Philippines - Getting to know Southern Luzon
There’s much more to the main Philippine island of Luzon than the capital city of Manila. The south of the island is still largely off the beaten tourist track and for us that's a great reason to explore it. Southern Luzon is studded with jungle-covered mountains and volcanoes, surrounded by heavenly islands and blessed with far more than its fair share of world-class coral reefs.
Just 37 miles south of Manila, the city of Tagaytay is a popular summertime destination for Filipinos seeking to escape the heat of the city in the cooler, fresher mountain air. The picturesque upland region around the city features countless incredible views – none better than the still-active Taal Volcano in the middle of Crater Lake, all overlooked from the city.
Moving further south, the Mabini peninsula which forms the western arm of Batangas Ba, is a sparsely populated, upland area centred around Mount Gulugod. The views are terrific, but better still is the offshore snorkelling and diving, rated as the best in all Luzon. The subaquatic scene is centred on Anilao, with pristine reefs extending all the way down the west coast of the peninsula.
The Bicol region covers Luzon’s south eastern sprawl, including provinces such as Camarines Sur, Albay and the islands of Masbate and Catanduanes – all hugely rewarding destinations for those who make the effort to visit. The geology of the region gives rise to incredible limestone cliffs and karsts, bizarre cone hills, cave systems and waterfalls – all surrounded by pristine white-sand beaches.
What to do in Southern Luzon
- Visit Albay to experience a refreshing change from all that white-sand splendour. The coastline from Tiwi to Bacacay features volcanic black sand which originated from the crater of the looming Mount Mayon volcano millions of years ago.
- Hike or take a quad bike around the perfectly conical - and highly active - Mount Mayon volcano that sits at a height of 2,463 metres. Visit the ruins of Cagsawa village, buried by volcanic ash following a violent eruption in 1814, its iconic bell tower the only remaining structure, and, if you dare, follow the dried lava flows up the mountain’s steep slopes.
- Go island-hopping off the coast of Camarines Sur. The Caramoan Peninsula’s National Park offers an irresistible coastal wilderness made up of exotic karst formations, clandestine coves and sandy beaches fringed by rainforest, that are best explored via sea kayak.
Bicol's reputation for spicy food surpasses every other region in the Philippines. The local seafood, pork and vegetable dishes are deliciously prepared with coconut, bananas and a healthy kick from fiery chillis. Try kinunot, a terrific starter traditionally made with coconut milk, moringa leaves and shark meat, though the eco-friendlier stingray is just as tasty. And don’t miss Guinataang Labong – bamboo shoots with sardines or shrimps, plus coconut and chilli peppers.
Among the rare wildlife endemic to Mt Isarog are a species of blind snake & the world’s smallest raptor.
Getting off the trail in Southern Luzon
- Off the western coast of Bicol, around Donsol, the shallow seas are home to one of the world’s largest schools of whale sharks. With the help of local spotters, it’s possible to swim and snorkel with these vast, gentle creatures, which average from four to (a rather intimidating) ten metres in length. Peak season is December to May. As an added bonus, as if you needeď one, manta rays and hammerheads may also be encountered.
- Mount Isarog is the second highest peak in Bicol, a volcanic formation with a verdant difference. Here, the slopes and crater are covered with a unique mossy forest whose low canopy rarely reaches above six metres. It's a treasure trove of biodiversity crammed with pitcher plants and orchids, exotic fauna and birdlife endemic to the area.
- The island of Catanduanes is the furthest eastern outpost of Luzon and, a word of warning, it can be windy here during typhoon season. However, this is great news for intrepid surfers who are increasingly drawn to this stretch of largely deserted Pacific coastline. Recommended for its breaks, as well as the great beaches, reef snorkelling and the spectacular caves.
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