Mindanao’s stigma is evidently strong amongst the Luzon locals, an effect on decades of news about insurgents and unrests from traditional media. Whenever I will be visiting Mindanao, there is this usual question, “Is it safe there?”. My answer, “It is, definitely.” I have been to many provinces and major cities in the promising island.
In this article, let me share the travel experiences, particularly in the region of SOCCSKARGEN. Growing up in the Central Luzon region, I only saw the region through my elementary textbooks and watching the news from television. But in today’s social media dominance, my understanding and knowledge of this region grew, that this place is teeming with tourist spots and lively festivals for visitors to experience their culture. Before sharing the experience, what is SOCCSKSARGEN? The numerical designation is Region XII and the acronym stands for SO for South Cotabato, C for Cotabato City, C for Cotabato (North) Province, SK for Sultan Kudarat, SAR for Sarangani and GEN for General Santos City.
Last January 2019, Cotabato City exited the Region 12, and now became the capital of the Bangsamoro Regional Government. Administratively, it may have changed, but in the traveling community, Cotabato City will always be a possible part of the itinerary whenever visiting the Region 12.
PORTS OF ENTRY:
General Santos Airport serves mainly the region, alternatively, Davao City and Cotabato City can be port of entry and exit.
Land Travel within the Region 12
- The cities and municipalities are linked by public vans and public buses, and grand terminals are strategically located within the town centers. Usually, the public vans last trips are from 5:00PM – 6:00PM, special trips after these hours.
- There are tricycles and motorcycles you can charter for intracity trips or transfers.
- The Husky Bus Lines and Yellow Bus Lines, commonly, has hourly trips depending on routes.
Being able to visit all of its provinces, here are the list of places I have been:
- Koronadal City
- Lake Sebu
- Matigol Falls, Arakan
- Lake Agco, Kidapawan City
- Baras Avian Sanctuary
- Provincial Capitol Building
GENERAL SANTOS CITY
- Fish Port
- Sarangani Highlands
TO T’NALAK FESTIVAL OF SOUTH COTABATO
Our adventure in Region 12 started with a rainy take off from Manila and landed on a pristine sunny early morning in General Santos International Airport. We chartered a car to whisk us to City of Koronadal. (Travel tip: Whenever you are in the region, City of Koronadal is locally known as Marbel. Better ask directions within the region and use Marbel, instead of Koronadal.) We arrived with quite heavy traffic in its main corridors, as expected, as we are heading to the town center, Alunan Avenue to be particular to witness the T’nalak Festival. Only three remaining contingents are on the streets and we hurried are cameras to take snapshots.
The festive spirit is so evident, with the happy crowd busy taking photographs and selfies, free market stalls brimming on both sides of the Alunan Avenue and other major commercial area, playing the signature sound of the festival as their house music. After gobbling our late breakfast, we hurried to the Grandstand to witness the grand performance. I was lucky to obtain a media pass the same day, despite the stress with the crowd, I kept that genuine smile while coordinating with security staff, police officers and bomb squad on duty. Little did I expect, to have found myself with the media team right in front of the stage where the VIPs are.
Shortly the contest started. The performances are grouped into three: Christian theme, Ethnic Theme and Muslim Theme. Being under the late morning sun is quite stressful because of the heat and humidity, however, watching the performances at the frontest front with live music and the awesome synergy of the dancer’s energy and colorful props, overcame the stress. It was a sight to behold! Just before the last group ended their performance, I hurried to the exit to avoid the crowd’s exodus. It was a tiring a day and we capped the day at a local boutique hotel.
Another tourism landmark of South Cotabato is Lake Sebu. About more than an hour drive from Marbel proper, you will reach the high altitude town of Lake Sebu. This town houses one of the peaceful tribes, the T’boli. We are privileged to have billeted in School of Living Traditions, a learning institute and homestay owned by the renowned Maria Todi. Mam Maria Todi is one of the celebrated leaders of the T’boli as she actively teaches their culture, tradition and music to the young ones. At her homestay, we experienced small part of their daily lives, sleeping in common quarters, dining with their native dishes, and trying out their musical instruments. Note that it gets cold at night since of the high altitude.
