Leyte, an Unexplored Corner of the Philippines

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The people in Leyte are more resilient than most places. They’ve survived one of the worst tropical storms in the history, which left their homes in tatters and claimed the lives of beloved family members. Still, they recovered, proudly rebuilt their homes and are looking towards future with hope.

Welcome to Leyte, a Filipino island truly off the beaten path, nestled in the Eastern Visayas Region, Leyte province. Despite having been quite important in the country’s history, it mostly remains unnoticed by mass tourism. Cruise ships stop on a pristine island nearby, and otherwise continue to more ‘desired’ locations.

Off the Philippines’ 7507 islands (or is it more already??), Leyte truly sticks out not just because of its tragic history but also the beauty of people who have overcome tragedy and still retain a positive outlook on life.

A strong man in Tacloban, Leyte www.travelgeekery.com
People in Leyte are strong! Just like this Tacloban man is showing :)

A natural disaster that shook the island

There are often typhoons and tropical storms all around the Philippines and people have mostly gotten used to them. So it’s no wonder that when Haiyan typhoon hit, many thought it was just one of many storms that pass and go.

However, this one was different. Haiyan, known as Yolanda in the Philippines, hit on November 8, 2013 with brutal force. This tropical cyclone became the strongest to actually hit land. Imagine a wall of water 5 – 8 meters high. In the Philippines, it killed around 6,300 people, most of them in the island of Leyte.

I had the chance of spending a few days with a local guide who’s been deeply involved in the rebuilding efforts and documentation of the progress. Meet Butz, whose home was left mostly intact, but whose heart has been scarred forever. Just like of his fellow Leytians.

Butz Eguia, Tacloban, Leyte
Meet Butz, Tacloban native and a local tour guide / volunteer / photographer / poet who called it quits to a corporate career a few years back.

Reasons to visit Leyte

Tragedies like that remind us that nature has the ultimate power over us. But Leyte has risen from ashes and is today standing strong. You can still see remnants of the disaster, but that shouldn’t stop you from visiting this beautiful spot on Earth.

Plus, tourism is one of the major factors to drive growth of the area and help rebuild it, so you can feel good about helping just by visiting.

Learn about Leyte and the Philippines from a Lonely Planet guidebook. See it here.

So without a further ado, here’s a list of all the things to see in Leyte and the surrounding areas that are worth checking out:

Tacloban, Leyte’s capital

Tacloban is the capital city of the province and it’s undeniably the best base for exploring the surroundings. There are several hotels to choose from and most areas are well reconstructed. You’ll find everything you might need, such as traditional and hip restaurants, lively markets and incredibly friendly locals.

What to see in Tacloban

Capitol building

The elegant Capitol building, built in the neoclassical architecture style in 1916-65, is the seat of the regional government.

Leyte was the first island to be liberated from the Japanese during WW2. The Philippine Commonwealth Government had its seat here from 1944 to 1945. After that, Manilla became liberated as well and so the government moved there.

The Capitol building in Leyte
The Capitol building in Leyte, which served as an interim seat of Filipino government.

Grafitti Wall

Along the Real Street, a several meter long mural was painted by a collection of artists remembering the tragedy the Haiyan typhoon caused. It’s very moving and deserves a visit.

Part of the mural reminding of Haiyan storm in Tacloban.
Part of the mural reminding of Haiyan storm in Tacloban.
Mural in Tacloban, Leyte
It helps to imagine what life was like for the survivors for the few months following the disaster.
Street art that means more than art, Tacloban, Leyte
Street art that means more than art.

Santo Niño Shrine and Heritage Museum

The amazing structure was one of many rest houses built in the 70s by the former Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos for his wife Imelda, a Tacloban native and a beauty queen who has been loved and adorned by many. The house features a small shrine on the ground floor, as well as 13 guest rooms, each representing a different region of the Philippines. On the second floor are the family’s bedrooms and a huge ballroom.

Paradoxically, the family has never slept there and it was seized from them only 5 years after its completion. The whole place is decorated with expensive items, imported furniture and intricate pieces of art from artists both local and foreign. Seeing the lavish splendor and trying to conceive of how much it all must have cost will make your jaw drop.

