Things to Do in Visayas
Cebu's Basilica del Santo Niño (Basilica of Santo Nino) was born from fire. In 1565, the church was built on the site where one of conquistador Legazpi's men supposedly found a statue of Jesus in the burning ruins of a hostile native village. The statue—considered the country’s oldest religious artifact—was left completely unharmed.
The Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan led the first expedition to sail around the earth but never made it home, dying in Cebu. Today, a tall wooden cross known as Magellan’s Cross (Cruz de Magallanes) commemorates his memory—and supposedly contains relics of the original crucifix Magellan planted in Cebu in 1521.
Amid the crystal waters and vibrant reef of Cebu’s Sumilon Island Marine Sanctuary, tiny Sumilon Island offers secret caves, hiking trails, colorful marine life, a lighthouse, and a brilliant white sandbar that’s an Instagram favorite. It’s home to the Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort, with pools, water sports, restaurants, and stylish bungalows.
Olango Island sits around five kilometers east of Mactan Island in Cebu. One of a group of seven islands in the region, Olango Island is mainly known for its wildlife sanctuary. However, it also offers pristine beaches, incredible dive sites, and a number of floating restaurants – the latter of which are built on stilts over the water and serve up an astonishing array of freshly cooked seafood.
Away from its beaches and offshore corals, much of the terrain of Olango Island is made up of mangrove swamps, making it a mecca for all sorts of wildlife. The Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary is home to the largest known concentration of migratory birds in the Philippines. A haven for birds migrating from Siberia, Northern China, and Japan, there are said to be just under 100 species of bird at the sanctuary, with around half being migratory species and the remainder being permanent residents of the island.
Conceptualized by local award-winning sculptor Eduardo Castillo and unveiled in 2000, Cebu Heritage Monument is a brass, bronze, and steel monolith that showcases the country’s history in giant form. Telling a story of colonization and occupation, visit the monument to learn about the Philippines’ centuries-long struggle for freedom.
Dominating the heart of the monument is the sculpture of the Spanish galleon ship that carried explorer Ferdinand Magellan and his crew to 16th-century Cebu. Magellan’s arrival marked the beginning of the colonization of the Philippines, though on the night of April 21, 1521, local chieftain Lapu-Lapu ended up killing him in the Battle of Mactan, and Cebu Heritage Monument depicts this event too.
From Spanish sailboats to men preparing for battle, Cebu Heritage Monument is hyper masculine, though there are touches of color, with the red, white, and blue of the Philippine flag splashed across one corner of the monument.
Based in Plaza Parian in front of the Chapel of San Juan Bautista, the Philippines’ religious history is also carved into this monument. See the the conversion of Rajah Humabon — one of the first indigenous converts to Roman Catholicism — to Christianity. Spot a statue of the blessed Saint Pedro Calungsod, a giant cross, a representation of Cebu City’s first Mass, and depictions of Cebu City’s Basilica del Santo Niño, Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral, and San Juan Bautista Parish Church.
Built in the 17th century by Chinese-Filipino merchant Don Juan Yap and his wife Doña Maria Florida, Yap-Sandiego Ancestral House is one of the oldest preserved homes in the Philippines.
In Cebu City’s Parian district, as you wander the two-storey home you can get a glimpse of life as it would have been during colonial times. One of the best things about this little museum? You’re allowed to pick up and get a feel for all the centuries-old artifacts dotted around the house — chinaware, cutlery, figurines, ornaments, and glassware — everything. Be careful not to drop anything though, as truly, all these ornaments are priceless.
Clearly the Yaps were a devoted Roman Catholic family — you’ll see life-sized religious figures all over the house. Check out the wishing well in the back garden, too, and ask the caretaker/guide/resident photographer to snap your picture in front of it. He’s famous for being happy to take your photo wherever you’d like. He’ll also regale the history of the home, but of course, you’re free to explore by yourself too.
Converted into a museum by Yap’s great great grandson, Val Mancao Sandiego, in 2008, at the weekends Sandiego and his family still sleep here so that the house will continue to feel like a home.
Set in landscaped gardens just back from the waterfront in the heart of Cebu City, Fort San Pedro (Fuerte de San Pedro in Spanish) is a postcard-perfect colonial fort. First built in the 16th century, the triangular structure dates mainly from the 18th century. It houses a little museum devoted to Spanish colonial times.
With thick white walls built to withstand tropical typhoons, Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral looks like a typical Philippine church. Decorated with griffins and floral motifs, the facade is the only original part of the chapel left, as the interior was destroyed during World War II. The restored cathedral has a gold altar and life-size statues of saints.
Just across the water from Cebu City, Mactan Island (Lapu Lapu) is where most visitors begin their Cebu journey, at Mactan-Cebu International Airport. But there’s more to Mactan Island than transportation alone. It’s home to sleek resorts, a wealth of water sports, excellent scuba diving, and even a monument or two.
Built in the 1850s, the Casa Gorordo Museum is a beautifully preserved example of a balay nga tisa, a Spanish colonial building style that blends Spanish, Chinese, and Philippine elements. Four generations of the Gorordo family lived in the house, which now holds antiques, artworks, and multimedia displays about Cebuano history, as well as a shop and a café.
