Mindanao, the massive island at the foot of the Philippine archipelago, is in many ways the cultural heart of the country, a place where indigenous tribes still farm their ancient homelands and Christians live alongside Muslims who first settled here in the fourteenth century. Spanish rule came late to much of the island, and was tenuous at best throughout the nineteenth century; when the Americans occupied the islands, it was here that they met their most bitter resistance. Contrary to popular perception, most of the island today is peaceful, friendly and stunningly beautiful. Yet it is true that Mindanao is one of the most impoverished areas in the Philippines and some parts are considered unsafe for tourists.
North Mindanao, from the lively gateway city of Cagayan de Oro in the centre to the surf magnet of Siargao Island in the east, is the area most tourists are interested in and is completely safe. In between lies Camiguin, a ravishing volcanic island off Mindanao’s northern coast, the untouched Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary, inhabited by the Manobo tribe, and the hypnotic azure waters of the Enchanted River. Also worth exploring are the western cities of Iligan and Dapitan (where national hero José Rizal was sent into exile), and Mount Malindang National Park, a little-known area of dense rainforest near Ozamiz.
Davao in the south, the island’s de facto capital, is a friendly provincial metropolis with excellent restaurants, nightlife and endless heaps of durian, the stinky fruit that tastes like gourmet custard. Nearby are the beaches of Samal Island and majestic Mount Apo. West of the frenetic city of General Santos, around the shores of Lake Sebu, the friendly and artistic T’boli people still live in traditional wooden houses and wear hand-woven tribal garments and adornments. Much of western Mindanao is part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, or ARMM, an area of huge tourism potential but with the security situation in a state of flux. Highlights include the traditional Muslim city of Marawi, which stands on the northern shore of serene Lake Lanao, and the hundreds of islands that make up the spectacular Sulu archipelago, especially Tawi-Tawi. You’ll need to check the current security situation before visiting.