The Philippines' final frontiers

Naturalist and travel photographer Allen Hipolito Mayor has visited some of the country's most out-of-the-way places in search of rare flora and fauna. He nominates some of his favorite 'wild destinations'

By Monica De Leon

The Far North
Batanes 

By Jocas See
Overview

The Philippines' northernmost island province of Batanes, famous for its wild beauty, has grown in popularity as the ultimate rural escape. And no wonder. This is a lost world of deserted, stunning beaches, volcanoes, jungle and simple native living. What are you waiting for?

Eco Features
Batanes is made up of four major islands: Batan, Sabtang, Itbayat and Ivuhos. In 1994, the Batanes Protected Landscape and Seascape, or BIPLAS, was declared protected. A survey by the University of the Philippines revealed that there were at least five reptiles, 10 birds and two mammals endemic to the area, plus several threatened and near-threatened species including the black-faced spoonbill, Chinese egret and whistling green pigeon. 

How to get there
Roundtrip flight from Manila to Basco on Skyjet is about P10,800 (about US$240) and about P11,900 on Philippine Airlines. 

Where to stay
Fundacion Pacita Batanes Nature Lodge
, on top of a hill with wonderful ocean or mountain views, was once the home and studio of artist Pacita Abad.  Charming, native-style rooms and a cosy cafe that serves locally sourced produce. Room rates start at about P11,700. Call +63939 901 6353. Batanes Resort, 10 minutes from Basco, has six stone houses that can accommodate six guests. It's quiet, simple and clean, and a few steps from a lovely beach. About P8,750 per person for two nights. Contact Batanes Travel and Tours (+632 400 6550).


Samar, Visayas
Sohoton Natural Bridge National Park

Screengrab from Gerry Ruiz's Facebook page
Overview

Quiet, steamy, green outpost on Samar Island in the Visayas, southeast of Manila. Named for a stunning rock formation that forms a natural bridge across a gorge, where you can cool off in a natural swiming hole. There are gorges, caves, treks and climbs. Local villagers play their part in managing the park and guiding visitors. Kayaking trips are available. 

Swimming in a natural pool at Sohoton Natural Bridge Park. Screengrab from Gerry Ruiz's Facebook page

Eco Features
A nature-lovers' dream. This 800-hectare park has the largest remaining intact tracts of tropical lowland rainforest in the country, harbouring some 2,400 species of flowers including 400 that are endemic to the Philippines and another 400 endemic to Samar. Watch out especially for the endangered Philippine eagle, one of the most powerful birds in the world, the Philippine cockatoo, flying lemurs and tarsiers, those tiny bog-eyed primates that weight less than a cup of sugar.

How to get there
Cebu Pacific flies from Manila to Tacloban. Roundtrip airfare is about P4,100. From Tacloban, it's about one hour's ride by van hire to Basey and an hour by boat to the park. From Tacloban airport, head to Van-Van Transport on Burgos Street, corner Salar Street where you can hire a van for up to 14 people to take you to Basey for P2,240. Call +6353 523 1274. In Basey, boats regularly leave from the pier to the Park. The area's tourism office is also at the pier, tel +63918 643 4987. 

Where to stay
Wespal Visitor Center and Ecolodge has duplex rooms for up to four (P550, without airconditioning; P850 with aircon and breakfast). Family rooms good for four to eight people are P900, without aircon and breakfast, and P1,200 with aircon and breakfast. Tel +63918 643 4632 or +63905 280 1437. Sitio Wespal, Brgy. Guirang.

Amante's Homestay is a newly-opened homestay at the main town, offering two airconditioned rooms, each with private toilet and bath and able to accommodate up to three people. The homestay has a receiving area, dining room and kitchen. Owner Vicky Amante has a caretaker who attends to the guests' needs. Rooms cost from P1,500, plus P150 if you'd like breakfast. To book, call +63916 375 7252. The tourism office of Basey can help with booking accommodation. Call +63918 643 4987.

For more on Sohoton Cove, read Notes from...Sohoton Cove National Park.


