As a traveller, it is quite an achievement to get to visit the 80 provinces that comprises the 7,107 islands of the Philippine archipelago. (I’ve only been to a few, actually). There are so many beautiful places to go and pardon me if I exaggerate a bit here but it truly is mind-boggling – deciding where to visit first.
Well, to the less adventurous, local (and foreign) tourists would prefer choosing destinations within the Luzon and Visayas region, thereby snubbing Mindanao. I actually can’t blame them for brushing off the idea of exploring the “Land of Promise” due to the preconceived notion of instability and unrest in this region. But Mindanao is so big that it’s such a pity that the whole island is stained by the stigma labeled on a few provinces.
To those unfamiliar, there are 26 provinces in Mindanao and not ALL of it are dangerous. I repeat, NOT ALL ARE DANGEROUS. If all of it were, I wouldn’t be alive and well while writing this article. There are clearly safer regions to visit and explore. And in order to determine the safest way possible, 8 like-minded spirits set off on a unique adventure to discover Mindanao and share its beauty to the rest of the world.
The Birth of #TravelMindanao
When the waterfalling adventure in Iligan City ended, some of us, the participants of the event, had a hard time shaking off the travel bug that bit us after exploring 7 waterfalls in Iligan City + 2 more (Kapatagan Falls and Sta. Cruz Falls) in the neighboring province of Lanao del Norte that we immediately expressed the desire to go on a bolder quest and explore the rest of Mindanao ASAP. This came about the birth of #TravelMindanao, – a social media call to invite everyone to share their own travel experiences in Mindanao on their social media accounts using the hashtag #TravelMindanao, with the group behind Travel Mindanao making it their advocacy to show and share a clearer and safer path for future travellers to visit the different provinces in the area.
But how do you explore the second largest and southernmost island in the Philippines?
Within a limited time-frame, selected key destinations were chosen within the following regions – Caraga, Davao, SOCCSKSARGEN and Northern Mindanao – putting in mind the safety of each travellers too. The fact that there are really dangerous places in Mindanao was a given and we made sure we didn’t risk the chance of exploring those areas. So after planning for a month, the Travel Mindanao team embarked on a 30-day journey to discover Mindanao’s best-kept secrets. And as we moved from one destination to another one, live updates were shared on our social media accounts – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, etc. – to inform people real time of how manageable it is to travel Mindanao.
How To Explore Mindanao Safely
Bearing in mind the overall safety of this trip, we decided to focus on key areas around the region that are safer to travel. And when it is a given that it is not safe to travel at night on certain areas, we made it a point to avoid it by all means too.
So far, after finalizing everything, we finally came up with the following destinations: Surigao del Norte, Surigao del Sur, Davao City, South Cotabato, North Cotabao, Bukidnon, Cagayan de Oro and Camiguin. We threw in an overnight stay at General Santos City when an opportunity to visit the place opened up.
There were so many things that we could have done on each province. Because of the limited time, we visited the most popular tourist destinations instead. But the thought of going on a trip for 2-3 months to discover each destination in Mindanao was really tempting. However, we need to consider the schedules of each traveller too so it was best agreed to explore as many places as possible in just 30 days. It was decided that it would be a backpacking adventure as we travel by land to explore key destinations in the region.
Our Mindanao Travel Itinerary
Here’s a summary of what I got to do in Mindanao in a span of 25 days. An unexpected travel opportunity opened up while I was on the road, which led to my failure to join the last leg of this journey.
Anyway, here’s what we did…
Surigao del Norte
November 4-8: Surigao del Norte is famous for Bucas Grande and Siargao, the surfing capital of the Philippines. However, we decided to skip Siargo and focused our trip within the mainland. The #TravelMindanao advocacy made its debut in Surigao City. Dubbed as the City of Island Adventures, we explored the tourist attractions offered in this city. We hardly knew that Surigao City also offers caving expeditions and were quite unprepared for the adventure that awaited for us.
Aside from caving adventures, the City Tourism in Surigao City comes prepared with different City Tour Packages for every traveller. One could choose to go island hopping, mangrove exploration or simply beach bum at key beach destinations within the area.
