Saturday, February 26, 2011

Southeastern Mindanao

Southern Exposure
...Sights and Adventure Beyond Davao

I keep coming back to these southern lands. They're different from the other places I've been to. For one, Mindanao's weather pattern is not the same as Luzon's. Some of its flora and fauna are truly endemic. I have long-suspected that the Philippines' best eco-tourism destinations are found in this island, especially in Davao and its surroundings. So for nearly a week, I visited some of the region's best spots. But it wasn't nearly enough, though.

Our Local Niagara

I was told a number of times Tinuy-an Falls was the local counterpart of Canada's Niagara Falls. That was wrong, I thought. Tinuy-an is one of a kind. Most waterfalls plunge into a pool or river. The most gorgeous waterfalls are more than that; there's something poetic about the way the water descends or how the entire place looks like. That's the case with Tinuy-an.

Located in Bislig, Surigao del Sur, Tinuy-an waterfalls is about 20 kilometers away from the main road. Located in Barangay Burboanan, its nearby area is covered in coconut trees, falcata (a slender version of malunggay tree), mangium, and bay-ang (which is curious to look at because its branches and leaves are shaped like an inverted open umbrella). Lorelei Lim, Bislig's Tourism Officer, said that the flow of water in Tinuy-an isn't strong during the third quarter of the year because it's southeastern Mindanao's summer season. But that didn't make the view less attractive; a three-tiered waterfalls isn't a common sight anywhere else in the world.

At first, I stood close to the falls, which was about three meters long and nine meters wide. I kept staring at the gorgeous rock formation. Between the first and second falls was a stream approximately 100 meters long, where there's a wooden bridge. The left bank was the best spot to enjoy the second falls. I didn't cross the bridge just as yet as I wanted to explore the rest of the falls. The second falls was the tallest and most breathtaking. It was close to 14 meters high and nine meters wide. Water poured into a pool that had a depth of about nine meters. There was a stairway nearby leading to the third falls. What I saw was a diminutive canyon of sorts, which may be three meters high. As I took pictures, I noticed that the shallow water below the canyon seemed like a good place to frolic. I also walked to that point where I was a few steps away from the tip of the second falls. It was safe to stand there and the view below was quite awesome.

Moments later, I was at the left bank taking more pictures. I gazed around and thought it would be nice to stay longer to enjoy the falls and observe the verdant surrounds. But Lorelei wanted me to see another popular spot. I climbed up another stairway but this one was longer (271 steps to be exact). Ocean View Park has a restaurant that offers a vista of Bislig Bay. The establishment seemed to be located in a forested area; sounds of wild birds were heard while I munch on fish burger, the establishment's specialty. Several steps away is the International Doll House. It stores an impressive collection of dolls, which owners Werner and Ruelaine Williman bought during their overseas trips. The Barbie dolls were undoubtedly the main attraction, but Russia's Matryoshka dolls were my favorites.

I left Bislig the next day, thinking of Tinuy-an and wondering what I missed out on.

Davao City's Outskirts

Sta. Cruz is located south of Davao City. It only takes an hour to get there by bus. Mount Apo, the country's highest peak, looks imposing from there. I was told that the municipality's main attraction are found near Apo, but I visit the other spots instead.

Pasig Island is a few kilometers away from Barangay Bato. The isle is so small its coastline can be circled in a few minutes. For beach huggers, Pasig can be their little paradise; its white-sand beach glistens on a sunny afternoon and on a cloudless day, they can sit and savor the sight of Mount Apo and Mount Matutum, an active volcano located in the neighboring province of South Cotabato.

Several kilometers away is the Sibulan River, which is renowned in Davao del Sur for its white water-tubing ride. It's really much like white water rafting, except that one rides on a rubber floating tube (locally known as salbabida) instead of a raft. The experience is like that on a roller coaster. I nearly rolled over, but I was so excited I had to take another joy ride.

This visit was also brief as I had to catch the first bus to South Cotabato the following day.

San Pablo Meets Baguio

I expected the bus trip from Davao City to South Cotabato to last almost a day, but it turned out to be shorter. It was a bit humid when the Yellow Bus Line left Davao City. Several hours later, the climate became cooler as it the reached the municipality of Surallah. I boarded a jeep that brought me to Lake Sebu.

Local backpackers tout this town as a must-see in this part of southern Mindanao. It's also home to the T'bolis, one of the region's ethnic groups. Three lakes are found within these highlands. When I saw the first two, I first thought that I was looking at the seven lakes of San Pablo, Laguna. In fact, the biggest was nearly covered with fish cages. Only rows of souvenir stores selling T'boli clothing and handicrafts reminded me that I was far away from Laguna.

