The World Heritage Convention defines types of natural, cultural, or mixed properties that may be inscribed on the World Heritage List. Natural properties are sites of intense beauty that maintain the environmental balance of a region or of the world, or sites that show a unique geological origin that was made from the formation of the earth. Cultural properties are man-made and demonstrate the highest achievements of human thought and creativity. There are also mixed properties, called "cultural landscapes" on the World Heritage List, that combine outstanding natural and cultural values resulting from constant interaction between people and the natural environment.
All the properties in the World Heritage List represent milestones in the development of life in the universe. Natural properties record stages in the evolution of the world. Cultural heritage records the progression of man’s ideas in terms of the built environment. Cultural landscapes demonstrate how the hand of man can coexist with and enhance its natural surroundings. Properties on the World Heritage List are the shared patrimony of the world.
The country’s first inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1993 was the Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park in Palawan, a distinction so appropriate for an island nation that traditionally looks towards the sea as a life-giving force, the traditional center of people’s lives.
UNESCO recognized the site primarily for its importance to regional diversity, an outstanding distinction for the marine diversity known to exist in the Philippines. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee cited Tubbataha Reef as one of the most outstanding coral reefs in Southeast Asia, noting that in the 33,200 hectares of the Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park lies an atoll reef with a very high density of marine species, a phenomenon unique in the world and a site of irreplaceable universal value.
"Tubbataha" derives from two Samal words meaning “a long reef exposed only at low tide.” Tubbataha Reef, the only national marine park in the Philippines, is an underwater site consisting of two coral atolls with a 100-meter perpendicular wall covering an area of 10,000 hectares situated at the center of the Sulu Sea, about 150 kilometers southeast of Puerto Princesa City, and located in Cagayancillo. The Reef harbours a diversity of marine life greater than any other similar area in the world. The underwater abundance of Tubbataha is staggering. Marine biologists believe that its underwater gardens harbour a diversity of marine life that surpasses reefs of the same size in any other part of the world.
Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park lies in the Saint Paul Mountain Range, 81 kilometers from the center of Puerto Princesa City, but is still within the city boundaries. The Park is a natural wonder. Its geological features are unique and the Subterranean River is said to be among the longest in the world measuring up to 8.2 kilometers.
Puerto Princesa Subterranean River is one of the few in the world that flow out into the sea from an inland source. It has been the focus of much curiosity and scientific investigation. The level of the freshwater river rises and falls with the tide up to a point of 4.3 kilometers.
Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park consists of various landforms. The most impressive are the mountainous limestone plateaus, geologically called karsts, that form the rugged landscape of the Saint Paul Mountain Range with elevations ranging from sea level to a maximum height of 1,028 meters. The topography of the property varies from flat plains to rolling hinterlands and hills to mountain peaks.
The extensive rainforest of the Park is the habitat of diverse endemic and endangered species of flora and fauna. The mouse deer, calamian deer, Palawan bearcat, porcupines, skunks, wild pigs, flying squirrels, rats, bats, and monkeys are among the animals that inhabit the Park. Cave-inhabiting forms of reptiles, birds, and mammals dominate the animals. All of these endemic to Palawan: they exist nowhere else on earth.
Among the world heritage sites in the Philippines, the Rice Terraces of the Philippines Cordilleras have such a powerful presence that makes them one of the most outstanding places in the country. Lying high in the Cordillera mountain range, their setting cannot be replicated anywhere in the lowland tropical landscape of the Philippines – or even anywhere in the world, for that matter.
High in the remote areas of the Philippine Cordillera mountain range, scholars believe, slopes have been terraced and planted with rice as far back as 2,000 years. Mountains terraced into paddies that still survive in varying states of conservation are spread over most of the 20,000 square-kilometer land area (7 percent of the total land mass of the Philippine Archipelago) that is in the Northern Luzon provinces of Kalinga-Apayao, Abra, Benguet and Ifugao. The improbable site is found at altitudes varying from 700 to 1,500 meters above sea level, where terraces are sliced into mountain slopes with contours that rise steeply.
Existence in the Cordillera unites man with nature, and the unparalleled view shows how man has shaped the landscape to allow him to grow rice. The sheer majesty of the terraces communicates uniqueness and strength. Besides wind and rustling leaves, there is also the constant sound of water flowing downhill on the canals that irrigate the terraces. And there is nobleness in culture and environment expressed by the timeless tranquillity of the terraces. Most Filipinos regard the terraces as their greatest national symbol.
During the height of the Spanish colonial era in the 18th and 19th centuries, Vigan or Ciudad Fernandina de Vigan was the third most important city after Manila and Cebu. It was the center of Spanish colonial power in northern Luzon. The range of structures along the plazas and streets reveals the story of the town. Large and imposing buildings evoke political or religious power. Grand homes speak of wealth, while others speak of more modest means. The architectural ensemble shows that Vigan was the political, economic, religious, and artistic center of the region. The town is a living testament to the Spanish colonial era, a place that exerts a strong cultural influence to the modern Philippine nation.