As for the hungry nomad, this city offers one of the best-tasting seafood dishes in the country. I could never forget the barbecued sa-ang shells (spider shells) we ate at Islands Restobar and Seafood Restaurant on our first night, the chili crabs and buttered prawn lollipops at the Metro Surigao Shopping Center Food Gallery nor the seafood dinner feast at the Fiesta Surigao Resort.
different seafood dishes in Surigao City
If ever you are new in town and would need help in finding the best places to visit in Surigao City, don’t hesitate to drop by the City Tourism office for they will welcome you and help you with your travel itinerary and accommodations. What I admire about their office is their willingness to provide information in any way they can to help the tourism community in Surigao. And they are doing a great job so far!
Surigao del Sur
November 9-12: We were supposed to visit Bucas Grande at Surigao del Norte but because of Typhoon Yolanda, we had to cancel that part of our itinerary. After getting stranded in Surigao City for 2 days, we headed to Cantilan for that much needed rest at Cathe Pacific. We had fun playing with the huge waves despite the gloomy weather. I intended to learn to surf on this leg but the unforgiving weather made me loose my appetite to learn how. This gave the group the chance to bond while cooking meals, washing clothes and watching movies after dinner.
We were supposed to check out the surfing competition happening at Lanuza on our 3rd day in Cantilan but when we learned that another typhoon (Zoraida) was coming to town, we immediately packed our bags and headed south to our next destination, which is Bislig City to visit the Enchanted River. I couldn’t contain my excitement as we headed south for I’d get the chance to tick off one item on my bucket list – freediving at the Hinatuan Enchanted River.
Our carefree nature didn’t stop us from visiting the Enchanted River the day Typhoon Zoraida made its landfall somewhere in Mindanao. Our stubbornness to push through visiting Hinatuan was probably the best decision we made. The normally crowded Hinatuan Enchanted River was deserted when we arrived and we had the river all to ourselves. We really enjoyed swimming and freediving at the magical blue waters of the river. After lunch time, we visited the Tinuy-an Falls but Zoraida’s wrath made it impossible for us to explore Surigao del Sur’s biggest waterfalls. Before sunset, we made our way to Davao City, the 3rd leg of our #TravelMindanao adventure.
November 13-14: It wasn’t my first time to visit Davao City. But after what we went through in Surigao del Norte and Surigao del Sur, going from one place to another to evade two typhoons, a staycation at one of the country’s premier hotel, Marco Polo Davao, was a welcome treat.
Our bodies were actually exhausted from all those moving around and our 2-night stay at Marco Polo Hotel Davao allowed us that much needed pampering. Our Davao itinerary was super flexible and since some of us haven’t visited the Philippine Eagle Center, we decided to give it a go. We also made sure we didn’t leave the city without dropping by one of Davao’s best food strips, Lachi’s, which serves yummy dishes and superb deserts. A side trip to Tagum City was also arranged and we got the chance to see the tourism plans of the Palm City of the Philippines.
General Santos City
November 15-16: Our unexpected overnight stay in General Santos City finally gave me the chance to visit the tuna capital of the Philippines for the first time. And although we arrived just after sunset, a quick scan of the city gave me a positive impression of how beautiful General Santos is.
Our stay at Microtel by Wyndham gave us easy access to the city center. It’s location was very convenient as there are different food establishments nearby where we went for food trips. The side-trip to GenSan also gave us the opportunity to meet old and new friends. We also attempted to check out the reef in the area but the strong current made it impossible for us to go on with our impromptu expedition giving me more reason to go back to GenSan in the future.
November 17-18: On our 11th day on the road, we finally made it to one of the top emerging tourist destinations in Mindanao – Lake Sebu in South Cotabato. We had to transfer to 3 different modes of transportation just to reach the place.
To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect on this leg. All I know was that we were going to stay at Punta Isla Lake Resort, a resort beside a lake and that’s it. I didn’t quite understand what’s all the fuss about staying at Lake Sebu. I would later realize that this leg was one of the best destinations we covered on our entire trip. The entire place was simply breathtaking, unlimited rainbows included. The zip line adventure was the highlight and I wouldn’t tire doing it again and again just to get a glimpse of the hidden 3 out of the 7 Seven Falls at Lake Sebu.
November 19-20: After Lake Sebu, we made way for the next leg of our journey – North Cotabato. This part of the leg needs careful planning as we had to pass through Cotabato City. By passing through Cotabato City, it meant passing through Maguindanao, one of the Autonomous Regions in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Any local would have heard of the tragedy that happened there 4 years ago and although it might have just been an isolated case, we just felt it wise to be cautious and follow all safety measures possible. As to what that is, I have absolutely no idea other than to avoid travelling there by nightfall. It was also decided that it was best to stay at Midsayap for the night, one of the 1st class municipalities in North Cotabato.
