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)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Surigao del Sur

A seaside Shangri-La awaits

No two beaches in the world are alike. I came to that conclusion after visiting Surigao del Sur more than once.

On my first visit, I found out that white beaches are ubiquitous in this part of the world. Their beaches are about a hundred meters long, with sands as white and fine as Boracay’s. But it’s the Pacific Ocean that sets Surigao del Sur’s coastlines apart from the other beaches I visited. The seascape changes mood during the course of the day. I like the deep-blue water glowing under the blazing sun; it’s both fascinating and intimidating. When the sea turns tranquil during the afternoon, I mused and savored the view.

On my second visit, I learned that the beach isn’t the province’s only attraction. There are waterfalls and caves as well. Eye-catching isles are not uncommon either. Some coastlines may be darker but are not less attractive.

On my third visit, I came to the conclusion that “Shangri-La by the Pacific” may be an apt description for Mindanao’s eastern province.

Three days seems enough to see Surigao’s best tourist spots.

Day 1: Into the Blue

I arrived in Tandag, the provincial capital, one Saturday morning. Baby Ambray and Bong Luna, both of whom I met and befriended in my previous trips, took me to the pier. Besides it is a hill where a grotto is perched. We ascended the 70-plus steps in order to relish the panorama of boats and nipa huts dotting Tandag's coastline.

We didn't stay long as we needed a couple of hours to reach the southern municipality of Hinatuan. About 20 kilometers away from the poblacion (town center) is an unusual river. Locals call it the "Enchanted River" because the water is deep-blue, the fishes look like they came from the sea, and the riverbed is a canyon. My guide told me that the river is a hundred feet deep, and there’s a partially-submerged cave nearby. They surmised that fresh water and sea water meet somewhere inside. We also wondered if the Enchanted River is the sea's outlet, the river and the ocean being a few kilometers apart. Visitors don't bother to find out though as they rather frolic in the river's clear waters.

By afternoon, we reached Barobo, which is the province's midpoint. The town offers two unusual islands, namely Cabgan and Turtle. The former is shaped like an alligator and the the latter, what else but a turtle.

Cabgan has a lovely sandbar, which Baby and I rested on while admiring Turtle Island. Cabgan is uninhabited, and knowing this made the trip more exciting. It felt like we were the first to set foot on the island.

Turtle Island's figure became imposing as we ventured closer to it. There is an islet at the rear that has a gorgeous archway. There are neither coastlines nor inhabitants on Turtle but it hardly mattered. I wondered then and there if there were any isles in the Philippines, or even in any part of the world, that have islands as perfectly reptile-shaped as these. Only in Surigao del Sur, maybe.

The sun was about to set when our boat left Cabgan. Streaks of white sands were all over my legs and arms. I didn’t shake it off. I like how the white granules looked on my legs and arms, and I rubbed my fingers on them.

On our way back to Tandag, I asked Bong where I could buy souvenir items in Surigao del Sur. The answer came the next day.

Day 2: Souvenirs, Anyone?

It was mid-morning when we reached Cagwait, which is not far from Barobo. The town comes alive when it celebrates Kaliguan Festival. On this occasion, we stopped by the home of Venustiano Lambo, a member of Cagwait's Tourism Council. He produces magcono furniture and furnishings. When Mr. Lambo started furniture making in 1974, he chose magcono as his raw material. The wood is abundant in Surigao and is noted for its smooth texture and durability. He had learned about it when he was a logging superintendent at Aras-Arasan Timber Company.

The former engineer accompanied us to the shop, which is besides his house. We saw tables and chairs that would be sold at future trade fairs. A cabinet stored cups, pen cases and paper weights. I noticed that VG Lambo Enterprises’ products look more like display items. I eventually settled for a pen case, which would be a nice addition to my glass cabinet.

After a quick look at Cagwait's U-shaped beach (which is the site of its annual festival), we proceeded to the northern region to visit Lanuza. Baby and Bong brought me to Magkawas Falls and the Marine Sanctuary, both of which are a few meters away from each other and several kilometers away from the poblacion.

Magkawas is no eye catcher when compared to Mindanao's stunning falls (such as Lanao's Maria Christina), but residents came up with a brilliant idea. They constructed a rocky wall two feet high. The structure resulted in a pool being formed in which visitors can bathe, and another tier of falls that greatly improved the scenery.

On the other hand, the Marine Sanctuary houses some shells and marine species that are only found in Lanuza's shores. It also has a viewing deck that allows visitors to admire Surigao's breathtaking coastline.

