Mindanao Travel Guide

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Mindanao, the massive island at the foot of the Philippine archipelago, is in many ways the cultural heart of the country, a place where indigenous tribes still farm their ancient homelands and Christians live alongside Muslims who first settled here in the fourteenth century. Spanish rule came late to much of the island, and was tenuous at best throughout the nineteenth century; when the Americans occupied the islands, it was here that they met their most bitter resistance. Contrary to popular perception, most of the island today is peaceful, friendly and stunningly beautiful. Yet it is true that Mindanao is one of the most impoverished areas in the Philippines and some parts are considered unsafe for tourists.

North Mindanao, from the lively gateway city of Cagayan de Oro in the centre to the surf magnet of Siargao Island in the east, is the area most tourists are interested in and is completely safe. In between lies Camiguin, a ravishing volcanic island off Mindanao’s northern coast, the untouched Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary, inhabited by the Manobo tribe, and the hypnotic azure waters of the Enchanted River. Also worth exploring are the western cities of Iligan and Dapitan (where national hero José Rizal was sent into exile), and Mount Malindang National Park, a little-known area of dense rainforest near Ozamiz.

Davao in the south, the island’s de facto capital, is a friendly provincial metropolis with excellent restaurants, nightlife and endless heaps of durian, the stinky fruit that tastes like gourmet custard. Nearby are the beaches of Samal Island and majestic Mount Apo. West of the frenetic city of General Santos, around the shores of Lake Sebu, the friendly and artistic T’boli people still live in traditional wooden houses and wear hand-woven tribal garments and adornments. Much of western Mindanao is part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, or ARMM, an area of huge tourism potential but with the security situation in a state of flux. Highlights include the traditional Muslim city of Marawi, which stands on the northern shore of serene Lake Lanao, and the hundreds of islands that make up the spectacular Sulu archipelago, especially Tawi-Tawi. You’ll need to check the current security situation before visiting.

Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao

Potentially one of the most beguiling areas of the Philippines, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is a patchwork of several predominantly Muslim provinces in the western part of the island. Created in 1989, the regional government (based in Cotabato), has the power to levy taxes and apply Shariah law to Muslims. Despite this autonomy, the region remains extremely poor and the epicentre for anti-government protest – Philippine Tourism authorities, most Filipinos (and the US, UK and Australian governments) usually advise foreigners to avoid the region.

The situation on the ground is less clear-cut. Actual incidents are rare, but those that do occur often end in tragedy. Kidnapping is still a lucrative business on the island of Basilan, the northernmost island in the Sulu chain, and if any unequivocal recommendation can be given it is that you shouldn’t go there.

It’s best to seek the advice of the local tourism office before visiting any of the following locations, and where possible, to arrange a local guide when travelling. Avoid travelling at night altogether.

Marawi and Lake Lanao

Nestled on the shores of Lake Lanao just 25km south of Iligan, MARAWI is the centre of the Islamic religion in the Philippines: 92 percent of the population is Muslim. During the Marcos years, the area around Marawi was where kidnappers were said to hide their victims, but these days the city is generally peaceful, with incidents related to the fight for Muslim autonomy exceedingly rare; visiting with a driver and a guide is still recommended, however (contact Iligan tourist office).

Marawi’s greatest natural attraction is placid Lake Lanao, which sits in a green bowl circled by distant mountains. It’s the second largest lake in the Philippines and easy to explore via a circumferential road; there are said to be some 350 mosques ringing the lake and it’s the best place to see striking torogans, the traditional wooden homes of Marawi’s upper class.

Marawi has no tourist office, but the staff at the Marawi Resort Hotel (t063/520-981; P500–999), on the Mindanao State University campus (which has the best views of the lake), have good local knowledge. It’s also the best place to stay in the area, a quiet establishment surrounded by greenery with a good choice of well-maintained rooms. Also on the campus is the Aga Kahn Museum, which has an interesting collection of Moro art from Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan. The palitan is a two-storey market in the heart of the city where you can find virtually any type of clothing, from jeans to traditional tribal garments, colourful raw cloth and batik products, gold jewellery, exquisite wooden chests and brassware, manufactured in the nearby barangay of Tugaya. The city’s annual festival is the Kalilang (April 10–15), which is dominated by Koran-reading competitions and traditional singing and dancing.

