Thursday, March 27, 2008

WESTERN MINDANAO - On Foot For Five Days

Ask anyone about Mindanao, particularly Zamboanga and Basilan, and you’d surely get odd responses mainly because there were so much unpleasant issues to read and hear about this part of the second largest island in the Philippines. Similarly when I told my folks about my plan to travel there, their first reaction was about safety. It may sound like a severe weather forecast but I was still determined to go and discover this side of Mindanao on my own. For me, what could be worse than the traffic, the floods, the rat race, the pollution and political rallies here in Manila?After confirming my flight schedule and looking through existing websites, I finally completed my travel itinerary. With my backpack, map, digicam, handycam, enough money, and moral fiber, I was indomitable to cover as many places and provinces for 5 days.


I took the first flight from the Centennial Airport and arrived 1 ½ hours later at the Lumbia Airport in Cagayan de Oro City, the capital of Misamis Oriental, which is the perfect departure point to most parts of Mindanao. This is where my journey down to Basilan would start.
Taxi from the airport to the city proper costs P120. I noticed, as I enjoy my tapsilog in a restaurant along Velez St., the city is generally unimpressive with noisy mixture of busy streets, tiangge and restaurants, hardly enough to tempt anyone to stay for a day or two. With the Cagayanons speaking in native Cebuano, I felt I was in a foreign land. But these locals were friendly enough to offer assistance, and always mistaken me for a Korean. The city is generally safe with policemen patrolling the entire city.

I opted to stay at the Hotel Ramon (P400/day) with a view of Cagayan River, had lunch at the Only In Cagayan Restaurant along Coralles Ave, and came across the ethnic culture of the Lumads in the Gardens of Malasag Eco-tourism Village, located in Cugman and 20 minutes away from the city center. For mall rats like me, Gaisano and Lim Ket Kai Malls are the most convenient places to look for souvenir items. Later I ended up strolling along D. B. Soria, a long strip of park with lots of tiangge, food and DVD stalls, where Xavier University and Freedom Park were located on opposite ends. After a delicious barbecue for dinner while enjoying the music played by a local band right in the middle of the park, I ceased the day.


6am – I was off to Bulua Bus Station, bought a ticket P80 for an aircon bus to Iligan City, the capital of Lanao Del Norte. 11/2 hrs later, I reached Iligan City and checked-in at the Maria Cristina Hotel (P600/day). From the hotel, I hired a taxi for P500 to take me where the city is well known for - its majestic waterfalls. First stop, the Tinago Falls. Literally hidden in a deep ravine, the falls cascade into beautifully into a basin-like pool – clean, deep and icy cold. One has to painstakingly descend a concrete stair of 500 steps or so down the basin, and up again. It has an elevation of approximately 420 feet. It is 14 kilometers away from the city proper. Access to the falls is through the Iligan Tinago Mountain Resort. Entrance fee is P10.00.

Next stop, Maria Cristina Falls - the greatest heritage and landmark of Iligan City - located 9 kilometers away from the city proper. It is 320 feet high, spews 130 cubic meters per second of water and the source of industrial power in the city. It was a Thursday and I wasn’t able to experience full grandeur viewing of the waterfalls. This event happens only every Saturdays and Sundays at 11:00 am. It was past noon, starving and exhausted, I checked out lunch at a carinderia along the highway as recommended by my taxi driver. Food was simple, delicious and inexpensive.

My day won’t be complete without cruising downtown Iligan City. All the basics are there - bazaars, fastfood chains, and tiangge. The city is generally peaceful and clean, and predominantly populated by Christians. I concluded the day with a light meal at the Big Ben and a visit to the Saint Michael Archangel Cathedral before I headed back to the hotel and retired.


Got up very early again, settled my bill, grabbed my backpack – and headed to the bus terminal to catch the bus to Dipolog City, the capital of Zamboanga del Norte. The trip took 5 hours for P180, en route Tubud RORO Port to Ozamis Port and a few minutes stopover in Ozamis City and Oroquieta City, the capital of Misamis Occidental. Both cities were peaceful and evidently clean. Along the way, I got acquainted with my seatmate who was so surprised to know I was traveling all by my self. He suggested I should drop by Dapitan City and visit the Rizal Shrine, which I did.

