A region that invites intrepid exploration, North Luzon encapsulates a nation in miniature. Surfers race waves onto sunny beaches, where whites sands are lapped by teal waters. Machete-carrying mountain tribespeople are quick to smile and quicker to share their rice wine. Impenetrable jungle hides endemic critters. In Spanish colonial cities, sunlight breaks through seashell windows. Far-flung islands with pristine landscapes greet few visitors.
For many travellers, the lure is the emerald rice terraces of the Cordillera, a mountain range that hides hanging coffins and mummies. Trekking is a prime activity, but caving, mountain biking and rafting are other adrenalin-fuelled activities that shape the North Luzon experience. Culturally, this is the Philippines at its most diverse; the peoples of the mountains, Zambales, Ilocos and Batanes, are notable for a melange of language and ritual, and share a genuine and consistent friendliness to visitors.
When to Go
Nov–May The best weather the Philippines has to offer – you’ll have lots of company!
Apr–Jul The heat is on but the crowds are down.
Jul–Oct Rice terraces are green, but typhoons can be a problem.
Best Places to Eat
A Cafe by the Ruins Dua
A Log Cabin
A Angel & Marie’s
A Pension Ivatan
A La Preciosa
Best Off the Beaten Track
A Sierra Madre
A Babuyan Islands
A Itbayat Island
A Hapao & Hungduan
A Lake Mapanuepe
North Luzon Highlights
1 Batad Being awestruck by this rice-terrace amphitheatre then trekking to others that rival it.
2 Kalinga Province Hobnobbing with former headhunters and meeting a famous tattoo artist.
3 Sagada Shimmying, climbing and swimming into deep caves before hiking to hanging coffins.
4 Batanes Islands Exploring the end of the world to experience Ivatan culture.
5 Pagudpud Kitesurfing windy waves or chilling on the sublime white-sand beaches.
6 Mestizo District Step back in time in this lovely quarter of Spanish Colonial Vigan.
7 Kabayan Hiking steep vegetable terraces to ancient mummy caves.
8 San Juan (La Union) Learning to surf and then partying on the beach.
9 Baguio Taking in music, fine food and cool mountain air.
Myriad languages are spoken in North Luzon, including dozens of dialects in the Cordillera alone. It’s most confusing in Kalinga, where just about every village has its own dialect. In the Cordillera, people are far more likely to understand Ilocano or English than the national language, Tagalog.
In the lowlands, the principal languages are Tagalog and Ilocano, which is the predominant language not only in Ilocos but also in Cagayan, Isabela and La Union. Other common dialects include Pangasinan and Sambal, the language of the Zambales people, while the people of the Batanes speak Ivatan.
8Getting There & Away
Regular flights connect Manila with Laoag, Tuguegarao and Basco (Batanes); Vigan with Basco; Tuguegarao with Basco, Palanan and Maconacon; and Cauayan (Isabela Province) with Palanan and Maconacon. Air-con buses link Manila with major North Luzon cities, and comfortable deluxe buses run to a growing number of destinations.
Luzon’s more remote regions, such as the Cordillera and the northeast part of the island, are very reachable by an assortment of reasonably frequent public transport options.
If driving off the beaten track, keep in mind you’ll need a good 4WD; some of the roads that cut through Kalinga Province are not for the faint of heart. Lack of parking spots and traffic jams are a common problem in most cities and towns. You can rent cars in Manila.
The Zambales Coast lies between a rock and a wet place. The rock? The angry massif of Mt Pinatubo. The wet? Well, the sea of course, which has some fine surfing especially around Pundaquit and Liw-liwa (sometimes called ‘Liwa’), and often as not the rains that unrelentingly lash this 100km of coastline every summer. Outside this season, uninhabited offshore islands and beach resorts are popular as offbeat weekend getaways with folks from Manila.
Southern Zambales Coast
This corner of Luzon still very much retains a chilled-out backpacker vibe with its wave-lapped beaches on the hot, dry coastline bordering San Antonio, San Narciso and San Felipe. La Paz ( GOOGLE MAP ) is the most built-up area and gets lots of big groups staying at its resorts. Liw-liwa ( GOOGLE MAP ) is known for its mellow, sandy-bottom surf break (although it can get big) and hosts a groovy, beach-bum scene. Pundaquit ( GOOGLE MAP ), with its fishing-boat-strewn beach, feels more untouched, although it has a few quiet, midrange places to stay; it’s also the jumping-off point to get to the remote yet often busy camping spots on hourglass-shaped Capones Island ( GOOGLE MAP ) and the stunning white-ash-sand Anawangin Cove ( GOOGLE MAP ). As the area is only a five-hour bus ride from Manila, it’s gaining popularity with Filipino tourists, especially university students.
If the surf is flat it’s a good time to hire a bangka from Pundaquit for a day of island- and beach-hopping (P1300 for up to four people).
Don’t miss an ecotour with MAD Travel (Make a Difference Travel; GOOGLE MAP ; www.madtravel.com; Circle Hostel, Liw-liwa; tours per person incl meals P1500; h7am-7pm Sat) to meet the Aeta tribespeople and help reforest their lands. After the eruption of Mt Pinatubo in 1991, this area was covered with volcanic ash, making it nearly impossible to farm. The tour takes you to the village by ox-cart to meet the friendly families, who are thrilled to have help in their tree-planting efforts. Expect to be treated like family and be spoiled with delicious local cooking.
4Sleeping & Eating
Camping is very popular on this coast and everything gets busy at weekends and on holidays. Try Crystal Beach Resort & Campsite ( GOOGLE MAP ; %047-222 2227; www.crystalbeach.com.ph; La Paz; r with fan/air-con from P1700/2750, camp sites P550, tent rental P750; a), which also has surf lessons and board rental.
( GOOGLE MAP ; %0917 861 1929; www.zambales.thecirclehostel.com; Liw-liwa; hammocks P450, dm P550)
This original, colourful backpacker and surfer hostel in Liw-liwa is a great place to connect with a young crowd of fellow wave riders and make friends with the lovely staff. Lodgings consist of varying levels for the budget-conscious, with the thatch-walled, very basic dorms being the upmarket option. Lockers are available and the vibe encourages lingering, both in and out of the sea.
( GOOGLE MAP ; %0930 509 5122; Liw-liwa; huts P800)
If you’ve come to Liw-liwa to surf but want your own space, these basic beachside kubos (thatched huts) are the answer.
Mommy Phoebe’s PlaceFILIPINO$
( GOOGLE MAP ; Liw-liwa; mains P80-220; h6am-late)
Mommy Phoebe can stuff you full of her delicious pansit, bagnet and whatever else she’s got cooking that day; cool you off with fresh, icy juice shakes; and sell you quality surfing supplies.
8Getting There & Away
From Olongapo or Manila, take any bus heading towards Iba; get off at San Felipe for Liw-liwa, San Narciso for La Paz or San Antonio for Pundaquit. You’ll then need to take a tricycle from these towns to your beach of choice (P50 to P80).
From Pundaquit, a 25-minute bangka ride to Capones Island or Anawangin Cove costs P1000.
WORTH A TRIP
When Mt Pinatubo (1450m) erupted in 1991, lava flows dammed the Mapanuepe River flowing out of the Zambales range. Slowly rising floodwaters forced residents of Aglao and Bajaoen to flee to higher ground. Unfazed, locals rebuilt their villages on the shores of newly minted Lake Mapanuepe, nestled in the Zambales Mountains about 15km east of San Marcelino.
These villages are only accessible by boat and remain quite traditional – the Aeta people wearing the indigenous G-strings (loincloths) are still a common sight.
In the middle of Lake Mapanuepe is the sunken church of Bajaoen, easily identifiable by its maroon cross sticking out of the water – an unsettling sight.
There are one or two jeepneys per day to Aglao from San Marcelino (45 minutes), but the last one returning from Aglao is at noon. A bangka to the sunken church from the ‘port’ in Aglao should cost about P900. All buses travelling between Olongapo and Iba stop in San Marcelino.
Iba & Botolan
%047 / Pop 108,210
The neighbouring towns of Iba and Botolan, about 45km north of San Antonio, make convenient bases for hikes in the Zambales Mountains or decent-enough places for an overnight stopover.
The main trek around here is the ascent up mist-shrouded Mt Tapulao (High Peak; 2037m), the highest mountain in the Zambales range. You can walk or take a 4WD most of the way up the mountain along a mining road that terminates about an hour’s walk from the summit.
The 18km mining road originates in barangay Dampay, a 40-minute tricycle ride (P170) from the small town of Palauig, 14km northwest of Iba.
4Sleeping & Eating
Botolan Wildlife FarmGUESTHOUSE$$
(%0917 829 5478, 0917 734 2206; www.botolanwildlifefarm.com; Botolan; s/d P1500/1800)
Located at the foot of the Zambales Mountains and run by Swiss zoologist Martin Zoller, this is a humane sanctuary for an array of rescued beasts, with guest rooms overlooking the animal pens and the mountains. To get here, take a tricycle (P90) 4km east from a well-marked turn-off on the National Hwy, just south of Botolan centre.
Palmera Garden Beach ResortRESORT$$
(%0908 503 1416, 047-811 1886; www.palmera-garden.com; Iba; r P1600-4400; aWs)
This Swiss-owned resort, 2km north of Iba, is the most service-oriented in the area. The rooms are clean, air-conditioned and utterly unmemorable, but there’s access to a pleasant stretch of beach and a pool surrounded by blooming flowers. The restaurant serves the likes of Currywurst alongside Filipino standards.
Rama Beach ResortRESORT$$
(%0917 523 7262; www.ramabeach.com; Botolan; d P1900-2600; aW)
There’s pretty accommodation and a nice restaurant with a library and a pool table at this Australian-owned resort, on a quiet stretch of beach 8km south of Botolan proper. Turtles nest here from October to February, and the owners arrange trips to nearby caves.
8Getting There & Away
Victory Liner (%047-811 1392) has frequent buses (hourly from 5am to 6pm) from Iba south to Cubao and Pasay in Manila (P375, five to six hours) via Olongapo (P107, two hours). It has departures every 30 minutes north to Santa Cruz (P108, 1½ hours).
North of Iba
If you’re into island-hopping and beach camping, head to the border of the Zambales and Pangasinan Provinces. Off Santa Cruz, Hermana Menor Island is fringed by a postcard-worthy white beach with some decent snorkelling just offshore. The island is privately owned, but bangka excursions there and to neighbouring Hermana Mayor Island are possible through SeaSun Beach Resort (%0917 409 3347; Santa Cruz, Barangay Sabang; d/f P2000/4000; a), which fronts a pleasantly secluded sliver of beach with views of both Hermana Menor and Hermana Mayor. Rooms run the gamut from bare-bones fan rooms (P800) to fancier digs with minibars and satellite TV. The resort is 1.5km off the main road – spot the well-marked turn-off 2km south of Santa Cruz.
Just south of here, Potipot Island is more accessible and more popular. It has a white beach where you can camp. SeaSun Beach Resort can arrange trips out here for P800.
Victory Liner has frequent buses south to Iba and Olongapo and north to Alaminos and Lingayen. Local buses (no air-con) run up and down the same road through the day.
This pretty pocket of water, a scattershot of emerald islands on azure and turquoise, dominates the coastline of Pangasinan province.
Conservation efforts are underway to restore the coral reefs that have been severely damaged by dynamite and cyanide fishing. There is no shortage of beach resorts scattered along the coastline from Bolinao to San Juan (La Union), a popular surfer hang-out.
Bolinao & Patar Beach
%075 / Pop 82,090
Bolinao has a palpable end-of-the-road feel to it – unsurprising, as it is basically located at the end of everything. Depending on your point of view, local beach resorts can feel romantically isolated or a bit forlorn.
Patar Beach, a long stretch of narrow sand linking Bolinao with barangay Patar, situated 18km to the south, is popular with weekenders from Manila and makes for a relaxing stopover. The best beach for swimming is White Beach in Patar proper, overlooked by the towering Spanish-built Cape Bolinao Lighthouse.
The 17th-century Church of St James in the town plaza is notable for the rare wooden santos (religious statues) on its facade, and it’s well worth paying a visit to the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (%075-554 2755; www.msi.upd.edu.ph/bml; P15; h8am-5pm Mon-Fri) if you have any interest in the fragile marine ecology of Lingayen Gulf. Researchers cultivate coral-producing giant clams and transplant them to Hundred Islands National Park and as far away as Australia and Malaysia.
