14 of the Philippines' best nature destinations to take your next vacation

·14 min read
Nature's best: The Philippine eagle, Mount Pinatubo and a sea turtle in Palawan. (Photos: Reuters, Getty Images, Unsplash)
Nature's best: The Philippine eagle, Mount Pinatubo and a sea turtle in Palawan. (Photos: Reuters, Getty Images, Unsplash)

City life can grow stifling, and once in a while many of us urban residents long for escape to a place close to nature, a breath of fresh air far from the concrete jungle.

There are so many nature attractions throughout the Philippines that it's virtually impossible to list them all in one article. After all, the island nation was named among the most beautiful countries in the world for its diverse natural landscapes.

From the land to the sea, cool mountains to dazzling coral reefs, lush forests to volcanic lakes, the Philippines has no lack of natural beauty.

However, we've tried our best to list the most popular and iconic nature destinations in the Philippines, and we've come up with 14. Some of them are individual towns that by themselves provide a richness of nature activities, while others are regions that feature multiple sights and fauna.

Whether you enjoy greenery or water, flora or fauna, a laid-back holiday or vigorous trekking, we've tried to include something for all nature lovers.

Sagada's rice terraces and mountains in the Philippines. (Photo: Unsplash)
Sagada's rice terraces and mountains. (Photo: Unsplash)

Sagada

This town in the Cordillera Mountains is a base for great hiking in the mountains, caves, and forests.

Sagada is known for the hanging coffins on the cliffs of Echo Valley, as well as centuries-old coffins stacked in burial sites like Lumiang Cave. Sumaguing Cave is the most popular cave, owing to its unusual limestone formations. To the north is Bomod-ok Falls, where you can take a dip in its natural swimming pool. Rice terraces are carved into the mountainsides around the town.

Jeepneys run between Sagada and Bontoc. GL-Lizardo runs buses between Sagada and Baguio. The last jeepney and bus leave Sagada at 1pm. Coda Lines runs a once-daily bus to Manila via Banaue which leaves Sagada at 2pm.

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Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. (Photo: Unsplash)
Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. (Photo: Unsplash)

Mount Pinatubo

Mt. Pinatubo erupted violently in 1991, blowing off its dome to form a volcanic crater lake. The beautiful blue lake nestled in the mountain is the Philippines' most scenic view.

It's only possible to climb Pinatubo with a guide and 4WD (four-wheel drive) transport to the base of the volcano. The journey there will bring you through a surreal landscape formed by the lahar flow (mobile volcanic mud) from the 1991 eruption. From the foot of the volcano, it's an easy 45min hike through forested hiking trails to the lake.

The nearest barangay is Santa Juliana, which is where travellers arrange tours to Pinatubo. Book a climb by calling the Santa Juliana Tourism Council or Alvin & Angie Bognot Mt Pinatubo Guesthouse. Tours can be booked from companies in Manila and Angeles but they cost a lot more.

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Taal Lake in the Philippines. (Photo: Unsplash)
Bangkas on Lake Taal, with Volcano Island in its middle. (Photo: Unsplash)

Tagaytay and Lake Taal

Taal Volcano is one of the world's deadliest volcanoes, with more than 47 craters and 35 volcanic cones. Lake Taal and Volcano Island lie within a prehistoric volcano crater.

The town of Tagaytay on a high ridge overlooking Lake Taal offers stunning views of the area.

Tagaytay, located just 60km south of Manila, is a popular weekend vacation spot for residents of the capital because of its cool mountain climate.

From the lakeside town of Talisay, you can hire a bangka boat from a resort or boat depot to hike on Volcano Island.

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Lava flows from the crater of Mount Mayon volcano during a new eruption in Legazpi city, Albay province, Philippines January 25, 2018. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
Lava flows from the crater of Mount Mayon volcano during a new eruption in Legazpi city, Albay province, Philippines January 25, 2018. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

Bicol

Bicol is home to a host of nature attractions, including its active volcanoes, whale sharks in Donsol and huge manta rays in Ticao Pass.

The volcanoes Mayon, Bulusan and Isarog are also popular hiking spots. Mount Mayon, with its perfectly shaped cone, is known as a rival to Mount Fuji in Japan for its pretty symmetry – but watch out when it erupts: it's the most active volcano in the Philippines.

Tourists swimming with a whale shark in Donsol, Philippines, 2012
Tourists swimming with a whale shark in Donsol. (Getty Images)

Donsol used to be a sleepy village in a remote area of Sorsogon province, but is now one of the Philippines' top tourist attractions because of its butanding, or whale sharks. Hire boats from the Butanding Visitors Centre to snorkel and swim alongside these magnificent giants which feed on plankton and small fish.

