A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go to the Enchanted River that is in Hinatuan, Surigao Del Sur. It was a long trip to get there and as always, security is something to consider when going to Mindanao as a white American!
I have been around the country and always knew about the place but never made the trip as it is kinda, well, out of the way. However, a special request from a good friend in New Zealand convinced me to go.
She sent me a message about watching a video on Youtube about it and if it was really that nice. I did not know how to answer her so I knew I needed to make the trip.
Since I was already in Cebu City, the journey was much easier than coming from Manila. I did not have to try and get a cheapo flight from Cebu Pacific. An overnight ferry to Surigao City and what become an overnight bus got me there.
One thing I did wrong was arrive in Hinatuan on a Sunday morning and we will just say, it is a pretty dead town. On the plus side, I was the town of the town. Who was this 6’3″ white guy walking around the little town? Yes, they still have that old colonial mentality!
Enchanted River is a Filipino thing
As it was Sunday when I got there, I knew it would be packed with local tourists. Filipinos love to go to places like this after mass on Sundays. I took the day to relax and catch up on emails and comments. There is a few places to stay in town but I ended up staying at Maryland Hotel for P350 a night. It was not bad but they run the local Karaoke bar and when they close it down, they shut off the wifi! Can we say annoying?
As far as getting to the Enchanted River from Hinatuan, all you do is go back to the bus station (more like a barn) and there is these guys driving motorbikes with a roof on them. In Mindanao, they call them habel habel.
The going rate is P300 ($6 or so) which includes him taking you the 14 kilometres to the river, waiting as long as you want to stay and bringing you back. As I understand it, Filipinos also have to pay that price. I am sure the locals don’t but Manila based Filipinos do!
One thing to be mindful about is they do not like plastic or cigarettes close to the river. They are pretty serious about keeping it clean. The local government realizes they have a cash cow and they want to bank on the attraction!
Speaking of banking, the fees to get into the river is P30 and if you need a table (you will) is P100. This are pretty standard charges anywhere you visit in the Philippines though.
Life Jackets are extra
One thing that kinda rubbed me the wrong direction was the renting of life jackets by the local government. This is something that I do not believe should be a matter of commerce if the government will not provide lifeguards that are certified with the Philippine Red Cross.
The reason that this does not set well with me is that most Filipino can not swim. There has been studies to back this up. It is a real problem. They are coming to have fun in the river; not drown in it. People have came to their end of their life at the Enchanted River more than once!
I understand that charging P15 (30 cents) per hour is not much money. I would not think twice about renting one if I was a certified swimmer. However, I know Filipinos and they will save a pesos every chance they get. They will think being frugal over being safe every time. It is just how the Filipinos think.
In the end, anyone that does not have proof of taking a swimming test should be required to wear a life jacket that is provided by the local government. Safety matters, people! It matters alot.
I realize people will think I am out of line for saying this but I do not believe I am. I have taken a swimming test with the American Red Cross that proves that I can swim. I am not Micheal Phelps or anything but being certified is pretty smart.
People need to remember that swimming in natural waters carries more of a risk than being in the local swimming pool that was built by men.
Is Mindanao safe?
A common question that will come up is about safety on the island. This is a legit question about Mindanao and anyone who says it is not does not understand the fears of travelers. People have been kidnapped and it was not that long ago!
What is important to understand is the island is quite large. Taking a bus from Davao City in the south to the Enchanted River is over eight hours. While there are some seriously dangerous areas, you would be quite some distance from them.
I am not saying that it does not push up to the Northern Mindanao area. It does. There has been a bombing in Cagayan de Oro and there has been shootouts in other northern cities. However, it is not every day that it happens.
As far as I know that area that the Enchanted River is in, Surigao Del Sur has never had a major problem with terrorism.
There is the New People’s Army around but they are mostly going to leave white people alone. They do not want the attention of the United States Army. They will just harrass Filipinos but leave the travelers alone.
Even if you did come in contact with these guys (and I have), they will just look at you and not say much. One of them told me that he was afraid that I worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. After I told him that I could not confirm or deny my presence; he laughed and realize I was a traveler; not a spy!