There was something beguiling about Lake Sebu. It might be the bouquets of huge bamboos lining up the road. Edna Kely, my guide during the visit, showed me something else - seven waterfalls are found nearby. It's a multi-step type of sight-seeing and the lake is the water source for the cascades. It took us about 15 minutes to reach the area where they were located. However, seeing all of them may take an entire day; it took a walk and a zip-line to glimpse three of them.

First Falls was about 12 meters high. It took us several minutes to hike from the entrance to this waterfalls. Vegetation nearly enveloped it, which made it alluring. Edna suggested the zip-line to see the next two falls. For P250, I got two chances to see cascades sparkling in the afternoon sun, rainbows and Mount Parker - another active volcano in South Cotabato. The were also zip-lines in other parts of the Philippines, but I had a feeling that only Lake Sebu offered this kind of marvelous sight while doing it.

After the thrilling rides, I wanted to get close to the second waterfalls. Dongon Falls was said to be the most attractive of the seven. Water runs along a semi-circular cliff that is about 60 meters tall. I've seen better falls, but Dongon's location - and the lovely sight of water spray - made it one more magical. Dusk would soon set in, so we cut the adventure short to see the lake.

Edna took me to Punta Isla and Monte Cielo Resort, two of Sebu's several resorts. Punta Isla is a good spot to observe the lake closely; tilapia and water lilies abound in its waters, but what I saw instead was a tranquil lake oozing with rustic charm. But it was in Monte Cielo, though, where I appreciated Lake Sebu better. It is perched on a slope overlooking the lake and the nearby mountain range. The view up there is stunning when the sun descends behind the mountains. William and Mayette Sy, who own and manage the resort, are there to make guests feel at home.

I was supposed to visit both places at sunrise, but I woke up late. I bet the view is dramatic, but there should be a next time.

(First published in Zest Air Inflight Magazine on November 2010)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Cagayan de Oro City and Camiguin Island

Island-to-Highland Adventure
(Exploring the Adventure-Filled Island of Camiguin)

I'm obsessed with volcanoes and water. It started with Tagaytay; my family often went there when I was a kid. Taal Lake made an impact on me. I became curious about the sea and the other local volcanoes afterwards. I later found out that the country's most popular volcanic peaks are found in Luzon.

On my way to Butuan eight years ago, I first saw Hibok-Hibok Volcano. I was filled with longing; I wanted to set foot on Camiguin Island and explore its vicinity. That would happen eight years later.

The River Wild

Tikoy Tan invited me to visit Camiguin. I first met her in San Juan, La Union, a few years ago. She and her friends have a passion for outdoor adventure. What could be a better way than traveling with them?

Everyone who wants to go to Camiguin must use Cagayan de Oro City in Misamis Oriental as a jump-off point. Upon arrival there, we went to Baraga Dansolihon, which was not far from the local airport. Only Cagayan River is found there; but this body of water is arguably the city's most popular destination. Most of us haven't tried water-rafting, but our trepidation was squashed by thoughts of getting wet and wild. It was cloudy and raining when we set foot on the riverbank. I thought the bad weather would spoil our rafting. It turned out otherwise.

All of us had a blast. The best part about water-rafting is through the rapids. I was worried when the rubber raft was near it - would the velocity and turbulence throw me off balance? Good thing I didn't fall off, as I learned moments that water-rafting was like riding a bicycle. I also tried not to get nervous, which made me look forward to the succeeding rapids. In between rapids, we tried to savor the drenched, almost-surreal landscape. We heard sounds of a bird or a monkey from time to time. When our guide told us that the river separated Cagayan de Oro from the province of Bukidnon, I became curious about what the other side looked like.

What was probably the highlight of our cruise was passing by a branch-covered, limestone-like cliff. They say snakes cross the river and take a rest in there when the weather is hot and dry. Some of us were relieved that it wasn't so. We were wet all over by the time our rafting was over. We felt it wasn't enough, though we'd been on the river for about an hour and a half. We wanted another round, but there was an island waiting for us.

When Time Stood Still

We departed for Camiguin at dawn. It was sunrise when I saw Hibok-Hibok Volcano at close range. The entire peak was covered with trees, which could mean that the last eruption happened a long time ago. I also noticed the provincial capital when the jeepney we were on passed by Mambajao. Its many structures looked like they were built several decades ago. It wouldn't surprise me if some of them existed since the American Occupation. It felt like time stood still in this place. No one seemed too curious to explore around, as everyone was excited to frolic in the sea.

