Cagayan de Oro: The City of Golden Friendships

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For someone new to Cagayan de Oro, it’s easy to get caught up in perceptions and in what little media have said about this part of Mindanao. My trip there, however, proved me wrong.

Beaded necklaces and beaming smiles greeted me at the Cagayan De Oro airport, courtesy of my hosts Chazz Ladera and Carl Manlangit of the Department of Tourism’s Regional Office. The day has just started and the bright, cool morning promised to be the start of an adventure in the sights, the tastes, and the exhilarating experiences this gateway to Northern Mindanao has to offer.

Cha and Carl immediately whisked me and my photographer Nikki to the city’s renowned Slers, home of the Jamon Cagayan de Oro. Slers began in 1969 when owner Fely Pelaez learned to prepare the sweet, succulent smoked country ham in Del Monte, Bukidnon. Within a short period, friends and relatives began to order for the holiday feasts and from there Slers became synonymous with excellent Cagayan de Oro ham, chicharon (crispy pork skin), sausages, and other meat delicacies. Ham and eggs never tasted this good.

Thus refreshed and renewed, we proceeded to the St. Augustine Cathedral, a centuries-old church that was described as ”the bastion of Catholic faith” in this corner of Mindanao. Having been destroyed and rebuilt several times over, the cathedral was the original settlement of the early Cagayanons who needed protection from marauding tribes during the city’s infancy. Tradition dictated that I make wish every time I visit a church for the first time. I did.

The search for the city’s cultural heritage continued as we motored to the Museum of Three Cultures, housed at the Capitol University. A grand collection of earthenware, glass, brass, and wooden domestic and ceremonial memorabilia from Maranao, Manobo, Higaunon, and Butuan cultures as well as artifacts from ancient lowland Christian communities give visitors an idea on how these ancient civilizations worked, ruled, traded and celebrated important events in pre-Spanish times.

An important part of culture, ancient or modern, is food. Cha and Carl suggested that we visit the city’s center of Chinese culinary arts, Dynasty Restaurant. We started with the traditional clam soup with clams three times bigger than what I’m familiar with in Manila. Then the pièce de resistance: a huge pata tim–tender pig knuckle garnished with young corn, carrot, mushrooms, and dripping with a thick sauce. I was about to give up when dessert was served: hot buchi (red bean sesame seed balls) and a three-layered shake made from watermelon, mango, and crushed coconut.

The midday feast, I suspected, was designed to prepare me for the rigors of the scheduled white water rafting in the afternoon. After an hour’s drive through the city’s well-paved streets and highways, we reached Dansolihon near the boundary of Bukidnon. This is what they call the start-up point and the ride can be both thrilling and exhausting. We were met by a professional team of rowers, kayak riders, and safety personnel from Kagay, the city’s premier white water rafting outfit which owns more than twenty tough and U.S. Navy Seal-grade rubber boats. The team comes complete with life vests, helmets, joint pads, first aid kits, and simple yet clear safety instructions. Make no mistake about it: the fast-flowing river is dotted with huge rocks and boulders and dozens of rapids. Glancing at the foaming water, I decided to listen to every word the guides had to say. Confident from wearing the right protective outfit and armed with the reassuring words of the guide rower, we proceeded down river. The thick vegetation, sheer walls, and the gentle river lulled me to a state of calm until we hit the first set of rocks and boulders. Imagine riding a bucking bull and a boat on a stormy sea, with the possibility of being thrown overboard and hurled against eight-foot rocks. It’s an extreme roller coaster ride, wet and wild, fear and adrenaline flowing through your body, making you ask for more rapids, more danger, more splashing and thrashing in the rolling waters . After more than 12 kilometers of the wild ride, it was time to dock and dry up. My body was in pain, but it was nothing compared to the exhilaration and the conquest of fear and danger.

Back at the Mallberry Suites downtown (where DOT has graciously billeted us), we washed away the mud from the hills and the fatigue with hot showers before we changed into dry clothes for the Night Café.

