Lying southeast of Manila, the provinces that make up Southern Luzon are home to some of the country’s most popular tourist destinations – both active and natural. As well as snorkelling with whale sharks, trekking up active volcanoes and surfing waves whipped up by typhoons, Southern Luzon also offers a number of glorious white sand beaches and some lovely islands.
The National Highway south from Manila takes you down to Quezon province, home to Mount Banahaw, a revered dormant volcano that presents one of the most rewarding climbs in the country. Quezon is linked by ferry to the beautiful, heart-shaped island province of Marinduque, still largely untouched by mass tourism and best known for its Easter festival, the Moriones. Beyond Quezon is the Bicol region, a narrow finger of land studded with volcanoes including Mount Bulusan and Mount Mayon. The coastline is often stunning, too, with some great beaches and island-hopping opportunities particularly around Legazpi and Sorsogon City. Best of all, though, is the Caramoan Peninsula where tourism is developing apace but where it’s still possible to find little deserted hideaways. There are also attractions offshore and although it can’t rival the Visayas for scuba diving, Bicol does have an ace up its sleeve in the form of Donsol, home to huge whale sharks. Other water-based activities in Bicol include surfing in Daet and wakeboarding at CamSur Watersports Complex. Two island provinces add further variety: Masbate is the Philippines’ wild east, where cattle are raised and the biggest tourist draw is the annual rodeo in May. Known as the “Land of the Howling Winds”, Catanduanes is infamous for its exposure to passing typhoons, but this extreme weather is, however, what attracts surfers to its beaches.
The wild and sometimes windswept CARAMOAN PENINSULA, 50km to the east of Naga, is blessed with limestone cliffs and blue-water coves to rival the Visayas or Palawan. Until recently its relative isolation and lack of infrastructure meant that it attracted only a handful of tourists. Then in 2008 the French production of the Survivor TV show was filmed here, and other international productions followed suit. While today the area hardly rivals somewhere like Boracay in terms of development, it is attracting increasing numbers of people to its rugged, scenic landscape. The dry season here runs from February to October, while November sees the most rain.
The eastern island province of Catanduanes is ripe for exploration, a large, rugged, rural island with mile upon mile of majestic coastline. It has still barely felt the impact of tourism, although with eight flights a week from Manila and improvements to the main road around the island this is slowly changing. In fact surfers have known about Catanduanes for quite some time, attracted to the big waves off Puraran Beach on the wild east coast. There are also several good beaches within easy reach of the capital Boac, as well as other attractions like the immense caves in Lictin, while the undeveloped west coast offers the opportunity to blaze a trail into areas few travellers see. Most of all Catanduanes is a friendly, down-to-earth place to hang out for a few days, as long as you are willing to adjust to a slower pace of life and travel.
It isn’t all good news though. Filipinos think mostly of bad weather when they think about Catanduanes, lying as it does on the exposed eastern edge of the archipelago smack in the middle of the “typhoon highway”. Unless you are a surfer the best time to visit is from March to June, when the chances of rainfall are slight and the wind is less wicked. During the wet season (July–Nov) the island can be hit half a dozen times by typhoons, causing extensive damage to crops and homes and sometimes loss of life.
The first decent beaches you reach as you head north along the east coast from Virac are around Baras, a small trading and fishing town where the only visitors are surfers who come occasionally to spend the day. It’s worth stopping to climb the hill to the radar station; it’s a 30-minute scramble to the top, but when you get there you’re rewarded with uninterrupted views of the coast and a vast area of narra trees. At the time of research the radar station, which had been derelict, was undergoing renovation and there were plans to welcome visitors.
However, for many visitors the only stop on the east coast is at beautiful PURARAN BEACH, with a break referred to as Majestic by surfers. Majestic is fickle but it’s generally thought that the best bet is from July to October, when low-pressure areas lurking out in the Pacific help kick up a swell. Of course, these areas can turn into tropical storms and typhoons that batter the coast, making surfing impossible for all but experts and the foolhardy. Prices for board hire (P150/hr shortboard, P200/hr longboard) and lessons (P150/hr) are set by the Department of Tourism, although you may find locals willing to do a deal for longer term hire.
You don’t have to be a surfer to enjoy a few days on a beach as lovely as this one. There are extensive coral gardens just offshore that make for wonderful snorkelling, and swimming is safe inside the line of the reef and away from the rocks – ask for advice at your resort before heading out, as it is not unknown for swimmers to get into trouble.
