A sunset on Boracay Beach

“Travel Diaries: Play, Learn, Serve and Rest Well” is a series about the idea of traveling well in a society that minimizes adventure and exploration to mere Instagram likes. 

The Philippines don’t make it onto enough travel itineraries, especially among North Americans. Anyone up for a little island hopping is in for an absolute treat. The Philippines has some of the best beaches out there, and a growing-but-not-saturated tourism industry means they aren’t usually too crowded or prohibitively expensive.

With more than 7,000 islands, this country has something for any traveler. Surfing? Hop a plane to Siargao. Swimming with whale sharks? Make your way to Donsol. Hiking world heritage site rice paddies? Add Banaue to your itinerary. Tattoos from Whang-od, a 102-year-old traditional tattoo artist? Bookmark Tinglayan.

Here’s how to play, learn, serve and rest well in the Philippines:

Play 

The island of Palawan is home to beach hopping hotspots El Nido and Coron. Either town is worth your while. The main attraction on El Nido is a series of day-long tours to different beaches around the island. Your tour guides (who cook lunch and bring snacks!) take you to different beaches tucked under towering limestone cliffs. The water is clear, aqua and perfect for swimming, snorkeling and general exploring.

If beaches aren’t your first love, then the island of Bohol is famous for its wildlife. You can take tours to swim with dolphins, visit fragile, endangered tarsiers and meet all kinds of new butterflies in different preserves. Take some time to visit or spend the night at the local bee farm. Definitely book a night kayaking tour to watch fireflies congregate in their favorite trees. 

A person rowing on a small boatLearn 

If you’re visiting from outside the Philippines, odds are good that you’ll fly into Manila. It deserves at least a day or two on your itinerary. Metro Manila may seem intimidatingly large, but it hosts some of the country’s best museums and restaurants. 

The Ayala Museum is a great primer on the country. One floor is full of dioramas highlighting important events in Filipino history from long before Westerners showed up on the scene to the peaceful revolution that deposed of Marcos, the last dictator. There are also exhibits on clothing and jewelry and gorgeous galleries full of Filipino art. 

Visitors from the United States might also be interested in visiting The Manila American Cemetery or Corregidor. The cemetery is a sunny mirror of the famous American Cemetery in Normandy, but this one has gorgeous mosaics to walk visitors through the events of World War II. Corregidor is a now-uninhabited island in Manila Bay that was the center of American operations during WWII. You can take tours to learn about the American and Filipino troops who fought during WWII, but be sure you take plenty of water. 

Serve 

Hands On Manila has a monthly calendar full of volunteer opportunities across Metro Manila. You can help out with everything from painting classrooms to teaching yoga, all coordinated through their website. If you’d rather spend your time outside, the Haribon Foundation, named for the country’s native eagles, takes volunteers out to replenish native plants and clean up beaches on a regular basis.

Rest

Once known as the party island, Boracay has some of the most beautiful beaches and most ubiquitous night life in the country. There was a time in the island’s history when the beaches were filled with trash and businesses weren’t following local regulations. Officials decided to close the island to tourists in 2018.

The inside of a hostel

Today, the legendary beaches are restored. The new Boracay is the place to go for long, lazy days on a beach followed by world class food. Make sure you spend at least one evening taking a boat out as the sun is setting. It’s almost overwhelming.

Have you ever traveled to the Philippines? What is a good way to spend time intentionally in this beautiful country?

Images via Shelbi Polk

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