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Visayas Uncharted: The Jewel of the Philippines


he jewel of the Philippines, the Visayas are home to one of the world’s smallest primates, rich marine wildlife, mesmerizing chocolate hills, plunging coral cliffs, smoldering volcanos and succulent Pinoy cuisine. It’s where Magellan first planted his expeditionary party’s flag and claimed the archipelago for the Spanish kingdom in 1521 and where Allied forces turned the tide against the Japanese in WWII.

Whether it’s swimming in crystalline seas amidst the backdrop of a bustling metropolis, climbing jagged jungle peaks or strolling along centuries-old colonial streets, there’s something extraordinary for everyone in Visayas - uncover the top must-go places to visit below.

Romblon Island & Famous Bonbon Beach

Romblon is one of the Philippines’ best kept secrets. Breathtaking palm-fringed beaches give way to transparent seas and its pristine jungles are teeming with some of the country’s richest biodiversity.

Romblon Island
A snorkeler's paradise

Cerulean waters ebb around the white sandbar at Romblon’s famous Bonbon beach, making it a perfect destination for snorkeling. After sunset, phosphorescent plankton glow bright green as swimmers pass by. Cobrador Island is a hidden gem; its transparent waters offer a chance to spot majestic Green and Hawksbill sea turtles feeding amongst the sea grass and hard corals. To the far south, tiny Cresta de Gallo can only be described as paradise, a narrow strip of fine white sand connecting two almost uninhabited islands set amongst bright blue seas.

Sibuyan Island
The Galapagos of Asia

One of Romblon’s largest islands, Sibuyan, has one of the country’s best preserved natural environments. Uninterrupted rainforest covers three-quarters of the island and the country’s cleanest river, the Cantigan, weaves its way amongst massive mahogany and teak trees. Known as the Galapagos of Asia, it offers a unique opportunity to spot a number of species found nowhere else in the world, including the indigo-banded kingfisher, the Sibuyan shrew and the Romblon hawk owl.

The lovable Tarsier

Visayas is home to one of the world’s smallest but most endangered primates, the Tarsier. Though shy and nocturnal, it’s possible to see these diminutive creatures in their wild habitat in Bohol.

Corella, Bohol
Conserving for Tomorrow

Just a few inches tall, the cute, boggle-eyed Tarsier, known as mawumag to the locals, are usually found in dense vegetation a meter or two from the ground, clinging to vines and branches with their human-like hands and leaping from tree to tree. Nocturnal hunters, they swivel their heads 180 degrees to scan for predators and prey alike. With an estimated 10,000 left in the wild, a conservation initiative at Corella in Bohol offers trekkers the chance to see tarsiers within a protected forest sanctuary and educates local communities about the importance of their preservation.

A superstitious symbol

Beyond conservation efforts, local superstition is also to thank for their protection. Several indigenous groups believe that tarsiers are the pets of spirits dwelling in banyan fig trees. From a young age, locals are taught to believe in the supernatural and respect their surroundings. Harming nature, including trees and tarsiers, is said to bring misfortune.

Glorious Chocolate Hills

One of Visayas most emblematic and popular attractions, the Chocolate Hills in central Bohol is a picturesque area of over a thousand majestic teardrop-shaped hillocks spanning as far as the eye can see.

Naming rights

These perfectly conical mounds get their name from the grasses which cover their slopes and turn chocolate brown in the heat of the driest months from March to May. An alternative story is that the inspiration for their name actually comes from Hershey’s Kisses, a century-old American chocolate reminiscent of these stunning geological phenomena. The exact origin of the hills is unclear but most scientists believe they were formed by coral uplifts weathered by the elements. Their rich deposits of fossilized corals and ancient sea creatures speak of the Philippines’ prehistoric past.

Feuding giants

While science has one explanation, local legend has several others. One tells of two feuding giants who threw rocks at each other to prove who was most powerful, and their battlefield became the Chocolate Hills. Another suggests they formed by a god’s drying tears as he bereaved the death of his mortal lover. The last is most humorous: they’re simply the dried deposits of a hungry water buffalo.

The Mystic Island of Siquijor

Tucked away in Visayas is a small island known for its mystical healing practices. Its charming local traditions can be found and practised on Siquijor alone and are sure to intrigue the adventurous visitor.

