Many might know Isabela as the “corn capital” of the country thanks to its expansive farmlands, but the second largest province in the Philippines in terms of land area is also home to a portion of the mountainous and heavily-forested Sierra Madre.
At the foothills of this mountain range in the province’s capital, Ilagan City, is a retreat that can easily be a go-to for tourists seeking nature and adventure in one trip—ILAGAN Sanctuary.
Part of the 819-hectare Fuyot Springs National Park, a protected area, the 200-hectare reserve park made accessible to the public has always been, as its name implies, a sanctuary even for locals.
“Noong bata ako, talagang virgin forest ang lugar na ‘to,” shares Raquel Cepeda, an Ilagan local and a tour guide of seven years. “Sinimulang i-develop ang area bilang atraksyon noong 2004. Eventually, sa dami ng naging projects, gumanda ang lugar at dumami ang mga turistang pumupunta noong 2009.”
Almost 20 years after the first development efforts, ILAGAN Sanctuary now offers almost every ecotourism activity imaginable. As Cepeda likes to put it, “all in one dito.”
As guests enter the place, they can immediately try wall climbing and rappelling (Php100) on a 50-feet constructed wall. That’s as high as a three-story building.
Further up, a cable car (Php100) takes up to 4 guests to a nearby high hill with a viewing deck. Going back, they can choose to stay in the cable car or try one of ILAGAN Sanctuary’s star attractions—zipline (Php100).
This 350-meter long, 700-feet high zipline is currently the fastest in the Philippines, according to Cepeda. The ride, complete with a harness and helmet, takes less than a minute and ends just a few meters above the ground.
After a thrilling start, guests can go on a tree top adventure. Here, they can walk on a hanging bridge with seven stations featuring endemic tree species. This leads to the Main Cave of the Santa Victoria Caves. The nearby Adventure Cave, Moon Cave, and Altar Cave, as well as an aviary full of different species of birds, are also open for exploration.
Deeper into the sanctuary is a zoo aptly called Animal Kingdom where guests can see a variety of animals like tiger, wild boar, monkeys, and crocodiles. There’s even a 120-kilogram reticulated python that can be caressed or carried along with 10 or more people.
Horseback riding is also available, whether for picture taking (Php10/person), or riding within the horse trail (Php20/round), within the sanctuary (Php150/round), and going to the falls (Php250).
At the edge of the park, there’s a clearing for visitors who want to try driving an ATV (Php250/30 minutes) or riding a bike (Php100/hour).
A trail is also open for guests to go on a 1.5-kilometer or half an hour hike with the assistance of a tour guide to Pinzal Falls. According to Cepeda, hikers can spend the rest of the day here to picnic or simply enjoy being surrounded by nature’s beauty.
While there are concrete steps and handrails along the way, a stream must be crossed at one point so it’s recommended to wear appropriate footwear.
After that, guests can cool down in a pool and swim for as long as they want.
“Ang pool dito is running water kasi galing sa loob ng cave yung tubig,” Cepeda explains. “Walang chlorine. Natural talaga. Safe ang mga bisita kahit mainom nila ang tubig.”
Visitors can also try kayaking (Php100/30 minutes), and riding a bumper boat (Php100/10 minutes) and swan boat (Php200/30 minutes) in a man-made lake nearby. For kids, a paddle boat (Php50/30 minutes) can be rented.
With an entrance fee of Php100—for Ilagan locals, Php75—visitors can already enjoy most activities in the sanctuary.
For those who have specific activity preferences, though, affordable packages are available.
Package A (Php800) allows access to all rides, while Package B’s (Php450) inclusions are for the thrill-seekers: cable car, zipline, rappelling, wall climbing, and treetop adventure.
Meanwhile, Package C (Php300) grants access to the sanctuary’s water activities: bumper boat, kayaking, kid-friendly paddle boat, swan boat, water ball, and zord ball.
Other outdoor adventures like biking, horseback riding, and all terrain vehicles are part of Package D (Php300).
There’s no need to worry about getting from one point to another within the sanctuary. An adorable red train can take guests to and from wherever they want to go.
When guests get tired of activities, they can choose to take breaks in any of the cottages available.