Lake Sebu offers a wide range of experiences – from zip lining above its roaring waterfalls park, marvelling their brassware techniques, paddling on Lake Sebu and Lake Seloton and learning on of their prized handicraft – the T’nalak cloth.
Here are the content creators from the region, and I am privileged to have met and interacted with them. It is inspiring to have learned more about the passion in digital media. They held the SOX Digicamp 101, a learning session that goals to impart proper tools for budding content creators in the region. Note that there are content creators from Luzon and Visayas too, who graced this learning session.
Where to stay in South Cotabato?
Eighty Eight Hotel
Located at the downtown area, fronting KCC Mall and few minutes walk to restaurants and establishments. Booked my stay via Booking.com
Published rates are a steal knowing its amenities. Huge queen size bed, spacious toilet and bath with full hot shower enclosure, large TV and clean. Already stayed here in two occassions will always stay here whenever I’ll be back in Koronadal City.
The Farm at Carpenter Hill
Located along National Highway, it is an expansive property with amenities ranging from restaurant, events and conference halls, hotel rooms and villas.
What I love is the Japanese Zen inspired gardens and other instillations you will see around the property. The pool area is also a big plus!
- Address: Marbel-Makar Road, 9506 Koronadal, South Cotabato
- Mobile Number: +63 917 726 0721
- Landline: +63 (83) 228 1888
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Facebook Page: facebook.com/thefarmatcarpenterhill
Where to chill in South Cotabato?
Spend your chill hours while in Koronadal City at Refuge Café located at Abad Santos Street. Ms. Charmaine Ladot, the owner, made the menu simple and straightforward – perfecting each recipe they have.
Enjoy its ambiance, tasty pasta dishes, and heartwarming quality coffee and teas right at the heart of the city. Thank you Ms. Charmaine for hosting us during the T’nalak Festival in Koronadal, South Cotabato.
The menu is simple, yet the intensive process of improving each dish precedes before being included in the list. The cafe has two floors and both are instagrammable. Did you know that this very cafe also holds various photoshoots? Thanks to the creative and brillian mind of Ms. Charmaine. What I love is the cafe is of its proximity with other establishments, hence, a strategic location to lounge at.
Address: Lao Building, Jose Abad Santos Street, Poblacion, Koronadal City, 9506 South Cotabato
Facebook Page: Facebook.com/RefugeCafe
(NORTH) COTABATO PROVINCE
From Tacurong, it will take almost two-hour drive to Kidapawan City. This city is one of the jump-off points to the summit of Mt. Apo. We planned to see Lake Agco, a nature park located at the foothills of the highest mountain in Philippine Archipelago. Due to its relevant altitude, the climate is cooler and contrary to that, the steaming Lake Agco sets a scenic and dreamy scene from a typical spooky film, a forest drenched in foggy mist. Going to this very resort is already an experience.
We travelled on a winding mountain road and enjoyed panoramic views of the lower slopes and hills as we continue the uphill, wished we could stayed longer or stayed for a night.
Lake Agco is also known for its believed health beneficial mud that tourists slather on their bodies, due to its natural sulphur and other mineral contents. There are resorts and stores already existing in the park.
How to go: take bus/vans from General Santos/Koronadal/Davao to Kidapawan City. From there, you can charter motorcycle to bring you to the resort. It is recommended to travel earlier than 4:00PM since of its distance to the city proper of Kidapawan.
Since of its mountaineous topography, the province boasts many towering waterfalls, one of them is the Matigol Falls. For about less than 3 hours drive from Davao City via Bukidnon-Davao road, you will be at its jump off point. Thank you to my friend Sheena, she was able to squeeze me in a group going to the falls – with Sir Roland and Sir Jason. Since they already knew the locals, we are able to embark on an unexpected wet adventure.
The trail leading to the waterfall’s basin is a bit tricky during a downpour. Just less than an hour after we start our trek, the rain clouds above us formed, and as expected, we are trodding on a slippery muddy trail with few inches of sheer cliff on our right side – one missed step, and we could slip to our deaths. Thank God we survived and, actually, enjoyed the experience. The buko pie we brought all the way from the jump off point survived too, without being mushy or drenched because of the rain.
