World Heritage Sites are landmarks or areas, natural or manmade, which are considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. The sites are chosen by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) through a rigid selection criteria. Inscribed properties are intended to be protected and preserved for posterity.
There are three types of World Heritage Sites: cultural, natural, and mixed. The first twelve UNESCO World Heritage Sites were inscribed in 1978, and included the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, the L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Park in Canada, the Aachen Cathedral in Germany, and the Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia. Today, this list has grown to include more than 1,121 inscribed properties across 167 countries.
In the Philippines, a country endowed with scenic natural beauty and a vast biodiversity, and possessing rich historical and cultural heritage, six properties have made it to the coveted World Heritage List. Of these, three are cultural: the Baroque Churches of the Philippines, the Historic City of Vigan, and the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras; and the other three are natural: the Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, and the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park.
1. Baroque Churches of the Philippines
YEAR OF INSCRIPTION: 1993
These four churches, the first of which was built by the Spanish in the late 16th century, are located in Manila, Santa Maria, Paoay and Miag-ao. Their unique architectural style is a reinterpretation of European Baroque by Chinese and Philippine craftsmen. © UNESCO World Heritage Center
Three hundred and thirty three years of Spanish colonial rule had forever changed the social and cultural fabric of the Philippines, and altered the physical landscape of this nation of many thousand isles. Even now, more than a hundred years since the overthrow of the Spaniards, their legacy lives in the languages, traditions, and beliefs of modern-day Filipinos. And physical symbols and monuments of their centuries-long hegemony still endure to this day, from the Malacañang Palace, the Walled City of Intramuros, to the Royal City of Vigan in the north. Yet of these works of architecture and engineering, none are more widespread and influential than the many churches they left behind.
When the Spanish came hither, they came for three reasons – God, gold, and glory. The first involved spreading their Roman Catholic religion. This they accomplished by converting nearly the entire country to the Christian faith. But it is not only their religion that they shared; they also shared their architecture, or at least parts of it.
As a testament to the power of God and the Catholic faith, the Spanish missionaries to the Philippines desired to have built places of worship reminiscent of the impressive Baroque cathedrals and temples of the European mainland. But in those days, similar materials that were used in the construction of those magnificent European churches could not be readily got in the Philippines. Moreover, the missionaries needed far stronger and more enduring structures, fortified buildings able to withstand the assault of enemies, and in particular the ravages of the earthquakes that veritably struck the Philippines at whim.
Because the missionaries knew little of architecture or engineering, they conscripted the local populace. Through the labor of many Filipino and Chinese artisans, craftsmen, and workers, both willing and unwilling, using whatever suitable indigenous materials could be obtained at hand, a multitude of churches were erected across the Philippines.
And these churches had a unique architectural style, reminiscent of European Baroque, yet fused with native and Oriental designs, and strengthened with such features as necessary to guard against the dangers of manmade and natural calamities, a style often referred to today as Earthquake Baroque. Shared characteristics of these churches include low, broad, and squat builds; thick and sturdy walls reinforced by many huge and strong buttresses; large and lofty, often imposing, façades; enormous bell towers that were often built separate from the church (to curtail the ensuing damage should the towers collapse); and intricate decorations, ornaments, and furnishings that combined Occidental elements with Oriental influences.
And as these churches were made to endure, many have remained standing to this day, the living survivors of ruinous wars, fires, and earthquakes; the lasting reminders of the old might and majesty of the Spanish Empire and the Roman Catholic Church; and the monuments of a unique, exceptional, and most ingenious architectural style and culture that flourished in bygone days. Of these churches, four have earned their places in the much-coveted World Heritage List. The San Agustin Church of Manila, the Santa Maria Church of Ilocos Sur, the Paoay Church of Ilocos Norte, and the Miagao Church of Iloilo have all been inscribed in 1993 as a World Heritage Site under the collective name Baroque Churches of the Philippines.
1.1 San Agustin Church
LOCATION: City of Manila
The Church of the Immaculate Conception of San Agustin, more widely known as the San Agustin Church, is located in Intramuros, the old Walled City in Manila. It is the oldest existing stone church in the Philippines; its construction was started in 1586, and it was completed in 1607.
The impressive stone edifice that remains standing to this day is actually the third church built on the same ground. The previous two were utterly destroyed by fires.
The first church was built by the Augustinians, a Catholic religious order, in 1571, immediately after the colonization of Manila, then known as the Kingdom of Maynila, by the conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, following the settlement’s successful conquest by Legazpi’s lieutenant, Martin de Goiti, a year earlier. The church, the first ever religious structure built by the Spaniards in the island of Luzon, was made chiefly of bamboo and nipa.
The church lasted for only three years. In 1574, the Chinese pirate Limahong invaded Manila with a strong force. He was eventually repulsed, but in the battle for the settlement, great fires swept through vast swaths of Manila, reducing many of its mostly wooden buildings to ashes, including the church.
A second church, also wrought of wooden materials, was built on the same site. But in 1583, it, too, ended up in flames.
The Augustinians then commissioned a third church three years later. This time, they resolved to have the church built with stone. Adobe stones were quarried from the surrounding provinces, and thence transported to Manila. There the stones were hewn and fashioned. A monastery, too, the Augustinians had had built beside the church; it was also wrought of stone.
The stone church that was built was made to last, a strong place able to withstand the assault of enemies and the ravages of earthquakes; an enduring symbol of the might and majesty of the Spanish Church and Crown, whose power in those days was absolute and brooked no opposition, and whose reach was far and seemingly boundless.
It is an imposing edifice, sturdy and lofty, said to have been patterned after the grand churches of the Augustinians in Mexico, which in turn were made in like fashion to the stately cathedrals of Europe. Its walls are thick. Its façade is high and massive, though largely austere and unadorned, save for the ornately carved wooden doors flanked by stone pillars, statue niches, and a pair of Chinese lion dogs.
Two enormous bell towers stand on either side of the façade, or used to, at least, for only one tower now remains. The left tower, unfortunately, suffered damage from a series of particularly mighty earthquakes that devastated Manila in 1880. Though the damage was repaired, the tower’s upper levels were eventually removed, leaving only the base standing. It was never rebuilt.
