BOAT RIDE ON THE LAKE A woman in t’nalak costume serves as a tour guide of visitors on a boat cruising near one of the “seven falls” in Barangay Lahit, Lake Sebu, South Cotabato province. COCOY SEXCION/CONTRIBUTOR
The Inquirer is running a series of articles on the country’s tourism crown jewels— somehow uncut but equally sparkling and surprising as the usual vacation haunts. The stories will appear three times a week during the summer months. Please send us your own hot go-to discoveries to summer by. Text 09178177686 for details.–Ed.
LAKE SEBU, South Cotabato—Perched above the hills, some over 300 meters above sea level, this first-class municipality in Mindanao’s south-central tip is a veritable paradise for tourists of all persuasions.
A visit to Lake Sebu is an encounter with nature, culture and adventure, all in one package. Its people, numbering more than 75,000, boasts of some of the country’s most picturesque lakes and a rich T’boli culture. And an unforgettable heart-pounding trek to the mountains.
One need not empty bank accounts or break piggy banks to be able to afford the trip. For as low as P3,900, tour packages—including transportation, food and accommodations—are being offered by Destination Mindanaw, a fledgling tour operator in the region that caters to local and foreign tourists who want to experience the thrills and frills of Lake Sebu.
Not passing up the chance, together with 16 others, we set out from Tagum City in Davao del Norte province, bracing for the sights and experiences of a destination seven hours away on a 20-seat air-conditioned bus of Davao Metro Shuttle. The bus company is owned by the Tagum-based Uy family, which runs Destination Mindanaw.
The trip went smoothly and without much delay, except for two stopovers for toilet breaks at a gas station along the national road in Davao City and at a mall in General Santos City, 132 kilometers apart.
No empty stomach
Destination Mindanaw provides a light breakfast of rice, corned beef, eggs and a Cavendish banana, so leaving home on an empty stomach to catch the 5 a.m. trip wasn’t too much of a sacrifice. On the bus, one of the guides, Nino Coquilla, dishes out trivia and other information tidbits to passengers about a particular town or place along the way.
The bus pulled over for lunch at The Farm, a 12-hectare mountain resort on Carpenter Hill, Koronadal City, South Cotabato province, six hours or so from Tagum and about an hour away from Lake Sebu. The Aviary, The Farm’s restaurant, serves French and Filipino cuisine cooked up by Manila-based chef Humphrey Navarro.
“Guests can indulge in gastronomical delights similar to that offered in five-star hotels, but at affordable prices,” says Marlon Navarro, The Farm resort manager.
After lunch, the bus is on its way, negotiating a well-paved road connecting South Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat provinces. Lush forests hugging mountains and the majestic Mt. Matutum to the east are irresistible attractions.
In the municipality of Surallah, tourists are treated to a visual feast consisting of tribal artworks by known Mindanao sculptor Kublai Millan. His creations of life-size statues of T’boli men and women and their indigenous instruments dominate the main road arteries and plaza.
A swing to the left of the Surallah-Tacurong highway brings us to our main destination. Along the 21 km of paved road is an expanse of pure rustic beauty—vast pineapple fields stretching to the edge of glistening, sun-kissed hills as the mighty Allah River, the source of life to the “rice granary of the South,” cuts through the fertile valley.
A slow climb on good roads to Lake Sebu offers a commanding vista of pines and the balmy whiff of an afternoon breeze, reminiscent of the uphill ascent to that fabled highland resort city in northern Luzon: Baguio. Lake Sebu, in fact, is known as the summer capital of south-central Mindanao.
Passengers are treated to a picture of nature in contrast—on the left, unfolds a panorama of hills and forests; on the right, the three “great lakes” welcome the first-time visitor.
Lake Lahit, the smallest with an area of 34 hectares, is surrounded by hills dotted with huts and a handful of houses made of concrete. Lake S’loton (Seloton), the deepest at more than 200 feet (60 meters), is wide enough (38 ha) to host hundreds of cages of tilapia, a major source of livelihood of residents.
