The island of NEGROS, fourth largest in the country and home to 3.5 million people, lies at the heart of the Visayas, between Panay to the west and Cebu to the east. Shaped like a boot, it’s split diagonally into the northwestern province of Negros Occidental and the southeastern province of Negros Oriental. The demarcation came when early missionaries decided the thickly jungled central mountain range was too formidable to cross, and is still felt today with each side of the island speaking different languages – Cebuano to the east and Ilonggo to the west.
Today Negros is known as “Sugarlandia”, its rich lowlands growing two-thirds of the nation’s sugar cane and you’ll see evidence of this in the vast silver-green expanse of sugar-cane plantations stretching from the Gulf of Panay across gentle foothills and on to volcanic mountains of the interior. The mountains rise to a giddy 2465m at the peak of Mount Kanlaon, the highest mountain in the Visayas. For the intrepid this means there’s some extreme trekking and climbing on Negros, from Mount Kanlaon itself to Mount Silay in the north. From Bacolod, the capital of Negros Occidental, you can follow the coastal road clockwise to Silay, a beautifully preserved sugar town with grand antique homes and old sugar locomotives. Much of the north coast is given over to the port towns through which sugar is shipped to Manila, but at the southern end of the island around Dumaguete there are good beaches and scuba diving, with a range of excellent budget accommodation. The southwest coast – the heel of the boot – is home to the island’s best beaches, and remains charmingly rural and undeveloped, with carabao in the fields and chocolate-coloured roads winding lazily into the farming barrios of the foothills.
Among Negros’s earliest inhabitants were dark-skinned natives belonging to the Negrito ethnic group – hence the name Negros, imposed by the Spanish when they set foot here in April 1565. After appointing bureaucrats to run the island, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi placed it under the jurisdiction of its first Spanish governor. Religious orders wasted no time in moving in to evangelize the natives, ripe for conversion to the true faith. The latter half of the eighteenth century was a period of rapid economic expansion for Negros, with its sugar industry flourishing and Visayan ports such as Cebu and Iloilo open for the first time to foreign ships. In the last century the rapacious growth of the sugar industry and its increasing politicization were to have disastrous consequences that are still being felt today.Read More
At 2435m Mount Kanlaon, two hours south from Bacolod by jeepney, is the tallest peak in the central Philippines and offers a potentially dangerous challenge. One of the thirteen most active volcanoes in the country, there’s the real possibility of violent eruptions and climbers have died scaling it. The rim of the crater is a forbidding knife-edge overhanging an apparently bottomless chasm. The dense surrounding forest contains all manner of wonderful fauna, including pythons and tube-nosed bats and locals believe the mountain is home to many spirits. It also features in Philippine history being where President Manuel Quezon hid from invading Japanese forces during World War II.
There are three main routes up the volcano itself. The Guintubdan trail is the easiest and most comon ascent, but even this should not be underestimated. The usual start point is Guintubdan, where there is basic accommodation at The Pavilion (P499 and under) and Rafael Salas Nature Camp (P499 and under). From here, although it’s only 8km to the top, the trail is best broken with an overnight stop. The 14km-long Mananawin trail works best over three days and offers the chance to really get to know the region, while the short, steep Wesey trail is very exposed and only for experienced tropical mountaineers.
Whichever way you choose to ascend, a permit (P300) and guide (P500/day) are mandatory, and a porter (P300–500) might come in handy. The easiest way to make all of these arrangments is through Billy Torres at Next Stop Negros Tours. Contact Billy as far in advance as possible (ideally a month), and he can arrange everything from permits, guides and porters to tents and meals (climbs around P4500/person excluding transport). Coming from further afield you can also arrange to climb Kanlaon through Dumaguete Outdoors in Dumaguete.
Dumaguete and around
Dumaguete and around
DUMAGUETE (“dum-a-get-eh”), known in the Philippines as the City of Gentle People, is capital of Negros Oriental and lies on the southeast coast of Negros, within sight of the southerly tip of Cebu Island. The city is becoming more of a mainstream tourist destination these days and it’s easy to understand why: it has attractive architecture, a laidback university town ambience, and a lovely seafront promenade shaded by acacia trees and coconut palms and lined with lively bars and restaurants.
Day-trips from Dumaguete include the Twin Lakes of Balinsasayao and Danao. For dolphin- and whale-watching head to Bais, while for affordable resort accommodation the closest choices are to be found around Dauin, where you can also arrange scuba diving, and day-trips to Malatapay Market and Tambobo Beach.
Dumaguete isn’t a city of major sights, just a pleasant place to relax for a day or two. Dominated by the respected Silliman University, the oldest Protestant university in the Philippines, the city has a casual campus feel. Much of Silliman’s reputation has been built on the work of its marine laboratory which has spearheaded efforts to protect the island’s mangroves and stop illegal fishing. The university also has an interesting anthropological museum housing some Song and Ming dynasty porcelain and relics from minority tribes in the Philippines. The museum is in the Assembly Hall (go through the university gate on Hibbard Avenue and past the fountain). On the other side of campus, near the Silliman Medical Centre, Centrop offers a glimpse of Negros wildlife, including a reticulated python, long-tailed macaques and warty pigs.
Away from the university and seaside promenade, Dumaguete is centred on the grand St Catherine of Alexandria Cathedral which dominates Quezon Park. The cathedral was originally built in 1754, although the current version dates from 1957. Standing next to the cathedral, the belfry was completed in 1867, and its statue of the Lady of Lourdes is a popular site of worship in its own right.
Back on the seafront, a walk south along Rizal Boulevard and across the Banica River bridge brings you past the Ceres Liner bus terminal to the Dumaguete Cockpit Arena, where fights are held at weekends, usually on Sundays after church, and sometimes on weekday evenings. Just south of here the new Robinson’s Mall is packed with the usual array of clothing outlets, fast-food joints, ATMs and internet cafés.
Apo Island and other dive sites
Apo Island and other dive sites
Tiny, volcanic Apo Island, 7km off the south coast of Negros, has become a prime destination for divers, most of whom head out for the day from Dumaguete, Dauin or Siquijor. Site of one of the Philippines’ first and most successful marine reserves, Apo has a series of reefs teeming with marine life, from the smallest nudibranch to the largest deepwater fish. Snorkelling in the sanctuary costs P150 per person, while diving costs P300. The sanctuary area is on the island’s southeast coast, while much of the flat land to the north is occupied by the only village, home to four hundred fisherfolk and farmers. Non-divers needn’t be bored; Apo has some fantastic snorkelling and it’s a great little island to explore on foot.
Most tourists visiting Apo take an organized trip from Dumaguete or Bais, though you can travel independently on one of the regular bangkas from Silliman Beach in Dumaguete and from Malatapay. The trip takes about 45 minutes and the price should be P1500 for 5–6 people. There are only two places to stay on the island: Liberty’s Resort (P1000–1499) has a dive shop, dorms and rooms with private or shared bathrooms overlooking the ocean, while Apo Island Beach Resort (t035/225-5490, wwww.apoislandresort.com; P2000–2499) has lovely cottage rooms right on the beach, plus dorm beds (P700) and diving (P1300–1400 per dive).
Among other dive sites, Calong-Calong Point off the southern tip of Negros is known for its dazzling number of smaller reef fish. Nearby is Tacot, a tricky deep dive where sharks are common. From the coastal towns to the south of Dumaguete you can take a bangka to Siquijor, where sites such as Sandugan Point and San Juan go as deep as 65m, and where you can expect to see tuna, barracuda and sharks plus, from March to August, manta rays. You can arrange trips to these sites through the dive operators in Dauin or Dumaguete.