by Julia Escaño
Imagine this: you’re a group of friends planning your next travel getaway. If you’re the adventurous types, beaches, waterfalls, caves and rivers would probably be on that list. A quick Google search shows you that all the top sights can be found in Mindanao. You’re all excited and pumped up, until someone from the group asks the perennial question — “Is it safe?”
Years of unrest have tarnished Mindanao’s reputation among travelers. Fear, scorn, or at the very least, a hint of concern from our well-meaning Titas are the usual reactions to this travel destination. A great shame, we think. While there are legitimate reasons to be wary of certain provinces, not all of Mindanao is buried in turmoil. Some regions are just as peaceful- and beautiful – as the rest of the country.
This month we welcome you to the Mindanao you rarely hear or read about. It’s time to get to know this southernmost island groups beyond the grim news we see on TV. Many of the Philippines’ most stunning landscapes, whether natural or man-made, are found here. If you’re ready for an experience of a lifetime, check out these gorgeous sights awaiting you when you travel to Mindanao.
(And yes, Tita, they’re safe.)
Surigao Del Sur
“Majestic” is perhaps the word that best describes one of the largest waterfalls in the country. With 3 tiers, Tinuy-an Falls stands at 55 meters tall and 95 meters wide, with the middle tier having the biggest drop. It’s a 45-minute to an hour habal-habal ride from Bislig City via unpaved, winding roads. It’s not the most comfortable ride, but done early enough, the sun is still relatively soft, and the heat is bearable. Once you arrive at the falls, however, all the aches of the bouncy trip will be erased.
The second tier’s pool is perfect for swimming. Rafts are available for rent if you want to get closer to the drop and get a “water massage.” The top tier is also a short but steep hike away, where there are usually fewer people. Hiking trails, camp sites, and picnic tables are also available for rent. It’s also advised to come to the falls between 9am to 11am, to see rainbows form over the water.
Up until 2011, the Britania Group of Islands in the town of San Agustin probably wasn’t in the itineraries of people who travel to Mindanao. Then town mayor Manuel Alameda decided to bring these gems to the forefront of the region’s tourism. He and his wife built a resort facing the islands on Lianga Bay, offered boat tours, and opened their doors to tourists. Soon, the community followed suit and people from all over the country started flocking. These days, the Britania Islands are gaining repute and growing in popularity in both the local and international travel scenes.
Britania is made up of 24 islands and islets, each with its distinct charm and personality. Most are uninhabited; some don’t even have vegetation, while some are covered in flora but have no beach of any kind. What they all have in common though is an unmistakable vibe of tropical paradise.
Surigao del Norte
Sohoton Cove National Park
A two and a half hour drive from Surigao City, nestled in the Bucas Grande Islands is Sohoton Cove National Park. Many call it enchanted and magical, and rightfully so. The national park is 70 hectares of virgin islets and secret caves lying in the deep crystal clear waters of Sohoton Lagoon. Sites within the park include Magkukuob Cave, Hagukan Cave, and the non-stinging jellyfish sanctuary. Its isolation has perhaps helped preserve its beauty and lends an intimacy to the experience.
Getting to the lagoon itself isn’t as simple as showing up. First, you must hire a boat and a guide to take you there. Then, as many say, the resident nymphs and sirens have to deem you worthy of entering. There is only one way into the lagoon: a low-ceiling cave accessible at low tide. In bad weather or certain seasons, access to the Sohoton Lagoon becomes limited if not completely out of the question. Once you’re through, however, prepare to see a rare dream-world that’s still undiscovered by most Filipinos.
Siargao may be world-renowned for its surf, but there’s more to this island than the heaving barrels and perfect beach breaks of General Luna’s Cloud 9. On the neighboring municipality of Pilar sits Magpupungko Beach. Its powdery sands only stretch about 300 meters, but its natural tidal pools are enough of a draw to make the small beach more than worth the trip. Just like Cloud 9, Magpupungko Beach faces the Pacific Ocean.
The difference, however, is that the latter is protected by giant rock formations which shelter the beach from giant waves. What they get instead is calmer waters perfect for lounging on the natural infinity pools. Low tide is the best time to come here when the rock formations and tidal pools are more visible. Now, imagine soaking in the pools as the gentle waves rush in, engulfing you in an all-natural jacuzzi while staring out into the deep blue of the Pacific. Pretty sweet, right?
Zamboanga del Norte
We all know about Dapitan, the place where Jose Rizal was exiled for four years. However, not many know where it is. Once a sleepy town in Mindanao, Dapitan has transformed into a bustling city. It’s filled with history and national heritage and served as the home of our national hero during the last years of his life. Today, the Rizal National Park in Dapitan remains as one of the most important places in the country celebrating the life of Rizal.
The park consists of a chunk of land which Rizal bought through lottery winnings. During his stay, he developed it not only into a home, but also into a small school, a farm, and a small health-care facility. There are 4 faithfully reconstructed huts in the park, which Rizal built to serve a specific purpose. The dam and aqueduct he built with his students are also preserved, a testament to our hero’s ingenuity. No visit to the region is complete without visiting the Rizal Shrine if only to commemorate our national hero’s legacy and contributions.