We checked in at Paras Resort, which was located on the outskirts of Mambajao. Some of us were tempted to take dips in the resort's lovely pool, but we were distracted by a sight in the distance - a white sandbar. A few hours later, everyone was excited as the boat made its way to White Island.

White Island is arguably Camiguin's most attractive destination. The sandbar's shape depends on the ocean current. It was G-shaped when we got there. The local who guided said it can also look like the letter C or L. I also found out that on a clear day, the islet was a photographer's treat, with Hibok-Hibok making a perfect background. I was lucky to take pictures of clouds that looked like smoke coming out of the volcano. For a brief moment, the inactive peak looked active. It may not be majestic like Mayond and Taal but during that sunny afternoon, Hibok-Hibok was absolutely gorgeous.

Volcanic Exploration

We were told there were lots of springs around Hibok-Hibok, but Tikoy had a better idea for our itinerary the following day. We didn't get enough of White Island yesterday, so we went to Mantigue Island the next morning. The small, undeveloped isle is surrounded by white sand. Some went snorkeling, while others lazed in the open huts and savored the rustic surrounding.

After a quick lunch, we headed back to Camiguin to visit Katibawasan Falls. It's located several kilometers away from Mambajao. The jeepney went up a dirt road and into a wooded highland. Like Lanao's Tinago Falls, Katibawasan is located in a ravine. Everyone gaped at the falls' immense height; I estimated it to be more than 200 feet. We dipped into the pool below the falls, but some didn't stay long. The water was cols. It was too cold in my case; if not for my sinus allergy, I could have stayed longer.

We cut our visit short because we had to reach another destination before sunset. In Barangay Catarman, which was ten kilometers away from Mambajao, were structures destroyed by one of Hibok-Hibok's past eruptions. They looked like an old church and a house. Covered with vegetation and surrounded by lanzones trees, both could have an been an eerie sight if not for a small church that was built within the ruins.

The most prominent landmark on this part of the island is the sunken cemetery. A huge cross marks its underwater spot. The cross looked scenic when the sun was almost down, but my eyes got hooked to a small stretch of black sand facing the cross. I couldn't tell what year the old crater spewed these dark sands, but I considered it unique for a country renowned for white beaches.

Panoramic View

We arrived back in Cagayan de Oro before noon the next day. Our trip to Manila was scheduled in the afternoon. That gave us enough time to visit another destination in Cagayan de Oro, the Malasag Eco-Tourism Village. Located on a slope outside the city proper, Malasag offers a panoramic view of the Misamis Oriental coastline. A cafe was built on a spot where visitors can appreciate this spectacular view. Not far from the cafe are native houses, where visitors can stay overnight. Beside the huts is a mini-zoo, which houses some of Mindanao's endemic birds.

Hibok-Hibok can't be seen from where we stood, but breathtaking images of the volcano came to mind as I stared at the Misamis coastline. There was no shortage of attractive places in this part of Mindanao - island or highland.

(First published in Zest Air Inflight Magazine on August 2010)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Davao del Norte

Davao's Best-Kept Secret

I passed by Tagum, the provincial capital of Davao del Norte, eight years ago. I was on my first trip to Mindanao and was excited to see what this southern island offered. I was disappointed because there were no white beaches and mountains. But eight years on, I gave this province another chance and was amazed: Davao del Norte may be Davao region's best-kept secret.

Davao region is the most promising as far as local tourism is concerned. Its wide range of destinations and places of interest attracts different kinds of travelers. However, most know only of Davao City and Samal Island. My chance to explore the other areas began a few years ago and I was then impressed and captivated. Now, Davao del Norte has done the same for me.

Festivals Aside

Bobby Dagala, my guide during the trip, told me that a festival just concluded in Tagum. He added that the next one would take place a month after my departure. Some more information gave me the impression that locals celebrate a festival every month. It was bad timing, but Bobby showed me what visitors would look forward to when there were no festivals.

One of Tagum's churches, Christ the King Cathedral, is the largest and the grandest of them all. Its front structure reminded me of those majestic chapels in Europe. This church has the world's largest rosary, which is located at the back. It's all over a small garden in front of a golden statue of Christ. I went closer to look at the beads, which I estimated to be as big as the boulders that litter the trail to Mount Pinatubo.

Bobby also took me to another place of interest in the city's so-called Holy Land. The Holy Rosary Shrine, a sanctuary located in Dominican Heights, houses a huge bronze statue of the Virgin Mary. Bobby and I had to climb up a 55-foot plus hill in able to stand in front of it. The 40-plus steps were lined up with rosary beads, which were eye-catching from the sanctuary's entrance.

