We traveled around the Philippines’ northernmost island, Luzon, for under two weeks, checking out an active volcano and the mountains. Most people think of gorgeous beaches when envisioning the Philippines. But of course there’s more than that here. The northern islands’ best attractions are mountains, forests and cooler weather. Since Manila, where we were starting from and going back to, was already located on the northernmost island, we decided to see what the Philippines had to offer other than white sand and crystal shores.
We dropped off our big bags at a friend’s apartment then left to explore with nothing more than our smallest backpacks. After making a friend in Malaysia who traveled full time with only a small day pack, we were pretty inspired to try out traveling in her lightweight way. Usually we dread getting on and off local buses with our 20+ kilo backpacks. Most of the time, local buses in Asia only give you seconds to get off. And if you’re in Sri Lanka, buses don’t even fully stop, you just jump off as the bus keeps rolling. This can present a major struggle for us since Grace moves so slowly.
It only took one stress-free bus experience for us to immediately fall in love with day pack travel. Our first visit on the Luzon island was the town of Taygaytay (pronounced Tie-guy-tie. I kept saying it wrong at first, so no one knew what I was talking about XD), south of Manila. The southern-bound bus station was a bit far from our friend’s apartment, so we ordered a Grab car to get us there. The man who picked us up was a very professional, kind man who had moved to the Philippines from China as a child. Before dropping us off, he mentioned that his sister ran a hostel in the city of Baguio. We could stay there if we wanted to check out the mountains, he said. I wrote down the hostel name and his sister’s name, just in case. We were only planning our travels one step at a time, but maybe we’d visit Baguio. You never know.
Getting to Taygaytay from Manila
The bus from Manila to Taygaytay cost us each 75 pesos. The bus station we used was near HK Sun Plaza. Travel time largely depends on how terrible the traffic in Manila is at the time you leave. However, no matter what time you leave Manila, the ride will be a long one. It’s actually not that far, if we were thinking about driving distance in the US. But in the Philippines driving speeds don’t often exceed 25 kilometers an hour and the bus stops constantly to drop off or pick up someone along the way. I think the trip took about 4-5 hours for us.
We jumped off the bus at the Olivarez rotunda, the center of town in Taygaytay. It’s helpful to download the map.me phone app map for southern Luzon so you can see when you’re getting near to the rotunda. It was so nice not having to worry about walking around with heavy packs on. When traveling with our big backpacks, our first and desperate need in every new place is to find accommodation to dump them. But with just our day packs, there was no stress. It was a good thing we had the easy of walking around with light packs too. We were walking around that town for hours.
I had done my research on where to stay before arriving, but as we went to check out the budget hostel and hotels I had written down, either the places couldn’t be found or it turned out the places were dumps. For example, online you’ll find the names of two hostels, both with an 8 rating on booking.com. But when we looked at the hostel for ourselves, it had very obviously not been cleaned for a long time (and it seemed the other one no longer existed.) We stopped into a good amount of hotels that I hadn’t seen online. Since Taygaytay is one of the most visited places in the Philippines, the prices being charged for a night’s stay were outrageous. For three people, the cheapest price we found in a hotel was $40/night. The Philippines is more expensive than other Southeast Asian countries, but these prices, especially for what you would be getting (or more accurately, what you wouldn’t be getting) were quite high. It’s good to note that, for everywhere we went, the prices online were much cheaper than what you’re told in person. It usually works the other way around, but not here.
After months of some pretty intense traveling through the Maldives and Sri Lanka, we were tired out and in need of serious rest. We thought we would be spending a relaxed week in Taygaytay, enjoying the cooler weather that everyone goes there for and exploring the volcano and sites around. Guess not, we decided, after seeing those prices.
The Only Budget Accommodation in Taygaytay
(The other hostel option in Taygaytay, Mountain Breeze Hostel, wanted $9pp and was very dirty. So I’m not considering it as a good accommodation option.)