The Sulu archipelago

Despite boasting some of the most unspoiled beaches in Asia, the volcanic Sulu archipelago is undiscovered country in tourist terms, and even Filipino tourists rarely come here. Much of the island chain has a well-deserved reputation for lawlessness and violence, so you need to coordinate very carefully with the tourist office in Zamboanga before heading south. At the time of writing only Tawi-Tawi was considered safe to visit. The archipelago actually comprises around 870 islands off southwest Mindanao, covering an area of 2700 square kilometres from Basilan in the north to Borneo in the south, and is home to a surprisingly large population of around twelve million. Access is either by ferry from Zamboanga (to Jolo; 1 daily; 12hr) or on an Airphil Express flight from Zamboanga to Jolo (3 times weekly; 40min) and Tawi-Tawi (1 daily; 1hr).

At the southern end of the peninsula lies the island of Tawi-Tawi, whose busy little capital BONGAO is a commercial fishing centre. From Sanga-Sanga Airport just outside Bongao there are jeepneys into town for P10. There are several cheap hotels in Bongao, one of the better ones being the Beachside Inn (t068/268-1446; P500–999), on the outskirts near the beach, which has singles, doubles (with a/c and TV) and a decent restaurant.

Bongao Peak is a ten-minute walk inland from the town and a fairly easy climb. The peak holds mystical powers for the locals, and villagers take sick people to the top to offer prayers. Don’t forget to buy some bananas at the market to take on your hike up the mountain – macaques guard the trail and bananas are your currency with them. From the top, 300m above sea level, you can see all of Bongao and the surrounding islands. It’s also fun to poke around the market near the pier, known as the Chinese market, where you can buy herbs, baskets, traditional hats, prayer mats, scarves and batik clothes. Local delicacies on sale here include turtles’ eggs and tarrang bulan, pancakes sprinkled with peanuts.

North Coast Mindanao

Some of the most accessible (and safest) parts of Mindanao lie along the north coast, starting with the inviting city of Cagayan de Oro. The northwest coast stretching from Iligan to Dipolog is mostly rural and undeveloped, but peppered with alluring port towns and national parks, while the pint-sized island of Camiguin to the northeast is one of the country’s most appealing tourist spots. Northeastern Mindanao is known as Caraga (aka Region XIII), an area generally overlooked by foreign tourists though rich in eco-tourism potential. Highlights include the ancient wooden boat discovered at Butuan, the spell-binding Enchanted River and the surfing hotspot of Surigao.

Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary

About 70km south of Butuan on the road to Davao, the Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary is a giant maze of interconnecting rivers, channels and lakes, with dramatic areas of swamp forest consisting largely of sago trees and inhabited by parrots, purple herons, serpent eagles and a good number of saltwater and Philippine crocodiles.

The marsh is around 2 hours 30 minutes from Butuan and 3 hour from Davao; whichever direction you’re coming from, you need to get off the bus in the town of Bunawan (only slow non-a/c buses stop here), and then take a tricycle west to the town hall (t910/984-0285) to register. From here you can hire a boat and guide for the three-hour ride along the river to the marsh area itself – be prepared for a full day out and take lots of water and sunblock. Hotels in Butuan can help arrange trips, but a locally arranged day tour in Bunawan costs around P1500 for the boat plus P1000 for the guide. Despite its isolation, the marsh is inhabited by about 2600 people, mainly the Manobo, an animist group that live across much of eastern Mindanao. Their houses are floating wooden structures with thatched roofs and rest on a platform lashed to enormous logs. Whole communities exist like this, their houses tethered to one another in one place, but moveable at any time. There is some very basic accommodation in Bunawan if you get stuck, and some of the floating Manobo villages also offer lodgings – ask at the town hall.

Dapitan

The scenic north coast city of DAPITAN, with its red-roofed houses and sweeping ocean bay, is best known for its connection to national hero José Rizal, who was exiled here in the 1890s. The main drag in Dapitan is Sunset Boulevard, a romantic seafront promenade where you’ll find banks, shops and a number of hotels. The Rizal Shrine on the northern edge of the city is a pleasant parkland area encompassing the grounds where Rizal spent his exile. The park contains faithful reproductions of the simple cottage he lived in (Casa Cuadrada), the octagonal schoolroom where he taught (Casa Redonda), his chicken house (Casa Redonda Pequeña) and two clinics (Casitas de Salud) where he worked. The Rizal Museum (same hours; free) is also here, and contains memorabilia such as his books, notebooks and medical equipment. To get here either take a tricycle from the city centre or walk – it’s only ten minutes via Bagting Bridge with Dapitan Bay on your left. Rizal also designed a huge grass Relief Map of Mindanao that still exists today in F. Saguin Street.