A visit to Dapitan City in Zamboanga Del Norte is a must for all tourists. Going around the city, I enjoyed the sight of old houses still preserved to their original designs and likewise the view from the pirturesque Dapitan Bay. Inside the Rizal Shrine, where our National Hero was exciled, the security guards were pleasant enough to show me around. The city plaza is likewise awesome. The old Spanish-era City Hall, St. James Cathedral, the relief map of Mindanao crafted from soil by Dr. Jose Rizal, are adjacent with one another and are must-see attractions. Another local guy I met suggested Dakak Resort, but since I had no plans of beach-ing, and that entrance fee alone is a hefty is P200, I disregarded the idea. Instead, I indulged myself to hearty halo-halo and pastry at the Corazon de Dapitan Restaurant before I moved to Dipolog City, which is 15-20 minutes away drive via mini bus for P17.

It was already late in the afternoon when I reached Dipolog City and my intent to climb the 3003 Steps to Linabo Peak – a famous tourist attraction in the city, was definitely unattainable. With nothing else to do, I decide to walk down the main road towards the newly-built Dipolog Boulevard. There I stayed for a few hours, watched the sun set, tried the native Soriso and Biko Dipolog, and had a little chat with some Dipolognons who are fairly warm yet restrained.

After a delectable dinner at Grandma’s Restaurant located in the downtown area, I was off again to the bus terminal to cathch the bus for my next destination – Zamboanga City. I will be a 300-km 8 hour aircon bus ride for P350. It was 10:00 pm and expected to arrive in Zamboanga City before dawn.

Around midnight, the bus stopped over at Ipil, the capital town of Zamboanga Sibugay, which was once set on fire by the Abu Sayyaf in 1995. I noticed the town had left its violent past and is now heading towards being a viable business center in the region.


It was 4:00 am and very dark when I reached Zamboanga City, 2 hours ahead of schedule. Disoriented by lack of sleep, I asked a driver of one habal-habal or motorcycle to take me to a nice coffee shop to where I can kill my time before my nephews arrive in Zamboanga City by plane. All together, we will catch the early morning ferry to Isabela City, the capital of Basilan. The only restaurant open that time was the one near the airport, and this Zamboangeno here was so nice to sit down with me, chat with his Chavacano accent, and share a large bowl of hot lomi soup while I told him of my odd travel agenda.

A trip to Basilan requires a local guide or military escorts for safety reasons since the conflict between Abu Sayyaf and the military hasn’t been resolved.  We were able to catch the 9:30 a.m. fast craft to Isabela City. The fare for a first class ticket was P130. We arrived in Basilan about an hour later.

Greeting us as we entered the port were villages on stilts, and the minarets of mosques at the center of these communities. From the port, we took a short walk up to the provincial capitol and I was so surprised to see a Jollibee store across the city plaza. I could still feel the turbulent past of this side of Mindanao since we passed by several military check points in addition to presence of military personnel all over the city proper.


First stop is to the beach. There were a lot of run down beach huts and picnic tables all over the place; but just a small group of tourists and locals enjoying the white sand. Upon entry, some of them even greeted us warmly and to my surprise, some of them were friends of my nephews' relatives here. We were offered lunch, one was very hospitable enough to offer his house for me to stay for the night. This made me realized that sometimes there are so many underrated places all over the country worth visiting, little pieces of paradise secretly tucked away for those diligent enough to search for them and enjoy the serenity they offer.

When visiting Malamawi White Beach, one must make arrangements with the motorcycle to come back for you at a later time. After a few photos, it was back to Barangay Carbon, and then back to the port of Isabela just across. We took a habal-habal to Farmland Resort in the forest outskirt of Isabela City. The trip costed P100. I was expecting to see bad roads and I was impressed that the roads here are very well-paved, and not any sign of the publicized hostilities can be felt.


As early as 6:00 am, we headed back to Zamboanga City and prepare for the late afternoon flight from Zamboanga International Airport back to Manila. We spent the remaining hours touring the city - Port Pilar, Zamboanga City Hall, Pasonanca Park. There are fast food places on almost every corner in town where you can enjoy the delectable curacha.

I was leaving with a heavy heart yet fulfilled. The opportunity to explore, observe and socialize with the people relieved me of any notions concerning the paradoxical conflict in Mindanao. These people are impressive in that they combine an infectious enthusiasm to show the true Mindanao. Their effort is one important way Mindanao can truly become the Land of Promise.


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