For many Filipino adventurers and backpackers, traveling to all the Philippines’ 82 provinces is the ultimate travel goal. But Arvid Marius “Marco” Puzon went beyond, by visiting all 1634 cities and municipalities of the country. He named the quest PH 1634, which he began in March 2013 and finished within ten years.
I first met Marco at a dinner with traveler friends in Makati a year before the COVID-19 pandemic, and he struck me as a no-nonsense person determined to reach his goal. He was already close to 1,600 cities and municipalities at that point. He had the air of someone who was used to traveling and doing fieldwork in remote places – indeed, I later learned he worked in nongovernment organizations that brought him on field to places not usually visited by tourists.
An “insane” goal: Why 1,634?
Marco’s initial plan was to visit the country’s 82 provinces (then 81, before Maguindanao was split into two provinces in 2022). However, when he was at his 73rd province in 2010, Surigao del Sur (also his last province in Mindanao), to facilitate a workshop in Barobo municipality, he asked himself, “Am I going to tick off a single province just for going to a single town that is far from the capital?”
That line of thinking also led to the next question, “Can I really say I know one province if I have just been to 1, 2, or 3 towns, and never visited the rest?”
That was the time the idea for PH 1634 started taking root in his mind.
He officially started the PH 1634 challenge in March 2013, after his position in a mining company was assessed as redundant. With the time in his hands, Marco said: “I just wanted to do something, travel.”
Marco later wrote about the beginnings of his quest and the rules he follows:
“Every traveler must have primary rules. I follow one, among others: I could never consider having been to the town or city if I had not seen its nucleus — the plaza mayor and the structures, monuments, historical markers, and novel points of interests around it.”
Marco also wrote that he shared his PH 1634 quest with some people he met in his travels, and he encountered disbelief. A Danish teacher told him, “You’re insane! How many towns and cities? You have to be insane!”
He agreed, though, that “a great degree of insanity” was needed to reach his goal.
Sorties and Excel sheets – How he did the quest
Marco was already able to travel extensively because of his prior work as a tour guide, and later in NGOs and other consultancies, so he just had to be intentional in visiting other cities and municipalities to complete the 1634. He officially began his PH 1634 quest in March 27, 2013 in a town near Metro Manila – San Ildefonso, Bulacan, which he tagged as #1. On that same trip, he went to San Miguel (Municipality #2) in Bulacan, Gen. Tinio (3), San Isidro (4) and Cabiao (5) in Nueva Ecija, and Arayat (6), Candaba (7), Santa Ana (8) and San Luis (9) in Pampanga.
Marco went on long trips to visit each city and municipality of neighboring provinces. He described his PH 1634 adventure as: “116 sorties, 480+ non-consecutive days in almost ten years.”
His friends and connections over the years helped him reach municipalities not readily accessible to tourists.
He took note of his progress in an Excel sheet. Every city and municipality is clearly numbered, with the date of his visit.
He is a meticulous traveler with a good memory. I noticed that in our conversations, whenever he talks about a certain city and municipality, he always says which number it was in his PH 1634 quest. He also included this information in his Medium articles and Facebook posts. He also posts maps showing his route and progress.
Stranded! The COVID-19 pandemic challenge
In March 2020, Marco only had seven municipalities to go to complete the 1634 goal. He was in San Antonio, Samar (#1628) when the government announced the lockdown happening in a few days in Metro Manila, which was then followed by the nationwide lockdown. The other towns he planned to visit in Eastern Visayas implemented a no-entry policy for non-locals.
Marco had to cut his adventure short, and planned to fly to Zamboanga and stay there during the lockdown. He was able to fly from Tacloban to Cebu, where he stayed overnight before his flight next day to Zamboanga. Unfortunately, Zamboanga City airport closed on the same day of his flight. He was stranded in Cebu for three months, until June.
With his PH 1634 quest abruptly halted, he began his “Where Was I Today?” series in social media, where he shared photo collages and reminisced about which cities and municipalities he was in during a given week in the previous years.
In 2022, with the COVID restrictions easing, he went back to Cebu for a work assignment, which helped him have new, more pleasant memories after he was stranded there during the early COVID lockdown days. It was in this visit to Cebu, also, that he met the travel companion who would join him for the remainder of this PH 1634 quest – a plushie cat he named Elpo.
He wrote that Elpo looked like the plushie he had when he was 12 years old, and which he lost later. Elpo is a plushie in a waste disposal facility, taken home and cleaned up by a family Marco met in Cebu. Marco wrote on Facebook: “Fate happily brought us together,” and that Elpo is a reminder that “we all need rescuing at some point or another and that, if truly able, we can rescue others in their time of need.”
Surrendering: “Maybe I can only complete 1633”
When Marco committed himself to the goal of PH 1634, he did not yet know how to reach certain municipalities. While friends and connections helped him visit some remote, inaccessible areas, Kalayaan in Palawan proved to be a challenge. At some point, Marco realized that he might complete only 1633 of his goal. He surrendered to the possibility.
He had started planning his visit to Kalayaan (also part of the Spratly Islands) back in 2019. He had written to Kalayaan’s local government then. While he got their approval, he was advised to also write to the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG). His request for travel also needed to be approved by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
Marco recalled to me that it was also a particularly sensitive time then because of the friction with China on Spratly Islands. So he resigned himself to completing just 1633, and he hoped to do so before the tenth anniversary of his quest in March 27, 2023.
“Even if I don’t complete 1634, 1633 cities and municipalities – or even half of that – is already something,” he told me. As far as he knew: “No one is crazy enough [like me to do it.]”
