Sunday, June 28, 2015

Making it to Malaybalay City

Out there in the heartland of Mindanao, where its remaining (read: endangered) forest covers are found, lies this city that never fails to fascinate me each time I have the chance to visit it—Malaybalay. Aptly called the “City in a Forest”, its attractions have much to do with the au naturel charms of its clean and green surroundings.  

Bukidnon's capital, however, can’t boast about being on a bay, lake, river, or having a view of the sea because it’s landlocked just like the rest of the province. So, what’s the one thing that sets it apart from any other city of its class? What else but those hectares upon hectares of old-growth, sturdy and lovely trees—dipterocarps, conifers and what have you—set  within a backdrop of lofty, mist-covered mountains and hills.

A mini-forest inside the Provincial Capitol complex

An evergreen forest inside Kaamulan Nature Park

Dubbed as the “Southern Summer Capital of the Philippines”, Malaybalay was founded as a pueblo  by the Spanish colonizers in 1877. When the Americans came, the sleepy town became Bukidnon’s capital in 1907 following the latter’s establishment as a province.  In 1998, Malaybalay attained its status as a chartered city. 

Taking on a leisurely drive from Davao City, it took me roughly three and half hours to reach Bukidnon’s capital, passing thru the well-paved Davao-Bukidnon and Sayre Highways. On the way there, I got to pass through and pulled over the picturesque towns of Kitaotao, Quezon, Maramag and, of course, Valencia City. 

A mist-covered mountain in Malaybalay

Valencia City
First-time visitors to the city usually expect to see a rustic mountain town in Malaybalay. But it’s really a small city bursting with an exciting urban tempo that’s tempered by its essentially rural character. I’m not certain though in terms of numbers how much of its total area of 969.2 sq. km (13% of Bukidnon’s total) is rural but I assume it’s a larger percentage compared to the urbanized sprawl.  

When I first saw Malaybalay several years ago, the city came across as Baguio almost two decades earlier, that is—small, clean and green, congestion-free. Nestled at an elevation of 622 m (2,041 ft) above sea level, Malaybalay’s climate is, of course, cool.  Visitors will surely love the pine-scented, crisp mountain air that swathes the city all year round.

The motorela or rela is the usual mode of transport within the city. This version of the ubiquitous tricycle that’s common in Northern Mindanao is quite smaller than the usual ones I saw in other Philippine cities. I took the rela on a few occasions as I opted to leave my car at the hotel. Doing so, I guess, is the best way to acclimatize myself with the way of living in the places I visit.

Bukidnon State University, one of the oldest public universities in Mindanao

With the presence of Bukidnon State University (BSU), Malaybalay can be considered as a university town, not unlike Dumaguete (with Silliman and four other universities). Created in 1924 as a two-year secondary school during the Commonwealth era, BSU became a state university in 2007, with an estimated student population of over 11,000.

Gaisano is the only mall I saw there, but no movie houses yet. McDonald’s, Chow King and Jollibee also have their popular presence. There are, however, several cheap dining places spread all over town, mostly catering to students. Two dining places that count among my favorites are Anton’s Grill and D’ Stable Eco-Park. 

Anton’s Grill offers probably the best seafood fare in town. Its owners also happen to be the people behind the popular nationwide roast chicken food chain known as Manok ni Sr. Pedro. When I had dinner there, I made sure I got to taste the original, mouth-watering Sr. Pedro chicken. Two thumbs up for that!

Native huts for a unique dining experience at Quadra

Meanwhile, D’ Stable Eco Resort, popularly known as Quadra, is one of the best places to satiate your hunger. Quadra has a number of horses, stables, huts and cottages—all set up to conjure a ranch-like ambience set amidst a verdant landscape with lofty mountains, lush forestlands and all!

There are several places to stay, mostly inns, pension houses and apartelles, all over Malaybalay—Haus Malibu, Plaza View, Quadra, Small World, 1st Avenue, Villa Alemania, to name some. Sadly, even the most decent one, Pine Hills Hotel, is showing signs of deterioration. When in Bukidnon, I prefer to stay in nearby Valencia City.

Indigenous houses at Kaamulan Nature Park 

Two of the Malaybalay’s landmarks that I found interesting are Kaamulan Nature Park and Erreccion de Pueblo Monument. Kaamulan, a project of the local government, was put up to honor  the seven indigenous hill tribes of the province—Bukidnon, Higaonon, Manobo, Matigsalug, Talaandig, Tigwahanon and Umayamnon.  Replicas of the different houses of the tribes are positioned all over the complex.

A cowboy and his horse at Kaamulan Nature Park

Erreccion de Pueblo (Creation of Town), on the other hand, depicts the 1877 agreement between the Spanish colonizers and the local leaders. Located within the town plaza, the monument draws a good number of city folks who’ve found it the convenient place for meeting, talking, eating, playing and what have you. 
Interior of St. Isidore the Farmer Church

Just a stone’s throw away from the town plaza is the Cathedral of St. Isidore the Farmer, which I also visited to say a little prayer. Built in 1969, the church has gone several renovations through the years. The image of the patron saint encased in stained glass adorns the church’s front wall. An icon is also found inside the church. 

Locsin's creation: the pyramid-shaped Church of the Transfiguration

Perhaps the crowning glory of any sojourn to Malaybalay is a visit to the Monastery of the Transfiguration. Neatly tucked in the village of San Jose in Malaybalay, the monastic complex stands on a vast, slightly sloping terrain surrounded by lush mountains and hills. I consider it a “mortal sin” for any tourist to miss this must-see wonder. 

Roughly twenty minutes away from the downtown area by private car, the 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.  Though open to the public, visitors can only enter its premises if they are dressed in accordance with the monks’ dress code.

Church of the Transfiguration

For me, the monastery’s most distinctive as well as renowned feature is the pyramid-shaped church designed by 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 awe-inspiring church, which is made of lime blocks, was inaugurated some thirty years ago.  

Icon of Our Lady of Montserrat

Inside the church, I saw a replica of the statue of Our Lady of Montserrat, which reportedly came all the way from the Abbey of Montserrat in Catalonia, Spain. The said replica, which is one of the Black Madonnas of Europe, was given by the Abbey of Montserrat as a gift to commemorate the centennial of the Benedictine monks presence in the Philippines. 

All told, these are but a few of the myriad reasons that make Malaybalay such an interesting city worth exploring and perhaps living in.

 The monastery's serene surroundings provide the perfect backdrop for communing with God

So, is it nice to stay there for good?  If you want to live in a forest—yet in the city—it’s definitely the place to be. But  how long will Malaybalay stay that way, that is, as the “City in a Forest”? Well, that, I believe, would depend to a great extent on the actions of its people to preserve its relatively pristine state and keep it from going the way the “City of Pines” has gone—to the dogs, that is. :-D

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