July 6, 2004  (STAR) CITIZEN OF THE WORLD By Edu Jarque  -  Secretary of Tourism Roberto Pagdanganan has reasons to smile these days.

Consider these: Visitor arrivals to the Philippines from January to May of 2004 reflect a growth rate of 31 percent compared to the same period last year. The most recent survey of visitor profile and travel characteristics show that the average length of stay is almost 10 nights – a remarkable improvement from the past. The current up-to-date average daily visitor expenditure compiled for this year is $108, exhibiting an increase of over 24 percent in visitor receipts in relation to 2003 figures.

In a nutshell, our lovely islands played hosts to a greater number of holidaymakers, businessmen and investors who stayed longer and spent more.

As the saying goes, "The tourists are coming. Hoorah! Hoorah!"

Yes, they came and walked the cobbled streets of Intramuros, were fascinated by the old churches and conventos of Ilocos and Cebu, relived the glory that was Spain in the old town, heritage village of Vigan.

They were awed by the splendor of the Rice Terraces of the Cordilleras, astonished by the richness of the Tubattaha Reef off Palawan, they trekked through our rainforests, shot the rapids, conquered the mist-covered mountain tops. They gaped at the eagles, swam with the whale sharks, danced with the dolphins and even coddled the tarsiers. They joined the processions of Quiapo, Bantayan and Obando and swayed to the beat of the riotous festivals of Ati- Atihan and Sinulog, Masskara and Dinagyang.

They have been there, done all that!

And yet, there must be other places – some best-kept secrets known only to a blessed few – to discover, to experience, to live?

What better group of experts to ask than the Department of Tourism regional directors? Our question was: What is the best kept secret of your region that you would like to share with the rest of the world?

And this was what they had to say.


Cordillera Region: Abra, Benguet, Ifugao, Kalinga Apayao and Mountain Province

The Cordilleras’ best kept secrets are the unparalleled celebrations of distinct ceremonies and rituals observing centuries-old and much revered family traditions – the cycle of life, rites of passage from birth to young adulthood, marriage, death and the after life.

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Region II: Batanes, Cagayan, Isabela, Nueva Viscaya and Quirino

The freshest air, coolest breeze, clearest skies, bluest waters, whitest beaches, greenest grasslands. The most romantic sunset and most starry nights. Ultimate panoramic terrain, made-to-order meadows, never-ending trails, nature most preserved – and postcard beauty at its best.

From the window seat of an aircraft, you’d think you’re flying over a foreign land with endless cliffs and rock formations on the beach, winding roads carved on mountainsides and the quaint view of the villages.

The land and its inhabitants take their name Ivatan from the word ivat or yayat, which local elders say means "to get shipwrecked and washed ashore." A virgin group of islands, it is far from the curse of urbanization; where, life is easy, the houses are made of meter-thick stone and lime, and cogon thatched roofs look like boxes; where people speak – in addition to Ivatan – Spanish, English and Nippongo as the effect of foreign occupations; where fisher folks and farm hands with the friendliest smiles flock together to church on Sundays with their families; where native-born traditions and customs, values and beliefs continue to prosper. With absolutely no beggars in sight, this most peaceful province of the country with zero crime rate prides itself on the fact that its jails are empty except for a carabao who strayed and eventually destroyed the crops on the neighbors’ fields.

Contrary to perception, the land is not a magnet for typhoons. Nevertheless such disturbances are part of the people’s lives. They claim to be more accurate than PAGASA in predicting the weather. They say a storm is brewing when the sky is color pink and turns orange in the afternoon, when there are bright yellow flashes in the heavens, when the newly sprung banana leaves will not unfurl, when the fish will not bite the bait, when the umangs or the hermit crabs head to the community in large groups and when the elderly experience pain in their joints.

This land has been nominated for inclusion in the prestigious World Heritage List. This land is the best kept secret in the north. This land is Batanes!