For families or groups on a budget, a Native Kubo (Php1,000/night) should suffice. It’s a small space, which explains the use of a common comfort room. Nevertheless, it can accommodate up to four people.
Visitors can also choose accommodations based on their chosen tour packages. The Couple’s Cottage – Duplex Type (Php2,500/night per room), for instance, is situated near the adventure activity areas. Each airconditioned room comes with its own living room and bathroom and can accommodate a pair or up to eight people
The Family Cottage-Duplex Dorm Type (Php3,500/night per room), meanwhile, works for families or groups who come to Ilagan Sanctuary specifically for the water activities. Here, the air conditioned rooms have a living room, bathroom, wash area, and kitchen. It’s spacious enough to house 15 people, too.
For even larger groups, however, the Administration Building (Php5,000/day) which has two air conditioned rooms, each with living room, toilet, and bathroom, can accommodate up to 50 people.
Regular check-in is 8 AM to 12 NN, while check out is 12 NN the next day. Extended stays (Php100/ additional hour) are allowed, along with bringing cooking utensils, beddings, and toiletries.
ILAGAN Sanctuary, with its serene views and peaceful surroundings, makes it a fitting location for places of worship, hence, the presence of a church for Catholics, a mosque for Muslims, and a temple for Chinese Buddhists in what is called the Prayer Mountain.
Recognizing diversity because “iba-iba ang mga residente ng Ilagan,” according to Cepeda, gave way to the construction of such structures.
Pre-pandemic, the tour guide adds that the place is frequented during Holy Week, where visitors go through all 14 Stations of the Cross and remember the passion of Jesus Christ, from being condemned to his entombment.
At the top of the hill, meanwhile, a giant cross awaits visitors, along with a panoramic view of the province’s famous corn fields and distant mountains.
Keeping it clean
As an Ilagan local, Cepeda, the leader of ILAGAN Sanctuary’s tour guides, takes pride in their city’s ecotourism attraction, so much so that they assist tourists as volunteers.
“Ang nangyayari ay kaming mga tour guides ang bahala sa guests pagdating nila at pagkatapos ng lahat, ‘yung mga guests naman ang bahala sa amin. Ang bayad sa amin ay kung magkano ang tip ng mga turista,” she says. “Bokasyon ito para sa akin, kahit wala kaming fixed na sahod. Masaya na ako kapag napapasaya ko ang mga bisita.”
The 41-year-old Department of Tourism-accredited guide is also particular about briefing visitors not only about the fun activities that await them, but also about cleanliness. All of the sanctuary’s 54 employees share the responsibility of maintaining the area’s best possible natural state, from the Prayer Mountain to the cottages.
“Sinasabihan po namin sila na bawal po magkalat, especially plastic waste na pinagkainan,” she says. “Strictly ‘garbage in, garbage out’ dito.”
How to get there
To get to ILAGAN Sanctuary, ride a Cauayan City-bound bus along Cubao or Buendia. Isabela’s capital is 400 kilometers away from Metro Manila, so land trips are typically 9-10 hours long. For faster travel time, book a one-hour flight to Cauayan airport.
From there, Cepeda suggests renting a car to go to Ilagan City in Isabela, which is an hour away. ILAGAN Sanctuary is another 20-minute drive away from the city proper’s famous Big Butaka, the current holder of the Guinness Book of World Record for the biggest armchair in the world. As an alternative, tricycle drivers agree to take visitors from the city center to the sanctuary for Php150-300.
Make sure to contact and book a visit via the City of Ilagan Tourist Information and Assistance Center ahead of time before heading to ILAGAN Sanctuary.
Download the Traze app and bring a vaccination card, too, as these are requirements in any airport terminal and when entering Isabela, respectively.
Outsource the Planning
For a seamless trip, you may leave the planning to DOT’s accredited tour operator in Isabela:
For Department of Tourism-accredited accommodations, visit the official Cagayan Valley Tourism website, region2fun.ph.
All tourist destinations in Isabela have health and safety protocols in place to protect locals and visitors alike. Everyone is expected to comply by wearing face masks, regularly washing their hands, and practicing physical distancing.
To check out up-to-date information regarding local destinations that are open and the safety protocols and requirements needed for each location, you may visit www.philippines.travel/safetrip or download the Travel Philippines app at app.philippines.travel or the Google Playstore.