Sunday, March 17, 2013

Bucked up by Bukidnon (Part 1)

Climate, cowboys, culture and creed…these are just a few of the numerous reasons why I think Bukidnon should make it to every traveler's list of must-see destinations in the country. Located in the northern part of Mindanao, the landlocked province, whose name means "people of the mountains" in the vernacular, has practically everything I'd like to experience during a quick weekend wandering within an outback setting.

It's been six years since this incorrigible bum first explored Bukidnon so I thought that a second coming should already be in the offing. I’ve been through some pressures lately so calling for a timeout to buck up myself is imperative. I’m also helpless against the irresistible urge to get away from it all even for a day only. So, I finally gave in to the seduction of Bukidnon. One Saturday, I, along with Alex, our eager beaver liaison officer and “road manager”, drove all the way into one of Northern Mindanao’s premier provinces.

Bukidnon's rolling hills and verdant plains on a foggy day

Why head for Bukidnon? Summer’s just around the corner. The heat has started to get into my nerves so I deemed it best to head for a hideaway in the highlands to chill out. In Bukidnon, the refreshingly cool climate that swathes many parts of the province all year round can calm down even tempestuous minds. This, coupled with the presence of many scenic attractions, bolsters the province’s reputation as the perfect choice for those in search of a haven that comes close to heaven itself.

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Given its proximity from Davao, I thought of gravitating towards the provincial capital, Malaybalay City, passing through the towns of Kitaotao, Quezon and Maramag as well as Valencia City. Known as the “City in the Forest”, Malaybalay is a good starting point for any quick or prolonged journey to take a peek at Bukidnon’s pulchritude, placidity and plenitude. Aside from its capital city, many of the towns there are endowed with pine-covered hills and flatlands, making the province an ideal venue for picnics, excursions and outings.

Overview Nature and Culture Park


Mountain climbers and trekkers will also find the province’s mountains, especially the Kitanglad mountain range, a challenge worth conquering. Part of the range are Mt. Dulang-Dulang and Mt. Kitanglad, reputedly the third and fourth highest mountains in the Philippines, respectively, which are fast becoming the favourite venues of annual treks and conquests. I bet these peaks would be crawling with mountaineers from all parts of the world during Lent.

Surrounded by grand mountains, wide canyons and deep gorges, Bukidnon’s gently rolling grassland plateau is ideal for cattle raising, a flourishing industry that traces its roots to the early 1900s. It was the Americans who initiated the setting up of cattle ranches in several towns, which provided employment to Bukidnon’s men who were hired as cowboys.

Overview Nature and Culture Park

"Erreccion de Pueblo" (Creation of Town) Monument in Malaybalay City

One of the province’s more progressive cattle ranch towns is Impasugong (sometimes spelled as Impasug-ong), which is billed by the local government as the "hometown of the country’s finest cowboys." It’s also being touted as the home to the only communal or government-owned ranch in the Philippines. The town is just thirty minutes away up north of Malaybalay but we decided not to proceed there. I guess I’ll reserve that for the next visit.

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Culture-vultures will be ecstatic to know that Bukidnon has its own share of festivities that highlight the province’s ethno-cultural uniqueness. Foremost among these is the Kaamulan Festival, an almost month-long celebration in honor of Bukidnon’s seven hill tribes. The festival’s string of activities takes place from the second week of February until the first week of March.   

 Souvenir stalls like this sell indigenous trinkets and ornamentals


From what I’ve read in Bukidnon’s official website, Kaamulan—derived from amul, a Binukid word meaning to gather—was primarily set up to preserve the cultural heritage of the province’s indigenous peoples who belong to the tribes of Bukidnon, Manobo, Higaunon, Talaandig, Umayamnon, Tigwahanon and Matigsalug. Unlike other festivals where some participants are made to appear as natives, the annual festival features real indigenous peoples as they engage in various authentic rituals: a datu-ship rite, a peace pact, a wedding ceremony, a thanksgiving fete for a bountiful harvest, among others.

While in Malaybalay, we went to the sprawling capitol grounds where some vestiges of this year’s month-long celebration were still evident: agro-fair and livestock showcases, bazaars, and food stalls, among others. A motocross was also in progress so we killed time watching the final laps of the race. Later, we went around some of the Kaamulan booths and ended up taking home fruits, candies, trinkets, and other native products.