The Far North (Cagayan)
Palaui Island Marine Reserve

Pinched from Anguib Beach-Palaui Island Tours' Facebook page
Overview

Palaui is a stunning volcanic island sitting off the northeast coast of the Philippines, divided from the mainland by a treacherous strait. This is all about raw beauty - an isolated speck on the map where, if you make the effort to get there, you'll find sweeping crescents of beaches all to yourself, a vast reef on the island's eastern side, and tiny offshore islets that seem untouched by human hand. There's no electricity and only patchy phone reception on the east side of the main island. Don't miss the climb to the rather sinister ruins of Cape Engaño Lighthouse, on the island's northernmost tip.

Eco Features
This is a remarkably diverse ecosystem in miniature , with coralline beaches, tall forest trees, sea grass meadows, mangroves, tidal pools, springs, waterfalls and some remarkable flora and fauna. If you're lucky you might see a serpent eagle or a dwarf kingfisher. Scuba divers say they have seen species of marine sea slugs and snails that they have never seen anywhere else. Palaui was declared a marine reserve  in 1994. The Palaui Environmental Protector’s Association (PEPA), an organization comprised mainly of island residents, monitors tourism related activities.

How to get there
It's a long bus trip to the north. Hop on a Victory Liner bus (tel+632 833 5019, P679 FAREAT 651 Edsa, Pasay City, and take a 14-hour ride from Manila to Tuguegarao City for about P680. From the terminal in Tuguegarao, walk towards Brickston Mall, about 200 meters away, where you'll find vans for the four-hour trip to Santa Ana, Cagayan. From Santa Ana Commercial Center, hire a tricycle to San Vicente Port, a 10-minute ride for P50 for two people. At the port there are boats for hire to take you to Palaui. You can also book a boat in advance. Call boat operator Edwin Tabucol at tel+63916 116 5850. He charges P3,500 for a whole day boat rental for up to eight. 

Where to stay
Islanders at Punta Verde, the only village, on the eastern side of Palaui, offer homestays. Elsa Lagdaran (+63905 283 2559), one of the homestay operators, charges P250 per person for an overnight stay. Meals cost P150 and usually consists of rice, two main dishes,, dessert, and drinking water. If you'd like to add lobser or a shrimp dish to the usual fare, you'd have to pay P250 per person.



Cordillera Mountain Range (North Luzon)
Mount Pulag National Park

Mt. Pulog By Arnold Manzanal
Overview

Pulag, sometimes known as Pulog, is the third highest peak in the Philippines (2,900 meters above sea level) and the highest on the main island of Luzon. It sits imperiously on the border of three northern provinces — Ifugao, Benguet and Nueva Vizcaya.  Climbing it is tough, and you'll need to be prepared for chilly winds, fog and rain. Is it worth it? Silly question. The views, in the right weather, are unforgettable, ranging across the South China Sea to the west and the Pacific to the east. Up here you'll feel a world away from the powder-sand beaches of the central and southern Philippines. This is more Lord of the Rings than typically tropical.

Eco Features
Mt. Pulag was declared a national park in 1987. Its mossy forest is home to wild plants such as dwarf bamboo, Benguet pines, and rare pitcher plants. Other residents include the Philippine brown deer, the evocatively monikered Northern Luzon giant cloud rat and the Luzon pygmy fruit bat. 

How to get there
Take a Victory Liner bus (+632 833 5019) at 651 EDSA, Pasay City to Baguio City.  You have a choice of a regular airconditioned bus for P455 which takes seven hours to get to Baguio or a first class bus for P750, which takes five hours. Ask the driver to drop you off at  PNR in BAGUIO, then take a 15-minute cab ride to the old Dangwa Station in Magsaysay Avenue, from where you can get a jeep to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) office in Ambangeg, Bokod. It's a one and a half hour to two-hour ride. Look for Emerita Albas or Daisy Modesto, who will give you a briefing on the history of Mt. Pulag and rules to follow during your climb.  Everyone who climbs Mt. Pulag are required to attend the briefing.  Albas and Modesto can also help if you need a guide.

Where to stay
In Kabayan, there are simple rooms to rent at the Kabayan Multi-Purpose Cooperative (+6374 444 7428). In Ambangeg, southeast of Kabayan and also a good starting point for Pulag, there’s a campsite near the Protected Area Office (+63920 301 3932).

