Get ready to have your mind blown.
Once upon a time, you’d be hard-pressed to find any international travelers in the Philippines. Today, beach bums, surf nuts, and locavores descend on the Philippine islands like moths to a burning flame.
Yet it isn’t just its shimmering beaches and endless summers that make this stunning archipelago worth visiting. There’s another side to the Philippines beyond the beaches, filled with wondrous oddities and offbeat exploits—tucked in carpets of flora, rocky bluffs, and tranquil countryside. Get ready to tick the Philippines’ most unusual experiences off your wander list.
Eat Barefoot at a Waterfalls Restaurant
WHERE: Tiaong, Quezon
Despite the Philippines’ vigilant crackdown on drugs, you’d be surprised at how unregulated everything else is in the country. Case in point: The Labasin Waterfalls Restaurant at Villa Escudero Resort, which has a small waterfall has been converted into a makeshift lunch hall. Nowhere else in the world can you waddle off to take a cooling shower at a fall’s base in the middle of lunch. Here, ravenous travelers feast barefoot and al fresco on a buffet of Filipino staples in the fall’s plunge pool. It’s an undoubtedly unusual experience, but beware of slippery rocks.
INSIDER TIPWhile there, try your hand at paddle boarding on a bamboo raft.
Visit a Sunken Cemetery
WHERE: Bonbon, Camiguin
The island of Camiguin has many things to offer, but one sight in particular stands well above the rest. The inhabitants of an old cemetery on the island found themselves underwater and under the cover of corals after a volcano eruption in the 1800s submerged their burial grounds in seawater. A large cross now marks and watches over the graves, of which visitors in boats may catch glimpses when the tide is low. The best way to see the Sunken Cemetery’s haunting vestiges, however, is during a dive or a snorkel trip. In fact, it has been called one of the most unique dive sites in the world.
INSIDER TIPCarve out time to explore the rest of the island. Waterfalls, hot springs, volcanoes, and other ruins await.
Explore a Spanish Colonial Town
WHERE: Vigan, Ilocos Sur
A genuine Spanish colonial town in Southeast Asia might sound like the stuff legends are made of, but not in the Philippines. Once a Spanish colony, many of its islands are full of historic ruins as well as old, cobblestone-paved Spanish towns. The finest specimen is, of course, Vigan, an appealingly old-fashioned town where Spanish-style buildings, historic mansions, and Baroque and Neo-Gothic churches are in full command of the lamp-illuminated calles. On foot is a good way to take in this UNESCO World Heritage Site, but a jaunt on a kalesa (horse-drawn carriage) is truly a trip back in time.
INSIDER TIPLearn to handcraft a burnay jar at Pagburnayan for an unusual experience.
Get "Boiled Alive" in a Kawa
WHERE: Tibiao, Antique
The mountain town of Tibiao is absorbing in its thundering adventures like waterfall rappelling, white river rafting, and boulder diving. Yet its best attraction to date might also be its most bizarre: the kawa hot bath, in which relaxation seekers take a de-stressing dip in a giant wok of flower-and-herb infused water heated manually over open flame. It sounds completely unsafe. The woks, however, are very secure. And each bath is well supervised so that while it looks as if you’re going to be boiled alive, you’ll come out feeling better than ever instead. Think of it as a primitive Jacuzzi, just the ticket to soothe those sore muscles after a grueling hike.
Paddle Board to a Firefly-Covered Tree
WHERE: Loboc, Bohol
The unmistakable verdant hills and jungles of Bohol host resplendent experiences both distinctive and wild. One such experience is the firefly stand-up paddle boarding tour, brainchild of Loboc-based operator, SUP Tours Philippines. The nighttime expedition, which follows the trail of the fireflies along Loboc River, is one of a kind and certainly one of the best unusual experiences in the Philippines. It takes travelers on an elevating river journey whose terminus ad quem is the “Mother Tree,” a mangrove tree that lights up like the Rockefeller Christmas Tree. The culprits: the millions of lightning bugs that congregate amidst its leaves and branches at night to mate and feed.
INSIDER TIPBring a waterproof camera that works well in low light situations. Let your board drift under the tree for an even more magical encounter.
