Lake Sebu

The lure of the lake is hypnotizing. Despite the exaggerated advisories, I decided to go. Alone.

Lake Sebu, wedged in the highlands of South Cotabato, has been unfairly tagged as "unsafe". A lot of people, those living even in other areas of Mindanao, think this is where people get kidnapped. As an American passport holder, the US State Department would have frowned upon my plans. I haven't even bothered to register with STEP, or Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, a US government service that enables citizens to be contacted in the event of emergencies. Here's a look at the current travel advisory on the Philippines:

"The State Department warns U.S. citizens of the risks of terrorist activity in the Philippines, particularly in the southern Philippine islands of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago...Kidnap-for-ransom gangs are active throughout the Philippines and have targeted foreigners...Some foreigners who reside in or visit Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago hire their own security..."
(While I surely can't afford to hire my own bodyguards, I find that measure too over-reacting. I would rather melt in the crowd than be a sticking sore thumb!)

On the front seat of a van bound for Lake Sebu

In Digos City where I was visiting family, I boarded a Yellow Bus at 630AM bound for General Santos City. It was to be the first in this multiple transfers involving transport, from bus-to-bus-to-bus-to-van-to-habal-habal - all in a span of just under 5 hours! Thank goodness I was traveling light with just one daypack (since I plan to stay overnight only). Imagine if this was a multi-city jaunt around Mindanao with a heavy backpack!

Habal-habal - anyone else wants a ride?

I transferred into another Yellow Bus in General Santos City bound for Koronadal (or Marbel as it's still called), one hour away. As a high school student, I vividly remember traveling to Marbel to attend a school press conference. We marveled - excuse the pun - at their excellent roads back then and boy, it's still smooth these days! This used to be an ordinary town that I first visited as a teen, now a booming city that can rival any in Luzon. Their bus terminal is sleek and clean. It wasn't long before I took another Yellow Bus, this time bound for Surallah.

The view of the lake from Punta Isla Resort

On our way to Surallah, I sat next to this woman who happens to be from Lake Sebu. When she found out that I'm from Davao (I don't want to say I live in the US to total strangers, would I?), she went on a sales pitch. A relative of hers is selling a 5-hectare land in the vicinity of the lake for about a million pesos. Would I be interested in buying? Here I was still on the road, haven't even glimpsed the lake yet and I was already getting a real estate offer. I said thanks but she gave me her mobile number just in case. Before we parted in Surallah - she still had some errands to do in town - she gave me tips on where to stay and what the cost of a habal-habal ride will be.

T'boli dance being performed at the resort
Tilapia is the main attraction for a Lake Sebu meal

There was a waiting Hi-ace van bound for Lake Sebu and took the empty front seat. It took almost an hour for such a small van to get full and in the provinces, full means being cramped. Besides the driver and me, there was a woman - thankfully skinny - sitting between us to make three people out front and God only knows how many at the back (plus the conductor collecting fares doing his own contortions). It was a pleasant ride on yet another smooth paved road from Surallah all the way to the highlands. Bucolic vistas of rice paddies and hills went by fast where I sat.

My P750 room (good for two)

It took less than an hour to reach Lake Sebu, nestled at 2316 feet above sea level. There are three lakes in the area and part of the road skirted one of these lakes, giving me a great peek at what I will soon be seeing up close. I told the driver I'm heading to Punta Isla Resort so he dropped me off exactly where the "real estate agent" lady advised me. A habal-habal driver named Tata came up to me, quoting P10 to get to the resort. There are actually several choices of resorts in Lake Sebu - Estares, Monte Cielo, Artacho, Mountain Log, Merl Garden Spring, Donggon Hill and Falls - but I chose Punta Isla because it is right by the lake. Before Tata left, he gave me his mobile number in case I wanted him to drive me to the falls.

The view from the balcony in front of my room

Since it was noon time on a Saturday I arrived, Punta Isla was very busy with day-trippers who were there for lunch. The flurry of waiters going from table to table like buzzing bees made me dizzy. After traveling for almost 5 hours, I was starving myself. I told the front desk I'm having lunch first while waiting for my assigned room. On the menu is an extensive list of Tilapia dishes - Chicharon Tilapia, Kinilaw na Tilapia, Nilasing na Tilapia, Sizzling Tilapia, Pinaputok na Tilapia, Sinigang na Tilapia,  Laswa na Tilapia, etc, etc. My order of Nilasing na Tilapia took almost half an hour, really a long wait for someone eating alone. And at P180 per order, it's not cheap! It's a delight of course to eat Tilapia that's freshly caught right from the source just in front of me.

