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)

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