We arrived at the basin safe and with a stronger cascade. The multitier waterfalls came down with a monstrous roar and strong blasts of wind and mists. We rested and consumed our snacks. The uphill trek is another adventure. The foot trail is steeper, however, shorter. We reached different tiers of the waterfalls, and crisscrossed its cascade. There are ropes you can grasp, in case you would slip. We ended up at the topmost tier almost dark. As we reached back to the jump off point, our footwears collected much mud that made the trek arduous. We have to clear our soles otherwise endure another dangerous slip and fall onto deep ravines in the dark of the night.
We are happy and contented as we drove back, as this is another one-for-the-books experience.
How to go: Best to transit via Davao City, take bus bound to Bukidnon, ask driver to alight at the junction to Matigol Falls and travel time is about two hours. From there, you can charter a motorcycle to bring you to the jump off point.
The following day, our chartered car picked up us as schedule and we visited the Baras Bird Sanctuary in Tacurong City of Sultan Kudarat province. At the time of our visit, it is breeding season, and from afar, we can actually see white specks from the canopy, indicating the high population of the birds there.
We arrived and paid registration and found ourselves sauntering through the pathways. Surely, there are lot of migratory birds, the nice and smell of bird poop fills the air. Travel tip: to get close up shots, stay still as long possible and have your telephoto lens handy.
The Capitol building of Sultan Kudarat is a destination itself. Its iconic yellow gold dome signifies the Muslim culture influence in the province.
We are lucky that we are given access to the prestigious Sultan Hall inside the capitol building. This is where VIPs are lounged during official visits. The interiors are adorned with golden details, another characteristic of Muslim inspired architecture.
The Capitol Complex also houses various provincial offices within its fences. Also, it is beside the common terminal and visiting to this government complex is not daunting or tiring. We are blessed to have met staff and security personnel who are so accommodating that we got access to the elevator, different balcony and the rooftop. Also, they assisted us to the basement where we are able to purchase souvenirs and bring home treats.
Kiamba is another western coastal town of Sarangani. We decided to spend our day in Tuka Marine Beach Resort, located on one of its scenic coves. About less than 20 minutes of boat ride from Kiamba town, we docked on of the clearest waters I have seen. We never spoiled a minute as we immediately snatched our cameras and started documenting the beach. We stayed on an air-conditioned room with balcony.
After which, we tried to ascend the trail leading to a view deck, however, was still on construction at the time of our visit. On our descent, we encountered a wild snake along the trail, we shooed it away to have my friends pass by safely. We marvelled at the sunset over the white sand beach of Tuka Marine and experienced one of the best views.
The morning after, we woke up early and others swam its clear waters briefly. Our boat arrives and fetches and left the beach, the other guests are already jumping their hearts out from the floating hut. This is just one of the plenty of experiences that Sarangani can offer to adventure-seekers.
How to go: From General Santos City, take public utlity van bound to Kiamba. Once at Kiamba, take tricycle to bring you to the jump off point to the resort. You can contact the Tourism Office at +63 910 280 5600 to inquire or reserve your boat and accommodation. Boat travel time ranges from 15 minutes to half an hour depending on sea conditions.
GENERAL SANTOS CITY
This amazing city caught my attention since I love Tuna Sashimi. Thank you to Francis of Isko Wanders blog, a GenSan-based influencer, who help me access one of the city’s destinations and front row admittance during their main event – the Kalilangan Festival Street Dance competition.
On a sunny after, we witness different units sauntering their way to the main judging area donned on glittery and colourful costumes typical of a Mindanaoan descent. Upbeat live music follows each group making us too, dance as we document the exhilarating performances.
Best to start the day early off to its iconic industry – the fish port – that calls locals and tourists every early morning to witness auctioning of fresh Tuna and deep sea catch. Never did I saw this much of fish in my life – surrounded by boats-load of it, transported via precisely-designed rails, allowing large containers of fish to slid down back to land.
Also, being surrounded by large tunas of various sizes being wheelbarrowed from different directions was another preliminary experience. I wish I could have another round of break Tuna Sashimi.
How to go: From General Santos City, you can charter a tricycle to bring you to the port. You are expected to log in and change footwear to their prescribed socks and boots.
I met another friend, Sir Chill, whom he toured us around the city, helped us purchase bring home treats in the market and dined with us – he let us try the SuToKil in one of the food parks in General Santos City.
