Background

2019 was the busiest year of my life, and also the most productive one – but with a cost. After returning to Finland in late November after exchanging in Singapore in the summer and interning in Portugal in the autumn, I decided that I needed a break. Despite having usually been healthy and rarely sick, I was now feeling stressed out and was constantly sick. Luckily, my game development studies were progressing smoothly and were well ahead of schedule, which is why I had an opportunity to take some time off and fly to the Philippines.

Philippines in a nutshell

With a population of almost 20 times bigger and a cheerful and collectivistic culture that encourages self-expression and socialising, Philippines is quite unlike Finland. Filipinos are very outgoing and friendly, and speak good English due to the country’s history. Philippines also spent 333 years under Spanish rule, which left the country a hispanic heritage in culture, language, and ethnicity. Philippines is a religious country with a catholic majority, and as the only Christian nation in Asia, Philippines’ geographical location in South-East Asia is indeed curious against this backdrop.

Philippines is a beautiful country that consists of thousands of islands. The biggest one is Luzon, which is located in the northern part of the archipelago with the capital region of Metro Manila. In the south is the second-largest island, Mindanao, with the Metro Davao region. Between Luzon and Mindanao lies the third primary geographical region of the Philippines, the Visayas archipelago, which has the Metro Cebu region. Philippines is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, and there are over 20 active volcanoes in the country.

Stopover in Hong Kong

My flight from Finland to Manila flew through Hong Kong, which was in the middle of protests. Since the airport had also been affected by the protests during autumn, I was concerned that my flight might get cancelled. In the end, everything went fine, even though it felt a little eery to look outside through the terminal’s windows during the stopover and reflect on how much had changed since my stay in 2018. The flight from Hong Kong to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila was only around 2 hours, though there was a little turbulence when approaching the islands.

Greeted by a typhoon

When I was in the passport control, my smartwatch started beeping because of a typhoon alert. After having slept only a little over 1 hour during the previous night, I was too tired to pay too much attention to it. Travelling between NAIA’s terminals was a little challenging, and I had to take a 15-minute taxi ride to go around the runways from Terminal 2 to Terminal 3. Since it was early afternoon and still within the office hours, the infamous Manila Traffic was not yet at its peak. After meeting my girlfriend at the other terminal, we booked a Grab to take us quickly to Tagaytay.

Tagaytay, located around 60 km south of Manila, is a popular tourist destination known for its altitude, cooler climate, and the Taal Volcano. On our escape from Manila, we managed to avoid the traffic, but the sky was looking grim because of the approaching typhoon. After checking in at our Airbnb condominium, I made the mistake of choosing comfort over safety, and thus decided to get some sleep instead of buying food supplies. The typhoon, named as Tisoy, got stronger during the night. In the morning, the wind was howling strongly and the visibility outside was close to zero.

Our condominium was high up in the tallest building in the area. Because our balcony faced north, the direction from where the wind and water was coming, the window insulations gave up quickly and water started pouring inside. The morning was spent in miserable conditions since there was little food and the water seemed to find its way everywhere. However, the maintenance supplied us with dry towels, and I managed to sneak outside at one point to buy some food. Luckily, the typhoon only lasted a couple of days and, after that, we had an opportunity to start exploring.

Gallery

The pictures can now be found on my Instagram profile.

Exploring Tagaytay

After the typhoon was over, things got back to normal fairly quickly. Because Philippines experiences over 20 typhoons per year, Filipinos see lots of them in their lifetime. However, the typhoon was not the only natural calamity in storage for the people of Tagaytay. Because the Taal Volcano is such a prominent part of the landscape, I made the stupid suggestion that we should visit the volcano island and possibly even swim in its crater lake. However, my girlfriend opposed to this. Only a month later, in Jan 2020, the Taal Volcano erupted, and the little lake was evaporated.

Because of the beautiful and ethereal scenery, Tagaytay has many Starbucks overlooking the lake and the volcano. In my opinion, the one next to the SMDC Wind Residences condominium buildings has the best view. Another place with a good view of the area is the Tagaytay Picnic Grove, where there are lots of snacks and seats available. Our visit to Tagaytay coincided with the 2019 Southeast Asian Games, or SEA Games, which had a couple of venues in Tagaytay. We didn’t feel like joining the crowds, which were causing traffic jams on the streets, and followed the competition on television.

One interesting place in the Tagaytay area was the mysterious and unfinished Fantasy World theme park. However, because of the recent typhoon, the condition of the road became a concern, and we decided to abandon the idea of going there. There were still many other places to see in Tagaytay proper. For example, as a Finnish person, I was surprised to find a cafe named Kuuma Kaakao. “Kuuma kaakao” is Finnish and means “Hot chocolate”. The origin of the name never became clear despite our visit there, but we bought some coffee mugs as proof of our discovery.

Travelling on Philippine roads

After spending a full week in Tagaytay, we headed north to meet my girlfriend’s family in Bambang, which is located in the Nueva Vizcaya province. By road, the trip is only around 350 km, which might lead people to miscalculate the travel time to 4–5 hours. For us, it took around 12 hours on a bus. First of all, going through Manila is never a piece of cake because of the traffic. Also, while the area around Manila is relatively flat, the northern part of the Luzon island is covered by the Cordillera Central mountain range, which has to be crossed many times on a windy road.

There are 4 common types of public transportation in the Philippines: tricycles, jeepneys, vans, and buses. Tricycles, which are popular in the rural areas, are basically motorcycles with covered sidecars, and are for-hire on short distances. Jeepneys, on the other hand, are colourfully decorated buses that travel longer distances on set routes. Vans are minivans that, like jeepneys, travel on set long-distance routes, but with fewer people, fewer stops, and pricier tickets. Bus is the most comfortable way of traveling, but the lack of timetables makes stopping the correct one a process of trial & error.