After looking at, what seemed like every hotel in town, it was dark outside and only one place remained where we could possibly stay… if we could find it. The place was called Country Living Guesthouse. When trying to find it, our map lead us to a dead end. Looking lost, we met a lady who offered to help us with directions. I showed her the address and she lead the way. Thank goodness for kind locals.
It’s a hard place to find, so if you’re looking for it too, then it’s past the bus “station” or where you get the bus back to Manila on the main road. After the bus station, keep walking a few hundred meters more, past the bank ATM, until you see a sign on the right hand side reading “Foggy Heights.” You have to pass a security gate to enter the Foggy Heights neighborhood.
The security guy wanted a piece of our identification to hold onto, but we told him we’d just be looking at a Country Living Guesthouse. He let us in without any cards. The hostel looked decent enough that we decided to stay. Good thing too, as it was our last resort. We got a deal through Agoda to stay in a three person room for $15.71 total. In person, they wanted $9 per person. So definitely check online! We used the hostel wifi to book it. This hostel was cutely decorated and save a couple employees, was completely empty. If it had been kept up and cleaned better, it would have made a really nice hostel. But it seemed like whoever owned it didn’t care about it too much.
Where to Eat in Taygaytay
We ate at the Red Bus Diner. It was cute, the people there were really nice, and the food was decent and pretty inexpensive. We weren’t in Taygaytay long, so this is the only place we ate at. Bag of Beans is also a highly rated restaurant on Tripadvisor, but it’s location has been changed, so it’s no longer within easy walking distance of the town center.
Talisay and Taal Volcano
After eating, we took a tuk tuk down to Talisay (TaliSIGH) where you can take a boat over the lake to hike Taal volcano. We paid 150 pesos for the ride, which took about 30 minutes on a long, winding road with spectacular views of the lake and volcano. Our driver even thoughtfully made a couple stops along the way to allow us to take some pictures.
Taal volcano is the 8th most active volcano in the world and 2nd most active in the Philippines. It’s also a geographical phenomenon as it’s an island on the island Luzon, it’s in a lake but also has a lake inside its crater.
Talisay is a poor town, all the shops and homes look dilapidated and more like sheds than anything. There are a number of companies willing to haul you across the water in their little boats, but it’ll cost you hefty fee of around $20pp. The boat ride is said to take around 45 minutes and the fee is for both ways. If you’re coming from a Western nation, $20 might not seem like a lot. But it is a huge amount for the Philippines. And looking around, I couldn’t see where any of that money was going. It definitely wasn’t to improve housing, create businesses, or lift anyone even slightly out of their poverty. As popular at hiking up the Taal volcano is, that town should have been a whole lot richer than it was.
Another strange thing was the price of hotels down in Talisay. We checked out the accommodation there just to see if there was anything decent. Everyone wanted $50 for three people, US$50 for a basic room, in what was basically a slum. We were dumbfounded. I eventually found a place that would take half that, but the room and bathroom had obviously not been cleaned for months and the owners wanted to charge extra for aircon. Obviously it was a big no from us. It also turned out that we said no to the boat ride over to Taal volcano as well. The hike was what we had come for, but as neat as it would have been to hike another active volcano and see the gorgeous view from the top and the lake inside the crater, I couldn’t morally justify paying for it. When you know there’s a steady income in an area, (and there is, just read the many blogs out there talking about how crowded hiking up the Taal volcano can be) from tourism, but no signs of that income making an impact, I have to assume one thing. I had to assume that the money was being used for drugs. I couldn’t be sure or prove it, but it was likely. I believe the best way to fight poverty is to support small local businesses, so paying a poor man to use his boat to transport us would usually be something I’d be happy to do. But in this case, I was convinced my money would be doing more harm than good here.
