Negros Oriental: Beauty from Reef to Ridge

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Too often, tourists who visit the provinces of Central Visayas would proceed directly to Cebu or Bohol, skirting the southeastern corner of Negros Island, completely unaware of the wild beauty in this pocket of paradise called Negros Oriental. Like many others, I’ve also been oblivious to this province’s attractions until I was given the chance to visit. Needless to say, Negros Oriental left me enamored. For where else can one walk on water, or be spellbound by the sight of a forest dweller with flaming feathers?

A gentle nod to the past

The discovery of Negros Oriental begins at its nerve center, the bustling city of Dumaguete. Facing the placid Tañon Strait, Dumaguete thrives on a beat of its own, one that looks to the future but holds on to the past.

In this bustling city, people still flock to the Dumaguete Cathedral to hear mass at the handsome St. Catherine de Alexandria Church. Built in the 17th century, it is the oldest stone church in Negros Oriental. It was on its grounds where a mass was held on November 24, 1898 to celebrate the liberation of the province from Spanish rule. A stone’s throw away is the weather-beaten Campanario de Dumaguete, or the Dumaguete Bell Tower. The first two levels of the tower were completed in the 1760s as a lookout for sea pirates who kidnapped natives and turned them into slaves.

Standing like a grand dame overlooking the Dumaguete port, the Silliman Hall was the first building to be constructed after the founding of Silliman University in 1901. The hall, as is the university, were named after Dr. Horace Brinsmade Silliman, a retired businessman and philanthropist from Cohoes, New York who gave the initial sum of $10,000 to start the school. The Silliman Hall is a graceful remnant of old-world American colonial architecture.

But no matter how enchanting Dumaguete is, one must leave the city of gentle people to experience the varied allure of Negros Oriental. The traveler must pursue the wonders of this province to be amply rewarded

Water, water everywhere

In the afternoon of our arrival, we immediately headed to Barangay Malabo in Valencia to see the twin Pulang Bato Falls. The first of the falls is a roaring 30-foot cascade that plunges into a shallow basin before tumbling over ruddy-colored rocks. The other is a slender waterfall that quietly slides down over a boulder.

“They come from the same source but the higher falls is more famous because of the red rocks at its base. The red color comes from the high concentration of iron in the rocks,” informs Brian Macapal from the Negros Oriental Provincial Tourism Office who accompanied us for most our stay.

A few minutes away from the cool waters of the Twin Falls is another popular spot in Valencia – a steaming watering hole called the Red Rock Hot Spring. Located at the bottom of a bare limestone cliff, Red Rock Hot Spring’s main attraction is a pool surrounded by a lush garden of trees and flowering shrubs. It spews mildly sulfuric water that has an average temperature ranging from 35.5 degrees to 37 degrees centigrade.

The next day, I started early to catch a boat from the center of Dauin to Apo Island. Rising from Tañon Strait some five kilometers from Dauin, the island has seduced divers and nature lovers because of the rich variety of life that flourish in the surrounding reefs. Shaped oddly like a turtle when viewed from my room’s balcony, Apo Island is a mere 72 hectares in size. Yet beneath its white pebble beach is a sanctuary that harbors 650 species of fish, more than 400 kinds of corals, and its most famous residents: the sea turtles.

“It is home to at least three turtle species – hawksbill turtles, green turtles and leatherback turtles,” Brian said. Because Apo Island is a marine sanctuary, it consistently figures as one of the world’s best dive sites. Above water, the island offers other spectacular attractions like quiet coves perfect for lazing in the sun, eroded cliffs that show swirling limestone patterns, and rocky outcroppings arising from the sea.

Now, walking in the middle of the sea might be an effortless task if your name is Jesus Christ. But mere mortals can do just that at the Manjuyod Sandbar off Bais City’s Capiñahan Wharf. To get there, I rose before sunrise to catch the low tide when the sandbar reveals its terrain. Fifteen minutes into Tañon Strait, through the haze of the faint morning light, I caught a glimpse of houses on stilts standing in the middle of the sea’s undulating currents. These cottages are, in fact, built on the sandbar, an elongated stretch of white sand washed by shallow turquoise waters when the tide recedes.

“Depending on the lunar position, the sandbar will reveal its whole 7 kilometers of fine white sand,” says Manjuyod mayor Dr. Felix Sy. “It’s really a wonder because the sides of the sandbar can plummet down to as deep as 200 feet and more,” he says pointing to the dark blue expanse of water hemming the edges of the sandbar. On this stretch, one gets the feeling of being enveloped by nature’s encompassing beauty – with clear waters lapping at one’s feet, the endless sky above, and a vista of mountains in the distance. But when low tide ends, the water creeps in and engulfs the sandbar to hide its sparkling beauty.

