Banaue, Philippines

Picture photography in the Philippines and there’ll be a few scenes that immediately come to mind: pristine white-sand beaches enclosed by jagged limestone cliffs, colourful jeepneys meandering through a bustling cityscape, and probably a few more white-sand beaches.

While none of these sights can be aptly described as uncommon, the Philippines is so much more than that.

The Philippine archipelago

 

Prior to 2016, the archipelago of the Philippines officially consisted of 7,107 individual islands, of which around 2000 are inhabited. Then in 2016, as if to further illustrate just how many islands it comprises, the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority of the Philippines threw in another 534 previously uncharted islands that had somehow flown under the radar.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that many pick out its tropical, beach-crested islands as the main environment they associate with the Philippines, which leaves its jungles and mountains, its volcanoes and its countless waterfalls with a relative lack of visitors.

In addition to its diverse natural environment, the Philippines’ rich tribal and colonial history make it a fascinating place to travel for those willing to venture slightly off the beaten track.

As always, let’s begin by discussing the cultural considerations to be aware of when travelling to the Philippines, before delving into the parts of the country that, both as a photographer and as a traveller, you will not want to miss.

 

The culture of the Philippines

Philippines festival

Ask anyone that’s travelled there, and you’re likely to hear a thing or two about the friendly and hospitable people that call these islands home; it’s no surprise that the Philippines often ranks among the happiest countries on earth.

Travelling to the Philippines is unlikely to invoke the same level of culture shock as many other south-east Asian countries. Its long history of western colonialism has created a blend of cultures that will allow most to understand it and assimilate to it fairly quickly.

Filipinos, generally, are very respectful towards their elders, friendly and courteous to strangers and very prone to lovingly teasing their close friends and family. While guidelines on acceptable clothing are not as strict as they are many in other Asian countries, they still dress more modestly than people in Europe, so that’s best to keep in mind when packing your bag.

 

Another important aspect to understand about Filipino culture is that, as a directly result of their friendliness, many Filipinos are reluctant to say anything that may be considered negative or disappointing. I learned this the hard way by asking around for directions to a Kodak shop that closed years ago – I was pointed in every conceivable direction before eventually learning that it no longer existed.

Finally, something that as a concept is certainly not unique to the Philippines is that of ‘filipino time’. Given their relaxed and laid-back culture, in general it’s best not to place too many time constraints on your plans. You can rest assured that your bus or ferry will arrive, but they will do so in their own time.

 

Film or digital?

 

The Philippines used to be a much better destination for film photography. While you will still find studios that will develop your film, finding somewhere outside of the largest cities in the country to buy rolls of film is significantly more difficult. Therefore, if you intend to shoot film in the Philippines, it’s best to stockpile all the film you’re likely to need before you leave. Just be sure to take care of it and refrigerate it whenever possible – the Philippine’s hot and humid climate is not particularly forgiving when it comes to storing your film. That’s not to say that you won’t get nice results, just that you should probably expect a bit more grain in your film photos than you might otherwise be used to.

El Nido rainstorm on Nikonos V

That being said, I love shooting film in the Philippines. I took my Nikonos V on my most recent trip there last year and used it to capture some of my favourite shots from that trip.

If spending your trip lugging around rolls upon rolls of film and having to be mindful when transporting or storing them doesn’t sound like a great time to you, then shooting digital photography in the Philippines is undoubtedly a safer bet. We should mention that depending on the time of year you travel, it’s a good idea to take some weatherproof photography kit with you if possible.

The rainy season in the Philippines spans from roughly June to October, though in recent years climate change has made this much less predictable. I was in the Philippines from the beginning of March until June last year and we were receiving red rainfall warnings via text message in early April. 

Luckily, I was prepared for the rain as alongside my trusty Nikonos, I had my weatherproof Fujifilm X-T2 kit in tow.

 

Photographing the islands of the Philippines

 

As I’ve covered already, the many thousands of islands and beaches the Philippines consists of are among their more recognisable landscapes. Let’s begin with the best islands in the Philippines for photography, before travelling north into the lesser-known and, in my view, underappreciated mountains of Luzon.

 

The archipelago of Palawan

El Nido on Nikonos V

Palawan is a province made up of close to a quarter of the islands of the Philippines. Its 1,769 islands, between them, share close to 2000km worth of coastline. If you’re looking for more white-sand beaches than you can visit in a lifetime, Palawan is the place.

The best-known spots in Palawan are found on the northern side of the main island of Puerto Princesa. Most visitors arrive through the airport in Puerto Princesa, after which they’ll get a lift to El Nido on the north coast of the island.

My tip for this journey – always take one of the minibuses as opposed to the public bus here. They’re not much more expensive than the public bus tickets and unlike the public bus, they have air conditioning. Moreover, they tend to overpack the public busses and they will also stop a lot, extending the journey by a couple of hours at least. The public busses here definitely operate on Filipino time.

I went with the public bus last time I visited and I spent the final 3 hours of my journey with 7 people squeezed onto the 5-seater back-row and with my rucksack on my lap.

