HISTORY, FOLKLORE AND COMMERCE EBB AND FLOW IN THE RICH WATERS OF SURIGAO DEL NORTE. TEXT AND PHOTOS BY EDGAR ALAN ZETA-YAP
The water was alive. As the labyrinthine mangroves of Dayasan gave way to the Hinatuan Passage, the currents shift in from all directions, wrestling and wringing out waves and whirlpools. “The sea is dancing,” the boatman poetically remarked. Referring to these turbulent waters, many say that the Spanish word surgir meaning “to spurt or come forth” gave rise to the province’s sonorous name: Surigao.
Located on the northernmost end of Mindanao island and facing the abyss of the Philippine Deep, Surigao del Norte is characterized by an enormous lake on a peninsula that breaks into a jigsaw of islands, making water a ubiquitous presence in the province. Through the millennia, these ancient waterscapes have become conduits of history, culture and commerce.
ROMANCE ON THE MANGROVES
Best explored by boat, Day-asan Floating Village – the “Little Venice of Surigao” – demonstrates how residents prosper alongside the natural element. While the architecture may not be Italian Renaissance, the place nonetheless romances its visitors with charming houses on stilts, lobster pens, footbridges and dugout canoes. “This paradise is perfect for honeymooners,” says Lydia Apao Bullivant of Daydream Laguna, a Balinese-inspired eco-luxe resort and teppanyaki restaurant in the heart of the mangrove village.
Surigao’s love affair with water began eons ago. Along the city harbor, the Surigaonon Heritage Center (SHC) houses an archeological treasure of boat coffins excavated from a pre-Hispanic gravesite in Placer. “These were carbon dated at 140 AD, making them the oldest artifacts in Mindanao,” Jun Almeda, SHC founder and author ofSurigao Across the Years reveals. “They were set afloat to ferry the dead to the afterlife.” Intriguingly, Chinese porcelain was also discovered with the coffins, indicating that maritime trade with mainland Asia was already flourishing at the time.
Centuries later, water continues to shape local life. Dubbed the “City of Island Adventures,” Surigao is a transport hub for exploring the world-renowned surfing capital of Siargao and 88 of its other islands strewn across the strait.
A visit to the insular barangays showcases the ingenuity born out of living in and around the ocean. Linking Nonoc and Hanigad islands, the CantiasaySan Pedro footbridge was built using native hardwood such as magcono (Philippine ironwood) to withstand the strong currents and occasional typhoons. Stretching for 391m over coral reef and sea grass beds, this resourceful answer to Samar and Leyte’s San Juanico Bridge is the longest of its kind in the country. Crossing the bridge offers quaint sceneries of villagers traveling in purring bancas (outrigger boats) and children fishing from the scaffolds against a backdrop of rolling coconut tree-fringed hills and billowy cotton ball clouds.
During WWII, these beautiful islands witnessed the last battleship-versus-battleship action in world history: the Battle of Surigao Strait on October 25, 1944 between American and Japanese forces. Bones from the past continue to surface to this day.
Last November 2009, local divers salvaged artifacts from a vandalized shipwreck off the pier. “We are now trying to identify this Japanese cargo ship,” explains Jake Miranda of the Surigao Dive Club. Among the items recovered are helmets, gas masks, combat boots, IV bottles and razor sets. “The Surigaonon Heritage Center will eventually exhibit our finds.” The naval artifacts were temporarily displayed at Hotel Tavern – a modernized relic in its own right – having been established in 1946 as a watering hole popular among American soldiers.
LAKES AND LEGENDS
Back on the mainland, more water adventures await the insatiable traveler. Halfway between the cities of Surigao and Butuan, one can admire the majestic tranquility of Lake Mainit — the country’s deepest — at Almont Lake Resort in Kitcharao, Agusan del Norte just outside the provincial border. Kayaks and aqua bikes can be rented for a leisurely morning with white egrets and red-eyed starlings flitting amid bamboo groves and water hyacinths.
Named after its warm waters, the lake covers an area of over 170km2. According to Surigaonon legend, the vast body of water was once the site of the Diwata Mountains where forest nymphs lived in harmony with their pet hornbills. In time, the birds became too noisy and the fairies decided to leave, taking the mountains with them away to sea. The relocation left behind a cavity, which filled up with rainwater and became Lake Mainit, while the mountains became the island of Camiguin.
Trekking further inland, water emerges from the ground forming caves and falls along the way. “Our grandfathers took refuge here during the war,” says local guide Verlison Gohil, climbing down Silop Cave into a limestone cathedral of drip-curtain walls and terraces lit up with the orange flicker of his kerosene lamp. Meanwhile, at Capalayan, a thick canopy of foliage and vines shelter an impressive 40ft waterfall cascading down slabs of dark slate.
As the day drifts to night, the sun paints everything gold. Along the west coast, Mabua Beach is a unique seascape known for its breathtaking sunsets. Instead of fine sand, large white stones polished by the beating waves form the shore. “They filter the waters, and give beachcombers a foot massage,” shares Gina Dolores of Mount Bagarabon Beach and Mountain Resort. “Other visitors enjoy hiking up to the neighboring pebble cove of Looc to admire the sea view.”
Like the therapeutic stones of Mabua, traveling the picturesque province shows one the rewards of persevering with the ebb and flow of life. And how, sailing through the tides of time, Surigaonons emerged with a surging passion for their natural resources and deeply rooted cultural heritage.