Much of the Philippines remains undiscovered by the mainstream tourism markets. Their loss: the country’s 7,000-odd islands offers a rich variety of experiences waiting to reward the intrepid explorer. Here is a short list of “off the beaten track” destinations in the Philippines, ready to be discovered.
Siquijor: Butterflies and Magic
Originally called Isla de Fuego (Island of Fire) by Spanish colonizers due to the presence of fireflies on the island, Siquijor Island off the coast of Dumaguete City is an island feared by outsiders due to its residents’ long held belief in mambabarang (witches and sorcerers), mananambal (healers), and trade in agimat and anting-anting (amulets supposed to give the owner special powers). At around Easter Sunday, on the so called Witches Festival, potions and spells are prepared and amulets recharged of their power by local shamans.
The natural parts of Siquijor are still "undiscovered" by the crowds: the small island has lots of white sand beaches, dive spots, waterfalls, caves, and mountain trails.
Make time to visit the butterfly farm in the town of Bandilaan – throughout the rest of the island, many species of butterflies roam the island, testament to Siquijor’s fresh air and healthy ecology.
How to get there: You may book a flight from Manila to Dumaguete City; Siquijor is a short ferry ride from Dumaguete City.
Camiguin Island: Let Sleeping Volcanoes Lie
Camiguin is a small island with more volcanoes than towns. The island’s largest volcano, Mount Hibok-hibok, rises from Camiguin’s center: trekkers often hike its verdant slopes, with the biggest event being the Holy Week tradition called Panaad where Catholic faithful walk the Stations of the Cross up the mountain.
Camiguin’s Sunken cemetery is a grim reminder of the volcanoes at their worst – an old public cemetery was overcome by the sea when one of the volcanoes erupted. Today, the cemetery can be found by the large cross rising from the waves – the area offers a unique snorkeling experience.
The rest of Camiguin is fun to explore: hot and cold springs, majestic waterfalls, white sand beaches and sandbars, and a laid-back vibe far away from the hustle and hurry world of the big city. It is actually my favorite island destination, so please keep this hush-hush!
How to get there: Camiguin can be reached via Cagayan de Oro City where flights from Manila are available. Take a bus ride or taxi to Balingoan pier in Misamis Oriental, where you can board a ferry to Camiguin.
Zamboanga: Old Spanish Outpost
Zamboanga City is located at the tip of Zamboanga Peninsula, Mindanao island. The locals speak a unique Spanish creole called chavacano, the first indication visitors get of Zamboanga’s unique fusion of east and west.
Zamboanga was one of the few footholds that the Spanish colonizers had in the island of Mindanao – one of the few remnants of this period is an old Spanish fort that used to guard the city against marauders. Now called Fort Pilar, the building houses a museum and a Catholic shrine.
Fifteen minutes away by boat, the islands of Sta. Cruz await beachcombers with its rare pink sands.
The local Yakan tribe has a museum in the city showcasing their ancient weaving methods and products. Along the shores on Rio Hondo, you’ll find stilt hosues built above the sea by local fisherfolk.
Locals will invite you to try the curacha, an endemic species of sea crab, or sample the satti, skewers on sticks.
How to get there: Direct flights from Manila to Zamboanga City are available daily. Buses from Davao City or Cagayan de Oro City are also available, but be prepared for the long travel time.
Barangay Pundaquit: Many Attractions
Zambales is home to Subic Bay, a former US naval base – but it also has secret places known only to intrepid explorers and mountaineers.
One such place is San Antonio town's village of Pundaquit. The village offers an inordinate amount of attractions: white sand beaches, various islands, one of which is home to the Faro de Punta Capones (Capones Island Lighthouse), an old Spanish lighthouse; and a secluded beach at Anawangin Cove, a remote white sand beach lined with agoho (Queensland swamp oak), evergreen trees that resemble pine trees.
Anawangin Cove is a favorite of some mountaineering groups for camping and trekking, while the romantic Capones lighthouse offers a unique trekking experience with a view of other adjacent islands.
How to get there: about 4 hours by bus from Manila, drop off in San Antonio town proper then hire a tricycle to take you to barangay (village) Pundaquit. In Pundaquit beach, hire boats to take you to to Capones Island and/or Anawangin Cove.