Southern Philippines' Nature & Adventure Central
Davao City in the Philippines is a modern metropolis hidden away in the Philippines' southern island of Mindanao. The island's somewhat seamy reputation aside, Davao stands apart as a bustling modern metropolis with a significant law-and-order presence and up-to-date infrastructure.
That's a good thing, too, as Davao is sandwiched between the picturesque Davao Gulf and the rolling foothills of Mount Apo, smack in between a number of destinations well-suited for the rugged nature-tripper or beachgoer. From one of Davao's hotels, travelers can easily reach mountain bike trails in Davao's outskirts, dive shops that can take divers to the Davao Gulf's more colorful dive or snorkel spots (see above), or the jumping-off point for whitewater rafting tours of the Davao River.
From Davao City, buses take adventure gluttons out north to Kapalong's warren of caves, or west to the Philippines' highest mountain and its hiking trails.
Bats, Eagles and other Animal Adventures in Davao
The forests around Davao City harbor an amazing variety of wildlife, some you won’t find anywhere else in the world. The “king” of all these animals is the Philippine Eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi, pictured above), a huge predatory bird whose forest habitat is slowly being eroded by logging and slash-and-burn farming. The Philippine Eagle Center in Malagos, Davao City (+63 82 271 2337, www.philippineeagle.org), is one of its last safe havens, a breeding program that grew into a zoo and nature park.
Less well known, but just as visually impressive, are the Geoffroy’s rousette fruit bats (Rousettus amplexicaudatus) that inhabit the Monfort Bat Sanctuary on Samal Island. Over 1.8 million of these bats live in a single cave system, and can be viewed (and smelled!) from a safe distance, separated from the bats by bamboo railings. From the entrance, masses of sleeping fruit bats can be seen covering the cave walls. For more information on the caves, read this article: Monfort Bat Sanctuary, Samal Island, Philippines.
For an animal experience of the reptilian kind, visit the Davao Crocodile Park (+63 82 221-8729, +63 82 2214671, www.davaocrocodilepark.com), and peer into large covered ponds filled with crocodiles. Other exotic animal species - eagles, parrots, snakes, bearcats, ostriches and monkeys – fill the other spaces in the park, rounding out the animal population.
Climbing up Mount Apo
The Philippines’ tallest mountain, Mount Apo, is a dormant volcano whose forested slopes harbor some of the region’s rarest animals. Standing over 9,600 feet over Davao, the mountain’s hiking trails begin about 20 miles northeast of the city center, easily accessible by bus or by private car.
It takes about three to four days to hike up Mount Apo and back. The landscape shifts from forest to grassland to barren sulfuric rockpile as you ascend up the Kidapawan trail, and descend the other side facing Davao City. Midway up the mountain, you can camp at the grasslands surrounding Lake Venado before making the final push to the peak in the morning.
Apo can be climbed all year round, but veteran climbers suggest you avoid it during the Catholic festival of Holy Week, when thousands of vacationing Filipinos hit the slopes. “It’s a mess,” explains veteran Davao tour organizer Rey Sumagaysay. “You can’t enjoy the mountain if you’re climbing with thousands of people – the trail is messed up, so first-time visitors will be discouraged. The wild deer and boar will be scared away.” Lean months like February make for better Apo climbing experiences, says Sumagaysay.
) offers Apo climbing packages at $280 per person, including a climbing permit, porter hire, food, transportation, guide, and equipment.
Whitewater Rafting in the Davao River
The Davao River winds through Davao and empties into the Davao Gulf – it doesn’t look like much when you cross the bridges that span it, but upstream, a stretch of the waterway is narrow and wild enough to provide an exciting whitewater rafting trip.
The Class 3+-rated rapids provide an hours’ worth of fun battling rapids and rocks; Davao Wildwater Adventure (+63 82 221 7823, waterrafting.psdgroupph.com) conducts whitewater rafting trips down the fun part of the river. For PHP 2,000 (about $46), you get a ride from the Crocodile Park to the jump-off area, the use of equipment and a raft guide, a souvenir shirt, and souvenir snaps to remember the bumpy ride by.
For a whitewater rafting experience elsewhere in the Philippines, read White Water Rafting in Cagayan de Oro, Philippines.
Island-Hopping around the Davao Gulf
Samal Island lies across from Davao City, a ten-minute ferry ride away. Samal’s shores have white-sand beaches and dive spots galore, along with a good number of resorts and dive shops to patronize. Ditto with the smaller, less developed island of Talicud, also within ferry range of Davao.