More importantly, the architecture of Vigan relates the story of the Filipino, of how his constant exposure to foreign influences endowed him with the ability to adapt foreign ideas and combine them into a style that is uniquely his own. Vigan Survives as a unique representation of the adaptation process that the multi-cultural Filipino is so good at.
Notable Vigan urban spaces and architecture includes its town plaza, Plaza Salcedo; Saint Paul’s Cathedral; The Arzopispado, an excellent example of a priest’s residence in an urban area; Saint Paul’s College; the Provincial Capitol Building; Simbaan a Bassit (Catholic Cemetery Chapel); Calle Crisologo, an impressive row of houses lining each side of a cobbled stone street; Burgos Museum; and the numerous Vigan Houses, undoubtedly Vigan’s treasures.
The San Agustin Church in Paoay began its construction in 1604 and finally completed n 1710. This is one of the most outstanding "earthquake baroque" structure in the Philippines where the primary concern was to design the church for earthquake protection.
The coral stone bell tower, standing at some distance from the church for earthquake protection, was finished in the second half of the 18th century. Philippine bell towers were constructed at a distance from the main church structure to avoid its falling on the church during earthquakes.
The most outstanding feature of the church is the phalanx of buttresses that just out perpendicularly from the sides to strengthen the walls against earthquake damage. It has the most massive buttressing in any church in the Philippines. Fourteen S-shaped buttresses rise in rhythmic cadence from the ground reaching almost to the roof line. A pyramidal finial triumphantly tops each buttress. The visual impact of the San Agustin church in Paoay is unforgettable.
Not following fully the traditional Spanish urban town plan of situating the church as the focus of the central town plaza, the location of the Nuesta Señora De La Asunción church and convent in Sta. Maria, Ilocos Sur standing alone on the crown of a freestanding hill encircled by a stone retaining wall gives it a citadel appearance. Its appearance evokes a Mediterranean hill town, the only example of such in the Philippines.
Evoking a Chinese pagoda, the squat and massive bell tower of stacked octagonal shapes of decreasing diameter is crowned by a small dome. From any angle, the approach to the Santa Maria ensemble is magnificent. A stairway of 85 stone steps rises from the town to the small courtyard at the top of the citadel. On the opposite side of the courtyard, another equally grand stairway descends to a causeway built up over rice fields leading to a circular cemetery.
Built of brick, the church has a monumental façade. The thick side walls are without ornamentation, but have delicately carved side entrances which are bolstered regularly by huge quadrangular buttresses, these are necessary structural reinforcements for earthquake protection. The power and simplicity of its geometric forms, and its location, make this an outstanding example of Peripheral Baroque architecture.
The San Agustin church is located in nostalgic Intramuros, Manila. During the 350 years of Spanish rule, Intramuros was the nerve center of the country. Even if Intramuros today is a ghost of what it originally was, the aura of Spain still lingers in its ruins.
The interior of the San Agustin church is superb. Traces of the original wall painting done in the Mexican style can still be seen. The existing trompe l’oeil interior painting was done in the late 19th century that influenced the interior painting of many Philippine churches. The structural design of the church is extraordinary. It is said that the structure is supported by a raft type foundation that permits the entire structure to sway during earthquakes. San Agustin church also boasts of the only examples in the country of a barrel vault, dome, and arched vestibules supporting its choir loft, all made of stone.
A monastery complex was once linked to the church by a series of cloisters, arcades, courtyards and gardens. Today the monastery and church are the repository of what is considered to be the most priceless Philippine collection of religious art, including the earliest dated retablo, wall paintings, pulpit, choir lectern, choir stalls and an important archive of books.
Built of local yellow-orange sandstone, the large fortress-church was completed in 1797. The church withstood typhoons and earthquakes, but it burned twice: first was during the revolution against Spain in 1898 and the second was during the Philippine-American War a few years later.
The church of Santo Tomàs de Villanueva in Miag-ao is among the best examples in the Philippines of the “fortress baroque” style. The church stands on the highest elevation of the town. The squatness of the church, the massive pair of bell towers and the angled buttresses strengthen its fortress image.
The façade of the church is a Filipino masterpiece. Unknown master carvers incised its entire surface in the high relief. The sumptuous carving on the facade is probably the pinnacle of Filipino naïf where local craftsmen abandon all restraint to reinterpret western decorative styles in the local folk idiom. The church of Santo Tomàs de Villanueva is one of the best examples of the fusion of the western Baroque style embellished with Filipino folk motifs.