José Rizal in Dapitan

The decision to exile José Rizal to Dapitan was taken so he could contemplate his sins against Spain and, “publicly retract his errors concerning religion, and make statements that were clearly pro-Spanish and against revolution”. He arrived in 1892 and left shortly before his execution in 1896. During his four-year exile Rizal was famously productive: he practised medicine and pursued scientific studies, continued his artistic and literary works, widened his knowledge of languages and established a school for boys. It was also in Dapitan that he first set eyes on Josephine Bracken, the smouldering Irish beauty whom he married in a private ceremony in his cell two hours before his execution. Tragically the son she bore Rizal was stillborn and is buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Dapitan. Bracken married again in Hong Kong, but died of tuberculosis at the age of 26.

Dolphin Island

Just thirty minutes drive north along the coast from Ozamiz in the village of Sinacaban, the Misamis Occidental Aquamarine Park (MOAP; P10) is an ambitious eco-tourism project that combines dolphins, fish ponds, mangrove restoration and chalet-style accommodation via the Dolphin Island Resort (t088/586-0292). Rooms range from deluxe suites (P2500–2999) to smaller cottages (P1500–1999), all on stilts overlooking the shallow bay with hot showers and TV. There are also dorm beds from P250.

The real attraction here is Dolphin Island, a series of man-made stilt huts over a sand bar 2km offshore. It’s principally a dolphin rescue centre, with fenced-in seawater pens providing a safe haven for animals trapped or injured by fishermen – after rehabilitation they are released into nearby dolphin communities. At the time of writing the island was home to five spotted dolphins and one green turtle. You can swim with the dolphins here for just P250 – an incredible deal. There’s a basic restaurant on the island that serves fried chicken, pork and rice, and another restaurant onshore at the resort. The fifteen-minute boat ride to the island costs P30 round-trip (every hour, daily 8am–4pm; last boat back 5.30pm), and you can rent snorkelling gear (P50/hr), kayaks (P100/hr) or organize dive trips (from P2300). Tricycles to MOAP from the Ozamiz ferry charge around P200.

The Enchanted River

Swimming in the Enchanted River (daily; P10) is one of the highlights of Mindanao. The accessible part of the river is more like a narrow saltwater lagoon that ends at an underwater cave and ravine crammed with all sorts of tropical fish that get fed every day at noon. The colours are mesmerizing; the water glows like liquid sapphire, surrounded by dense jungle and karst outcrops.

The site is managed by the local authorities as a small park (you can wander to a small beach from here), but it’s well off the beaten path and very few foreign tourists make it this far. The park lies at the end of a 12km dirt road, just beyond the fishing village of Talisay – the village is almost as enchanting as the lagoon, with neat, nipa and wood cottages, some with stilts over the water, and plenty of blossomy gardens.

The turning to the river and Talisay is signposted 2km north of Hinatuan on the main coast road, 150km south of Butuan; the main road is served by frequent buses plying between Butuan and Mangagoy; without your own transport it’s a very long walk or habal-habal ride from Hinatuan.

Iligan

Some 90km west of Cagayan de Oro, the port city of ILIGAN has been working hard to shed its drab industrial image in recent years, rebranding itself as the “city of waterfalls”. Little more than a village in the early 1900s, Iligan boomed as an industrial centre after the creation of a hydroelectric power scheme in the 1950s. With a population of around 300,000 it’s a friendly, laidback place these days, with a peaceful mix of Christian locals and M’ranao Muslims visiting from nearby Marawi, though the biggest draw for visitors lies outside the city proper in the form of those justly famed cascades.

Iligan’s biggest draws are the waterfalls that puncture the surrounding countryside, as there’s little to see inside the city itself; most of Iligan was rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1957. The best cluster lies on the west side on the highway towards Ozamiz and Zamboanga; take any jeepney (P6–12) towards Buru-un and tell them where you want to get off.