Northern Samar, Visayas
Biri-Larosa Protected Landscape and Seascape

Biri-Larosa Protected Landscape and Seascape. By Victor Sison

Rock formations. By Victor Sison
Overview
Biri-Larosa, a group of 18 tantalizingly quiet islands off the northern tip of Samar in the eastern Visayas, is probably most talked-about because of its surreal landscape of weird and striking rock formations. But it's got much more, including superb coral reefs for snorkelling and scuba diving, dense mangrove forests and seagrass beds, natural saltwater pools for swimming and some terrific beaches where you might not a see a soul save the odd fisherman.

Eco Features
Biri-Larosa is 33,000 hectares of near-pristine wilderness with 80 hecatres of coral reefs. The main draws are several gigantic limestone rocks formed by underwater tectonic plate movements and crashing waves over millions of years. The area's coral reefs support 23 different reef fish species. There are 400 hectares of mangrove forests with 15 different mangrove species that provide habitat to local and migratory bird species such as the bridled tern, black-naped tern, greater crested tern and frigatebird. 

How to get there
Philippine Airlines has  flights from Manila to Catarman (about P9,600 return). From Catarman, take a jeepney to Lavezares (45 mins), then a banca to Biri Island (about P50).

Where to stay
La Fortunata Functions 
(+63917 525 2840) is on the coastal road in Barangay Daganas, Catarman, about 20 minutes from Catarman Airport. It has simple rooms and a swimming pool. It's a short road trip from here to Lavezares, the jump off point for the islands.



Mindanao
Mt. Apo National Park

Screengrab from Mount Apo Foundation's Facebook page
By Arnold Manzanal
Overview

Mt. Apo, on the southern island of Mindanao about 45kms from Davao, is the Philippine's tallest mountain at 2,954 meters above sea level and part of the Mt. Apo National Park, a protected area.  The first recorded successful expedition to the summit was led by Don Joaquin Rajal in October 1880. Rajal had to secure the permission of  a local chieftain, who initially demanded a human sacrifice be made to please the god Mandarangan. Fortunately, the chieftain eventually waived this demand, and Rajal reached the summit on 6 October. There are several trails to the summit, and all can be brutal; if you're anything less than an expert you shouldn't even think about tackling it without a reputable guide. There are rewards along the way in the form of mountain rivers, waterfalls, hot springs (ideal for bathing weary limbs) and the idyllic Lake Venado, the highest in the country, where you can take a refreshing swim before heading on to the top. You'll need to be prepared for a night, possibly more, on the mountain. At the summit there are wild blackberries and unforgettable views across Mindanao and down into the crater. This is, remember, a potentially active volcano. 

Eco Features
Mt. Apo and its foothills are fairly alive with some of the country's most extraordinary flora and fauna, including the rare Vanda sanderiana or Waling-waling, the “Queen of Philippine Orchids” and the endangered Philippine deer. This is home to the Mindanao mountain forest mouse, Philippine tree shrew, Philippine tree squirrel and Mindanao moonrat. There are about 270 bird species, 111 of which are endemic. It is also home to one of the world's largest eagles, the critically endangered Philippine eagle, which is the country’s national bird. For information about climbing Mt. Apo contact the Kidapawan Tourism Office, which has a standardized system of guide and porter fees. You'll also need a permit to climb the mountain.

How to get there
Air Asia flies from Manila to Davao, about P3,400, roundtrip. Cebu Pacific, about P4,000 roundtrip and Philippine Airlines, P4,700 roundtrip. In Davao, you can get to Mt. Apo by bus from Kidapawan on the main highway between Davao and Cotobato, about a three-hour ride. In Kidapawan, take a tricycle to the Kidapawan Tourism Council (tel +63 930 620 8602, +63 942-718-4245) to get your permit for the climb and help to organize your mountain guide. While guides are being organized, you can take a jeep or tricycle to Lake Agko, where there is a campsite and a small lodge in a forest, close to a hot spring lake. If you don't mind basic accommodation, try Lake Agko Mahomanoy Mountain Resort in Sitio Ilomavis, Kidapawan City (tel +63 906 156 6369).