Baler and Dipaculao

After settling down in Bambang and establishing it as our base of operations, we headed in Mid-December to have a short beach holiday in the east coast of the island. Our first stop was Baler, which is the capital of the Aurora province. Baler is known for its high waves, which makes it a popular surfing destination. To get there, we had to take one bus, two thricycles, and a van. Since we weren’t interested in surfing, we only stayed in Baler for one night, during which we checked the beach and walked around the town. For surfing enthusiasts, Baler might be an interesting place to check out.

We, however, were more interested in checking out the Dinadiawan Beach in Dipaculao. On the next morning, we headed out towards Dipaculao, which is a smaller town about a two hour car ride north of Baler. The road between Baler and Dipaculao follows the Sierra Madre mountain range, which again follows the eastern coast of Luzon. The scenery alongside the road is very impressive with the sea and the tall waves visible every now and then. On steeper parts of the road, the engine of our van sounded like it was about to fail but then always just made it.

We dropped off the van around 1 km before Dipaculao, and walked to a beach resort called Sand and Stars, which rents affordable and pre-erected tents for glamorous camping, or glamping. Luckily, Sand and Stars had one more tent left, which we happily accepted. The Dinadiawan Beach is a beautiful and long beach with white sand and big waves. The resort also lived up to its reputation with a beautiful starry sky, the best one I have seen so far. The town of Dipaculao itself is very small, but had a couple of eateries and a market. After a couple of nights, we headed back to Bambang.

Gallery

The pictures can now be found on my Instagram profile.

Baguio City and Atok

In the end of January, we left Bambang to make a visit to the mountainous Baguio City. Baguio, which is located at an altitude of around 1,5 km, is also known as the Summer Capital of the Philippines due to its cooler climate, and the City of Pines because of the many pine trees growing there. The road between Bambang and Baguio has to cross the Cordillera Central mountain range, which makes the road long, winding, and uncomfortable. The distance of little over 110 km can take around 3–5 hours to complete, depending on the length of the driver’s coffee break and the time of the day.

Among the places we visited in Baguio were the Wright Park and The Mansion House, which is the president’s summer residence, Mines View Observation Deck, the colourful Valley of Colors housing area, the SM City Baguio shopping mall, and Burnham Park just in the city center. The multi-storied Good Taste Café & Restaurant surprised us with its big and affordable meals. The Korean Place Restaurant, a little outside of the city center, offered some variety. In total, we spent 3 nights in Baguio, and I enjoyed our stay to the extent that I would be interested to revisit it.

After Baguio, we made a one night visit to Atok to the north to visit the Northern Blossom Flower Farm. Located at an altitude of over 2 km, the flower farm is located on a mountain slope surrounded by a beautiful and mountainous scenery. I didn’t understand much about the flowers except thay they were beautiful and complemented the picturesque view. From the flower farm you could see Mount Pulag, Luzon’s highest peak at 2,926 m, around 15 km to the east. We also visited the nearby Sakura Park, although the trees were not yet in bloom.

Gallery

The pictures can now be found on my Instagram profile.

On a honeymoon in Banaue and Batad

In the beginning of February, me and my girlfriend, Rowena, got married in the Philippines. After the ceremony, we went on a honeymoon to see the rice terraces of Banaue and Batad, which were featured in the Avengers movies. Batad Rice Terraces are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that also includes other clusters of nearby rice terraces, which is referred to in the World Heritage List as the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras. The jeepney ride from Bambang to Banaue included a change in Solano, and took in total around 3–4 hours.

Banaue is the biggest town in the area, and located at an altitude of over 1 km. When we arrived there, it was raining and the visibility was a poor due to fog over the mountain slopes. The town is divided by geography into several parts, each lying at a different altitude and connected by a downwards winding road. We spent 1 night in Uyami’s Green View Lodge and Restaurant, which had an amazing view over the parts below. While the Rice Terraces of Banaue were beautiful, the surroundings were more developed compared to the other rice terraces in the area.

After Banaue, we took a tricycle to Batad. To actually get the, however, we had to take a hike of around 20 minutes over difficult terrain. We spent 1 night in Ramon’s Guesthouse Batad, which had a good view over the terraces and a restaurant downstairs. A guide from the guesthouse took us walking around the terraces, which were much bigger than I thought. We also visited the Tappiya Falls, which is a beautiful waterfall around 30 minute hike from the terraces. On the next day, before returning to Bambang, the guide drove us to a place overlooking the nearby Bangaan Rice Terraces.

Summary

During our stay, we stayed exclusively on the main island of Luzon. As mentioned above, we visited Tagaytay next to the Taal Volcano, the surfing town of Baler, the Dinadiawan Beach in Dipaculao, the mountainous Baguio City, the Northern Blossom Flower Farm in Atok, and the rice terraces of Banaue and Batad. Places that I would still like to see in Luzon include the mountainous municipality of Sagada, the Spanish colonial town of Vigan, The Hundred Islands National Park, the Mt. Pinatubo volcano, Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, Masungi Georeserve, and a few other other places.

On our next trip to the Philippines, which is probably some time in the future, we are planning to go outside of Luzon to visit places like El Nido and Palawan, and explore the Visayas area. The beautiful nature and the beautiful people make me eager to recommend Philippines as a travel destination, but safety should be taken into consideration if planning a visit. If you are going to the Philippines for the first time, it might be a good idea to consider staying on the main island and/or going to select places in the Visayas. As for me, I got the rest I needed to the face the challenges of the coming year!