We visited other public places afterwards. Along the way, I learned that the Durian Festival was held every September. It wasn't surprising, considering the abundance of the fruit in that province. I also found out that Davao del Norte was one of the sites of the most important battles during World War II. A monument was built not far from the city to commemorate it. Green seemed to be Tagum's official color. One proof of it is the pedicabs, a green-colored public vehicle that is ubiquitous sight in the city.

We arrived on a river near the National Highway after lunch. The city's tourism office has a plan to make it a top tourist attraction. It envisions a river cruise just like in Loboc, Boholo, but better with a river and sea cruise. The sight of flora not seen in Luzon piqued my curiosity. At the end of the river is Davao Bay and this is where the adventure begins. I can see Tagum's coastline from the bay. Compostella Valley's mountainous terrain looms in the distance. This sight would be awesome on a sunny day, but dark clouds gave it a brooding look. Drizzle prompted us to back to the river.

It was almost dark when we returned to the National Highway. I'd like to take another cruise on the same river many years from now. I'm sure that the place would be by then be developed and often visited.

A Different Cave

Bobby said that we would do some cave-exploring the next day. He didn't tell me, though, that we would get drenched again.

We arrived ahead of schedule int he northern municipality of Kapalong. This gave us ample time to visit Pag-asa (Hope) Farms. The name is a bit off, as this place is home to reptiles and exotic birds. This mini-zoo is under the shadow of tall, lovely trees that partly occupy Pag-asa's front area. I gaped at a 25-foot-long crocodile, which looked lazy while moving around because of the humid weather. Moments later, some keepers showed us a young python. It was nearly ten feet long. Its size discouraged me from observing closely. Not far away were a herd of ostriches.

It was near noon when we hopped on a motorcycle and drove to Okbot Cave. It took us about 40 minutes to reach the barangay nearest the cave. We wore mining attire to protect our skin from sharp limestones. Going to the cave entrance wasn't hard, as we walked on a grassy terrain for about fifteen minutes. We next climbed up a rocky slope of about several feet to make it to the entrance. Water gushed out and cascaded down the slope. I thought of a spring somewhere inside. Nonoy, our guide for this trip, said there was an underground river in the middle of the cave. It made me excited.

About ten minutes after passing by the cave entrance, we entered Okbot's biggest chamber. The light from our safe helmets pointed to lovely stalactites and a mini-falls below. The pinkish hue made the scene look surreal. Then we walked to the stream above the mini-falls. The journey beyond that point was memorable. The passageway varied as we trudged along. Many times, we walked carefully to pass through rocks and stalactites. There were a few times when we crawled and almost submerged ourselves in water pools to pass through narrow entrances. Along the way, I saw one stalactite that looked like a huge molar tooth. We decided to go back after going as far as half a kilometer away from the cave entrance.

I was a bit disappointed at not reaching the underground river, but I kept reminding myself of the wonderful sights I had seen inside.

A Wet Hike

We went east the next day to visit New Corella. Like Kapalong, this municipality has lots of caves to offer. But the one Bobby and I visited may be the town's most attractive destination.

Locals flock to Panas Resort to frolic in its two pools, but some venture to the waterfalls and river nearby. Panas Falls might have been an ordinary falls, but the morning light made it enchanting. At 25 feet high and ten feet wide, it looks cute, too. Joel, the town's tourism officer, invited us to see the spring where the water came from. We couldn't say no.

We opted to walk in cold water instead of on the riverbank. The slow hike allowed us to observe the different woods and plants on both sides of the river. It's certainly a treat for plant lovers as many are found only in Mindanao. I got distracted by the sight of odd-shaped leaves. I also saw a few thorn-covered stems. For about an hour, walking the shin-deep river wasn't a problem. I lost count of the number of mini-falls we passed. After an hour of hiking, we came upon boulders. The river became deeper. We stopped for a moment and admired a cliff with a structure that resembled stalactites. I surmised that this area used to be an underground river eons ago.

About half an hour later, we reached the water source. It came from the nearby mountain range. It wasn't a great sight, but what we experienced along the way made the entire trip special.

My Little Paradise

It wasn't surprising that my final destination brought me back to Tagum Bay. After all, I kept on thinking about the cruise a couple of days ago. But in this case, I discovered a little piece of coastline surrounded by coconut and mangrove trees.

Barret Beach reminded me of Laguna's Hidden Valley - the resort looked detached from the rest of Tagum. I spent only a couple of hours there, but I found out that there were many things to do there. I kept on taking pictures of the symmetrical rows of coconut trees. I was astonished at the century-old mangrove trees hugging the river. The area is populated with monkeys and wild boars, which can be observed from a distance (they are wary of people).