Where to stay
While guides are being organized, you can take a jeep or tricycle to Lake Agko, where there is a campsite and a small lodge in a forest, close to a hot spring lake. If you don't mind basic accommodation, try Lake Agko Mahomanoy Mountain Resort in Sitio Ilomavis, Kidapawan City (tel +63 906 156 6369).
If you'd like a luxury stay, Marco Polo Davao (+6382 221 0888) has rooms and suites from about P12,000 for a superior room for two, including breakfast.  For a mid-range option, try Microtel by Wyndhamlocated in Damosa Gateway Complex and IT Park, which has 51 modern rooms with Wi-Fi and cable TV, fitted with chiropractor-approved beds. An overnight stay for two with breakfast costs from P4,000 for a standard room. Legaspi Suites on P. Pelayo Street is a 20-room, centrally located boutique hotel with modern rooms. Rates are from P1,700 for a double room with breakfast at Kusina Selera, known for serving good local cuisine. Eden Nature Park & Resort (+6382 296 0791) nestled in an 80-hectare sprawling ground, surrounded by hundreds of pine trees, has rooms, cabins and campsites. Rates are from P3,900 for a standard room for four, including breakfast.

The Far North
Babuyan Islands

By Allen Hipolito Mayor
Overview

Camiguin Norte is an isolated volcanic island off the northern coast of the Philippines. It is lorded over by Mount Camiguin, a 712m dormant volcano that has not erupted in over 100 years. Camiguin Norte is one of the Babuyan Islands, which sit huddled together in the sometimes stormy Luzon Strait. The archipelago consists of five major islands and a number of surrounding smaller islands. The main islands are BabuyanCalayanDalupiriFuga and Camiguin Norte. It's not the easiest place to reach, but the effort can bring major rewards such as sightings of humpback whales from February to June. For chilling out there are fantastic, and usually deserted, beaches and coves.

Eco Features
Most visitors come for the whales, but the islands themselves are the habitat of some exotic wildlife including nankeen night heron and, allegedly, a number of Philippine freshwater crocodiles, or bukarot, of which there are said to be only 150 left in the whole country. 

How to get there
From Manila, you can hop on a Florida bus, in Sampaloc terminal near the University of Santo Tomas, bound for Claveria in Cagayan, for about P700. It’s a 14-hour ride. In Claveria, catch a local boat at Tagat Lagoon bound for Camiguin, which should cost about P500. Boat schedules are erratic as they’re dictated by the area’s weather condition. If you miss your boat or somehow get stuck for a ride, there are a few local inns available near the beach, priced from P400 per person. Rooms with ensuite toilet and bath are from P1,200 per night.

Another way to get to the Babuyan islands is to book a flight on Philippine Airlines from Manila to Tuguegarao. From Tuguegarao airport, ride a tricycle going to the Tuguegarao central bus terminal. From there you can get a bus or van for the three-hour ride to Claveria. And from Claveria, it's the usual six-hour boat ride to Calayan, one of the Babuyan Islands. There are boats for hire to hop from island to island. Contact Conie Agudera (+63921 534 9231) for boat rentals for island hopping.

Where to stay
There are no hotels in the Babuyan Islands. Contact Conie Agudera (+63921 534 9231) for homestays. 
 


Calamianes Islands (Palawan)
Coron Island

By Albert Kirby Tardeo
Overview
Coron, a 20-minute hop by banca from Coron Town, is in the north of Palawan, to the east of Busuanga. It is little explored by tourists, although Barracuda Lake, where hot and cold water mixes below the surface, has long been a popular novelty with scuba divers. The lake is fresh, salt and brackish, so there's not much marine life to see, but it's in a glorious location, cut off from the rest of the island and surrounded by sharp, towering cliffs, like something from the Jurassic age, or a King Kong movie. All you can hear is the screech of a multitude of birds, echoed and amplified in this most remarkable of natural ampitheaters.

