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)