Much of the buzz around the visiting the Philippines focuses on the beautiful beach islands in the south, but the north of the country offers a wealth of experiences that take you to the heart of Luzon culture. Our Destination Specialists have picked out a few of their favourite ways to get off the beaten track in the northern Philippines…
A quick image search of the northern Philippines will yield a torrent of Nat-Geo-worthy shots of the impossibly green undulations of the Cordillera rice terraces. These ancient agricultural phenomena at Banaue, Batad and Sagada (now UNESCO Heritage sites) have been farmed since ancient times, and give you an authentic glimpse into rural life in the Philippine highlands. Trekking along the terraces with your guide, and looking out across the valley below, there is a sense of timelessness; a poignant reminder of how these communities have worked in harmony with the landscape for hundreds of years.
Sagada’s hanging coffins
Suspended from the cliff face in Echo Valley, Sagada, the hanging coffins (a visual presentation of the burial rituals of the Igorot people) have become an iconic image of this remote region. Following the belief that the spirits of the dead must be placed close to heaven, the bodies of certain Igorot elders are placed in specially-made wooden coffins, then carefully suspended against the cliff-face by members of their family. Visiting the cliffs, where burials are still carried out to this day, gives you a fascinating glimpse into ancient local customs.
Surfing at Badoc Island
Off the north-western coast, just south of Currimao, Badoc Island is an uninhabited dot of white sand looking out towards the South China Sea. The island is an open secret amongst dedicated surfers but, due to its relative inaccessibility, is always much quieter than the popular surfing spots further south. The best breaks can be surfed from October to March, and you may well find it’s just you and the wide ocean without another soul in sight (except for maybe the guys running the makeshift drink shack!). Stay in Currimao and enjoy a day-trip down the coast to commune with the waves.
The cobbled streets, Spanish-style houses and traditional horse-drawn carriages of Vigan instantly give you a sense of living history, a convergence of ancient traditions, Colonial customs and modern life. Take a tour through some of the historic houses, many of which remain relatively unchanged since their construction in the 18th century, and enjoy a ride in a horse-drawn ‘kalesa’ to see the town in style. When you get peckish, you can wander between the street-food stalls sampling delicacies such as spicy empanadas, longganisa sausage or sweet rice kankanen – yum!
Trekking, caves and waterfalls
The rolling hills and valleys of northern Luzon are perfect trekking territory, and there are routes to match all fitness levels. Many routes incorporate some rice terrace trekking, which can range from light challenges to full-on gruelling hikes in themselves. Some paths lead to villages where you can rest and enjoy a little local culture; others reward you with the sight of stunning waterfalls and hidden glades, and one even takes you to a hot spring, where you can soak away the aches of the trail. Take a look at our favourite northern Philippines treks for more inspiration.
Right on the northernmost tip of Luzon is a stretch of idyllic coastline where you can access half a dozen gorgeous beaches and coves, all within 5km of Pagudpud. Whether you head west to the beaches overlooking Bangui Bay, or east to dip your toes in the warm waters of Pasaleng Bay, you’ll be able to take full advantage of a few chilled-out days on the sand without worrying about being crowded out. Blue Lagoon is ideal if you want a few bars and restaurants on hand, while Bantay Abot Cave is great for a bit of unspoilt coastal rock scrambling.
For many visitors to the Philippines, Manila is simply an arrival point where you can catch your breath before heading off to more distant islands, but it’s well worth exploring in its own right. Go on a bamboo bike tour of Intramuros (the historic 16th Century Spanish walled city), taking in churches, museums and forts as you go, before wandering through the woods and gardens of Rizal Park. Enjoy the wide range of restaurants and immerse yourself in the cosmopolitan landscape of Makati, the modern economic heart of the city.
If you’re looking to combine a bit of crisp mountain air with a few days relaxing on the beach, Baguio gives you access to both. Sometimes called the ‘summer capital’, Baguio is often a more comfortable, cooler temperature than the south during the hottest months, and the mountain resorts take you out of the urban hubbub. Hike over the pine forested hills, play a few rounds of golf, haggle in the market or simply enjoy a leisurely wander admiring the architecture. As for those essential days on the beach? Just head west to the coast of the Lingayen Gulf and soak up the sun.
Some of the most vibrant festivals in the Philippines can be found in the north and around Manila, celebrating culture, religion and the turning of the seasons. Baguio hosts a month-long flower festival in February, when the streets burst with colourful floral displays, parades and dancing to mark the ‘season of blooming’. Baguio also holds the Grand Cordillera Festival in November, which brings together the many ancient indigenous cultures of the region. In December, the Christmas cheer is turned up to 11 at the San Fernando Giant Lantern Parade. Stay in Angeles, and travel down to enjoy the sparkle.
We’ll leave the final word on the northern Philippines to our Destination Specialist, Martin G: 'This part of the Philippines is one of the most outstandingly beautiful places I have ever been to. It really is an adventure'. That says it all, really! To speak to Martin or one of our other Philippines specialists, please get in touch.