Eco Features
Coron Island and its immediate offshore waters have been designated the ancestral domain of the Tagbanua people, who live on the island and are possible descendants of the Tabon Man, perhaps making them among the original inhabitants of the Philippines. The Tagbanua are proud but shy, and don't readily accept visitors. Coron itself is one of the wonders of the Philippines, with a jungled hinterland and mysterious lakes that few outsiders have visited. It’s a haven for terrestrial and marine flora and fauna, including the endangered, flightless Megapodius cumingii (Tabon scrubfowl), Palawan peacock pheasant, Palawan hornbill, Philippine cockatoo, blue paradise-flycatcher and Calamian deer. A couple of hours to the north by road and banca is Calauit Island, a sanctuary to dugong (sea cow), sea turtles, and giant clams. Calauit was established by Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and has a substantial population of African animals, including giraffes, zebras, and antelopes. 

How to get there
Philippine Airlines and Skyjet have regular flights from Manila to Busuanga. Roundtrip fare on Philippine Airlines is P9,500, and on Skyjet, P5000 roundtrip. From Busuanga, there are vans and jeepneys bound for Coron Town, the jump-off point for Coron and other islands.

Where to stay
There's no accommodation on Coron Island so you'll have to stay on one of the other islands or in Coron Town. Many resorts cater for scuba divers, who visit the area because of its World War II wrecks. Dive Link Resort is about 15 mins by banca from Coron Town and has simple bamboo huts on the shore, plus a swimming pool. Club Paradise (63918 907 2577), to the north of Busuanga, on Dimakya Island in Coron is a private, white-sand fringed island, with cottage style beachview rooms from about P9,000. Boutique resort Puerto del Sol, with its charming seaview cottages, from about P4,600 a night, is also recommended. There are plenty of small, affordable places in Coron Town. La Natura Resort, about 15 minutes away from the main town center, has 10 thatched modern tropical rooms in a garden setting. Rooms are about P2,500 per night if you book a stay on Agoda. Casa Coron is a no-frills hotel with room rates as low P1,440 for two people per night if you book it on Agoda

For more on Coron and Coron resorts, read 5 days in Coron.


Peñablanca, Cagayan
Peñablanca Protected Landscape and Seascape

Penablanca By Zoy Pagalilauan

Protected Landscape and Seascape By Zoy Pagalilauan

Overview
Declared as protected in 2003, the 100,000-hectare Peñablanca Protected Landscape and Seascape, in the province of Cagayan, northern Philippines, 403km North of Manila is home to around 300 cave systems, many of which remain unexplored and undocumented. The most well-known, and the easiest to explore, is the seven-chambered Callao Cave, which you could get to by climbing 184 steps. It's worth the effort. In the central chamber is a 'church' with pews laid out in front of an altar surrounded by dazzling stalactites and stalagmites. It's beautifully peaceful and also a little bit eerie. It was here that the 'Callao Man' was discovered in 2007. The find consisted of a single metatarsal which was found to be at least about 67,000 years old.  At sunset find a good spot near the caves and watch thousands of bats take wing over the Sierra Madre mountains. Peñablanca is dissected by the picturesque Pinacanauan river, which is popular with rafters and kayakers.

Eco Features
Peñablanca is a sanctuary for endemic and threatened species like the Philippine eagle, Philippine pygmy fruit bat, giant golden-crowned flying fox, Gray’s monitor lizard, and the threatened frog species Rana tipanan, which is native to the Sierra Madre mountains. Along the park's Pacific coastline are several blocks of undisturbed mangroves and rich coral reef system. 

How to get there
It's a long bus trip to the north. Hop on a Victory Liner bus (+632 833 5019, P679 FARE) at 651 EDSA, Pasay City for a 14-hour ride from Manila to Tuguegarao City. The bus trip ends in Tuguegarao Terminal. From the terminal, walk towards Brickston Mall, about 200 meters away, to catch a van bound for Santa Ana, Cagayan, a four-hour trip. From Santa Ana Commercial Center, hire a tricylce to take you to Vicente Port, a 10-minute ride, P50 for two. There are boats for hire at the port to take you to Palaui in Cagayan. You can also call boat operator Edwin Tabucol (+63916 116 5850) for boat hires. He charges P3,500 for a whole day boat rental for up to eight passengers. 