The last of the upland lakes is the eponymous Lake Sebu, the largest at 380 ha. It has 12 islands and islets nestling communities of indigenous T’boli and on its shores, dozens of resorts.
Punta Isla is a must-visit resort. For a minimal price, tourists are treated to a fantastic view up close of six of the islands and islets in a 30-minute boat cruise around the lake. Not to mention the opportunity to witness a way of life like no other, of T’boli islanders as they go about their daily chores on board an owong, a dugout canoe, the main mode of interisland transport.
A T’boli tour guide accompanied the visitors throughout the itinerary, complementing the visual attractions with information on everything and anything about the lake and T’boli culture in general. One guide, Sherilyn Gandam, led a group of young people who performed indigenous dances, songs and musical instruments during nightly cultural shows at the resort.
For foodies, the cuisine is exquisite and sumptuous. One can choose from a wide array of tilapia-based dishes for as low as P190.
Souvenirs ranging from commemorative shirts to tribal trinkets are offered at bargain prices (as low as P5 a piece) are available at the resorts or roadside booths, sold by the very women whose hands made the intricate designs.
Weaver of dreams
Rounding up the cultural tour of Lake Sebu is a visit to Lang Dulay and her women weavers of dreams. The 89-year-old Dulay was given the National Artist for Culture award in 1997 for her world-renowned “t’nalak” loom weaving, a T’boli way of weaving abaca hemp into complicated cloth designs using tree dyes.
Dulay and her school of dream weavers are just a kilometer away from Punta Isla, in Poblacion, Lake Sebu.
Before calling it a night at any of the town’s inns or Punta Isla’s cozy accommodations, tourists can watch cultural presentations and be enthralled by T’boli dances and music. Breakfasts, on the other hand, are usually punctuated with photo shoots of lakeside communal life.
Capping the two-day sojourn is an exhilarating adventure to Hikong Mountain Resort, a high-altitude, adrenaline-booster jaunt not for the faint of heart.
The upland resort in Purok Malipayon, Lahit village, boasts of the awesome Seven Falls Zip Line which, at 740 meters (2,428 feet) long and 183 meters (600 feet) above sea level, is reputed to be one of the country’s longest and highest recreational cable lines.
The bumpy drive along the ascending road is as daunting as the zip line ride itself. For perennial traveler Jovelyn Tundag, the heartstopping view of cliffs that hug one side of the road can spook even zip line addicts like her. “The road is frighteningly steep,” Tundag says.
A 74-step concrete walkway leads down to a bridge where tourists can snap photos of the majestic Falls 2, over a hundred meters high of cascading waters. Or they can walk dozens of steps closer to the waterfall, unmindful of the sprays of water drenching their clothes.
For P300, brave hearts are strapped to the zip line and set off to zoom across two hills.
Moving at a speed of 51 km per hour, the daring are able to get a bird’s eye view of the vast hills, “fly” over and catch a breathtaking view of five of the seven falls. For 48 seconds, one can imagine how the ground looks like from above or even shudder at the thought of a free fall.
The return trip involves a 400-m long, 600-foot high line, which leads to a shed-like structure, or terminal. Passengers can have their photos taken during the entire trip and taken home as mementos at the end post.
Alex Calixtron, one of the zip line workers, says tourists have nothing to worry about as the facility, built in 2009, undergoes a monthly inspection.
Managed by the provincial government, the Seven Falls Zip Line occupies a vast area of hills owned by indigenous peoples and settlers, who lease the property to the provincial government.
“Aside from providing employment to residents, the zip line is also helping promote our town to the rest of the country,” Calixtron says.
“Celebrities such as actors Kim Chiu, Gerald Anderson and beauty queen Shamcey Supsup have already visited us,” he says.
The trip back home is just as exciting. Tourists can dine at restaurants dotting Koronadal, like Mang Gorio’s Bahay Kainan, or drop by for dessert at Saravia village.
For more pasalubong, one can stop at one of the numerous stalls lining the national road for fresh pineapple and other fruits.
So what are you waiting for? Grab that favorite backpack and head to Lake Sebu. You won’t be sorry you did.