The Philippines and its 7,641 islands have been given many names. Take for example Palawan, the largest island-province in the country. It is known not just for its beauty, but for being one of the most biologically diverse areas in Southeast Asia, and because of its ecological value, it’s commonly referred to as "the Philippines' last frontier" in many studies by various organizations. For some Filipinos, like Jessa Garibay, Palawan has one more title—it’s home.
“My favorite place in the Philippines is my hometown,” Garibay says. “There’s no place like it in the country—and in the world!”
Garibay is the co-founder of Centre for Sustainability PH, an environmental NGO based in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. Just last year, in October 2020, she left the Philippines in order to pursue a Master’s degree in Conservation Leadership in the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. But she plans to come home once she completes her degree.
“I look forward to hiking again in Palawan, especially in Cleopatra’s Needle Critical Habitat where I have spent a lot of work with my NGO. It is the biggest critical habitat in the country,” she adds.
Cleopatra’s Needle spans 41,350 hectares; it is also the ancestral domain of the Batak, the indigenous people who have lived in and cared for the land for generations. Among the many endemic species of flora and fauna living in Cleopatra’s Needle are the Palawan pangolin (Manis culionensis) and Palawan forest turtle (Siebenrockiella leytensis).
The entire province of Palawan is home to many wildlife species that can’t be found anywhere else in the world, Garibay points out, like the Palawan hornbill (Anthracoceros marchei), and Palawan peacock pheasant (Polyplectron napoleonis).
The Philippines’ incredible biodiversity is one of its most defining characteristics. For Javi Cang, an outdoor photographer who’s been living in New Zealand for almost two years now, it’s also one of the best things about coming back home.
“Experiencing the—for a lack of a more apt term—insane biodiversity of the Philippines is definitely at the top of [my] list,” he says. “Living abroad for quite some time now has definitely made me appreciate the rich wildlife that inhabit the waters, mountains, valleys and plains of the Philippines.”
Cang is an avid mountaineer and he says he can’t wait to witness in particular the rare pitcher plants of Mount Hamiguitan, Davao Oriental, and the Rafflesia in Mount Makiling, Laguna.
Cang’s favorite place, however, is the Cordillera Region: a landlocked region made up of several provinces and the backbone of the island of Luzon. The Cordillera mountain range spans around 198 miles long. This region is also where you can find “the Eighth Wonder of the World” and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Ifugao Rice Terraces, built 2,000 years ago. The existence of the terraces today is a product of numerous generations of tradition.
“The peaks and cultures that reside within this mountainous area are endlessly beautiful. I've had the chance to hike a handful of trails within the Cordillera [region], but I've barely scratched the surface of what [it] has to offer,” Cang says. “I'd be privileged to go back and explore!”
While some cannot wait to return to the mountains, others are called by the sea. Gonzalo Araujo, a marine scientist and conservationist working for the conservation of marine megafauna is already planning his trip back to the Tubbataha Reefs.
The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, found in the middle of the Sulu Sea within the Coral Triangle, which is of global importance to coral diversity. It’s a 100,000-hectare reef system where up to 700 species of fish live, along with sea turtles, manta rays, and sharks.
“The pristine reefs and the people that make that place a true global wonder,” says Araujo. He is also the founder and director of Marine Research and Conservation Foundation UK.
Araujo has been living in the UK since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic early last year, but prior to that he had been moving around between Cebu, Southern Leyte, Dumaguete, Palawan, and Sorsogon; all important places for marine life in the country. He continues to research blue sharks, eagle rays, reef sharks, and what he calls one of his true loves: whale sharks.
As an endangered animal, whale sharks are already hard to spot; sightings are made even more rare due to their migratory patterns. However, in tourist sites like in Donsol, Sorsogon, people come from all over the world just for a chance to see these amazing creatures.
The Philippines has countless white-sand beaches spread throughout the country, where all sorts of sea creatures can be found; even for its city dwellers, a trip to the beach is never more than a few hours away.
“This is going to be incredibly corny. But after two years of living in the US, I'm really looking forward to just going to a beach and feeling the sand underneath my feet,” says Fruhlein Econar, a photo editor based in Missouri, in the United States.
“I miss sea spray, smelling the ocean. I miss hiring a boat to some nearby island and doing a bit of snorkeling, buying fresh buko juice inside an actual coconut for cheap. I miss kakanin (rice cakes) and sikwate (hot chocolate).”
Hopefully, it looks like things are starting to pick up for tourists—at least domestically—in the Philippines, after more than a year of relative quiet. International travel for leisure has been halted temporarily, but the Philippine Department of Tourism (DOT) has recently been awarded the use of the Safe Travels Stamp from the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). The stamp recognizes destinations including hotels, airlines, restaurants, and tourist attractions that meet international standards for health and safety. Any tourist planning to travel should check their country's guidelines, as well as the guidelines set in place by their chosen destination.
For those abroad just waiting for the right time to come back to the Philippines, where more fun awaits them, the idea of a reunion brings comfort.
“I would love to come back home. Home is home and there is no place like home,” Cang says.