For those with a bit more time, particularly those who enjoy scuba or freediving, should also take the ferry from El Nido to Coron, a small island away from the main island of Puerto Princesa. Given the additional journey from El Nido, it’s a little less busy and it’s a diver’s paradise.

Coron, Palawan
Coron dive
Coron dive 2

From Coron, you can access many world-class dive sites and even 12 Japanese shipwrecks that sunk during WW2. If you’re reading this and you’re into underwater photography, Coron is not a place to be missed.

 

Negros Island

 

Negros is another island that lies to the east of the Palawan archipelago. And yes, that’s actually what it’s called.

Negros is one of the lesser-known islands in the Philippines, meaning you can expect to encounter far fewer tourists than you would in Palawan. Despite not being as well-known, Negros Island has plenty to offer to those willing to make the trip over.

The island is split up into two halves: Negros Oriental to the east and Negros Occidental to the west. On the Negros Oriental side, some of the best places to visit are its many waterfalls. The largest of these is Casaroro Falls, although the much smaller and less powerful Pulangbato Falls is easier for those keen for swim.

It was on the Negros Occidental side, however, that we had probably our most incredible experience. We decided to go for a late-night swim during probably the starriest night I’ve ever personally witnessed (more so than even the Sahara or Wadi Rum). And as soon as we got into the water, it was instantly illuminated by thousands of bio-luminescent plankton. While I didn’t manage to snap a photo of the illuminated water, it was easily among my more memorable swims in the Philippines.

Negros island astrophotography

Because of this, I’d find it very difficult not to recommend a visit to Negros Island for anyone that visits the Philippines.

 

Iloilo

 

Another area of the Philippines that’s often overlooked by tourists travelling in the Philippines is the province of Iloilo. The main island, Panay, lies to the northwest of Negros and while its largest settlement, Iloilo City, garners some tourism, much of the rest of the island remains unexplored by the vast majority. Staying in Iloilo city, you’ll also be treated by some incredibly colourful sunsets so it’s best to keep your camera with you later in the evening.

Iloilo sunset

Just off the coast of the north-eastern corner of the island of Panay lies a chain of islands known as Islas de Gigantes (no points for guessing under which colonial rule these were named). These islands harbour countless caves, lagoons and beaches scattered around them, making them well worth a visit if you find yourself in the area.

Gigantes

Cebu

 

Accessible by ferry from Iloilo lies another far more frequently visited province of the Philippines: Cebu. Whether you’re travelling to Cebu via ferry or by flying into its international airport, Cebu City is the first place you’ll arrive. From there, it’s easy to travel by bus or taxi to virtually any other part of the island.

Cebu, like Palawan’s El Nido and Coron, is a diver’s paradise with diverse and unique dive sites found on every side of the island. You can dive with whale sharks in a town to the south of Cebu called Oslob, you can freedive through the sardine run in Moalboal to the western side of the island, before travelling just off the north coast to catch a glimpse of a thresher shark in Malapascua, one of the only locations on earth where you will consistently encounter these notoriously shy sharks in the water.

One important tip for swimmers, snorkelers and divers in Cebu: bring a long-sleeved rash guard with you if possible. These will be incredibly useful both for protecting against the sun and also against the stinging plankton that seem to be everywhere in these waters. You may not feel them in the water but believe me you will feel the itch for several days after.

For non-divers, Cebu still has plenty of in-land activities to offer: the island of Cebu is home to more than 100 waterfalls. There are so many to choose from that we often had the waterfalls to ourselves when we visited them, so renting a scooter and passing by a few of them is a great way to spend a day.

Mantuyapan falls, Cebu, Philippines
Moalboal waterfalls cebu

Finally, another part of the Cebu that’s worth checking out is the hike to Osmena peak, which ends with a view of Cebu’s coastline over dozens of similarly shaped hills. Since this is a very quick hike that only takes around 20 minutes from the bottom, the effort-to-reward ratio of this hike should place it firmly on anyone’s itinerary.

Osmena peak in the Philippines

Bohol

 

The final island that we couldn’t exactly miss out is the island of Bohol. Many tourists visit Bohol just to visit the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary in Corella, but there is much more to Bohol than its tiny primates, particularly for those practicing photography.

Undoubtedly one of the most surreal landscapes in all of the Philippines are Bohol’s chocolate hills. According to UNESCO, there are around 1,776 mounds of almost identical shape scattered around the landscape of Bohol. Think the hills you can see from Osmena peak in Cebu, but on a much greater scale.

Chocolate hills

The reasoning behind calling them the chocolate hills becomes more apparent during the dry season when, due to a lack of rainfall, the grass dries out and turns these hills brown.

 

Photography in the mountains of the Philippines

 

Now onto the side of the Philippines that very often flies under the radar for many travelling to and through the Philippines: the mountains.

The main mountainous areas in the Philippines are found on the two largest islands of the Philippines: Luzon and Mindanao. Luzon is found in the northern tip of the country, while Mindanao occupies the south end of the Philippine islands.

