The television is on in the office of Camiguin governor Jesus Jurgen Romualdo. It is broadcasting live images of the Zamboanga crisis, where the rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front, has attacked parts of that province in Mindanao.
“This is really hurting us,” governor Romualdo sighs.
Any upheaval in Mindanao has a dire effect on the rest of the cities and provinces in the region. Especially in terms of tourism. One mention that a place is in Mindanao, and the knee-jerk reaction is usually alarm or fear.
Never mind that Camiguin, along with provinces like Bukidnon, Lanao del Norte, Misamis Occidental and Misamis Oriental are actually in Region 10 or Northern Mindanao — miles away from the actual fighting.
“We just tell them that we are located south of Visayas,” Governor Romualdo laughs. This seems to work. Tourists are generally more trusting of Visayas. But in the long run, people really have to be convinced that this part of Mindanao is quite safe. And very beautiful.
This was precisely why the Department of Tourism had flown us out on a Northern Mindanao adventure — to assure the folks back home, and even abroad, that not all of Mindanao is in conflict. In fact, certain parts of it are much safer than Manila.
Our first stop was Camiguin. We flew there from Cebu city. This is a new route being promoted by Cebu Pacific Airlines, which started its Cebu-Camiguin flights this year. We took the Monday flight at 9:35 am. Before we knew it, we were landing a mere 30 minutes later.
An Island Born of Fire
Camiguin is a pear-shaped island lying on the Bohol sea, some 54 km southeast of Bohol. Presently, it is 248 square kilometers, only slightly bigger than the smallest province in the country which is Batanes (219 square kilometers). Truth be told, Camiguin used to be much smaller until Mt. Bulkang Daan (Old Volcano) erupted in 1948, spitting out land and lava that eventually cooled to become an extension of the island.
It’s a sleepy province with a relatively small population of 90,000 people. It’s the kind of place where everybody knows everybody else. Even the political leanings of each family are common knowledge. “You see, when there is a death in the family, we are able to see which politician’s face appears in the tarpaulin and tent they use during the wake,” Region 10′s Tourism Director Catalino E. Chan explains.
This is just one of the many quirks of this charming province, where everything is laid-back and easy — where lights go out promptly at around 10 pm and the night time silence can be deafening. Governor Romualdo brags that you can walk Camiguin’s streets at night without fear of being mugged, or harassed. Crime rate is very, very low, and the province’ drug usage is at a miniscule .05 percent.
Camiguin’s roads are usually quiet and uncrowded, plied by jeepneys, vans, multi-cabs, and the quaint motorela, a small, motorized carriage. It is in the month of October when these same streets come alive with dancing, parades, beauty pageants, and various contests during the Lanzones festival. This weeklong celebration showcases the province’s signature fruit, the lanzones.
Lanzones is Camiguin’s most important crop. It is famous throughout the country for its sweetness, because it grows on the island’s volcanic soil. Locals say that the sweet, translucent flesh of lanzones is best eaten a day or two after it is picked off the tree, when the fruit’s dagta or sap is not as evident. Because of its abundance, lanzones in Camiguin is a mere Php 40 per kilo — almost half of what it’s sold for in the markets of Manila.
Aside from the Lanzones Festival, Camiguin is busiest during the Panaad Festival, which happens during Holy Week. Devotees from all around the world come in droves to walk the entire 64 km road that runs the perimeter of Camiguin. This procession ends at the foot of Mt. Bulkang Daan, where a hike takes them up through the 14 Stations of the Cross. During this entire week, half of the roadway is closed down.
But now in early September, the roads of Camiguin are clear, and a lazy calm pervades the island. “We have everything here — hot springs, cold springs, white beaches, mountain climbing,” governor Romualdo says. “You should try everything.”
That’s exactly what we planned to do. But before that, lunch.
We had our lunch at the Bahay Bakasyunan sa Camiguin. This resort is just a 10 minute drive from the airport, and we were staying there for the night as well.
The grounds there are quite lovely, with coconut trees and large swathes of green grass, columns of bamboo bungalows, and A-frame cottages. Though modern comforts such as air-conditioning, wifi and TVs are provided in each of the cottages, the real draw is the porch view of the swimming pool and the ocean.
Surol (native chicken in coconut milk, with oregano, and chili), squid, fish, and vegetables were served al fresco, on a long table facing the sea. It was delicious, but we couldn’t linger for long. We had a date at a marine sanctuary.
The Island Sanctuary
Mantigue Island lies 3.5 km off the coast of Camiguin. Special permission from the local unit of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is needed to explore Mantigue, as the government wants to preserve its pristine state.
