Go for your ultimate adventure in the Philippines with these outdoor sports

Come out and play!

Photo by Francisco Guerrero

Sure, you can just lie on the white-sand beaches and bake under the summer sun in Cebu, get excited by a starfish sighting in the shallows of Coron or sip a cup of local coffee, while breathing in the scent of pine up in the Mountain Province. But if you feel like traveling should be more than a spectator sport, then maybe it’s time to consider becoming a participant and immersing yourself in your surroundings.

Engaging in outdoor sports allows you to get to know a locale in a much more intimate way. Why settle for that lone starfish on the shore when you can freedive and find yourself surrounded by a swirling school of sardines a little farther out? Why lie idle on the beach when you can get that sun-kissed glow by paddleboarding through waterways you otherwise wouldn’t hear about? And why take in just one picture-perfect view from the mountains when you can run through mile upon mile of picturesque trails with a fun, welcoming community? Whether you’re into beaches, mountains or even cities, you’re bound to find an outdoor sport that appeals to you everywhere in the Philippines.

1. Freediving

Photo by Francisco Guerrero

The Philippines may be known for its dazzling beaches, but many miss out on the wonders that lie beneath its turquoise waters. To get the most out of the truly stunning undersea vistas around the archipelago, there are some familiar options: there is snorkeling, which nearly anyone can do; and the well-established sport of scuba diving, which is well-supported by a large network everywhere in the Philippines.

A great in-between: freediving. It allows you to dive a little deeper and get up close and personal with marine life without being weighed down by the bulk (and expense) of scuba gear.

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Get started with freediving in 4 easy steps:

  1. Take a course. Go to a reputable school and make sure you have a competent instructor (check aidaphilippines.com/instructors for credentials).
  2. Get the right gear. You’ll need a mask, a snorkel and full-foot fins. A well-fitting wetsuit comes in handy to keep you warm.
  3. Beef up your swimming skills. It’s necessary to be comfortable and confident in open water.
  4. Know your limits. You’ll be more aware of your capabilities with experience. “You should always be mindful of slowly exploring this, with enough reserves in case something unexpected happens during the dive,” says AIDA-certified freediving instructor Carlo Navarro.

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“Freediving is generally diving on one breath of air,” explains Carlo Navarro, the first Filipino freediving instructor certified by the sport’s international federation, AIDA (Association Internationale pour le Développement de l’Apnée). The training helps get freedivers acquainted with the science of breath-holding, so they can improve performance and keep themselves safe. Other than that — and a minimum of equipment — the practice is as pure and as simple as it can get: It’s all about learning how to hold one’s breath and stay underwater for as long as you can.

Photo by Francisco Guerrero

Pushing the limits of the human body can have some amazing results: The world record for one breath-hold is currently held by professional freediver Aleix Segura Vendrell from Spain — an incredible 24 minutes and 3.45 seconds.

The first freediving school in the Philippines was established in diver’s haven Moalboal, Cebu, around the mid-2000s. Drawn to the warm, calm waters of Moalboal, the range of underwater attractions found offshore and the accessibility of resorts and dive centers in the area, internationally known freedivers would come to Moalboal to train.

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Freediving hotspots

    • Moalboal, Cebu. Swimming with the turtles and sardines off Panagsama Beach is an unforgettable experience. Freediving Planet (freediving-planet.com) offers lessons and even discovery courses.
    • Panglao, Bohol. Site of the Asian Freediving Cup for six years in a row (it happens June 9 to 11 this year) Panglao draws freedivers from all over the world.
    • Anilao, Batangas. This “macro photographer’s heaven”, as AIDA freediving instructor Carlo Navarro describes, is just a few hours’ drive from Metro Manila.

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While there are competitions like the Philippine Depth National Championship in May and the Asian Freediving Cup in June, freediving is surprisingly not for those who are seeking an adrenaline rush. “Freediving is really a boring sport,” jokes Carlo. It’s not about thrill-seeking, he adds; Carlo would rather talk about “the journey of most freedivers, [which is about] patience, mindfulness, determination, respect and acceptance of what your mind and body [are] capable of”.

Photo by Francisco Guerrero

As freedivers will explain, performing well in the sport means that one actually has to slow down in every aspect. “If you relax and let the water carry your whole weight, you will feel no tension whatsoever, like [being on] a soft cloud or a very comfortable bed,” says Tara Abrina, who is also a freediving instructor. “And so this feeling is what you carry when you are down there. Weightlessness, no tension, even when you are moving. No tension, not even on your eyebrows, not on the corners of your mouth, not even the ears. It’s [an experience] of absolute peace.”

As a marine researcher, Tara also uses freediving techniques to go out into the sea for field work. But beyond that, she says, “Freediving helps me connect with people I would not otherwise have anything in common with. It’s the language that is immediately relatable to people who live near the sea. I am drawn to it because I can share the ocean with others, regardless of background, through freediving.”

Cebu Pacific flies to Cebu, Manila and Bohol: cebupacificair.com

2. Ultimate

Invented in the United States in the ’60s, the sport known as ultimate, aka ultimate Frisbee, was once considered a hippy-dippy sport. But it has since gone mainstream — and may even become an Olympic sport in the near future.

