Southeast of Manila, the provinces that make up Southern Luzon are home to some of the country’s most popular attractions. The region is not yet on the backpacker trail, but it’s blessed with some extraordinarily diverse natural phenomena. One of the area’s top draws is the picturesque Mount Mayon volcano, whose cone is reputedly the most perfectly symmetrical in the world. Southern Luzon is one of the few places on earth where you can swim with the gentle whale shark. It is also blessed with underground rivers, glorious white-sand beaches, spectacular surfing waves, hot and cold springs and colonial buildings.
The best travel tips for visiting Southern LuzonThe 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 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, which encompasses the remainder of Southern Luzon and includes the mainland provinces of Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Albay and Sorsogon and the island provinces of Catanduanes and Masbate.
Known throughout the Philippines as an area of great natural beauty – and for its delicious cuisine, characterised by the use of chillies and coconut milk – Bicol is studded with volcanoes, including Mount Bulusan and Mount Mayon, and offers superb coastline with some great beaches and island-hopping opportunities, particularly around Legazpi and Sorsogon City.
Best of all is the Caramoan Peninsula, where tourism is developing apace but where it’s still possible to find deserted hideaways.
Bicol’s star attraction is Donsol, home to huge whale sharks. Other water-based activities include surfing in Daet and wakeboarding at CamSur Watersports Complex near Naga.
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Best things to do in Southern LuzonSouthern Luzon is home to some of the Philippines’ most beautiful natural scenery, fascinating cultural heritage and delicious cuisine. Here are the best things to do in Southern Luzon.
#1 Explore the blue-water coves of the Caramoan PeninsulaThe wild and sometimes windswept Caramoan Peninsula, 50km 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 swiftly followed suit.
While the area hardly rivals somewhere like Boracay in terms of development, it is attracting increasing numbers to its rugged, scenic landscape.
#2 Meet whale sharksKnown locally as the butanding, the whale shark is a timid titan resembling a whale more than the shark that it is. It can grow up to 20m in length, making it the largest fish in existence.
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.
Tragically, demand for their meat from countries such as Taiwan and Japan has led to its near extinction in the Visayas and further south in Mindanao.
In Donsol, however, where the creatures are protected, attitudes seem to be changing, with locals realizing that whale sharks can be worth more alive than dead, attracting tourists and thus investment and jobs.
The Donsol Visitor Centre can complete all the formalities for a whale-shark-watching trip.
#3 Experience the Moriones festivalThe 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 of this tale 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 for the benefit of tourists.
Although the festival originated in Mogpog, and other towns including Santa Cruz have their own versions, these days the major Moriones celebrations are in Boac.
#4 Tuck into Bicolano cuisineBicolano cuisine is unusual in the Philippines and is noted for its use of coconut and chillies. Most Bicolano dishes are prepared by sautéeing or simmering ingredients in coconut cream – traditionally minced, diced or ground pork, smoked fish (tinapa) or small shrimps.
Among the most common dishes are Bicol Express, named after a famous train service. It is made with coconut cream, diced pork, small shrimps, chilli and garlic, and sometimes pineapple.
Others to try include laing, a spicy dish of delicious taro leaves, coconut cream, ground pork and minced small shrimps; and pinangat, which uses the same ingredients as laing, although the taro leaves here are tied together and wrapped around the ground pork and small shrimps, before being submerged in coconut cream.
To sample some of the best Bicolano cuisine, head for Seadog Diner or Waway’s Restaurant in Legazpi.
#5 Climb Mount MayonThe elegantly smooth cone of Mount Mayon (2460m) may look benign from a distance, but don’t be deceived. The most active volcano in the country, Mayon has erupted more than forty times since 1616.
The traditional window of opportunity for an ascent of Mount Mayon is February to April, and even then you’ll have to be well prepared for cold nights at altitude and the possibility of showers.
At any other time of year you could be hanging around for days waiting for a break in the weather.
