Monday, November 18, 2013

Surprised by Surigao City (Part 2)

Seen for the first time, Surigao surprised me with the rarity and richness of its picture-perfect seascapes. Here’s a city of over a dozen islands and islets where beaches count among the most stunning in this country. But there’s more to the city than just palm-fringed white-sand beaches, emerald waters and stress-free island life.

Cottages in Mabua-Ipil Pebble Beach
Having seen too many beaches in the places I’ve
been to, I wasn’t too keen on exploring Surigao’s immaculate shores which are scattered all over the place. However, upon hearing about a bizarre, one-of-a-kind beach found in the fringes of the city, I became curious and wanted to see it up close and personal.

Glimpse of Mabua-Ipil Pebble Beach and Surigao Strait

Tourists who’ve had enough of black, white or pink-sand beaches should head for one of the city’s must-see destinations: Mabua-Ipil Pebble Beach. What makes the one kilometer stretch a sight to behold are the thousands of smooth stones dotting the rugged shores and overlooking the deep blue waters of Surigao Strait.

Located some thirty minutes away from the downtown area, the off-the-beaten-path attraction is often ignored by visitors who usually opt for the spectacular swells of Siargao and the lovely lagoons of Bucas Grande, two of the most frequented islands in Surigao del Norte. Well, I must say that they’ve missed a lot by skipping the beach.
Luckily, we found time to pay the beach a short but sweet visit. Travelling to that part of Surigao was a joyride itself as we passed along a well-paved highway that treated us to an awesome vista of seascapes. It was, however, briefly interrupted as we entered a narrow dirt road leading to our destination, Mt. Bagarabon Beach Resort.

Peebles galore at Mabua-Ipil Beach

Glimpse of Southern Leyte
Passing along the coastal communities on the way to the resort, a twinge of envy welled up inside me as I gazed at the look of contentment etched on the faces of the fisher folks we saw. Despite the plainness and privation of their lives, they seemed to have found bliss. How I wish my life were less complicated like those people.

At the end of the stretch, we pulled over at the resort and headed for the bizarre beach. The whole stretch of Mabua-Ipil Pebble Beach is best viewed atop a hill which could be reached by scaling a 300-step stairway. Too bad, we didn’t have time to climb it and watch the unfolding of sunset there. Even so, the unique beach is simply marvelous!

Sea-faring Badjaos in Surigao Strait
Strolling along its stony shores, I had a glimpse of the lofty mountains of the island of Leyte. From what I’ve gathered, a three-hour ride aboard a ferry boat from Surigao will take you to the port of Liloan in Southern Leyte. You can cut that time to a little over an hour if you’re taking a ferry that’s bound for the port of San Ricardo.

Lipata Port Building
Liloan, however, is only four to five hours away via land trip from Tacloban City while San Ricardo is about five to seven hours by bus or van to the capital of Leyte Province. If only I have time and extra resources, I would have wanted to see for myself the extent of the havoc that Yolanda had wrought in that part of the country.

Basul Island
Lipata Port and Ferry Terminal
From the pebble beach, we dropped by Lipata Port and Ferry Terminal, which has earned for Surigao the title, “Gateway to Mindanao”. The port serves as the entry  point to the country’s second largest island, forming part of the so-called Pan-Philippine Highway which stretches from Laoag City all the way to Zamboanga City.

Lipata has roll-on-roll-off facilities providing services to the ports of Southern Leyte. While inside the complex, I managed to sneak into the docks, which is off-limits to outsiders, and took some snaps of captivating Surigao Strait. From where I stood, the tiny island of Basul, one of Surigao’s seventeen islands and islets, was visible. 

Not to be missed when you’re in Surigao are the historical and cultural sites scattered all over the city. Foremost among them is the City Hall. Built in the 1950s, the building stands right on the very spot where the Philippine flag was first unfurled in Mindanao in 1898 by triumphant Filipino revolutionaries, marking the end of Spanish rule. 
Rizal's monument at Luneta Park

Adjacent to the City Hall is a tree-lined promenade which is Surigao’s version of Luneta. It features Dr. Jose Rizal’s monument, food stalls, souvenir shops, a gazebo and a playground. On sweltering days, many locals while away time there, seeking solace under the cool shades of those huge acacia trees surrounding the park.