Santo Niño Shrine in Tacloban, Leyte, Philippines
Santo Niño Shrine. It’s much bigger than it looks!
Seashell room in Santo Nino shrine, Tacloban, Philippines
Not hard to guess the name of this room: Seashell room :)
Ballroom in Santo Nino Shrine, Tacloban
A large ballroom.. You wouldn’t want the chandelier to fall on you!
A 100 year old piano in Santo Nino Shrine, Tacloban
A 100 year old piano in Santo Nino Shrine

MacArthur Landing Site and a Memorial Park

A major tribute to General MacArthur and the soldiers that freed Tacloban from the Japanese Army, this place is a must see. You’ll find larger than life size statues of soldiers, a number of friendship plaques from world leaders, including the late Václav Havel of the Czech Republic, who was the only one to deliver it in person.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, after having had a history in the Philippine Army, was at the onset of WW2 a commander of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East. Upon the first Japanese attack, he had to flee from the Philippines to Australia, where he famously stated: “I shall return”. And he did, in 1944.

If you get to chat with locals, it’s quite possible they’ll reference MacArthur’s famous sentence when saying bye to you. They’re just proud a piece of important Filipino history happened right here, on their island.)

The story is quite fascinating, actually. If it caught your interest, read more on Wikipedia.

The area serves as a nice park for locals to hang out. They usually come on the weekend to enjoy picnics. Normally it’s quite peaceful but we visited during the McArthur Landing Anniversary and it was packed!

McArthur Landing Site in Tacloban, Leyte
The park by the landing site is especially lovely!
McArthur Landing Memorial in Tacloban, Leyte
MacArthur Landing Memorial on a beautiful sunny day
Statue of Gen. McArthur Landing in Leyte, Philippines
See how the statues are larger than real size? Definitely larger than kids :D

M/M Eva Jocelyn Shrine

In case you’re in the Anibong district of Tacloban, I recommend paying a visit to the Jocelyn ship. This cargo ship carrying cement was washed ashore by 7-metre high waves produced by storm winds. The waves killed about 11 people after landing on their houses.

At the same time, however, it served as a shelter for people whose houses were destroyed and worked to attract international attention. Nobody on the deck suffered any injury.

Only the front part of the ship was left in its spot, serving as a great reminder of Haiyan, as a viewing point over the neighborhood featuring simply built houses and to show the mind blowing distance from the sea the ship travelled ashore.

There’s also another ship worth mentioning: Its name is Ligaya (meaning ‘Hope’). Ligaya got stuck in between fields and still remains there in its full size. It’s not easy to find, so if you’re interested in seeing it, get a taxi to drive you there.

In total, there were 10 vessels washed ashore by Haiyan in Tacloban only.

Eva Jocelyn Ship in Tacloban, Leyte
Jocelyn Ship. Can you imagine this huge ship rampaging around?
View from Jocelyn Ship in Tacloban, Leyte
The sad view from Jocelyn ship.. The empty lots mean a family had no survivors.
Ligaya Ship stuck after Haiyan (Yolanda) typhoon
Ligaya Ship, stuck in between fields, and local poor kids playing around it.

Pope Francis Home for Orphans and Elderly

Managed by the global, Korea-based Christian organization of Kkottongnae Foundation, this is a place of rescue for people found on the street in poor condition and whose families were unable to take care of them.

Even if you’re not religious, you should pay a visit to this home. If you bring a donation, whether it’s monetary or food and snacks, the local residents will be immensely happy and forever grateful.

Depending on the time of the day you come, if you catch the residents being out of their rooms, you might even see a little sing & dance performance :)

Kkottongane Center in Tacloban, Philippines
Kkottongane Center, where they take care of the ones in need, orphans and elderly.
A beautiful singing performance by a Kkottognae Center resident
A beautiful singing performance by a Kkottognae Center resident. This lady is blind.

Where to stay in Tacloban

When I was in Tacloban, I stayed at the XYZ Hotel. It’s a modern hotel with beautiful rooms and a very decorated reception area. I was visiting in October and it was rather funny for me to feel like I entered a winter wonderland with all the Christmas decorations already on :)

XYZ hotel serves delicious breakfast, including eggs to your liking if you don’t need a Filipino breakfast in the morning. On the rooftop, you’ll find a sleek modern restaurant serving delicacies from all of Asia. There’s also a pool, so swimming with a view is guaranteed.

