I consider myself to be a lapsed City Girl — these days, I only daydream about skyscrapers and high culture, while spending my time kicking around laid-back islands in flip flops instead. So I’m actually quite excited when my travels bring me to a big urban metropolis. But I’ve come to learn that I’m in the minority here — most backpackers I meet can’t wait to make a beeline out of Bangkok or pop out of Phnom Penh. So it comes as no suprise that one of the most popular things to do in Manila is actually to join a tour that takes you away from it.
When I was picked up at Pink for my Tagaytay Ridge Tour from Manila I was amused to find that I in fact had a private drive and guide all to myself for the day — I’m sure they were just as amused to pick up their VIP guest from a hostel, rather than a posh high-rise in Makati. Having just arrive in the Philippines, I was eager to use our time fighting traffic to glean as much information as possible from my guide.
Our first stop was to San Jose Church, home to a source of great Filipino pride — an organ made entirely of bamboo. My guide passed me off to yet another guide, this one an employee of the church who walked me through a small museum and rattled off an impressive instrumental history starting in 1816 and surviving typhoons, earthquakes, World Wars and more. Then came the real highlight, as I was led to a second-story balcony with views of the old-world church and treated to a private concert of the unique sounds of the bamboo organ. As I shot video on my iPhone I thought about all the Sundays I spent as a child listening to the same instrument, worlds away from this one.
It was an interesting stop, and a reminder of the Philippine’s strong devotion to Christianity — something that sets it far away from other Southeast Asian nations.
Next up was another bite-size dose of Filipino culture — a stop at a jeepney factory. I’ve often heard that no trip to the Philippines is complete without a ride in one of these extravagantly painted, extremely overcrowded forms of local transportation. The jeepney truly does tell the story of the Philippines — originally made from US military jeeps left over from World War II, a defining war for this nation, and currently restored using local resources like shredded coconut husks stuffed into vinyl to make seat padding.
Today, they clog every street in Manila, slowing slightly for passengers to jump off and hop in, shifting the masses of overstuffed bodies already inside.
While this location seemed much more of a museum or showroom than an actual factory, it was still a really fun stop. I hadn’t yet had a chance to actually ride a jeepney, so it was quite fun to get up close and personal with one and see them in various stages of development.
And then we were off to our true destination for the day — Tagaytay Ridge. En route, my guide explained how the rolling hills, cool breezes and fresh air of Tagaytay made it the most desirable vacation-home spot for Manila’s glitterati. “What about the beaches?” I has asked. “Philippines has seven thousand islands,” he replied, “and eleven hills. I suspect he was exaggerating, but the message was clear. We were headed somewhere rare.
Just a short distance away from Manila, and we were in another world.
We began our Tagaytay trip with a stop at The Palace in The Sky. This unfinished summer home boasts a Greek-style ampitheatre, a towering statue of Christ and panoramic views of Tagaytay Ridge and Taal Lake. But what really interested me was the Marcos family connection — this was her unfinished summer home, now in ruins. This was now the second extravagant and eventually abandoned building project of the former Philippine president and his wife — and I had been in the country two days.
I did enjoy the kitschy additions that enterprising individuals have added to spruce up the place, though.
From the Palace in the Sky, Taal Lake and the volcano nestled within it were still just tiny specks. So we headed back to the van and wound closer along the mountain roads until we reached a better view in the form of a restaurant balcony. After asking me about my palate preferences, my guide ordered a sampling of Filipino dishes for the three of us to share. I admit that Filipino food never really blew me away, and sadly this wasn’t an exception. Dessert, however, was quite fun. With a tasting platter placed in front of me and the encouragement of the driver and guide, I tried some yummy and radioactively colored treats that I might have ignored otherwise.All the while, a Filipino cover band made the rounds, serenading in exchange for tips. They were actually amazingly good — perhaps a testament to karaoke being the national pastime — but I felt a bit awkward when I asked my guide what an acceptable tip would be and he named a figure that seemed shockingly high. I handed it over but couldn’t be sure if I had been taken for a ride.
To break up the picturesque drive home we stopped frequently to pick up fresh fruit from a market, sample coffee from a brewery, and photograph orchids at a beautiful local farm. I saw far many more domestic tourists than foreign ones, confirming Tagaytay’s beloved status among the Filipino people.
I returned to Manila exhausted but with a greater understanding of the Philippines, from its music to its transportation to its most popular vacation destinations. But most importantly, I finally knew what that slime green drink with the jello blobs in it tasted like.
Do you prefer guided tours in new cities or exploring the sights on your own?
I am a freelancer for Viator and participated in this tour in order to write a review for their site. They did not request a favorable view on either their site or my own. All thoughts and opinions are, as always, mine.
Why do the Philippines get left off the SEA tail? I can only think because Thailand is so amazing.
The jeepney reminds me of the daibelys or red devails in Panama.
Well, as someone who cut their Philippines trip short because they couldn’t stand to leave Thailand… I think that suspicion may be correct 🙂 But it leaves an untouched playground for those of us that do make it there!
love the pig shot!
Honestly, I had this moment when I was sitting with those pigs where I thought I might give up pork. Then I remembered bacon. Sorry piggies…
Oh! Jeepneys are so cute. Even the name is cute. I’ve never heard of those.
What was the green thing? Buko pandan?
You know what, I’m awful and I can’t remember any of the names! Bad blogger! Buko pandan definitely sounds familiar though…
Did it taste like coconut? Buko pandan is coconut and pandan leaves (in the lemongrass family).
Buko pandan is a food made from coconut (buko). Pandan is a type of leaf that gives flavor to some other foods in the philippines especially fruit salad.
Thanks for the info! Filing that away 🙂
Love the view from Palace in the Sky, truly breathtaking.
I knew you’d like the Marcos history connection!
What a great introduction to the area – I love that lost orchid shot too! The few times I’ve had a private guide I’ve really enjoyed it and felt much more comfortable asking questions and getting to know them than in a group situation. It’s a great way to start out somewhere and have access to all that inside knowledge.
Definitely agree you can get a lot more information with a private guide. I can also see the downside though… it’s kind of exhausting to be the center of someone’s attention for so many hours! I sometimes enjoy melting into a group. Maybe I’m weird though 😛
Street food is popular in the Philippines. Have you tried eating the famous ‘balot’? You’ll sure enjoy the experience. 😉
I’m not sure if I tried balot! Oh well, another excuse to go back 🙂
This looks like a great day tour and you got it all to yourself! We’re in Jakarta and not enjoying it do much, maybe we’ll have to see if there are any tours like this for us here.
Hey Andrew, not to sound like an infomercial considering I freelance for them, but Viator really is a great place to start! Their tours seem to cover the highlights as well as hidden gems in cities around the world. Hope Jakarta shows you another side soon 🙂
Hey Alex i just came across your post while doing some research for my trip to Manila next week. going to try to book that intramuros tour you mention!! it’s a shame i don’t have enough time to do the viator day tour also…i think i should have allowed more time in manila before i go to boracay!
Ah, you’ll have to tweet me and tell me how the Intramuros tour was! I also really recommend Pink hostel if you’re looking for a place to stay. Loved that pool!
Hi! Its been a pleasure that a New Yorker posted a blog about our country (Tagaytay is located in our province in Cavite) and I truly appreciate your words about the place and I hope you come back to the Philippines for more visits in the Philippines. #ItsMoreFunInThePhilippines
Thanks Jonathan! I certainly hope to return the the Philippines some day, especially to do more diving!
Great post Alex!
There is so much to do and see in around Manila it’s hard to fit it all in. I think that it’s a real shame the Philippines are often left off the SEA tourist trail but at least it leaves an untouched paradise for those of us who make the journey!
Another Filipino attraction you might be interested in is the Puerto Princesa Underground River. This is an amazing experience and was recently named on of the 7 wonders of nature!
Hey Sam! I agree the Philippines is an untouched paradise. I hope their tourism continues to grow once they recover from this current tragedy. PS: I, along with most bloggers, don’t allow self-promotion URLS in comments (I do have commentluv enabled to help fellow bloggers!). Rather than delete your comment I just removed the URL. Thanks for understanding 🙂
Amazing photos Alex, I can’t wait to go to the Philippines in July
You’ll love it! I can’t wait to go back someday. Enjoy!