I have visited Cotabato City for a few times only, either as a transit point on my way to other places. A few hours, or overnight, but last month, I was able to go around the city, albeit briefly, again. This post is a brief introduction, though not exhaustive, of things to do in Cotabato City.
A large ‘Cotabato City’ sign in white letters greets visitors passing the intersection of Sinsuat and Notre Dame Avenues. On a bright sunny day, the colorful houses and buildings behind it evoke a feeling of hope and progress. It was inspired by the colorful mural painted on the hillside residences in Barangay Balili in La Trinidad, Benguet. This beautification project was initiated by the city government and the Department of Tourism Region 12 starting January this year. The design consists of guinakit (muslim bancas), gongs and crabs to symbolize the city’s culture and resources. It spreads out to the series of structures at this side of Pedro Colina Hill.
Muslim traders in the early 16th century brought Islam from Sulu and converted many tribal inhabitants in this river delta. It is where the Rio Grande de Mindanao (Pulangi River) and Tamontaka River empties into Yllana Bay. Those who refused conversion transferred to the surrounding mountains. With the formal establishment of the Sultanate of Maguindana, Kota Watu, became the capital. For the next 200 hundred years, the sultanate thrived with Sultan Dipatuan Kudarat, the 7th ruler, contributing greatly to its expansion. It encompassed a vast area in Mindanao stretching from what is now Zamboanga to Davao, Sarangani in the south and up to the province of Misamis under his sphere of influence. He was a staunch defender of Islam, held up Spanish colonization in the island and also contributed to peace in the region.
The eruption of Makaturing Volcano in the 18thcentury, in what is now Lanao del Sur signaled the decline of the Maguindanao Sultanate. With the way of life of the inhabitants from Lanao Lake down to Yllana Bay threatened. This important natural event led to the rise of the Sulu Sultanate with slave raiding in much of the Philippines. It eventually collapsed at the end of Spanish colonization. When the Americans came, the Chinese mestizo Datu Piang was made governor of what was then called Moroland, the Empire Province of Cotabato.From 1920 until 1967, it was the provincial capital. It became the administrative center of ARMM when Maguindanao became a separate province in 1973. Since the 90s, Cotabato City is part of the SocSarGen region.
A thriving economic center
Cotabato City is known for its thousand hectares of fishponds producing mud crabs, milkfish and prawn. It has several industries ranging from manufacturing (furniture) to production (food and food processing). A ride from Awang Airport to the city center used to be a pleasant but short trip. Now, traffic builds up at the intersection of Sinsuat and Gov Gutierrez Avenues where several commercial establishments and restaurants are present. Several years ago, there was only a mall or two. Now, there are several new ones along the road. From the ever-growing Mall of Al Nor, there’s also City Mall, Robinsons Department and Supermarket and Puregold. South Seas Mall, the city’s first, is a behemoth structure at the city center.
In its bid to become a major halal food manufacturing hub, a Class AA slaughter house, the only one in Mindanao, was built in Barangay Kalanganan II. A new seaport is being developed at the foot of Timako Hill along the shores of Yllana Bay.
First and foremost, Maguindanaoan food is almost everywhere. From the tasty pastil, rice topped with shredded chicken adobo then rolled inside a sheet of banana leaf makes for a good introduction. The kalintubo is sublime. Chunky chicken adobo on top of rice then wrapped with banana leaves with a portion of the meat peeking out on top. It’s a popular breakfast, lunch or dinner fare. There’s sinina, typically beef or goat meat It is a stew mixed with gata, palapa (a local food accompaniment) and can be compared to beef rendang. Tinapayan is another dish made from fermented dalag (mudfish) then fried is a Maguindanaoan specialty.
Desserts come in the form of dodol, a softer version of the Maranao dudul (calamay in other parts of the Philippines). It is a sweet and sticky treat often packaged inside folded banana leaf squares. Tinagtag is made from rice flour and sugar is a popular dessert.
With the influx of national brand malls, comes other national restaurant and fastfood franchises. But the local food scene is alive and strong. Cotabato City has its local restaurants and cafes. For a start, the barbecue joints, near the Rizal Park in Sinsuat Ave, is lively at night. It is a must for the budget conscious with several grilled meats from various vendors lining the road. Babo Katips in Tamontaka is popular for their fried hito (catfish). Hala Bira Halal Food along Jose Lim St. for their papaitan and bulalo. Other restaurants include Pagana Kutawato Native Restaurant, Sugar Pappi, Café Le Sorelle, Jamaica Le Café and many more.
Although rich in culture and history, the tourist attractions of Cotabato City are rather limited. Foremost, perhaps is the stunning Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque in Barangay Kalanganan II. Financed by the Bruneian Sultan, it is the largest mosque in the Philippines and known as the Grand Mosque of Cotabato. It’s a scenic area at the banks of the Tamontaka River.
The Old Cotabato City Hall Museum is a repository of the city’s history and culture. It’s its interesting Maguindanao inspired architecture was designed by National Artist for Architecture Juan Arellano in the 1940s. On display are the different tribal weaves with samples of the different cloths. There are also archival images of the city and those taken after the earthquake in 1976. It also serves as a visitor information center.
The Church of the Immaculate Concepcion in Tamontaka, or simply, Tamontaka Church was the center of Jesuit evangelization in the late 19th century and the original structure was built in 1872 along the banks of the Tamontaka River. The edifice has a simple façade. The original structure was damaged in an earthquake (1976) and got burned in 1994 but was rebuilt in the same year.
The People’s Palace, with its imposing Architecture is a sight to look at! A mix of neo-classic and Muslim motif, it houses all the offices of the executive government of the city.
The Office of the Regional Governor Complex is the administrative compound of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) within a 32 hectare area. The central building has a series of arcades around the structure with Muslim motifs at the roof. The area is where the Pakarajaan Festival is usually held from November to December. The festival celebrates the multi-cultural identity of the ARMM with traditional villages representing the provinces of Basilan, Sulu, Tawitawi, Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur and the City of Marawi. This may be the last celebration, the ARMM villages were started May of this year. This culminates in the Shariff Kabunsuan Festival in December when Cotabato City turns into a festive and lively mood. This one commemorates the arrival of the Islamic preacher and is marked with a colorful fluvial festival, trade fairs and cultural presentations.
One of only two high elevations in Cotabato City, Pedro Colina Hillhas a network of underground caves under it. The caves are currently being rehabilitated. The Sinsuat Avenue side of the hill is becoming a point of interest with colorful houses and structures as mentioned above. At the foothill is Tantawan Park where a sculpture of Sultan Kudarat is erected. One can also have a short and cheap massage here.
Other minor attractions include the Baywalk, a growing attraction near the Grand Mosque where one can see the sunset. There’s also the bridge in Timako Hill where it affords sweeping landscape of the area.
Where to Stay
Al Nor Hotel and Convention Center is hghly recommended right now. It’s along Sinsuat Ave within the Alnor Commercial Center and just near Robinsons Department Store and Supermarket. EM Manor Hotel and Convention Center is another good alternative. It has affordable, clean and comfortable rooms including a small buffet breakfast.
Getting there and away
Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific services Cotabato City from Manila, Cebu and Zamboanga City (Cebu Pacific). Within Mindanao, there’s a good network of buses and van transport that can readily connect you to anywhere in the island be it Zamboanga City, Cagayan de Oro City, Gensan or Davao City.