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I have always wanted to go to Dumaguete. To me, the city conjured images of a laid back provincial lifestyle infused with an urban feel. My thoughts of it were always tenuous, as if when I finally got there, the place would be filled with a dreamlike fog, which would part to reveal the Siliman University campus, dolphins jumping in the sea as the sun set beautifully on the horizon. This is, of course, not what Dumaguete looks like, though it is a charming little city full of friendly people and a vibe that invites you not to take life too seriously. In short, if you’re the type of person who wants to slow down but can’t live without the structure and amenities of the city, Dumaguete and its surrounding areas is the place for you.
An Atmosphere of Calm
We were met at Dumaguete’s tiny airport by Atmosphere Resort’s sleek black van, which brought us to the resort. Located just a few minutes away from the airport, Atmosphere specializes in the art of island relaxation. Hammocks abound, as do lounge areas. The resort sports a small beachfront and nearby, a house reef that’s great for muck diving and a marine sanctuary with lots of things for snorkelers to see. There’s an infinity pool filled with chlorinated seawater as part of the resort’s goal to be as environment-friendly as possible. By the time you read this, their spa should be fully functional, offering different signature treatments that use local ingredients and well-known international brands in conjunction with ancient soothing and healing practices.
Since the resort is tucked away in its own little space of calm, it is very easy to just sink into one of the hammocks and never leave, but we (me and photographer Rica Garcia) were determined to explore Dumaguete City and its surroundings so after checking in, we headed out, taking advantage of Atmopshere’s many tours to nearby tourist spots.
Our first stop was Casaroro Falls, located in Valencia, around 45 minutes away from Dauin, where Atmosphere is located. The falls are said to be majestic, a narrow band of water plunging down into a roaring stream from 100 feet, a sight well worth traversing the steep trail for. Unfortunately, Mother Nature decided that Casaroro wasn’t for us, as she sent down a torrent of heavy rain just as we reached the bridge that led to the falls. We waited for quite a while, but since the rain wouldn’t stop, and we reasoned that the already slightly dangerous path would now be slippery anyway, we decided to visit Dumaguete City instead.
The City of Gentle People
Dumaguete City is what my vision of a lovely seaside metro should be. Clean streets, an active academe, a close-knit community (you can ask anyone for directions and they will invariably know how to get to the place you are looking for), and a beautiful port area near the main boulevard (sort of like what Manila’s Roxas Boulevard would have been like in a perfect world) where children swim in waters so clean you can see the shadows of fish darting about before the sea birds swoop down and catch them.
Our first stop was Sidlakang Negros Village, a bazaar dedicated to crafts and delicacies from all over Negros Oriental. Here, one can find everything from snacks to trinkets to heavy furniture and stone craft. The bazaar’s main building also houses the Department of Tourism Office, where I met Tourism Operations Assistant Bobby Villasis, who filled me in on what to expect from the city.
“It used to be a very quiet place. Then, over the last 10 years, things started to get very energetic… Everybody has a motorbike and now we’re supposed to be the motorcycle capital of the Philippines or something,” he says.
When asked what are the Negros delicacies most people like to take home with them as gifts, Bobby mentioned Budbud sa Tanjay (pronounced ‘tanhay’). “Basically suman (rice cake) cooked in a special way that nobody can duplicate.”
Another delicacy is bayi-bayi, “Our version of (espasol), rice pounded with coconut and sugar.
He also gave me advice on other Dumaguete tourist attractions, most of which require a day trip outside the city. “Our most popular sights would be the twin lakes Balinsasayao and Danao. Second most popular is Apo Island. Third most popular is dolphin watch in Bais City.”
Dumaguete City itself is not devoid of sights, and the beauty of it is you can conceivably cover everything in one day.
We visited Aquino Freedom Park located in front of the Negros Oriental Provincial Capitol Building. The park is lovely and clean, with people strolling about, making the most of a beautiful afternoon.
It would be sad to visit Dumaguete without dropping by Siliman University. Aside from being one of the most prestigious schools in the province (and one of the most well known in the Philippines), Siliman is the first Protestant University in Asia. Its campus is filled with old buildings set against lush greenery. Its oldest building, built in 1901, stands near the port area, a beautiful, gently imposing structure.
Dumaguete is also home to St. Paul University, where noteworthy is a monument of the St. Paul sisters sighting land from their tiny rowboat along Rizal Boulevard (an event that Rica tells me actually happened), and Foundation University, whose founder Dr. Vicente Guzman-Sinco is one of the delegates who signed the UN Charter for the Philippines in 1945.