Honestly, I felt tense travelling on this leg because of the warnings given by fellow travellers who have been to the place. But if you are just careful, nothing harmful will come your way. But I would not recommend this leg for foreigners though. It’s just too risky, I guess. Unless of course you travel via a helicopter. Anyway, enough of this fear talk.
If you were to remove the factors that I pointed out just now and just travel to Asik-Asik falls in Upper Dado, Alamada, North Cotabato, you will have to experience one of the best/worst rides in your life, depending on your take on the matter. All of that will be worth it once you reach your destination. (Will discuss this in detail on a future post.)
November 21-25: Day 16 was the start of our Bukidnon adventure. To me, Bukidnon is one of the biggest provinces in Mindanao (correct me if I’m wrong ha) and there’s so much to see and do here. In fact, we had so many items lined up to explore but we had to cut on some because of the lack of time. We just made use of our time wisely and covered as much as we could to enjoy every aspect of this leg.
We started with this leg by visiting the highest peak of Bukidnon in the municipality of Kitaotao and had a lovely time staying at DDD Habitat. Staying in this place was like staying in Baguio with all those pine trees and cold weather present…brrr.
The team then headed to Valencia, Bukidnon and visited the neighboring town of Quezon to explore the town’s attractions. The Blue Water cave in Quezon was quite something. This was also the place where my travel buddies and I got to try rappelling. Thinking about that experience, I’m not even sure what’s more scarier – the thought of rappelling down the bridge with washing-machine-like river currents or knowing that you will not come out alive if that river decided to swallow you alive. hehehe. It was such a thrilling experience.
We also decided to trespass in a private property across Lake Apo and went toploading on a jeepney and hitchhiked on a sugar cane truck before the day ended.
All the activities lined up on this leg was really not for the faint-hearted. I guess it served us right for asking for more but hey, I’m not complaining or anything ok. Our Bukidnon leg was the best extreme-adventure-packed activity on this whole trip. We never imagined we’d go moonlight waterfall trekking sans the moon or getting chased by a farm guard dog on an early morning walk, not to mention surviving a 6-hr river [boulder] trekking expedition (Thank you Roque Family for adopting us and sharing this one-of-a-kind adventure!). It was a good thing we were wearing our ZemGear footwear, which made it easier to walk on countless boulders and cross strong river currents.
Cagayan de Oro
November 26-29: By the time we reached Cagayan de Oro, we were all exhausted. It was a good thing that we were staying at Tune Hotels to get the chance to recover from the crazy activities that we did for the past days. We also needed the rest for the adventure that awaited for us in CDO.
Cagayan de Oro City is synonymous with White Water Rafting adventure and we couldn’t pass on the chance to ride out this experience using our trusted ZemGear footwear, the recommended shoes for river rafting and other water sports adventures. Our stay in CDO also gave us the chance to go on foodtrips. There are different food options in Cagayan de Oro and desserts are must-haves too. An open-air full body massage at CDO’s Divisoria was all what we needed to conclude our journey in covering almost all of Mindanao. We also got the chance to stay at the DDD Habitat in CDO after we stayed for an extra night in the city. We were thankful too that different Greenwich chains are spread across different regions in Mindanao as this allowed us to feast on their barkada meals and other food choices whenever possible.
On the afternoon of the 29th, while the sunset was busy trying to impress me, I just stared at the slowly fading Cagayan de Oro landscape from the boat that would take me home to Cebu. Saying goodbye to this one-of-a-kind advocacy was really difficult. My travel buddies and I have gotten to know each other well during this 25-day backpacking trip and it’s just sad that all of this has to come to an end.
Talks of having a #TravelMindanao v2.0 couldn’t be avoided. It would be wonderful to travel Mindanao again and explore more hidden gems in the region. But as to when that will happen, only time can tell.
Travelling around the safer regions of Mindanao is very easy. There are different modes of transportation that will take you from one destination to another. You can either hire a van, or ride non-stop buses to cut the traveling time short. All you need to do is research your trip well and do not hesitate to seek help. Just be on your guard all the time though to avoid ending up in difficult situations. And with this, I encourage you guys to make Mindanao your next travel destination. 😉
To all those who believed in our advocacy,
THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!
P.S. The Camiguin leg was rescheduled 2 weeks after we parted ways in CDO to accommodate the busy schedules of the team.
Photo credits to some of the photos showcased here are courtesy of Ironwulf, Bagdok on the Road and Ching the Viewfinder.