A trip to Sungkilaw Falls is not for the lazy traveler. Getting here starts with a 40-minute bus ride from the Dipolog City proper, followed by a habal-habal ride and some walking, before finally ending in a trek for those who wish to get a more up-close and personal experience.
The falls itself is 25 feet of white water roaring into several creeks that feed the Punta River. Along the trail is a mineral spring, which serves as the falls’ main swimming hole. Locals also believe the water here has healing abilities. Those looking for a workout can trek to the peak to get a glimpse of the raging streams below. The bolder visitors can also rappel, do a Tyrolean Traverse, and canoe around the falls. Picnic huts and basic facilities are also available around the Sungkilaw Falls grounds, for a very convenient experience.
Zamboanga del Sur
Yakan Weaving Village
The Yakan Weaving Village is a must-see if you want to witness one of the country’s many dying cultural practices and industries. The Village is not so much a village as it is a small compound with resident weavers. It’s only marked by a small tarp on the outside, making it easy to miss. A visit here entails a short tour of the different staging areas while being taught about the process of making their famous colorful weaves. A meter-long weave with intricate patterns can take up to 4 days to complete, making each piece even more unique. Visitors can also watch the weavers at work, lending a deeper level of appreciation for the craft.
Zamboanga is believed to be the cradle of Islam in Western Mindanao. As such, it is home to the region’s oldest mosque, built by Hadji Abdullah Maas Nuno, chieftain of the Sama Banguingui Moro ethnic group. The Taluksangay Mosque is now more than a century old and remains one of the best-preserved historical structures in the country.
From the outside, its bright red domes dominate an otherwise flat landscape. Lush green grounds and a surrounding body of water also add to the striking visuals. Inside, the mosque is well-appointed thanks to the wealthy patrons who make sure their place of worship remains in great shape. If you’re lucky, the mosque’s caretakers are sometimes present and can show you around.
Over the last few years, Lake Sebu has gained significant traction in the Philippine tourism scene. But while many are only familiar with it for its famous lake, there’s more to enjoy in this rich and diverse destination. Lake Sebu is located in the highlands of South Cotabato, giving it a cool climate. It is also the home of T’boli and Ugo peoples, who have preserved and enriched the land for centuries.
One of the best ways to see the lake itself is by taking a boat or kayak around it. You can also opt to join a tour on a traditional raft, complete with meals and cultural performances. This is an educational and eye-opening intro to the T’boli culture while soaking in the serenity of the lake. Another highlight around Lake Sebu is the 7 Waterfalls. Two of them are an easy hike, but the other 5 require more effort. Specifically, a zip-line ride. Zooming over the jungle offers a breathtaking way to see the falls nestled within the thick greenery. Not to mention, it’s so much more exciting and so much less tiring than being on foot!
The Grand Mosque
The 43-meter-high minarets of the Masjid Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah soar over the flat 5-hectare land it sits on. Around them are 14 golden domes, a sharp contrast to the white and gray building itself. The structure bears an elegant design, perfectly mixing classic Islamic architecture and modern design. This is the largest mosque in the Philippines and rightly called the Grand Mosque.
Named after the Sultan of Brunei who donated USD 40 million for its construction, the Grand Mosque is so large that it can be seen from the Moro Gulf in the east and the Awang Airport in the South. It’s not only composed of a space for prayer, but also of courtyards, gardens, and hallways. The mosque can occupy 1200 people at a time during the time of prayer. It is also open to the public for most of the day, as long as prayers are not ongoing.
Tangub City Christmas Festival
This quiet city in southern Misamis Occidental has been lying below the radar for years. While most Filipinos have decided that travel to Mindanao is a dangerous idea, Tangub has bloomed into a peace-loving and joyful city. They even went as far as creating a festival for the Filipinos’ favorite season, which also highlights unity, love, and peace. Tangub is now known as the “Christmas Symbols Capital of the Philippines,” thanks to their annual festival of lights.
From the first day of December every year to the second week of the following January, Tangub City holds the Christmas Symbols Festival. What started with a lone Christmas tree in the plaza in 1992 is now a collection of thousands of lights adorning the whole city. There are lanterns covering the St. Michael’s Cathedral in the city center, lit archways welcoming visitors to every low-land barangay, shows of light in the houses in the highlands, and even bright recreations of international landmarks in the plaza. These days, tourists come by the tens of thousands to join the merriment in Tangub. Not only is it considered a feast for the eyes, but also a feast for the soul.
Hoyohoy Highland Adventure Park
Just 30 minutes from Ozamiz City proper, in the highlands of Tangub City, is the Hoyohoy Highland Adventure Park. Locals call it “Little Baguio” for the abundance of pine trees, cooler climes, and rolling terrain. It’s so high up that it offers views of Misamis Occidental, as well as neighboring Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Norte, and Zamboanga del Sur. Families and barkadas often come to here to chill and have picnics, but those with a more adventurous spirit can also get their hearts racing in the park.
For an additional Php600, visitors can go on a dual zip line high up in the mountain. To get back down into the main park, visitors can opt to go horseback riding or going for an off-road buggy. The horseback option is said to be “smoother”- as long as you can deal with a ride that has a mind of its own, while the buggy is said to be more bouncy – but something you have 100% control over. Either way, the Hoyohoy Highland Adventure Park is designed for both relaxation and good fun, with a great climate to beat.