In contrast to the largely bare and austere exterior, the interior of the church is lavishly and magnificently adorned. Its vaulted ceiling is superbly painted, first with tempura murals; and later with the resplendent trompe l’oeil frescos of the Italian painters Alberoni and Dibella, making the ceiling appear as if intricately carved with moldings, rosettes, and sunken panels.
Within the church are housed rich furnishings, including a fine retablo, pulpit, lectern, and choir stalls; and a grand pipe organ and a set of chandeliers crafted in Paris. Crypto-collateral chapels are arrayed on either side of the nave, their separating walls serving as the buttresses. Within these side chapels are entombed the remains of Legazpi and Goiti, and of Juan de Salcedo, another famed conquistador, Legazpi’s grandson, and the founder of the city of Vigan in Northern Luzon.
This third structure has proven to be more enduring, witnessing hundreds of years of history, and in the process, weathering numerous devastating earthquakes and a series of ruinous wars. In World War II, during the Liberation of Manila, the entirety of Intramuros and the City of Manila were reduced to rubble by aerial bombs, land and naval artillery shells, and the ravenous fires these caused, but the San Agustin Church miraculously survived, the only one of the seven churches of the Walled City left standing.
The San Agustin Church was declared a National Historical Landmark in 1976.
1.2 Santa Maria Church
LOCATION: Province of Ilocos Sur
The Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, commonly known as the Santa Maria Church, is found in the town of Santa Maria, in the province of Ilocos Sur. Its construction began in 1765, and was completed years later.
Most of the Spanish colonial-era churches in the Philippines were built on the central plaza, following the instruction set forth in the Ley de las Indias (the Law of the Indies), the body of laws issued by the Spanish Crown for its colonial territories, which among other things, detailed the urban pattern that new Spanish colonial settlements and towns should follow.
The Santa Maria Church, however, did not conform to this. For instead of being established on a plaza, the church was erected atop a long and narrow hill of low elevation yet still commanding a view of the entire town of Santa Maria and the plains about. The hilltop, which is surrounded by a defensive wall built along the upper slopes, is reachable via three flights of 85 steps hewn of granite rock. The church is said to have been used as a lookout and citadel, hence its strong, fortified position.
But it is not only its position that is strong. The church itself, too, was made to withstand hostile raids and attacks, and in particular the ravages of powerful earthquakes, which are very common in the Philippines. Thus, the church was wrought of bricks and mortar, and built low and stout, with thick outer walls reinforced by massive, rectangular buttresses arrayed along its sides. Its façade is tall and imposing, and flanked by similarly huge and heavy buttresses, albeit circular this time. The exterior of the brown-hued church is largely devoid of ornamental designs.
Fronting the church is an enormous convent, whose placement, instead of being adjacent to the church like the rest of the Spanish colonial-era churches in the country, is another unusual characteristic of the Santa Maria Church. However, this feature might have been made out of necessity, owing to the narrow and confined space of the elongated hilltop.
A short distance from the midpoint of the nave’s right wall rises a bell tower, whose unusual position is yet another unique feature of the Santa Maria Church. Thick, massive, and constructed of the same materials as the church, the octagonal and freestanding tower has four stories, each narrower than the one beneath, and is crowned with a dome.
Also in the immediate vicinity of the church is an old cemetery, within which are old graveyards and the ruins of a brick chapel.
The Santa Maria Church was declared a National Historical Landmark in 1974, and a National Cultural Treasure in 2015.
1.3 Paoay Church
LOCATION: Province of Ilocos Norte
The Paoay Church, or the Church of San Agustin, stands in the town of Paoay, in the province of Ilocos Norte. This church is regarded as the most outstanding example of the Earthquake Baroque architectural style.
Construction of the present-day Paoay Church was begun in 1694, and was completed in 1710. The church is built low and wide, constructed from large hewn blocks of coral stone and bricks held together by mortar made out of indigenous ingredients. Its walls are thick and strong, and extending from these is the church’s most striking feature, an array of enormous and formidable buttresses ranged along the sides and back of the nave.
The façade of the church is shaped akin to a massive pediment rising from the ground, fitted and furnished with square pilasters, stringed cornices, finials, crenellations, and niches; and carved with rosettes, floral motifs, and the Augustinian coat of arms. Overall, the rich designs of the façade and the walls suggest some Gothic elements and traces of Chinese, Javanese, and other Oriental influences. In contrast, the interior of the church is bare and subdued, though the ceiling was once graced with beautiful paintings.
A lofty bell tower stands some distance from the façade, similarly wrought of coral stones and bricks. This huge edifice, the construction of which was begun in 1793, long after the church was completed, is three stories high and tiered akin to a pagoda. It was erected separate from the nave to spare the church from collateral damage should the tower collapse due to an earthquake.
The Paoay Church was declared a National Cultural Treasure in 1973.
1.4 Miagao Church
LOCATION: Province of Iloilo
The Church of Santo Tomas de Villanueva, commonly referred to as the Miagao Church, is situated on the highest point of the coastal town of Miagao, in the province of Iloilo.
Construction of the present-day church was begun in 1787 and was completed in 1797. In those days, the town of Miagao, the province of Iloilo, and indeed most of the provinces of the Visayas Islands were subject to frequent coastal raids and invasions by Moro pirates and marauders. Hence, the church was built on a commanding position to serve as a lookout against approaching enemies.
The church’s design and structure, too, were planned in response to those devastating incursions. Indeed, the church was built (by natives conscripted into forced labor) to verily resemble a fortress, where the townsfolk can seek refuge in dire days, and where, if need be, a defensive stand could be mounted against an enemy. Broad, squat,and sturdy, its ochre walls, which are made of adobe, egg, coral, and limestone, are exceedingly thick and strong. But even thicker and stronger are the massive and mighty buttresses that reinforced the outer walls.
The fortress-church’s façade is wide and lofty, and richly carved with an ornate bas-relief featuring scenes and figures from Roman Catholic lore and history, including Saint Christopher attired in local clothing and carrying the Child Jesus, and Saint Thomas of Villanueva, the town’s patron saint; and from the daily lives of the natives of Miagao, such as local fauna and flora, including coconut palms and papaya trees. The design of the bas-relief is influenced by Spanish, Chinese, Muslim, and indigenous elements.