Sarangani Highlands Garden and Restaurant is an uphill property that boasts commanding view of the vast Sarangani Bay and nearby rolling hills and mountainscapes. This is located few minutes drive from the General Santos Fish port.
It is best to have your breakfast after your early morning tour from the pier. We spent few hours enjoying its different pocket gardens and of course, a good dose of quality caffeine – coffee!
How to go: from General Santos City, take vans/bus bound to Kiamba, ask driver to alight you at the junction to Sarangani Highlands. There are motorcycles you can charter to bring you up to there. Alternatively, for adventurers, you can hike your way up, saves you cash.
- Address: Purok Wal, Tambler, General Santos City, Philippines
- Landline: +63 (83) 304-0752, +63 (922) 859-0043
- Email: email@example.com
The city’s boundaries are within Maguindanao’s province of BARMM, however, still administratively with Region XII. The city is served by Awang Airport, which located few minutes’ drive from city center. The famed Grand Mosque in the city is one of the picturesque architectural beauty to marvel.
It is named as Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque, funded by the Sultan of Brunei for the Muslim community of the city. The structure stands visibly over the plains of Cotabato City, with its four towering minarets and many domes that create a synergetic elegance. Should you be setting foot within its premises, one must follow the rules and culture of Islam. Women should wear hijab and abaya-like dress covering the feet. Men should wear long pants and sleeved top.
The City Hall also is a another destination. Its unique architecture is evident of its Muslim heritage. Inside the tourism office, there is a mini museum display showing its colorful heritage and culture. The tourism office staff are accommodating and will assist you in your needs in visiting their beloved city.
Never leave the city without going to its barter, where you can find malongs and sarongs at a very low cost.
IN SUMMARY, here are the locations I have visited referencing from the terminals we transited.
Sample 6/7 day itinerary:
- Arrival early in General Santos Airport.
- Travel to Lake Sebu (There are vans that travels straight to Lake Cebu. Alternatively, take vans to Surralah, then in Surralah, take Vans to Lake Sebu.
- Explore Lake Sebu’s destinations via chartering a motorcycle
- Take last van trip to Surralah, then take van to Koronadal City, check in and dinner out.
- Take earliest van to Kidapawan City. (2.5-3 hours travel time)
- Take a chartered motorcycle to Lake Agco.
- Take last van trip back to Koronadal. You can opt to alight in Tacurong City.
- Sleep in Tacurong City.
- Explore Baras Bird Sanctuary and nearby Palm tree plantation
- Visit the Sultan Kudarat Provincial Capitol
- Pasalubong Buying
- Take a van to Cotabato City. (3-4 hours travel)
- Check in with chosen accommodation and dinner out
- Wake Up and Have breakfast. Try the pastil.
- Explore the Grand Mosque
- Explore Tanaka Church
- Explore the City Hall grounds and visit the Tourism Office
- Visit the barter center
- Rest and sleep in accommodation.
- Take earliest back to General Santos City. (3.5-4 hours time)
- Take van bound to Kiamba (1.45-2.15 hours travel time)
- Buy stuff and food needed during your stay
Take Tricycle to Tuka Marine Beach Registration
- Take boat to the resort (15-30 minutes travel time)
- Explore the beach resort.
- Prepare your own dinner, CLAYGO.
- Socials and lights out.
- Arrange for earliest boat pick up
- Take van trip to General Santos City. (1.45-2.15 hours travel time)
- Take van to Davao City (2-2.5 hours travel time)
- From Davao Terminal, take bus bound to Bukidnon (2 hours travel time)
- Alight in Matigol Falls junction, Charter motorcycle to jump off point.
- Travel back to Davao City and take late night flight out.
- Alternatively, fly out earlier on Day 7.
Note: possible sidetrip to Pink Mosque in Maguindanao since it is beside the national highway bound to Cotabato City.
THE ARCHIPELAGIC REGION OF MINDANAO IS MORE THAN WHAT WE SEE IN TRADITIONAL MEDIA. IT IS A MELTING POT OF COLORFUL ETHNICITIES AND FAITH ALL CO-EXISTING IN THIS MAGNIFICENT PLACE I WISH THAT IS MY SECOND HOME.