Luzon is the Philippines’ largest island and home of the capital Manila. Central Luzon is home to big cities, some nice beaches, majestic mountains, large picturesque lakes, and a good infrastructure.

Central Luzon is an all-round destination, with great diving, hiking, birdwatching, and surfing. It has a variety of landscapes to explore, beaches to relax on, and urbanized cities to wander around. Day trips from Manila are the most practical, but several days exploring the volcanic calderas and landscapes or relaxing on nearby beaches can also be worthwhile.

It is extremely easy to get to Central Luzon from other regions thanks to the island’s great highway network. Clark International Airport compliments Manila’s national hub, and more preferably for accessing Northern Luzon. It’s 90 minutes away from Manila by car.

The weather is best from November to April when the region is at its driest, with the rest of the year being wet and prone to typhoons late in the year. The temperature drops considerably in elevated areas towards the North. July and August are the wettest months, while May is the hottest month of the year.

What to see
Most visitors either stay along the west coast of Central Luzon close to the beaches or in the Pampanga region to visit the natural attractions. Subic Bay is one of the most developed resort areas in the province. There are pretty stretches of beach with hilly backdrops and a wide choice of hotels of varying quality. However, since the departure of the American military from the airbase, this resort area has suffered some neglect. It’s practical as a beach destination for the area but doesn’t compete with some of the more popular locations elsewhere in the Philippines.

The landlocked portion of Central Luzon is where the majority of the natural sites are located and it thrives on eco-tourism. One of the most popular attraction in the region is the majestic Mount Arayat, a 1,026 meters high strato-volcano in the center of Luzon. There are two trails that lead to the peak of the mountain, with each taking between three and four hours to hike. It is known to be a mystical mountain that is home to the fairy Maria Sinukuan who apparently lives at the White rock, or lava dome.

At the summit of Mount Pinatubo, just to the east of Mount Arayat, is the stunning Lake Pinatubo. This breathtaking crater lake is accessible by taking a 4WD for just over one hour and then hiking up the mountain for 45-minutes. Its most recent significant eruption was in 1992, altering the landscape and coating the entire area in ashen dust. Presently it is dormant.

Easier to access is the Laguna Caldera, just southeast of Manila. The beautiful lake’s surface is just one meters above sea level and sits between Mount Sembrano and Talim Island. Some of the towns on the shoreline enjoy pretty vistas, with sea breezes, and its worth spending a night or day relaxing among the locals with the sense that you are ‘beside the sea’.

Taal Lake is also extremely impressive, which was formed between 500,000 and 100,000 years ago as a result of numerous large eruptions. What’s interesting about the lake is that in the center of it lies Volcano Island, and atop that is a magnificent crater lake. There are regular tours to the lake, with the top of Volcano Island being accessible by horseback.

The protected Aurora Memorial National Park covers an area of 5,676 hectares along the east coast of Central Luzon. It is popular for eco-tourism, with its lush forest and rich habitat that includes vultures, lizards, snakes, amphibians, and the endangered Philippine Eagle.

There are numerous historical and religious sites throughout Central Luzon, with the largest concentration being in the San Fernando Heritage District. Angeles City also has some fine examples of historical sites, like Fort Stotsenburg, Salakot Arch, and Holy Rosary Church (Santo Rosario Church).

What to do
There is no shortage of things to do in Central Luzon both on land and off of it. Besides trekking in the mountains, diving is also very popular here, as are farm based eco-tours. Birdwatching, surfing, island hopping, and shopping are some of the other things that tourist find themselves doing here.

Subic Bay has the best organized infrastructure for diving. Not only does it have a busy resort and nice beach area adjacent to the Freeport, but also boasts an impressive number of sunken wrecks in the bay, both Japanese and American war ships from WWII. There’s also a number of colourful reefs along this stretch of coast, serviced by several dive shops.

The Nueva Ecija province is known for its eco-friendly farm tours and other special tours, like those to the Gross Ostrich Farm, as it the agricultural center of the province. It is also home to the country’s main agricultural research centers, which can also be visited.

Bird lovers should head to Candaba in Pampanga, a place that is known for its birdwatching tours. The area is a haven for migratory birds, with the best time to spot these birds being from October to April. Other rare birds found here include the Shrenck’s Bittern, Gadwall, and Great Bittern.

Shopaholics will not be bored in Central Luzon, as there are plenty of places to go shopping throughout the region. Tarlac City is home to around 10 big shopping malls, including the huge SM City Tarlac. Of course, Manila has, perhaps, the largest collection of malls in Southeast Asia, including the Mall of Asia, reputedly the world’s largest by floorspace.

Local culture
Tagalog is the first language of the majority of the population in Central Luzon and the culture most prominent in the region. This is followed closely by Kapampangan, which is the language of choice in Pampanga. As a result of the numerous cultures in the region, there are plenty of festivals throughout the entire year.

One of the most popular is the annual Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta near Clark Airbase. The festival is held every year between January and February and it is the country’s biggest aviation sports event. Over 100 air-balloon pilots from around the world ride their colorful balloons in the sky. The event also features skydiving, choreographed kite-flying, freestyle acrobatics, and kite making.

San Jose City in Nueva Ecija hosts the Tanduyong Festival each year to give thanks to their crops; mainly onions, garlic, and rice. It is the most colorful festival in the province, where people dance in the streets in native costumes and music fills the air.