Where to stay
Only homestays are available in Palaui. If you'd rather stay in hotels, then make Tuguegarao City your basecamp. Hotel Candice offers clean, cozy and affordable rooms from P880  (+6378 844 2001). There's free Wi-Fi and a coffee shop and restaurant. Balai Bed and Breakfast on 53 Burgos Street, San Gabriel, Tuguegarao City, is an Asian-inspired boutique hotel with minimalist rooms, from P765 a night for two on AgodaMango Suites is conveniently located on Rizal Street in Tuguegarao, close to banks, restaurants, and other amenities. It has 45 well-appointed rooms, with rates from P1,250 a night for two on Agoda. Call+6378 304 0123.

Puerto Princesa, Palawan
Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park

By Cecilia Angeles
Overview

Unesco World Heritage Site with the Cabayugan underground river at its heart. The river flows 8kms under a limestone karst mountain before spilling into a lagoon separated from the sea by a beach. You can explore the river by boat, gliding through cathedral-like caverns and under vast domes where colonies of bats hang. 

Advance booking is needed for tours to the underground river. Photo by Jocas See

Eco Features                                            
According to Unesco, one of the river's distinguishing features is that it emerges directly into the sea, and its lower portion is subject to tidal influences. The area also represents a significant habitat for biodiversity conservation. The site contains a full 'mountain-to-sea' ecosystem and has some of the most important forests in Asia. Researchers have identified more than 800 flora species in the eight forest formations in the area. Notable bird sightings include the breasted sea eagle, Tabon scrub fowl, Palawan hornbill, Palawan pheasant peacock and Philippine cockatoo.  Mammal species include bearcats, bearded pigs, Palawan stink badgers, and Palawan porcupines. Monitor lizards are a common sight.

How to get there
Cebu Pacific, Philippine Airlines and Air Asia have daily flights from Manila to Puerto Princesa. You can also get there by ferry. Book at 2Go Travel. Roundtrip air fare costs about P4,300 on Cebu Pacific and about P3,400 on Air Asia. From Puerto Princesa, take a public transport, or hire a private car, to Sabang (about two hours). Sabang is the jump-off point to the park and underground river.
Ellen’s Travel and Tours (Tel+6348/ 434 7052) offers van rentals in Puerto Princesa City. A three-hour city tour costs P1,500 plus P300 for each succeeding hour. A van rental for the tour to the Underground River costs P3,500. Best to book a van at least a week before arriving at Puerto Princesa. For tour inquiries you can also call the City Tourism Council City at tel +6348/ 433 6079.
For more on the underground river, read Underground Puerto Princesa: cave secrets and hidden beaches.

Where to stay
Daluyon Beach & Mountain Resort (+6348 433 6376) is on Sabang Beach, within walking distance of Sabang Pier, which is where boats are available for underground river trips. It has lovely villas, from P6,700 for two, including breakfast. The Legend Palawan on Malvar Street in Puerto Princesa City is one of the most established hotels in the area and a good basecamp for city tours and exploring areas like Sabang. It has spacious rooms with Wi-Fi, from P2,430 a night for two on Agoda. Marina de Bay, 20 minutes from Puerto Princesa Airport, comes highly recommended. It has 12 air-conditioned villas surrounded by mangroves and landscaped gardens. Each room has a TV and Wi-Fi access, and a balcony with a view of Puerto Princesa Bay. Junior suite villas at this resort cost about P3,290 a night, twin sharing. Dolce Vita Hotel on Wescom Road, Barangay San Pedro, a 10-minute drive from the airport, is also a good base for touring the city, with rates from P1,845 a night for two on Agoda

About our insider 

Allen Hipolito Mayor is a naturalist and founder of KlubNatur, a nature and travel photographers' association which organises tours to many of the destinations featured in this article. He was a member of the RPN Flora and Fauna Research Expeditions, documenting flora and fauna in select regions of the Philippines. Visit his Facebook page or email mayorallen@gmail.com 

-Cover photo is a screengrab from Anguib Beach-Palaui Island Tour Facebook page.

Originally published in InFlight Traveller June 2010. Updated June 2016