St. Nicholas of Tolentine Cathedral
From Luneta, I proceeded to the nearby Cathedral of St. Nicholas of Tolentine (San Nicholas de Tolentino). Of the four cathedrals in the Philippines (the other three are in Mati in Davao Oriental; Tandag in Surigao del Sur; and Cabanatuan in Nueva Ecija) which are dedicated to the saint, the one in Surigao is said to be the oldest. 
Inside the Surigao Cathedral

The existing structure must have been done in the late 1930s but the parish had long been in existence, dating back to the 1750s when the Augustinian Recollects came to the then undivided Surigao. Named in honor of the city’s patron saint, the church stands beside St. Paul University, a private school run by the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartre. 

Rizal's monument at Luneta Park

Every September 10, Surigaonons pay tribute to their patron saint through Bonok-Bonok Maradjaw Karadjaw Festival, a thanksgiving celebration that fuses their Christian faith with their ethnic roots. A street dancing parade depicting the culture and lifestyles of the Mamanwas, Surigao’s indigenous people, is one of the festival’s highlights. 

Church bell circa 1836
Another important landmark worth visiting is the Provincial Capitol, which was completed in 1946. Perched on top of a hill overlooking the city, the Neoclassical structure, replete with Doric-like columns and bas-reliefs, reminded me of other Greek-inspired buildings I’ve seen in Bacolod, Oroquieta, Cebu, Manila and other cities.
Meanwhile, in an effort to preserve Surigao’s rich cultural heritage, the Provincial Government, in cooperation with the private sector, has put up the Surigaonon Heritage Center. Located in the eastern end of Parola Boulevard, the museum features ancient archaeological relics, memorabilia and other artifacts gathered from around Surigao.

Good thing, I was allowed to take pictures of antique sculptors, jars, kitchen wares, instruments and other cultural treasures found there unlike in other repositories where picture-taking is prohibited. A visit to the heritage center would fascinate not only history buffs and culture-vultures but also scholars searching for interesting rarities.

From the boulevard, I crossed over to the promenade fronting Surigao Strait for another glimpse of the sea and the islands of Nonoc, Hikdop and Hanigad. Sinking into a bench, I rested briefly before taking snaps of the picturesque seascape. Pump boats bound for nearby islands across the narrow strait use the promenade for docking.

Nonoc Island as seen from
Parola Boulevard
Surigao Strait, which links Bohol Sea with Leyte Gulf, is regularly crossed by ships and ferries carrying people and cargoes to and fro the Visayas and Mindanao. It is perhaps best known for the historic naval battle that took place there on October 25, 1944 between the American forces and the Japanese fleet during World War II.

Grilled giant squid

Arguably one of Mindanao’s seafood capitals, Surigao is synonymous with delights coming from the sea. It’s probably one of the reasons why tourists keep coming there. The city is one living aquarium where the most delectable marine species in the planet are yours for the taking. For me, the “S” in Surigao stands for these sumptuous words—spectacularly savory seafood!

The best way to savor those bounties is to buy your own and have these cooked any way you want it—seared, smoked, stewed, steamed or sautéed. Surigao has a fair share of seafood markets and restos offering such service for a reasonable fee. Caveat: Most of the stuff in those restos, except for the crabs and squid, are frozen delights! 

Live crabs
Even so, we had a great time dining at the popular Ocean Bounties. Take this from me. Diners shouldn’t be that hungry when they go there. Otherwise, they run the risk of gaining unwanted flabs while indulging themselves with those mouth-watering dishes! But who cares? Certainly, not us visitors who rarely get to taste those bounties. LOL!

Ocean Bounties serves some of the most sought-after seafood dishes in town, which even the most discriminating of palates would have difficulty resisting. House specialties include grilled lobster, sashimi, sweet and sour fish, steamed crab, baked oysters, seafood paella, among others—name it and, chances are, they’ll cook it for you!

Lato (seaweeds)
Foodies who’d like to have the freshest seafood in Surigao should also try visiting the public market which teems with all sorts of goodies from the sea. They can buy raw and freshly caught fish and shellfish and let those eateries adjacent to the market prepare and cook their favorite stuff. That’s exactly what we did one night. 

Right after acquiring our goods, we headed for Merlie’s, one of the small restos in the market, for a uniquely exhilarating gustatory experience. We then had the fresh bounties cooked by the staff in a variety of ways. Geez, those uber delicious dinners at Merlie’s count among the most satisfying food trips I’ve ever had in years!

Sayongsong, a native delicacy
Brief as it was, the surprising sojourn to Surigao showed me another amazing side of Mindanao during an out-of-the-blue escapade. As English writer Samuel Johnson aptly put it, “it’s those unexpected sparks that kindle our brightest blazes of gladness.” That’s what Surigao did to me and my colleagues.