Puraran is still mercifully undeveloped, with only two basic resorts on the beach as well a slightly more comfortable one (which was up for sale at the time of research) up the hill close to the main road. At Puting Baybay Resort (t0910/314-5482; P500–999) there are simple, clean cottages or concrete rooms with cold water only. Elena’s Majestic Resort (t0919/558-1460; P500–999), is another simple place with a handful of rooms and six small cottages right on the sand, each with its own rickety terrace where you can relax with a cold drink at the end of a day’s surfing. Electricity is often limited to a few hours a day and the nearest internet access is in Virac. These are very laidback resorts, and it is not unusual for visitors to end up staying for a couple of weeks.
There is only one morning jeepney (2hr; P35) direct to Puraran each day from Virac. More vehicles make the trip to Baras, from where it’s a P150 tricycle trip to the beach. When you’re ready to leave the resort owners can arrange a tricycle to Baras, or all the way to Virac for P600 if you’ve missed the last jeepney.
About four hours south of Naga, the busy port city of LEGAZPI (sometimes spelt Legaspi) is a convenient base for exploring the area, including Mount Mayon whose almost perfect cone-shaped bulk rises from paddy fields to the north of the city. Other attractions include quiet beaches around the town of Santo Domingo, the eerie remains of a church at Cagsawa that was buried in the devastating eruption of Mayon in 1814, and Hyop-Hoyopan and Calabidongan caves.
The heart-shaped island of MARINDUQUE (pronounced “mar-in-DOO-kay”) is a great place to get away from it all – work your way slowly around the coastal road to the pretty beaches south of Boac, then across the island to Torrijos and Poctoy White Beach, where you can live cheaply in the shadow of majestic Mount Malinding. There’s some good island-hopping around Marinduque too, with beaches and coves to explore around the Tres Reyes Islands off the southwest coast and the Santa Cruz Islands off the northwest coast. The island is known for its Moriones festival, an animated Easter tradition featuring masked men dressed like Roman soldiers. If you plan to visit during Holy Week then you should book ahead.
For all its geographical closeness to Manila, Marinduque might as well be a world away, with most of the 230,000 residents leading a life of subsistence coconut farming and fishing. When copper mining was begun here in 1969, many thought it was the dawn of a new era for the island. Sadly, the dream ended in disaster and recrimination as on two separate occasions, waste from disused pits flowed into the island’s rivers, destroying agricultural land, the livelihood of the locals and marine life, which is still trying to recover today. More recently a luxury resort opened on a small island off Marinduque, providing jobs – around 80 percent of the staff are locals – but otherwise having little impact on the lives of most islanders.
The capital of Camarines Norte province DAET, 200km southeast of Manila, is overrun with tricycles but the nearby coastline has more than its fair share of unspoiled beaches and islands. Surfers are drawn to the fickle waves at Bagasbas Beach (see p.000) and San Miguel Bay. Daet’s busy little central plaza is a popular meeting place in the evenings. One block north is the 1950s Provincial Capitol, in front of which is Kalayaan (Freedom) Park with the tallest statue of José Rizal outside Manila. Erected in 1899, this was the first monument to Rizal in the country and set the trend for thousands of others in town and barrio plazas across the archipelago.
The Moriones festival celebrates the life of Longinus, the Roman soldier who pierced Christ’s side during the Crucifixion. Blood from the wound spattered Longinus’s blind eye, which was immediately healed. Converted on the spot, he later attested to the Resurrection and, refusing to recant, was executed. The Marinduqueyo version is colourful and bizarre, involving fanciful masked figures dressed as centurions chasing Longinus around town and through nearby fields. Several Moriones pageants are staged in Marinduque during Holy Week, with extra events added in recent years for the benefit of tourists (see wwww.marinduque.gov.ph for more information). Although the festival originated in Mogpog, and other towns including Santa Cruz have their own versions, these days the major Moriones festival is in Boac.
The province of Masbate (“Maz-bah-tee”) lies in the centre of the Philippine archipelago. It is comprised of the island of Masbate with its small capital city of the same name, two secondary islands called Burias and Ticao, and numerous smaller islands. There are a number of exceptional beaches on Masbate, such as Bituon and immense caves in thick jungle such as Kalanay and Batongan. It’s the infrastructure that’s lacking. This is slowly changing, however, with an increased emphasis on tourism and developments such as an anticipated new ferry route to Manila via Caticlan (and therefore Boracay).
The position of Masbate at the heart of the Philippines leads to some complicated cultural blending, with a mix of languages including Cebuano, Bicolano, Waray, Ilonggo, Tagalog and Masbateño. The province has long had something of a reputation for violence, with an image throughout the Philippines as a lawless “Wild East” frontier province. Like many isolated areas of the archipelago, Masbate does seem a law unto itself and political killings are certainly not unheard of, but its reputation for goonish violence is mostly unfair. In any case it is highly unlikely that tourists will feel any less safe here than in most other parts of the country.