It was a good thing that many of the trees were labeled. I didn't bother to remember their names because I was overcome by the feeling of being lost. I guess that's how a vacation must be. I was invited for horseback riding, but I took a rain check. I had another look at the beach. It was tempting, but there wasn't much time left. I promised myself to return to Barrett for it deserves another chance. The same thing with the other places I've just been to.

(First published in Zest Air Inflight Magazine on June 2010)

Saturday, March 13, 2010


A Rich Rediscovery

During a break from work, Stephen and I decided to go to Panay; we last set foot on it several years ago. We wanted to rediscover our roots; his parents grew up in Antique, while my father spent most of his life in Iloilo. We planned the trip to last for five days and to happen four months from the time of our conversation. It took us a year before the trip pushed through, but better late than never.

Prior to the trip, Villa Beach was the only nice place I knew in Iloilo City. I wasn't bitten with the travel bug yet, so I was oblivious to the province's other tourist destinations. Now older and eager to travel around, I found out that Iloilo - and the rest of Panay - is a perfect getaway. Boracay isn't the only place to go. As Stephen and I realized during the trip, one needs an adventurous spirit to discover Panay's most gorgeous sights.

Old is the New Cool

The Philippines doesn't have the majestic structures that Europe is renowned for, but it has old churches to make up for it. Iloilo has lots, and the good weather all year round keeps many of them in good condition.

Miag-ao Church was the first in the itinerary. When Stephen and I arrived there, the first thing we looked at was the church's front side. It's filled with eye-catching figures. Spain's colonial years are carved in these stones; I gaped at the figure of an elderly Aztec chief. At the top center is a carving of coconut leaves, so abundant in the Philippines. While Stephen took pictures of the church's side structures, I took a closer look at one of the church's two watchtower belfries to see if the material is really made up of clay. I pondered for a minute, but I couldn't come to a conclusion afterwards.

After we were done taking pictures, we went to Guimbal, the next town. Its church was built during the 19th century. Its features may not be as special as Miag-ao's, but the afternoon sun gives it an imposing look. Tigbauan's Church is no different from Guimbal's, which was also built during the 1800s. Locals were attending a mass by the time we got there. Stephen and I ate bibingkas (native rice cakes) while observing the people that crowded the entrance.

Molo's Church of St. Anne was our last stop. Stephen took shots of the church, while I sat down on one of the park benches in front of it and stared. Its front side reminded me of the towered churches in Western Europe: a lovely sight. We called it a day afterwards. Both of us weren't able to sleep immediately because we thought of the beaches that we would see the next day.

Life's a Beach

Stephen and I boarded a bus to Pandan, Antique before sunrise. It took a couple of hours to cross the mountainous border that separates Iloilo and Antique. Half an hour later, we were greeted by the sight of a rice field. It had a terrace-like feature. It was the same with the succeeding rice fields the bus passed by. I surmissed that this was one of the distinctive features of Antique.

In the background is the Cordillera Mountain Range, which separates Antique from the rest of Panay. One hour later, Mount Madia-as, the island's highest peak, was in full view. Stephen told me we were near Culasi, which is located in the middle of the province. He talked about one of the town's islands, which he visited when he was a lad. He had fond memories of it, and I could see why moments later.

Mararison Island is several kilometers away from Culasi's coast. It's an underdeveloped isle with a lovely beach to laze around on. But that wasn't what Stephen was excited about; it was its pyramid-shaped sandbar, a few meters from the beach, that he asked the boatman to take us to. It took us a few minutes to walk around the sandbar. We rested for a moment. We gazed at Madia-as, which looked breathtaking from where we sat. We didn't stay long, as we needed to reach Pandan by afternoon.

Stephen was elated when we arrived at Pandan's public park two hours later. My curiousity was piqued by the statue of Jose Rizal, who looked like he was in deep thought. This was a one-of-a-kind statue of the national hero; most that I saw in other places have the same solemn expression. Stephen noticed it too, but he wasn't interested in it; he rather reminded me of his hometown's most popular destinations, which are Phaidon Beach and Malumpati Cold Springs.

The sun was setting by the time we reached Phaidon. The beach was deserted when we reached the place. Only a Dalmatian dog, owned by the resort owner, was frolicking in the waters. I wanted to take a good photo of this Boracay-like beach. The dog might have sensed my intention because he went to where was and sat. I took many shots of the beach with Stein (the dog's name); it was more than I could ask for. Stephen and I walked the coastline until dusk. He promised that our visit to Malumpati the following day would be more memorable. He was right.