In the Philippines, ultimate was introduced in the early noughties by expats and Filipinos who had played it abroad. “When we started, we were only four to six teams with about eighty players playing in the parks and in small recreational leagues,” recalls Pinggoy Bautista, an ultimate coach and former president of the Philippine Flying Disc Association (“flying disc” is the more accurate term for the gear used; Frisbee is, in fact, a trademarked name). “Now, ultimate is played in every major city and province in the Philippines and is played [at] the collegiate and high school level. Both on grass and beach, and at regional, national and world championship levels.” The Philippines even hosts two international tournaments annually, which sees players from abroad flying in to compete and just have a good time on our shores.

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Ultimate hotspots

    • Alabang, Muntinlupa. The Alabang Country Club plays host to major tournaments, including Manila Spirits, an international tournament that takes place annually in November.
    • Clark, Pampanga. The former air base about 100km north of Metro Manila has fields that are big enough to accommodate the huge number of players that participate in tournaments.
    • Boracay, Aklan. The island is the breeding ground of the world-famous Boracay Dragons, who never fail to impress at the world beach championships.


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Ultimate is played in a single-gender or mixed-gender format with seven players a side on grass; beach ultimate is played on sand with five players a side. The objective is to get the disc into the hands of a teammate at the end zone to score a point, all by passing the disc from player to player down the field. At the heart of this non-contact sport is what’s called the “Spirit of the Game”, which means it’s self-officiated and relies heavily on players’ good sportsmanship.

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Derek Ramsay, the Ultimate Dude

One of the most recognizable ambassadors of ultimate is actor Derek Ramsay, a 14-year veteran of the sport and one of the country’s top players — he’s represented the Philippines a number of times, in both grass and beach competitions.

“There are a lot of people in the community that have done a lot to help make ultimate grow in the Philippines, but ultimate seriously took a huge step forward when Derek started playing,” says former Philippine Flying Disc Association president Pinggoy Bautista.

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Interested in giving it a try? “There are pick-up games anywhere in the Philippines, usually at night in parks and anywhere where there is a soccer field. No real skills are needed. Just your willingness to learn to play, have fun and make new friends,” says Pinggoy. “It is a sport that gives you not only a good workout but a community of amazing people from all over the world.”

Cebu Pacific flies to Manila, Clark and Caticlan. cebupacificair.com

3. Stand-up paddleboarding

What do you get when you cross surfing with kayaking? Here comes stand-up paddleboarding, also known as SUP — a relatively new sport in the country that is gaining ground in places like Zambales, Boracay, Coron and Siargao.

The sport involves finding your balance as you stand on a board and using one long paddle to cruise around waterways. While it can be competitive, it is currently more of a leisurely pursuit, offering a unique way to go sightseeing. Unlike surfing, it doesn’t require specific water conditions and can be done year-round on practically any body of water, be it ocean, river or lake.

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Stand-up paddle boarding essentials:

  • A trustworthy tour organizer. “Newbies should just try out a tour from a reputable company,” says Michi Calica-Sotto, owner of SUP Central Tours. A certified paddleboarding instructor can orient you on the basics, including safety precautions.
  • The right gear. “It is easy enough to rent a board. Once you feel it is something you want to do more often, [then] all you have to do is buy a board and a paddle and you are set!” says Angel Griffin, who organized the 1st Philippine Deep Paddle Games in Siargao.
  • Balance! All you really need to learn is how to maintain your balance and paddle (the abs may or may not come later).
  • A SUP buddy. It’s tempting to spend some me-time out at sea but it’s always safer to paddle with a partner.

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“It’s an effective full-body workout that is a no-impact sport. I managed to lose about twenty pounds doing it regularly,” says Michi Calica-Sotto, an Academy of Surfing Instructors-certified instructor and owner of SUP Central Tours. She also describes SUP as a “meditative sport” — imagine paddling on tranquil waters past rock formations, and it’s easy to understand how the experience can be Zen-like.

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Stand-up paddle boarding hotspots:

    • Coron, Palawan. Cruise through Coron’s peaceful mangrove forests and marvel at the area’s awe-inspiring limestone cliffs.
    • Lake Caliraya, Laguna. Spot different bird species and get a sneak peek at the vacation houses surrounding the lake’s placid waters.
    • Lian, Batangas. Push off from a raft parked by the Matabungkay Beach Hotel, and enjoy its scenic and expansive 3km coastline.
    • Siargao, Surigao del Norte. “It’s gaining popularity since not all tourists crave the adrenaline rush from surfing,” explains Siargao resident Angel Griffin.

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Prefer something a little more competitive? The 2nd Philippine Deep Paddle Games will be held in Siargao in June. The two-day event will feature sprint races and distance races, designed for both experienced paddlers and noobs.

Cebu Pacific flies to Manila, Coron and Siargao. cebupacificair.com

4. Mountain running

Mountain running
Photo by Harry Tanoja

If you’ve ever had the urge to just run away and leave everything behind, with nothing but the shirt on your back to go “see the world” — well, at least for a day — then mountain running might be the sport for you.

