Recently returning from a seven-week trip to Luzon, the British Universities Kayak Expedition (BUKE) team report on their findings and share a few tips for anyone curious how to get amongst Philippine stouts …

Firstly, the Philippines is home to amazing whitewater. Not only are the rivers mostly free of portages and have clean lines, the water is warm and people are very friendly.

Pimped rides

If you can imagine it, there’s probably a decal of it on a Jeepney somewhere in the Philippines. Jeepneys are the equivalent of public buses out here and hiring one with a driver makes for the perfect wagon to get to rivers. We travelled with seven kayaks and seven people’s kit through some exceptionally rough terrain and the only suffered a handful of flat tyres.

The team assembled on our Jeepney at Bontoc. Ideal river access here!

No language barrier, no problem

English is so widely spoken that we were able to communicate with even the oldest generation in the most remote villages.

You might attract a crowd every now and again. Ikmin river, Abra.

Complimentary floor space

It appeared to be protocol in Luzon that if you are a visitor to a remote Barangay (small community), you can be permitted to sleep in the Barangay hall (village hall) that night. This meant we very rarely had to stay in private accommodation.

Some of the team with a few members of the Naguey Barangay, Amburayan river, Benguet.

When you arrive in a new Barangay, ask to speak to the Barangay Captain about the possibility of sleeping on the floor of the Barangay hall. It is more than likely you’ll be provided with a roof over your heads as well as access to a bathroom and running water.

Gareth and Lauren on the village walking to the Upper Tanudan

Adobo for days

Philippine dining suited the dirtbag kayaker lifestyle very well. Eating out at small roadside eateries was only marginally more expensive than cooking for yourself and you could normally get a dish of Adobo (meat cooked in soy and vinegar) and rice for sixty pesos (£0.90). Pancit (noodles) was frequently available too, but rice provided the bulk to most meals.

Fried and roasted chicken also proved popular with the team and was ‘bird flu free’ – result!

The rivers

One of the many sick boofs on the Utip river, Abra.

Steep, pool drop boulder gardens in stunning gorges are a Philippine whitewater staple. Over our seven-week trip we paddled sections from grade 2/3 to solid 5, the majority of it being really fun and clean grade 4! But don’t forget the rules…

Rule #1 of kayak the Philippines: everything is a gorge.
Rule #2: see rule #1!

A regular sight on Philippine rivers, getting out ain’t gonna be easy! Luckily we had limited carnage on the trip.

The topography of Luzon means almost every river is in a gorge, they are very committing runs not to be taken too lightly. Carnage on these rivers could easily have serious consequences. Slot canyons are also plentiful, so make sure you’ve scoped out the river fully on satellite before blasting down!

Adam and Jiri on the Ikmin, Abra.

Just because its roadside doesn’t mean you can get to the road.

Even when a river appears to have roadside access, we began to call this ‘relative roadside access’. For example, on the Upper Agno the road looks to be right next to the river, and yes, it is, but what we found was one of the steepest sided gorges we’ve paddled with very infrequent access to the road.

Erik dropping into a steep boulder garden on the Upper Agno, Benguet.

What we want to emphasise it that just because a road looks near a river, it doesn’t mean it’s accessible and shouldn’t be relied on for an emergency get-out. That said, we only had one big (3 hours) walk-in in the whole seven-week trip. Ingress and egress were almost always simple with the frequency of river quarries and river-side settlements.

Gareth, Upper Tanudan, Mountain Province.

Day sections

Everything we paddled was made up of day sections. We were all keen to do multi-day paddling but we learnt that Luzon is not especially suitable. First, it would be difficult to find a sleeping spot, even with hammocks, as the jungle terrain is so dense and steep. Secondly, it is a very populated island. There were only a handful of sections where we really felt remote and away from local people. Usually, there would be a hanging bridge every few kilometers which means there is a path to a nearby settlement.

Erik on the Pasdong gorge main event. Amburayan River, Benguet.

As accommodation was available in most Barangays there was never the need to spend multiple days on the river – you could just sleep in a village and start paddling again the next day at no real cost. Sections on long rivers such as the Chico could, however, be combined into multi-days if you so wished.

Lauren boofing a sticky hole, Ikmin River, Abra.


Google Earth is also a great tool for finding access to and from a river. If you can see a track from the imagery, there is a good chance it will be navigable by Jeepney. However, during rainy season landslides are common and many tracks get washed away. Always ask local Jeepney drivers what the current road situation is to save you driving all the way up a valley only to find a landslide near the end that means you have to turn back.

A (very) recent landslide in Ifugao province. Debris was still falling as we pulled up.

Generally bigger roads have diggers come in to help clear landslides, but on smaller roads it takes however long for the local people to clear it with their hands and spades.

Getting on the media game at the last rapid on the Upper Agno.

More to see

There’s still plenty to be done in Luzon if you don’t mind a canyon adventure, or have a drone to assist in scouting! The biggest promise for new whitewater in the Philippines lies in the southern, large island of Mindanao. Currently the conflict there is too intense to travel there, but I’m sure some fantastic rivers will be uncovered there in the next ten years.

Peter on the Upper Agno.

Back in the UK, we are preparing a video series to further document the whitewater we found. The first episode is up over on our Facebook page and keep an eye out over the next few weeks for the rest of the series. In the meantime, we have published river notes on our website if you are interested in more details about individual river sections, and of course more photos! We made many useful contacts throughout the course of the trip, don’t hesitate to ask us if you want more information.

Jeepney life on the road.

A big shout out has to go to Palm Equipment for helping us out with some great kit to keep us afloat, safe and stylish. Also thanks to Radical Rider, VE Paddles, River Legacy, Alp Kit, and Dewerstone.