Healing traditions

Established, according to legend by a great storm, which lifted the island from the seabed, Siquijor has long been sought out by visitors fascinated by the island’s mystical qualities. Superstition of witches dwelling deep in the island’s highlands lies at the heart of its spiritual identity, and local healers gather here annually during Holy Week. A must try is bolo-bolo, where a clear glass of water with a stone placed in the middle is blown into through a straw by a healer whilst moved around the patient’s body, cleansing them of unwanted energy. The result: for you to find out.

Fireflies and cool waters

Siquijor is also locally known as the ‘Isla del Fuego’ or ‘Isle of Fire’, due to frequent glimpses of the island’s famous fireflies – said to glow when there is magic afoot. For those taking in the night air at one of the open air bars, the appearance of the fireflies can indeed take on an ethereal quality. For the more culturally minded, old colonial houses stuck in centuries past still line the street in the shadow of stunning ancient churches. To cool off after a long day on your feet, slip into the fresh waters of a plunging jungle waterfall or explore the stunning dive sites surrounding the island.

Magical Biliran Island

Laid back Biliran is quickly becoming an adventure playground. Its mountainous interior, paradise coastline, countless waterfalls and verdant rice terraces make it a perfect spot to get off the beaten track.

Ulan-Ulan, Biliran
Natural splendor

This rugged volcanic isle is full of staggering waterfalls whose cool plunge pools make for luxurious swimming holes. The Ulan-Ulan – ‘rainy’ – falls are its most famous, cascading 25 meters from the dense jungle above within a green amphitheater of trees and vines. Just a short scramble above are the Recoletos Falls which have a wonderful natural pool for a dip.

Sampao, Biliran
Intricate rice terraces

The verdant Iyusan rice terraces in Almeria stretch as far as the eye can see, climbing gently like huge green staircases beneath jungle-covered mountains. Built hundreds of feet above sea level by the island’s original settlers, responsibility for maintaining this incredible feat is passed down from generation to generation.

An influential history

Though small, the island has a rich history and has enjoyed influential far beyond its tropical shores. The name bilir – meaning the edge of a boat – provides a clue; it was once the site of one of the country’s first industrial-scale shipyards, built in the 17th century to provide galleons for trade between Manila and the Spanish empire in Mexico.

Sardine Capital of the Philippines

Feel the rush as you are enveloped by over a million glistening sardines, whilst sea turtles and playful dolphins frolic nearby.

Moalboal, Cebu
An otherworldly experience

The Moalboal sardine ball is one of the most awe-inspiring and regular sea experiences in the Philippines. From November to April every year, just off Panagsama beach, millions of sardines form billowing silver clouds in the current, glinting in the sunlight as they twist and twirl in natural unison like a murmuration of aquatic starlings. Any diving operator in town will take travelers to observe the baitball set against the beautifully colorful coral reef wall from below, or with some luck, within.

Badian, Cebu
The ultimate adventure rush

For an equally adventurous activity on land, there’s excellent canyoneering just 45 minutes away near Badian or the next town of Alegria. A morning spent cliff jumping, rappelling, rope-swinging, and water-sliding down natural chutes ends at the famous Kawasan Falls, a series of three waterfalls cascading 15 meters into a massive, turquoise swimming hole.

Samar Island: waves and caves

From exploring luminescent caves to surfing powerful beach breaks, little-known Samar Island offers an alluring array of activities for both adrenaline junkies and those just wanting to chill.

Sohoton Caves, Samar
The ultimate caving frontier

A series of enormous cave systems are hidden across the rugged island. The Sohoton Caves and Natural Bridge in Basey are the most impressive. Reached by boat along the Kadak-an river, a maze of limestone karst outcrops, depressions and cascades weave amongst the dense, lush forest. The cathedral-like Panhulugan cave is filled with magnificent stalactites which jut down from above. Immerse yourself in nature’s splendor as the calcites in the limestone shimmer as you wander through.

A huge majestic natural arch looms just outside, slowly shaped by millennia of craftsmanship by pure jungle waters. Explore the shallow golden pools by kayak or just wallow in their rejuvenating mineral-rich waters.

Calicoan Island, Eastern Samar
Riding the swells

Samar Island’s rugged eastern coast is exposed to powerful Pacific swells and offers several world class surfing breaks, with neat barrels and some of the cleanest tubes in the country. Two spots are fast becoming local meccas. Guiuan, the island’s surfing capital in Eastern Samar, is home to rolling waves and white sand beaches, perfect for a lazy day of surf and sunbathing. Sleepy Calicoan Island located further south has its best waves at ABCD beach, but its strong currents are not for the faint-hearted.