So, say “Surigao”, and chances are, the first thing that would be running through this first-time visitor’s mind is a second coming. For I’ve barely scratched the surface of the city known for its spirited people, splendid seafood and spectacular escapades. Geez, I’m craving for more surprises in the City of Island Adventures! :-D

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Surprised by Surigao City (Part 1)

Say “Surigao”, and, chances are, the first thing that would probably run through an incorrigible tourist’s mind are the wild, wind-swept and wickedly surprising escapades guaranteed to give anyone a good dose of sun, sea and sand in the so-called “City of Island Adventures”, a title that fits Surigao del Norte’s capital to a tee.

Say “Surigao”, and, chances are, the first thing that would likely whet an insatiable foodie’s appetite are the fresh catch of fish, crabs, lobsters and prawns cooked and served in a variety of ways—grilled, fried, boiled, steamed, baked and what have you—by restaurants in one of Mindanao’s renowned seafood capitals.  

Say “Surigao”, and chances are, the first thing that would perhaps tickle an impassioned historian’s imagination are the treasure trove of precious historical and cultural finds just waiting to be rediscovered in one of Philippines’ little known yet most important enclaves of history, culture and the arts.

I’m a bit of the three—incorrigible tourist, insatiable foodie and impassioned (read: wannabe) historian—and those thoughts crossed my mind when I learned I was one of the delegates to a Mindanao-wide corporate event in Surigao. I’ve never been there so imagine how surprised and delighted I was to know I’m bound for the city. 

Surigao's giant crabs

Nestled in the northeasternmost tip of Mindanao, Surigao, which is fast rising as one of the island's economic cornerstones, offers some of the most breathtaking natural attractions that would captivate tourists who are constantly in search of dream destinations that are largely unspoiled, unaffected and uncharted.

Giant shoe at Luneta Park
What’s with Surigao that makes it such an interesting tourist magnet? Well, it wouldn’t be called the City of island Adventures for nothing. Composed of seventeen bewitching islands and islets, it boasts of several stretches of immaculate beaches, unique rock formations, mystical caves, lush mangrove forests and awesome marine sceneries. 

St. Nicholas of Tolentino Cathedral
The city’s vast potentials for tourism may have only been recognized in recent years following the wave of political developments that came about with the formation of Caraga Region, but Surigao has been attracting people to its shores long before Ferdinand Magellan and his crew first sailed through historic Surigao Strait.
Nonoc, one of Surigao's 17 islands

During pre-Spanish times, the old settlement was already a thriving area populated by a group of fierce and intrepid people of Visayan stock who had contacts with Chinese, Arab and Hindu traders. In the 1600s, it grew into a port town named Bilang-Bilang (later called Banahao in the 1730s), which was part of the district known as Calagan. 
Surigao City Hall

Surigao del Norte Provincial Capitol
When the Spanish conquistadors came, they must have mispronounced Calagan and ended up calling it Caraga, which originated from the native words kalag, meaning “spirit or soul”, and an, meaning “land”. In essence, Calagan/Caraga, which then covered a third of Mindanao’s total land area, referred to the “land of spirited people.”

History has it that Provincia de Caraga (with Tandag as its capital) included present-day Surigao del Norte, Surigao del Sur, the eastern portion of Misamis Oriental and the northern part of Davao Oriental. When Tandag was burned by Moro raiders, the Spanish authorities moved the capital to the town of Surigao in the 1750s.

The road to Surigao City
In the early 1900s, Provincia de Caraga came to be known as the Province of Surigao, lasting throughout the American occupation up to the post-World War II years. When the province was subdivided into two in 1960, the then municipality of Surigao became the capital of Surigao del Norte with Tandag as its counterpart in Surigao del Sur.

Rizal's monument
Meanwhile, modern-day Caraga Region, which seems to have partly reverted to its original composition in the 1600s, is made up of the provinces of Agusan del Norte, Agusan del Sur, Surigao del Norte, Surigao del Sur and Dinagat Islands, as well as the cities of Bayugan, Butuan, Cabadbaran, Bislig, Tandag and, of course, Surigao.

Facade of Surigao's City Hall
Blessed with rich natural resources, Surigao’s economy flourished through the years, bolstered mainly by agricultural, fishing, mining and tourism activities. This eventually paved the way for the old town’s cityhood in 1970. Populated by nearly 140,000 people, it ranks today as one of the most competitive small-sized cities in the country. 