Check the current prices of XYZ Hotel on Agoda. See the reviews of XYZ Hotel on TripAdvisor. Or do you prefer Booking.com?

Restaurant on the topmost floor of XYZ Hotel, Tacloban
Restaurant on the topmost floor of XYZ Hotel

Places to eat in Tacloban

Ocho Grill

For delicious seafood and a fusion of Filipino and Chinese cuisine full of delicious green veggies, head to Ocho Grill (map below the post). I was over the moon when tasting some of the coconut milk based dishes!

Seafood & Ribs Warehouse

Famous for their seafood and ribs, this cool and modern, almost hipster-like restaurant located in a former warehouse will make you forget you’re on an island that was pretty much destroyed only a few years ago. It was established in 2014, a year after the catastrophe.

ChewLove Restocafé

A super cute café, most likely inspired by France, serving large sundaes and coffee in all kinds of styles. I loved my cappuccino and the atmosphere is very special!

Chew Love Restocafe in Tacloban, Philippines
Chew Love Restocafe in Tacloban. Doesn’t it look cute with all the Halloween decorations?

Public market

And of course the street food! The main public market is located in Barangay (quarter) 38. Just get near Zamora Street and stroll in all directions.

For amazing little local snacks and delicacies, head to the stand of Mrs. Cherry. She’s the go-to person for the typical Filipino Kakanin, i.e. a rice cake. Just head to Gomez Street, parallel to Zamora. She currently operates a little corner in a walkway because her shop was destroyed, but will most likely move to a new shop within a few months.

Mrs. Cherry and her homemade Kakanin sweets, Tacloban street market
Mrs. Cherry and her homemade Kakanin sweets. Made of sweet rice dough, root veggies filling and coconut milk.
A friendly shoe maker in Tacloban, Leyte
People here in Leyte are very friendly. The lack of tourists certainly helps that.
A friendly man posing at the Tacloban street market, Leyte
I wish it were so easy everywhere to take photos of locals!
Ladies posing at the Tacloban street market
Street photography becomes easy at the Tacloban street market :)
A man selling fried peanuts at Tacloban street market
Not everyone at the market is excited to have a photo taken :)

You can visit the amazing island of Leyte and take a few day trips out of Tacloban, just like I did.

And if you’d like to learn more about the Philippines, see a list of these Filipino facts.

Day trips from Tacloban

Samar, the neighboring island

Connected by a bridge to Leyte’s North, there’s Samar Island. It’s ideal as a day trip from Tacloban, or you can opt for staying overnight. The parts of Samar Island closest to Leyte are:

  • Paranas: There’s a river with white rapids in Paranas, making it ideal for adventure water sports like rafting. Paranas is in the West of Samar province.
  • Basey: Sohoton Caves and Natural Bridge are this region’s highlight. We explored the area and loved it. More below!
  • Marabut: Seaside with beautiful lagoons and rock formations in the Southwest of Samar, just below Basey municipality.
The calm river going through Sohoton National Park
The calm river going through Sohoton National Park

Sohoton National Park

The National Park lies so close to Leyte that it makes more sense to visit it from Tacloban rather than when exploring the whole Samar island.

To visit the highlights of Sohoton National Park you only need a couple of hours. Arrange your adventure at a tourism office in Basey, then hop on a pump boat to take you to a spot where you’ll be kayaking from. The Golden River, which is small and easy for kayaking, is lined with beautiful karst formations on both sides. You’ll feel like you’re in a tropical wonderland.

Kayaking in Sohoton National Park, Samar
Definitely one of the most gorgeous scenes for kayaking, don’t you agree?
Canoeing in Sohoton National Park, Samar
Floating away on a river that changes from brown to beautiful clear green.
Sohoton NP limestone formations
Sohoton National Park is known for its limestone formations.
A bird in Sohoton National Park, Samar, Philippines
No idea what this bird’s called (Do you? Let me know!) but it’s surely a handsome one.
Sohoton Natural Bridge

The final part of the kayak ride lies under a natural bridge, which is an extremely unique occurrence. The top of the bridge is only reserved for trees and vegetation, but you can enjoy the shadow of the bridge and have a meal under it, as well as having a swim in the river.

