Davao City – Queen of the south

One of the Philippines most laid-back cities is your base for exploring the country’s highest peak and plenty more besides

Chip Childers & Steve White

Even on a short stay in Davao you can feel it. It’s a city with an optimistic swagger in its stride. Some overcautious outsiders still like to ask about security whenever anywhere on the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao is mentioned, but the locals and migrants from around the country and across the globe who call this easy-paced city home are better informed than that.

Size is perhaps part of the secret behind the quiet confidence: it is officially one of the largest cities in the world. But there’s also the
fact that business is booming. While the city’s exports were once upon a time all about the fruit that grows so easily in the fertile volcanic soils of the hinterland, today the economy has diversified and that includes getting into tourism of all types.

Better flight connections to domestic and international destinations have helped, along with the advent of more sophisticated resorts
and the growth of a local adventure scene that has spawned operators to take you out and show you around the coasts, cones, cliffs
and caves of a region finally getting some long-overdue attention.

Diving
Islands in the stream

Just off the coast lie Samal Island and its smaller neighbour Talicud and many divers choose to base themselves out there where sites are just a short boat ride away.

Both islands are ringed with sites – more than 20 are commonly visited – and between them they offer a wide cross-section of
conditions and attractions. There are the walls of the north coast of Talicud, a couple of WWII cargo ship wrecks, several caves, drift dives and shallow hunt-the-critter ambles at little more than snorkel depth.

Punta del Sol is a popular starting point for many novice divers with a highly accessible car wreck only 6m down, just one focal point. Close by is Allen’s Rock which gives the more experienced something to relish, dropping you down past 30m.

There’s also a cluster of dive spots halfway down Samal’s west coast and this is where those two shipwrecks are located, down at
around 40m. The other sites here are also worth diving for they offer neatly contrasting views of the local marine life. If you are lucky you may discover a pygmy seahorse on a seafan at Beng’s Corner, while Marissa 1, 2 and 3 are pelagic territory, with hawksbill turtles sometimes showing up along with various deepwater fish species.

Rafting
Davao descents

Whitewater aficionados have a habit of looking at maps, going straight to any visible mountain ranges and excitedly tracing watersheds through canyons with their fingers. Do this with the island of Mindanao and you’re going to get tired hands – the island has some serious kayaking and rafting potential.

While it was Cagayan de Oro, in the north of the island, that led the way, more recently the rivers of Davao have come in for scrutiny, resulting in commercial operations on a threehour, 14km stretch of the Davao River.

Water levels, fed by an extensive watershed, can fluctuate impressively, offering huge haystack waves and monster holes in high water. Even in low water, the run generates Class III river running and plans are afoot to offer runs of various levels of difficulty.

Further afield, the rio incognitos in the Apo watershed and the wilds of Bukidnon look very tempting, though those remain the preserve of expedition-level boaters for the time being.

Zip-lining
Trip wires

Zip lines are all the rage at the moment and at Camp Sabros, close to the checkpoint on the road that leads to Mt Apo, there’s a pair that the operator claims are among the longest single lines in Asia.

Each is over 300m long, with the first a more gentle ride across a forested valley. The thrill can be heightened though by making the trip in a sling which means you are in a lying position, head forward, and so moving faster.

Then, once across the valley, you can return on a simple cableway or you can head uphill to the jump-off for a longer and faster run that sends you screaming through a hole in the trees and back to your start point. You work up a fair bit of speed on this one so there’s even a small parachute to be deployed by those unnerved by the speed.

PRACTICALITIES

When to go
The temperature and rainfall vary only a little through the year, meaning hot sun or showers are possible on any given day. the city is also far enough south to be outside the usual typhoon belt.

How to get there
There are numerous daily flights from Manila and Cebu, as well as direct international routes to Singapore and Manado.

Where to stay
the most luxurious hotel in town is the Marco polo, davao.marcopolohotels.com on Samal Island, perfectly sited for divers, there are the pearl Farm Beach Resort, www.pearlfarmresort.com and the paradise Island park and Beach Resort, www.paradiseislanddavao.com You can also pick up a Small hotels Association of Davao (ShAD) leaflet for more accommodation choices.

Contacts

Trekking and caving
Beyond Apo

The main event for keen trekkers is definitely the climb on Apo (see box on previous page), but there are numerous other options including day hikes to waterfalls or to Puting Bato, the highest viewpoint on Samal Island. Mountain lovers will also enjoy the jungle hike up Mt Matutum (2,293m), a conical peak to the west of Apo, that sees far less traffic.

Many of the same areas are also venues for troglodytes who like to do their exploring underground. While there is not yet any commercial caving, the limestone in the area is riddled with chambers.

If you fancy getting deep down and dirty in any of them, contact any of the main gear shops in the city, all of whom can connect you with local cavers.

Thanks go to Sonny Dizon and Rhonson Ng for their help in the production of this article.