Two enormous bell towers stand on either side of the façade, directly joined to it. The towers are of different heights as these were commissioned by two different priests; the left tower, which was built earlier, has four tapering levels, while the right one, which was completed much later, only has three. The two towers served as a lookout for sentries to warn against the approach of corsairs and raiders from the sea.
2. Historic City of Vigan
YEAR OF INSCRIPTION: 1999
LOCATION: Province of Ilocos Sur
Established in the 16th century, Vigan is the best-preserved example of a planned Spanish colonial town in Asia. Its architecture reflects the coming together of cultural elements from elsewhere in the Philippines, from China and from Europe, resulting in a culture and townscape that have no parallel anywhere in East and South-East Asia. © UNESCO World Heritage Center
Vigan is the capital city of Ilocos Sur, a province that lies on the northwestern coast of the island of Luzon. The city is built along the coastal plains looking west towards the sweeping waters of the West Philippine Sea. Two rivers hem in the city on three sides: the Govantes River to the north, and the Abra River (the Lagben River) to the south and east. A third river, the Mestizo River, wends its course through the city.
Before the arrival of the Spaniards, Vigan was a flourishing trading outpost, enriched by traffic and commerce brought by seafaring merchants hailing from China, Japan, the Malay kingdoms, and elsewhere in Asia. They came bearing porcelain, silk, metals, and glass, and left with gold, beeswax, and other goods traded by the Vigan locals and the mountain folk of the Cordilleras. Some of the merchants, mostly Chinese, eventually decided to stay, settling in the area and intermarrying with the natives.
The first Spaniards who came to Vigan arrived in 1572, headed by Captain Juan de Salcedo. By that time, Vigan was already the center of a thriving array of coastal towns and settlements. Salcedo colonized Vigan in the name of the Spanish Crown, and there founded a city whose design was patterned after Intramuros, the Walled City in Manila. The city eventually grew and prospered, becoming a seat of Spanish political and religious power in Northern Luzon. Vigan profited greatly from the galleon trade that plied the sea-route between Manila and Acapulco in Mexico, enriching its elite Spanish, Chinese, and mestizo merchant families.
Weathering the ravages of wars and natural calamities, much of the old urban lay of Vigan has endured to this day, making the city the most intact and best-preserved example of a planned Spanish colonial town in Asia. The surviving townscape reflects a unique and exceptional architecture not found anywhere else in East and Southeast Asia, a seamless blend of European colonial architecture and planning and Asian – Filipino and Chinese – building design and construction.
The bulk of the surviving colonial era-structures are found in the Mestizo District, the well-preserved Historic Core of the city now also known as the Heritage Village. The Mestizo District encompasses the ancestral homes of the city’s former elite which are arrayed along gridded streets and alleyways paved with cobblestones.
Dominating the Mestizo District is Mena Crisologo Street, or Calle Crisologo, a broad cobbled street spanning some four blocks. On either side of this street stand, row upon row, the grand mansions of the families of the Filipino-Chinese merchants who amassed their wealth from the Manila-Acapulco maritime trade.
These ancestral mansions, most of which date back to the mid-18th to the late 19th centuries, were built in the same fashion and of the same materials. They are two-storied. The ground floor was built of stone and brick, and once housed the shops, offices, storerooms, and cellars from where the merchants conducted their businesses. The upper floor, which usually had wooden walls and floors (though many of the houses had an upper floor also wrought of brick and stone, instead of wood, owing to the abundance of such materials in the local area), housed the living quarters, the chief feature of which is the capacious and well-ventilated living room, the sala. Other ubiquitous and salient features of the mansions are red tiled-roofs, airy verandas, inner courtyards adorned with leafy plants, intricately-wrought balconies, and sliding capiz-shell windows as tall as the doors.
While some of the historic homes have been abandoned and left to decay, most have been preserved, though only a handful remain untouched. Of the houses that have been maintained, a great number, in keeping with the tradition of reserving the ground floors for trade and commerce, have been modified and leased for commercial use, and now accommodate inns, cafes, curio and antique stores, and artisan shops. Overall, most of the changes to the houses have not been drastic, allowing the place to preserve much of its original Hispanic colonial character.
Calle Crisologo is the premier draw in the Mestizo District, and indeed in the whole of Vigan. During the day, numerous tourists crowd the entire length of the street, striking poses and snapping pictures, flitting in and out of the shops, and parting only to make way for the calesas, or horse-drawn carriages, which are common conveyances in the city. At night, lamps held aloft by posts, or hung on walls, illuminate the street in soft hues of gold and vermillion, making for a very picturesque setting for a pleasant and leisurely evening stroll.
West of Calle Crisologo is the famed Syquia Mansion, a stately manor featuring grand and opulent rooms, and rich period furnishings and pieces of art. It has been partly repurposed as a museum, and now houses antiques and heirlooms, and in particular, the memorabilia of Elpidio Quirino, the Philippines’ sixth president and the mansion’s former occupant.
North of Calle Crisologo stands the grand Saint Paul’s Cathedral, or canonically, the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle, but more commonly referred to as the Vigan Cathedral. This magnificent cathedral is actually the fourth church of Vigan; the preceding three were razed to the ground by fires or by earthquakes. The impressive church that remains standing to this day was commissioned by the Augustinian friars in 1790; it was completed in 1800.
The Vigan Cathedral was built along the distinct Earthquake Baroque architectural design, the chief features of which are the thick and massive buttresses on either side of the structure. Its façade is embellished with pillars and columns, and above the main door, a niche featuring a sculpted figure of Saint Paul. Ranged before the façade is an array of carven statues of angles and saints, and a pair of Chinese lion dogs. Within the interior are three naves, a silver-paneled main altar, and twelve minor altars.
A short distance from the cathedral stands its bell tower, a 25 meter-high edifice surmounted by a bronze weathercock. Also near the cathedral is the Archbishop’s Palace, the only one of such structures built during the Spanish colonial era that has survived to this day.