Read more:

“It is a great way to see the mountains; wild spaces,” says JP Alipio, who organizes the Cordillera Mountain Ultra, a local mountain race. “Mountain running began to appeal to me when I found that I could go across vast distances unencumbered, often with just a water bottle and a nutrition bar. It is as close to being a wild animal as a human can get with just your shoes between you and the ground and your thin clothes to separate you from the elements.”

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Mountain running essentials:

    • Endurance. You’ll be running long distances on hilly terrain, so you’ll need a strong set of lungs.
    • Climbing and descending skills. “Climbing skills and descending skills are extremely important. It takes years to really build [them] and I now see a lot of runners doing too much too soon,” says experienced mountain runner JP Alipio.
    • A body that runs like a well-oiled machine. “You need to train your gut to be able to eat a variety of food, plus [to be] better [at] fat-burning for long days out,” says JP.
    • Training. Partner up with a coach and learn the basics of trail running then start off with 10km or 21km trail runs.

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Those who love running in nature but not the competitiveness of races tend to gravitate towards mountain running. “Very few runners care about how fast they go. It is all about the travel and experience in the mountains,” says JP. “Sometimes if you go too fast, you will miss the best views or the best light.” When it comes to this sport, it’s truly about the journey and not the destination.

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3 mountain running events you can join with scenic locales

    • Cordillera Mountain Ultra. This event lets you run through pine-tree-lined routes via a 50km ultramarathon, a 21km mountain run, a 10km trail run or a 3km kiddie trail.
    • Rizal Mountain Run. Taking place in San Mateo, Rizal, the full 50km loop traverses dirt roads, fire trails, river crossings and five peaks.
    • Tawid Mountain Marathon. Scheduled for June 8 and 9, 2019, this event will have runners gasping… over the rugged beauty of Bontoc, Mountain Province.

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5. Mountain biking

Mountain biking
Photo by Bill Freeman / Alamy

Biking has really taken off in the country in recent years, but for the uninitiated, it may seem overwhelming — there are so many different types of bikes and events that it’s hard to know where to start. The experts break down the basics, beginning with mountain bikes and road bikes.

“The easiest comparison would be that mountain bikes are similar to 4×4 vehicles and road bikes are our usual sedans or sports cars. As the name implies, mountain biking is done off-road, in steeper, rougher and technical terrain,” says King Bernas, an avid cyclist who has organized several races in the past.

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Intimidated by mountain biking? Then perhaps you can start with bikepacking. Pamela Angeles and Pattoys Miranda, the owners of Bikeary Bicycle Lifestyle (fb.com/bikeary), give us the basics:

    • What is bikepacking? “For us it means spending more than a day on your bike going through or around a certain route. Bike tours as a business aren’t common around the Philippines, but BamBike, for example, conducts bike tours in Intramuros.”—Pam
    • What kind of bikes are used? “Any bike can be a touring bike, as long as you are able to carry your things. Ideally, it has to be one that you can rely on. You are able to mount bags or racks onto it. It’s much [more] comfortable to keep your bags away from your body.”—Patoys
    • Any suggestions for newbies? “Try to bike within an enclosed or semi-controlled place, like Intramuros, the University of the Philippines [or] Nuvali. One can also join groups [to] practice biking [on] open roads. There is strength in numbers, so when you ride with a group, other motorists are able to spot you easily.” —Pam

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Jong Narciso, a race director behind numerous mountain biking events and a former PhilCycling commissar, adds, “It is easier for someone new to biking to gravitate first to mountain bikes as they are cheaper than road bikes, but more [than that], it is easier to ride a mountain bike compared to a
road bike.”

The popularity of mountain biking has led to the development of trails in such places as Timberland Heights in San Mateo, Rizal, and La Mesa Watershed Reservation in Novaliches. There are also great trails in Baguio, La Trinidad, Tagaytay, Tarlac, Dumaguete, Cagayan de Oro and Bukidnon, to name a few. Aside from having mountain bike trails scattered across the country, the Philippines also hosts some big biking events, such as the recently concluded 7-Eleven Trail 2019, which had nearly 3,000 participants. We’ve also hosted events for our ASEAN neighbors.

Jong’s tip for those who are just starting out: Choose a trail that’s relatively flat. “The La Mesa dam eco-trails are good beginner’s trails,” he says.

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Hit the trails with Ariana Dormitorio

It might seem easy to chalk up national team member Ariana Dormitorio’s popularity to her looks — the fresh-faced 22-year-old is the poster girl for a tuna brand, after all. But behind that charming smile is a real beast on the trails. The Iloilo native picked up mountain biking as a hobby when she was just 11 years old, and has since racked up gold medals and trophies left and right. One of her highlights: Being the first Filipino woman to take home a gold medal at the Asian Mountain Bike Championships in Cebu in 2018, and being only the second Philippine representative to do so since 1997. Ariana’s ultimate goal: to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. With each win, she gets one step closer to fulfilling her Olympic dream.

Cebu Pacific flies to Manila from across the network. cebupacificair.com

This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

Tisha Alvarez

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