Surigao: City of Island Adventure

There was a time when Surigao City, provincial capital of Surigao del Norte, was simply known for its vast nickel deposits, the most abundant in Asia. But beyond its abundant mineral deposits in the mountain's bosom, Surigao is a virtual minefield of natural wonders which have been overshadowed by its once-vibrant mining industry.

Dubbed "The City of Island Adventures," no city in the Philippines, and maybe the world, is so archipelagic as this urban center situated at the northeastern head of Mindanao. Known during the Spanish era as the port village of Banahao, Surigao became a town in 1751 and proclaimed a city on August 30, 1970.

According to Mayor Ernesto Matugas, the 42-year-old city takes pride in its merry mix of heritage, natural and island destinations that make it a tourism hub in the Caraga region.

The city has the unique characteristic of having 21 of its barangays located in 17 charming islands scattered across the historic Surigao Strait. For beach bums and true blue adventurers, Surigao is virtually an island paradise 20 times over with pockets of coves and crystal-clear water here and there.

Closest to the city and the most popular of the islands is Basul, a two-hectare uninhabited island which is almost a stone's throw away from the Almost Hotel. Dotted by coconut trees swaying in the Pacific breeze, the island is a solitary world minus the madding crowd of the more developed resort islands. Its only physical amenities are nipa huts with wooden benches, but who cares? It is not every day you can have an island unto yourself. Hotel guests can actually kayak going to the island in keeping with the city's adventure theme.

Another interesting island is Hikdop, which boasts of a short strip of fine sand beach of Panomboyom and the Buenavista Cave whose impressive limestone formations, stalagmites, stalactites and magnificent columns will surely capture the fancy of spelunkers.

Its main barangay, Buenavista, which literally means good view offers an exhilarating vantage point to the mainland and the neighboring islands.

A unique sight is the 391-meter long wooden foot bridge, the longest of its kind in the country, which offers the thrilling experience of crossing the island barangays of Cantiasay and San Pedro on foot.

Jokingly referred to as their version of the famed San Juanico Bridge, the bridge attracts mountain bikers because of the stunning views and the green waters below.

Other idyllic islands worth exploring are Zaragoza, Berok, Danawan, Sumilom, Sibale and Sagisi, which are as alluring and mysterious as their exotic-sounding names.

At the mainland, beach lovers can bask in the beaches of Looc and Mabua-Ipil, a unique mile-long stretch which boasts of smooth, multi-sized pebbles instead of sand.

Separated by a hill, both beaches can be reached by ascending a 100-plus step staircase and a 20-minute trail, but the seemingly punishing trek is rewarded by a commanding view of a vast expanse of sea and mountain as they meet in the horizon.

Meanwhile, Day-Asan Floating Village, also called the "Little Venice of Surigao," offers a quaint view of houses on wooden stilts amidst mangrove forests which can be accessed only by boat.

There is also the Manjagao Mangrove Forest which is sanctuary to teeming species of marine life.

Unknown to many, Surigao is also an emerging dive hotspot with its lush underwater marine life and World War II Japanese ship wrecks. Jake Miranda of Hotel Tavern is the exponent of diving in the city and has put up the city's first dive shop at Punta Bilar beach.

For spelunkers, the Silop Caves is a must-see with its 12 entrances and impressive limestone formation to naturally carved stalagmites, stalactites and columns.

Surigao is also a city of culture by virtue of being a hub of Surigaonon history. A glimpse of such a glorious past can be seen at the Museo nan Surigao (Surigaonon Heritage Center) which houses archaeological artifacts, as well as a rich collection of geological items and historical stuff.

It also has a good collection of memorabilia from the colossal Battle of Surigao Strait where Allied Forces defeated the Japanese Navy during World War II in 1944.

The dawn naval skirmish, which is part of the bigger Battle of Leyte Gulf, is memorialized at Lipata Port, the gateway to Mindanao which connects to the Maharlika Highway in Visayas and Luzon.

A touristic historic landmark is Punta Baluarte, a hill overlooking the city, which was used as observation point by the Spanish friars and later by the Japanese during WW II.

Across the City Hall is the historical plaque memorializing the first raising of the Philippine flag in Mindanao by Filipino revolutionaries on December 26, 1898 which ended Spanish rule in the island.

But perhaps the most vibrant manifestation of Surigao's rich culture is the annual Bonok-Bonok Maradjaw Karadjaw Festival which celebrates the feast of St. Nicholas of Tolentino, the city's patron saint.

Set on Sept. 9, the ritual dance originated from the indigenous Mamanwa tribe, and was later attributed to San Nicolas. A most sought-after cultural festival in the country, Bonok-Bonok means "heavy downpour" and Maradjaw Karadjaw meaning "all the very best" is based on the belief that the heavy rains ensure a bountiful harvest.

Street dancers in colorful regalia paint the town red with well-choreographed dance steps and scintillating music through bugles and percussion, with the "festival queen" or head dancer holding the image of St. Nicholas as a dance tribute to the patron.

Now on its 28th year, the festival has consistently been named as an important cultural event by the Association of Tourism Officers of the Philippines (ATOP), along with the Tilaw Food Festival which showcases the city's exotic local cuisine comprised mostly of seafood and served kinilaw style.