Backpacking across Mindanao
Backpacking across Mindanao
Image © 2010 Ronald de Jong
If you like to travel, if you like to move around light and if you do not like to spend much money if you don't have to, if you like adventure and exploring the extraordinary, backpacking is a great way to see the Philippines on a tight budget.
The Philippines is probably not the most popular choice for backpackers and the island of Mindanao is not well known among seasoned adventurers, but Mindanao is really an unusual and low cost destination for nature loving backpackers. Backpacking across Mindanao can be exhausting and confusing, but always affordable, challenging and truly a life changing experience. Mindanao gives you the chance to escape the travelling hubbub, to travel to uncharted territory and to see some of the most isolated, spectacular and tranquil areas in the Philippines. Traversing the Island of Smiles independently is easy but one has to choose its journey and the means of transportation with care. The Southern part of this tropical islet is safe to travel, especially the area in and around Davao City, Sarangani Bay and the province of South Cotabato. Traveling with public transport, like the flamboyantly designed jeepney, by boat and using the many local bus lines is an unique experience. It provides the opportunity to travel long distances in a short time in a cost effective manner and can be a leisurely way to take in the sights and sounds of this exotic paradise. For prices that range from 5 to 20 pesos, you can travel by tricycle, jeepney, or any other local transport modes. It is important to know that getting a seat on a bus or plane can be difficult with Christmas, Easter and other National holidays, that is when the whole of the Philippines hits the road. Keep in mind that the standard of comfort on public vehicles can be lower than you are used to. While on the road you will encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those at home, traffic rules are rarely enforced and traffic conditions in cities are often chaotic and crowded. Bus- and Jeepney drivers routinely ignore lane markers and stoplights. They consider themselves as the king of the road, they can drive recklessly and too fast. The aircon buses are reasonably priced and comfortable, the older, non aircon buses and jeepneys are used by locals and those travelers who are hardy and resilient enough to experience the real taste of Filipino life.
The lively, colorful but distinctive and traditional culture separates the Philippines from the rest of the world, be aware of people's sensitivity, act responsive to the local culture by wearing clothing that is generally accepted and avoid talking about politics and religion. Also, always ask permission first when taking some one's photograph and do not give money to beggars and children. Just like in any other country, remember that personal safety comes first, so have a good awareness of your surroundings, be sensible about where you are going and respect the customs and traditions of the region you are visiting. Filipinos are formal and very friendly, it is a great help if you smile most of the time and say thank you (salamat po) when offered help. If you can keep a low profile, go with your instincts and use your common sense, a backpacking trip in Mindanao will be a rewarding adventure. It gives you an opportunity to meet the local population, visit exotic and distant places and experience the diversity and beauty of nature with no fixed itinerary. Hiking the countryside means encountering the uncertain and the unexpected, breaking out of a routine and exploring different and fascinating places. Some of the great pleasures of backpacking is the possibility of traveling on a shoestring and sleeping in a different place every night. Many small delights can be found for less money than you expected, enjoy the authentic cuisine in local restaurants and take a drink in front of the many sari-sari stores, it will give you a chance to rub elbows with the locals, making the evening much more interesting and exciting.
Transportation and accommodation on the whole is cheap and easy to find, Mindanao has many guest houses, budget hotels, boarding houses and inns that provide you the basic, but functional accommodation, having shared facilities and usually without air-conditioning. There are also more expensive guest houses and hotels that offer luxury accommodation and amenities, over all you will find a place that is right for your budget and that will meet your needs, most shelters offer good value for your money. Try not to be that adventurous and avoid sleeping outside, there are creepy bugs and stinging insects out there and there is much poverty in Mindanao, so realize that any opportunity makes a thief. Mosquitoes are abundant, most of them are harmless and only leave an annoying itch on your skin. It is best to take precautions, especially in areas where malaria and dengue are rampant. Rubbing insect repellent on your skin regularly is a must and getting a malaria vaccine before venturing is advisable. It can be useful to carry a cell phone with you when you travel around in Mindanao, it is convenient and reassuring to have easy access to information, be able to contact loved ones at any time or to book a hotel for the night without having to search for a local payphone. It will provide you a smoother overall travel experience and give you some peace of mind. Mobile phone coverage is very good in Mindanao, check with your own wireless carrier before you leave for the Philippines to make sure that your phone has been activated for international roaming.
The main cities in Mindanao are a haven of convenient shopping malls and commercial establishments, you can find almost everything you need,including dining facilities and specialty stores. Cheaper goods and foods can be bought in smaller stores and from stalls on the streets. Haggling is common in Mindanao, if you don't bargain it is sure that you will get ripped off. The average vendor will expect some haggling and will state their prices higher than what you will pay in the end. Shopping malls and other stores maintain fixed prices.
The city of General Santos has evolved as the central hub for backpackers, from here you can start of the many off the beaten track adventures in the vast hinterlands of Mindanao full of unique and vibrant cultures or choose either a laid back tourist destination like Davao city with it's great nightlife and stunning diving locations. The General Santos airport handles direct flights to almost all key cities in the Philippines and is about a 25 minutes drive away by taxi or jeepney from the city center. If you take a taxi from the airport ask the driver to turn the meter on before you get into the car, just to avoid being hassled. There are four national carriers operating within the Philippines and all have good safety records. Beware that on most domestic flights the airlines have a maximum baggage allowance from 10 to 15 kg and may require you to pay for your excess baggage, it might be a good idea to send your backpack as cargo, this is much cheaper. Makar wharf, the Main Port of General Santos is a center of trade, commerce and people and is home to many shipping lines for passenger and cargo traffic. From here you can travel by ocean vessels with low fares to Cebu and Manila. The ferries will allow you to travel in the most basic accommodation for just a few hundred pesos. However, if a boat or ferry seems to be overcrowded, overloaded or the weather conditions are uncertain, do not step on board, the safety of some of these ferries can not be guaranteed.
The best jumping-off point for most hikers is Koronadal city in South Cotabato, this lively city has good hotels, cheap guesthouses, many restaurants and local carinderias serving a variety of food. Koronadal City is a great starting point to explore this extraordinary region of surprises and contrasts, the idyllic beaches and coral reefs in Sarangani bay, Kiamba and Maasim, the tropical forests, jungle covered mountains and majestic waterfalls surrounding lake Sebu and the modern shopping malls in General Santos and the city of Koronadal itself.
If your time is limited an organized tour might work out better than independent travel, it is a great way to share travel experiences and make new friends. There are some travel agencies in Mindanao that can provide your trip with a tour guide that can really enhance your stay. The guide can make the trip the best possible, bring you to the best food outlets with the cheapest drinks, point out the do's and don'ts and recommend the best and safe places to stay. Almost every place in Mindanao has its own hidden treasures and undiscovered places that are worth visiting, The scenery's are truly amazing, take the rugged coastline with rustic, isolated fishermen villages, the exceptional beauty of the rice fields, the idyllic and peaceful rural areas, the cultural heritage of the local tribes and most of all the friendly and hospitable people that will make your trip a journey to remember for a life time.
If you are backpacking across Mindanao, you will come as a stranger in Mindanao but leave as a friend.