The Philippines is an archipelagic country located in Southeast Asia, situated in the western Pacific Ocean. It is made up of more than 7,100 islands and islets, located approximately 500 miles (800 km) off the coast of Vietnam. The largest island is Luzon, where the capital city of Manila is located, but the most populous city is Quezon City, which is also part of the National Capital Region (Metro Manila). The second largest island in the Philippines is Mindanao, situated in the southeast region.
The Philippines derives its name from Philip II, who was the king of Spain during the 16th-century colonization of the islands. Having been under Spanish rule for 333 years and then under U.S. tutelage for another 48 years, the country has developed many cultural ties with the West. It is the second most populous country in Asia with English as an official language, and one of only two predominantly Roman Catholic countries in the region, the other being East Timor. Despite the presence of Anglo-European cultural traits, the people of the Philippines maintain a strong Asian identity and consciousness. They aspire to develop their country in line with their own cultural heritage and aspirations.
In the latter part of the 20th century, the Philippines experienced political upheaval. After more than a decade of authoritarian rule under President Ferdinand Marcos, the People Power movement emerged as a broadly popular uprising in 1986, leading to the peaceful ouster and exile of Marcos and the restoration of democratic government.
Contemporary Filipinos still face many challenges, including extreme wealth inequality and poverty, despite the country’s abundant resources and potential for strong industrial growth. Although there was rapid industrial expansion during the late 20th century, it also contributed to severe environmental degradation. The Philippines has also become a regional leader in education with a well-established public school and university system, boasting one of the highest literacy rates in Asia.
Geographically, the Philippine archipelago is situated between the Philippine Sea to the east, Celebes Sea to the south, Sulu Sea to the southwest, and South China Sea to the west and north. The islands are shaped like a triangle, with Palawan, the Sulu Archipelago, and Mindanao outlining the southern base from west to east, respectively, and the Batan Islands forming the northern apex of Luzon. The archipelago is approximately 1,150 miles (1,850 km) from north to south and 700 miles (1,130 km) from east to west at its southern base. Historically, the total number of islands was estimated at 7,107, but in 2016, more than 500 uncharted islands were discovered by the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority of the Philippines. Only about two-fifths of the islands have names, and some 350 have areas of 1 square mile (2.6 square km) or more. The archipelago’s major islands fall into three groups: the Luzon group in the north and west, the Visayas group in the centre, and Mindanao in the south.
The Philippines has an irregular and diverse landscape, with a coastline stretching about 22,550 miles (36,290 km) and extensive mountainous terrain. The coastal plains are narrow and frequently interrupted, and the country’s river systems generally flow northward. The Philippines also boasts several stunning lakes. The islands are mainly composed of volcanic rock and coral, but they feature all major rock formations. The mountain ranges mostly follow the same direction as the islands, running approximately from north to south.
The Cordillera Central is the most prominent mountain range in Luzon, running north to the Luzon Strait from the northern boundary of the central plain. It consists of two to three parallel ranges, with an average elevation of around 5,900 feet (1,800 meters). The Sierra Madre is the longest mountain range in the Philippines, extending along the Pacific coast from northern to central Luzon. It merges with the Cordillera Central in north-central Luzon to form the Caraballo Mountains. Between the two ranges is the fertile Cagayan Valley. The Ilocos or Malayan range lies close along the west coast of northern Luzon and rises to elevations above 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) in places. It is largely volcanic. The Zambales Mountains, consisting of isolated old volcanic stocks, are located in the southwestern part of northern Luzon and are known for their rugged terrain.
The Philippines has a diverse range of physical features across its many islands. Luzon, the largest island, contains the Cordillera Central, which is the most prominent mountain range in the country. It extends from the northern boundary of the central plain, running north to the Luzon Strait, and consists of two to three parallel ranges with an average elevation of about 5,900 feet (1,800 meters). The Sierra Madre, the longest mountain range in the Philippines, runs along the Pacific coast from northern to central Luzon. The Caraballo Mountains are formed where the Cordillera Central and Sierra Madre merge in north-central Luzon. The narrow Ilocos range, consisting mainly of volcanic rock, lies close along the west coast of northern Luzon. The Zambales Mountains, in the southwestern part of northern Luzon, are rugged and made up of isolated old volcanic stocks.
Most of the central plain of Luzon is only about 100 feet (30 meters) above sea level, and the greater part of southern Luzon is occupied by isolated volcanoes and irregular masses of hills and mountains. The highest peak in the Philippines is Mayon Volcano, located near the city of Legaspi in Albay province on the Bicol Peninsula in the southeast of Luzon.
