Part 1: The Game Plan
To begin with, I have never been to Mindanao. This trip was my first and longest trip to date.
This SOX (popularly known as SOCCSKSARGEN – South Cotabato, Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Saragani, Gen San) backpacking was a year in the making–- from planning for the best dates to securing travel buddies up to finalizing the smallest details. But working for a media company isn’t easy, I have become much aware of what is the situation in South. War, death, reoccurring earthquakes—almost every possible news that can make me change my mind.
But I didn’t.
Maybe you are wondering how was I able to “solo” backpack this region. So here’s what I did.
First: I did a lot of research.
I am spontaneous at most times but I never fail to back up my trips with careful and meticulous research. Since this will be my first Mindanao expedition, I don’t want to risk my own safety just to look brave and awesome.
Second: I asked friends (and even strangers) who have been to Region 12.
I messaged my blogger friends who happened to be there months before. I also shamelessly asked some SOX bloggers on IG and FB and follow almost everything Region 12-page related – which led me to discover about their upcoming SOX Treasures Travel Expo in Makati that further gave me an idea to head directly to DOT.
Third: I found a way to contact DOT Region 12 Tourism Director.
This was my last resort. I checked DOT’s website and found the directory of regional offices. When I drafted a letter of request addressed to Ms. Nelly Dillera, Regional Director of South Central Mindanao Region, I really didn’t put my hopes up. I asked for assistance (NOT SPONSORSHIP) regarding my solo backpacking. To my surprise, her quick revert enclosed a positive note. Just my luck, she invited me to attend the travel expo and meet her team.
Fourth: I came to the event prepared.
I was able to meet RD (as they call Ms. Nelly) but was a quick one. Her team gladly assisted me with my queries. I was also able to discuss my request to the Tourism Officers of each province and municipality. I asked for their business cards and got in touch with them a week prior to my flight.
Part 2: The Preparation
Like I told you, I did my homework. I did a lot of research: where to stay, what proper clothes to wear, how to commute from one place to another.
For Gen San, I stayed in Aica Suites located inside Munda Subdivision, just behind Microtel. It is very accessible and just a stone-throw away from malls.
For Lake Holon, I packed my ordinary hiking attire.
For Sultan Kudarat and Cotabato City, I packed long sleeves, harem pants, and shawl. I just want to blend in with the locals. I don’t want to be noticed as an outsider.
Part 3: The Journey
Before I go detailing my trip, here’s my route for 5 days:
Day 1 April 26 – Arrival in General Santos City, South Cotabato
Day 2 April 27 – AM, Tuna Port, Gen San City
Day 2 April 27 – PM, Lake Sebu, South Cotabato
Day 3 April 28 – Whole day, Lake Holon, Tboli, South Cotabato
Day 4 April 29 – AM, Sultan Kudarat
Day 4 April 29 – PM, Maguindanao and Cotabato City
Day 5 April 30 – Whole day, Davao City, Davao del Sur
If you have noticed, I didn’t plan to visit Sarangani. I am saving that for my future travel. Sarangani is home to some of the best beaches in the Philippines and would like to spend a separate trip for that (not to mention paragliding and diving).
RD forwarded me to Ms. Jelly Baay, her secretary. I was in constant communication with Ms. Jelly. She coordinated my guide for Gen San Tuna Port Tour and helped me finalize my itinerary.
Part 4: Daily Itinerary and Expenses
Day 1, April 26, Wednesday
5:20 PM – Arrival at GES Airport
5:40 PM – Departure from GES Airport
Ride a multicab going to the city. The terminal is just outside the airport and is very easy to locate. In my case, I asked the driver to drop me in front of Mcdonald’s Highway/ Microtel.
Multicab fare: PHP 50
Travel time: 50 mins
6:40 PM – Arrival at Mcdonald’s Highway/Microtel
Hire a trike going to Aica Suites. Later I found how short walk it was.
Trike fare: PHP 10
6:45 PM – Check-in at Aica Suites and Pension House
Overnight rate: PHP 699 via booking.com/ breakfast excluded
The booking in charge is very accommodating and happened to be a former classmate of my previous officemate.
Sir Lyndo: 0922-821-7438
7:30 PM – Head to Tiongson Arcade for dinner
It is like the version of Dampa and Mercato, with cheaper prices of course.
