Discover Mindanao – Baganga’s Breathtaking Beaches in Davao Oriental

Do you like perfect, white sand beaches unchanged since time began? Would you like to go where few westerners have been before? Can you live without shops, beach sellers, cocktails and beautiful hotels? Are hot springs, waterfalls and small islands appealing to you? If so, then look absolutely no further than the fantastic, undiscovered beaches and attractions around Baganga, Davao Oriental, in the Southern Philippines.

While a number of western and domestic tourists visit Siargao and Camaguin in Northern Mindanao, very few venture south. International travel warnings and occasional attacks on police targets from New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas definitely reduce the appeal of the area. Limited infrastructure doesn’t help either. But if you want to truly get off the beaten path, Baganga is the ideal destination. One day, when tourism has killed the rest of the world, the Hyatt Regency chain might just occupy a prime spot along Davao Oriental’s wild coast. For now, you can enjoy it all for yourself!

Mati to Baganga

We’re a British-Filipino family who love to explore away from the crowd. That’s why we left our comfort zone on Siargao Island and headed to darkest Mindanao in the first place. Our journey began in Davao and moved on to Mati. In three days there, we didn’t see another westerner. I guess we stuck out a bit: a 6’3″ tall British guy with his 5’0″ tall Filipina wife, and a four-year-old kid. Therefore, it seemed sensible to continue our journey up the coast in private transport. While NPA guerrillas do not target foreigners and dangerous Islamist factions operate far away in West Mindanao, a couple of thousand pesos was a small investment for comfort and safe onward travel. Critically, we could ask the driver to stop at any areas of interest or slow down if necessary.

The prompt arrival of the van allowed a sunrise departure. Gelo and her friend Aiza joined us inside the back. Aiza’s father would be our host in Baganga, so she accompanied us to provide a proper introduction. At a perfect speed, the van carried us north. We stopped briefly for some scenic vistas looking back towards Mati and Dahican, then carried on towards Pusan Point.

Pusan Point

Pusan is where a hundreds of people gathered to witness the first sunrise of the new millennium on January 1st, 2000. It is the most easterly point of the entire Philippine archipelago. The local government have recently developed the site into a tourist attraction including a science center, pool and viewing platform. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to properly explore the area, but we’ll return again in the future.

A few kilometers beyond Pusan, we reached Caraga. It’s a scenic little town with a few beaches to the south, backed by a sea of coconut trees. Gelo suggested we stop briefly to check out the San Salvador del Mundo Church: the oldest church in Mindanao. A great chance to stretch our legs and view a slice of Mindanao history.

Baganga Town

About forty kilometers further, through beautiful coconut plantations and occasional coastal glimpses, we arrived in Baganga. Although Super Typhoon Bopha had destroyed the town in 2012, the thriving market, rebuilt government buildings and booming local economy all signaled a new future for the town today. My wife enjoyed shopping in the numerous second hand clothes stores, while my son and I watched small waves crash into reclaimed land near the police station. Unfortunately, the town lacked affordable foam for bedding. We wanted to buy something half decent to improve the comfort in our home stay, but a banig had to do.

Sunrise Boulevard and San Victor Island

Before we said goodbye to Gelo and Aiza, we utilised the van for a quick trip to Sunrise Boulevard and San Victor Island. It only took ten minutes to reach the Boulevard. It’s a collection of stark branches and trunks of mangroves which protected Baganga from the full rage of Super Typhoon Bopha’s surge. Also, the local government have turned the area into a park and memorial to the typhoon’s victims. We stopped briefly for a few photographs, then drove twenty kilometers further north to the white sand beaches of San Victor Island. While the trees and vegetation hadn’t recovered from the typhoon, it was well worth a visit to swim in the crystal clear seas. It reminded us of a larger version of Guyam Island on Siargao.

Jose’s Homestay

Aiza had arranged everything ahead of time. Her father Jose was expecting us. When we pulled up in her small barangay, a stream of children surrounded the van. I guess they had never seen anyone like us. Jose’s sons carried our baggage into the basic hut overlooking a pretty, sandy beach. While the size of the hut took some getting used to, the coastal location was second to none. Rafael immediately ran around with heaps of kids. That’s the joy of being young: instant friendship and comradery.

After a few hours, Gelo and Aiza said goodbye and asked if we’d be OK. They need not have worried. In the midst of this poor fishing community, I felt alive and Mirasol felt right at home. Everything just reminded her of her childhood. We had found the perfect base to explore Baganga.

Over the days which followed, Jose’s sons showed us the highlights of their coastline. We hiked a few kilometers in both directions and found breathtaking beaches all over the place. Our favourite spot was a river mouth with a white sandy beach on both sides. The turquoise-coloured sea, mountainous backdrop and total isolation made us feel the most blessed family in the world.

Every afternoon, we drove to Baganga’s market on Jose’s motorcycle. The open road, scenic surroundings and lack of traffic made driving a joy. Mirasol chose different meat or fish and cooked up a storm for the six of us to share every evening. Jose lived with his two sons but his wife stayed in Davao, so they definitely appreciated a woman’s touch.

Saying Goodbye

When it came time to leave, all of us felt really sad. Rafael, especially, had been touched by the sense of community. He always had someone to play with and didn’t want to say goodbye. Unbelievably, Jose didn’t expect us to pay anything. He took us into his home, lent us a motorbike, advised us where to go and treated us like family. Jose represents the true Filipino spirit, which is getting rarer as western influence infects tourist areas. Our incredible experience and the attractions we missed (waterfalls and hot springs) will, hopefully, bring us back here sooner rather than later.

Follow in our footsteps

Bachelor Express have regular buses linking Davao with Baganga. The trip takes approximately 9 hours. Expect to pay at least P300. You can also connect with a Baganga/Cateel bound-bus in Mati or take the once or twice daily bus from Bislig.

– Commuter vans are also available from Davao to Baganga, via Compestela Valley. However, consider avoiding van travel unless you like traveling at high speed on small roads.

– If your budget allows, hire a private van for travel in Davao Oriental. It will save you so much time, you can ask the driver to slow down and you get to stop off at points of interest along the way.

– Stay overnight at Trellis Lodge and Resto Bar or Janice Lodging House in Baganga. Expect to pay P600 to P1000 for one night in an air-conditioned double.

– Hire a tricycle or habal habal (motorcycle taxi) to get around. Agree on the fare up front and pay at the end of your whole journey. Ask your guest house to recommend a driver.

– San Victor Island is about 30km north of Baganga. Once you get to the drop off point, expect to pay P20 entrance (per person) and P70 (per person) for the short boat trip to the island.

– Apart from San Victor Island, the best beaches lie south of Baganga. Go exploring with a driver or your own motorcycle (if you can persuade a local to hire you one for the day).

– Two other major attractions, Campawasan Falls and Baliti Hot Springs, are easily reachable from Baganga. Just ask a habal habal driver to take you there or hire a van if you’re a larger group.

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