The boat ride took just 20 minutes, and soon we docked on Mantigue’s soft white sand. Local guide Ikoy ushered us into the 4 hectares of the island’s evergreen forest, where he pointed to us, the different types of trees in existence there. Ikoy also took our photos in the best spots, and showered us with compliments like “Excellent! Beautiful! Fabulous!”
Aside from this trek, guests of the island can go snorkeling, kayaking, or diving. But if you want to see some underwater treasures but don’t want to get wet, a glass-bottom boat ride is your best bet. This is what we did, and we spotted colorful reef fish, and beautiful coral. If you’re fortunate, you might even spot the resident pawikan (hawksbill turtle).
We didn’t see anyway pawikans, sadly. But we did get a pretty good idea of the underwater treasures that the Mantigue marine sanctuary is protecting.
The Zip Line Restaurant
Soon it was time to go and our boat docked back onto Benoni Port. We immediately headed off to nearby J and A Fishpen. This spot, where the mountain spring water meets the sea is a restaurant with eateries on stilts, with the added attraction of a zip line facility. Guests here can opt to go on a zip line ride while waiting for their freshly-caught fish to be cooked.
We decided to try the zip line. A multi-cab drove us up to the first launch point. After we were strapped in, Superman-style, we zoomed 700 meters over Tanguines lagoon, 150 feet in the air. The return zip of 360 meters was a breeze, and we settled back at the restaurant and tucked into a merienda of pancit canton, coke, and really good, freshly-baked bread.
Night was falling when we made our way towards the Sunken Cemetery and the old Church ruins of Catarman, some 25 kilometers away. It was too dark too make out anything in these two spots — we’d just have to return the following day. So it’ll just have to be the spring pools for tonight.
Unfortunately, we had to shelve Bura Soda Water Park, and miss trying out the pool whose water you can drink and swim in at the same time. The facilities were closed down for maintenance.
No matter. We headed off to the Sto. Nino cold spring. Now, this resort would have been perfect for the summer, with its chilly spring waters that sprout up from its sand-bottom pools. Several huts flank these pools, and there’s even an area where drinks can be cooled by the cold spring water. With just an entrance fee of Php 20, it makes for a very affordable and enjoyable picnic place.
At Ardent Hibok Hibok Spring Resort, our next stop, we had dinner. Ardent is one of the five hotel-resorts that are accredited by the Department of Tourism (the others being our resort, Bahay Bakasyunan, Paras Beach Resort, Camiguin Highlands and Secret Cove Beach Resort). Having a Php 30 entrance fee already makes it the most “expensive” in Camiguin.
Ardent’s hot springs are heated by the Mt. Hibok Hibok volcano, and the pools’ temperature ranges from 32-39 degrees Celsius. And for that cold September evening, taking a dip into these warm, comforting pools was the best way to end the long day.
The 5 am trip to White Island the following day was actually optional. But who in their right mind would actually miss a chance to see this Camiguin jewel? So we all woke up early, and after a cup of sikwate (hot chocolate) to ward off the early morning chill, we were off to the island.
The usual route to White Island is via the port from Paras resort. There, boats that can fit up to six are available, and the ride to the island takes just 10 minutes. As for us, we took a very short motorela ride to Balbagon Port from our resort, where a boat was waiting for us. It was a 20 minute ride, and upon reaching the shore, we saw just how popular this long sandbar was — several boats had arrived ahead of us and people were already busy swimming, snorkeling, and building sandcastles.
We took our leisurely time walking on White Island’s soft white sand, gazing at the outline of Mr. Hibok Hibok in the distance. Then, we were approached by a man selling uni or sea urchin. He opened one for us, cleaned up the other unedible parts, and scraped the flesh off the shell. Doused in a bit of coconut vinegar, uni has a briney, even creamy taste that is actually quite delicious.
It wasn’t long before we had to go, as we had to make a last minute run for the church ruins and the sunken cemetery.
A Sunken Cemetery and An Old Church
In 1872, Mt. Bulkang Daan erupted so intensely that a 5-hectare Spanish cemetery disappeared into the sea. To mark the area where cemetery sank, a big, white cross was erected in 1982. You can see the cross from a view deck. Those who want to get closer, can have themselves rowed to the cross.
You can do a bit of shopping in this area too. The narrow street that leads up to the view deck is lined with small stores selling Camiguin souvenirs like windchimes made of seashells, refrigerator magnets, keychains and even lanzones vinegar and chicharon from Carcar, Cebu.
We then swung by another casualty of Mt. Bulkang Daan’s 1871 eruption — the ruins of the Old Catarman Church. As with most churches of olden times, this one was built with egg yolk, and adobe. But all that remains now of this 16th century Spanish church are the moss covered walls.
