When you think of the Philippines, you would be forgiven for imagining a tropical paradise, white sand beaches and almost endless perfect islands to hang up a hammock and sip mango juice on, but the Philippines is far more than just that. A recent short stay in the province of Albay and the city of Legazpi showed me that the country has a lot to offer adventure seekers and adrenaline junkies too, and makes raising your pulse more fun than you can imagine!
I’m no stranger to adventure travel. After trekking up more than my fair share of volcanoes, crashing my way through tropical jungles, camping in deserts, hiking and climbing in the Alps and a whole host of other exploits I think I’ve probably earned a few belated boy scout badges or two, so when I got the chance to visit a part of the Philippines that claims to put the fun into adventure and experience a whole host of adventure activities on offer there, I couldn’t resist!
With activities ranging from kayaking, trekking, ATV riding and volcano hiking to name just a few, Albay is not just the fastest growing tourist destination in the country, it is also growing into the adventure capital of the Philippines. A huge range of active exploits and daredevil activities are springing up around the near perfect cone of Mount Mayon, an active volcano along the infamous ring of fire that is so perfectly formed into a cone shape that Japan is partnering it with Mt. Fuji and itself the focus of much of the regions adventurous exploits.
But don’t let the term adventure travel fool you. There is enough to do in Albay to keep the most ardent of adventurers filled with adrenaline for weeks, but this is not a destination focused solely on the Bear Grylls traveller types looking for their adrenaline fix. Albay doesn’t offer up a series of hellish endurance trials in the middle of nowhere, but instead invites everyone, of all ages and abilities to find their own level of adventure, to move just slightly out of their comfort zone and enjoy the spectacular scenery and activities that are available. Adventure may be on offer, but wouldn’t be the Philippines without their signature layer of easy, laid back fun and smiles liberally plastered over every activity imaginable.
Mount Mayon may be the signature attraction in Albay, but the mountainous terrain has been formed into a nature lovers playground for adventurers and travellers alike. The twin peaks of Mount Malinao and Masaraga challenge climbers and mountaineers to scale them, the unique landscape is filled with lush forests, ecological parks and lush, enchanting waterfalls filled with folklore and just waiting for you to come and play.
If hiking through a rainforest up a seven tiered waterfall to do a spot of bathing in a tropical lagoon sounds like your thing, then you’d be a fool to miss out on a trek up the Busay Falls, just a short distance from Legazpi.
Anyone who loves jungle trekking or wants to feel the burn of a good hike without too much strain will love the rough trail that leads to the top of this true area of natural beauty.
Unlike other tiered waterfall hikes such as the extremely crowded and overdeveloped Erawan national park in Thailand, there is very little in the way of easy man made pathways or steps, in fact there is almost nothing at all to assist ardent travellers up the trail, and some people will find some of the steeper sections of the climb and the loose, slippery rocks at least a little challenging, especially the higher up they get, but this is a part of its charm!
The trail isn’t a man made cake walk, but it isn’t totally inaccessible either.
With expert direction from local guides, the hike up the fall is a little challenging but it is also infinitely more natural, more responsible and more sustainable. Plans are in place for some small modifications to make the climb easier for tourists and travellers alike, but I hope they don’t overdo it. A few simple via ferrata style ropes just to give hikers a hand across the steeper parts will be more than adequate, as the more natural the adventurous trail is left the better.
Of course a little development is needed to ensure the trails are safe and to open at least the first few pools up to less physically able travellers, after all no one wants to admit that more than one traveller has come a cropper on some of the less stable or more difficult parts of the trail, but I hope they do it in a sympathetic and sustainable way.
No one wants another overdeveloped, unsustainable tourist attraction.
But just when you thought this was an attraction best left for Bear Grylls types who are happy spending three weeks lost in the jungle somewhere, the Philippines natural convivial charm shines through when you realise this isn’t just an adventure travel destination, but a major spot for local families to come and play in the natural swimming pool.
This is an attraction not just for adventure, but for fun too. It is as much for day trippers looking for fun as it is for adventure seekers looking for a good hike, and the staged pools the waterfalls provide make sure that everyone can enjoy some fun in the water.
The lowest level lagoon is filled with families and children having a great time, and the sounds of laughter and children splashing carry through the air as the waterfall provides them with a perfect natural playground without any effort needed to get there. Those looking for more of a challenge can climb to the different tiers, with each one getting progressively harder and more deserted, and although you leave the families and day trippers behind as you climb higher and higher, that level of fun carries through to every level, all the hard work it takes to climb your way to the top is infinitely rewarded by stripping down to your swim shorts and diving into the cool, refreshing water.
I turned up honestly expecting – and prepared for – a more difficult hike, and although I didn’t get that, I didn’t really care once I reached each lagoon and stripped down to my swimwear for a refreshing swim! Recent heavy rains had made the ascent to the furthest and highest pools impossible, but that didn’t stop a cool, refreshing waterfall shower turning into the perfect morning of relaxation and fun that the Philippines is famous for.
