The Philippines may be a land of immaculate beaches, but there’s plenty of adventures to be found away from the sand. Whether swimming with the largest fish in the world or kayaking a remote river in search of tiny fireflies, there are plenty of ways to have fun while getting back to nature or helping support local communities. Escape the sands for these sustainable adventures…
1. Snorkel with whale sharks in Donsol
Unlike other parts of Asia where whale sharks are lured to an area with bait, thus disrupting their migratory patterns, Donsol Island offers an entirely natural experience. These giant filter-feeding fish typically gather in large numbers in Donsol Bay from November to May, snaffling up nutrients swept out to sea via the estuary. Every effort has been made to ensure this remains a wild encounter: boats and visitors are limited, snorkellers aren’t allowed to get too close, even scuba gear is forbidden. In many ways it feels like a safari, with sightings by no means guaranteed. Yet that’s what makes Donsol so special, because when you finally spot a whale shark and slide into the water alongside it, you’re meeting these gentle giants on their own magnificent terms.
2. Glimpse a sea of clouds from Luzon’s highest peak
Few sights in the Philippines match that of Mount Pulag’s ‘sea of clouds’. From its grassy 2,922m summit a vast crumpled blanket of white stretches to the horizon, punctured only by the wave-like ridges of other mountaintops. This is Luzon’s highest peak but it’s by no means a daunting walk. Those with decent fitness and the right equipment (good hiking shoes and warm clothing are vital — temperatures can drop to below zero) should be fine. Four different trails (Ambangeg is the lightest) wind its slopes past mossy forests, wide expanses of lake and vast swathes of golden grasses. Best of all, if you arrive pre-dawn the clear skies above often afford unmatched views of the Milky Way. A truly spectacular payoff.
3. Paddle to the fireflies of Bohol
The mangrove-studded Abatan River used to be one of the main thoroughfares on Bohol Island before roads were developed. Now it’s an ideal escape from such modernity and home to a rather unique sight: thousands of endemic fireflies. The mangrove setting is the perfect environment for these creatures, who rely upon the roots to set up colony trees. It’s a spectacular sight, like watching the stars dance before your eyes. Be sure to skip motorboat tours, though, which threaten the colonies’ existence by causing erosion to the mud that sustains their nurseries. Nighttime kayak and SUP eco-tours are the only way to see these remarkable creatures without disturbing their delicate life cycle, and make for a much more satisfying experience. The perfect slow adventure.
4. Boat an underground river in Palawan
As it enters the final stretch of its journey across western Palawan, the tail-waters of the Cabayugan river disappear into the caves of Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park before spilling into the sea. Adventurous visitors can explore part of these flooded chambers by boat, lit only by snatches of daylight and the torch beams of the guide. What emerges is an underground world with its own rules: an ecosystem home to millions of swallows and bats, giant fang-like stalactites descending from the ceiling, and cathedral-sized galleries of karst rock. Even after you emerge from the caves, the option of a 5km jungle walk back to Sabang makes a thrilling finale as you pad forests packed with frolicking long-tailed macaques.
5. Tackle a multi-day trek in the rice terraces of Banaue
The rice terraces of Banaue are the result of 2,000 years of cultivation. Hewn by hand from the mountains of the Cordillera range, within them exist unique cultures and traditions every bit as special as the landscape. Trekking isn’t too difficult here, and multi-day hikes typically overnight in community stays, helping to ensure that the villages here have an income outside of rice cultivation. For an area prone to haemorrhaging young people to the cities, it’s an important lifeline. It’s also an incredible opportunity to see up-close the lives of the Ifugao people who carved this land, with harvest season being the liveliest period. For those walking the popular two-to-three-day Banaue-Batad trail, this means June and December, though it does ensure you’ll be far from alone on the trail.
6. Kayak the islands of El Nido
Isolated white-sand shores, towering limestone cliffs, warm coral-filled waters. Outside of monsoon season (Oct–Jan), the mostly calm sea and lagoons of Bacuit Bay make a spectacular setting for kayakers to indulge in a spot of island-hopping. Tours typically break the bay up into four itineraries centred around the isles of Matinloc, Cadlao, Legen and the always busy Miniloc, with back-up boats in case of rough water. But there’s little to stop you from renting your own kayak and exploring independently (conditions allowing). Some even have clear floors, so you can watch the wildlife beneath your hull as you paddle. Multi-day trips let you wander at your own pace, dropping in on the turtles of Papaya Beach, paddling the karst-lined lagoons of Cadlao, or resting on the isolated sands of Pinagbuytan. Bliss.
7. Go birding on Olango
With upwards of 700 recorded bird species, the Philippines is an ornithological haven. In the Visayas region in particular, the flats and wetlands of the tiny island of Olango form a wildlife sanctuary used by some 48 species as a migratory rest stop (Oct–Nov & Feb–Mar). Low tide sees birds descend on the flats en masse to pull snails from the sludge, including rare sightings of Chinese egret and the much-loved Asian dowitcher. Nearby Bohol is equally blessed, with the jungle forests of Rajah Sikatuna National Park hiding a wealth of endemic bird species and the chance to spy the colourful blue breasted Steere’s pitta in the wild. After sunset, stick around for an added surprise: night safaris through the jungle in search of tarsiers, the world’s smallest primate. It’s barely the size of your hand and quite possibly the adorable sight in nature.