Treasures of Bolinao (%0921 564 2408, 075-696 3266; 2-person villa P4000; as) is as opulent as Bolinao (indeed, this part of Luzon) gets. Located some 17km from Bolinao proper, the resort features posh villas, upmarket coconut cottages, and cavernous, exquisitely furnished suites with ocean views. The beach down here is powder-sugar soft.
Frequent buses (P56), jeepneys and vans (P65) shuttle to Alaminos (one hour) from Bolinao. A tricycle to the resorts on Patar Beach should cost around P175 one way, depending on how far you are going.
Hundred Islands National Park
This national park off the coast of Alaminos actually consists of 123 separate islets. Over the centuries the tides have eaten away at the bases of some of these limestone islands, giving them a striking mushroom-like appearance.
Unfortunately, the Hundred Islands may be too popular for its own good. Visitors and fishing have taxed the local ecology, thus it can be difficult finding the right island where the coral hasn’t been damaged by dynamite fishing or typhoons. While many visitors ‘do’ the islands in a day, the Hundred Islands rewards those who take the time to snorkel, swim and lounge on the beaches over a few days.
Environmentally, the situation has improved since the Alaminos city government took control of the park in 2005. Speedboats patrol in search of illegal fishers, while the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute in Bolinao has been repopulating the decimated giant-clam population.
Of the scattering of 123 limestone islets and islands shrouded in greenery, some are craggy and cliff-y, and others have pleasant stretches of beach (though litter is a problem on the most popular islands), calm waters for snorkelling, caves to explore and plenty of avian life. The only three islands with facilities are Quezon Island, Governor’s Island and Children’s Island and domestic tourists make a beeline for these; the rest are uninhabited and you can have them to yourself.
The beaches on Quezon, Governor’s and Children’s Islands are nothing special, although Governor’s Island has a nice lookout point and the calm, shallow waters surrounding Children’s Island are ideal for children.
One of the most remote islands, Cathedral Island is known for its variety of seabirds; on Marcos Island you can practise cliff-diving from a 20m rock tower. Cuenco Island is bisected by a cave that passes right through it and tiny Martha is picture-perfect beautiful – the beach between the two tiny islets is only reachable during high tide.
Island Tropic ( GOOGLE MAP ; %0906 469 7888, 075-551 4913; www.islandtropichotel.com; Lucap Wharf; d/f incl breakfast P1600/2400; aW) has motel-style accommodation with a breezy restaurant upstairs and a block of spacious, clean but bland concrete rooms. Maxine by the Sea ( GOOGLE MAP ; %075-696 0964; www.maxinebythesea.com; Lucap Wharf; d/q/f P2110/2950/4020, mains P250-800; aW) is a breezy sea-view seafood restaurant; steer clear of the overly ambitious dishes and go for the signature squid and catch-of-the-day kinilaw (ceviche). The seven rooms are also the best in town, especially if you can nab the one, lower-priced double.
Hundred Islands National Park Office ( GOOGLE MAP ; %075-203 0917, 075-551 2505; www.hundredislands.ph; Lucap; h24hr) is the place to go for everything from information to boat hire.
8Getting There & Around
To reach the park, you first have to get to the town of Alaminos and then take a tricycle (P80) to Lucap Wharf to pay the park entrance fee (P80 day entry or P120 overnight) at the Hundred Islands National Park Office.
Five Star and Victory Liner have frequent bus departures from Alaminos to Pasay, Manila (ordinary/air-con P380/490, 5½ hours), and to Santa Cruz (P180, two hours), where you transfer to Olongapo. Victory Liner also has buses to Baguio (P230, four hours, three daily). For La Union and north up the coast you’ll need to take a bus or van (P68) to Dagupan and transfer there.
Bolinao is reachable by frequent jeepney (P45), bus (P56) or air-con van (P65).
The air-con van station is in Alaminos City about 500m from the Victory Liner Station, near the Red Ribbon cake shop.
The park now only offers service boats (day/overnight P1400/3000), which run except in very special cases. These give you free rein as to which islands you get to visit and how long you’d like to spend on each one.
Boats run from Lucap Wharf to the islands between 6am and 5.30pm.
Originally posted 2021-05-05 22:20:07.