7 Places That Made My Trip Across the Globe to the Philippines Worth It

Fitness Adventurer Jonaliza D. Ceklic decided to go back to her native land, the Philippines, which she hasn’t been back to since she moved to the United States almost 30 years ago. She had low expectations–and it became a trip that she will always remember. Here’s why.

The Philippines was never on top of my list of countries to visit just because I was born and spent the first ten years of my life there, didn’t have many good memories of my childhood, and frankly, there were other places I preferred to see first. But when my parents suggested that I go back with my mom and sister to see family we haven’t seen in almost three decades, I agreed to go, albeit begrudgingly.

We flew from the T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, RI, and after spending what felt like an eternity (about 2.5 day) transferring from airport to airport, we arrived at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Metro Manila late morning and was immediately greeted by crowds and traffic. The national capital region of the Philippines, Manila is the fourth-most-populous national capital in the world. Most of the economic opportunities are in Manila, so Filipinos flock there to find a better life for their families, which made crowds unavoidable. It took 3 hours to get through 8-miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic from the airport to the starting point of our month-long adventure.. and some mindful breathing to remain relaxed.

 

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We spent the first couple of days visiting family and exploring the shanty side of Mandaluyong, the neighborhood where I grew up. Now called Mandaluyong “City” because of its growth in population, it brought back a lot of lost memories, although I remember the streets being cleaner and wider, the buildings being more intact, and the residents living more comfortably. But my relatives who have been there all their lives reassured me that it has never changed. I guess I didn’t see it as a slum back then.

But there was one thing I was certain of; the modern high rise buildings on the other side of the canal from where we stood were not there three decades ago. The gentrification brought prosperity to the now-city, but made the displacement of many of its residents worse. It was humbling to see because, had we not been presented the opportunity to come to the US, we would be in the same position as many of the families who lived there now. I felt really lucky.

This realization gave me a different outlook of my motherland for the rest of the trip. I decided to overlook the negative and began to see the beauty of my country. For the next couple of weeks, we explored towns and islands outside of Manila, places that I never got the chance to visit as a child, places that made my trip across the globe to the Philippines totally worth it. Here are 7:

People’s Park In The Sky, Tagaytay City

 

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It was previously called “Palace In The Sky” because it was built from an unfinished mansion that was supposed to host US President Ronald Reagan’s visit sometime in the 80s, but he ended up canceling so they stopped construction. Now called People’s Park In The Sky, it was turned into a historical urban park which has become known for its 360 degree picturesque views of Taal Lake.

Be forewarned, only less than 2-hour drive from Manila (pending traffic), People’s Park In The Sky is a tourist spot and can get really crowded from urbanites trying to get away from the city. We went on a weekday morning so we had some time to ourselves, enjoying a Filipino-style picnic in the outdoor seating area. They sold food there, but we bought our own because that’s just how Filipino’s do it. Masarap!

There is a volcano in Taal Lake so if you have time and want to further discover Tagaytay City, you can take a tour of the volcano by boat (“banka”). Unfortunately, we had to go back to Manila to see more family so we didn’t get a chance to, but we did stop by Mahogany Market to pick up fresh tropical fruits on our way home. You’ll have to let me know about the tour if you get to go!

Fort Santiago Fortress, Old Manila

 

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You can’t go to the Philippines without exploring Old Manila, especially if it’s your first time. Through the various walking or horse-drawn carriage tours offered, you can learn the history of the Philippines while seeing some of the original buildings (like the Fort Santiago Fortress) that were built by other countries that invaded the island a long time ago. You will also get an answer as to why the Filipino culture is a mishmosh of everyone else’s traditions, which is particularly heavy on the Spanish, American, Japanese, Arabic, and Indonesian influence.

After the tour, be sure to grab lunch at Barbara’s Heritage Restaurant if you want authentic Filipino cuisine, buffet style! And if you’re lucky, you’ll be serenaded (“harana”) by a local band who will sing you traditional Filipino songs.

El Nido, Palawan Island

 

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The Philippines is best known for its beaches rich in biodiversity. It is made up of over 7,500 islands, but only about one-third of it is inhabited which makes for a great place for adventures on a boat. But just like with anywhere else in the world, be sure to leave it better than you found it! There is nothing that makes a beautiful scenery so ugly than people’s trash. Unfortunately, it’s one of the first things you’ll notice when you are in the Philippines.

Anyways.. if your time only allows for one island visit, make sure it’s El Nido, Palawan. Ever see those photos and videos of the Philippines featured in travel magazines and shows that make you think of heaven on earth? It is most likely shot in El Nido. Known for its white-sand beaches, colorful coral reefs, and as the gateway to the Bacuit archipelago, a group of islands with steep karst cliffs, El Nido is truly a mermaid’s paradise.