Before leaving Talisay, we walked through the small town. Kids from the school laughed and waved as we passed. Everyone stared and every two seconds a tuk tuk driver would ask if we wanted a ride back to Taygaytay. Most everyone was sitting or standing at the mouth of their homes. I saw one very elderly man, so starved and frail that he looked like he was on the edge of death. He was still conscious, though I don’t know how. When learning about genocide or children starving in Africa, I’ve seen pictures of severely starving people, living skeletons. This was my first time seeing a living skeleton in real life. His family stood around him, all healthy, some even overweight. It seemed that they had just stopped feeding the old man and were waiting for him to fade away.
Scenes like this drain us of energy while traveling. They’re tragic and hit us deeply.
We couldn’t find a tuk tuk driver to take us up to Taygaytay for the same price we had paid to come down. They all wanted more. As my mom hates to be ripped off unfairly more than just about anything, she said, “Let’s just walk back. We need the exercise anyway.” The way back was about eight miles, but she was banking on the hope that we’d catch a ride to cover whatever distance was left before nightfall. After a couple miles, we did end up catching a ride from a couple of very kind locals.
Back in Tagaytay, we got the next bus back to Manila rather than staying another night. It turned out that the water in our room in the Country Living Guesthouse wasn’t working. The manager said he would switch us to another room with working water, but it had a private bathroom, not a shared bathroom, so he was going to charge us more. Since that’s basically just a very silly way to do business, we declined to stay.
Where to Stay in Pasay City
The bus back to Manila actually dropped us off in Pasay City, in the same area as the international airport and Resort World, where the supposed terrorist attack happened just a few days prior. We were dropped near an MRT station and a local mall.
Our maps.me app on our phones has a feature where it pulls up the hotels in whatever area you’re in and filters them by price and rating. My mom looked for hotels with a 9.0 rating or higher in the budget category. A guesthouse called 2443 Park Avenue Guesthouse (pretty smart to have the guesthouse name be the same as the address) popped up and looked to be only about a mile away. It was about 8pm so after checking the local mall for edible food and wifi, but coming up short, we went straightaway to check out the guesthouse. Since it was close and the traffic was bumper to bumper, as usual, we opted to walk there. Our phone’s routing took us through super local neighborhoods. What we saw of how people live in just that one mile probably makes up the most authentic travel experience we’ve ever had. I wouldn’t even know how to describe it.
The guesthouse turned out to be really nice and full of Europeans. It was a bit pricey for us, but when the owner arrived she worked out a deal for us to stay at $11.47/night each. This guesthouse seemed like luxury after our experience in Taygaytay. We stayed two nights before catching another bus, but this time heading north of Manila, to Baguio.
Where to Eat in Pasay City
We caught a jeepney going to SM City of Asia for 8 pesos and did some grocery shopping there. Just look for jeepneys with “SM City of Asia” painted on the outside of them. We got snacks and things to make peanut and jelly sandwiches for the 7 hour bus ride to Baguio. There are also a ton of restaurants at SM City of Asia. We caught the jeepney on the main street EDSA outside of the Victory Liner terminal (we bought our bus tickets a day in advance) and then took a Grab, using free wifi from the SM mall, to get back to the guesthouse.
Pasay City to Baguio
You can choose regular or deluxe buses to get to Baguio from Pasay. The most common company to use is Victory Liner. Regular Victory Liner buses leave every hour and deluxe buses leave only a little less frequently. We took the regular bus for 455 pesos each (~$9.) Grace received a slight discount for being handicapped. The bus made three rest stops along the way. You could use the bathroom and buy food and drinks. The food options are super local though, so we were glad we had brought our own supply. The scenery up to Baguio was beautiful, lined with rice patty fields, water buffaloes, and mountains. Wifi, although somewhat spotty, was provided on the bus as well.
Accommodation in Baguio
Thanks to our Grab driver, we decided to stay at the Backpacker’s Haven Hostel in Baguio. I couldn’t find it on Agoda or Hostelworld, so I found the address from the Facebook page and wrote down some other places (such as these places) as a back-up plan in case we couldn’t find it. Magnolia Street, where the hostel was, showed up on my map, just a few miles from the bus station. After such a long sitting stint, we (surprise, surprise) decided to walk to the hostel. Again, not having our heavy backpacks made this long, carefree walk possible. And again, my phone routed our walk through some very local neighborhoods. We took a stairway that cut through dozens of backyards. We said hello to neighborhood cats and got loudly barked at by the dogs. The walk lasted about an hour, but we eventually found our way to the Backpacker’s Haven.