One place that a Dumaguete visitor cannot avoid passing is Rizal Boulevard, the city’s picturesque main street with a view of the sea, the port and nearby islands on one side, and a busting commercial area on the other. All of Dumaguete’s hippest nightspots and restaurants can be found along Rizal Boulevard or on one of the streets that branch out from it. We wanted to try the local cuisine so we asked the driver to take us to one of his favorite restaurants. This was how we ended up in Sans Rival, probably the only place on the laid back island where people tend to get a little rabid. Not that I blame them. The cakes and coffee here are so good, they’re worth the long lines. While Rica tried the silvanas and sans rival, I went for the jam cookies and a cup of coffee, which we would later buy a lot of to take back home with us.
We also visited the St. Catherine of Alexandria Church, which is more known as the Dumaguete Cathedral, and the bell tower that stands next to it. Built in the 1700s, the church is the seat of the Archdiocese of Dumaguete and was also used as a garrison against invaders. The tower was used in the old days to warn of incoming pirates. Nowadays, the tower contains a religious shrine where people can burn colored candles bought from stalls located by the tower gates (which also sells herbal remedies), and pray for intercession. The scene is not unlike Manila’s Quiapo, where paganism mingle with Christianity. To get into the spirit of things, I bought three candles, lit them, and said a prayer. Then we headed to our next location, known to locals as a place of cheer, especially at the end of the year.
Almost anyone in Dumaguete will be able to point you to the Christmas House, whose owner, Dr. Absin, lavishly decorates every Christmas. “I don’t know how it started but it’s been there quite a while and every year, it’s a different set of decorations,” Bobby says. “He (also) holds a special breakfast for homeless children.”
The house is festive, even in the daytime, with larger-than-life soldiers and gingerbread houses decorating its front lawn. “Every year, it gets more and more elaborate,” Bobby says. “I think there are even things moving around. The whole street in front is filled with people just to look at those lights every year. But of course, there’s going to be lights everywhere in the province.”
Under the Sea
Even if you are not a diver, you cannot leave Dumaguete without visiting nearby Apo Island. I have always meant to learn to dive, but my lessons always seem to fall through, which was why I found myself snorkeling in the shallows while Rica dove in deeper waters.
It is the next day, and we have set out early to Apo Island on Atmosphere’s large, motorized banca. We were accompanied by Don Tan, one of the resort’s Dive Masters, who explained that Apo Island has nine major dive sites. “All major, no minor,” he says.
Don took us to two dive sites, which also contain vast corals with lots of fauna to amuse snorkelers. The first was Rock Point East, which Don describes as having “…steep slopes and beautiful corals in the shallows. There are also lots of schools of fish like red triggerfish, snappers and groupers, as well as turtles and sea snakes.”
On the way to the second dive site Katipan, which Don says was named after the tipay, a local underwater shell that closes if you wander too near, we encountered a pod of dolphins that insisted on swimming across the path of our boat. They were beautiful, a sight that left us in awe.
In Katipan, which Don describes as “a sloping reef with no current, with beautiful garden corals, different kinds of sponges and friendly turtles,” we did manage to see a lone hawksbill turtle, which probably didn’t like being followed around like paparazzi as it kept swimming away from the camera.
Though we only covered two of the nine dive sites, and though I only snorkeled, it was enough to give me an idea of the beauty and the diversity found in that little piece of land. Don agrees. “When it comes to corals, Apo is perfect. Perfect coral reef garden with 100% live corals.”
There are a couple of resorts on Apo Island for overnight stays, as well as lots of souvenirs. If you do plan on buying a shirt, dress or sarong, don’t forget to haggle.
Folks looking for smaller sights will want to check out Atmosphere’s house reef, which is good for muck diving, which concentrates on looking for tiny marine life instead of the usual ones one can see in the open ocean. “We have coastal and macro diving… here in Dauin,” Don says. “If you want small stuff, rare stuff, you can find it here.”
Dumaguete is indeed a cross between a city and a tropical isle. Its beauty, clean streets, good food and friendly people are the stuff that dream vacations are made of. Bobby, from the Tourism Office, put it very well when he said, “We call ourselves laid back. Our energy is like that… like most people know each other, people stop to talk to each other. There’s something here that I couldn’t find in Manila or Cebu or anywhere else in the Philippines.”
These are things that I sometimes enviously wish that Manila, where I am based, had.