Jul 28

Mindanao – Butuan and Gingoog City, and DANGER!!!

I spent three weeks going back and forth in Mindanao, much to the horror of my friends who know about the Philippines.  It is quite well known that there are extremist and terrorist groups that haunt the island with the intent of kidnapping westerners for ransom.  I wanted to get the feel of the true Philippines, so I resolved to go to Butuan city which is relatively safe, or so I was told.  While my decision to explore remote Mindanao might seem haphazard and even naive, I extensively researched the region and planned my excursions carefully.  I did find out that the southwest areas of the large island are inhabited by tightly knit and self governed people who have little use for outsiders, including Filipinos, and they routinely kidnap and murder or behead those who wander into their domain.  I learned that over eight hundred American expats are living in Butuan region, so I contacted seven of these by email me and they assured me that Butuan is as safe to visit as downtown Houston.  Well, that certainly did not make me feel any better, since I would not visit most areas of downtown Houston without a fully armed escort and in broad daylight.  I wanted to experience the hidden spirit of the true Philippines, free from commercial contamination of the tourist industry, so off I went.  I was happy!


Bus in Gingoog City

My first fears were allayed when I met some drivers and waiters in Luzon who were from Mindanao.  They invariably assured me that Mindanao is completely safe for me and all westerners.  My first concern came when I spoke with my friend, a lady who manages the restaurant in my mountain hotel near Pinatubo, and she urged me not to go there.  I asked why not, and she said it is absolutely not safe for me or even for Filipinos.  I asked her if she would go there, and she said NO! As she is an extremely street wise lady with excellent judgment, I was inspired to ask other Filipinos, and they invariably assured me I should not go there under any circumstances. Some became distressed at my intent, others laughed, but I began to feel like Jonathan Harker, the real estate agent going to visit Dracula’s castle as described in his journal in that excellent masterpiece of Gothic horror.  Harker is a sophisticated modern man of science who dismisses the reactions of terror he receives when he tells the locals he is traveling to see Dracula!  He pities them as poor superstitious peasants and discounts their offers of prayers and gifts of rosaries.  It occurred to me that, like Harker, I might be getting into a situation that I would realize was a very bad one only after it was MUCH too late!  I then reflected on the reactions of the people from Butuan, including some very small and gentle waitresses in the hotel, who assured me that this place is perfectly safe for me.  I then realized that it IS perfectly safe for them.  When the headhunter cannibals attack, they will be with the ones doing the eating, not the ones being eaten!!!  I took the five magic coins from my pocket and decided to risk it.


School in the jungle. They are all painted in a colorful manner!

I was told to travel with locals at ALL times, and I would be OK.  I carried two ferocious young body guards, friends of physics teachers I met in Butuan, with me in my trek through the jungles and mountains up through Gingoog City to catch the ferry for Camiguin.  I reasoned that no groups would know I was coming, and they certainly would not suspect that I would be so bold or stupid to ride the local passenger bus, therefore they could not set up any ambushes.  I figured that I would be safe with my bodyguards, which wound up being the case, and I had a wonderful time in a land so exotic and removed from the modern world that it put me in mind of how our rural America must have been over one hundred years ago!  Of course, America did not have bamboo huts or coconut palms.


Street in Butuan City

In this region of Mindanao, the locals cook on wood burning grills and stoves, and they grow rice and bananas with techniques that go back for thousands of years.  The curling smoke rising through the jungle makes an eerie effect in the sunlight as one passes through the curvy mountain roads at breakneck speed on the buses.  On the four hour trip from Butuan to Camiguin, I did not see a single westerner, nor any in Gingoog City, a mountainous and bustling place with an exotic feel of a large jungle village so incongruous with the fast paced metropolis of Manila.  In my travels through Mindanao, I never once felt threatened, except when the power failed in Butuan the night before I was to return to Manila.  I began go through scenarios in my mind where the kidnappers had come hundreds of miles through the jungles just to get me, and they had cut the power lines to creep in under cover of darkness.  It turned out that there was just a minor and brief brown out, and I was no worse for the wear.  In fact, the only harm that came to me was from microbes when I foolishly agreed to drink the tap water with dinner on top of Mt. Hibok Hibok in the hot spring resort restaurant, and I got a raging case of Lapu Lapu’s revenge.  I worried that I had contracted giardiasis, but my symptoms subsided after three days of torture where I lost nearly fifteen pounds!  No giardia!  I find the place exotic.  I was told by a driver that some kidnappers take Westerners for a two million peso ransom.  I did not have the heart to tell him that no one on earth would pay two pesos for me, let alone two million, so they would have to just kill me.


Multicab Jeepney in Butuan City

I DO NOT recommend that you go there, because there are warnings not to from the US Government, and these are given for a reason, and there might be threats to westerners.  There are few tourists, even Filipinos, but this makes for a delightful and unique experience. I do highly recommend that you visit Camiguin Island, but it is far safer to travel in by air from Cebu.  And DONT drink the tap water under any circumstances.

Good Energy!





Ethnic dancers in the mountainous region.








Chicken cooked on wood charcoal by street vendors








Butuan City street.








Another colorful multicab in Butuan City!








Gaisano Mall, Butuan City - Nice Place!








A not-so-fearsome Butuan City!








Wretched little lizard near Amparo! These are more examples of the evil animals that inhabit Mindanao. They creep into ones room at dusk and make loud chirping sounds like birds all night long!!!









Hut in the jungle








Bamboo construction everywhere!