You can also see whale sharks in the south of Cebu – read more below.

If you're into scuba diving, Donsol is also a good base to explore Manta Bowl off Ticao Island and other dive sites in the area. Gigantic manta rays can be spotted in Manta Bowl year-round.

In the east of Bicol, Caramoan has caves, limestone cliffs and white-sand beaches, while Catanduanes Island has mountains, waterfalls and coral reefs.

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MANSALAY, PHILIPPINES - OCTOBER 17: Critically endangered tamaraws grazes on their teritory on October 17, 2018 inside the Iglit-Baco protected habitat in Mansalay, Mindoro province,  Philippines. The tamaraw is hard to find in the wild, says June Pineda, a coordinator for the Tamaraw Conservation Program of the Philippines Department of Environment and Natural Resources,. But recently, we have recorded a slight increase in their numbers, and as our protection of their habitat is paying off, there has been an increase in sightings, she adds. The Tamaraw is one of the most critically endangered animal species in the Philippines as a result of a rinderpest outbreak in the 1930s that were allegedly brought by cattle farming in the area and poaching, but the number of the wild dwarf buffalo increased to 523 in April this year with help from a team of rag-tag but dedicated forest rangers. Armed only with makeshift equipments and leaking binoculars to monitor the animals activity and numbers, and home meade shotguns to ward off illegal hunters and poachers, the rangers for decades managed to protect the Tamaraw and their habitat.  Standing at about a meter tall with relatively short V-shaped horns, the endangered buffalo lives in the mountains of Mindoro island and is one of the proposed national symbols in the Philippines. The Tamaraw population was reportedly estimated to be 10,000 in the early 1900s but numbers declined drastically due to a combination of cattle-killing rinderpest and poaching which left less than 100 survivors by 1969, and prompted conservation parties to enforce ranger patrol at Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park in central Philippines. The Tamaraw Conservation Program employed tribesmen as trackers and forest rangers to preserve the Tamaraw which led to fewer poachers and indigenous people from entering the protected mountains of Mindoro island. (Photo by Jes Aznar/Getty Images)
Tamaraws in the Mts. Iglit-Baco protected habitat in Mindoro. (Photo by Jes Aznar/Getty Images)

Mindoro

Mindoro's natural attractions include Apo Reef and Mounts Iglit-Baco National Park.

The 35 sq km Apo Reef Natural Park, off the west coast of Mindoro, is the largest atoll-type reef in the Philippines. This dive site is known for its crystal clear waters and rich marine life such as white-tip and black-tip sharks, reef sharks, turtles, stingrays, wrasses, jacks and tuna. It's best to make the trip to Apo Reef when the seas are calmer, during the months of April, May, October and November.

Hiking in Mt. Iglit-Baco National Park offers the chance to see the tamaraw, or Mindoro dwarf buffalo, an endangered native buffalo species. The Tamaraw Conservation Program of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources counts the tamaraw population annually in April, and as of 2019 the population was said to be 466 to 494.

Tamaraw Falls near Puerto Galera, Mindoro, philippines
Tamaraw Falls near Puerto Galera, Mindoro. (Photo: Getty Images)

If you're looking for a beach vacation with marine life encounters, Puerto Galera on the northern tip of Mindoro is a resort town facing a gorgeous collection of bays and islands with very nice diving off Sabang Beach. There are a few scenic waterfalls in the area where you can swim in natural pools, including the famous Tamaraw Falls.

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TO GO WITH AFP STORY
Tourists feed giraffes with leaves at Calauit Game Preserve and Wildlife Sanctuary in Calauit island, Busuanga province. (Photo: TED ALJIBE/AFP via Getty Images)

Calauit Safari Park

For an offbeat animal attraction, go to the Calauit Safari Park in the Calamian Islands.

The game preserve and wildlife sanctuary was a pet project of former president Ferdinand Marcos Sr., who opened it in 1976. He had 104 animals shipped to Calauit Island from Africa, which included giraffes, zebras, and several species of antelope. Marcos' son, the current President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr, is known to have flown into the safari twice to hunt native wild boar.

Today the antelopes have all died out, but giraffes and zebras remain. As of 2018, there were about 25 giraffes and 35 zebras in the safari. Visitors can have feeding sessions with the giraffes.

The conservation program here is one of the most successful in the Philippines. The government has successfully conserved local native species too, such as Calamian deer, the Palawan bearded pig, Philippine crocodile, Philippine porcupine, binturong, and Philippine mouse-deer.

Calauit can be reached via a 5-minute boat ride from Macalachao on Busuanga.