The most impressive cascade is the Maria Cristina Falls, 8.5km to the southwest of Iligan, which also serves as the main source of power for much of Mindanao. One hundred metres high, the twin falls (named after two heartbroken girls that are supposed to have jumped from the top), plunge into the torrential Agus River, but are at their best Saturday and Sunday at 11am, when the Agus VI Hydroelectric Plant upstream releases the most water. The falls are located with the NPC Nature Park, which also contains some shabby animal exhibits and a three-stage zip line across the river. From the jeepney stop on the highway it’s around 150m to the park entrance; walking on to the falls from the entrance takes around 20min (800m), or there’s a park shuttle for P10. The falls can only be viewed from a deck inside the power station building – you can’t get up close.

The Mindanao problem

Despite its volatile political situation and advice from Western governments to avoid travelling to all of Mindanao, much of the island is safe for foreign travellers. However, you should always check the current situation before travelling and read our advice on trouble spots. Politically the situation is fluid and confusing, with a number of factions and splinter groups calling for varying degrees of autonomy from Manila.

The thorniest issue involves Mindanao’s Muslims (also known as Moros), who are seeking self-determination. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) started a war for independence in the 1970s that dragged on until 1987, when it signed an agreement accepting the government’s offer of autonomy. As a result, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, or ARMM, was created in 1990, covering the provinces of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, plus Marawi City. The more radical Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) splintered from the MNLF in 1981 and refused to accept the 1987 accord. It has since continued fighting and making uneasy truces, broken many times. In 2008 MILF broke the latest ceasefire after the Supreme Court ruled that a government deal offering them large areas of the south went against the constitution. At the height of the fighting, more than 750,000 people were displaced, and about 400 people killed. At the time of writing things appeared to have calmed; President Benigno Aquino had reopened negotiations with the MILF, proposing a wider Muslim ancestral homeland in Mindanao.

Mindanao’s problems don’t end with the MILF, however. One disaffected group of fighters formed Abu Sayyaf, whose centre of operations is largely Basilan Island, off Mindanao’s south coast. Abu Sayyaf, whose name means “Bearer of the Sword”, is said to have ties to a number of Islamic fundamentalist organizations including al-Qaeda. The group finances its operations mainly through robbery, piracy and kidnappings. They are believed to have been responsible for the bombing of Superferry 14 in February 2004, which sank off the coast of Manila with the loss of 116 lives. In 2006 the group’s leader, Khadaffy Janjalani, was shot dead in an encounter with government troops. However, kidnapping remains a threat.

And then there’s the communist rebels (aka New People’s Army), who have also been fighting since 1969 for the establishment of a communist state in Mindanao; they remain active in remote parts of the island.

Finally, much of the ARMM remains dangerous territory thanks to private armies aligned to corrupt local politicians. In 2009, 57 men and women (including 34 journalists) were tortured and brutally murdered in what was dubbed the Maguindanao Massacre, apparently for attempting to register a rival candidate for the upcoming elections; the perpetrators were a private militia controlled by the powerful Ampatuan clan (who were arrested and tried in 2010).

Mount Malindang National Park

Little known and little explored, Mount Malindang National Park is a densely forested region that offers some tough trekking and the opportunity to see rare species such as the tarsier and flying lemur.

There are actually four main peaks in Mount Malindang National Park: North Peak, South Peak, Mount Ampiro and Mount Malindang itself, which is the tallest at 2404m. The area was extensively logged before being declared a national park in 1971, so most of the forest growth today is relatively new. There’s a long-established tribal group living in the park, the Subanon, whom you may well encounter at their Lake Duminagat settlement. They consider Mount Malindang their tribal homeland and source of strength. The best time to visit the park is during the months of January to April when the trails are dry.

You need a permit (P200) to enter the park, which is available from the Protected Area Office (t088/531-2184) at the back of the Provincial Capitol Building in Orquieta, a one-hour bus ride north from Ozamiz. A guide is essential and can be arranged here for P1500 a day.

Davao and the southeast

The southeast is home to Mindanao’s largest city, Davao, a diverse and friendly place best known for its fresh fruit. Davao itself is not a city of legendary sights, but the nearby countryside and coast harbour plenty of attractions, from idyllic Samal Island to crocodile parks, zip lines and the Philippine Eagle Center. Davao is also the gateway to Mount Apo, the nation’s highest peak and a magnet for trekkers and climbers. Further south, the tuna port of General Santos is the closest city to enigmatic Lake Sebu.