Transfiguration Church in Malaybalay City

Bukidnon has also become some sort of a religious mecca among Catholics wanting to do some soul-searching and gain spiritual enlightenment by visiting the Monastery of the Transfiguration. Nestled somewhere in the woodlands of the village of San Jose in Malaybalay, the monastic complex stands on a vast, slightly sloping terrain surrounded by lush mountains and hills.

Roughly twenty minutes away from the downtown area by private car, the sprawling monastic complex has several buildings housing the monks, a small chapel, dormitories and retreat houses for pilgrims, and several hectares of prime lands owned by the Benedictine Monks. Anybody can go there provided he/she wears the proper attire prescribed by the monks. Walking shorts, pek-pek shorts, mini-skirts, tube tops, sandos, and other see-thru or daring outfits are definite no-nos inside the sacred grounds. 

The road to the monastery

Perhaps the monastery’s most distinctive as well as renowned feature is the pyramid-shaped church that was designed by no less than the late Leandro Locsin, National Artist for Architecture. Said to be Locsin’s last great work before he passed away in the early 1990s, the magnificent edifice, which is made of lime blocks, was inaugurated some 30 years ago. I’d like to think that it’s a “mortal sin” for any tourist not to pay respects to this spectacular church, which has become the monastery’s emblem. 

To get to the church, Alex and I had to negotiate through a narrow unpaved road (which is exactly the same path I trod six years ago).

But it was worth all the little inconvenience because it afforded us a sweeping view of the monks’ lush estate where they’re growing a variety of crops such as peanuts, coffee, rice, sugar and corn, which they turn into reasonably-priced, value-added products like peanut brittle, peanut butter, roasted peanuts, coffee beans, and the famous Monks’ Brew Premium Coffee which are sold at the monastery’s souvenir shop.

Like the first time, I was awed by the grandness of the uniquely shaped, 500-seater house of God so I lingered to bask in the serenity of the ambience, quietly snapping the church and its verdant surroundings. Then, the almost deafening silence engulfing that sacred enclave, punctuated only by the chirping of birds and the clicking of my camera’s shutter, started to creep into my consciousness and calmed my strained nerves, filling me with an ineffable inner joy that lasted for some few precious minutes.

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Run by the Benedictine Monks who are known for living a life of silence, supplications and simplicity, the Monastery of the Transfiguration offers week-long silent retreats for those who want to engage in undisturbed self-introspection and intimate communication with God. On certain occasions, however, the ascetics mingle with the people. During the Breakfast with the Monks, Sunday churchgoers get to meet the blessed hands that prepared the sumptuous meals served to them. Now, that’s one “promo” I’d like to avail the next time I’m back in Bukidnon. 

Monk's Brew
It was starting to rain when we left the monks’ haven. But this only lasted for a few minutes and soon the sun smiled again. On our way out, we dropped by the souvenir shop inside the monastery’s vast complex where we found a variety of items for pasalubong items such as peanut butter and other sweets, rosaries, prayer books, tees, medals, pendants and of course, the famous monks’ coffee.  

Breathtaking view of Bukidnon

On our way back to Davao, Alex and I dropped by this spot that has become a favorite  stopover among motorists passing by Bukidnon on their way to either the cities of Cagayan de Oro or Davao: Overview Nature and Culture Park (ONCP). Situated at an elevated portion along the highway in the town of Quezon, ONCP provides visitors with a breathtaking view of the province’s rolling hills and verdant plains that never fail to charm first-timers as well as frequenters.

One of Kublai Millan's creations

ONCP, however, is more than just a pit stop for nature lovers, it’s also a promenade for artists and culture vultures. Scattered all over the park’s premises are numerous sculptures depicting the indigenous peoples of Bukidnon—all creations of Davao-based prolific artist Kublai Millan. Open to the public free of charge, ONCP is being maintained by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).

Sculptures depicting Bukidnon's seven hill tribes

Indeed, that short but sweet foray into Bukidnon afforded this world-weary sojourner a much-needed respite from urban tedium, allowing me to go on an advance Lenten retreat into the comforting walls of the monastery and its church. When the goin’ gets too tough, it’s best to take a break and buck up. I guess we all need to do that to reclaim ourselves once in a while. And that can come partly as a result of being coddled in a soothing solace which, in my case, happened in none other than one of God’s most visited cribs in Mindanao. :D