The Wild East moniker is, however, apt for reasons other than lawlessness: Masbate ranks second only to the landlocked province of Bukidnon, Mindanao, in raising cattle. There’s even an annual rodeo in Masbate City in May, where cowpokes do battle for big prize money. Farming is the second most common form of livelihood, fishing the third.
Much of the northern part of Quezon province is mountainous and hard to reach, although there are isolated communities on the coast. The southern portion of the province serves mainly as a staging post on the road from Manila to the Bicol region, though it does have attractions such as a couple of excellent climbs, Mount Banahaw and Mount Cristobal. Further east you can explore Quezon National Park, which has some fairly easy marked trails. If you happen to be in Quezon in mid-May, check out what is by far the biggest festival in the province, the Pahiyas, held in and around Lucban, not far from the very ordinary provincial capital, Lucena.
A toe of land with a striking volcanic topography and some little-known beaches, lakes, hot springs and waterfalls, Sorsogon province lies south of Albay and is the easternmost part of mainland Bicol. The province is best known to tourists for the chance to snorkel with whale sharks off the coast near Donsol, but it’s also a great area for activities such as hiking and caving. Sorsogon City makes a good base for exploring the area’s many lovely beaches – the nicest stretch of sand being Rizal Beach, in the barrio of Gubat to the east of Sorsogon City. There are many pristine coves to explore along the coast around Bacon while south of Sorsogon City, Mount Bulusan is a climbable, active volcano.
Driving through Sorsogon province you will pass many stalls selling items made from the fibre of abacá, the fibre of a species of banana tree and one of the major products of the province. Sometimes known as Manila hemp, although it also grows in Malaysia and Indonesia, it is processed to make everything from banknotes to teabags.
The area around Donsol is best known for one of the greatest concentrations of whale sharks in the world. The number of sightings varies: during the peak months of February to May there’s a good chance of seeing ten or fifteen whale sharks a day, but on some days (particularly early or late in the season, which stretches from mid-November to June) you might strike out and see none. Holy Week is extremely busy and best avoided.
At the Visitor Centre you can complete all the formalities of hiring a boat for a whale shark-watching trip. Queues can start to form before the centre opens during peak season, particularly at weekends, so arrive early.
Tourists are not allowed to board a boat without first being briefed by a Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO), who explains how to behave in the water near a whale shark. The number of snorkellers around any one shark is limited to six; flash photography is not allowed, nor is scuba gear, and avoid the animal’s tail because it can do you some serious damage. Some boatmen flout these rules in order to keep their passengers happy, but this risks distressing the whale sharks and should not be encouraged. Check that your boat has one of the mandatory propeller guards.
Known locally as the butanding, the whale shark is a timid titan resembling a whale more than the shark it is. It can grow up to 20m in length, making it the largest fish in the seas. These gentle giants gather around Donsol every year around the time of the northeastern monsoon to feed on the rich shrimp and plankton streams that flow from the Donsol River into the sea, sucking their food through their gills via an enormous vacuum of a mouth.
Whale sharks were rarely hunted in the Philippines until the 1990s, when demand for their meat from countries such as Taiwan and Japan escalated. Cooks have dubbed it the tofu shark because of the meat’s resemblance to soybean curd. Its fins are also coveted as a soup extender. Tragically, this has led to its near extinction in the Visayas and further south in Mindanao. Though the government is trying to protect the whale sharks by fining fishermen who catch them, it’s an uphill battle, largely because enforcement is difficult and a good whale shark can fetch enough to keep a rural family happy for months. In Donsol, however, attitudes seem to be changing, with locals beginning to realize that the whale sharks can be worth more alive than dead, attracting tourists and thus investment and jobs.
There are not many attractions in Sorsogon City itself, although it’s worth visiting the small Museum and Heritage Center housed in the old provincial hospital building, just behind the Hall of Justice. Alongside old pottery and photographs, the most prized exhibit is the backbone of a whale shark found washed up on a nearby beach. The creature was originally around 10m in length, but the cartilage decayed before the bones were recovered. If you’re staying for the night then the boardwalk on the pier is a good place to watch the sun set, with views of Mount Pulag and Mount Bulusan.
The city’s most established annual event, the Kasanggayahan festival (roughly Oct 17–31), celebrates the town’s history with street parades, bangka races and beauty pageants.
Top image: Sorsogon © Erwin Dimal/Shutterstock