Lake shore view
Punta Isla's floating restaurant

After lunch, I was led by one of the staff to my room which is in a different building. Punta Isla is a spread of buildings in various levels on a bluff going all the way down to the lake shore. My P750 room - called VIP Room which accommodates 2 people - has its own bathroom and comes equipped with TV (not that I needed it). I could see part of the lake from my room but I wanted to be closer where I see fisher folks in their  bancas so I went down the steps and into the lake shore. There were still many people eating in  the cottages. The lake, while robbed of serenity at this time, remains picturesque. Rather than  endure the wailing cries of toddlers, I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon visiting the Seven Falls. I texted Tata who showed up shortly with his habal-habal. I'm all set to fly again!


  1. I regret not going there years ago. We were assigned in Isulan and Marbel that time and some of my teammates went there. I was one of those discouraged to explore a little far because of the unrest that time. On a lighter note, nakakatakam yung tilapia. Buti na lang we'll have that for dinner later. :)

  2. Anonymous5:08:00 AM

    wow you're traveling alone?? im excited to read your next post ;)

  3. Awesome lake view from the balcony! Me wanna go to Lake Sebu...

  4. Lake Sebu is soooo different now than when I visited it in the mid-60's!! The "improvement" is phenomenal! I'm glad you visited the place and shared your experience with us. I do not know if I will have another chance to see the place.

  5. That crispy tilapia on the picture will go well with Mang Tomas, or perhaps chopped tomatoes in soysauce and kalamansi.hahaha now I'm thinking where to get tilapia here in Sydney :)

  6. this is one place that I regret not being able to visit. To think, mas malapit siya sa mga napuntahan ko. Agree with the OA travel advisory:) love the first photo!

  7. Anonymous12:44:00 PM

    matapang ka, dennis!
    adventurous... sabagay, kung walang guts, walang mararating este no glory!
    the photos were awesome once more!
    i love the shot of the young Tboli dancers and that of pinaputok na tilapia! nakakagutom!

  8. i have seen many pictures of lake sebu and it's so amazing. is it truly as awesome as it is in pictures?

  9. witsandnuts,
    now you've got a reason to go back to Marbel (and see how it's developed) and venture further into Lake Sebu - on your next Philippine vacation!

    I did because no one else was interested (or were scared haha!)

    Pinay Travel Junkie,
    I can see you going there - the combination of nature and culture is your kind of thing, right?

    you got there in mid-60's, wow!!! I wish you could post pictures of your visit there in your blog so I get to see how it was at the time.

    lakwatsera de primera,
    I usually buy fried Tilapia from a Pinoy grocery store in Queens. And yes, it goes well with tomatoes and soy suace with kalamansi for me!

    there's always another time to visit. I'm going there again in the future!

    the element of risk is part of any adventure but I really felt safe in Lake Sebu. Ni wala akong nakitang military check point!

    Photo Cache,
    If you consider nature + culture, then Lake Sebu is indeed awesome, not merely in terms of visuals but experience.

  10. future destination, bay:)

  11. Haha, natawa naman ako, sa dami ng pwedeng gawin sa tilapia! Pati malaswang tilapia, mayroon pala!

    Nasa Pilipinas ka pa ba? Kararating ko lang last week, at next week, lipad na ako Visayas! First stop: Iloilo!

  12. I grew up in Gensan and never went to Lake Sebu. My aunt used to work with the Tbolis ages ago. That's how she met her American husband.

    On a side note, was it one of those "journalism conferences" in Marbel that you attended while in high school? I was there too!

  13. Z Joya,
    Adto gyud. Naghulat lang sya sa imo bay!

    Welcome home. Nakabalik na ako ng NY. Back-logged lang kasi. Will be checking out your Ilo-ilo adventures!

    My GrisWorld,
    Yes Gwen, it was for an RSSPC event. Badong was there too and we both remembered seeing each other there.

  14. Anonymous12:05:00 AM

    how much would it cost going to lake sebu? including the room accommodation, transportation and foods?


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