Palawan, one of the larger islands, has a range extending through it with an average elevation of 4,000 to 5,000 feet (1,200 to 1,500 meters). Each of the Visayan Islands, except Samar and Bohol, is traversed longitudinally by a single range with occasional spurs. Mount Canlaon, located on Negros, rises to 8,086 feet (2,465 meters), and several peaks on Panay and Negros reach a height of 6,000 feet (1,800 meters) or more.
Mindanao, the second-largest island, has several important ranges, including the Diuata Mountains along the eastern coast and a range that stretches from the center of the island southward. The Butig Mountains trend northwestward from the northeastern edge of the Moro Gulf, and a range runs northwest-southeast along the southwestern coast. Mount Apo, located near Mindanao’s south-central coast, is the highest peak in the Philippines at 9,692 feet (2,954 meters). A number of volcanic peaks surround Lake Sultan Alonto (Lake Lanao), and a low cordillera extends through the Zamboanga Peninsula in the far west.
Although the Philippines is known for its volcanoes, there is relatively little volcanic activity. There are about 50 volcanoes in total, with more than 10 known to be active. Mount Pinatubo, located on Luzon and once considered extinct, was the site of one of the world’s largest volcanic eruptions of the 20th century in 1991. The landscape features a range of volcano shapes, from the almost perfect cone of Mayon to old, worn-down volcanic stocks. The distinct volcanic areas are located in south-central and southern Luzon and on the islands of Negros, Mindanao, Jolo, and elsewhere. Earthquakes and tremors are common in the Philippines.
The major rivers in the Philippines include the Cagayan, Agno, Pampanga, Pasig, and Bicol on Luzon, and the Mindanao (Río Grande de Mindanao) and Agusan on Mindanao. The Cagayan River drains the northern plain between the Sierra Madre and the Cordillera Central, while the Agno and Pampanga rivers drain the central plain in the north and south, respectively. The Pasig River flows through the city of Manila, but it is no longer navigable due to heavy pollution. Most of the Bicol Peninsula lies within the Bicol River basin. On Mindanao, the Agusan River drains the northeastern quadrant, while the Mindanao River drains the Cotabato Valley in the southwest.
One of the most unique waterways in the Philippines is the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park on the island of Palawan. The river flows underground and emerges directly into the ocean, making it a remarkable natural wonder. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999.
The largest lake in the Philippines, covering an area of 356 square miles (922 square km), is Laguna de Bay on the island of Luzon. Taal Lake, also on Luzon and just southwest of Laguna de Bay, occupies 94 square miles (244 square km) inside a volcanic crater, with a volcanic cone emerging from the lake’s center. On Mindanao, Lake Sultan Alonto is the country’s second-largest lake, covering an area of 131 square miles (340 square km).
The Philippines has a tropical and strongly monsoonal climate, characterized by wet and dry seasons. Rain-bearing winds generally blow from the southwest between May and October, while drier winds come from the northeast from November to February. This results in relatively constant temperatures throughout the year from north to south. However, there are significant variations in the frequency and amount of precipitation across the country.
The western shores facing the South China Sea have the most pronounced dry and wet seasons. The dry season typically starts in December and lasts until May, with the first three months being cooler and the second three being hotter. The rest of the year is considered the wet season. The dry season becomes progressively shorter towards the east until it disappears.
During the wet season, heavy rainfall occurs in all parts of the archipelago except for an area that extends southward through the centre of the Visayan group to central Mindanao and then southwestward through the Sulu Archipelago. Rainfall is heaviest along the eastern shores facing the Pacific Ocean.
From June to December, the Philippines is often struck by tropical cyclones, known as typhoons. Most of these storms come from the southeast, and their frequency generally increases from south to north. In some years, the number of cyclones reaches 25 or more. Typhoons are heaviest in Samar, Leyte, south-central Luzon, and the Batan Islands. When accompanied by floods or high winds, they may cause great loss of life and property. Mindanao is generally free from such storms.
The period from November through February constitutes the most agreeable season in the Philippines. The air is cool and invigorating at night, and the days are pleasant and sunny. During the hot part of the dry season in most places, especially in the cities of Cebu, Davao, and Manila, the temperature sometimes rises as high as 100 °F (38 °C). However, overall temperatures decline with elevation. Cities and towns located at higher elevations, such as Baguio in northern Luzon, Majayjay and Lucban south of Manila, and Malaybalay in central Mindanao, experience a pleasant climate throughout the year. At times, the temperature in those places dips close to 40 °F (4 °C).