In this section, we’ll focus mainly on Luzon as Mindanao is currently not considered a safe place to travel. In fact, many governments including the UK’s advise against all but essential travel to the region due to the potential threat of terrorism and kidnapping.

The mountains of Luzon, however, are some of the most beautiful and under-appreciated areas of the Philippines that are well worth a visit. Just keep in mind that life here differs quite a bit from life on the Philippines’ many beaches – you won’t get constant sunshine every day and you may even have to wear shoes from time to time.

 

Baguio

 

Travelling north from Manila, the first city we stopped at was Baguio. Also known as the ‘City of the Pines’ thanks to, you guessed it, the large number of pine trees and forests in the area. One such pine forest can be found to the south-east of Baguio and is known as the yellow trail. It’s a very comfortable trail which is more of a walk than a hike, but it’s well worth taking an afternoon to explore the area if you’re stopping in Baguio.

Baguio with XF18-55mm

One of the best views we saw during our stay, however, was strangely enough from a viewing deck of Baguio’s SM City Mall, which itself lies at the top of a hill. Going around sunset will definitely provide some very nice views of the city.

 

Banaue

 

Just a quick 5-minute walk downhill from Baguio’s SM City mall lies its bus station. From here, we jumped on another night-bus to Banaue. Banaue is a municipality in the province of Ifugao, which is best known for its UNESCO World Heritage site: the Batad Rice Terraces.

Before heading to the region’s famous rice terraces, the town of Banaue is a great place to stop first. Banaue’s town has plenty of its own sights to see including its own, albeit less famous, rice terraces. It’s a nice place to stop for a meal overlooking the beautiful scenery and experiencing the Filipino culture that has been westernised to a much lesser extent when compared to the parts of the country that lie further south.

Banaue

During our first night in Banaue, we were caught in a torrential rainstorm with heavy thunder and strong winds – a stark reminder that we weren’t on the sunny islands of Palawan and Cebu anymore. It did, however, make for some nice photos from our (thankfully covered) balcony.

 

Batad

 

As mentioned, one of the main reasons that travellers visit Banaue is to visit the Batad rice terraces, which were built by the indigenous Filipinos of the area more than 2,000 years ago. The rice terraces became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, being described as “a living cultural landscape of unparalleled beauty”.

When travelling from Banaue’s town to Batad, a jeepney will take you most of the way before dropping you off, at which point you’ll have to hike down into Batad. As you can imagine, these huge and steep rice terraces aren’t the best place for vehicles to travel, meaning everything you see down in the village was carried down on foot.

Batad houses
Batad, Philippines film photography

It’s easy to spend hours wandering up, down and across the vast expanse of rice terraces in Batad – it’s hard to comprehend how large the area is until you see it in person and, of course, how long it must have taken to carve out and build the area into what it is today. I’d recommend staying at the very least 2 or 3 nights in Batad to get the full experience, although be aware that internet is essentially non-existent in this part of the Philippines.

Another place to visit from the rice terraces is Tappiya Falls, which is roughly a 45-minute hike from the bottom of the Batad rice terraces. Tappiya Falls is a huge waterfall with some refreshingly cool water, exactly what you need after what is likely to be a hot and humid hike to reach it.

Tappiya falls

It’s also possible to break off from the bath between Batad and Tappiya falls to follow the river down-stream. Here, you’ll find plenty more pools and mini waterfalls with fewer people around as well.  

 

Buscalan

 

Our final stop on our trip through the mountains of Luzon was in the tiny mountain town of Buscalan. Like Batad, there are no roads leading into Buscalan, meaning that a short hike of around 30 – 45 minutes from the nearby town of Bontoc is required to reach it.

Buscalan film
buscalan digital

Today, visitors largely flock to Buscalan for one reason, or rather, for one person: Whang-Od. Often described as the last mambabatok of the ButBut people of Kalinga, Whang-Od is a legendary Filipina traditional tattoo artist. She has been tattooing members of her tribe, and more recently travellers that have flocked from other parts of the Philippines and the world, since she was 15 years old. Given that Whang-Od turned 106 in February 2023, it’s fairly safe to assume that she is one of the longest, if not the longest continually practising tattoo artist on earth.

Buscalan and its surrounding area are a great place to visit and given the town’s altitude of around 1,010 metres (or 3,313 feet) above sea level, the mountains can make for some interesting compositions, particularly when some clouds begin roll over them. There is also a short walk to the Whang-Od ‘museum’ (and I’m using inverted commas because, while it’s definitely worth a visit, it’s basically just a single room of images, paintings and framed news articles). From here, you can see the entire town of Buscalan, which really puts into perspective just how small this town is.

Buscalan village

Wrapping up

 

So, there we have it: our guide to travel and photography in the Philippines. While there are some areas we’ve discussed that you’ve undoubtedly heard of and were always going to include in your itinerary, hopefully we’ve given you a few more ideas for some other areas that shouldn’t be missed out.

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