Though the slopes look smooth, it takes at least two days to reach the highest point of the trail, working your way slowly through forest, grassland and deserts of boulders.
Above 1800m there’s the possibility of being affected by poisonous gases, and climbers are not allowed past 2000m even if there’s no imminent threat of eruption.
There are various approaches to Mayon, although the accredited and authorized jump-off point is at Lidong, Santo Domingo, where the Mayon Volcano National Park is located.
#6 Discover the deliciously-unvisited Ticao IslandBeautiful and laidback Ticao Island, across the Masbate Passage from Masbate City, is well worth the one-hour bangka trip.
The infrastructure is mostly basic and the roads can be very difficult in the rainy season, but Ticao is home to beautiful scenery and lovely beaches with crystal-clear waters, and it’s deliciously unvisited.
A convenient way to get around is to hire a bangka and explore the coast. Ask the boatman to take you to Talisay, the island’s finest beach, and then on to Catandayagan Falls, the only waterfall in the country – and one of the very few in the world – where fresh water cascades directly into the sea.
It’s an impressive sight, plunging 60m into the emerald-green waters below. It’s a perfect spot to have a swim, too.
Where to stay in Southern LuzonA varied choice of beach resorts and modern hotels await in Southern Luzon. Here’s where to stay.
Quezon ProvinceCapital Lucena offers everything from budget-friendly guesthouses to upscale resorts. If visiting Lucban for the Pahiyas festival book accommodation far in advance.
Pagbilao has some seriously scenic beach resorts and there are affordable options in Candelaria. Tayabas City and Dorlores both have comfortable guesthouses.
MarinduqueThis verdant island has an assortment of places to lay your head. From intriguing and homely little hotels and smart modern establishments to white-washed cottages with sandy vistas.
DaetA few comfortable hotel rooms and a stylish beachside option is most of the offering in and around Daet.
Camarines Sur provinceMany hotels in Naga, particularly the budget ones, are fully booked during the Peñafrancia festival so make sure to plan ahead if you’re coming at this time.
Hotel rooms for the rest of the year are easy to come by – although some are not as fancy inside as the initial facade may suggest.
Caramoan PeninsulaVisitors can camp on some of the islands, including Matukad, Lahuy and Bag’eing Beach. For those keen on a bed, find several resorts and hotels throughout the area.
AlbayThis province has a scattering of colonial hotels, budget rooms and an upmarket establishment or two. Either stay in Tabaco or on the coast for more upmarket resorts.
Best restaurants and barsKnown for its its delicious cuisine, making liberal use of spicy chillies and coconut milk, you'll want to try some Bicol grub in Southern Luzon. There is a great selection of restaurants to get your fill, else the area relies on decent seafood with a handful of international options. Here are the best places to eat in Southern Luzon.
Quezon ProvinceHead to Lucban to try the famous garlicky Lucban longganisa (sausage) – particularly delicious when served with achara (pickled papaya) – and for dessert try budin (cassava cake). Cheap food stalls by the church sell pancit habhab, a local noodle dish served on a banana leaf and traditionally eaten with your hands. Elsewhere, Boca has a couple of decent places to eat.
DaetThere are a couple of good local restaurants in Daet, but head to Bagasbas Beach for food with a view.
Camarines Sur provinceNaga’s local specialities include log-log kinalas (noodle soup with pork, liver sauce and roasted garlic) often served with toasted siopao (pork buns), and anything made with pili nuts. The town’s restaurants are mostly along Magsaysay Ave, but there are also plenty of fast-food chain places in the centre.
AlbayDaraga offers a couple of surprisingly good dining options in pleasant surroundings.
These are the best places restaurants in Southern Luzon.
- Isabelito’s Garden Resto, Lucban. Located in a garden centre, surrounded by plants and ponds, this lovely, airy restaurant has chunky wooden tables and bamboo partitions. Bestsellers include crunchy Bicol Express and crispy kare kare (a Filipino curry made from stewed meats, vegetables and peanut sauce).