It is called Divisoria but it’s totally different from the Manila shopping district. Formally known as the City Golden Friendship Park, the place is one big street party with dozens of souvenir and second-hand clothing stalls on one end and a long row of tents facing a stage on the other side. Thousands of locals and visitors flock to the party place every Friday and Saturday from seven in the evening till the wee hours of the morning. During our visit, a rock band was entertaining a huge crowd with covers of local and foreign hits and a sprinkling of what I suspected were their original compositions. We sat down to watch the band and the crowds with ice-cold beer in pitchers and barbecue from smoking grills. As I sipped my beer, I can still feel the ups and downs of the raft down at the Cagayan de Oro river. It was not an unpleasant feeling as I soaked in the vibrant night life. I also noticed that in spite of all the drinking, the crowd was not rowdy nor overly loud, unlike some of the outdoor drinking places I’ve visited in Makati or Eastwood. The partygoers seemed gentle and quietly content in the simple joys of beer and barbecue.

It was extremely difficult to wake up with a hang-over as I struggled out of bed to prepare for more Cagayan de Oro adventures scheduled for the second day. We motored to Manolo Fortich, in Bukidnon, to the site of Asia’s longest dual zip zone. It’s part of the Dahilayan Nature Park, a sprawling and well-kept outdoor sport facility located 4,700 feet above sea level. Surrounded by thick pine trees, Dahilayan looks, smells, and feels better than Baguio City. Aside from their zip lines, visitors can enjoy horseback riding, rock climbing, the crazy Zorbi balloon (where you tumble downhill while inside a giant transparent plastic ball) or simply communing with nature. We immediately queued for the 300-meter zip line for starters. I was outfitted with a crotch harness and a helmet, the staff making sure that all the locks are in place. Before I knew it, I was next in line, waiting for my turn at the starting ledge. Armed with instructions and assurances from the staff, I sucked in my breath and took the plunge. I fought the tendency to look down but lost. The hills and pathways below me passed by in a blur, the feeling not unlike paragliding in a gentle, slow drop. Not bad, I told myself, until it’s time for the 840-meter line. For this ride, I had a full body harness with the belts and locks spread evenly to keep my body at a prone position, almost like a superhero about to take flight. Helmet on, instructions heard, and then it was time to zip. I thought the first ride was a breeze. The 840-meter zip will make you go from wheeee to whoa!

I was flying headlong at speeds between 60 to 100 kilometers per hour at a drop of a hundred meters before I caught my breath. At the end of the line, safety staff members guided me to a gentle stop and finally took off my body harness. It was an incomparable experience. No wonder zipliners beam a smile and breathe a sigh of relief by the time they get to the end. I conquered my fears and felt how it was like to fly, albeit with the help of safety harnesses!

A simple lunch of tanigue (Spanish mackerel) steak at the resort’s country style hotel and restaurant, the Pinegrove, followed. It was a refreshing break after an exhausting trip, an exhilarating ride and a heart-busting trek up and down the wooded hills of Dahilayan. Sipping coffee while soaking in the picturesque backdrop of Mount Kitanlad in the distance, I felt a sense of peace and comfort having seen what the resort developers had done to improve on and work with nature while sharing the experience with everyone else.

Misamis and Bukidnon are known for their indigenous tribes and the colorful culture of these locals. At Malasag Eco-Tourism Village and Gardens, I met some of the most interesting local peoples in this part of the Philippines. Walking through the pathways of the eco-village, I met the men, women, and children of the Tiguahanons, Higanonons, Manobo, Matigsalog and other tribes. I was treated to their music, dancing, weaving, weaponry, ceremonial costumes, and tools for daily living. The tribal members immediately burst into song and dance and demonstrations of their bead-making and weaving skills as soon as I approached their village huts that dot the wooded hills of Malasag. It made me proud to be a Filipino and part of a culture that has existed for more than 4,000 years.

Finally, it was time to wrap up my Cagayan de Oro tour. I was told I just scratched the surface because the city and its environs offer a lot more. The evening skies were overcast, the waves on the shore higher than usual, but nothing spoiled the excellent dinner of seafood, pakbet, and beer at Seabing as a group of young acoustic musicians performed in the background. These bright-faced teenaged artists have something in common with their tribal brothers and sisters in the mountains of Bukidnon. They both know how to weave the right notes and sing the lyrics that make visitors to Cagayan de Oro sigh with contentment. I toasted my gracious hosts from the Department of Tourism’s Region 10 office and thanked them for the golden friendship we had just started and hopefully will continue in the years to come.

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