The northeast of Luzon, comprising the provinces of Nueva Vizcaya, Quirino, Aurora, Isabela and Cagayan, is one of the archipelago’s least explored regions, with miles of beautiful coastline and enormous tracts of tropical rainforest. Following the National Highway from Ilocos as it curves south brings you to the biggest city in the region, Tuguegarao, the starting point for trips to the Peñablanca Caves. Alternatively turn off the highway and follow the north coast road to reach Santa Ana, home to the country’s best game-fishing and the departure point for boat trips to the rugged and isolated Babuyan Islands.
The coast south of Santa Ana and east of Tuguegarao is cut off from the rest of Luzon by the Sierra Madre mountains. One of the only significant settlements is Palanan, jump-off point for the barely explored Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park. The climbing and trekking possibilities here are exciting, but the area is so wild and remote that it’s also potentially hazardous, with poor communications and areas of impenetrable forest. Further south on the coast – but unreachable by road from Palanan – is Baler, the best-known tourist destination in the northeast. This coastal town has become a popular surfing destination, but its location six hours from Manila means that it isn’t swamped with weekenders.
There’s only one major airport for the whole region and that’s at Tuguegarao, served by Philippine Airlines from Manila. There is also a small airport in Cauayan, from which it’s possible to take a twin-engine aircraft to the airstrips in Palanan and Maconacon. Buses run regularly from Manila to Baler via Cabanatuan, about three hours north of the capital.Read More
Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park
Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park
At almost 3600 square kilometres, the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park remains one of the country’s last frontiers. Said by conservationists to be the Philippines’ richest protected area in terms of habitat and species, the park is eighty percent land and twenty percent coastal area along a spectacular, cliff-studded seashore.
One of the reasons for the health of the park’s ecosystems is its inaccessibility from outside. To the east lies the Pacific, which is too rough for boats during much of the northeast monsoon (Dec–Feb) and typhoon (July–Oct) seasons; to the west, no roads cross the park or lead towards the more populated, rice-growing valleys. Small aircraft connect the towns of Palanan and Maconacon to the outside world, but that doesn’t make the area any less remote and for those unable or unwilling to pay for flights it’s very time-consuming to reach. If you do make it, however, then you’ll have no regrets.
The park has few wardens and no fences for boundaries, so you can visit any time you want without restriction; it is essential, however, to take a guide if you are to visit safely. A guide can take you down the Palanan River to the village of Sabang, from where you can walk through farmland and forest to Disadsad Falls, a high cascade that crashes through dense forest into a deep pool. For some of the trip there’s no trail, so you’ll have to wade upriver through the water. Another memorable trip from Palanan takes you northwards along the coast to the sheltered inlets around the towns of Dimalansan and Maconacon. On the isolated beaches here the Dumagat people establish their temporary homes.
The laidback east coast town of BALER is known for its excellent if intermittent surfing: it was the location for the surfing scenes in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The shots were filmed at a break known as Charlie’s Point located at the mouth of the Aguang River, which is a 45-minute walk north of the main surfing beach of Sabang. When the film crew departed they left the surfboards behind, kick-starting local interest in the sport.
You can surf year-round at Baler although the best waves usually come between October and February, especially early in the morning. While it’s the most convenient, Sabang Beach isn’t the only good spot for surfing: Cemento Beach, 6km east of Baler, sees waves of up to 4m. To get there, take a tricycle from Baler town to the river outlet south of Sabang Beach and then either hire a bangka for the ten-minute ride to Cemento or make the forty-minute walk.
If you aren’t looking for surf then you could try the white beach at Dicasalarin Cove, which can be reached by bangka from Baler (P3500 for a day-trip) or on foot from Digisit (2–3hr) which is 5km beyond Cemento. Further afield, Casiguran Sound is a calm and picturesque inlet around 3–4 hours north of Baler by either road (P162 ordinary bus, P595 a/c bus, P200 van) or sea. Protected from onshore winds and waves by a finger of hilly land, it is perfect for swimming and very undeveloped.