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Philippines Outdoors

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Philippines Outdoors
From zip-lining over waterfalls to navigating underground rivers, and from swimming with whale sharks to hiking volcanoes, there are plenty of opportunities for outdoor adventure in the Philippines.
By Matt Gibson, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Matt Gibson
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    Nautical Adventures
    Some prefer to ship out in a tiny banca, a local name for an outrigger boat, where the boatman paddles you gracefully out onto the ocean for a sunset cruise; others, however, like to experience the Survivor-style journey on a kayak or banca to the remote islands of El Nido, Coron, or Caramoan for a day or two. Motorized bancas are also available for longer excursions out on the sea. Dolphin- and whale-watching trips use bigger motorboats and offer opportunities to spot multiple species of large ocean mammals in a single trip. When you head out on the water, don’t forget to prepare for the elements with extra clothing, a hat, and plenty of sunscreen.
    Photo by Matt Gibson
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    Rare and Exotic Animals
    According to Conservation International, the Philippines is one of 17 mega-diverse countries in the world, featuring more than 20,000 species of plants and animals found nowhere else on the planet. It was called “the Galapagos Islands times 10” by zoologist Lawrence Heaney. There is an endemic species of monitor lizard that grows over six feet long and lives only in the Sierra Madre forests of northern Luzon. The largest fish in the world—the whale shark—graces the country's waters each year; herds of snorkel-wielding tourists head to Donsol Bay, eager to jump in with them. If giant lizards and fish aren't your cup of tea, take an afternoon stroll through the Tarsier Sanctuary in Corella in Bohol, which is the only place in the world you’ll get to see the world’s tiniest and most adorable primate in its natural habitat.
    Photo by Matt Gibson
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    Scuba Diving
    A rare level of biodiversity combined with a well-developed diving industry and a broad selection of sites is what attracts thousands of divers to the Philippines each year. Every morning, dozens of divers can be seen kneeling patiently in an underwater line along the edge of the Monad Shoal near Malapascua, where the ocean depth drops from 80 feet to over 600 feet. They’re waiting for a glimpse of a deep-dwelling thresher shark rising from the inky dark to be cleaned by small fish. On the other hand, the waters around Coron house numerous WWII wrecks as well as thriving reefs; the sea there is often busy with dive boats moving from one site to another as their occupants drink coffee in the sun and discuss their underwater discoveries.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Subterranean Journeys
    Volcanic activity has created a lot of very big caves throughout the Philippines. The most spectacular is the Puerto Princesa Underground River. At around 15 miles long—of which five are underground—it’s the longest navigable underground river in the world, and one of the New7Wonders of Nature. Bring a change of clothes and be ready to get a bit wet as you’re ferried through the voluminous Italian's Chamber, which at nearly 1,200 feet long is one of the largest cave rooms on earth. Palawan also has numerous limestone caves where, at the right time, visitors may watch the nail-biting attempts to snag swiftlet nests for bird's-nest soup by unharnessed locals on towering rope-and-bamboo ladders in El Nido.
    Photo by David Tipling/age fotostock
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    Hiking and Biking
    The Philippines is largely mountainous and spiderwebbed with hiking trails. Volcano day hikes within 65 miles or so of Manila are quite popular, as they are relatively accessible from the capital. Taal Volcano is a 45-minute-long and fairly simple hike, while Mount Pinatubo is a two-hour easy-level trek through riverbeds covered with old lava and sulfur minerals. Both reward you with a panorama of the crater lake above. As an alternative, a three-to-four-hour medium-level hike is offered by Masungi Georeserve through the jagged limestone landscape; that one delivers a breathtaking view of both the longest mountain range and the largest lake in the country. Mountain biking, although a novel pastime in the Philippines, is catching on quickly. New trails are being developed and companies have begun to provide biking tours. Bike shops now also cater to the casual rider who prefers gentle trips in an enclosed park, while a tour establishment has created an ingenious way to combine history and biking on a two-wheeled tour of the walled city of Intramuros.
    Photo courtesy of the Philippines Department of Tourism
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    Superlative Zip Lines
    Although it’s well-suited to the country’s steep geography, paragliding is relatively new to the Philippines; it is most common in Luzon. Those seeking a less intense way to get in the air should look to one of the Philippines' numerous zip lines (there are more than 20). Each one claims to be the longest; however, with the number of zip lines being added, the owner of the current record can change in a blink of an eye. The most scenic setup is definitely the Seven Falls Zipline at Lake Sebu in Mindanao, which carries riders on a breathtaking journey over several waterfalls. For a more tranquil aerial experience, the Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta is held each February.
    Photo by Anton Quilala
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    Breaking the Waves
    The Philippines is building a reputation in action-sports circles by drawing both professional and celebrity surfers (such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers) to Siargao, renowned for its big, fast, hollow reef break, and Baler, famous as the birthplace of Filipino surfing. Baler is much more easily accessible: It's just a few hours from Manila, and it welcomes beginners who are attracted to this hip adventure. Boracay has become a kiteboarding destination and is a regular stop on the competetive circuit, although there are lots of other good places across the nation—especially in northern Luzon. The most idyllic are private spots near uninhabited islands, where lucky kiters skim across empty emerald waters as though the ocean belonged to them alone.
    Photo by Xandi Kreuzeder/age fotostock
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    Cultural Exploration
    While many travelers learn something about the colonial history of the Philippines, few actually dig into the story of the islands' early inhabitants, despite the fact that many of those ethnic groups still actively practice their millennia-old traditions. The Kankanaey people of the mountain village of Sagada in the Cordilleras are a self-sufficient community that still maintains their way of life from before Spanish rule. The Ifugao people from rice terraces such as Batad Rice Terraces carve a living out of the rugged mountains much the same way they did 2,000 years ago. They allow visitors to meander among the impressive terraces, and young villagers who speak English are happy to explain their farming methods, irrigation system, and epic hudhud chant, which can last three days. The Tagbanuas of Coron still reside in simple native huts and spearfish underwater with harpoons. An opportunity to interact with them is part and parcel of exploring the country and understanding its diverse cultures.
    Photo by Matt Gibson
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    Freshwater Fantasies
    In line with the nation's tropical-island image, the Philippines is rife with not only stunning beaches, but also with absurdly picturesque rivers and waterfalls. There are quite a number of idyllic 100-foot-tall-falling-into-a-perfect-pool-type cascades that perfectly epitomize a waterfall. But one can also experience unique ways to explore them, such getting a massage as you lay facedown on a raft that passes through tumbling waves, sitting under one and dining on a bamboo table with your feet on the water, or zipping over one at the Seven Falls Zipline in Lake Sebu. River rafting has also become a popular activity; so has tubing down a river to a waterfall.
    Photo by Matt Gibson
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    A Birder's Paradise
    Palawan is a popular destination for birders because of its large number of rare and endemic species. A wander through the thick forests around the Puerto Princesa Underground River's National Park often reveals many of the island’s native fliers, such as the falcated ground-babbler, the notoriously shy Palawan blue flycatcher, the dazzling Palawan peacock-pheasant, and the melodious tree babbler. The country’s national bird, the endangered Philippine eagle (once called the monkey-eating eagle), is a highly coveted sight among bird-watchers due to its size and rarity. These creatures are mostly found in the southern region of Mindanao.
    Photo courtesy of the Philippines Department of Tourism