When the sun came out, we boarded the boat again and sailed straight into Tañon Strait for about an hour or so. The boat’s owner, a native of Bais City named Dodot Balderas, has been ferrying tourists across Tañon Strait for 12 years now to know where the dolphins feed and frolic. Indeed, a few minutes after surveying the seascape, he spotted a pod of dolphins slicing the water near the bow of another boat. For nearly an hour, Dodot’s crew maneuvered the boat expertly to get near the frisky creatures. With their streamlined bodies, the dolphins playfully torpedoed ahead of the boat, crisscrossing under the waves, lunging in and out of the water in rhythmic arches.

Brian says that at least 10 species of cetaceans make the Bais Bay-Tañon Strait area their home and feeding ground. “Those that can be found here include the long-snouted spinner dolphins, pan tropical spotted dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, Fraser’s dolphins and Risso’s dolphins, among others,” he enumerates.

For his part, Dodot, has only gratitude for these denizens of the deep. “From one boat, I earned enough money from taking tourists to the dolphins to buy another one. I am having another boat made. A long time ago, people in these parts killed and ate dolphins. Today, we protect them because they have given us so much,” he says.

Mountain high

Negros Oriental is a land of contrasts. From the reefs and shore, mountain ranges and long-dormant volcanoes rise dramatically to the sky to provide some of the most breathtaking natural sceneries.

In the town of Siaton is a picturesque freshwater lake nestled in the thickly-forested ridges of Sitio Balanan. “The serene atmosphere of Lake Balanan belies its violent birth. On May 5, 1925 a magnitude 6.8 earthquake of tectonic origin shook the southern part of Negros Island. The movement caused massive landslides in the Balanan and Nasig-id mountain ranges to dam the Balanan River and form a freshwater lake 400 meters above sea level,” tells Jimmy Deposoy of the provincial government of Negros Oriental, which oversees the care of the lake.

Nearly a century later, Lake Balanan has become a veritable sanctuary to soothe the mind, body and spirit of world-weary urbanites. Here, one can go boating, or drift over the glassy expanse aboard a floating cottage. A circumferential trail bordering the lake will take the traveler through woodlands of ancient banyan trees, towering acacias and groves of bamboo. Young and old alike will surely enjoy the three-tiered circular pool facing a dense jungle. Those who wish to settle longer can rent any of the guest rooms and bask in the serenity of this verdant hideaway. As for me, I just stared at the lake unmoving, entranced as it were by its emerald depths.

Those possessing a more robust appetite for adventure will be abundantly compensated by a trip to the twin lakes. Nestled on ancient craters more than 800 meters above sea level, the Balinsasayao and Danao Lakes straddle the towns of Sibulan, Valencia and San Jose in the Mt. Talinis range. The steep gorges bordering the lakes are covered in hardwood forests that form a canopy reaching to a height of 40 meters.

Collectively known as the Balinsasayao Twin Lakes Natural Park under the care and supervision of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the park’s importance as an ecological site is most evident in the number of rare and endemic species of plants and animals that make their home in this highland reserve.

“The park is home to a number of bird species endemic to the Negros-Panay Island Group, meaning birds that cannot be found anywhere else but in this bio-geographical region,” stresses Jac Señagan of the provincial tourism office who is also an avid birdwatcher. Birdwatchers and bird photographers from all over the world troop to the park to catch a sight of such rare avian species as the Negros flame-templed babbler, writhed-billed hornbill, white-throated jungle flycatcher, white-winged cuckoo shrike, and many others.

“Birdwatchers from many countries also come to the park to catch a glimpse of one bird alone. I once accompanied a Singaporean surgeon who was looking for that particular bird. On the third day when he still hasn’t spotted the bird, it rained and he was so disappointed. Then at noon, as we were having lunch at the park’s cafe, I heard the call of the bird. We ran to the balcony and we were able to take many good photos of that bird. The surgeon told me he felt like he was in heaven that day,” Jac recalls.

On the way down from the top of the narrow ridge separating the twin lakes, Jac put a finger to his lips. He motioned me to quietly approach a hibiscus shrub, its red flowers drooping in the light drizzle. Under the leaves, flitting from flower to flower, was a tiny bird with an orange stain in the middle of its yellow belly. Its chest and wings are covered in plum-colored feathers. In the late afternoon light, its head and nape seemed to have been stained in rich red wine. That, it turned out, was the rare maroon-naped sunbird, the same bird the Singaporean doctor sought desperately for three days.

I took it as a good omen brought to me on the wings of a delicate and elusive creature. I cast a glance at the ancient lakes and quietly thanked my good fortune. I know I would be back to this island of exceptional spectacles.

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