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Miniloc Island in Bacuit Archipelago near El Nido in the Philippines. (Photo: Unsplash)
Miniloc Island in Bacuit Archipelago near El Nido in the Philippines. (Photo: Unsplash)

Palawan

Palawan is known for its beautiful beaches, but this mini archipelago has a lot more to offer in terms of nature attractions.

Bacuit Bay, off El Nido, has about 45 islands where the best beaches in the Philippines are found. It’s also known for its towering karst limestone cliffs.

If you want to capture all that this region has to offer, island expeditions by bangka boats between El Nido and Coron are highly recommended. Several companies offer such trips, but Tao Philippines is the best.

Puerto Princesa National Park in the Philippines. (Photo: Unsplash)
Puerto Princesa National Park in the Philippines. (Photo: Unsplash)

In the middle of Palawan is Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park, where you can explore by boat mangrove forests, one of the world’s most impressive cave systems, and an underground river.

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Tubbataha Reefs National Park

The Tubbataha Reefs are one of the Philippines' most extraordinary dive spots, having been compared to the Galapagos Islands. The marine and bird sanctuary consists of two huge atolls and the smaller Jessie Beazley Reef covering 97,030 hectares. It's home to hundreds of species of seabirds and fish, as well as manta rays, whale sharks and turtles.

TUBBATAHA, PHILIPPINES - APRIL 25: Harlequin sweetlips (Plectorhinchus chaetodonoides) is being cleaned by a bluestreak cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) on April 25, 2018 at Tubbataha Reef, Philippines, Sulu Sea. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Tubbataha is one of the top diving spots in the Philippines and around the world. (Photo by Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images)
Marine life around a coral at Tubbataha Reef. (Photo: Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Tubbataha is technically part of Palawan province, but it's in the middle of the Sulu Sea and the only way to visit is via 10- to 15-hour liveaboard boat rides from Puerto Princesa. Budget operators like M/Y Sakura (sakuracharter.com) offer 6-day trips that may cost US$1,300 while most other longer trips cost between US$2,000 and US$3,000. There's a separate park entrance fee of US$100, which goes towards the conservation of Tubbataha.

The dive season is only three months long, from mid-March until mid-June, when diving conditions are optimum: clear skies, calm seas, and visibility of between 30 and 45 meters.

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Whale shark, Rhincodon typus, Oslob, Philippines, Indian Ocean
A diver with a whale shark in Oslob. (Photo: Getty Images)

South Cebu

Cebu has diverse offerings in terms of tourism, with rich culture and amazing beach resorts. But if you're here looking for close encounters with charismatic marine wildlife, look no further than Oslob in the south of Cebu where whale shark sightings are a huge attraction.

A whale shark in Oslob in the Philippines. (Photo: Unsplash)
A whale shark in Oslob in the Philippines. (Photo: Unsplash)

Tan-awan, a tiny barangay of about 2,000 people in Oslob, attracted more than half a million tourists in 2019, mostly there to swim with the butanding (whale sharks). Tourists snorkel among the gentle giants as local whale spotting guides feed shrimp to the sharks to draw them to the water's surface.

The whale shark industry of Oslob has caused controversy because of criticism that feeding wildlife is unsustainable and that close human contact is harmful to the fish. If you prefer a more natural experience, you might try the whale shark interaction programs in Donsol (see above) or Pintuyan instead.

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Famous Chocolate Hills aerial drone view, Bohol Island, Philippines
The Chocolate Hills of Bohol. (Photo: Getty Images)

Bohol

Bohol is famous for the Chocolate Hills, tarsiers and dolphin sightings in Pamilacan.

The Chocolate Hills are a unique geological formation consisting of more than a thousand hills in the shape of near-perfect cones. They get their name from the fact that the green grass on the hills turn brown during the dry season. There are two main viewing points: Chocolate Hills Complex in Carmen, and Sagbayan Peak, in Sagbayan.

Tarsier. Tarsius Syrichta. Bohol. (Photo by: Sergi Reboredo/VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
A Philippine tarsier in Bohol. (Photo by: Sergi Reboredo/VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The endangered Philippine tarsier is a species that is unique to this country. At the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary in Canapnapan, you can get up close and personal with this tiny primate with huge eyes. Guides will bring you along a short jungle trail near the visitor's centre to meet the critters.

Dolphin watching, Bohol, Philippines
Dolphin watching in the Bohol Sea. (Photo: Getty Images)

For wildlife of the marine sort, head to Pamilacan Island off the southern coast of Bohol where dolphins hang out. You can arrange dolphin-watching tours from resorts or dive centres at Alona Beach or Baclayon. Whales and rays are also known to hang out around Pamilacan.