- Casa de Don Emilio, Boca. The best restaurant in town, set in a beautiful Spanish colonial building with polished hardwood floors. It specializes in coconut dishes – try the native chicken cooked in coconut milk.
- Bob Marlin, Naga. This popular restaurant has an atmospheric outdoor seating area with colourful low lighting and a roof of native reed and reclaimed wooden pallets; there’s also an indoor area with wall-mounted plates signed by famous visitors, praising the restaurant’s award-winning crispy pata (deep-fried pork leg).
- Seadog Diner, Legazpi. Cosy little restaurant right on the waterfront, offering brick-oven-baked pizza and Bicolano classics. Try the lunchtime set menu of Bicol Express with pinangat and a drink.
How to get hereThere are numerous ways to reach Southern Luzon, though most travellers will arrive by bus from Manila.
By planeThere are commercial airports in Naga, Legazpi, Virac (Catanduanes) and Masbate City.
By trainThere is a train line between Manila and Legazpi via Naga, but currently the only operational part of the route is between Sipocot (approximately 44km northeast of Naga) and Legazpi. Make sure to check the Philippine National Railway website (Wpnr.gov.ph) will have updates.
By busThere are plenty of buses running from Manila down the National Highway via Naga and Legazpi, some going as far as Sorsogon City or beyond.
By boatIn addition to ferries between the Luzon mainland and the islands of Catanduanes, Marinduque and Masbate, there are also fairly regular services across the Bernardino Strait between Matnog in Sorsogon province and Allen and San Isidro ports on Samar in the Visayas.
Masbate has ferry links to several provinces including Romblon, Batangas and Cebu.
How many days do you need?If you are planning to visit some of the popular tourist destinations in Southern Luzon such as Batangas, Quezon, Laguna, and Albay, a 7-10 day trip would be ideal.
This would give you enough time to explore the different attractions, enjoy the beaches, hike the mountains, and experience the local culture and cuisine.
However, if you have a limited time, you can focus on a specific area or attraction that interests you the most.
For example, if you are a beach lover, you can spend 3-4 days exploring the beaches in Batangas or Quezon. If you want to experience the cultural and historical sites, you can visit Laguna for 2-3 days. If you are interested in outdoor activities such as hiking and volcano trekking, you can spend 2-3 days in Albay.
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Tips for getting around Southern LuzonThere are numerous ways to get around Southern Luzon but most tourists will rely on a mixture of buses, jeepneys and tricycles. Here's how to get around.
By busNearly all major destinations are served by buses. It's often the cheapest, quickest and most convenient way to get around.
By jeepneyRegular jeepneys travel across most towns, cities and resorts but they don't tend to leave unless full.
By vanEasier than travelling by jeepney is renting a van. Most accommodation options can help organize this, else enquire at the provincial tourist office.
By planeA number of towns have small domestic airports, such as Naga and Marinduque, which can be helpful if travelling large distances.
By tricycleTricycles pick up the slack in towns where jeepneys don't reach. Agree on a price before you set off.
Best time to visit Southern LuzonThe best time to visit Southern Luzon depends on your preferences and the activities you want to do. Generally, Southern Luzon has a tropical climate with two main seasons - the dry season and the rainy season.
The dry season in Southern Luzon typically runs from November to April. During this period, the weather is generally sunny and dry, making it the ideal time for outdoor activities such as beach hopping, mountain trekking, and volcano climbing.
The rainy season in Southern Luzon usually runs from May to October, with the peak of the typhoon season occurring from July to September. While the rain may hinder some outdoor activities, it's also the time when the lush green landscapes are at their most beautiful.
If you plan to visit Southern Luzon for its beaches, it's best to visit during the dry season when the weather is sunny and dry. However, if you want to visit during the rainy season, it's recommended to check the weather forecast before your trip and plan your activities accordingly.
Overall, the best time to visit Southern Luzon depends on your preferences, but the dry season generally offers the best weather conditions for outdoor activities.
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