during the economic depression era of the 1980s as a means to boost the morale of the locals – the tradition continues with masked dances and festivities.
November sees the Feasts of San Clemente, which is a thanksgiving this patron saint of the fishermen.
Thousands of displaced residents in the southern Philippines region have returned home following heavy fighting between the army and Muslim rebels. The trouble spot was North Cotabato – up to 160,000 villagers were forced to leave their homes in early August. Peacekeeping forces are still present – travellers should avoid this region.
Travellers to the Philippines are advised to avoid most of Mindanao, an island group in the southern Philippines. Three people were killed in July when a grenade was thrown into a shop on one of the islands, and later that month, a bomb blast on a bus injured 27 people.
Boracay boasts of sparkling white beaches, and is becoming a very popular resort destination. However, its pristine beaches belie the murky waters that wash the shores. In fact water contamination was a major concern for a period of time. However, there has been a concerted effort at cleaning up and the spectacular coral reefs teeming with tropical fishes are once again safe for tourists. This is one of the best spots for sailing, wind surfing and snorkeling.
Cebu island has historic significance – the Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan planted the first Spanish flag in Cebu and set in motion a course of events that was to change the Philippines forever. Various landmarks in Cebu City stand, as reminder of Philippines’ tryst with Spain – there is the historical Fort San Pedro and the Santo Nino Church from the 16th century, and Magellan’s cross – which was erected by his crew in the year 1521. Various tourist destinations are in the vicinity of Cebu, including the Chocolate Hills on Bohol Island. This curious name comes from the fact that these perfectly rounded hills look like large chocolate drops during the height of the dry season. Pangalo Island nearby has good resorts and beaches, while Bantayan Island; with its untouched beaches is a better choice for the solitude seeker. Sumilon Island, also in the vicinity, has good diving sites.
Manila today is a modern day metropolis with pockets of its colonial past still evident. Although the Spanish heart of Manila – the Intramuros (translated as ‘Within the Walls’) was badly bombed during World War II, evidence of the 16th century Fort and its St. Augustine Church still remain. Museums abound – the Arts and Science Museum at the University of Santo Tomas and The American Military Cemetery and Memorial are outstanding. Apart from this, there are colorful, vibrant markets, parks, bars and restaurants.
The Mindoro Islands are noted for their white beaches and crystal clear water and multi-hued coral reefs. A popular diving spot is near Puerto Galera on the northern coast. Mindoro also has extensive sugar cane plantations, forests and mountains.
For the best diving spots in the Philippines, one should head for El Nido on Palawan Island. Apart from good diving sites, a visit to the St. Paul Subterranean National Park is an amazing experience with its underground river, which is actually a long meandering network of caves.