A little adventure, and a hell of a lot of signature Philippines fun.
The water sports don’t just stop at swimming though. Albay’s islands are renowned for their diving and snorkeling, with stunning coral reefs, and of course what seems to be the national pastime of skimboarding.
For more serene bit of water action for a bit of R&R between adventures, travellers can head to Sumlang Lake, a sustainable attraction where local villagers all have a stake in the working and success of the tourism industry of the area. As adventure travel goes, it is a little more relaxing than other options in the area which in and of itself is extremely enjoyable. Whenever you have had enough of leisurely floating on the bamboo rafts, you can kick it up a slight notch and you can choose to take out a Kayak for a more sedate adventure activity.
I loved the more relaxed side to the adventure activities at Sumlang lake. I have to admit I’m totally out of my depth on the water, and my surfing and stand up paddle boarding attempts in the past have usually ended in me faceplanting the water in spectacular fashion a number of times! But despite this I still chose to take a kayak out for a spin, and the easier conditions worked in my favour as I didn’t end up almost drowning myself!
This is real accessible adventure.
As nice as it was to relax for a while and have some easy going, laid back fun mixed in with the adventure, and as awesome as these activities were, they couldn’t hold a candle to the real draw for adventure travellers though, Mount Mayon. As if the idea of hiking up an active volcano on the infamous ring of fire isn’t exciting enough for you – and make no mistake Mayon is still a very active volcano with regular ash eruptions – there are All Terrain Vehicle operations that allow you to go off road and ride your ATV across streams and rocky terrain into the permanent exclusion zone.
Now the adrenaline can really start pumping!
With thoughts – or hopes, depending on your need for adrenaline or common sense – that the volcano could erupt again at any time, travellers are lured to the burgeoning adventure travel industry that is building up around the volcano with the promise of being able to rev their ATVs through some rough terrain right up to the edge of a solidified lava field.
The route is still accessible enough for anyone not completely used to riding ATVs, but does have enough sections where you can let rip and really enjoy yourself. There really is nothing like reaching a stream and deciding to rev the engine and crash through it instead of doing the sensible thing and taking it slow! There doesn’t seem to be much point in doing an activity like this if you come out of the other side completely dry and clean!
Maybe that’s just me.
I love ATV riding, it is a perfect mix of blood pumping fun and adventure, especially when you have to dodge stray cows running at you and avoid crashing into a gully as you are distracted by the stunning scenery in the distance (a short attention span and borderline ADD is not an ATV riders friend!) The volcanic terrain makes for a perfect natural assault course as you drive through the lush fauna providing by the volcanic soil, and try to avoid the rocks, boulders and dried lava spewed out from the crater every time it erupts.
If that isn’t enough adrenaline for the thrill seekers out there, adventurous travellers can ditch their ATVs at a rest stop for a short hike up the lava wall itself, a spectacularly cool thing to do at the best of times, until you realize the helipad you find yourself standing on at the end of the trail is also the helipad used for emergency first responders when Mayon blows her top!
The view from the helipad is stunning and worth the short hike as you can take your time to let the dramatic landscape and the realisation of where you are sink in. It is easy to forget with the fun and adrenaline coursing through you that you should take the time to appreciate that this is a truly special moment. You are stood as close to an active and very destructive volcano as it is safe to get, in the middle of a stunningly beautiful region, enjoying some incredible views and – according to local legend – even bearing witness to the love story of Daragang Magayon and her prince as the clouds meet the mountain top and make love.
It is an appreciation that is short lived, as all to soon it was time to climb back down again.
The descent wasn’t your typical hike back down though. Oh no. A simple walk down won’t do for the adventure capital of the Philippines. You have to zip line down!
So strap yourself into the tiny safety harness that is hitched so tightly around your groin it leaves nothing to the imagination, and any bloke over a certain size physically unable to have children again, and then throw yourself down the mountainside with wild abandon and images of an exploding lava flow behind you!
Okay, again, maybe that was just me.
But even without that image it’s a pretty awesome thing to do!
In just a few short days in Legazpi I squeezed in more adventure travel than most travellers do in weeks, and I barely scratched the surface of this truly stunning and largely overlooked destination. One thing is for certain, I had a hell of a time doing it!
Legazpi and the areas surrounding Mount Mayon have managed to strike the perfect balance between adventure, accessibility, tentative sustainability and sheer all out fun. I know it is difficult to tear yourself away from the 7000 plus tropical islands and beaches in this paradisiacal archipelago, but the sheer amount of enjoyable adventure on offer makes this surprise filled region a must visit, and if you do, Albay and Legazpi will reward you tenfold for your efforts.
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This article was written in partnership with the Tourism Promotions Board Philippines and TBEX. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.