An Old Camiguin Saying
Folks in Camiguin believe that if you visit their island and you are able to circumnavigate the 64 km perimeter road, you will be back. At the end of our Camiguin tour, our very helpful and knowledgeable guide, Milo Dahilan, announced that we actually did completed the route. With grins on our faces, we bid the island goodbye, knowing that we would be back someday soon.
Now it was off to Cagayan de Oro. We took the roro (roll-on, roll-off boat) which left Camiguin’s Benoni port at 12 noon. An hour later, we found ourselves in Balingoan, Misamis Oriental. It would take another two-hour drive to take us to the capital, so we took the opportunity to rest. We wanted to be ready for Cagayan de Oro.
The City of Golden Friendship
The undisputed center of Region 10, Cagayan de Oro or CDO, is located along Macajalar Bay. And while Camiguin is all sleepy, small-town charm, Cagayan de Oro is brazen, ambitious, and very, very friendly. Even the recent devastation of tropical storm Sendong could not keep the city down for long.
There are several new and exciting developments that are already in the works for Cagayan de Oro, and we were able to see some of them.
The first one is Paseo del Rio, a project by the Zealep corporation. Though it is still in its construction phase, the plan is that Paseo del Rio will include a mall, a convention center that can accommodate 3,000 people, and an 18-storey, five-star hotel which will have a rooftop infinity pool and a helipad bar. With its location beside the Cagayan de Oro river, the structure is designed such that it harnesses the river’s breeze, giving its guests an experience that is both luxurious and close to nature.
Meanwhile, the Limketkai Luxe Hotel has a prime location just minutes away from Cagayan de Oro’s shopping and dining hubs. The hotel, which is slated to open early next year, will have 213 rooms — 12 of which are executive suites, while 16 are executive club suites. It will also have an infinity pool, a spa and a 700-seater ballroom. Dining at the hotel will include an upscale Chinese restaurant, and a buffet spread with carving stations showcasing sumptuous meat cuts. Limketkai Luxe Hotel is a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) registered, Gold building — which means that its construction, design, operation and maintenance are environment-friendly.
Now our last stop for that day, was also where we would be spending our two nights in Cagayan de Oro. Seda Centrio is a development by the Ayala Land Hotels and Resorts and the Floirendo’s Anflo Group, and it is located over the Centrio mall.
This boutique hotel opened only last December 2012, and features a sleek, modern design — with Paco Guerrero paintings adorning its walls, and a lobby designed by renowned architect Conrad Onglao. The 150 rooms here have California king-sized beds, in-room safes, Ipod docks and speakers, and very handy media panels with USB, HDMI, and audio visual connections which allows guests to view their files or listen to music via the 40-inch LED TV system.
At this point, there was nothing more that I wanted than to plop down on the comfortable bed and rest, but we were slated to have dinner at a popular Cagayan de Oro restaurant.
Fill Me Up: CDO Style
Fil Me Up is actually the sister restaurant of the Cagayan de Oro favorite, Thai Me Up restaurant. Owner Jan Uy shared that their original restaurant, Thai Me Up with its Thai fusion dishes was so popular that a new one showcasing Filipino cuisine, was inevitable.
We had quite a buffet spread — sinuglaw (a dish composed of grilled pork belly and raw fish soaked in vinegar), galunggong (hard tail mackerel) samosa, pork humba, and chicken halang halang.
After this dinner, we were quite stuffed and it was off to bed for us. White water rafting awaited the following day.
White Water Rafting
At 7:30 am sharp, the jeep from Bugsay River Rafting picked us up from the hotel. After a quick stop at Bugsay’s office to sign our waiver forms, we were off. An hour and a half’s drive later, we alighted at the starting point in Sitio Aura, Barangay Mambuaya, and geared up for our three-hour white water rafting adventure.
Our guide then gave the preliminary instructions, and divided us afterwards into two groups (around five to six people in a boat). With our helmets on, and our paddles in hand, we stepped on the signature sky blue raft of Bugsay — which are customized especially for this rafting company.
We floated slowly down the Cagayan de Oro river at first, and whenever our guide Arman commanded us to “Paddle! One, two, three!” we obeyed instantly. Soon the first rapid was upon us, and as the boat tilted and swayed, there was much splashing of water and shrieks of laughter. After the excitement died down, we tipped our paddles up in a high five that marked the successful conquering of a rapid.
The thing about white water rafting is that if it’s your first time, the natural fear would be that every rapid that you cross might flip your boat over or smash you against the rocks. But this was the beginner’s trail and we had very skilled boat guides with us. There was nothing to fear, and soon we were eagerly looking forward to the next rapids.