Besides the above natural attractions, Bohol is also popular for its beach resorts in Panglao which attract both international tourists as well as Filipinos.

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A group of dolphins leaping from the water around the Manjuyod Sandbar near Bais in Negros Oriental, Philippines.
Dolphins leaping from the water around the Manjuyod Sandbar near Bais in Negros Oriental, Philippines. (Photo: Getty Images)

Bais City

Bais, on the eastern coast of Negros Island, is among the top dolphin-watching spots in the Philippines. The Tanon Strait, located between the islands of Negros and Cebu, was established as a nationally protected seascape in 1998 because of the many species of whales and dolphins found in the waters.

The most commonly spotted dolphin species are the spinner dolphins and Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins.

Other nature highlights in Bais include a low-tide visit to the Manjuyod Sandbar, as well as the Bulwang Caves, a complex of more than 400 caves.

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An underwater photographer getting a shot of a feeding hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) at Apo Island, Philippines. (Photo by: Steve De Neef/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
An underwater photographer getting a shot of a feeding hawksbill turtle at Apo Island. (Photo: Steve De Neef/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Apo Island

Being able to get up close with turtles while snorkelling is the top reason that many tourists visit Apo Island, 25km south of Dumaguete. There are two species that can be found there – green turtles and hawksbill turtles.

The turtles are found in the shallower waters near the shore, but if you swim deeper or go diving in deeper waters, there is an incredible variety of marine life to be seen, including corals, big-eyed jacks, hump-head wrasses, hammerheads, manta rays and tuna.

Boat transports to Apo Island depart from Malatapay Beach. You can share the cost of a private boat by organising a ride with a resort, sharing a trip with others or booking a trip with a dive company.

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MAMBUKAL, NEGROS OCCIDENTAL, PHILIPPINES - 2014/03/08: Mambukal Resort and Hot Springs serves as the gateway to Mount. Kanlaon.  The hot springs were originally developed by a Japanese man named Kokichi Ishiwata in 1927.  Mambukal has a number of hot sulfur springs whose healing waters are a balm for the body.  Water continually feeds into the warm dipping pool.  Mambukal is most popular as a day trip from Bacolod but for visitors who wish to take their time overnight accommodation facilities are available.  The annual Mudpack Festival is an event one should consider as a unique event celebrating multi-colored clay. (Photo by John S Lander/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Mambukal Resort and Hot Springs serves as the gateway to Mount. Kanlaon. (Photo by John S Lander/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Mount Kanlaon Natural Park

The mountain resorts of Mt. Kanlaon Natural Park are a popular getaway from Bacolod. The most popular such resort is the massive Mambukal Resort, which features a Japanese-style sulphur hot springs bath.

While most visitors here focus on the resorts, hikers and climbers will delight in the volcanic landscape. The active volcano of Mt. Kanlaon has the highest peak in the Visayas at 2435m. It's a challenging climb which takes one or two days but those who reach the summit will be rewarded with glorious scenery and a view of the volcano's cavernous crater.

Mount Kanlaon's volcano crater Philippines
Mt. Kanlaon's crater. (Photo: Getty Images)

For those who are content with trekking on flatter terrain, Mt. Kanlaon Natural Park has a huge expanse of cool, dense forest that's home to wildlife like the wild boar, civet, cat, leopard cat and spotted deer, though it's hard to spot most of these rare species.

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Philippine Eagle
A Philippine Eagle at a conservation center in Davao city. (Photo: REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco)

Southern Mindanao

Mindanao is a vast island with natural riches that's underrated among travellers. Among its most iconic attractions are the Philippine eagle (the national bird of the Philippines) and Mount Apo, the tallest peak in the country. Davao City in the south of Mindanao is a good base to visit both these attractions.

The Philippine Eagle Center, 36km north of Davao, is dedicated to the conservation of the endangered bird. It's among the largest eagles in the world, with a wingspan of up to 7ft, and there are less than a thousand left in the wild. The center has about 35 eagles, most of them bred through artificial insemination. The center also houses Philippine brown deer and the Philippine warty pig.

Mount Apo in Mindanao in the Philippines. (Photo: Unsplash)
Mount Apo in Mindanao in the Philippines. (Photo: Unsplash)

The dormant volcano Mount Apo is located in a protected national park 32km west of Davao. Its summit is 2,954 meters above sea level, making it the tallest mountain in the Philippines. Climbing Mt. Apo is strenuous and can take about four days. It's recommended that you hire a guide at a tourist office. Mt. Apo is home to wild Philippine eagles, so if you make the trip up you might just spot one if you're lucky.

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