Fronting the Vigan Cathedral is Plaza Salcedo, the public square built in honor of Salcedo and which holds the Salcedo Obelisk. Plaza Salcedo, regarded as the oldest monument in Northern Luzon, was, and still is, the central plaza in Vigan, and the Salcedo Obelisk once served as the focal point of the old layout of the city. This is accordant with the Ley de las Indias, the Law of the Indies, which among other things, detailed the urban pattern that Spanish colonial towns should follow. Under this Law, new towns and settlements should have streets arranged in a grid pattern, the center of which should be a plaza.
Today, Plaza Salcedo is renowned for its spectacular night display of ‘dancing’ fountains of water illuminated by resplendent lights, spewing, streaming, and spurting to the accompaniment of music.
Beside the Vigan Cathedral lies another plaza, Plaza Burgos, a monument dedicated to the martyr Father Jose Burgos, an illustrious son of Vigan and among the three Filipino scholar-priests who were garroted by the Spaniards for championing reforms in the Catholic Church. However, this smaller plaza was built only after the Spanish colonial reign had ended. Plaza Burgos is home to numerous stalls, kiosks, and stands vending local delicacies, especially empanadas (meat and vegetable-filled pastries), okoys (shrimp patties), and bibingkas (variants of rice cakes).
Vigan was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 under the name Historic City of Vigan. It was later inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage City, earning it a membership among the Organization of World Heritage Cities (OWHC).
- The Best Places to Visit in the Philippines
- The Most Amazing Places to Visit in the Philippines – PART 2
- The Best Reasons to Visit the Philippines
3. Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary
YEAR OF INSCRIPTION: 2014
LOCATION: Province of Davao Oriental
Forming a mountain ridge running north-south along the Pujada Peninsula in the south-eastern part of the Eastern Mindanao Biodiversity Corridor, the Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary has an elevation range of 75–1,637 m above sea level and provides critical habitat for a range of plant and animal species. The property showcases terrestrial and aquatic habitats at different elevations, and includes threatened and endemic flora and fauna species, eight of which are found only at Mount Hamiguitan. These include critically endangered trees, plants and the iconic Philippine eagle and Philippine cockatoo. © UNESCO World Heritage Center
The Mount Hamiguitan Range of the province of Davao Oriental sits astride the length of the Pujada Peninsula, a strip of land jutting out from the southeastern coast of the island of Mindanao. Its chief peak, from which it derives its name, is the 1,620 m- (5,315 ft-) high Mount Hamiguitan. The mountain and its parent range form the vast part of the Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary. This protected natural refuge, which covers an area of 16,923 hectares (ha), with a buffer zone of 9,729 ha, has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014.
The Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary has earned its place in the World Heritage List largely due to its astonishingly rich and staggeringly vast biodiversity. It is a veritable cornucopia of floral and faunal life, encompassing more than a thousand species of plants and animals, of which hundreds are endemic to the Philippines, and several are found only in Mount Hamiguitan. Among this wealth of wildlife are the mighty Philippine eagle, the impressive Philippine cockatoo, the adorably small Philippine tarsier, and several species of Nepenthes, the carnivorous tropical pitcher plants. Scientists, however, believe there are many more species in the area waiting to be discovered.
The inscribed property features five forest ecosystems, each found at succeedingly higher altitudes. At the lowest elevations, around 75 to 420 m above sea level (246 to 1,378 ft ASL), is the agroecosystem, which accommodates at least 246 plant species, 44 of which are endemic. This ecosystem is made up chiefly of coconut and banana plantations. Remnants of dipterocarp forests, whose trees include the diptercocarps red balan and the tanguile (dark-red Philippine mahogany), persist. Local fauna is generally scant, though butterflies of different species are found in strong numbers.
Just above this, 420 to 920 m ASL (1,378 to 3,018 ft ASL), is the dipterocarp forest ecosystem, the realm of large and lofty trees, most of which, as the name implies are dipterocarps. Of these, the predominant species are the yakal, and the evergreen trees Lithocarpus llanosii and Zanthoxylum diabolicum. But above these trees towers the tipudlos, casting its leafy branches more than 30 m from the ground. In all, there are at least 418 plant species in this area.
Animal wildlife is many and varied, with at least 146 known species. Among the high boughs and branches of the trees may sometimes be seen the Mindanao-bleeding heart, a multicolored dove so named because of the scarlet blotch on its breast; while along the forest floor rummages the elusive baboy damo (Philippine warty pig), easily recognizable for its rotund, dark-hued body and two pairs of warts.
Further upland, 920 to 1,160 m ASL (3,018 to 3,806 ft ASL), lie the montane forest ecosystem, where mosses, lichens, and epiphytes are found in riotous display. Dominated by the almasiga and the smaller kalingag trees, this ecosystem houses the most number of plant species, at least 462, as well as 105 animal species representing all the animal groups found in the wildlife sanctuary.
The mosses grow even fuller and thicker within the mossy forest ecosystem, 1,160 to 1,350 m ASL (3,806 to 4,429 ft ASL), where they mantle the roots and trunks of trees in dense layers. The trees here are shorter than those in the montane forest beneath, and exist in fewer numbers, owing to stronger winds and heavier rains. The tree layer is populated primarily by the cedarwood Dacrydium elatum and the evergreen tree bitanghol. Meanwhile, rare orchids of diverse colors, shapes, and sorts grace the surroundings. This is the residence of the Philippine pygmy fruit bat, a small species of megabat that feeds largely on fruits; and the Pointed-snout tree frog, which is threatened by habitat loss.
At the topmost elevations, 1,160 to 1,600 m ASL (3,806 ft to 5,249 ft ASL), is the mossy-pygmy forest ecosystem, a most unique and remarkable forest of century-old trees of bonsai proportions that have eked out a miraculous existence on a harsh and unfavorable environment. For the soil these trees grow on is ultramafic, laden with iron, magnesium, nickel, and other metallic elements which have rendered the trees dwarfed and stunted.
The mossy-pygmy forest is the crowning glory of Mount Hamiguitan, both figuratively and literally, for indeed, covering the mountain’s summit is 1,234 ha of pygmy forest, the largest pygmy forest anywhere in the world. In this surreal landscape, trees that otherwise grow to soaring heights, such as the almasiga, which usually grows as high as 65 m (213 ft); the dita (blackboard tree), an evergreen tropical tree whose mature height reaches 40 m (131 ft); the bitanghol, which rises around 25 m (82 ft) and up to 40 m (131 ft) from the ground; and the smaller malasulasi, which can grow up to 5 m (16 ft) tall, are shrunk to short statures only around a meter high!
The mossy-pygmy forest is the only dwelling place of the tropical pitcher plant Nepenthes hamiguitanensis, one of the 338 plant species in this habitat. This ecosystem also harbors 49 animal species including some endangered, endemic, and rare fauna. On the boles and trunks of the trees scampers the Girard’s tree skink; while the Southern worm snake slithers on the dark earth. It is only here that the butterfly Delias magsadana, and the Hamiguitan hairy-tailed rat, a yellow-brown rodent with a long, furry tail, are found.
Apart from the pygmy forest, there are other incredible sights to be seen at the summit of Hamiguitan. This includes the Hidden Garden, a silent and secluded grove where numerous dwarfed sagimsim trees grow.
Another is the Tinagong Dagat, literally the Hidden Sea, a body of fresh water occupying an ancient volcanic crater spanning some 4 ha. Legend has it that this lake experiences high tides and low tides like the seas and the oceans, hence its name. But the changes in the water elevation – the apparent ‘tides’ of the lake – are in fact attributable to the seasons. During the wet season, the waters of the lake rise, swollen by the monsoon rains; but these recede and evaporate during the dry months.
Hamiguitan is overflowing with streams and springs, and more remarkably, of waterfalls. At the fringe of the mossy-pygmy forest cascade the waters of Twin Falls. Five hundred meters below, Dumagooc Falls spills its waters in turn. Another falls, Danlogan Falls, flows at the foot of the dipterocarp forest.
To stave off the deleterious consequences of tourism, the greater part of the wildlife sanctuary is off-limits to tourists, though the mountain has been recently opened to recreational climbers. Those who cannot endure a three-day hike to Hamiguitan’s summit, however, can instead visit the Mount Hamiguitan World Heritage Park, the Philippines’ first natural science park and a tourist complex located at the buffer zone. This sprawling park is dominated by the Mount Hamiguitan Natural Science Museum, which features informative and interactive displays concerning the wildlife sanctuary. A Research Center and an array of cabins have been built to accommodate scientists, naturalists, and academics. The park also encompasses manicured lawns and gardens, camping grounds, short hiking trails, souvenir shops, and even a restaurant.
- The Most Remarkable Mountains in the Philippines
- The Mountain Ranges of the Philippines
- The Most Scenic Lakes in the Philippines
4. Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park
YEAR OF INSCRIPTION: 1999
LOCATION: Province of Palawan
This park features a spectacular limestone karst landscape with an underground river. One of the river’s distinguishing features is that it emerges directly into the sea, and its lower portion is subject to tidal influences. The area also represents a significant habitat for biodiversity conservation. The site contains a full ‘mountain-to-sea’ ecosystem and has some of the most important forests in Asia. © UNESCO World Heritage Center
The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is a protected area situated along the western coast of Palawan Island, some 80 km (50 mi) north of Puerto Princesa, the capital city of the province of Palawan.
The park is set within the rugged karst outcrops of the Saint Paul Mountain Range. It extends over an area of approximately 22,202 hectares, encompassing spectacular limestone karst landscapes and an impressive range of forest formations. Mount Saint Paul (1,028 m or 3,373 ft ASL), which lends its name to the rest of the range, forms the highest point.
Beneath this mountainous and forest-clad terrain lies the Saint Paul Underground River Cave, a vast and sprawling network of subterranean caverns, halls, and vaults whose total length spans some 24 km (15 mi). Of these underground caverns, several are known to be remarkably immense and spacious. The largest, the Italian’s Chamber, measures 360 m (1,181 ft) long, 140 m (459 ft) wide, and 80 m (262 ft) high, and is regarded as one of the largest cave rooms in the world. Found within these subterranean chambers is a dramatic array of speleothems. Magnificent stalactites of every size, shape, and sort are suspended on the caverns’ ceilings, while majestic stalagmites of diverse forms and figures protrude from the dark watery floors.
But the park’s crowning glory, its very claim to fame, is the river that flows through the underground cave – the mesmerizing Cabayugan River (sometimes known as the Saint Paul Underground River, or more popularly, the Puerto Princesa Underground River). This river issues forth from the rain-washed slopes of nearby Mount Bloomfield (787 m or 2,582 ft ASL), through verdant jungles and forests, and then burrows underground beneath the jagged limestone cliffs of Mount Saint Paul, disappearing far below the mountain.
There the Cabayugan wends its way through the deeps of the Saint Paul Underground River Cave, meandering through dark halls and dim grottos and now and then collecting into secluded pools and secret ponds. Smaller streams and rivulets diverge from the river, branching off into the unfathomable darkness. But its main course holds on to a lengthy underground journey of some 8.2 km (5.1 mi), eventually seeing the light of the outside world pouring through the cave entrance, a yawning gap upon limestone cliffs overhung with vegetation. Thence, the river spills out into the waters of Saint Paul’s Bay, which in turn empties into the West Philippine Sea.
Because it flows right into the open sea, the lower half of the Cabayugan is brackish. Remarkably, its lower half is subject to the influences of ocean tides, distinguishing it as a uniquely significant natural global phenomenon.
The Cabayugan is one of the longest navigable underground rivers in the world. Through the entrance on the limestone cliffs, through which the river discharges, small watercraft can enter and sail inwards along the navigable portion of the river, which spans as long as 4.3 km (2.7 mi).
Beyond this navigable length, the narrowing of the underground channels and the shallowing of the river begin to restrict the passage of boats. Indeed, in certain spots within the deeper recesses of the cave, it becomes possible to wade through the river. Thus, upon reaching the end of the navigable portion, boats must turn around and sail back out of the cave. However, those of a mind to explore, on foot, the further length of the underground river – the unnavigable 3.9 km (2.4 mi) stretch – can do so, provided they first obtain a special permit.
A recent expedition of environmentalists and geologists resulted to the discovery of, among other findings, a second floor of the underground river, which led them to believe that there are small waterfalls within the cave.
The accessibility and navigability of the underground river allows it to be experienced by tourists by way of a river cruise offered by local tour agencies. Tourists wishing to visit the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park must head for the coastal village of Sabang, the designated jump-off (access point) for all trips to the underground river. There, they are laden on outrigger boats and ferried to a landing place that lies a short distance from the entrance of the cave and the Cabayugan. They can then reach the entrance proper on foot via a short hike through mangrove swamps. Alternatively, those of a more adventurous disposition can forgo the boats, and trek instead from Sabang to the cave entrance through the 5 km (3.1 mi) long Jungle Trail.
Upon arriving at the entrance, the tourists are seated on tour boats and then sailed along the mouth of the river, through the cavernous entrance, and into the depths of the cave, where they can stare at the spectacular subterranean chambers and marvel at the magnificent rock formations.
As the tour boat glides deeper into the darkness, the tour guide, with the aid of a flashlight, directs the eyes of the tourists towards rich displays of curiously-shaped speleothems resemblant of real life objects and images. For instance, one massive speleothem is nicknamed the T-Rex as it resembles, somewhat, the head of that fearsome dinosaur. Another is known as the Pegasus, while a further two are vaguely reminiscent of a crocodile and a horse. Still others resemble various sorts of fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, or other things. One passageway holds the rock formations dubbed as The Giant Candle and The Holy Family, and even one of haunting likeness to the Apostles seated for the Last Supper.
Tourists can also witness the diverse array of wildlife that call the underground cave and the river home. Millions of bats dangle by their feet from the roofs of the underground caverns and chambers. Swiftlets flit in and out of the dark of the cave by the thousands. Giant lizards and massive snakes crawl and slither along the banks of the river. The riverine waters teem with fishes and other marine life. In the dense forests above, and along the sandy shorelines, troops of the frolicsome long-tailed macaques caper and cavort, even among the presence of tourists.
Indeed, the vast expanse of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is home to an incredible diversity of flora and fauna – over 800 species of plants, and more than 200 species of animals. Of the latter, 165 species of birds of the total of 252 known to inhabit in Palawan are found in the park. Besides, 30 species of mammals and 19 species of reptiles are also recorded. The region encompasses a full ‘mountain-to-sea’ ecosystem, and hosts some of the most important forests in Asia, including the Palawan Moist Forest, the largest and most valuable limestone forest within the continent.
Because of its ancient and pristine natural beauty, impressive array of distinctive landscapes, and the rich and diverse ecosystem it harbors, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park has been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
- The Best Places to Visit in the Philippines
- The Most Amazing Places to Visit in the Philippines – PART 2
- The Most Remarkable Mountains in the Philippines
- The Most Beautiful Beach Destinations in the Philippines
5. Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras
YEAR OF INSCRIPTION: 1995
LOCATION: Province of Ifugao
For 2,000 years, the high rice fields of the Ifugao have followed the contours of the mountains. The fruit of knowledge handed down from one generation to the next, and the expression of sacred traditions and a delicate social balance, they have helped to create a landscape of great beauty that expresses the harmony between humankind and the environment. © UNESCO World Heritage Center
Two thousand years ago, the Ifugaos, a tribal folk who inhabited their namesake province, were faced with a dilemma – they had no suitable land for farming. The province they dwelt in, after all, was a rugged and mountainous land, situated within the long and lofty Cordillera mountain range. They were hemmed in on all sides by towering peaks and high hills; and while the forests about them provided game, fruits, and wood, they needed land to plant their crops.
But they looked up at the misty and forested mountains and hills that walled them, and a bold and daring thought formed in their minds. If no land could be found for farming, then they must make their own lands. They gathered all their folk, and then filed towards the mountains and the hills. There they began a great labor.
They started digging and cutting deep into the slopes, fashioning broad, flat terraces along the hillsides and mountain faces – they were carving the very hills and mountains! Great skill they had in carving and cutting wood into statues and figures, but sculpting solid earth and hard rock was an entirely different matter. And the hills and mountains were sheer and tall, and vast, a million times vaster than the pieces of wood they were used to chiseling and chipping. But they were undaunted.
It was lengthy and tedious work, for they toiled by hand, wielding nothing save for primitive stone tools. But what little they had in equipment they made up for with many strong and willing hands and stout hearts laboring as one. It was hard work. But they were a hardy people, more enduring than the mountains, more resolute than the earth.
The years marched on. Still they labored. Slowly, their work took shape. Where before there were only steep slopes and sheer faces, now there were wide, flat terraces carved across the hillsides and mountainsides, painstakingly following the very contours of the mountains and the hills. Retaining walls of stones, mud, and rammed earth were built to keep the terraces from eroding. Pathways that wended their way up and through the terraced fields were dug. Row after row, line after line, the terraces climbed atop each other, high up through the mountains, very like unto emerald steps ascending towards the heavens. Some of the terraces reached heights up to 1,500 m ASL (4,921 ft ASL)! Now the folk of Ifugao had land to till.
But they did not rejoice just yet. For still they needed water for irrigation. So they devised yet another ingenious plan, and once more set themselves to work. Crowning the hills and mountains upon whose slopes and sides they had carved terraces were green woods and forests. These they had left standing as communal hunting grounds. From these woods and forests issued forth streams and springs, fed by the rains that fell abundantly upon the mountains. These gushing waters they now harvested, channeling them along an intricate array of canals and sluices that they had dug, and which descended through the terraces.
Now the folk of Ifugao had land to till, and water to sustain their crops. But still they did not rejoice. For the work was not yet done. Now they must plant. And plant they did, plowing the earth and sowing rootcrops, vegetables, and rice, all by hand. As the plants grew they guarded them, rooting out weeds, keeping pests at bay. A few months passed and the green paddy fields turned golden. The rice stalks became laden with ripe grain, ready for harvesting. And as they reaped the very first harvest of their labor, only then did the folk of Ifugao rejoice.
As the years lengthened, the terraced rice fields became intertwined with their culture and society. The terraces were now their lifeblood, after all. They devised systematized modes and means of planting, irrigation, pest control, and harvesting, all founded on the knowledge of the seasons and the lunar cycles. Rites and rituals they also performed, which centered around rice and the rice fields.