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Region III: Aurora, Bataan, Bulacan, Nueva Ecija, Pampanga, Tarlac and Zambales

How can we ever forget that day in June 1991, when the seemingly quiet Mount Pinatubo blew its top with such terrible rage, surging inflows of volcanic ash as mudflow debris – lahar, a word then unknown – incessantly created rampage and havoc in all directions. The eruption was so devastating it altered the topography of provinces and even wiped out towns and municipalities.

By a twist of nature, barangay Santa Juliana in Capas, Tarlac suddenly found itself to be the gateway to the volcano. A dangerously carved fissure in the volcano’s path was transformed into a readily usable trekking trail. Once a ghost town, it now plays host to active adventurers and serious mountain climbers to take on the long and arduous trek to the very bowels of the volcano – the crater itself. With two other barangays in Porac, Pampanga and Angeles City as additional gateways to Mount Pinatubo, the best kept secret will remain no secret any more.

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Region IV: Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, Quezon, Occidental Mindoro, Oriental Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan.

Bacuit Bay in El Nido, Palawan, was one such wondrous experience for me. With friends who were in pursuit of more interaction with nature after two days of fish feeding, snorkeling, picnic lunches at Entalula Island and paddling through the lake surrounded by awesome cliffs, we set out to experience sunset and line fishing in the bay. We tumbled on a little boat armed with determination to catch 30 fish during sunset. We sunk a motley assortment of nylon strings with squiggly creatures dangling at the bottom of our lines. Silver, pink and white fish filled our little baskets, which our companions from the resort turned into sushi as cocktail hour descended on the boat.

We ambled back to the beach giddy with the experience. What awaited us was a sight I will never forget – the crevices and ledges were lit with a hundred flickering candles while a flutist played the sweetest sounds. Our prattle became awed silence.

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Region V: Albay, Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Catanduanes, Masbate and Sorsogon

Bicol’s best kept secret, which I want to share with the rest of the world, is the manta ray dive on Tacdogan Reef found in the middle of Ticao Pass which is approximately 15 kilometers off the coast of the town of Bulan in Sorsogon. Measuring almost four meters long when fully grown, the manta rays are considered as endangered pelagics. Sightings are best during the months of April and May when at most times whalesharks or butandings come on view as a welcome bonus. Both species feed on plankton and small shrimps.

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Region VII: Bohol, Cebu, Negros Oriental and Siquijor

One of Bohol’s kept secrets is the Rajah Sikatuna National Park. Located 71 kilometers from the center of Tagbilaran City, it encompasses some 10,000 hectares of grasslands and forests of mainly local molave trees. Roughly 30 kilometers of marked trails, trodden by pioneering pathfinders, exist for excellent viewing of all the wilderness – birds, mammals and reptiles, uncommon trees and plant species. Along the mountainside, one can explore over a hundred caves – some are known sites, others are uncharted. Outdoor camping and modest accommodation facilities equipped with basic kitchens and restrooms and not-so-high-powered electricity are offered by the Department of Energy and Natural Resources. The community-based eco-tourism adventure activities are coordinated by the enterprising constituents of Barangay Bugsok of Sierra Bullones. The national park is truly a secret hideaway.

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Region VIII: Bituran, Leyte, Southern Leyte, Samar, Eastern Samar and Northern Samar

In Santa Rita, Samar, there exists a private spot known as the Eagle’s Peak, endowed by nature with the most enviable blessings of creation, enhanced by the creative skill of its owner. Resting on a hilltop, it overlooks the world’s narrowest strait and what to many is the most beautiful one: the San Juanico Strait. There’s also the imposing San Juanico Bridge and at the opposite side is the picture-pretty array of Samar mountains as if suspended in mid-air.

Sipping coffee or gulping a shake from the landscaped cafe-garden, experiencing sunrise and sunsets, drizzles and torrents, thunder and lightning, rainbows and mists border on the sublime.

A visit inevitably drives all of one’s earthly cares away due to the spectacular masterpiece of nature. It’s awesome, it’s sheer magic!