RT trike fare: PHP 50
Dinner: PHP 170
Day 2, April 27, Thursday
1st Stop: Gen San Tuna Fish Port Complex
4:30 AM – Wake up call/ Prep for Tuna Port tour
6:00 AM – Pick-up from Aica Suites to Tuna Port
I received a message around 5AM from Sir Arthur (Gen San City Tourism Officer LGU thru Ms. Cora Tito, City Tourism Officer) that he’ll pick me up for my Tuna Port tour. I didn’t see that coming! I thought we’ll just meet at the Port but still, thank heavens for a free ride.
Travel time: 30 mins
6:30 AM – Arrival at Tuna Port
First things first, wear proper clothing – a t-shirt and pants. Gen San Tuna Fish Port supplies all over the Philippines and to neighboring countries, therefore it must follow international standards when it comes to sanitation.
Boots are required, it can be rented in the head office for PHP 20.
It was 6:30 AM when we arrived and you might think that’s too early. In fact, some parts were already cleaning their areas and packing up. Activities in Tuna Port happen as early as 4AM when boats land in Market 1 full of fresh catch.
From hauling, tunas and blue marlins were weighed, classified and ready for barter and shipping.
Trivia 1: 8 out of 9 tuna canning factories in the Philippines are in Gen San.
Trivia 2: Everyday, the first flight of PAL (GES-MNL) carries tons of Tunas ready to be shipped to restaurants in Manila or even be exported across the globe.
Trivia 3: There are 4 markets in the Port. Market 1 is exclusive for Tuna and Blue Marlins only. Market 2 is for smaller catches. Markets 3 and 4 operate in smaller activities.
Trivia 4: The Port has no smell and no flies bugging your face!
7:15 AM – Breakfast
There are canteens near the head office.
Breakfast meal: PHP 75
7:30 AM – Departure from Tuna Port back to Aica Suites
Travel time: 30 mins
8:00 AM – Arrival back at Aica Suites
Wash up and prepare for departure/check out.
10:00 AM – Check out
Head to Bulaong Terminal for Lake Sebu
Trike fare: PHP 40
Travel time: 10 mins
10:10 AM – Arrival at Bulaong Terminal
Ask where the van bound to Lake Sebu (non-stop) is parked. Sometimes you need to wait for 30-45 minutes.
Snacks: PHP 15
10:55 AM – Departure from Bulaong Terminal to Lake Sebu
AC Van fare: PHP 150
Travel time: 1 hr 30 mins
2nd Stop: T’boli Tribe cultural immersion in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato
11:30 AM – Arrival at Lake Sebu Terminal
Log on the guest book and hire a habal going to your accommodation. In my case, I head straight to SLT T’boli Homestay, owned and managed by Ms. Maria Oyog. It was Ms. Jelly’s reco that I stay in a T’boli house.
During the SOX Travel Expo in Glorietta, I was introduced to Ms. Nenita Kinan, Lake Sebu Tourism Staff LGU. I got in touch with her and she provided me a Lake Sebu Municipal Tourism accredited guide, Sir Roy Ungkal.
*I don’t have a copy of his mobile number, you may just message him on Facebook.
1:30 PM – 7 Waterfalls and Zipline
Zipline fee weekdays – PHP 250 (PHP 300 weekends/holidays)
3:00 PM – The house of National Artist Awardee Lang Dulay
Tip 1: Research about the Dreamweavers of T’boli Tribe before your trip.
3:30 PM – T’boli Museum
4:00 PM – COWHED
T’boli national costume rental fee – PHP 60
If you are a fan of tribal prints and works, this place is heaven. I got myself 2.25 meters of T’nalak cloth for only PHP 1,000! Plus a brass bell for PHP 300. Would you know how much will these cost in Manila?
5:00 PM – Sebul Farm
This is private property and the only farm in Lake Sebu that grows strawberry and other greens. Since Sir Roy knows almost everyone, I was lucky to meet the owner, invited over for a short chat while enjoying freshly brewed tea.
5:50 PM – Punta Isla quick visit
There is a PHP10 entrance but thanks to Sir Roy, I didn’t spend a penny.
6:00 PM – Eco Lodge Mountain Resort for lotus watching over sunset
If you want to see the flowers in full bloom, visit over sunrise.
6:30 PM – Back in the homestay
Rest and wash up/ I forgot to have dinner
SLT Homestay: PHP 350/ night with breakfast
Habal ride back to Surallah the following day: PHP 100
Trivia: They call their motorcycles “Skylab.” According to Sir Roy, habal drivers before used to joke around and ask passengers to “sakay lab!”