Spring's Mini-fall

The spring is several kilometers away from the poblacion (town center). The mini-falls in front of the 20-foot pool are its beast feature. I was about to take a bath when Stephen suggested that we went to the source of the spring. The river trek took us about an hour. It could have been shorter, but we took time to absorb the verdant riverbanks, gorgeous rock formations and the emerald-colored waters.

The water source was something I least expected - a pond that looked like a mixture of green and yellow (more greenish), surrounded by woods that seemed endemic in Antique. There was a mysterious feel to the area, which made me reluctant to go down the slope and take a bath. Stephen and I traced back our steps after several minutes of looking around. We called it a day after swimming in the cold pool.

Crystal Cove Island was on the itinerary the next day. It's a small isle located between Boracay and Caticlan that can be reached in half an hour. The island's main attraction is the Coral Garden, where stone houses are surrounded by gorgeous corals of various shapes. It took us half an hour to look around and gape at the structures. We went down a cave that offered a view of waves crashing onto the corals below. Not a bad sight. On our way back, we were stopped by a boat, in which a man was selling popsicles and ice cream.

While waiting for the world-famous sunset, Stephen and I assessed our five-day trip. We'd seen many places, but we wanted more. We planned to include Capiz on our next trip to Panay. The only question was when.

(First published in Zest Air Inflight Magazine on January 2010)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Compostella Valley

Highlands with a View

Davao region may be the Philippines' ultimate highland escapade. It's not that the Cordillera region isn't short of tourist attractions, but I was astonished at what I discovered during my first visit to Davao three years ago - lots of multi-tiered and plunging waterfalls, assorted hot and cold springs, breathtaking vistas of verdant mountain ranges.

In Davao, several peaks rise above 8,000 feet. Most of them are found in Compostella Valley. This southern province was once part of Davao del Norte. It became independent in 1998 via the Republic Act No. 8470. Mountains are the first things I see whenever I visit Mindanao. It's also the sight that lingers in my mind long after the trip is over. But it's a different level in th case of Comval, the province's nickname. My recent visit tells me that it's the final frontier in local tourism.

Leonard Kniaseff, one of Mindanao's active volcanoes, is located in Comval's southern region. Like Mount Pinatubo, this strato-volcano is a few thousand feet high and one must ride on a plane in able to identify it. In Leonard's case, the areas close to it would give visitors a hint of its presence.

Some Like It Hot

Several kilometers away from the municipality of Maco is Mainit Hot Springs. Water cascades down a 15-foot, sulfur-covered slope. The chemical substance makes the water hot. Not suitable when the sun is way up, which I found out when I dropped by one humid afternoon.

Half an hour later, I explored Maco, a sleepy town near Lake Leonard. It doesn't take ten minutes to reach the crater lake, which is a source of livelihood to the inhabitants. Rows of bamboos on one side indicate that the lake is a breeding ground for tilapia, mudfish and milkfish.

Lake Leonard looks splendid from above. A tree-covered slope on one side of the lake looks gorgeous when it's bathed with the afternoon sun. But even in faint sunlight, the lake is an eye-catcher. No one can tell the depth, but this isn't important, as the clear reflection of the clouds and the mountain range makes this lake a must-see.

Comval's Best

Water is eternal in this province. In every town I went, there were pools that locals flock to during weekends. It's like the resorts lining up in Calamba and Los Banos in Laguna.

One of the barangays near Nabunturan (the provincial capital) is home to one of the province's lumads, a tribal group found only in the Davao areas. Some of the elder residents were hospitable to perform a tribal dance for us. They didn't don tribal costumes or use native instruments, but the rhythmic music and dance steps reminded me that Mindanao, like India, is multicultural.

Comval isn't only about highlands; Mabini is a seaside town with a scenic spot to offer. One of its resorts is on stilts, several meters away from the beach. Not far from it is Kopiat Island, a pear-shaped isle surrounded by white sands. The island isn't developed yet, but it offers some potential; Christine Dompor, the Provincial Tourism Officer, said that it's ideal for water sports activities, and its vicinity has unspoiled reefs that are homes for exotic tropical fish.

I like Kopiat's fine sands and clear waters, but it's the highlands that I want to explore next time. There are more waterfalls to see and more springs to check out.

(First published in Zest Air Inflight Magazine on December 2009)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Bucas Grande Island, Surigao del Norte

A Hundred Islets off Surigao

Claver is the last town in Surigao del Norte that visitors pass by before reaching Surigao del Sur. I like its scenery when I first visited three years ago. Behind the poblacion (town proper) is the Iron Mountain, which is along the border of Surigao del Norte and Surigao del Sur. Facing the town is a cluster of islands of different sizes.

