The Philippines is a treasure trove for nature-lovers.
Whether you’re up for an ascent in one of its many mountains, down for some diving, looking forward to a trek through its rainforests for endemic flora and fauna or simply want to unwind at a white-sand beach, the Pearl of the Orient’s beauty is bound to captivate you. An archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, this Southeast Asian nation offers numerous natural wonders. Here are the top 15 you shouldn’t miss.
Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park
WHERE: Cagayancillo, Palawan
Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the fulfillment of any diver’s dream: clear waters, lots of currents, and diverse marine life. The park offers divers more than a dozen dive sites to explore, where incredibly beautiful, healthy corals and pelagics like manta rays, whale sharks, barracuda, and tuna thrive. Non-divers can catch a glimpse of pristine coral reefs by snorkeling or they can scan the skies for endemic and migratory birds.
INSIDER TIPThe park is open year-round but the best time for a dive is from March to June. Book live-aboard dive boats one year in advance to ensure that dream dive becomes a reality.
Schedule your dive with any of these Tubbataha partner operators.
WHERE: Ifugao, Cordillera Administrative Region
The rice terraces stand as a testament to the ingenuity, culture, and tradition of the people who lived in the Cordillera mountain range and carved these “stairways to heaven” out of necessity 2,000 years ago. Depending on what you want to see, you could visit the rice terraces during planting or harvest seasons or when it’s at its greenest, but skip the rainy season (June to November) to avoid landslides and Christmas, New Year, and Easter to avoid the crowd.
INSIDER TIPA journey to the rice terraces is best enjoyed with a guide who can tell you its rich history during your trek. Your best walking companion will be a big, sturdy stick.
Get bus tickets online in advance and don’t forget to bring ample cash, as there are no banks or ATMs where you’re going.
Mount Hamiguitan World Heritage Park
WHERE: San Isidro, Davao Oriental
Unless you’re a scientist, there’s currently no way to go up Mount Hamiguitan, but you can still experience the mountain’s natural wonders through the Mount Hamiguitan World Heritage Park. Having opened its doors in May 2016, the park features a modern, interactive museum that provides visitors a venue to learn more about the mountain’s century-old pygmy forest and 12 endemic species of plants and animals, among others. The 12.84-hectare eco-park also houses a research center, gardens, camping grounds, butterfly trails, and a bird-watching deck. Fly from Manila or Cebu to Davao City before heading on a three-hour ride to San Isidro.
Great Santa Cruz Island
WHERE: Zamboanga City
Schedule a day trip to discover a “new paradise” in the southernmost part of the Philippines. Great Santa Cruz Island is a 15- to 30-minute boat ride from Zamboanga City and offers about 200 daily visitors clean, crystal clear waters and unspoiled sands that blush in the sunlight. The island’s soft pinkish sand is a major draw, but don’t miss the ancient Badjao cemetery and mangrove lagoon.
Get in touch with Zamboanga City’s tourism department to book a reservation between one and 30 days before your actual visit.
INSIDER TIPGet to the island early as you’ll only be there for a few hours; visitors must return to the city in the early afternoon. Don’t forget to bring enough drinking water, too.
Puerto Princesa Underground River
WHERE: Puerto Princesa, Palawan
Recognized as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, the Puerto Princesa Underground River is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A 45-minute tour will take you through the subterranean river system that’s 8.2 kilometers long and empties directly to the sea. Be on the lookout for impressive limestone karst and other rock formations like the “holy family” rock formation inside “the chapel.”
Get to the site early (or risk waiting for hours) and make sure to have your entry permits on hand.
INSIDER TIPThe tour has minimal lighting (from headlamps) so bring a really good camera if you want to take photos.
WHERE: Borboanan, Bislig City, Surigao del Sur
Enclosed by old mossy trees, vines, and ferns, Tinuy-an Falls features powerful, surging water cascading like curtains in three levels. Then, between 9 and 11 a.m., magic happens in the “Niagara Falls of the Philippines” when a rainbow appears like clockwork. It is the widest waterfall in Mindanao at 95 meters (311 feet). It’s best to visit the falls during the hot dry season (March to May) or during the weekdays when it’s not very crowded. Be prepared for a bumpy ride in a “habal-habal,” a motorcycle ride typically with more than two people, and make sure to arrange your ride back.
WHERE: Dauin, Negros Oriental
A well-known diving spot in the Visayas, Apo Island hosts nearly a dozen dive sites with average depths ranging from 5 to 30 meters. The sites are home to beautiful corals, different varieties of reef fish, turtles, and other marine animals. Snorkeling from 3 to 25 meters of water is a good way to see the island’s fringing reef.
Though located in the municipality of Dauin, Apo Island can be accessed through a 45-minute banca ride from the neighboring town of Zamboanguita. Take public transportation from Dumaguete City and ask to be dropped off at Malatapay, a well-known market. Be sure to board the boat back to the mainland before 4 p.m. unless you plan on staying overnight.
