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:
(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!)"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..."
|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|
|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.
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!