To ensure that the terraces survived, these knowledge and practices were passed on, orally, from one generation to the next. Consequently, through the course of millennia, the Ifugaos tended the terraces, cultivating, repairing, rebuilding, expanding, and building new arrays and clusters. And as it has been during its creation, the upkeep of the rice terraces required intensive collaboration and cooperation among the Ifugaos.
Thus, the ancient engineering wonders that the Ifugaos began building two thousand years ago have endured to this day, a living testament to the labor of generations of people working together to create a landscape epitomizing sustainable use of natural resources and embodying harmony between man and nature. And the high rice fields are still used today, cultivated and tended by modern-day Ifugaos in much the same way as their ancestors did millennia ago.
The terraces are found sprawled across several towns and villages in Ifugao. The most famous of these terraces is the cluster found in the town of Banaue. This cluster, known as the Banaue Rice Terraces, has been declared a National Cultural Treasure of the Philippines. Unfortunately, this cluster has not made it to the World Heritage List.
What did make it are the five equally remarkable clusters, namely: the Batad Rice Terraces and the Bangaan Rice Terraces in the town of Banaue; the Mayoyao Rice Terraces in the town of Mayoyao; the Hungduan Rice Terraces, otherwise known as the Hapao Rice Terraces, in the town of Hungduan; and the Nagacadan Rice Terraces, otherwise known as the Kiangan Rice Terraces, in the town of Kiangan. These five clusters, collectively known as the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, have been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
It is true that rice terraces are not unique to the Ifuagos alone, or even to the Cordillerans in general, who have made other rice terraces in other provinces of the Cordillera. Indeed, rice terraces are even found in a number of countries in East and Southeast Asia. But what sets apart the terraced rice fields of the Ifugaos are the fact these were built on higher altitudes, and were carved on far steeper slopes, than the terraces found elsewhere.
Today, the lofty terraced paddies of the Ifugaos are a premier tourist draw. Their ancient and enduring beauty draws thousands from across the world to the highland province of Ifugao. But to get there, adventurers must be prepared to undertake a lengthy and grueling journey through rugged roads and difficult terrain. Ifugao, after all, is one of the Philippines’ most remote provinces.
Nonetheless, a trip to the terraces is well worth the hard journey. The sight alone of the ancient wonders standing mightily and majestically is enough to make even the weariest of travelers forget their exhaustion.
There are pathways across the paddy fields by which adventurers can trek through and climb up the terraces. However, ascending the ‘stairways into heaven’ is no easy matter. The terrain is difficult, the paths are demanding, and the climb is long and arduous, often taking hours and hours to finish. Those without guides also risk getting lost.
But those who are willing to brave the difficult hike and endure the taxing climb are rewarded with breathtaking views of the terraced valleys. Moreover, along the paths are pools and streams of cold water where the weary can take a refreshing dip and ease the strains and aches of the hike.
A trek through the terraces is akin to a journey through history. The old pathways through the terraced paddies, the vivid green or the glimmering gold of the rice fields, the wild flowers along the banks, the flowing streams and gushing fountains, the towering mountains, the culture, and the people – all tell the thousand year-old tale of harmony between man and nature.
- The Mountain Ranges of the Philippines
- The Best Places to Visit in the Philippines
- The Most Amazing Places to Visit in the Philippines – PART 1
- The Best Reasons to Visit the Philippines
6. Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park
YEAR OF INSCRIPTION: 1993 (Extended on 2009)
LOCATION: Province of Palawan
The Tubbataha Reef Marine Park covers 130,028 ha, including the North and South Reefs. It is a unique example of an atoll reef with a very high density of marine species; the North Islet serving as a nesting site for birds and marine turtles. The site is an excellent example of a pristine coral reef with a spectacular 100-m perpendicular wall, extensive lagoons and two coral islands. © UNESCO World Heritage Center
The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is a protected area situated in the midst of the Sulu Sea, 150 km (93 mi) southeast of Puerto Princesa, the capital city of Palawan. It covers a total area spanning 97,030 hectares, encompassing a vast expanse of deep sea, within which are the two huge atolls of the Tubbataha Reefs – the North and South Atolls – and the smaller Jessie Beazley Reef. It is the Philippines’ first ever Marine Natural Park, and the largest Marine Protected Area anywhere in the country.
Set almost within the very heart of the Coral Triangle, the immensity of marine biodiversity in the Tubbataha is astounding, rivaling even the Great Barrier Reef. Within its bounds dwell no fewer than 1,000 species of marine life. Of these, 374 are coral species – about half of all known coral species in the world! Meanwhile, no less than 600 fish species call the Tubbataha home. Among these are pelagic fishes such as jacks, barracudas, trevallies, tuna, and manta rays; and 14 species of sharks, including whale sharks, tiger sharks, and hammerheads. Thirteen species of whales and dolphins are also known to live here. Moreover, the park is a nesting site of endangered green and hawksbill sea turtles; and a breeding ground of over 100 species of birds, the largest of the few remaining colonies of breeding seabirds in the region.
Apart from providing critical habitat to countless marine and bird species, many of which are endemic and threatened with extinction, the Tubbataha is also crucial to the lives and livelihood of millions of Filipinos, who rely on the sea for much of their protein needs. Because it is protected under a no-take policy, fishing is prohibited in the Tubbataha. However, its reef complexes, perhaps the most productive anywhere in the country, are a safe haven where marine life, notably commercially important fishes, can breed and multiply without human interference, helping to replenish fish stocks in depleted and overfished waters elsewhere in the Sulu Sea. The North and South Atolls alone produce at least 200 metric tons of fish biomass per square kilometer, five times greater than the productivity of a healthy reef!
The Tubbataha is also vital for tourism. Because of its clean and crystalline waters, and its incredible biodiversity, it is regarded as the undisputed Diving Mecca of the Philippines, and widely hailed as one the best diving destinations worldwide.
The Reefs house numerous dives sites featuring a range of varying environments. On the northeastern end of the North Atoll are the Shark Airport and the Washing Machine. The Shark Airport features a wall reef with a sandy bottom where scores of whitetip sharks rest, resembling planes readying for take-off at an airport. Among the sea whips and gorgonians mantling the wall are gobies, angelfish, hawkfish, anthias, and damselfish. Large pelagics, including whale sharks, pass by often.
