I was your typical 3rd year college student back then, scrambling to submit a report for a summer class in 2011. The day after I met the deadline, I flew to Puerto Princesa, my first solo trip in an unfamiliar location.
Using the money I saved from my allowance, I made a trip to the remote islands of El Nido. Spending a couple of days in paradise got me hooked on the concept of budget backpacking. That was the time I challenged myself to visit all 81 provinces of the Philippines knowing that in every province lies a piece of heaven just waiting to be discovered.
But I was faced with a problem — I didn’t have the money to pursue my newfound passion, an aspiration which seemed impossible to achieve.
Then came the first weeks of my 4th year in college. I eagerly looked for part-time jobs. I became a library assistant, a laboratory assistant, and an elementary tutor.
I worked in between classes during the day and worked further from 7:00 PM to 10:00 PM from Monday to Saturday. This allowed me to save enough money to buy plane tickets and explore more provinces: Cebu, Bohol, and Leyte. Later that year I braved Zamboanga and Tawi-Tawi, my first time in Mindanao. And before the year ended, I hiked the mountains of Ifugao, Mountain Province and Benguet.
After my graduation in 2012, I landed a good job which helped me save more money to finance my travels. Then after passing the Geology board exam in August of the same year, I created a list of provinces I haven’t visited, grouping them in such a way that I could explore each one as extensively and as efficiently as possible.
And on January 7, 2014 at the age of 21 — I turned a dream into a reality. I was walking along the port of Balut Island in Davao Occidental, my 81st and final Philippine province.
Three years of solo traveling introduced me to countless life-changing experiences. Not only did I meet new friends whom I shared precious memories with, I also ended up with an infinite number of lessons and tons of striking realizations. Sharing all of them will make this article unbearably long, so please allow me to narrow down the list to 5.
Here are 5 things I’ve learned during my trips across all 81 provinces in the Philippines:
1: The Philippines has an insanely diverse landscape.
7,107 islands from north to south, from Mavulis Island in Batanes to Saluag Island in Tawi-Tawi, each one having its own unique size, shape, set of mountains, volcanoes and beaches; clearly wherever you go in the Philippines you will find a scenery that will suit you best. Mountains? Beaches? Desert? Skyscrapers? Grasslands? You can see it all!
An archipelagic nation of more than a thousand islands, would you believe that the summed up length of our coastline is longer than that of the United States?
And imagine every island having its own span of beaches, from black-colored to spotless white, from pebble to powdery sand, from bluish to turquoise waters embracing the shores, it’s no longer a question that the Philippines is truly a world-class beach destination.
Even our mountains differ from one island to another. Many are endowed with thick tropical forests teeming with endemic plants and animals while others were magnificently carved over thousands of years by our great ancestors. Some are extremely difficult to summit but most are easy to climb. If you love hiking and seeing wonderful views from the top, you know that’s not going to be a problem if you’re in the Philippines!
2: Bisaya is more widely spoken than Tagalog.
Growing up in the Tagalog-speaking town of Sariaya in Quezon Province and learning from textbooks that Tagalog is the country’s official language, I used to think that people in farther provinces also use the language to get through their daily lives. Since my family frequented Pampanga to visit our relatives, I was only able to appreciate the variation between Tagalog and Kapampangan.
In college I had classmates from Visayas and Mindanao and while most of them spoke Bisaya, our class was still dominated by Tagalog speakers. I was in 4th year when I visited the provinces of Cebu, Bohol, Negros Oriental, and Siquijor — all of them had Bisaya as the primary language, only with slight variations from one island to another.
Then in 2013 I focused on traveling across the islands of Mindanao: from Dinagat Islands to Sarangani and from Surigao del Norte to Zamboanga del Norte, with stopovers in densely populated cities like Butuan, Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, Ozamiz and Pagadian.
It was then when I realized Bisaya isn’t only confined in the islands of Visayas. It vastly extends down to northern and eastern Mindanao. I also noticed how the language slowly stretches out to areas in central and western Mindanao to some parts of southern Palawan and Leyte. And would you believe, even up to Romblon which is already part of Luzon!
In short, I got overwhelmed by Bisaya to the point that learning a few phrases became handy during the entire span of my journey across the country. And so my native language Tagalog, despite having more native speakers, turned out to be less extensive compared to Bisaya.
3: Almost every province in the Philippines has its unique dish.
I’m sure many of us are familiar with Pampanga’s sizzling sisig, Ilocos’ empanada, Cordillera’s pinikpikan and Bulacan’s chicharon.
There’s also Bicol Express for those who love spicy food, Cebu’s dried mangoes, Capiz’s mouth-watering seafoods, Davao’s durian and Iloilo’s La Paz Batchoy. Our islands also serve as home to various coconut-based sweets like the Binagol of Samar and Leyte, Buko Pie of Laguna, and Bukayo which is found almost anywhere in the country.
Indeed there are plenty of delicious food to try in every province. And traveling deeper lets you discover uncommon but equally delectable dishes such as the Tiyula Itum of Basilan, Cagayan’s Batil Patong, Putli Mandi of Sulu and the Uvud Balls of Batanes. Explore even further and you’ll get a chance to taste exotic treats like the world-famous Balut, Tarlac’s Betute Tugak and Palawan’s tamilok.
4: Flying with budget airlines is sometimes cheaper than taking the bus or ferry.
When I was younger, I thought traveling by plane required huge sums of money. Well, it used to be true but when I started traveling in college, I realized it wasn’t the case anymore.
With the entry of budget airlines like Cebu Pacific and AirAsia, flying across our islands became more affordable. And with the country’s flag carrier Philippine Airlines also offering discounted fares on its domestic destinations, there are now plenty of options to travel by air without hurting your wallet.
All you need to do is to like Facebook pages of these airlines and wait for their posts about promo fares. If you’re lucky, the amount you’ll spend for a one-way bus or ferry ticket from Manila to Davao would already be equivalent to a round trip plane ticket for the same route. This simply lets you get to your destination faster and cheaper, providing you with more time and money to spend on your vacation.
5: Not all Muslim Filipinos are terrorists.
In Muslim Mindanao, the media often emphasizes kidnappings, shootings, bombings, and the like, so it’s understandable to hesitate or maybe even feel fear when we hear of places like Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao, or Cotabato.
However, there has always been this misconception that every corner of Muslim Mindanao is unsafe and even more alarming is the generally negative perception towards our Muslim brothers and sisters in the south.
I have to admit that I also had fears of visiting the provinces that comprise the Bangsamoro region because just like the others, I was concerned about my security.
But I tested my fate and risked traveling to these areas and to my surprise, I was greeted with the warmth of the people and their genuine kindness which never asked for anything in return. And yes, from Marawi to Cotabato to Basilan to Tawi-Tawi, all of the people I met were notably hospitable and peace-loving and just like many of us, they are also against terrorist activities.
So have I in my life regarded Muslims as trouble makers? Yes… but thanks to traveling, not anymore.
What about you? Did you encounter any interesting or maybe life-changing realization in any of your travels? Feel free to post a comment and share your amazing story with everyone!
Read more about Harly’s adventures in the Philippines: