Incredible highland day trips from Manila

The pulsing metropolis of Manila, Philippines is surrounded by shy volcanic mountains. Some jagged with abrupt peaks, some smooth with long rolling crests of green. I say ‘shy’ because the dense humidity and pollution of Manila often causes a haze that blankets anything of great distance. A fog that seems to dim contrast and blur the edges of distant mountain ranges. Some days they are sharp and clear in the distance, appearing to vividly overlook the city skyline. Other days they’re completely absent as the edge of the city blurs into a thick greyness.

Despite all this, the mountains are always there and offer a great day trip out of the city that bombards you with stunning green hills, vivid green rice fields, blue lakes, waterfalls, mountains and volcanos. The one-day trip we did I call the Laguna Bay Loop (map below).

Before I moved to Manila, I visited the city too many times to count on various business trips. I became almost annoyed about hearing tales of the incredible 7000 islands that make up the Philippines with their powdery white sand and bright blue water that shimmers like glass and pulses with fish and coral. It’s frustrating to know that you’re surrounded by so many incredible destinations when you’re stuck in the city with many business commitments.

The 'shy' volcanic mountains that surround Manila on a clear afternoon.

The ‘shy’ volcanic mountains that surround Manila on a clear afternoon.

However, I’ve since learnt that you don’t need to fly out of Manila to one of the islands to enjoy incredible scenery. Last weekend we did a road trip that took in Antipolo, Tanay, Pagsanjan, Talisay and Tagaytay in one day!

I was nervous before we set out. I’ve driven a car in many other countries around the world, even ridden motorbikes! However, I had never driven in the Philippines. Manila traffic is notorious and driving here is like playing a video game where everything’s trying to kill you. Yet, I decided to get my licence here (8 hours at the ‘Land Transport Office’ that I’ll never get back) so I thought I’d hire a car and give it a go! Lucky it was Sunday (and Valentine’s day – a BIG deal in the Philippines) so there wasn’t much traffic leaving Manila. We first headed for an area called Antipolo.

Antipolo is a town that stretches along the highlands to the east of the city centre. It’s a beautiful area with rolling hills and lots of restaurants or ‘restos’ as they’re called here, each offering stunning views overlooking the valley and Laguna Bay. The road bends, ascends, and drops over dramatic mountain ranges. It really is beautiful and has the feel of a classic country drive away from the city. There’s plenty of lookouts and areas to pull over and take in the view, take photos, and even buy fresh coconuts, fruit and drinks from the many street vendor stalls that are setup at almost every vantage point.

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The area is popular with motorbike riders and cyclists and attracts many such day-trippers who enjoy the windy roads, fresh air and great views.

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The surrounding area south of Antipolo is full of history. As you drive through the different villages, you’re presented with ancient cathedrals, elaborate gateways and interesting architecture from the spanish era. It really does have a completely different feel to Manila and is a quintessential Philippine province with its friendly laid-back people, beautiful countryside and historic landmarks.

My wife Jen and our daughter Lilly at XXX Cathedral in XXX

My wife Jen and our daughter Lilly at Tanay Church (built 1773)  in Tanay, south of Antipolo on the east side of Laguna Bay.

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After exploring Antipolo, Tanay and surrounds, we continued down the east side of Laguna Bay and through Pagsanjan. Here there is an old stone gateway you drive through and some very interesting spanish architecture. Pagsanjan is also famous for its beautiful waterfalls. We didn’t have time to stop on this trip, however it’s definitely worth a visit. Instead we continued through Laguna and towards Tagaytay.

This is a long drive and most people do Tagaytay and Antipolo in separate trips. However, if you’re short on time you can do it all in one day. We just did a big loop around Laguna bay to the southeast of the city. The drive provided glimpses of many different villages and areas and reminds you just how diverse the Philippines is, even if you’re only 100kms from Manila.

One thing we found difficult is using a GPS. Some of the roads here don’t even look like roads. You feel like you’re driving along someone’s private driveway or a logging truck route. However, it is actually a road and if you’re patient it will lead you out somewhere. Part of the experience was stopping several times to wind down the window and ask the locals if we were going the right way. To make this easy I would recommend learning some basic directions in Tagalog.

However, getting lost added to the experience and was certainly a baptism by fire in terms of getting used to driving in the Philippines. Narrow, winding roads with no proper surface provided challenging. Especially when half of the road is closed for road ‘works’ and you need to dodge the ‘Deep Excavation’ signs. After an hour of winding along dirt roads dodging wild dogs, cows, Jeepneys, motorbikes, children and chickens, we came out on the road along Taal Lake in Talisay at the foot of Tagaytay. This marks the beginning of another province of Luzon (the island where Manila is), called Batangas.

The lake is stunning! The locals sometimes call the lake a ‘volcano in a volcano’. The lake is actually formed from ancient volcanic eruptions and in the centre of the lake is Taal Volcano on ‘Volcano Island’. This is the second most active volcano in the Philippines having erupted 33 times, the last being in 1977. It has been showing signs of unrest since 1991 and may very well erupt again soon.

Despite the hidden seismic unrest, the lake is absolutely peaceful. We arrived right on sunset which was perfect for capturing the traditional Filipino boats with their colourful wooden ballasts as the palms rustled and the sun disappeared behind the mountain ranges.

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After taking in the lake, we started the steep, windy climb up the mountain to Tagaytay City. Tagaytay (Ta-guy-tie) is at the summit of the Mount Sungay at an altitude of 2000 feet which provides locals with a refreshing break from the relentless heat of nearby Manila. As you wind up along the mountains edge,  the view over the lake is incredible. The higher you get, the more of the volcano and the lake come in to perspective. As the sun sets to the west, the lake reflects the beautiful hues of orange and violet as the sky fades.

The view from the road that winds up the mountain from Talisay to Tagaytay.

The view from the road that winds up the mountain from Talisay to Tagaytay.

Once you reach the top of the mountain you find yourself in the middle of bustling Tagaytay. A town that stretches along the edge of the mountain range offering spectacular views from many restaurants, bars, B&Bs and hotels. Tagaytay is designed to cater for people wanting to escape Manila for the weekend. On Valentine’s Day it was full of couples walking up and down, with teddy bears and roses in hand.

Jen singing with the live band... Yes, you can do that in the Philippines. Every band usually has a whole set for 'jamming' where anyone can get up & sing or play an instrument!

Jen singing with the live band… Yes, you can do that in the Philippines. Every band usually has a whole set for ‘jamming’ where anyone can get up & sing or play an instrument!

Dinning at one of the outdoor restaurants on the mountains edge

Dinning at one of the outdoor restaurants on the mountains edge

We stayed until evening and had a nice local meal al fresco on the mountains edge. The breeze was almost cold as it wafted through the restaurant… A nice and welcome change! Like anywhere in the Philippines, sunset brings great live bands and many places to have a cold beer and watch the band as the stars twinkle overhead and the city lights twinkle below you.

Check out the photo gallery from our day trip below!

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