More jungle dwellings.








Rice paddies.








Colorful fruit stand in Gingoog City.








Another beautifully painted school in the mountains.



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  1. John Baker

    You obviously wrote this to impress the ladies with your bravery. It’s total load of crap.. repeat this to any expat in Gingoog and you WILL be soundly beaten about the head and shoulders.

    Pompous idot you are….

    1. Scotty

      Thank you for the kind words!

      While it is a given that I am an idot, I am neither a pompous idot, nor am I a functionally illiterate one! I am attempting to use satire, and to make the post interesting enough to actually read, hence the colorful title. I never once felt threatened during my stay there, but I was hesitant to continue my planned visit after being urged strongly by my street-wise and savvy friends from Luzon NOT to go. I did know and trust my guides, and I followed their advice to the letter. Mindanao is a stunningly beautiful place. I am trying to impress no one with my bravery, and I could only be accused of naivete’ or even being foolhardy by some, but certainly not of bravery for my trip…

      You obviously do not understand my depth of affection for the Philippines and the wonderful friends I have made there. I will, for the remainder of my life, champion the cause of those who live there, many of whom live in poverty and challenging circumstances. Please read my post “Homeward Bound” if you wish to gain further insight into what motivates me. Then, feel free to comment. I will welcome you as a friend. I might also mention that I was in tears on the airplane as I wrote, filled with emotion at the thought of leaving the place that I have come to love so and to regard as my second home!

      As for my blog post, since the United States Government officially places travel warnings on Mindanao for its citizens, it would be EXTREMELY irresponsible for me to encourage people to travel there without careful research and planning. Mindanao is one of the most colorful and stunningly beautiful destinations I have ever encountered, but I would hesitate to go there blindly, as indicated by Raki, a resident, in the blog post. I have heard estimates of from 300 to 800 expats living in Butuan, but Raki’s post indicates otherwise! But by all means, if you are adventurous and have native guides and bodyguards, the trek into Mindanao has dazzling rewards. At least it did for me. While I was searching for treasure, so to speak (rich cultural experiences) I found something many times more important and unexpected!

      Lighten up – read the posts again, and please try to take the writings for the spirit in which they were written. They were meant to be light-hearted while conveying the true magic of the place and the dear people who live there – a TRUE land of contrasts! Enjoy the journey as you share it through my words, and I, again, hope you come back to our blog many times and call yourself a friend! Learn to laugh loudly, often and at yourself, as we laugh at ourselves! The world will be SUCH a lighter and more wonderful place! Thank you for the post!

      Good Energy!

  2. Raki Ben Ami

    For once I found a Westerner, an American to boot, who correctly approached travel in Mindanao. If one was to plan a trip here they could not have picked a safer route than the one you took. The only sketchy part is your hike in the mountains around Gingoog, the NPA’s Front 4A is always a concern. They don’t bother foreigners (unless you have business interests, etc) but yjeir modus operandi is to lay IEDs as a precursor to an ambush on soft military and police targets. Rarely a bystander catches the worst of it.

    In Caraga we do have KFR (Kidnap for Ransom), we just had one in Butuan City four days ago in fact, but it is the safesr region on the island as far as that goes. All things considered Camiguin Province, your destination, is indeed the safest spot on the island (as long as it isn’t the Election Season haha).

    Butuan is a great city, I go there often but Westerners need to understand that “cities” here are quite different from their Western counterparts. Here, a “city” or “municipality” is composed of many “barangays,” or “villages.” Each barangay can be separated by many kilometers of unsettled land so that driving in parts of Butuan are no different than driving in the remotest mountain settlement. Barangays like Anticala are jungle covered mountains in which the NPA, and is diametric opposite, the state-sponsored paramilitary BULIF (Bungkatol Liberation Front) periodically rip lives apart. Butuan Proper, the barangays that are more densely populated, is quite different. So, in planning visits here one should always be cognisant of such things.

    As for “800 Americans living in the Butuan area,” to paraphrase, I would be jaw to the floor suprised if more than 25 Americans actually lived in the entire Caraga Region (Both Agusan Provinces including Butuan City, Both Surigao Provinces including Surigao City and the newly created province of Dinagat, a group of islands off of Surigao del Norte).

    Those intrepid Westerners living on Mindanao tend to flock to its safest environs, like Davao City (though it is a complicated explanation that needs to be attached to Davao City, for the sake of brevity I will spare you). My own unofficial reckoning? For all of Mindanao including the three island provinces to the south (Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi Tawi) might collectively hold 300 full time residents with the vast majority being in Davao City with Cagayan del Oro City being a close second.

    In any event, it is a beautiful island with lovely people but for some very complicated reasons it represents the worst side of humanity and at the same time is cursed with every natural disaster one can imagine at regular intervals save for tornadoes and typhoons, thouggh we even get those from time to time. We have eartquakes in the 3 to 5 (Richter) range every month, literally and catastrophic flooding and land slides twice a year as regular as clockwork. We have terrible poverty, worst in fact for the entire Philippines and that is saying A LOT as well as having entire villages threatened by treatable conditions like dysentery. The island of Mindanao then can be said to represent both the worst AND the best that humanity and its precious existence has to offer. If one plans to come here they would be well advised to follow your prudent advice.

    Cheers, Raki

    1. Scotty

      Raki – Thank you for the post, my friend! I am grateful for your interest and your input. I hope readers will find it helpful, as I did! Please stay in touch and keep us informed!

      Good Energy!

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