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)