The Washing Machine is known for its fast, powerful currents which sweep divers in many different directions over a number of gullies. The strong currents convey a vivid parade of jacks, tunas, giant trevallies, and barracudas, along with smaller fishes including triggerfish, butterflyfish, anthias, Sergeant Majors, bannerfish, and sweetlips.
On the southern end of the North Atoll is the Amos Rock, a gentle slope ending in a vertiginous wall adorned with sea whips and sea fans. Napoleon wrasses, Moorish idols, angelfish, surgeonfish, fusiliers, groupers, snappers, and mackerel share this dwelling with eagle rays, gray and whitetip reef sharks, and other large pelagics. Sea turtles pay regular visits.
Other dives sites clustered around the North Atoll include the Terraces, Seafan Alley, Malayan Wreck, Wall Street, and South Park.
On the northeastern tip of the South Atoll is the Black Rock, a gently sloping plateau occupied by nurse sharks and gray and whitetip reef sharks, along with titan triggerfish, surgeonfish, and rainbow runners. Guitar sharks, leopard sharks, hammerheads, tunas, barracudas, and jacks cruise along in the open.
On the southeastern end of the South Atoll lies the Delsan Wreck, a small sunken ship now populated by a myriad of micro life – nudibranchs, shrimps, crabs, tiny reef fishes, etc. Frogfish, sweetlips, and snappers are par for the course, while reef sharks and eagle rays, as well as sea turtles, are regularly sighted. A yawning fissure in the nearby coral, known as The Cut, is 30 m (98 ft) deep and teeming with marine life.
Other dive sites within the South Atoll include the T Wreck, Ko-ok, Southwest Wall, Staghorn Point, and Triggerfish City.
The smaller Jessie Beazley Reef, situated some 20 km (12 mi) north of the two atolls, also offers spectacular dive sites and a profusion of colorful marine life. Mantas, whitetip and blacktip reef sharks, tunas, groupers, barracuda, and mackerel are common sightings, along with vast populations of reef fishes and nudibranchs. Corals and sponges are plentiful.
Isolated and remote, divers can reach the Tubbataha only through a ten to twelve-hour ride on liveaboards issuing from Puerto Princesa; and only during April to June, when the seas are calmest, the skies clearest, and the water clarity highest. Because of its isolation and very narrow timeline for tourism, divers wishing to visit the Reefs must book their trips at least a year in advance. Accordingly, only a limited number of divers – more than a thousand or so – are able to visit the Tubbataha every year.
Its isolation has long been its greatest means of protection. Situated scores of kilometers away from the nearest inhabited isles, the Tubbataha has largely avoided the plight of many of the country’s other reef systems that lay near populated coastlines, which have been devastated by overfishing. But it did so only narrowly.
The Tubbataha was known as a rich fishing ground to many of the coastal peoples living in the southern islands of the Philippines. Indeed, from the language of the nomadic Sama-Bajau people, who ventured to fish in the Tubbataha from time to time, is the name of the Reefs derived – tubba and taha, which together means ‘a long reef exposed at low tide’.
But to the fisherfolk of Cagayancillo, the Reefs were known as Gusong. Every summer, they would journey to the Tubbataha, borne upon small fleets of traditional wooden boats, and there ply their trade. Their fishing expeditions would often span a few weeks to a couple of months.
However, new modes of marine transportation considerably shortened the travel time to the Tubbataha, and enabled fishermen from all over the Philippines to stake their claim upon the riches of the Reefs. As the yield of the coral reef fisheries elsewhere in the country plummeted owing to overfishing, fishermen, even those living many hundreds of kilometers away, turned their sights on the Tubbataha. The results were disastrous, so much so, in fact, that in the 1980’s, fishermen in motorized boats, armed with dynamite and cyanide, very nearly brought the Reefs to the brink of destruction.
But a group of divers and environmentalists, alarmed by its ravaging, launched a campaign to save the Reefs. Because of their vigorous efforts, the plight of the Tubbataha was brought to national attention, and in 1988, it was accorded much-needed protection as a National Marine Park, the first of its kind in the Philippines. In 1993, it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2006, the park was expanded to include the smaller Jessie Beazley Reef, and was reclassified as a Natural Park. Three years later, the park’s World Heritage designation was extended to include its new and far wider domain.
Today, the park is well-protected by a group of rangers who are stationed on the Tubbataha for a couple of months at a time. They dwell in isolation, housed on a ranger station situated on a spit of sand near the North Atoll, guarding a veritable treasure that was very nearly lost. But while their labor and vigilance have ensured the security of the park, many factors continue to threaten the Reefs and their marine residents. Illegal fishing, for instance, still persists. But over all these is the threat posed by climate change, which even now is slowly but surely laying waste to the reefs of the Tubbataha.
- The Top Dive Sites in the Philippines
- The Best Places to Visit in the Philippines
- The Best Reasons to Visit the Philippines
Sites on the Tentative ListThere are currently six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Philippines. But beginning 1993, the Philippines also has submitted a Tentative List of properties it intends to consider for nomination as World Heritage Sites. These are the:
- Batanes Protected landscapes and seascapes (1993)
- The Tabon Cave Complex and all of Lipuun (2006)
- Paleolithic Archaeological Sites in Cagayan Valley (2006)
- Kabayan Mummy Burial Caves (2006)
- Butuan Archeological Sites (2006)
- Baroque Churches of the Philippines (Extension) (2006)
- Petroglyphs and Petrographs of the Philippines (2006)
- Neolithic Shell Midden Sites in Lal-lo and Gattaran Municipalities (2006)
- Chocolate Hills Natural Monument (2006)
- Malindang Range Natural Park (2006)
- Pulag National Park (2006)
- Apo Reef Natural Park (2006)
- El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area (2006)
- Coron Island Natural Biotic Area (2006)
- Iglit-Baco National Park (2006)
- Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park and outlying areas inclusive of the buffer zone (2006)
- Mantalingahan Protected Landscape (2015)
- Mayon Volcano Natural Park (MMVNP) (2015)
- Turtle Islands Wildlife Sanctuary (2015)