WHERE: The Philippines
Though foodies like Anthony Bourdain have been singing the praises of Filipino cuisine, there are still some local dishes that only the most fearless of eaters can take on. If you’re brave enough, then by all means start with the famous/notorious balut, the boiled fertilized duck egg dish that is fundamental to the Philippines’ street food scene. Many Filipinos love it and enjoy it at night over beer with friends. Still, it might be a bit of an acquired taste for non-natives, as sampling this soupy egg involves chewing on a developed chick.
Not ready to take the leap? Try penoy instead. It’s balut sans the chick inside.
Meet a Tarsier
WHERE: Corella, Bohol
Tiny haplorrhines with enormous, deer-in-headlight eyes, tarsiers—called mamag in Bohol—are a strange yet adorable sight. They are among the most endangered primates, only found in Southeast Asia, and also incredibly shy. Consequently, they’re very hard to spot in the wild. Luckily, you can easily spot these evasive, nocturnal animals in their natural stomping grounds on the island of Bohol. Make a beeline for the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary, the true tarsier conservation center, in Corella.
INSIDER TIPDuring your visit, keep extra quiet and don’t get too close to these creatures, as they are very delicate.
Ride a Jeepney
WHERE: The Philippines
An impromptu ride on a jeepney—or jeep to denizens—is definitely in order when visiting the islands. The quirky and often ostentatiously tricked out vehicles are unique to these parts, and very much a part of the locals’ daily life as their main mode of public transport. Each jeep has its own regular route, and a few even swagger with proper air-conditioning, multi-colored lights, and subwoofers. Riding it is quite surreal the first few times, as the whole experience is completely devoid of personal space and often frenzied, but if you’re seeking unusual experiences only found in the Philippines, here’s the most accessible one.
INSIDER TIPBring exact change for fare and keep your valuables secure.
Get Massaged by a Snake
WHERE: Davao City, Davao del Sur
Yes, this is a thing. It’s a new thing, but a thing nonetheless. In fact, more and more locals are getting in on this extraordinary trend of getting massaged by an alarmingly massive snake. At the Davao Crocodile Park, you might indulge in complete relaxation during your visit with a quick massage, your masseuse being a dangerous-looking (albeit well-trained) Burmese python. Well, that is if you can get past the fact that an 88-pound constrictor is slithering on top of you.
Eat Warm Taho
WHERE: The Philippines
Listen carefully and keep your eyes peeled in the early afternoons. Vendors balancing on their shoulders a wooden yoke of two big aluminum buckets traditionally trudge the streets to tout this comfort food, their unmistakable taho calls signaling their arrival. Buying this sweet, warm concoction of tofu, sago pearls, and syrup is oddly mesmerizing, as the magtataho prepares the snack on the spot with preposterous speed and efficiency. The plastic cup of taho, however, is definitely the high point. It’s just what you need for an afternoon refueling.
INSIDER TIPOther delicious, must-try Filipino desserts are halo-halo and binignit.
See the Hanging Coffins
WHERE: Echo Valley, Sagada
While steeped in Christianity, the Philippine culture is still imbued with old superstitions and pagan traditions. In the cave-peppered town of Sagada, for instance, a small local tribe still lay their dead to rest by entombing them in wooden coffins hanging off the side of a rocky outcrop, believing that their lofty resting place puts them closer to the gods. It’s an arresting and bizarre sight, well worth the 20-minute hike into the valley. Hiring a guide might be smart, as they can tell you more about the whole burial ritual.
INSIDER TIPBefore heading back, stop off at Lumiang Burial Cave, whose mouth and walls are brimming with more coffins. The cave is a 10-minute drive from Echo Valley.
Drink Tanduay Rum
WHERE: The Philippines
Much like rum tastings in Jamaica or Puerto Rico, sampling Tanduay Rum, the largest rum distillery in Asia, while in the Philippines is practically a requirement. For a fairly unknown brand in the US, this rum is actually excellent. Distilled in the province of Laguna from fermented molasses then aged in used barrels, it boasts hints of tropical flavors and a crisp, spicy finish. Find a sari-sari store, preferably one with benches and a table, enjoy a bottle with locals and a plate of sisig on the side of a road, and your Filipino cultural immersion is complete.