More Things to Do in Visayas
Don’t worry—there aren’t any crocodiles cruising the waters at this popular Boracay island. Instead you’ll find schools of colorful fish and vibrant, healthy corals, that make this one of the best places to go snorkeling and swimming in Boracay. The waters here can be crystal clear—particularly in the peak season—and it’s a happening stop on island hopping tours that explore the Boracay coast.
It isn’t just snorkelers who flock here, however, as Crocodile Island is also one of the best spots to go scuba diving in Boracay. The wall here begins at 15 feet and it’s a relatively shallow dive, which makes it a good spot for intro divers or those who have just become certified. Watch as schools of silvery fish go flitting in front of your face, and corals waves in the gentle currents and spring up out of the reef. There’s even the chance of spotting a turtle at it lazily swims on by, before climbing aboard your Boracay boat and exploring the rest of the coast.
Known for its white sand beaches, Pandanon Island is a popular spot on island-hopping itineraries from Cebu or Bohol. If you’re coming from Mactan in Cebu, after an 80-minute pumpboat ride you’ll arrive on pristine coral sand to enjoy the simple things in life: snorkeling among tropical fish, sunbathing on the beach, renting out a thatched-roof hut on the beach with friends and family.
Slightly further away from Cebu than islands like Hilutungan, Nalusuan, and Caohagan, Pandanon is known for being a peaceful place. There are no resorts or hotels, and if food and drinks aren’t provided on your island-hopping boat tour, it’s a good idea to bring your own refreshments even though there are a few small stores on the island.
Looking out to the island of Bohol, at low tide Pandanon Island’s famous sandbar winds 1km out to sea, giving you a chance to go for a stroll by the Sulu Sea. And if you want to get married on the beach, there’s also a little chapel by the water.
Located around an hour’s drive from Danao City on Cebu Island, the Danasan Eco Adventure Park covers a vast area made up of caves, freshwater springs, a man-made lake, and a three-tiered waterfall.
The Skydrop is one of the most heart-thumping activities at the park. This sees guests ascend up to more than 35 meters before free-falling back to earth while swinging dramatically back and forth. There’s also the High Cable Twin Tower, where adventure-seekers traverse from one tower situated at 36 meters in the air down to another at around 18 meters high.
The Danasan Eco Adventure Park also offers more gentle activities, such as horseriding, trekking, ATV rides, wakeboarding, and go-karting, along with a number of more traditional sports. There’s also a rope obstacle course and a zip line that extends for more than 400 meters, plus opportunities for caving and trekking through the three levels of the Danasan Falls.
All of the facilities and activities are environmentally-friendly and planned so as not to cause any harm to the park’s natural surroundings.
Reigning supreme over the city of Cebu, Mt. Kan-Irag, otherwise known as Sirao Peak, stands at an imposing 2,300 feet (700 meters). And while views from the top of the monolith are unrivaled, hikers can reach the summit in just 30 minutes via an undemanding trail that begins in the mountain village of Busay.
The island of Boracay has stunning white beaches and perfectly turquoise water, but one thing missing is a rocky coast where you can scramble through a tunnel, emerge in a cave, and watch waves explode on the rocks. Luckily Crystal Cove Island next door has not one, but two different sea caves, where you walk down a staircase or crouch beneath rocks to hear the ocean as it thunders. This 6-acre, privately owned island off of Boracay is popular with Boracay island hopping tours, where in addition to touring the caves on shore, you also get the chance to snorkel and swim along the rocky coastline. The first cave is easily accessible, but the second requires crouching down and scrambling through a small tunnel, before eventually emerging in a massive cave with ledges for snapping a few photos.
You can also enjoy a picnic on the island if you choose to visit on your own, and eat your lunch with a panoramic view of five different islands offshore. There’s also a museum with seashell art and other locally made crafts, and a small restaurant with restrooms and drinks just steps from a white sand beach.
Perched 1,969 feet (600 meters) above Cebu City in the Mt. Busay area, Tops Lookout offers sweeping views across the city, Mactan Island, and beyond. Brave the steep and winding road for sunset for spectacular photo ops as the sun sinks into the sea, the greenery fades into darkness, and the city lights begin to sparkle.
On an island that’s known for its spectacular beaches, Balinghai Beach on northwestern Boracay is a private, white sand stunner. Much smaller than White Beach—where Boracay comes to party—Balinghai Beach is on a section of coast that can only be reached by sailing canoe or a footpath from Balinghai Resort. The beach is technically open to the public, but you’ll need to pay a day use fee of about $10 per person. The fee is good all day, however, and allows access to beach facilities like cabanas and chairs, and there’s even a popular oceanfront restaurant for ordering some food and drinks.
While the sand here at Balinghai isn’t as soft as neighboring White Beach, the sunsets are arguably much more romantic since it’s set in an intimate cove, and the only sound is of waves on the sand and wind rustling in the trees. To visit Balinghai Beach in Boracay, join in a 6-hour island hopping tour that explores the coastline and coves.
Named for Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón in Spanish), Colon Street is famed as one of the oldest streets in the Philippines. Just a short walk from Magellan’s Cross and the Basilica del Santo Niño in downtown Cebu City, it’s a bustling, lively shopping hub where brightly colored jeepneys to and fro among bargain department stores.
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