Day 3, April 28, Friday
The night before, I had an arrangement with Ms. Maria that her son will drive me back to Surallah by 4:30AM (Surallah is the halfway of Lake Sebu and Lake Holon). Instead of the regular homestay rate, she gave it to me for PHP300 and I just handed her son PHP100 for a 30-minute habal ride.
5:00 AM – Arrival at Surallah Municipal Hall
I had a quick hot drink for PHP 10 in a canteen in front of Surallah Municipal Hall.
6:00 AM – Meet hiking buddies
Heaven favored me again when a friend from South Cotabato (Hello, Snow!) agreed to join me on this Lake Holon day hike. What’s even more exciting? Her family came as well! We formed a group of 6.
We hopped on to their rented mini truck going to T’boli Tourism Office.
Travel time: 30 mins
6:30 AM – Arrival at T’boli Tourism Office
It was during the travel expo when I was introduced to T’boli Tourism Officer, Sir Rodel Hilado. I got in touch with him before my flight and was able to reserve 6 slots for our Lake Holon day hike.
Entrance fee: PHP 100/pax/day
Environmental fee: PHP 50/pax
Guide fee: PHP 600/6 pax (standard)
Right after settling our fees, we went off for an hour of rough and muddy habal ride to Receiving Area 2, leading to Kule Trail (short, challenging trail, with view deck)
Habal fare: PHP 450/2 pax
Travel time: 1 hr 30 mins
Bridge usage fee: PHP 5/ pax
*There’s a short bamboo bridge wherein passing through it means paying PHP 5.
8:00 AM – Arrival at Receiving Area 1 (those who’ll take Kule Trail starts in here)
Orientation and prayer from T’boli lady/officer.
8:30 AM – Start trek via Kule Trail
Required hours to ascend: 3 hrs
11:30 AM – Arrival in the view deck
Rest and photo op for 30 mins, start to descend to Lake
12:00 NN – Arrival in the crater (Lake)
You have to ride a boat going to the campsite that also serves as the starting point of the traverse (Kule-Salacafe).
Boat fare: PHP 50/pax
Travel time: 3 mins
1:00 PM – Start to ascend via Salacafe Trail (long, chill trail)
It started raining and we had to stop and look for a nipa hut for 30 mins
1:30 PM – Resume ascend then descend
Required hours to descend: 2 hrs 30 mins
3:20 PM – Arrival at Receiving Area 1
Log out from the guest book, rest
Tip 1: If you started with Kule Trail, you may traverse to Salacafe Trail but not vice versa. According to our habal drivers, the Tourism Office prohibits ascending thru Salacafe Trail. You may do Kule-Salacafe Traverse, Salacafe-Salacafe Backtrail but not Salacafe-Kule Traverse.
Tip 2: Greet the locals by uttering “Hyu H’lafus!” which means good morning in T’boli dialect.
Tip 3: Get your recorders on when you take Kule Trail, the sound the local birds make is “a bit different.”
4:00 PM – Start of habal ride back to T’boli Tourism Office
Habal fare: PHP 300/2 pax
Travel time: 1 hr 30 mins
5:30 PM – Arrival back at T’boli Tourism Office
Distribution of Certificate of Completion then take a short walk to T’boli Terminal.
Van fare going back to Surallah: PHP 20
Travel time: 30 mins
6:00 PM – Arrival at Surallah Terminal
Ride a van bound to Tacurong, Sultan Kudarat
Van fare: PHP 50
Travel time: 45 mins
6:45 PM – Arrival in Tacurong, Sultan Kudarat
This time, it was only me and my friend, Snow, who will head to the last 3 provinces of this trip. Nino, our host for Sultan Kudarat, took care of our accommodation and food. Not to mention, he is one of the accredited bloggers of SOX.
7: 00 PM – Dinner in a local food place
10:00 PM – Wash up/Rest/Lights off
Day 4, April 29, Saturday
1st Stop: Baras Bird Sanctuary, Sultan Kudarat
4:20 AM – Wake up call
We were wakened up by a 7.2 magnitude that struck Sultan Kudarat. It was all over the news. It was my first time to experience such a strong intensity for a long period. The shaking lasted for 20-30 seconds, I guess. I stayed awake after.
7: 30 AM – Departure from Tacurong to Baras
After all the fuss, everything went back to normal. By 7:30 AM, our host sat behind his wheels and took us to Baras Bird Sanctuary—our first destination in Sultan Kudarat.