To reach these islands in a single day trip, charter a trip on Islands Banca Cruises (+63 917 630 0736, www.islandsbanca.com). The outfit uses local outrigger boats called banca, with a twist. “With Islands Banca Cruises they can look forward to a boat that has an expanded sun deck, bean bag chairs, iPod dock, cushion seats, and the signature orange towels and the cold towel handed by our crew,” explains Andrea Lugue, Islands Banca Cruises’ marketing head. “We take care of everything for you – we can order lunch for you, we can have massage therapists onboard if you want.”
At selected jump-off points, guests can disembark for a picnic lunch on the beach or a snorkeling session or three.
Before going on a banca cruise, remember to pack sunscreen for maximum skin protection. Read more in this article: Sunburn & Sun Protection Tips in Southeast Asia.
A Speedy Trip Down Davao's Zip Lines
A zipline is a type of ride that puts participants in a harness attached to a cable; they push off from one end of the cable and rapidly zip down to the other end, while enjoying the view and the thrill of the high elevation.
Davao’s turned into the Zip Line Capital of the Southern Philippines, thanks to the hilly back-country and the scenery: many of the city’s zip lines provide views of Davao Gulf and Mount Apo while you zip down at highway speeds while flying above the ground. Outland Adventure (+63 82 224 5855, outlandadventure.org) in Davao’s Talomo District boasts of having Asia’s longest and fastest zipline - its “Xcelerator” is one whole kilometer long and dangles participants over the ground at a height of 200 feet!
Cave Exploring near Kapalong, Davao del Norte
You'll have to go about thirty miles north of Davao City to find caves to explore, but spelunkers say the trip is worth it. The town of Kapalong stands next to the Suaon Natures Park, a series of caves where limestone plus water plus time have led to a proliferation of intricate mineral formations. Okbot, Otso, and Alena Cave are open to the public, as is Sua-On Underground River.
"We have stalactites, stalagmites, and columns - what you get when stalactites meet stalagmites," explains Kapalong tourism coordinator Roderick Parcon. "We have draperies. We have cave corals. And we have cave pearls, the rarest cave formation you can find."
Spelunking in Kapalong doesn't require you to bring your own equipment; you can hire the equipment as part of a package tour that costs about US$23 (PHP 1,000) per group of five. The tour is sponsored by the Davao Speleological & Conservation Society (www.dspecs.multiply.com), and includes gear, the services of a cave guide, and certificate.
Scuba Diving in the Davao Gulf
The shores off Davao City are rich in snorkeling and diving spots, with varying levels of difficulty and scenic beauty. Both novice divers and PADI-certified veterans will love the coral gardens and their marine residents scattered around the waters of Davao Gulf. (Dive provider Wind & Wave Davao has a handy list of Davao dive spots, offsite.)
Sea turtles, sharks, and other pelagic fishes call the waters of Davao home, providing some picture-perfect opportunity for underwater divers. Explorers with a sense of history may appreciate the wreck diving in Davao, from the Japanese cargo ships a few hundred feet away from Pearl Farm Resort (compare rates), to the Sagami Maru wreck in Talomo Bay.
The waters of Davao Gulf are best explored between the months of November and May. A number of dive providers are ready to help you in case you want to dive right in - start with Carabao Dive Center (+63 82 300 1092, www.cdc.e-davao.com) and Wind and Wave Davao (+63 82 305-3483, www.windandwavedavao.com).
Mountain Biking Down Davao's Bike Trails
Whether you bring your own bike or not, Davao’s bike trails give hard-riding tourists a chance to range over wide country spaces or beachside trails without running into significant auto traffic. Davao’s trails range in difficulty “from novice to expert”, says Rey Sumagaysay, tour organizer and head of tour provider Edge Outdoor Specialist (+63 82 300 0384, Facebook page). “We’ve got mild trails too; we actually don’t get many hardcore clients, but we’ve got them covered. We help our clients pick the right trail for their experience.” Outfits like Edge are ready to rent out bikes and equipment, so you don't have to carry your own gear all the way to Davao.
Mountain bikers equipped with GPS phones have uploaded a variety of Davao trails on the web, blazing trails through suburbs like Buhangin, hilly locales like Shrine Hills, and even beachside trails like on Samal Island, pictured above. (For a comprehensive list of such trails, check out this one from EveryTrail.com, offsite.) Key Davao landmarks for the biking set include the “Carabao Trail” with its jump ramp, and the Mandug hanging bridge.