INSIDER TIPIf you’re staying overnight, remember to recharge your devices from 6 to 9 p.m.—the only period of the day when electricity is available on the island.
Book a Hotel
Biri Island Rock Formations
WHERE: Biri, Northern Samar
In the place where the San Bernardino Strait and the Pacific Ocean converge, several small, rocky islands stand tall and stubborn. Undaunted by the onslaught of waves for millions of years, the Biri Island Rock Formations, of which Bel-at and Magasang are the most popular, are truly unique and awe-inspiring. Time your visit during low tide so you can explore the rock formations with greater ease.
WHERE: Carmen, Bohol
According to a legend, the Chocolate Hills were a giant’s tears of sorrow upon losing his mortal love to death. Covering an area of 50 square kilometers, the Chocolate Hills encompasses more than 1,000 Hershey’s Kisses-shaped hills. The smallest hills are 30 meters high while the largest are 120 meters high.
INSIDER TIPSkip the viewing deck at Carmen and head for the less-promoted Sagbayan Peak for a good view of the Chocolate Hills.
Visit during the dry season to see how the hills got their name, or if you’re the mint chocolate kind of guy/gal, visit during rainy season to see the hills in their lush green garb.
WHERE: Donsol, Sorsogon
Donsol, Sorsogon is now synonymous to whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), with the municipality playing host to the largest congregation of whale sharks in the world. These gentle giants pass through Donsol during their migration. But aside from the butandings, as locals call them, Donsol is also home to thresher and white tip sharks, pelagics, and manta rays. The best months for whale shark sightings are between March and May.
Donsol is a great diving spot, particularly Ticao and San Miguel islands. Schedule your visit during February to October, when the weather is most agreeable for a dive.
WHERE: Alaminos, Pangasinan
Amid the calm, blue waters of Lingayen Gulf are 123 islands (124 during low tide) collectively known as the Hundred Islands. Rent a boat to see the islands up close and perhaps catch a glimpse of crab-eating macaques, Fraser’s dolphins, sea turtles, reticulated pythons, sea snakes, and other animals that call the Hundred Islands National Park their home. Or stay overnight in a tent at Quezon Island, Marcos Island, Governor’s Island, or Children’s Island. Plan your visit during the dry months of March to May. Arrive early to avoid crowds and relish the islands’ solitude and tranquility. Lucap Wharf has a great sunrise view.
INSIDER TIPFood can be bought from stores and restaurants in the park but it can be pricey. Save some money by bringing your own snacks, lunch, and bottled water.
WHERE: Albay, Bicol
Rising more than 2,400 meters above sea level, Mayon Volcano looms over Legazpi and its neighboring towns, a majestic cone dominating the flat plains of Albay. Rent an ATV or pick a trail and trek to the top for an amazing view of the surrounding towns and the Pacific Ocean. As Mayon is an active stratovolcano, it’s best to always check with local authorities for warning levels before and during your scheduled trip.
INSIDER TIPHit two birds with one stone by visiting Sumlang Lake in Camalig, Albay and get a clear view of Mayon’s perfect cone.
WHERE: Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte
A visit to Pagudpud won’t be complete without taking a breather in one its many beaches and resorts—must-visits are Saud Beach and the “Blue Lagoon” (Maira-ira Point in Malingay Cove)—but there’s more to this coastal resort town than creamy white-sand beaches and sparkling cerulean seas. Take a road trip to the “French Riviera of the North” (Patapat Viaduct); dip in the cool, refreshing waters of Kabigan Falls; or be inspired by Dos Hermanos Island, two identical mountains which, according to legend, were two brothers loyal to each other.
Dry season is a prime time to visit the beach, but visit the viaduct during rainy days to see Mabugabog Falls (now powering a hydro-electric plant) “re-appear” and run down a precipice to the sea below.
WHERE: Siquijor, Central Visayas
In the past, Siquijor was linked to mangkukulam (witches) and the occult. Though it still maintains its mysterious air, many are now drawn to the island for its beaches and resorts, waterfalls, caves, and forests. Must-visit attractions include Salagdoong Beach Resort, Cantabon Cave, Mount Bandilaan, Cambugahay Falls, and San Juan de Capilay Lake.
Don’t forget to take a break or end your day in Lazi, where you can get a foot spa treatment from fish while sitting in a pond underneath a century-old balete tree.
Taal Volcano and Taal Lake
WHERE: Batangas, Luzon
With a lake inside its crater and a lake around its base, the very active Taal Volcano is a glorious sight to behold whether up close or from afar (Tagaytay City in Cavite provides a full view of Taal Lake and Volcano). But its splendor wouldn’t be the same without Taal Lake, which holds wonders of its own. Hydrophis semperi, a venomous snake, and Sardinella tawilis, a freshwater sardine, are endemic to Taal Lake. The best way to enjoy the lake and volcano include trekking up Mount Makulot, joining a yacht tour, or simply soaking in the sights.