In Search of Karst Landscapes

Karst is a type of landscape formed by the weathering of rocks, typically limestone, resulting in pronounced, often dramatic topographical features such as caves, underground streams, sinkholes, cliffs and steep-sided towers. We were surprised to find out that karst landscapes cover about 10% of the country’s land mass.

karst landscape at El Nido, Palawan
The karst landscape of El Nido, northern Palawan. Photo by Karl Paul Baldacchino from Unsplash.

Cone karsts and tower karsts can often be found in tropical zones including the Philippines. Some of these landscapes have become popular scenic spots such as the Chocolate Hills in Bohol, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, El Nido and Coron in Palawan, Cagayan’s Callao Cave and the Calbiga Cave in Samar, the largest karst formation in the country and one of the biggest in Asia. Here are some of the karst landscapes we’ve visited over the years.

karst landscape of various islands in Bacuit Bay, El Nido
Top: Big Lagoon (upper left) and Small Lagoon (lower right), Miniloc Island, El Nido. Photo by Jules BSS from Unsplash. Center Left: Matinloc Island. Center Right: Shimizu Island. Bottom: At the entrance to the Small Lagoon.

El Nido in Palawan is the foremost location that comes to mind when we talk about karst landscapes. Karst towers may be found in El Nido town and on the islands at Bacuit Bay, just off the town itself. Many of these karst formations contain hidden or partially concealed lagoons and, in the case of Matinloc Island, a white sand beach concealed by surrounding karst cliffs and only accessible by swimming through a small opening among the karst walls.

various karst formations at Coron Island, Calamian Islands, northern Palawan
Top and Center left: karst towers at Coron Island, Palawan, seen on the boat ride to the Twin Lagoons. Center right: the poster boy for Coron – karst towers at the entrance to Kayangan Lake. Photo by David Kohler from Unsplash. Bottom: karst cliffs at the outer lagoon of the Twin Lagoons.

Almost as popular as El Nido, Coron, also in Palawan, features several karst cliffs as well as lagoons and inland lakes formed by these towering limestone rock formations. Most of these are situated in Coron Island but there are other examples – not so well-known – that are sprinkled among the Calamian Islands including Black Island (Malajon Island) off the western side of Busuanga and the Nanga Islands and Dumunpalit Island off Busuanga’s northern shores. The latter islands with their karst towers and immaculate white sand beaches are just as beautiful as their more popular cousins in Coron but are still waiting to be discovered.

karst topography at the islands off Libjo and Basilisa, Dinagat
One could easily mistake Dinagat’s topography for El Nido or Coron. Upper left: at the Blue Lagoon, Pangabangan Island, Libjo, Dinagat. Upper right: karst outcrops at Punta Villa Beach Resort, Libjo. Center right: karst cliffs at Babas Cove, Basilisa. Bottom: Pangabangan Island.

With a topography one could easily mistake for that of El Nido or Coron, the enigmatic island province of Dinagat is next on this list. Karst cliffs and walls may be found in the towns of Basilisa and Libjo and the islands lying just offshore along with the occasional lagoon and an underwater cave that leads to the sea (Lake Bababu).

karst landscape of islands in the Caramoan Peninsula
The karst landscape of islands in the Caramoan Peninsula. Top: Matukad Island. Center left: Lahos Island. Center right: karst tower at the waters off Gota Beach. Bottom: Sabitang Laya.

Largely unknown because of its relative inaccessibility decades ago, the Caramoan Peninsula in Camarines Sur burst into the tourism radar in 2008 when the French version of the TV series Survivor featured the place. The islands offshore feature a collection of karst islets, limestone cliffs and karst towers that had us wishing we had stayed longer when we visited this place back in 2010.

karst landscape at Monreal, Ticao Island, Masbate
Monreal’s karst landscape. Top: karst cliffs off the western coast of Monreal. Center left and bottom: Halea Nature Park. Center right: the Guinhadap Rocks.

Sitting on the northern part of Masbate’s Ticao Island, Monreal town is home to Halea Naure Park and its karst landscape collection. On the way to Halea along the western and northern coasts of the town are several karst formations with a number of white sand coves. The latter obviously has a lot of tourism potential still waiting to be tapped.

karst landscape of Gigantes Sur island in Carles, Iloilo
Top left and upper right: karst cliffs on the way to Tangke Saltwater Lagoon, Gigantes Sur, Carles, Iloilo. Center left and bottom: karst rocks at Antonia Beach, Gigantes Sur.

Named by Spanish colonizers after a local legend about the discovery of gigantic human bones in one of the islands’ caves, the Gigantes Islands in Carles, Iloilo showcases towering karst formations in its two main islands: Gigantes Norte and Gigantes Sur, as well as a sprinkling of karst rocks in the smaller islands in the area.

karst landscape at Sagada, Mountain Province
Karst cliffs in Sagada provide a resting place for its dead (bottom).

Karst topography is not restricted to the country’s coastal areas and islands. Deep in the mountainous country of northern Luzon are several karst landscapes, the most famous of which is Sagada in the Mountain Province. There’s a unique twist to this town’s topography. The numerous karst cliffs around the town center makes for a perfect location for Sagada’s famous hanging coffins, a tradition in existence for the past 2,000 years.

karst outcrops of the Hundred Islands National Park in Alaminos, Pangasinan
Top left: rock outcrops near Quezon Island, Hundred Islands National Park, Alaminos, Pangasinan. Top right: Governors Island. Bottom: some of the numerous rock outcrops at the Hundred Islands National Park.

The 123 karst islets of the Hundred Islands National Park in Pangasinan was one of the famous island destinations in the country decades ago. Because hordes of tourist would descend on them, the islets became unkempt and many of the corals died. Fortunately, the Hundred Islands recovered in the past 20 years and the corals have since made a comeback.

karst formations at Borawan, Pagbilao Chica Island, Pagbilao, Quezon
Borawan Island Resort in Padre Burgos, Quezon province.

Karst landscapes seem to make surprise appearances in parts of the country where we least expected them. That is until we learned that they make up 10% of the country’s topography. Such was our discovery of the karst landscape in Borawan Island Resort in Pagbilao Chica Island in Padre Burgos town, Quezon province. Largely unknown when we first visited it 11 years ago, it soon became popular with local travelers which we realized on a second visit to this destination 5 years later.

Chocolate Hills, Carmen, Bohol
The Chocolate Hills of Carmen, Bohol.

The Chocolate Hills in Bohol have long been a popular destination but we didn’t realize those mounds were actually cone karsts until very recently. The vast collection of symmetrical, conical mounds of grass-carpeted limestone (1,268 of them as some say and as many as 1,776) had already turned yellow when we visited 3 years ago. They would turn to brown at the height of the hot and dry season, giving them a resemblance to chocolate Kisses, hence the name.

limestone outcrops at Mongpong Island, Sta. Cruz, Marinduque
Karst rocks on Mongpong Island in Santa Cruz, Marinduque.
limestone rocks at high tide, Natago Beach, Guimaras
Karst islets at Nagtago Beach during high tide, Jordan, Guimaras.

There are many more karst landscape destinations scattered throughout the Philippines including the two above in the provinces of Marinduque and Guimaras. As Leo continues to recover and as we look forward to more travel in the weeks and months to come here’s hoping that we get to visit more karst landscape destinations.

4 thoughts on “In Search of Karst Landscapes

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  1. Very informative! A lot in this post is actually new to me since most of us would outright think of Coron or El Nido whenever karst formations is in topic. Thank you for sharing to us your karst discoveries.

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