Since we didn’t have an online booking, the owner, Stephanie, wasn’t expecting us. A fence surrounded the hostel property, so we had no door to knock on to make our arrival known. Thankfully though, Stephanie was outside when we arrived. She seemed pretty apprehensive of who we were, so I quickly explained that we had met her brother in Manila and had found out about her hostel from him. “Oh! You’ve met my brother?” she replied as she opened the gate and let us in. “He talks so much. How funny. I’ll have to tell him you came.” She welcomed us into her hostel, showed us around, and made us feel right at home. She offered us tea, coffee, filtered water, and toast with spreads. There’s also wifi and a refrigerator guests are welcome to use.
We stayed three nights. The price per person is $8/night. When I paid her, however, she took a bit of the cash I handed her and handed it back, smiling and saying, “Discount.”
Where to Eat in Baguio
Session Road is the business area of the city and boasts the largest selection of eateries. We ate at Volante Pizza and thought it was pretty good. There’s also an SM Mall in the same area.
To Do in Baguio
It was quite rainy during our stay in Baguio, as it was the beginning of rainy season in the Philippines, so we didn’t do too much. But there’s plenty of hiking you can get to in the area if you’re motivated. We mostly walked around the city and hung out at Burnham park. Stephanie told me about a guest she had hosted in the past who had brought his girlfriend on a trip to Baguio as a gift to her. He had planned out an entire itinerary of what to do, where to eat, and how to get around. Here are pictures of his plans, in case the information might bolster your trip too.
You might notice that one of the things planned to do is a visit to Chocolate de Batirol. This is both a cafe in Baguio and a drink made from a special type of Philippine cocoa beans. I almost took a jeepney out to visit this cafe and try it myself, but was prevented by pouring rain. Hanging out at the hostel instead, Stephanie redeemed the situation by making us some homemade chocolate de batirol with fresh cocoa sent to her by a friend. The taste was yummy, but much milder than hot chocolate, and the consistency was thicker and nutty.
Stephanie spoke, in addition to English, Taglog, and some German, Mandarin and Cantonese. After drinking our chocolate de batirol, Stephanie grabbed a notebook and taught me an introduction to Mandarin. She wrote down phrases and combinations of words that would allow me to speak simple sentences from the get-go. As we practiced pronunciation and the four tones, by far the hardest part of learning Chinese in my opinion, Stephanie continually reminded me, “You have to be angry when using the fourth tone!” I still have a hard time with that. Stephanie had been a Chinese language teacher for 13 years and through all that time, retained her passion and gifting for it. She loved to teach it so much that she spent at least a good hour and a half with me, making sure I got the basics down.
The first day of our stay, Stephanie invited us to a birthday dinner for her friend. She cooked a huge, Filippino meal, our first ever. There was so much food left over that she kept inviting us for lunch and dinner leftovers the next day. It was fantastic! Her’s was some of the best homemade food we had in all our travels.
The generosity we received at the Backpacker Haven hostel blessed our travel-wearied souls. Our only complaint while staying there were the dozens of dogs who chorused their barks together through out the nights.
We are now back in Manila, finishing the second month of our stay in the BGC area. Two English teachers whom we met through a facebook travel group have given us their fancy apartments to relax in as my mom and I work on TEFL courses to become certified English teachers. Staying here is everything we could have ever asked for to help us recover from some tiring, hard-knock travels. We even have two kitty cats!
If you travel around Luzon, I hope you enjoy the lesser explored beauty of mountains. More than Baguio, you can look into visiting Sagada and the Banaue rice terraces, two very popular hot-spots in the north.