Why go to Lanao? To visit this part of Northern Mindanao is to travel without expectations. Or, more accurately, to find each and every expectation that you do have turned on its ear.
Lanao has been very much off the tourist radar for decades, due in large part to the region’s complicated history. Like many of its neighbors in Mindanao, Lanao continues to suffer from an image problem that has — for better or worse — kept the vast majority of travelers away. This has also meant, however, that the region has been spared the effects of the trampling hordes and thus remains a largely untouched frontier.
Truth be told, Lanao isn’t one place, but two — or even three or four, depending on how you look at it. “Lanao” comes from the word ranao, which means “lake”, and sure enough, Lake Lanao remains the spiritual, if not the geographic, center of it all. The lake is located in Lanao del Sur, which is within the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and is arguably the better known of the two provinces that were until 1959 jointly known as Lanao. However, on this day we’re headed to Lanao del Norte, which is politically and culturally distinct from Lanao del Sur. (There is, additionally, Iligan City, which is part of Lanao del Norte geographically but not in practice, as it has a separate government.)
Lanao del Norte boasts beautiful, rugged terrain that includes coastal areas, mountains and vast plains. As you might expect, it’s somewhat sparsely populated, with about 608,000 people spread over an area of nearly 3,400km2, not counting Iligan. Though Lanao del Sur is smaller in terms of both population and land area, it’s Lanao del Norte’s neighbor to the south that tends to shape popular perceptions of the region as a whole.
Though members of the Maranao ethnic group still make up a significant proportion of the region’s population — nearly a third — the majority of residents are Christian. And so, given that the region encompasses both the urbanized area of Iligan (and, a little farther on, Cagayan de Oro) to the north and the Muslim Malay-dominated city of Marawi to the south, Lanao del Norte is a pleasant middle ground, a melting pot where visitors can get a taste of both worlds — and witness how peaceful development can transform both a land and its people.
Young Lanao rising
Lanao del Norte is a political curiosity. Located on the border between Northern Mindanao and the ARMM, Lanao del Norte is the only province in the Philippines where a Christian majority is ruled by a Muslim governor. The young governor is himself a symbol of modern Lanao del Norte: the first-generation scion of a family formed via inter-marriage between the politically influential Quibranza and Dimaporo clans, he represents the unification of the two cultures. And he’s not alone in his willingness to open his mind to new possibilities; well-traveled young Lanao residents are starting to introduce new ideas at home after returning from sojourns abroad.
There’s motocross, for one. Among the facilities at the Mindanao Civic Center (Tubod; +63 63 341 5804) is a stadium that houses what may be the nation’s largest motocross track. Part of efforts to boost sports tourism in the region, the stadium is the venue for international-caliber competitions organized by the provincial government. The annual invitational even draws the motocross elite from across the globe.
Elsewhere, the more cosmopolitan side of youth culture is beginning to show up in unexpected places, too. While Tubod, Lanao del Norte’s capital, remains bereft of shopping centres and chain restaurants, the hottest spots in town are Andrew’s Pizza (Tubod), which makes a pretty good pizza, and its brand spanking new sister restaurant, Brew Bros. Coffee (Rufo dela Cruz Ave, Tubod; +63 63 341 5942), which proudly serves Northern Mindanao coffee and looks as sleek and hip as anything you’re likely to find on Pinterest.
Though it’s home to urban amenities, Lanao del Norte is primarily an outdoor destination, with natural attractions that are even better for the fact they’ve seen so few visitors.
While it’s Iligan that lays claim to the title of “Land of Majestic Waterfalls”, Lanao del Norte has so many eye-catching cascades that the local people seem to have lost track of the exact number. Some say there are 18 sets of falls, others claim 20 or more; the official tourist brochure lists just four.