Also in April is the seven-day Paynauen Duyan Festival that features traditional local arts and crafts. It is a popular festival for tourists, what with its sandcastle competition, singing contest, kite flying competition, and cooking contest. The festival takes place in Iba, Zambales.

December’s annual Giant Lantern Festival is one of the region’s most popular, taking place on the Saturday before Christmas in the City of San Fernando. It features a huge giant lantern competition, with some lanterns costing around $11,000 to construct.

Overview

Manila, or more correctly, Metro Manila is the National Capital Region (NCR) of the Philippines. Unlike other regions of the country, this region is not subdivided into provinces, but rather composed of 16 cities and one municipality. With more than 11 million residents, Metro Manila is one of the most densely populated urban areas in the world. Metro Manila is not to be confused with the City of Manila, the original settlement that is now just one of the cities, which make up NCR.

Metro Manila is the hub of finance, commerce, education, culture, and transport in a country of more than 7,000 islands. Many visitors who arrive here may find the chaos and the crush of people a bit overwhelming, but these are precisely what constitute the charm of the city.

Ninoy Aquino International Airport is the main entry point for those arriving in the Philippines. With four terminals, the airport has connections throughout the globe from regional hubs such as Hong Kong and Singapore to global hubs such as Dubai and Doha and even Sydney, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and London. To get around the city, visitors can take cabs, city buses, jeepneys (the gaudy, colorful, and very local minibus), or the metro with two north-south lines and one east-west line.

A visit during the months of January to March is a good idea. Weather is relatively pleasant with temperatures on the side of bearable. December is a good time to visit, too, if only to witness Christmas festivities. However, traffic gets a little chaotic during this time of the year. While April and May weather is also pleasant, the temperatures in the city can soar to the low 100s (Fahrenheit) made worse by the high humidity.

What to See

There was already a settlement in what was to become Manila even before the Spaniards came. Sadly, there are no more remnants of this pre-colonial era to speak of. The walled district of Intramuros is the colonial settlement founded by the Spanish in 1571. Though much of Intramuros was leveled by Japanese and American bombs during World War II, parts of it such as the perimeter wall and the old garrison of Fort Santiago remained intact.

While in Intramuros, visitors should also see the Manila Cathedral and the San Agustin Church. Both are national treasures with the latter a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well. To see the entire historic district, visitors can go on a very novel activity: a biking tour using locally produced bamboo bikes.

Across the river from Intramuros is one of the oldest Chinatowns in the world: Binondo. The area was also heavily bombed during the war, so very few old buildings remain. Despite this, it is still an area of interest for shopping and authentic Chinese food. Worth seeing here is Binondo Church, the place of worship for the Christianized Chinese of the area.

Close to Binondo is Rizal Park. The area is dedicated to the national hero Jose Rizal, who through his writings opposed Spanish occupation helping to ignite the revolution. The area is a local favorite with its green patches, gardens, monuments, and fountains.

Those looking to escape the chaos and noise of downtown Manila can take the metro towards the campus of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City. The campus has wide-tree lined avenues, vast green areas, quiet benches, and nice cafes.

What to Do

Being the largest city in the Philippines, Metro Manila offers a lot of activities for visitors. Foodies staying in downtown Manila can do a food tour of Manila’s Chinatown Binondo. Here, visitors will not only taste authentic Chinese food such as dumplings, noodles, and spring rolls, but also fusion dishes such as the sweet chocolate rice porridge called champorado.

A lot of eating can also be done in the various foodie districts of Metro Manila. In Pasig City, visitors can head to the Kapitolyo area for steaks, authentic Japanese ramen, barbecue, and ice cream. In Quezon City, visitors can go to Maginhawa, a long, wide, and otherwise residential street lined with various restaurants and cafes serving Filipino, Japanese, Indonesian, Persian, and American food.

For many tourists, one highlight is the shopping. Many malls and commercial areas offer cheap goods from clothing to house ware. While bargaining in the malls of Makati is not possible, in the shopping areas of Greenhills or Divisoria, bargaining is the norm.

The nightlife in Metro Manila is also something worth experiencing. The best bars of the city can be found in Eastwood and Timog, both located in Quezon City. In Makati, visitors can head to Makati Avenue. In the City of Manila, there is Malate, also considered the capital’s red light district.

Those looking to give back can get in touch with the Gawad Kalinga charity organization. One highly recommended activity is a day trip to the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm located just north of Metro Manila in the province of Bulacan. The farm is a grassroots initiative of the organization to educate local farmers about the different aspects of agriculture and entrepreneurship.

Local Culture

Although an administrative region by itself, Metro Manila is located in the Southern Tagalog region. Thus, the language spoken in Metro Manila is Tagalog. However, being a highly commercialized city with a very strong American colonial legacy, English is widely spoken. It is used everywhere from street signs and business establishments to media, commerce, and education. Chinese, specifically Southern Chinese languages Hokkien and Cantonese, are spoken by the Chinese of Binondo as a first or second language.

A great time to visit Metro Manila is during the months of January and February if only to witness two large festivals taking place this time of the year. The Chinese New Year is a big celebration in Binondo featuring dragon and lion dancers, fresh fruits for sale (for good luck), and a lot of fireworks.

Another spectacle to behold is the Feast of the Black Nazarene, which takes place every ninth of January in the very busy area of Quiapo in the City of Manila. The statue of a dark-skinned Jesus Christ carrying the cross is paraded through the streets amidst an ocean of the most faithful devotees seeking to pray to the religious icon.

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