I was hesitant to visit the Philippines when I was traveling alone because I’d heard it could be “dangerous”. When I finally did make it there I fell in love with the place. I never felt threatened once, not even in Manila or Cebu, the two larger cities where much of the warnings are directed. I was, however, advised by locals to avoid any area south of roughly the 10th parallel north. For barings, that about the latitude of Puerta Princessa in Palawan. I can only speak of my personal travels, but what I will say is that the country is vastly varied in landscape culture and offerings. there is much to discover, explore, and for me it was a perfect place to relax and enjoy it all. There are some common threads beyond it’s natural beauty and friendly people that aren’t all together positive, but easily overlooked when experiencing all the joys found in this remote archipelago. Below I outline the basics, like how to get there and around, visas, and generally what to expect.
First the basics:
Visas – It’s visa on arrival in the Philippines. Very easy, except as a condition of the Visa you must have a departure ticket booked, and it must depart before the visa runs out. Tourist Visas are 30 days. I’ve never been asked to show proof of departure at Philippines Immigration, HOWEVER, on several occasions the airline with which I had booked my travel to the Philippines would not give me my boarding pass until I had proof of a departure from the Philippines. It was a problem for me as I prefer to book one way tickets, last minute. Problem solved by booking a refundable ticket departing the Philippines and canceling it when visa is in hand.
Getting there – Most major airlines fly to Manila, and many to Cebu. And most stop in one of those 2 cities before continuing onward. You will most likely need to spend one night in either of those 2 cities, and I have some hotel recommendations for you! I recommend splurging a little here to ensure a safe and comfortable stay.
- Best Western
- Little place near the art store
- cheap asian place
- Marriot near Airport
- one other cheaper one
Transport from the airport – I know several people who were taken for a ride -pun intended -in both cebu and manila. Best to have the airport shuttle pick you up. Rumor has it, taxi’s in those 2 cities can be unsafe. Some Filipina women text the taxi license plate to a friend before getting in, and text again when they have arrived safely. I never had a problem, but I was not in any way relaxed in either city at night until i reached my destination.
Renting a car – Stay on the main roads and you will be fine. Ask for a car with GPS. I recommend budget, cheap but dependable. Good costumer service.
Mobile Divices– Get a local sim for your phone, but not at the airport. Better to wait until you find a legitimate mobile provider and buy at their retail location. One of my friends was scammed at the airport by a very legitimate looking kiosk.
Normally in my posts I list the cons as “things to avoid” but unfortunately the primary negatives I experienced in the Philippines are impossible to avoid. Namely the food and disorganized transportation. I’ll start with the food. With a few exceptions, it sucks. the Filipinos – lovely people – put sugar in absolutely everything they cook. You’ll get used to it if you travel there long enough, but just be aware, especially if you have a sensitivity to sugar such as diabetes. My best recommendation is, to whenever possible, eat grilled fish/seafood. It’s generally extremely fresh and pretty tasty. Fresh fruit without added sugar can also be found and enjoyed as it is also fresh and delicious. The rest of the Filipino cuisine is an odd combination of Asian, Spanish, and American junk food influences. you can probably find just about anything, including Dunkin’ Donuts, Italian pasta dishes, some french, even Korean in the larger tourist destinations, but beyond that you’ll eat a lot of noodle and rice dishes, chicken, and fish and pizza. Generally I wasn’t worried about kitchen cleanliness, however I did contract a nasty case of food poisoning in Palawan. That can happen anywhere though.
Next frustration: transportation. It’s both a blessing and a curse,
but it can be very difficult to get around the country. I took many buses, flights, ferries, and vans while I was there, and what I can tell you is they haven’t quite managed the organization and reliability you find in places like Thailand. In a way this is nice for people like me because it discourages huge flock of tourists descending on any given location, but if you are have time constraints it’s important to do a lot of research before you arrive. It seemed to me to take a minimum to 2 days to get anywhere – whether it was 60 miles away, or 600. In Thailand, for example you can usually get to a major airport and hop on a flight to a more remote destination, or a bus for that matter, that same day. The schedules link so that if you land before evening you can begin the next leg of travel soon after arriving. In the Philippines, that rarely happens, in my experience, anyway. For example I tried several time to get to Manila airport and fly out that same day to Palawan. No luck, I’m sure it’s possible, but takes precise and advanced planning. Neither are my strong-suite, that being said I never ran into such problems anywhere else I traveled in SE Asia.
I found the bus system to be great, but not very efficient. It’s easy enough to find your bus and get on the road to your next destination, but you will likely arrive late and need to spend a night in a small town waiting for your next connection whether it be another bus, ferry or flight. If you have the luxury of time, this can be fun, if not, it’s endlessly frustrating.
Every ferry ride I took was a little was disconcerting in some way or another. I believe the country is working on this, but there is work left to be done. I am sensitive to boat safety after my experience in St. Lucia, but who wouldn’t be alarmed watching a truck full of petrol being haphazardly loaded onto a passenger ferry in high sees, at night. I boarded against my better judgement, and as always located the life safety equipment immediately and sat near it. Still, I have not heard about any recent passenger boat/ferry tragedies in the recent past. And I think it’s difficult to avoid travel by boat in a country of 7,000 islands.
As with most tourist destinations in SE Asia, and really, the world, you’ll find people aggressively waiting to take your money for services. If you need those services, such as taxi for example, be patient and put on your negotiation hat. You will have to where it frequently. On the upside you’ll get good at it. And again my experience with this phenomenon was much gentler in the Philippines than say…Thailand.
Ok, enough with the very minor frustrations you will likely encounter. Here is what you can look forward to…..