The pearl of the Orient that is the Philippines is often overlooked by travellers on the obligatory Southeast Asian gap-year (from uni, work or ‘real life’ in general) backpacking trip. Why that is, is unclear when the country is home to some of the most amazing beaches, diving spots and adventure sites. Take for instance the little known (at least outside the country) Cagayan de Oro aka CDO, located in the southern part of the Philippines. Its name translates to river of gold and alludes to the eponymous 90 km river that serves as the natural boundary between CDO and the neighbouring provinces of Bukidnon and Iligan.
How to get there
Cagayan de Oro can be reached by air, sea or land depending on where you’re traveling from. We took a short (~40 minute) flight from Cebu to Laguindingan airport (code CGY), approximately an hour’s drive from the centre of CDO.
- To travel by air – see here and here.
- To travel by sea – see here.
- To travel by land – generally speaking, you’ll have to already be in the Mindanao region. CDO is approximately a 1-2 hour drive from neighbouring Bukidnon and Iligan.
I recommend pre-booking a vehicle to take you from the airport to CDO city centre. Although there are numerous private hire vehicles and taxis waiting to pick up passengers on arrival, pre-booking will ensure (1) they’re there on time, (2) payment is agreed beforehand and (3) you’ve got a vehicle large enough for your group.
Where to stay
Cagayan de Oro is a city and there’s a wide choice of accommodation ranging from cheap and cheerful to four-star rated establishments. Even the priciest hotels however are still pretty reasonably priced. See here to compare.
Again, I recommend booking your accommodation in advance for the best rates. It’s also worth keeping in mind that rates increase during peak seasons: Summer – April to May, Christmas: December. As a general rule, if the students are on their holidays expect rates to rise.
How long to stay
It’s worth mentioning that my trip to CDO lasted 3 full days and 2 nights, and we did not run out of things to do. I know that if we stayed twice as long we still wouldn’t have gotten through all there is to do in the area. So it really is up to you – your budget, your appetite for adventure and the time you’re willing to spend.
What to do
So you’ve booked your flight and a room. Now comes the fun part – deciding what to do! Here are a few suggestions, tried and tested by yours truly:
White water rafting – Cagayan de Oro is best known for white water rafting. People travel from all over the country, and further afield, for the adrenaline rush you inevitably get when you’re hurtling (sometimes seemingly uncontrollably) through the rapids.
At noon of Day 1 we were promptly picked up from our hotel, ushered into a jeepney and driven to the start of the course. We were given life vests, helmets and a fairly short but clear safety briefing before being instructed onto the rafts with our guide.
The most important things to remember:
- Do exactly as the guide says. When he says paddle, paddle continuously. When he says stop, stop immediately.
- Hold your paddle as instructed so you don’t hit yourself in the face with it.
- If you fall into the water, point your feet downstream. Do not attempt to swim upstream.
- The next four hours were amazing. The time was spent alternately frantically paddling for fear of the raft turning over and quietly enjoying the scenery. It’s at this point I urge you to protect your skin – 4 hours is a long time to spend under the sun without any shade!
Remember, a trip to CDO isn’t complete without facing the rapids!
Caving – Cueva de Oro – At 8 AM of Day 2 we boarded a different jeepney where we met the lovely owner of Dome Expedition Tours (here).
He told us some interesting stories during the ~30-minute drive to the start of the hike to the cave. He also introduced us to our guides. Although there was only the two of us on the caving trip, we were accompanied by three guides.
After a half-hour hike through the woods, we notice an opening on the side of a mountain. The guides explained that we would have to rappel 110 feet down.
A short while later all equipment was set up, we were harnessed in and began our descent. Luckily, we go wall climbing fairly regularly (and had been rappelling once before) so weren’t unfamiliar with it.
We spent two hours making our way through the cave. It involved wading through water, scrambling up rocks, squeezing through spaces, plunging into deep pools and swimming through water.
It was absolutely awesome and I would not hesitate one bit to do it all again!
Day tour of Iligan – On Day 3, we decided to go on a day tour of neighbouring Iligan province. We had pre-booked a vehicle to take us to a number of places and it was the perfect way to spend our last day.
- After making our way 200+ steps down, we were greeted by the aptly named Tinago Falls (translates to Hidden Falls).
- There’s a small fee to enter (<$1). I recommend bringing a picnic as only snack foods (e.g. crisps) are sold there.
- Bring your swimming costume. Trust me, you’ll want to take a dip!
- Read about the legend here (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tinago_Falls).
Maria Cristina Falls
- A landmark of Iligan, Maria Cristina Falls is well known for its beauty. The area was truly Jurassic Park-like.
- Fun fact: Also known as Twin Falls due to a large rock that separates the flow.
- The 320-feet high waterfall serves as the main source of a hydroelectric plant on the site.
Relaxation and Retail Therapy
- Cagayan de Oro is home to several shopping centres – Ayala, SM, Robinsons, Limketkai to name a few. All major establishments are situated close to each other and easy to reach by foot, taxi or if you’re feeling adventurous, tricycle (the Philippines’ version of the tuktuk).
- There are numerous food choices whether you’re looking for street food or fine dining. But as you’re in the Philippines, I recommend a seafood restaurant.
There’s a long list of other activities to do on a trip to Cagayan de Oro.
- Dahilayan Adventure Park (dahilayanadventurepark.com) – for ziplining and zorbing.
- Macahambus Gorge
- Cagayan de Oro City Museum
- Mimbalut Falls
For more information, see here.