What’s more, no one seems to agree on their names and locations. One website will tell you to head to Cathedral Falls in Barangay (Brgy) Cathedral Falls. But ask a local to take you there and you’re almost certain to end up at Brgy Waterfalls, Kapatagan. There are no waterfalls in Brgy Cathedral Falls, we’re told, the confusion having arisen after the old village was divided in two — Brgy Cathedral Falls kept the name, but Brgy Waterfalls kept the falls. Some of Brgy Waterfalls’ more vocal residents insist that the place should be renamed. Their suggestion? Waterfalls Falls in Brgy Waterfalls.
Be that as it may, Lanao del Norte sees very few visitors from outside the region. Cathedral Falls (aka Waterfalls Falls) is largely frequented by barangay locals, who swim in its outer pools and whose children play in the muddy flats on its fringes. Save for a bridge over the stream, there are no man-made structures to sully its natural beauty.
The largest and most popular of the waterfalls in Lanao del Norte, Tinago Falls in Linamon, has been developed, albeit with a light hand. Located on the outer fringes of Lanao del Norte, Tinago can be reached only by descending 434 steps built into heavily wooded foothills. The reward for this effort is the awesome sight of white mountain spring water thundering into a crystal-clear pool that mists over when the wind blows. While there are, somewhat regrettably, cement tables and huts on the fringes of the falls, Tinago still puts nature front and center. It still feels, well, tagô — hidden from the crowds.
How cool is that?
The history taught in schools reveals that the Maranao lived inland, on the shores of Lake Lanao. Meanwhile, the Christian settlers lived on the coast, “unable to penetrate the interior,” or so Enrico Miguel Subido tells readers in his coffee table book Frontier of Peace. “The Maranao were one of the ethnic groups that posed the strongest resistance to Christianization. The Christian-Muslim divide is still discernible to this day in many areas of Mindanao,” he writes. “This is not the case in Lanao del Norte.”
Municipalities like Tubod and Lala, Lanao del Norte’s commercial districts, are indistinguishable from many other towns in the Philippines. That is to say, the Muslim Maranao are so well integrated into the community that the first-time visitor might miss the roadside diners selling halal food or the mosque in the rice fields.
But for those looking to get acquainted with Maranao culture, the quickest way to do so is to arrange a trip to the Maranao municipalities of Lanao del Norte. The province is home to several Maranao settlements but we accepted an invitation from the mayor of Matungao to visit this charming municipality in the province’s south-east. The word “matungao,” the mayor told us in a letter, means “cool”, a reference to the beautiful weather Matungao experiences year-round (“We have Tagaytay weather,” she told us later as she welcomed us.)
As promised, the gracious hospitality of the Maranao was on full display from the moment we hit town. Clearly, they’d pulled out all the stops: local officials were all decked out in formal Maranao garb, performance troupes were on hand to treat us to traditional dances and what seemed like the entire populace had turned out for the communal thanksgiving feast, known as kanduri.
We were draped in formal malong and taught how to twist and tie it ceremonially around our waists and over our arms. “If you’re wondering whether these are our everyday clothes…” one of the mayor’s staffers told us with a smile, referring to the metallic sheen and intricate embroidery characteristic of her clothes and those of her fellow officials. “Yes, they are! We still wear malong every day, just a more casual version.”
Everyone seemed to be in a terrific mood, grateful for the chance to dress up, celebrate the arrival of visitors and show off the best of their culture.
To an onlooker from outside the region, it would’ve made for an odd tableau: residents good-naturedly heckling from the sidelines as the performers did their thing; the mayor leaning over to indulge our requests for a selfie or two; a dancer struggling to maintain the stoic elegance required of traditional Maranao performers. But the breezy, down-to-earth quality of the place and its people only added to the appeal.
Ultimately, to travel to Lanao del Norte is to be reminded of why we travel in the first place: in hopes of being surprised or, better yet, having our preconceptions shattered in the best way possible.
Cebu Pacific flies to Ozamiz City from Manila. Then, it’s approximately 30 minutes by ferry to Tubod, Lanao del Norte.
This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Smile magazine.