Photos by: Nino Cinco & Pia Soriano
Often referred to as the University town of the South Philippines, Dumaguete, the capital of Negros Oriental, is home to four universities and a number of other colleges. You may consider it a “non-city” – an ideal refuge for those who want to get away from the bustling city life, but still have access to the basic necessities of one. The city is not as metropolitan as Cebu or Davao, but more modern than other rural capitals. City folks would welcome the idea that, as of the moment, Dumaguete is traffic-free.
I travel to Dumaguete with the primary reason that I needed to pass through to get to my destination. Being located in Central Visayas, it could be considered as a “gateway destination”—with Siquijor, Apo Island, Bacolod and Cebu, just nearby.
Center of learning
Start off your trip in Dumaguete by visiting the oldest university in town, Siliman University. Established by American Protestant missionaries in 1901, the university has its own beach and marine laboratory. It also has the biggest auditorium outside of Manila where you can catch musical and theatrical performances of local groups.
While there, check out the cafeteria which serves fresh milk that is harvested from the cows at the university's own farm.
Strolling along the main boulevard
Rizal Boulevard is the main thoroughfare where you can find the city's hotels, bars & restaurants. The boulevard also happens to be the local waterfront bay walk.
The best time for you to explore the bay walk is when the sun rises, as Dumaguete faces the east. Many locals jog here in the morning. At night, you can catch some of the university students, and locals hanging out here. One of the favorite places to hang out is HoneyComb Hotel, a cozy bar across the bay that serves ice-cold beer (it’s not that easy to find that in Dumaguete) and has a regular clientele of locals who have made this their default place to be at the end of the day. You’ll see an interesting mix of locals from a wide age range all in one place. An added bonus is that the hotel has Wi-Fi—intermittent as it may be, it’s still better than nothing.
Start the day, the Dumaguete way
I had my heart set on trying the much talked about “painitan” that’s been featured in numerous food articles and blogs. Painitan are stalls typically found in the market that opens at four or five in the morning to serve breakfast to the tricycle drivers, students, and workers before they head out and start their day. Initially painitans were put up to service the fishermen before they set out to sea. “Init” means hot in Filipino, “painitan” roughly translates to a place to have something warm your stomach. So half-asleep, and half-hungry, I hailed a tricycle and asked to be dropped-off at the market (Php7 or±USD0.20). Each market would have a few of these stalls, each with their secret puto (rice cake) recipes.
How to pick the best one? My strategy—let the locals take the lead and my stomach will just follow. Typically “painitans” serve puto, sticky rice cooked in coconut milk and sugar along with sari-sari, a hot drink which is made from a blend of coffee-chocolate tablea, and milk in some ways the local version of a café mocha. There are also various freshly-baked breads which you can order with the option of having it with home-made peanut butter. Some stalls actually make their own peanut butter, this one in particular was so tasty that even if a thin layer was spread in between a thick pandesal, you’d taste the creamy rich peanut flavor shine through. I tried to get them to sell me a jar but I couldn’t sweet talk them into giving me the last one they had. Maybe I’d have a better chance if I ordered it in advance.
Not far from the market, along Perdices Street is the St. Catherine of Alexandria Cathedral and the Dumaguete Belfry, the oldest bell tower in the Visayas region. It was constructed in 1811 together alongside the cathedral. However, its main purpose was not a religious one, but more of to alert the townspeople of possible attacks by Muslim pirates in search of slaves. Because Dumaguete is so close to the Mindanao region, where most of the Muslims settled-down, attacks by these pirates were commonplace then.
Outside the tower there are make-shift kiosks that sell religious items, candles, and other interesting nick knacks. Or light a candle and say a prayer at the grotto next door.
A slice of cake, or two….
Dumaguete is well-known for a loaf of cake called sans rival. And the best place to get this is from a local cake place with the same name. Sans Rival Cakes & Pastries is located at San Jose Street, not too far away from Rizal Boulevard. The locals are sure to know where it is so you can just easily ask them for directions. Aside from their sans rival, you may also want to try their sylvannas.