Further north is Borongan City, the capital of Eastern Samar, offering some of the Philippines most impressive swells and wild breaks, set amongst a natural landscape and relaxed local environment.

Biri Rock Formations, Northern Samar
Renowned Rock Formations

Just off Northern Samar are six majestic rock islands, collectively known as the Biri Rock Formations. The islands boast unique rock designs fashioned by strong tidal waves formed over millions of years, offering endless opportunities for adventure and discovery. Marvel at the intricate beauty of Mother Nature and enjoy panoramic views of the unique coast or float in a secluded lagoon nearby. The Biri Rock Formations offer an other-worldly experience off the beaten path in the Philippines.

Colorful coral castles

Surrounded by four tropical seas near the heart of the world’s Coral Triangle, the Visayas boast some of the world’s best diving and are home to hundreds of colorful coral walls teeming with an unparalleled variety of marine life.

Malapascua Island
Encounter the elusive Thresher Shark

Monad Shoal near Malapascua Island is a world famous coral wall and dive site. This underwater island known as Shark Point lies just below the surface and its fabulous walls plummet like a giant fortress to depths of over 200 meters. It’s a mecca for experienced divers, especially those hoping to catch a glimpse of elusive thresher sharks which come up from the deep in the early morning to visit the reef’s plentiful cleaning stations. Giant manta rays also visit the reef, gently gliding around the coral, and from January to April, even hammerheads might make an appearance.

Balicasag Island
Rare Black Corals

The remote Balicasag Island offers a different kind of coral wall experience. Off the southwest tip of Bohol, divers can explore its famous black coral groves, often with sea turtles sleeping beneath the huge table corals. By contrast, the island’s Coral Sanctuary nearby offers a colorful reef wall inhabited by thousands of trevally, barracuda and wrasse.

Mt Kanlaon, King of the Visayan peaks

Brave the adventurous trek through mossy forests to the summit of the region’s tallest peak, Mt Kanlaon, and you will be rewarded with some of the region’s best views across verdant jungles and shimmering seas below.

Mt Kanlaon, Negros Island
The Seat of Legends

Named after the ancient Visayan deity Kan-Laon, meaning ‘Ruler of Time’, local lore around Mt. Kanlaon explains that it was at this volcano that the god made his first public apparition. Legend has it that the volcano’s smoke is actually Kan-Laon smoking the tobacco he took from local farmers after they disobeyed him, planting their crops too close to his home.

Negros Occidental
Unparalleled biodiversity

The surrounding Natural Park is packed with diverse flora and fauna, like copses of twisted and gnarled trees known by locals as ‘Gardens of the Widow’ as well as a range of rare and endangered animals including the flame-templed babbler, white-winged cuckoo, spotted cat and tube-nosed bat.

Pinoy Cuisine:
a feast of delectable flavors

The Visayas are a foodie’s dream - a delectable melange of global flavors. The national dish adobo comes in innumerable delicious styles depending on which of grandmother’s secret recipes was followed, complemented by spit-roasted meats, sticky sweet treats and washed down with a refreshing glass of rejuvenating fresh buko or calamansi juice.

Succulent treats in the City of Love

After working up an appetite wandering the regal plazas and imposing cathedrals of colonial jewel Iloilo City, satiate that hunger with a plate of local delicacy. The town’s most famous culinary contribution is Batchoy, a generous serving of soft egg noodles topped with delicacies including crushed crispy pork skin, slivers of pork and a scoop of bone marrow, all set in a buto-buto broth. For something simpler, try a Pancit Molo, a soup dish made with meaty dumplings, shredded chicken and a luxurious savory broth.

Guimaras Island
Mango Capital

Guimaras Island by contrast is famous for one, basic ingredient: the sweetest mangoes in the world, reportedly served at both the White House and Buckingham Palace. So proud are local Guimarasnons of their juicy fruit - the star ingredient in a range of ketchups, pizzas and desserts - that the import of any other mango product outside the island is banned.

Words by Simon Buxton, travel writer.

This page was paid for by Department of Tourism Philippines. The editorial staff of CNBC had no role in the creation of this page.