There, you can do an all-day boat tour (which includes lunch and gear) where they take you to various secluded islands to do various activities like snorkeling, paddling, kayaking, exploring caves, and hanging out on the beach. We loved it so much, we did it twice in a row. It was the highlight of our trip!

Patar Beach, Bolinao

 

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After spending a couple days in El Nido, we flew back to Manila and took a 5.5 hour bus ride up to Bolinao, Pangasinan where my mom grew up. We caught up with more family members, visited land that my relatives owned, had delicious homemade grub of mostly seafood and local vegetables, and explored the town by car, driving our way through miles of dirt roads that led us to Patar Beach.

Situated on the western coast along the South China Sea, Patar Beach is a public beach and popular weekend getaway for many Manila urbanites. We were smart to come on a weekday during low season so we had the beach to ourselves. We were still exhausted from our time in El Nido so it was nice to just hang out with family. There are little huts made of palm trees which made for a nice shaded setup for a picnic on the beach.

Hundred Islands National Park, Bolinao

 

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Once we regained our energy, we signed up for another island hopping tour, this time in Hundred Islands National Park, the first national park of Pangasinan made up of 123-124 islands (depending on the tide) scattered all over the Lingayen Gulf. Similar to our tours in El Nido although not for the whole day, we had our own private boat that took us to various islands where we explored and took up various water activities.

But unlike El Nido, three of the bigger islands–Governor, Quezon and Children’s Islands–have been built like amusement parks which made it more family-friendly. You can rent jet ski, go on water slides, and zip line here. If that’s your thing, then this place is for you.

And while I did go zip-lining (I couldn’t resist it), our family opted for islands that we had to ourselves. That’s the good thing about this tour, you have access to your own private boat that came with its own private operator/tour guide so you can come and go as you please wherever you want to go. For the next couple of hours, we ended up going to islands with no names.

Loboc River, Bohol

 

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My sister and I decided it was time for us to go on our own and flew to Bohol for a few days. While most of the places we’ve visited so far have been located in the Luzon part of the Philippines, Bohol is in Visayas. Did I already mention that the Philippines is made up of three main geographical divisions–Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao? Well, Bohol is in the central part.

As soon as we landed at the airport, we were offered a tour of all of Bohol’s tourist spots. We were hesitant at first because the rate was too good to be true–it was $60 USD for 2 people for the whole day–but we were only there for a few days and wanted to see as much as we could so we took the chance–and glad we did! The tour included seeing the Chocolate Hills, the Tarsier Sanctuary, Bilar Man-Made Forest, Baclayon Church, the Blood Compact Shrine, and the scenic views of nature, the rice terraces and the simple farming life.

The best par about the tour? The 2-hour Loboc River Lunch Cruise, which is a floating restaurant that went up and down Loboc River and served an all-you-can eat buffet-style lunch of authentic Filipino cuisine and live Filipino music and entertainment. And it was only about $9 USD per person!

Panglao Island, Bohol

 

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Bohol is surrounded by 75 minor islands, so naturally, we had to go on another full-day island hopping tour. This tour began at Alona Beach with dolphin sightseeing at break of dawn (although we didn’t particularly like this part because, while we love seeing dolphins in its natural habitat, having dozens of boats chase after them seemed to put a lot of these peaceful creatures in distress), followed by exploring, snorkeling with sea turtles, lunch, and photoshoots😜 in Virgin Island, Balicasag Island, and other islands surrounding Panglao.

The tour ended around 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon, so we returned to our hotel for a quick nap before coming back to Alona Beach for dinner and a taste of its nightlife. For a small and quiet beach town, Alona Beach very is lively at night. We watched firedancers perform on the beach which turned into one big beach dance party with newfound friends, a great end to our month-long adventure in the Philippines.

Despite my hesitation in the beginning, I am glad I came back. And I know that there is so much more to see–we couldn’t fit it all it in one month! I am certain there will be Part Two to this trip, I just hope it won’t be another thirty years from now. What do you think I should see the next time I’m there?

Photo: Joan Misa

Author: Jonaliza D. Ceklic, Fitness Adventurer

Jonaliza is an adventure storyteller who enjoys exploring the great outdoors and sharing stories about these experiences to inspire, give hope and remind people about the magic. When not at play, she works as Community Affairs Manager for NY-based solar developer, Eden Renewables. Her favorite activities include standup paddling, trail running and hiking, hot yoga, playing the djembe drum, and cozying up to a good book, astrophysics being her subject matter of choice.

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