A first-time visit to the capital city of Negros Oriental can include sightings of dolphins, swimming in a cool freshwater lake, and interacting with friendly locals
WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY PAUL JOHN CAÑA
Dumaguete City is only about an hour’s plane ride from Manila but it might as well be several time zones away. Negros Oriental’s capital may be a city with markets that are noisy, fumes from diesel-engine cars, and a center defined mostly by concrete edifices, but dig a little deeper and you’ll discover a generally laid-back university town filled with endless cultural discoveries, surprisingly good cuisine, and perpetually smiling locals. It’s not called the City of Gentle People for nothing.
My first time in Dumaguete, I barely saw the town. It was merely a stopover on the way to nearby Siquijor. I enjoyed the beaches of the island, but regretted the fact that my friends and I practically just swept through Dumaguete on the way to the airport. On a recent trip back, I got to see more of the city, and discovered that it was worth the wait, because you definitely need more than a few hours to see and experience what it has to offer.
Tempura and Red Rocks
For any first-timer, a stop along Rizal Boulevard is a must. Think of Roxas Boulevard in Manila, only prettier and much more charming. We got there in the mid-afternoon, just in time to see the daily spectacle of “tempura” stall-owners setting up. They don’t really serve the Japanese staple, unless you count breaded fish and squid balls as tempura, but for a filling snack, they’re not bad. You can choose to sit on one of the plastic chairs or get your order to-go, meaning you can take it with you as you walk along the promenade. There’s something relaxing about going on a lazy jaunt with fresh ocean air blowing through your hair as you pass locals smiling and laughing. It’s a simple thrill that’s lost on people used to the soot and grime of the big city.
About a 30-minute drive away from the city center is Casaroro Falls in the town of Valencia. It’s near an area called Pulangbato, which literally means “red rock.” You’ll know it when you see it because you’ll pass through a river with naturally red minerals that give the water its odd hue. There was light rain when we arrived, so the water was a bit more on the murky brown side, but the cool thing about these falls is that it flows into a natural swimming hole that is deep enough for high dives.
Dumaguete is a college town, being the home of Silliman University, the oldest private American university in the country. We were there during the week Silliman was celebrating its 113th Founder’s Day, so there was a festive atmosphere in the campus, with a college fair filled with booths and a stage with musical performances. I had corn on the cob drenched in butter and salt as we walked around the campus, just taking in the cool, relaxed atmosphere of the place.
Dolphins in the Water
The next day, we set out early from our base, the Sta. Monica Beach Club, to head out to Bais Bay. Much has been written about this sleepy fishing village about an hour away from Dumaguete, but its main attraction is one words can never fully capture. Tañon Strait, a narrow body of water between the islands of Negros and Cebu, apparently holds one of the greatest concentrations of cetaceans (marine mammals) in the world. That means that if you go there, there is more than a fair chance that you will get to see actual dolphins in their natural habitat. If you’re lucky, they might even be in the mood to play.
That was certainly the case when we got there. Onboard a motorized bangka, we set out to the water and barely 15 minutes in, our spotter alerted us that he already saw a pod of dolphins. It’s a bit weird to be chasing marine animals when you think about it; common sense dictates that us humans should just leave them alone, but the guides said that the dolphins have made these waters their home and are actually quite friendly. Some of them even showed off and jumped out and swam along the boat. For people who only see wild animals in cages in zoos, it’s a truly extraordinary experience.
After we’ve had our fill of seeing the frisky marine mammals, we moved on to the Manjuyod White Sand Bar, just a few minutes north of Bais Bay. It was high tide at the time, but our guide said that during low tide, a small island emerges where visitors can enjoy a relaxing swim. There is also a “bar” on stilts that rises out of the sea that’s perfect for a photo op. The clear blue water was too irresistible and pretty soon I found myself diving out of the boat and rubbing saltwater off my eyes.
The next part of the journey was a bit farther off. The twin lakes of Balinsasayao and Danao are located about 20 kilometers from the town of Sibulan. There is an observation deck with a gorgeous view of the lake region, stretching out into the horizon. We hiked a short path down a forest trail to the lake shore, where a boat was waiting to take us across. Although there is a boatman, extra oars were available for anyone willing to engage in an instant upper body workout. The placid lake was bounded on all sides by green hills, providing an excellent back drop for more photo ops. When we got to the other side, our guide led us to another path through the dense forest. At the end was a serene waterfall straight out of a postcard or a desktop screensaver. We dipped our feet into a small pool and took a few minutes to appreciate the surroundings, where the only sounds were those of chirping birds and the rushing water. Of course, camera phones were whipped out to preserve the moment for posterity.
During the hike back, the skies opened and dumped rain on the area. I had to help the boatman row us back to shore. We were soaked to the bone by the time we got back to the observation deck, but I didn’t mind because it only made the experience more memorable.
It was good that we stayed at the Sta. Monica Beach Club as it was the only seaside resort located within Dumaguete City. We were told the property has existed for decades and is a favorite events venue of city folk. After it was taken over by the One-Of Collection Group, the resort underwent a major renovation. With 18 deluxe rooms, Sta. Monica incorporated contemporary coastal design themes and a modern Filipino aesthetic. After a long day of exploring the sights in and out of the city, its rooms offered welcome relief and come equipped with an LED TV with cable channels and wireless Internet. The resort also serves not just traditional Negrense fare, but international dishes as well, at the restaurant called the Lanai.
For a first-time trip, we covered a lot of ground, but the one thing that will stay with me about Dumaguete is the smiles of the locals, and how I felt so welcomed by everyone. It’s a city that has retained old-fashioned values but is clearly looking ahead to a brighter, more prosperous future. I can’t wait to go back.