General Santos

Around 140km southwest of Davao on Sarangani Bay, GENERAL SANTOS – or “Jen-san” – is the Philippines’ southernmost city, a dense, noisy metropolis of over half a million that isn’t a significant tourist destination; it’s something of a frontier town, founded by General Paulino Santos and 62 pioneers from Luzon in 1939, and best known as the centre of the tuna industry. It’s also the gateway to Lake Sebu.

Lake Sebu

To the west of General Santos, the small town of T’Boli sits on the shores of enchanting Lake Sebu, in a natural bowl surrounded by wooded hills and rolling plantations. This is the ancestral homeland of the T’boli tribe, whose members often wear traditional woven clothes and eye-catching handmade jewellery. It’s a great place to see T’Boli culture at first hand; you can also rent a boat and take a trip on the lake itself and shop in the weekly Saturday market for brassware, beads and fabric. The main sights around the lake are the Seven Falls, a series of plunging cascades you hike up to or fly over on what is probably the most thrilling zip line in the Philippines (P250). The annual Lem-Lunay T’boli festival is held here every year on the second Friday of November and concludes with traditional horse fights.

Mount Apo National Park

Looming over all Davao, Mount Apo (2954m) is the highest mountain in the country: the name Apo means “grandfather of all mountains”. Apo is actually a volcano, but is certified inactive and has no recorded eruptions. What it does have is enough flora and fauna to make your head spin – thundering waterfalls, rapids, lakes, geysers, sulphur pillars, primeval trees, endangered plant and animal species and a steaming blue lake. Then there are exotic ferns, carnivorous pitcher plants and the queen of Philippine orchids, the waling-waling. The local tribes, the Bagobos, believe the gods Apo and Mandaragan inhabit Apo’s upper slopes; they revere it as a sacred mountain, calling it Sandawa or “Mountain of Sulphur”.

Climbing Mount Apo is not as hard as it sounds. The summit can be approached via two main routes: the Kidapawan Trail on the Cotabato side features hot springs, river crossings and a steep forested trail that leads to the peak via swampy Lake Venado, while the Kapatagan Trail on the Davao side is tougher but cuts through more stereotypically volcanic terrain, culminating in a boulder-strewn slope up to the crater.

In both cases you’ll need to buy a permit and to hire a guide from one of the local tourist offices in charge of each route. They’ll also do a required equipment check and arrange an orientation laying out all the usual rules (no rubbish, no swimming, stick to the trail, no picking anything etc). These offices will recommend a three- to four-day expedition, but experienced climbers could tackle the hike in two days with early starts. Climbing is generally permitted November through May only (dry season), but even so, you’ll need rainproof clothes and a small tent as rain is possible anytime and it gets cold at night. It’s a tough trek, but well worth it: the trail is lined with flowers and the views are mesmerizing, with the whole of Mindanao spread out before you.

Museo Dabawenyo

To get an overview of Davao’s turbulent history and ethnic make-up, visit the Museo Dabawenyo (082/222-6011, www.davaocity.gov.ph/museo), housed in the restored court building opposite Osmeña Park on A. Pichon Street. It’s small but well presented, and though there are more objects on display at the Davao Museum, this one is easier to reach (and it’s free). The main impression you’ll be left with is that Davao’s history is incredibly complex; its indigenous tribes are described in detail, as is the fateful struggle between Datu Bago and conquistador Don José Uyanguren in the 1840s. Panels also throw light on the American occupation boom years in the early twentieth century, the massive migrations that took place from the Visayas thereafter and the arrival of Japanese settlers in the 1930s – hard to believe this was once “Little Tokyo”.

Samal Island

Just across the narrow Pakiputan Strait from Davao, Samal Island is graced with lovely coves, beaches, excellent scuba diving and huge bat caves – there are also plenty of resorts to choose from. You can arrange diving trips at many resorts on Samal and also in Davao.

Most tourists visit Samal on organized tours but it’s also easy to arrange a trip independently. You can choose to spend time at one of the resorts (most of which allow day guests for a fee), or jump on a habal-habal and tour the island by motorbike.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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