At the half-way point of our three-hour river ride, we stopped for a boodle lunch set up by our guides. They flipped a boat over, and there arranged adobo, liempo (grilled pork belly), shrimp, grilled bangus (milk fish), lots of rice and pineapples.
The food bloggers in our group hastily took photos of our feast. Later on, the Canadian man who had joined our group admitted to us that he had watched this process with amusement, and thought to himself, “Have these people never seen food before?”
All in all, we rode 14 rapids — some small, some big, some — but all of them invigorating. In between these there was the stunning scenery of the rocky river walls and lush vegetation plus the wide open space ahead of us, with its serene mountain views. At certain parts where the water was calm, our guide urged us to jump off the boat and enjoy floating down the ice cold river.
Adrenaline Rush in Bukidnon
The day’s adventure was not yet done. But we had to go on a two-hour drive to Malaybalay Bukidnon first, which is some 91 kilometers south of Cagayan de Oro.
Bukidnon is a landlocked province, bound on the north by Misamis Oriental, the south by North Cotabato and Davao del Sur, the west by Lanao del Sur, and the ast by Agusan del Sur and Davao del sur. Majority of Bukidnon’s land is classified as forest land, and the average elevation here is 3,000 feet — which makes for a great, chilly temperature.
Some of the more popular places in this province include the Mt. Kitanglad National Park, in North Central Bukidnon, and the Del Monte Pineapple Plantation, which is an agri-tourism site, the largest single pineapple plantation here in the Far East.
But as for us, our destination was the Dahilayan Adventure Park — a mountain resort tucked in the highlands of Dahilayan. The main draw of this park are its thrill rides. The zip lines here are quite popular, and the first one we tried was the 320 meter and 150 meter dual zip line.
You’d think that after the 700 meter zip line in Camiguin, this would be a cinch. But this was a whole new experience because we had to ride it in sitting position. Thankfully, a dual zip line means you get to ride simultaneously with somebody, which is somewhat comforting.
These two lines are actually meant as just a warm up to the 840-meter one, which until recently, was the longest dual zip line in Asia (it has since been eclipsed by Dakak’s zip line which is 1,364 meters).
The 840 meter zip was quite exhilarating. The launch point is 4,700 feet above sea level, and you zoom Superman-style over treetops, mountains and through fog.
Now this adrenaline fix was apparently not enough for the boys in our group so they went on to try the Drop Zone. This “ride” is an 11-storey freefall, which swings you pendulum-like over a manmade lake. The most nerve-wracking thing about this is that after you’ve been lifted high up in the air, you are the one to unbuckle the strap and launch your screaming self on the 120-feet plunge.
Just watching the whole thing made me dizzy. But the boys in our group walked away from this ride with the kind of self-satisfied strut that comes from staring death in the face and living to tell about it.
Aside from these white-knuckle rides, Dahilayan also an ATV trail, a rope obstacle course (great for team building), a flying lizard ride, plus cozy mountain lodges where you can stay overnight.
As for us, we drove two-hours back to Cagayan de Oro for dinner at the Kagaynon Restaurant. Director Chan met us there, and we feasted on lechon, pinakbet, ostrich salpicao, and crocodile barbecue in this celebrated CDO restaurant. Director Chan regaled us with tales of lechon festivals, 5-hour beauty pageants, and lanzones and diwata (fairy) legends.
City Tour and Pasalubong Stops
On our last day in Cagayan de Oro, our guide Milo, took us on a short city tour with stops like the St. Augustine Church and its 100-year old stained glass windows from France, the Museum of Three Cultures in Capitol University and its ornate soil paintings, and magnificent Maranao jewelry, and the Sendong Memorial Wall in Gaston Park, which lists the names of those who perished in the floods, as well as the names of those who are still missing.
We also made the rounds of the pasalubong spots — Sler’s Ham and Cafe with its delicious ham and chicharon (reportedly, president Noynoy Aquino’s favorite), Pine Ham with its nondescript location and its smoked and cooked ham specialties, and of course Oro Ham, the CDO favorite. For the famous custard-filled bun called pastel, we swung by Vjandep and Missy Bon. We also dropped by Monster Kitchen, which is a combination of a baking supplies shop, school, and pasalubong center where I bought Shiga — Bukidnon chili in olive oil. I couldn’t wait to distribute my pastel, lanzones, and chili pasalubong to family and friends. And I couldn’t wait to tell them all about my trip.
It was a fantastic four days in Northern Mindanao — a perfect vacation filled with relaxing beaches, thrilling river rides, heart-stopping adventure parks, exciting commercial developments, and a people so warm and disarmingly friendly. With so many things to offer in such a safe environment, the area shouldn’t have to hide under the “south of Visayas” label. They are Northern Mindanao, and they should be proud.