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)