During sunny weather, the mountain's brick-red soil glistens while the isles seem to beckon. Both are eye-catching sights, and I was lucky to see them again. They can be viewed from the town wharf, which I did while waiting for the boat that would take me to Bucas Grande Island. It was a humid afternoon when the boat arrived.

I felt confused when I first saw Bucas Grande. Located behind Siargao Island, it was hard to tell if Bucas is an island with numerous islets or simply a cluster of islets. I got more perplexed when the boat was meters aways from the isle.

Bucas is inaccessible by road. I saw floras endemic in Caraga; I spotted a few magcono woods and pitcher plants not far from the guest house. I didn't see any mammals, but the occasional sounds of primates suggest that wildlife abounds.

The water is about twenty feet deep within the isle's territory. While resting in the guest house. I stared at the verdant mounds. They could be islets close together. They could be rolling hills that define the isle. They could be both. Miro Ajoc, the island's barangay captain, couldn't tell either. What he's certain of, though, is Bucas has more than a hundred islets. He then pointed out that it was low tide; he suggested that we go to Suhoton Cove, Bucas' most popular destination.

A few hundred meters from the guest house is a partly-exposed passageway. It's the path to Suhoton Cove. Stalactites were a few meters above our heads while the boat passed through; a huge one shaped like a horseshoe greeted us as we entered the cove. Suhoton is a big lake surrounded by numerous islets, many of which resemble Bohol's Chocolate Hills. As I observed the tranquil surroundings, Miro told me that there are a number of caves within the area. We went to Crystal Cave, which is partially submerged. The faint sunlight was enough for me to see and gape at the cave's ceiling. Milky white. Smooth. No stalactites. We stood on a boulder in the middle of the small cave in order to see the bottom of the cave. The water is about ten feet deep, and there no traces of shells and rocks. The white sands seem to glow. It's an otherworldly place - too bad my digital camera isn't waterproof.

Dusk set in as we left Suhoton. As the boat traveled back to the guest house, I witnessed what Bucas Grande looked like in the early evening. A canopy of stars lit up the isle and the sea. The noises made by insects were in unison. It was one of a kind.

Like a dream

A half-day tour isn't long enough to see the entire island, but it's more than enough to see other areas not far from the guest house.

Miro first took me to a lagoon teeming with non-stinging jellyfish. He claimed that only Palau and Bucas Grande have jellyfish of this kind. Then we went to Bucas' own version of Hundred Islands; some have pocket white beaches, which we checked out. Tiktikan, one of the isle's numerous lakes, was our next destination. We rested and enjoyed the view from the open hut that was perched on a slope above the lake.

I left for the mainland after lunch. As Bucas became obscure, I realized that the entire trip was like a dream. I wondered if there was another isle like it.

(First published in Zest Air Inflight Magazine on November 2009)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Iligan, Lanao del Norte

Water drops on Gorgeous Rocks

A billboard along Tibanga Highway caught my attention. It proclaims Iligan as the "City of Majestic Waterfalls". It wasn't hard to doubt, as Mindanao's chartered city is surrounded by mountains. Iligan's topography is mountainous, but visitors won't see glints of waterfalls that dot these mountainous terrain from a distance.

The billboard also showed pictures of falls of different shapes and lengths. According to Iligan's Tourism Office, 23 waterfalls are distributed among the city's 44 barangays. A few are accessible, while the rest take a day or two to reach. One is Limunsudan, which is the country's highest falls. The other one is Kalubihon, located inside a cave. Regardless of size and appearance, waterfalls are natural forces in their inherent power and beauty. This is what draws people to Iligan, which is blessed with these unique tourist attractions.

It would take a week or two to see all of Iligan's waterfalls. It took me three days to see seven. Not a bad number.

City by the Bay

The long stretch of Tibanga Highway tells visitors that Iligan is a sizable metropolis sans malls and high-rise buildings. No one would imagine that this was once Lanao del Norte's fortress against pirates and savage tribes. Natives back then went to Iligan Bay to look out for invaders.

The bay is still a sight to behold. Visitors need to go to Anahaw Amphitheater in order to see the bay and the city proper. It's located in Buhanginan Hill, where the city hall is located. The amphitheater, not remote from its Greek counterpart, serves as a playground for kids and an early-morning venue for adults whenever local officials aren't using it for provincial government programs.