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Region X: Bukidnon, Camiguin, Misamis Occidental, Misamis Oriental and Lanao del Norte

The uncharted, magnificent dive spots surrounding Camiguin, the island born of fire, the splendor of a new discovery along Buria’s Shoal – the Jickdop Reef near Mantigue Island – as well as the Undersea Spring of Medina, the hot pool of Ardent Springs and the chilling waters of Katibawasan Falls are among my region’s best kept secrets.

As the officer-in-charge of Caraga in Region XIII, comprising the provinces of Agusan del Norte, Agusan del Sur, Surigao del Norte and Surigao del Sur, we have the Suhotan Lagoon of Bucas Grande, of the fabled group of the islands of Siargao, which is only accessible at low tide. Carefully docking through the huge stalactites that seem to caress the languid green waters of the lagoon, one enters a silent enchanted world of pristine beauty with yucca plants and native pines, pitcher plants and orchids, whose deafening silence is only interrupted by the sound of a sea eagle. One may cruise into the jellyfish sanctuary where one can scoop a variety of the hundreds of sea creatures that gently sway with the soft waves caused by the ripple of the oar. A truly magical experience, a best kept secret but not for long.

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Region XII: North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani and South Cotabato

Trekking on the Makalanget Trail, one of the seven paths to Mount Apo, the country’s highest peak, one passes by the intriguing Barangay New Israel in Makitala, Cotabato, the religious site of the Alpha Phi Omega believers commonly known as the Moncados. Engulfed by the rainforest, surrounded by lush endemic flora and fauna and many other beautiful things that certainly are gentle reminders that there is a God, one gets to observe the friendly and entertaining monkeys – some 300 thrive in the area – in action. Taking their cue from the Moncado Suprema, the monkeys present their daily show full of tricks and antics. If one is truly lucky, one may even be a witness to the flag raising ceremony where all the primates join in. Just exactly what do they do? That is yours to find out.

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Region XI: Davao del Norte, Davao Oriental, Davao del Sur and Compostela Valley

In the hinterlands of Davao Oriental can be found one of nature’s rare treasures: the bonsai fields of Mount Hamiguitan. Locally known as the pygmy forest at 5,345 feet above sea level, it is over a thousand hectares of miniature flora – rare Ladyslipper orchids and inch-long carnivorous pitcher plants growing lazily amid century-old dwarf trees standing not higher than three feet tall. East of the mountain lie the deep blue waters of the Pacific, whose warm winds rising to the cooler air of the peak create mists that shroud the forest, giving the landscape a mystical veil while twin waterfalls cascading to a clear blue pool and a tinagong dagat complete the enchantment in this unique habitat.

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Region IX: Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur and Zamboanga Sibugay

The Zamboanga Peninsula has a trove of hidden treasures and having to pick only one can be unfair.

Very quickly now, from the rinconcito de España, we have Isabela’s Malamaui Island, Zamboanga del Sur’s Lake Lakewood, Zamboanga Sibugay’s giant talabas and its municipality of Olutanga’s sea snake sanctuary, the Cogon Ecopark of Dipalog and the surviving relatives of Jose Rizal’s original students in Dapitan.

But let me tell you more about the twin groups of islands. In the game of craps, one wins if he gets seven or 11 on his first throw. East of Zamboanga City lie seven and 11 beautiful islands, each a winner, each a jewel.

The seven islands can be found off Barangay Vitali, the foremost of which is Limaong which in the ‘60s was the favorite island hideaway of European royalty, Hollywood celebrities and VIPs from Clark and Manila. Perfect for swimming, scuba diving and lobster spearing.

The 11 islands are something else! Starting with Visa Island which is the southernmost part of the cluster, these gems are located off Barangay Bolong, while the northernmost Lampinigan Island is a kilometer and a half off the shores of Barangay Dita. These islands are scattered over a 7x6 kilometer area and all possess varied natural characteristics – intriguing rock formation, interesting not-fully-explored caves and fine sand beaches. It is also a haven for migratory birds. Around these islands are deep waters ranging from 16 to 24 fathoms that are best suited for snorkeling, skin and scuba diving. I could go on and on.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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