Traveling Mindanao

Unexpected discoveries while traveling Mindanao

I can no longer count the number of times that I have been traveling Mindanao. From summer visits in my father’s hometown in Tangub, Misamis Occidental during my elementary days to solo forays in the hinterlands of Bukidnon when I was a telecom engineer to doing a book project in Sitangkai in Tawitawi which was closer to Malaysia than to the provincial capital. But there have been serendipitous trips, unexpected discoveries that just surprises you to the hilt. The good thing? Whether you’re from Luzon or the Visayas, Mindanao is just a flight booking away with budget air travel the norm these days.

Sea snakes everywhere

Our motorized pumpboat sped from the small wharf in Olutanga with a boatload of military escorts in full battle gear. It was a necessity during that time when a rebel lair in a nearby municipality was attacked a month before this trip. But it was not a military operation that we were heading to but a small fisherman’s shed made from bamboo poles jutting out of the shallow but pristine waters in this part of Zamboanga Sibugay which has become a sea snake sanctuary.

The shed was innocent looking. But look closer and you will see a sea snake swimming to one of the posts. Or another one stealthily climbing up. When I did manage to reach the landing, the fisherman carefully removed a piece of flooring to expose slithering serpents coiled around each other, writhing and rubbing each other’s banded bodies. For a second I was in horror at the sight but as the fisherman picked one and fearlessly held it, dread gave way to amazement, alarm gave way to wonder.

Traveling Mindanao

An unnamed waterfall in Maitum, Sarangani that can only be reached after two days of hiking

In search of unnamed waterfalls

Ms Beth, a friend from Maitum in Sarangani tempted me of the possibility of discovering still unnamed waterfalls in one of the remaining great forests of southern Mindanao, straddling between Lake Sebu and this municipality. For the next two days, we were hiking, descending and ascending steep mountain trails, slept at a kaingin farmer’s shed and eating rice cooked from bamboo while two military personnel escorted us.

Yes, we managed to find two still unnamed waterfalls but not as spectacular as expected, moments that sometimes make you question, “this is it?” But looking back, it was all about the adventure and self discovery. Even with a pierced foot that maimed me at the start and was forced to ride a horse, my first time, out of necessity of my condition over a very difficult trail.

Traveling Mindanao

A barebones camp of the Sulu Sultanate with its own flag under the ‘State of Tawitawi”

Traveling Mindanao

From their island home which was destroyed by the Spaniards, encountered a Balangingi man in Taluksangay, Zamboanga City

State of Tawitawi

An overnight sidetrip to Simunul, another island in Tawitawi known for the oldest mosque in the country led to an encounter with a barebones camp of the Sulu Sultanate. At first I was in disbelief after reading a “State of Tawitawi” signage but got more curious with the differing flag hoisted below the Philippine flag. After talking with the man at his post, he hoisted it down and showed it to me.

I’ve always been fascinated with the Muslim slave raiding history of the Philippines. It was a consequence of the might of the Sulu Sultanate during the 18th-19th centuries when it became the emporium of Asia. It traded exclusively with the British helping them barter with China for tea, long before they were able to smuggle the plant itself and cultivate within their empire.

One interesting footnote to the success of these slave raidings were the Balangingi, former Christian captives of earlier raids who became freemen and later on assisted succeeding raiders to their former hometowns. It was an unplanned trip to Taluksangay, a barangay in Zamboanga City known for its red domed mosque that, while waiting for the return bus, I got to chat with a man. It was during the course of conversation that he mentioned he is a Balangingi. For someone who just read about these people in a few history books, here was a Balangingi in the flesh!

The sumptuous and massive centerpiece mosaic of Isabela’s cathedral in Basilan

A gem of a cathedral in Basilan

One of the unexpected things that I found in my Mindanao travels was encountering an architectural gem of a cathedral, of all places, in Isabela, Basilan. It was built in the 1970s and a very good example of Modernist Architecture that was the style during that time. The structure has only slight renovations done at the area that suffered damage during a bombing by the Abu Sayyaf. And the most interesting of all? It’s centerpiece at the presbytery, a massive and wonderful mosaic from Italy.

These are just five of the countless things that one can discover in the island of Mindanao. And all you need to do is go and explore!

Estan Cabigas is freelance photographer, blogger and writer based in Makati City, the Philippines. A true blue Cebuano, he makes stunning images and meaningful photo stories. His work has been published in local and international publications including National Geographic Magazine, Geo (Germany), Sunday Times Magazine (London) and other publications. He is also a peripatetic traveler and has traveled to all 81 Philippines provinces. I'm open for work, collaborations and inquiries, including hotel, restaurant and site features and reviews.

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