For a sizeable proportion of the tourists who visit every year, the main attraction of the Philippines is the scuba diving. The abundance of exceptional dive sites and the high standard of diving instruction available have made the archipelago one of the world’s foremost diving destinations.

It’s not all about getting underwater though: there are some superb wilderness areas in the Philippines and dozens of volcanoes and mountains to be climbed, from the tallest in the country, Mount Apo (2954m), to more manageable peaks close to Manila in Batangas and Rizal provinces, some of which can be tackled in a day-trip. The country also offers opportunities for caving, whitewater rafting, surfing and sailing.

Scuba diving

Diving is possible year-round in the Philippines, with surface water temperatures in the 25–28°C range, the warmest conditions being from February to June. On deeper dives temperatures can drop to 22°C due to the upwelling of deeper, cooler water, so a light (3mm) wet suit is essential. During the typhoon season from June to November, be prepared for your plans to be disrupted if a major storm hits and dive boats are unable to venture out. Visibility depends on water temperature, the strength of the current and wind direction, but generally lies in the 10–30m range, as good as anywhere in the world.

There are currently five recompression chambers (aka hyperbaric chambers) in the Philippines to treat recompression sickness. All ostensibly offer a 24-hour emergency service, but note that facilities do close for maintenance and/or because there are no staff qualified to use them. You might want to check that your dive operator is aware of the nearest operational facility. If it’s not, go somewhere else.

Dive trips

Most dives cost around P1800 to P2500, including rental of the boat and equipment such as mask, booties, wet suit, fins, weight belt and air tanks. For night dives and more demanding technical dives, expect to pay around P500 extra. If you’ve booked a package that includes accommodation at a dive resort, two dives a day will normally be included in the cost.

Courses

All PADI-accredited resorts offer a range of courses run by qualified professional instructors. If you haven’t been diving before and aren’t sure if you’ll take to it, try a gentle twenty-minute “discovery dive”, guided by an instructor for around P1500, or the longer PADI Discover Scuba Diving course for around P3000. The main course for beginners is the PADI Open Water Diver Course (from around P20,000) which will allow you to dive at depths up to 18m. You might want to consider doing the pool sessions and written tests before you travel, then doing the checkout dives at a PADI resort in the Philippines. It saves time and means you don’t have to slave over homework in the tropical heat. If you choose this option, make sure you bring your PADI referral documents with you.

Once you’ve passed the course and been given your certification card, you are free to dive not just anywhere in the Philippines, but anywhere in the world. You might also want to take another step up the diving ladder by enrolling in a more advanced course. There are many to choose from, including Advanced Open Water Diver (from P16,000), Emergency First Response (from P7000), which is also suitable for non-divers and Rescue Diver (from around P20,000).

Liveaboards

There are two great advantages to diving from a liveaboard (a boat that acts as a mobile hotel) – you can get to places that are inaccessible by bangka and once you’re there you can linger for a night or two. Liveaboards allow you to explore terrific destinations such as Apo Reef off the coast of Mindoro and Tubbataha in the Sulu Sea, arguably the best dive spot in the country. Packages include all meals and dives, but vary significantly according to destination; Tubbataha costs at least US$1200–1600 per week, while trips around Coron start at around US$130 per day. Most of the boats used have air-conditioned en-suite cabins for two. Packages often include unlimited diving and are always full board.

Liveaboard operators

Atlantis Dive Resorts atlantishotel.com. Operates the 32m-long Atlantis Azores with eight luxurious cabins with private bathrooms. Trips to Puerto Galera and Apo Reef (Oct–Dec), Tubbataha (mid-March to early June), Dumaguete (June–Sept) and southern Leyte for the whalesharks (Jan–March). Most trips US$3295–3790 for 7 nights, 6 days.

Expedition Fleet expeditionfleet.com. Trips to Tubbataha on the ten-cabin MY Stella Maris Explorer (from US$2400; 8 days, 7 nights).

Seadive Resort seadiveresort.com. Trips to Apo Reef and the Coron wrecks from P22,500 (2 nights/3 days), including five dives and all entry fees.

Victory Divers victorydivers.com. Overnight trips from Boracay to Apo Reef where there are whale sharks, sharks, rays and turtles. P7500/day (minimum of four people).

Recompression chambers

Batangas City St Patrick’s Hospital, Lopez Jaena St 043 723 8388, divemed.com.ph.

Cavite City Sangley Recompression Chamber, NSWG, Philippine Fleet Naval Base 046 524 2061.

Cebu City Cebu Recompression Chamber, Viscom Station Hospital, Military Camp Lapu-Lapu, Lahug 032 232 2464.

Manila V. Luna Recompression Chamber, AFP Medical Center, V. Luna Rd, Quezon City 02 920 7183, afpmedicalcenter.com.

Sea Dive Resort Barangay 3 Don Pedro St, Coron (Palawan) t 0917 808 6700, seadiveresort.com.

Diving resources

Asia Divers asiadivers.com. Thoroughly professional dive outfit with an office in Manila and a dive centre and accommodation in Puerto Galera. Good people to learn with.

Divephil divephil.com. Useful guide to scuba diving in the Philippines, plus information about destinations and accommodation.

SeaQuest seaquestdivecenter.net. Long-established operator with centres in Bohol and Cebu, offering general diving advice, safaris, courses and accommodation.

Underwater Threesome uw3some.com. Online diving portal for several organizations, including Asian Diver diving magazine and Scuba Diver AustralAsia.

Trekking and climbing

The Philippines offers plenty of opportunities to explore pristine wilderness areas. Luzon, for example, has the Sierra Madre, rarely visited by tourists and offering exhilarating trekking through dense rainforest and across dizzying peaks. In Bicol there are some terrific volcano climbs (Mt Mayon and Mt Isarog, for instance), while Mindoro, Palawan and the Visayas between them have dozens of national parks, heritage areas, wildlife sanctuaries and volcanoes. Mount Kanlaon, an active volcano in Negros, is one of the country’s more risky climbs, while Mount Halcon on Mindoro offers a raw, mesmerizing landscape of peaks, waterfalls and jungle, typical of wilderness areas throughout the archipelago.

The country actually has more than sixty national parks and protected areas, but because funds for their management are scarce, you won’t find the kind of infrastructure that exists in national parks in the West. While the most popular climbs – Mount Apo in Mindanao and Mount Pulag in Mountain province, for example – have trails that are relatively easy to find and follow, it’s important to realize that for the most part trails are generally poorly maintained and hardly marked, if they’re marked at all. There are seldom more than a few (badly paid) wardens or rangers responsible for huge tracts of land, and where accommodation exists, it will be extremely basic. Some national parks have administrative buildings where you might be able to get a bed in a dorm for the night, or where you can roll out a mattress or sleeping bag on the floor. They may also have basic cooking facilities, but the closest you’ll get to a shower is filling a bucket and washing outside. Deep within park territory, the best you can hope for is a wooden shack to shelter in for the night.

This lack of facilities means you’ll need to hire a reliable guide. Often, the place to make contact with guides is the municipal hall in the barangay or town closest to the trailhead. Fees range from P800–1500 per day depending where you are, plus food and water, which you’ll have to bring with you as it’s unlikely you’ll come across anywhere to buy anything once you’re on the trail.

There are some outdoor shops in big cities – mainly Manila – where you can buy a basic frame-tent for P3000 and a sleeping bag for P1500. Other essentials such as cooking equipment, lanterns and backpacks are also available, and you may be able to rent some items, though the range of gear on offer is limited even in the best shops.

Trekking and climbing resources

Metropolitan Mountaineering Society metropolitanms.org. Sociable trekking group running expeditions throughout the year. On the easier treks they may well be willing to take you along at short notice, though you might need to take a basic survival course to be allowed on the more challenging expeditions.

Mountaineering Federation of the Philippines mfpi.wordpress.com. An umbrella group that can offer general information about routes and practicalities.

Pinoy Mountaineer pinoymountaineer.com. This detailed and well-maintained site is a good place to read up about trekking and climbing, with sample itineraries for major climbs and a long list of climbing clubs in the country.

Caving

It’s hardly surprising that caving – spelunking – is a growth industry, as there are huge caves to explore throughout the country. The largest cave systems are in northern Luzon – in Sagada and in Cagayan province near Tuguegarao, where the Peñablanca Protected Area has three hundred caves, many deep, dangerous and not yet fully explored. The other exciting caving area is the Sohoton Natural Bridge National Park in Samar.

Whitewater rafting and zip-lining

Whitewater rafting is becoming more popular in the Philippines, notably along the Cagayan River and Chico River in northern Luzon and Cagayan de Oro River in Mindanao. Zip lines have mushroomed all over the islands, but some are much tamer than others – some of the best are near Cagayan de Oro and Davao.

Surfing

Surfing is now well established in the Philippines, with surfers taking advantage of good waves in eastern Bicol, Catanduanes, eastern Mindanao (especially Siargao Island), and around San Fernando in La Union. There are also any number of hard-to-reach areas in the archipelago that are visited only by a handful of die-hard surfers, such as Baler in northern Luzon, or around Borongan in eastern Samar. For general information visit surfingphilippines.com, cloudninesurf.com and surfingthephilippines.com.

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