We have to travel a few kilometers more in able to visit the Lanuza Agsamcraft Development Cooperative (LADC), which is located in Barangay Nurcia. Handbags, belts and accessories made up of agsam, a vine only found in Surigao del Sur, are available for sale. Agsam has to be buried deep in mud for days in order to acquire a brownish color. Originally worn by natives as a talisman against evil spirits, this native fashion accessory become one of Surigao del Sur's top souvenir items. Visitors won't have any problems purchasing in bulk; many residents in Nurcia weave agsam products. It's not only traditional but a means of livelihood as well.

As I clutched a few wrist bands I had bought, I saw more islands and beaches on the way back to Tandag. I wondered if the municipality of Cantilan, which is last on the itinerary, would be any different. What a pleasant surprise it would turn out to be.

Day 3: More Island-Hopping

Iron Mountain looms above Cantilan. It’s covered in pine-like trees and its brick-red soil glistens when the sun is high in the sky. From an elevation of about a thousand feet, the islands and the sea look spectacular, with some of the peak's dramatic structures impossible to ignore.

It took us two hours to reach Cantilan’s wharf. Four islands - Ayoke, General, Huyamao and Casarica - are nearby. Our guide, Tony Areo, noted that Cantilan has a varied range of natural attractions similar to Bohol's, but it's on these islands where visitors can find the best the municipality has to offer. With limited time, we could only visit General and Casarica.

General Island, the largest of the group, looked like a reptile on slumber. The isle’s darkly-verdant landscape covers any attractions it would otherwise offer visitors. Our boat headed towards a particular side in order to see a small chapel. The church is nestled atop a hill overlooking a lagoon and General's picturesque coast. Heading towards the lagoon, I gaped at the emerald-blue waters and was amazed as our boat passed the striking rock formations that lined up General’s other coastline.

Islets of various sizes greeted on our way to Casarica. Its white beach was our final destination. While relaxing on the fine sands, I wondered whether this short strip of white sand may be the 20th white beach I saw. I had lost count. What I'm sure of though is that beach and the others I visited combined to make lasting memories I'll always have of Surigao del Sur.

(First published in Zest Inflight Magazine on August-September 2009)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Maragusan, Compostella Valley

Sky-high adventure in Maragusan

It was past 6 a.m. when I arrived in Maragusan. A landmark with a message that reads, “Welcome to Maragusan, the summer capital of the Davao region”greeted me. Baguio in Davao? I was surprised.

Maragusan is located in Compostella Valley’s highland region. A mountain range surrounds this small town. Looking for something unusual wasn’t hard, as Christine Dompor, the Provincial Tourism Officer, took me to the town’s favorite hangout.

Haven’s Peak is a resort nestled on Tarago Hills facing Maragusan. It offers a panorama that would keep the visitors coming back. I was lucky to witness it.

Mist slowly moved to my direction. The town was nowhere in sight after half an hour. It was like what happened to a Californian fishing town in John Carpenter’s “The Fog.” An otherworldly sight it was.

Henrich Nalzaro, a local government unit officer, was delighted at my reaction. He remarked matter-of-factly that the mountains hid numerous waterfalls. He invited me to see Pyalitan Falls, which is several kilometers away from the town.

About 40 minutes later, we trek on a muddy footpath. Here and there were plants and trees that were only found in Mindanao. It took us nearly 30 minutes to reach a two-tier falls. The first one was about a few feet high, while the second has a drop of 10 feet.

Nalzaro told me that we must climb up in able to see Pyalitan. Ascending the rocky slope besides the first falls wasn’t hard, but it wasn’t the case with the second.

He pointed to the two boulders located a few meters away from the top of the second falls. We needed both rope and bamboo to able to pass through the small opening between it. With a little help from Dompor’s staff, I managed to bring my overweight body up there.

We saw another two-tier waterfall, but this one was more dramatic. The first falls was about 15-feet high, while the second one was probably 150 feet in height. Fatigue was setting in, but we couldn’t stop. We crossed a rocky creek and climbed another rocky slope to be able to get close to the grandest of the four falls.

Pyalitan looked like a mini version of Venezuela’s Angel Falls. The sky seemed so close. If ecstasy is about elevation, then this huge waterfall is the tops.

Descending wasn’t difficult, as I used my butt to keep my feet from slipping. We were back to starting point about an hour later. As we passed by the mountain range, all I could think of was the waterfalls up there. How I wished I could stay there.

(First published in Manila Times on May 30, 2009)