Local delicacies are also available by the counter, the more popular ones are the cassava cake, bico and bibingka.
Farmer's market by the beach
Should you find yourself in Dumaguete on a Wednesday, head off to Malatapay Beach in the town of Zamboanguita for a farmers market. You’ll need to take a 30-minute bus ride south of Dumaguete.
Here you can have a taste of lechon (whole roasted pig), which was earlier roasted by the beach. Locals recommend buying from Berto’s stall. There’s no sign, but you can just ask around for him. Be sure to be there early as these lechons run out by 11am. Partner it with kinilaw (raw fish marinated in coconut vinegar) and steamed corn cakes. You’ll have to take these home though, or eat them at a nearby food stall.
You may also use Malatapay Beach as a jump-off point to Apo Island. The boat ride is around 45 minutes long. For a shorter trip, you may want to explore taking off from a resort along the town of Dauin. Apo Island is a mere 30-minute boat ride from this town.
Apo Island is a marine sanctuary where you can snorkel or dive. As soon as you pay your entrance fees, you can already start snorkeling around the rock formations that greet you. But a better view of the amazing underwater life would be a 20-minute walk around town, down to the Apo Island Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary is well-protected so visibility is exceptional.
A day trip to this island will satisfy your urge. However, for those who wish to stay longer, modest accommodations are available in the island.
For local cuisine and the freshest seafood, you must try eating in Lab-as, which means fresh in the local dialect. Order the Negros express (their version of the spicy Bicol express, but with seafood and young coconut flesh) and the curacha (sea cockroach). Be sure to order sashimi, the seafood here is as fresh as it gets and what better way to enjoy it than in its raw glory! It was so good we had to have more of it in a slightly cooked version—kinilaw. Be sure to check out the various framed food articles which are displayed on the wall. Of the numerous reviews, my eyes were drawn to an old type-written food entry of the legendary Ms. Doreen Fernandez. This timeless piece documented her visit and food adventures in Dumaguete. Ms. Fernandez was a well-known food critic in her time. Many foodies looked forward to her regular columns in the newspaper.
After your meal, move next door to Hayahay (owned by the same people) for a few rounds of beer. You can also catch local bands playing on Wednesday, Friday and Satuday nights.
Jump-off point to nature spotting
From the city proper, you can head off to Cuernes de Negros mountain range. It has several lakes, the biggest of which are the twin lakes, Lake Balinsasayao. To get to the lakes, it is best to hire a 4x4 as the ride up the mountain, where the lakes can be found, may be uncomfortable for a regular van. Once there, enjoy the panoramic views of the lakes or go boating.
If you feel like relaxing, several hot springs can be found in Dauin, fifteen minutes away from Dumaguete.
Leave Dumaguete early and travel up north to Bais City. You can hire a boat from here for some dolphin and whale watching. Ask your boatman to also drop by the Manjuyod sandbar. The sandbar is located north of Bais Bay and only appears during low tide. On the island, you can find wooden houses on stilts, some of which can be rented for overnight stays, but do note that these have basic accommodations. You can ask your friendly boatman to buy fresh fish for you at the market before leaving Bais, which they will gladly grill for you while you swim at the bay.
Dumaguete is more than just a sleepy town. It is, primarily, a center for education. But it also offers a variety of local cuisine to excite your palate and access to other points of interests in this side of the Philippines.
Photos: Nino Cinco (white house), Pia Soriano (white sand bars)
At a glance
Rizal Boulevard corner Dr. V. Locsin St.
6200 Dumaguete City, Philippines
+63 (035) 225-1181
+63 (035) 422- 3184
SansRival Cakes & Pastries
San Jose St.,Dumaguete City
Distance – Approximately 641 kilometers from Manila
Via Plane from Manila to Dumaguete
Via Plane from Cebu to Dumaguete
Via bus from Cebu to Dumaguete
Travel Time – Approximately and hour travel time via plane
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