By happy circumstance, however, the Kalayaan local government later on informed Marco about the upcoming first Kalayaan expedition which will open the municipality to tourism. The expedition would take passengers to the islands, including Pag-asa, the capital. Stepping into the municipal hall of Pag-asa would mark Marco’s completion of the Philippines’ 1634 cities and municipalities.
This March 2023, Marco resumed his PH 1634 challenge. Among other places, he visited Municipality #1633 in his list (Capul, Northern Samar). He said he felt near tears in looking at the view from Capul light house.
How it feels to be the first to visit the Philippines’ 1634 cities and municipalities
On March 16, Marco departed from Puerto Princesa in Palawan and boarded the BRP Melchora Aquino, the vessel for the Kalayaan Expedition. The expedition took him, Elpo, and other passengers to different islands in Kalayaan like Likas and Lawak islands.
On the morning of March 19, 10:50 am, Marco stepped on Pag-asa Island and took a photo with the municipality marker.
When Marco messaged me a photo of him and Elpo in Pag-asa, I immediately asked him, “How does it feel?”
His only answer then was “Overwhelmed.”
Hours later, when the enormity of his achievement must have sunk in a bit, he answered the question again:
“I am grateful. My goal has been completed, but this would not have been possible without the help of so many people.”
Indeed, Marco acknowledged the help of many people during his speech a few days later at the public launch of the Kalayaan Expedition.
He also told me that he “was very elated, almost being moved to tears when I stepped on the stairs of the pier here in Pag-asa. I was thinking of how long this goal took, and how if one door closes another door opens. As summed up in a chat with a former boss/mentor, as she had shared: ‘Had we not been redundated 2013, the road might not have been the same. Strengthens my belief that a closing door merely leads to another door opening.”
Indeed, the door closing to his job in 2013 opened a massive door that would be his PH 1634 adventure.
No favorite places, each moment unique
I asked Marco if he had any favorite cities or municipalities out of those he had visited. He said it was a difficult question, and that each place was unique.
“All of them has an imprint on me,” Marco said. “Even the most bypassed town, like, let’s say San Simon, Pampanga or an unknown town like Siruma, CamSur, has a charm of its own.”
He said it was also a privilege to visit areas that are difficult to go to like Turtle Islands and Mapun in Tawi-Tawi, and those “steeped in legend” like Dwaybud in Banguingi, Sulu, and places rarely visited by outsiders like the inner towns of Samar, Lanao and Abra.
Another memorable moment for him was when he was “tapped to become one of the judges for the floats in the festivals like in Lapuyan, ZDS and Cagayancillo, Palawan.”
All the people he met also left a mark on him, and he said he is happy to have made good friends throughout his PH 1634 adventure. Two of these friends even traveled to Puerto Princesa to celebrate with him his milestone of achieving his goal during the Kalayaan Expedition launch event.
He also recalled the Filipino hospitality extended to him in places where there were no accommodations. “They welcome you in their homes, like the quintessential giving you the best room in the house, making sure you have rested, are well-fed, preparing food, without asking money or anything in return except to remember them or add them in Facebook,” he said.
What also makes Marco’s travels memorable are the moments when the locals he meet share that they appreciate their place better because of him. Some who accompany Marco in his travels say it is their first time to visit that place because of him.
“Kung hindi dahil sa inyo, Sir, kahit taga-rito ako, di ko mapupuntahan ang lugar na ito (Even though I’m a local, if not for you, Sir, I woudn’t be able to visit this place),” he quotes his guide in Sto. Niño, Samar.
Marco’s advice to fellow Filipinos and travelers: Explore!
Marco, who has started traveling at 12, had his first solo trip at 16, and now completed 1634 cities and municipalities in his 50s, encourages Filipinos to explore. In his speech at the Kalayaan launch expedition, he urged Palawan locals to explore their province’s city and municipalities. Later, he told me that his invitation also extends to all Filipinos – to go around their own provinces.
He also encourages Filipinos to set their own travel goals.
“It doesn’t have to be 1634 cities and municipalities. It can be the 82 provinces, or it can even be something like the Philippines’ waterfalls, churches, and other places,” Marco said. It is up to you to travel how you want, he said.
And I agree with him wholeheartedly, that it is up to us to choose our own adventure.
Where to next?
As I write this, Marco is taking it easy in Puerto Princesa while being interviewed by TV stations, and he plans to go off the grid as he re-visits the picture-perfect islands of Balabac next week.
He plans to explore much of the Philippines in the coming years, too. Even though he has already completed his PH 1634 goal, he said, “There remains so much to see in the country – I’d rather spend most of my breaks and vacations in the country than overseas.”
Indeed, while he has been occasionally sent on work assignments abroad, he consciously spends his hard-earned pesos on going around the Philippines.
“My next epic journey will be on 2028,” Marco revealed. “I backpacked across Mindanao in 1998. I took a lot of photos. [In 2028], I will attempt to return to most of the places I visited. And take photos at the exact spots.”
Marco’s words strike me as coming from a place of deep awareness and humility – even if you come to know a place so well, you can never know it well enough. There is always something new to discover.
I am excited for him on his next adventures.
Congratulations in completing your PH 1634 quest, Marco!
Follow Marco’s adventures on his Marco de PH page.
One thought on “Beyond 82 provinces: Conversations with Marco Puzon, the first person to travel to all the Philippines’ 1634 cities and municipalities”
What a great travel story over so much time!