Welcome to the Philippines, a surprising country of South East Asia made of three main island groups: Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao. Once you land in Manilla or Cebu, it’s impossible not to find fun things to do in the Philippines during your holidays. From the stunning Chocolate Hills of Bohol to pristine beaches to relax on in Malapascua, the hardest is to choose what to do! Considered one of the cheapest diving destinations in the world, the pearl of the Orient seas is one of the favourite places to go for ocean lovers who are into scuba diving. At world-class dives sites such as Tubbataha Reefs, Monad Shoal, or Coron, you will be able to see whale sharks, thresher sharks, turtles or experience wreck diving.
There are so many other things to do besides diving in the Philippines. What about travelling in the backcountry aboard the colourful jeepney buses or even attend a karaoke party? Here are 11 of my favourites activities to do in the Philippines as a scuba diver for you to find some inspiration. Note all these activities include places below 600 m of altitude so you can mix scuba diving and sightseeing during your stay in the Philippines in total safety.
- Swim with turtles in Balicasag
- Meet the thresher sharks in the depths of Malapascua
- Try muck diving in Dauin
- Experience the mini sardine run of Moalboal
- Ride a motorbike around the Chocolate Hills natural park in Bohol
- Explore Batad rice terraces in Banaue, Northern Luzon
- Approach the tarsier, the smallest primate in the world
- Board a traditional Bangka boat to sail to remote islands
- Taste Halo-Halo, the crazy sweet national dessert of the Philippines
- Travel across the country using the jeepney buses
- Mingle with Filipinos at a Karaoke party
1 – Swim with turtles in Balicasag
The Philippines must be one of the best places in the world to swim with turtles. There are so many of them all around the country! But of all the places I visited in the Visayas Islands, the community-based marine protected area of Balicasag must be number 1.
I first went diving in Panglao on the south shore of the island of Bohol attracted by all the macro critters I would see underwater: porcelain crabs and ornate ghost pipefish, or pygmy seahorses. Although Alona Reef is a beautiful dive site, the dive centres of Panglao go every day to the nearby islet of Balicasag.
It was the first time for me to see so many turtles while scuba diving. On each dive, I saw at least 5 turtles with even sometimes 3 at the same time on the same spot. With drop-offs, coral reefs and sandy bottoms offering many different environments, there are many more marine species to see, including the funny looking frogfish.
2 -Meet the thresher sharks in the depths of Malapascua
If you are a scuba diver, you just can’t go island-hopping in the Visayas without diving in Malapascua to get a chance at meeting the famous thresher shark! The thresher sharks are so elegant when swimming with their long gracious tail. Not only it is an excellent propulsion device, but they use it to knock out fish before eating it.
The dive site where you need to go is called Monad Shoal, and this is a cleaning station thresher sharks visit every day at dawn. Hence, you’ll need to wake up before the sun rises, at 4 am, to go scuba diving there.
Most of the day, the thresher sharks swim and hunt in much deeper water, so this is a unique opportunity to see them at recreational diving depths. The underwater plateau of Monad Shoal is at 12m deep and then drops to 30m deep where there is an observation spot. There, you need to stay behind a rope installed to refrain divers from bothering the sharks. You will need to be a certified Advanced Open Water to be allowed to scuba dive at Monad Shoal near Malapascua.
3 – Try muck diving in Dauin
Muck designates mud with a rich substrate. To be exact, substrate from the volcanic sediments and dead coral form a unique ecosystem where macro critters and juvenile sea animals thrive. Thanks to the marine sanctuaries along Dauin coast, south of Dumaguete on Negros Island, where fishing is forbidden, sandy volcanic slopes have become the nursery of local underwater fauna.
While diving in Dauin, my favourite spot for muck diving was the Masaplod sanctuary, 1 km south of the village of Dauin. This is where I spotted the largest number of species: 3 baby frogfish including a hairy frogfish, 2 baby mantis shrimps, a juvenile cuttlefish, a seahorse, ghost pipefish in number, a candy crab and all sorts of nudibranchs and shrimps. If you are lucky, you may also spot bobtail squids, flamboyant cuttlefish, blue ring octopus, pigmy seahorse, mandarin fish and mimic octopus.
4 – Experience the mini sardine run of Moalboal
Moalboal is famous among scuba divers for Pescador Island and its big shoals of sardines. Some divers decided to nickname it “the sardine run” like in South Africa, but it is not really the same scale. At the time of my visit, sardines were all along Panagsama shores, jumping everywhere around the boat at our departure and arrival.
Even if you don’t witness the sardine run while scuba diving at Pescador Island, it is still one of the best places to dive in the Philippines. The cavern called “Cathedral” is one of its famous dive sites, but I found the soft corals on the outer walls more impressive than the cavern itself. Pescador Island is also an excellent spot to see turtles underwater.
