The playful splash of dolphins, the caress of fine sand between your toes, the primeval calm of deep forest...the Philippines is boundlessly diverse, containing some 70% of the world’s flora and fauna. It’s also working hard with local communities and NGOs to ensure its wonders stay wild, meaning incredible natural encounters can be found here…
One image springs to mind when you think of Palawan Province’s El Nido region: the lush, jagged karst cliffs that loom over the bone-white shores of Bacuit Bay. As settings go, there are few more pleasurable on the eye — or fun to explore. The bay’s calm, clear waters make kayaking its offshore archipelago a delight, all the while scanning for passing turtles and shy fish hiding in the coral.
As beautiful as it is, El Nido is no secret, which is why traffic in the busier lagoons around Miniloc Island is being limited. Motorised boats are now largely banned from entering, or even anchoring at the entrance in some cases. All that’s left are the splash of paddles as you savour the Philippines’ ‘last frontier’ as it should be: in peace.
Speaking of remote gems, few islands have witnessed bigger changes in recent times than Bohol’s Pamilacan Island. For years life on this tiny isle was dominated by whaling. Even now, you can still see the jawbones of long-dead whales decorating local homes. But when its waters became a marine sanctuary, islanders found an ally in the creatures they once hunted.
The seas here are home to year-round marine life. Sperm, Bryde’s and even blue whales are commonly sighted, while pods of dolphins (spinner, Risso’s, bottlenose and spotted) can be spied playing in the wakes of ships. Local whaling vessels have even been converted into tour boats, and early morning trips with the island’s experienced fishermen-turned-tour guides rarely fails to reward with unforgettable sightings.
Barely an hour’s drive from Manilla, the Masungi Georeserve is like stepping (or crawling) into another world, one where jagged limestone pinnacles crest a thick canopy of Rizal rainforest. It would be impenetrable but for one thing: a series of rope bridges and cobweb-like viewing decks plunging its green heart. From these you can gaze over the park and down to Laguna de Bay, the Philippines’ largest lake.
There’s nothing quite like it. Three-to-four-hour, ranger-led hikes lead deep into the conservation area, and while you’ll be lucky to spy its native civet cats or squirrel-like cloud rats, just being there feels like a privilege that nature doesn’t usually afford. You can even help, by joining the park’s Legacy Trail where former kaingero (forest clearers) lead walks through bamboo-lined hills to its restoration project, where you can help replant the tropical pines that once filled this area.
Another fragile forest lying beneath the noses of travellers is found on the fringes of Siargao Island, off Mindanao. Within this dense coastal ruff of green is the Philippines’ largest chain of mangroves, covering some 4,871 hectares. Known as Del Carmen, it is home to nearly half the world’s mangrove species as well as endangered wildlife such as its shy saltwater crocs.
For years it was under threat from locals, who used the mangrove for firewood before NGOs and government conservation efforts set about helping them to work with it instead. Eco-stays such as Sugba Lagoon now let you paddleboard and kayak its waters in peace. Or take a traditional banca boat for
a slow tour of this wild coast.
La Union Province’s coast is well known among surfers. Inland, however, it’s a wilder affair. A 20-minute trek through the forests around San Gabriel leads to a thrilling surprise: Tangadan Falls. This single-drop cascade crashes into a perfect emerald lagoon, and leaping into its cool waters is the perfect end to a sweaty hike.
Just wandering the jungle here is joyful, and the 45-minute Arosip Eco-Trail in Bacnotan, which takes in a trio of falls and views over the lowlands, is a fine escape. There are more enchanting cascades to be found in Santol, where a short, stony hike emerges on Balay Anito Falls, a rocky basin cupping a deep plunge pool battered by crystal-clear waters.
Elsewhere, those looking for more drama will find plenty on Mount Puraw (also called Mount Kabugbugan), near Bauang. The early morning climb is worth it for the pay-off: sunrise over a sea of clouds and forest-tufted peaks poking through the dawn mists.
Of course, La Union isn’t the only Philippine province with impressive waterfalls. Davao Oriental is home to the country’s largest, the 84-tiered Aliwagwag, while few match Campawan’s ‘Curtain Falls’ for spectacle. Wider than it is tall, its cascade forms a continuous blanket of white water. You’ll hear it long before you arrive and it makes for a magical wild swim, deep in the heart of nature.
Whether you spend your time on the sea, in the forest or in the mountains, the Philippines’ pristine landscapes will likely stay with you long after you leave.
Everything you need to know about the Philippines – including safe travel updates, getting there and around, where to stay, and heaps of inspiration for things to see and do – can be found on the official Philippines website.
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