Travel time: 30 mins.
8:00 AM – Arrival at Baras Bird Sanctuary
According to the owner, Mr. Rey, we came on a perfect day. It was the breeding season thus, even when it’s 8AM, nests and branches were still flocked.
Entrance fee: PHP 20
2nd Stop: Sultan Kudarat Provincial Capitol
9:00 AM – Arrival at Sultan Kudarat Provincial Capitol
We headed next to Sultan Kudarat Provincial Capitol. It was massive and elegant. As Nino told us, every chandelier has a gold lining.
*Since Nino had prior appointments, he can’t accompany us anymore to Maguindanao and Cotabato City.
10:00 AM – Drop off at Sultan Kudarat Terminal
Bus bound to Cotabato City via Salvo – PHP 70
Waiting time: 30 mins.
Travel time: 1 hr 30 mins.
3rd Stop: Pink Mosque, Maguindanao
You may think, Maguindanao is not part of Region 12. You got it right, it is part of ARMM. But there is no choice, check your map and see that Maguindanao lies between Sultan Kudarat and Cotabato City/North Cotabato.
12:00 NN – Arrival at Pink Mosque in Datu Saudi Ampatuan
Ask the driver to drop you at the Pink Mosque. You will easily notice it even from afar.
Tip 1: Please respect and do your homework. Wear a headscarf and proper clothing.
Tip 2: If you happen to arrive during their worship time, be respectful to wait or not budge in at all.
While taking some photos, we met a group of locals who are on their way to Cotabato Airport. They offered us a ride to Margues Elementary School since it’s along the way.
Tip 3: Multicabs/ Husky Buses bound to Margues Elementary School pass by near the mosque, ask around.
12:30 PM – Quick lunch
Tip 4: Try out Pastil!
4th Stop: Blue Lagoon, Maguindanao
1:15 PM – Arrival at Margues Elementary School
Who would have thought that few steps away from the road hides a lagoon? Its waters can be compared to a spilled Gatorade blue drink!
1:25 PM – Departure for Cotabato City
Head back to Margues Elementary School and ride a multicab bound to Awang. Ask the driver to drop you at Crossing Bobong.
Multicab fare: PHP 15
Travel time: 15 mins.
*From ARMM, we’re heading back to Region 12.
1:40 PM – Arrival at Crossing Bobong
Hire a habal to take you to Grand Mosque.
RT habal fare: PHP 35 (add tip because the driver will wait for you)
Travel time: 15 mins.
5th Stop: Grand Mosque, Cotabato City
1:55 PM – Arrival at Grand Mosque
I was in awe when I saw the Grand Mosque from afar. My eyes cannot believe it. True to its name, it is grand and magnificent. Even the word “breathtaking” is an understatement.
Tip 1: You may rent a proper dress and hijab outside the mosque for PHP 60.
Tip 2: There are no guides available but you may ask the caretaker to help you around.
Tip 3: There are at least 7 CCTV cameras inside the mosque, be mindful of your actions.
Trivia: The Grand Mosque is a gift from Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei.
3:15 PM – Departure back to Crossing Bobong
Ride a multicab bound to “Super” or “Market”
Multicab fare: PHP 10
Travel time: PHP 45 mins
4:00 PM – Arrival in marketplace
Ride a trike and ask to driver to drop you where Davao-bound vans are located
Trike fare: PHP 10
Travel time: 5 mins.
4:05 PM – 6:00 PM – Waiting time, departure from Cotabato City to Davao City
Van fare: PHP 270
Travel time: 5 hrs.
I arrived in Davao at around 11 PM and stayed just in the city. The following day, I wandered around town and tried out their local dishes. Basically, I spent my last day chilling and ready to head home.
Part 5: Realizations
I posted this one on my Facebook page when I was in Davao and contemplating about this trip:
I made it, even when countless times I was asked not to. I braved through fear and uncertainty. I traveled miles away from my comfort zone to discover what we are not seeing: the real beauty of Mindanao.
Breathtaking sceneries and grand landscapes lie behind every war news we see on TV. For 5 days, I had the most meaningful and genuine interactions with Tbolis and Muslims. They are hospitable and welcoming. They deserve all adjectives we use when describing the locals of our favorite province. They are really just like us.
South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, Cotabato. Such beautiful places with beautiful people. To everyone I met along the way, thank you for a once in a lifetime adventure.
This is my summer story. What’s yours?
Don’t forget to follow me on Instagram! @catlichamen