A mall in downtown Surigao
Surigao has 54 barangays, 33 of which are found in the mainland while 21 are scattered in its seventeen islands and islets, which—I hope I got it right—include  the following: Awasan, Bayagnan, Basul, Danawan, Hanigad, Hikdop, Hinatuan, Manjagao, Nabago, Nonoc, Raza, Sagisi, San Jose, Sibale, Sugbu, Sumilom and Talavera. 
Gazebo at Luneta Park

Battered by typhoons year in, year out, Surigao, a legendary name fraught with stories about its origins, had long intrigued me. For years now, I’d been trying to arrange a sojourn to the city and its neighboring islands. Almost always, I ended up cancelling for fear of being caught in the middle of some forthcoming storm.

Just when I had given up on my best-laid plans, the chance to see Surigao came my way. Like those huge Pacific surges bashing its shores, I surged forward to the city when the storm season had already set in. Good heavens! Super Typhoon Yolanda had just left the country while we were gearing up for Surigao!

A glimpse of Surigao Strait

When everything  was set for our sojourn to the so-called “Gateway to Mindanao”, we found out that another typhoon—Hello, Zoraida, is that you?—was going to make landfall in Surigao on the very day that we’re supposed to go there! Oh, no! Not again! I protested. Why can’t these freaks of nature just leave the country in peace?!

Gaisano Capital Mall
Geez, I’ve had enough of typhoons—Ondoy, Pedring, Quiel, Sendong, Lawin and many others—which have done so much to spoil my previous vacays. Although Zoraida was of lesser intensity compared to its catastrophic predecessor, Yolanda, which wrought havoc in Central Philippines, I still had misgivings about travelling that day.

Tavern Hotel
Bracing ourselves against Zoraida, our twelve-man delegation braved the inclement weather—gloomy skies, intermittent rains and light floods—all the way to Surigao. Lifting our cares to the Almighty, we forged ahead as the weather forecast said that the typhoon would already be in the Visayas by the time we reach the city.  

Traveling by land from Davao, we embarked on a thrilling eight-hour journey into the heartland of Northern Mindanao, passing through two regions (Davao and Caraga), four provinces (Davao del Norte, Compostela Valley, Agusan del Norte and Agusan del Sur) and four cities (Tagum, Bayugan, Butuan and Cabadbaran).

Lake Mainit as seen from the town of Alegria

Aboard three vehicles, we meandered through the arterial roads linking the southern and northern portions of the island. Slowed down by rains and floods, our vehicles travelled at 60 to 80 kph, trailing behind the typhoon, which traversed the Caraga Region at  30 to 50 kph. Zoraida was gone by the time we reached Surigao. 

On the way to the city, we passed by picturesque Lake Mainit, said to be the country’s fourth largest lake with an area spanning 173,000 hectares. Home to a wide variety of fish and wildlife species, I first saw it over a decade ago during a trip to Tubay in Agusan del Norte. Unfortunately, I failed to explore it on the two occasions I was there.

Said to be the country’s deepest lake, the pear-shaped natural attraction is shared by the provinces of Agusan del Norte and Surigao del Norte, with four municipalities from each province bordering it. Gazing at the lake from our vehicle, I couldn’t help but be stunned by its sheer beauty. I brought out my Nikon and took some snaps of Mainit.

Arriving in the city, we immediately proceeded to one of Surigao’s newest hotels where we were billeted for the next few days. From my room, I had a glimpse of Zoraida’s gloomy specter at the distant horizon. Tired, I sank into my bed, comforted by the thought that the storm was on its way out of Mindanao. I dozed off minutes later.
After an hour, the incessant ringing of my phone woke me up—a text message from  a colleague reminding me it’s dinner time. With much effort, I rose from my bed, washed up and went downstairs to join the group. Destination: the public market where we feasted on delectable seafood. Before calling it a night, we had a few drinks at the hotel’s restobar.

Tipsy, I slept like a log that night. Waking up hours later, I was surprised to see an unexpected phenomenon from my window—a dazzling rainbow glowing in the early morning sky. Rainbows, they say, symbolize God's promise that He won’t be sending another flood to destroy everything on earth like what happened during Noah’s time.

In the aftermath of the typhoon and its accompanying storm surge which nearly wiped out many parts of Central Philippines, I couldn’t help but wonder if He’s reneging on that promise. Was Yolanda an omen of sorts, a prelude to something far more devastating, a sneak peek at something apocalyptic? Geez, I hope not.The thought scares me.
(to be continued)