The Natural Bridge in Sohoton National Park, Samar
The Natural Bridge. See how tiny people look under it?
Lunch in the river under the Natural Bridge
Having a lunch in the river under the Natural Bridge beats any restaurant experience :)
Panhulugan and other caves

Sohoton National Park actually features one of the largest cave systems in the world. Panhulugan cave, the main one, is full of unexpected karst shapes, stalactites and stalagmites, large rooms, narrow tunnels and the omnipresent bats.

Getting to the Sohoton National Park is relatively easy from Tacloban, but you’ll need to do it right. I searched for good guides online and found this one to be the best.

There’s a lot more to explore in Samar, but we only saw the areas close to Leyte. Let me know if you go explore Samar’s North, I’d be curious to hear about it!

Panhulugan Cave in Sohoton National Park, Samar
The impressive Panhulugan Cave.. worth a visit!
Crawling in Panhulugan Cave, Sohoton National Park
Some of the tunnels in the cave are rather tight!

San Juanico Bridge

The longest bridge in the Philippines, connecting the islands of Leyte and Samar, was constructed in the 70s but has recently been reconstructed and looks like new.

The bridge bears the shape of an L (for Leyte) and S (for Samar). It’s more than 2 kilometers long and is easily the longest bridge in the Philippines that spans a body of seawater.

The construction even withstood the disastrous typhoon. It’s either an engineering masterpiece or perhaps one of these urban legends holds true… (don’t take my word for it!).

A Filipino kid enjoying the ride on the San Juanico bridge
A local kid enjoying the ride on the San Juanico bridge.
The S curve of the long San Juanico Bridge www.travelgeekery.com
The S curve of the long San Juanico Bridge.

Kalanggaman Island

I’ve struggled to describe the serenity of this beautiful islet in just a few paragraphs. That’s why I wrote a separate post on Kalanggaman. Check it out, drooling guaranteed!

Veronika of TravelGeekery on Kalanggaman Island, Philippines
Kalanggaman Island!

Check out also this post on what to pack for the Philippines.

Getting to Leyte

Tacloban has its own airport in San Jose and it takes only an hour to get there from Manila. Philippines Airlines, Cebu Pacific and even Air Asia all fly there. Some travellers choose to fly in from Cebu, which is an even shorter flight.

To get into town from the airport, get a taxi or opt for a public jeepney going downtown.

Getting around Tacloban and Leyte

You can make use of tricycles, jeepneys or multicabs in Tacloban. You’ll probably come across the motorbikes that can seat more than two people: habal habal. But other modes of transportation are safer, in my opinion.

Habal habal taxis in Tacloban, Leyte
Tricycles are one of the most popular modes of transport in Tacloban.
A man in a jeepney in Tacloban, Philippines
Jeepney is usually one of the cheapest and most authentic ways of transportation in the Philippines.

To travel outside of Tacloban, you’d need a bus or a minivan. There are various companies operating from their own terminals downtown. Ask at your hotel about those. Many companies pass through the Tacloban Bus Terminal near Robinsons Mall.

Still haven’t learned enough about Leyte? If not, just check out this resource on all things Leyte travel.

The streets around the market in Tacloban are great for people watching.
The streets around the market are great for people watching.

Here’s a map of all the places mentioned in this post:

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Leyte is not a typical tourist destination. That’s what makes it even more precious. If you care about the Philippines, if you want to explore a city beyond the perfect island beaches, you need to go to Leyte.

Have you been to the Philippines? What places did you visit?

Pin this post for later:

Leyte, a province in the Philippines, is an amazing place worth discovering, which lies off the beaten path. Base yourself in Tacloban, the capital, and make day trips around. The area was badly hit by a typhoon a few years back, but is now back to normal, standing strong and looking towards future with hope.    [clear h=10]Read about the authentic beauty of Leyte and its people. Leyte is a unique corner in the Philippines, very much off the beaten path. See what's there to do and see. Help the local development just by visiting.


Disclosure: Veronika of TravelGeekery was hosted on the trip to Leyte by the local tourism board. All opinions are her own and unbiased.

3 thoughts on “Leyte, an Unexplored Corner of the Philippines”

  1. Hello,
    Its feel good to read your awesome posts.
    i would like to request you if you can also share your travel stories with us at Startbagpack.

    Thanks,
    Startbagpack

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