5 – Ride a motorbike around the Chocolate Hills natural park in Bohol
During the week I spent exploring the island of Bohol, I shared my time between Panglao and Sagbayan in the heart of the Chocolate Hills National Park. I went from the touristy Alona beach to the middle of Bohol countryside, between rice paddies and lush jungle.
The Chocolate Hills is one of the most famous spots for Filipinos around the country and a unique geological formation. Their name comes from the brown colour vegetation takes between March and May at the end of the dry season. The view at the observatory is worth the detour with the perspective of the 1268 almost identical hills formed millions of years ago by marine sediment when the area was underwater. However, I found getting lost in the hills, on a motorbike, among the rice paddies, way more exciting. The highest point is only at 120 m, so you can safely go there after scuba diving.
6 – Explore the impressive rice terraces of Batad in Banaue, Northern Luzon
Luzon is the largest island of the Philippines and home to its capital city Manilla, but also some of its most iconic landscape, the rice terraces of Batad. Located more than 400 km north of Manilla, it takes more than 8 hours to reach Banaue, so the best is to get there on a night bus. This way, you will both save time and money on accommodation.
Make the most of your trip by spending at least a night in the village of Batad to take the time to immerse yourself in these impressive hills sculpted by man century after century. There are now several guesthouses where you can stay in the village. By staying overnight, you will also be able to enjoy the place for yourself early in the morning to catch the best light without the crowds.
7 – Approach the tarsier, the smallest primate in the world
The tarsier is the smallest primate in the world, but a primate isn’t necessarily a monkey. The nocturnal animal might be the cutest thing you could see in a tropical jungle. But be careful, as it sleeps almost all day, you need to be careful, remain silent and refrain from using flash on your camera when approaching.
The best place to go is the island of Bohol in the Visayas Archipelago around Cebu. In the Chocolate Hills National Parks, you can go to refuge protecting and caring for tarsiers in the wild. The area is also gorgeous and provides lots of beautiful places to explore on a motorbike road trip. Thanks to spots such as Panglao, Balicasag, Cabilao and Anda, the island of Bohol is also one of the best islands to explore for scuba divers.
8 – Board a traditional Bangka boat to sail to remote islands
When visiting the Philippines, chances are high that you will board at least once one of the traditional boats the Filipinos fishermen use: the Bangka. This is around Malapascua Island that I travelled the most often on them. First to transfer from Cebu Island to Malapascua Island, which is the only way to join the scuba divers’ paradise, but also on several fabulous day trips around the island.
Kalanggaman Island is the ultimate paradise island with its strip of pure white sand separating the sea from the sky. It is also an excellent scuba diving spot with its breath-taking wall and its thousands of fish.
Exploring Carnaza Island will offer a more authentic experience as the island is inhabited. It has many natural wonders such as pristine creeks and colourful caves, but it is also a historical place as it used to be an American air force base during the Pacific Battle of WWII.
9 – Taste Halo-Halo, the crazy sweet national dessert of the Philippines
Food isn’t necessarily the highlight of a trip to the Philippines. However, regarding sweet treats, Filipinos can get crazy about anything containing Ube, a purple yam, that can be found in cakes and ice creams. Halo-Halo is made around this delicious ice-cream and means “mix-mix”. Filipinos usually add shaved iced, sweet beans, jello and so on, for a sweet and a bit crazy iced parfait. Ask people, where is their favourite ice-cream parlour to have halo-halo, because you need to at least try once!
10 – Travel across the country using the jeepney buses
No trip to the Philippines would be complete without travelling at least once in a colourful jeepney which serves as a short-distance bus. This is also the most budget-friendly way to travel across the Philippines. If you have luggage, no problem, they’ll just go on the roof of the jeepney. You can stop them anywhere you see them, and in cities, you may need to wait for the jeepney to be full before leaving. It’s all part of the experience!
I mostly used them in Bohol, between Tagbilaran and Panglao, and in Negros, between Dumaguete and Dauin. Note in the latter island, people name them “easy rides”.
11 – Mingle with Filipinos at a Karaoke party
The best memory I keep from the Philippines is how crazy people are about singing (in a good way, most Filipinos are outstanding singers!). Wherever you go in the Philippines, even the tiniest village will surely have a small bar with a karaoke system (understand an old television, a VCR and a microphone), usually called “videoke”.
As I had the opportunity to spend Christmas in the Philippines, on Christmas day, all the neighbours of the village I was staying at, decided to join forces and organise a Xmas karaoke party by each of them bringing a part of the system and the leftovers from the Christmas Eve party. Best memory ever!
Are you looking for more inspiration for fun things to do in other budget travel destinations? If so, have a look at these additional pages:
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