Rene Pierna, my guide during a three-day stay, took me around Iligan on his motorcycle. After Anahaw, we went to St. Michael Cathedral, the city's main Catholic church. Muslim attire is a frequent sight along blocks of business establishments along the way. It is a sign that Christians and Muslim live in harmony in this northern city (a neighboring province, Lanao del Sur, predominantly Muslim, can be reached in half an hour). This counters the stereotypical image of Mindanao as an "unsafe place for foreigners" because of terrorists. After I took photos of the church, I observed small groups of giggly students passing by and the beeping noise of jeepneys that ply the route. Iligan seemed no different from other provincial capitals I've been to.

Walk the Wild Side

After the cathedral, Rene took me to Barangay Bonbonon, which is about 15 kilometers away from the city proper. He said that visitors must trek to reach the waterfalls in this part of Iligan. His motorcycle traversed dirt roads and rugged towards Dodiongan Falls. We crossed a rice field and a stream, taking us about 20 minutes to get there. The falls is about 100 feet high. Two torrent flows cascade down stalactite-like rocks - the one on the right side being stronger than the left. Water drops onto a spring-green pool about 20 feet deep. This unique feature makes Dodiongan fascinating to gaze at. It's probably one of the country's waterfalls that only backpackers know about.

We then traveled to Barangay Kiwalan, which is 20 kilometers from the city proper. Hindang Falls awaited us. It's another cascade-type, albeit much shorter than Dodiongan. Water glides down a smooth, steep slope about 25 feet high. At its foot is an apple-green pool that beckons. Rene pointed to the top of the falls and told me of cave clusters not far from where we stood. The caves have narrow entrances with long and deep chambers. However, lack of time prevented us from climbing and exploring the caves.

Instead, we went to Barangay Dalipuga, where another 25-foot falls is found. Rene and I descended a grassy slop towards Pampan Falls. Like Hindang, water cascades into an apple-green pool. The only difference is the rock formation that the water comes into contact with - Pampan's made up of smaller stalactites within the formations. Then we called it a day; we were supposed to visit Kalubihon but dark clouds cut the trip short because of looming rain.

Buru-un's Finest

We traveled to the city's outskirts on the way to Barangay Buru-un, which is home to three of Iligan's most majestic falls, namely Maria Christina, Mimbalut and Tinago.

Maria Christina has often been featured in Philippine stamps. It's hardly a surprise considering that the sight of water dropping from a 320-foot high cliff is breathtaking. Visitors must come here on weekends by 11 AM because it's the only time of the week when Maria Christina comes to life; because a hydroelectric company harnesses its water for electric power thereafter. And there are plans to turn the area into a tourist park.

Mimbalut is a few kilometers away from Maria Christina. Parallel cascades descend on a rocky slope and into a cool, clear stream. Fifty feet high and 20 feet wide, Mimbalut is much smaller than Maria Christina but it's no less gorgeous; visitors need to be there early morning to witness its charm, especially when the morning sun's rays render the scene otherworldly.

It was Tinago Falls though that blew me away. Located between Iligan and the municipality of Linamon, Tinago lies deep within a ravine. Visitors need to descend a 340-step stairway to reach it. What is unique about Tinago is that its waters seem to spurt out of a rocky cliff about 420 feet high. A river source is found at its extreme right, where the flow of water is strongest. Life vests are available so visitors can frolic in a 60-foot pool; it's hard to resist the cold, greenish water. The pool was filled with laughter and shrieks of joy when I was there. Something about Tinago's magnificent gorges hooked me. I couldn't stop taking photos from different angles and was amply rewarded with a rainbow cameo appearance - I couldn't ask for more.

Final Destination: Kapatagan

My last day was spent on a bus; I traveled many kilometers and passed a number of towns to reach Kapatagan, a municipality near Misamis Occidental and Zamboanga. This is where Cathedral Falls is located.

Cathedral is about 15 kilometers from the town proper. Its waters plunge into a dark pool. But there's nothing dramatic about this waterfalls, compared to Maris Christina and Tinago. In fact, simple and serene best describe it. An 80-foot cliff makes the area place attractive however. The vertical columns of rocks are astonishingly symmetrical. They reminded me of Fingal's Cave and Giant's Causeway, two tourist attractions in the U.K. admired for similar features. No one knows if intense volcanic activity has been responsible for Cathedral's cliff. What a fascinating view it presents when the afternoon sun lights up its facade.

As I traveled back to Iligan, I thought about all the waterfalls I've seen. They all have different moods, but they had the same effect on me - soothing yet overwhelmingly lovely, an intriguing experience in contrasts that makes these Iligan waterfalls appealing.

(First published in Zest Inflight Magazine on October 2009)