Mati: Davao’s Next Big Thing

It was around six o’clock in the morning on a Sunday when I found myself staring at a vast expanse of blues and greens, enveloping waves that were crashing a little too loudly and strongly for this hour of the day. I removed my slippers and dug my feet into the cool, soft sand and then decided to just leave the slippers behind and take a short walk while taking in the pristine beauty that surrounded me. To the left side of the beach was a mountain range that was a deep and healthy green, covered entirely in lush foliage that is now rare in the city where I come from. In front of me, toward the horizon, were various shades of sea-green and blue—the sea seeming to merge with the sky. The only sound that I could hear was the crashing of the waves and the little voice inside my head telling me that maybe this was a place I could visit more often—perhaps even build a home in for my retirement.

I was in an understated sense of serenity, but I was also about 1,300 miles away from home—in a place called Dahican Beach in Mati, Davao Oriental, at the easternmost tip of southern Philippines.

Nature’s hidden gems

Although Mati is generally perceived to be a “sleepy town,” what first-time visitors here don’t realize is that three days will not be enough to experience the best that this city has to offer. Aside from an abundance of lush greens and coconut trees (the city is also dubbed “The Coconut Capital”), Mati is blessed with beautiful bays and beaches, diverse marine life, the freshest seafood that one will find, and people that are very warm, hospitable, and—contrary to how media project the southern island of Mindanao—living side by side in peace.

On the three-hour road trip from Davao City International Airport to Davao Oriental, the first natural sign that will welcome visitors to Mati is “The Sleeping Dinosaur”, a forest-covered hill that is named such because it supposedly resembles a sleeping brontosaurus (or, to some, a sleeping lizard, turtle, or even dragon). Its mystical quality seemed to be the perfect sight to greet passersby, as if signaling the many other natural wonders that guests will experience in this unassuming but progressive city.

A series of chats with our guides, Juvy Tanio, Jude Taraya, and Gretchen Navalta, revealed other must-see spots in Mati for nature lovers. One is Pujada Island across Pujada Bay, a 156-hectare island surrounded by white beaches that is accessible through a 45-minute boat ride. Although the island has not yet been developed and does not have facilities for the luxury traveler, it is deemed ideal for swimming, sunbathing, snorkeling, and diving. Locals and visitors typically head there for a day trip and also bring food along for an island picnic. Another is the Pygmy Forest in Mount Hamiguitan, a great site for trekking and mountain-climbing which, incidentally, is also a contender for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage list because of the natural bonsai plants that grow in the forest, as well as its rich biodiversity.

Mati is also home to a 7,000-hectare Philippine Eagle sanctuary, as well as a bat sanctuary in Luban Lagoon, where visitors also go to swim, snorkel, and go on picnics.

Another highly recommended spot in Mati is Waniban Island, accessible via a 15-minute boat ride from the Cinco Masao Resort and, according to Board Member Eric Rabat, is perfect for picnicking, trekking, and even snorkeling. It is also practically a virgin beach that is practically untouched and undeveloped, but highly favored by visitors because of its pristine beaches, the abundance of marine life (including dolphins, sea cows or dugongs, hammerhead sharks, manta rays, and different kinds of turtles), the beautiful views, and the perfect environment for total peace and relaxation.

Another white-sand island, Oak Island, is visible only during low tide and can be reached via a one-hour motorboat ride from Cinco Masao.

Unfortunately for our group, neither Pujada Island, Waniban Island, nor Oak Island was on our agenda due to our tight schedule. To fully enjoy Waniban Island, Board Member Rabat suggested, visitors must allocate one full day for it.

We had only an hour or so to say goodbye to the city known as the Abode of Peace, so we decided to have coffee by the river, with the bright lights of the capital and the twinkling lamps of the water village as backdrop. As I sipped my coffee on the terrace of Fratini’s overlooking the fast-flowing Brunei River, I felt that there was so much to see and so little time to explore this ‘tiny’ sultanate. But having sampled the forest, the waterways, and the nation’s vibrant capital, I knew I had visited just the right places, those that best represent this small, wealthy, and peaceful nation.

Beach bums’ refuge

What we were fortunate to have enjoyed in Mati are some of the resorts that are sure to bring out the beach lover in everyone. After a night at Casa Rosa, a charming and homey bed and breakfast owned by Mati City mayor Michelle Rabat, we stayed at Botona Beach Resort by Dahican Beach, a multi-colored mini-wonderland that can accommodate up to 20 to 30 guests in its duplex cottages. Aside from housing sea-loving travelers, Botona Beach Resort also welcomes locals who frequent the beach on weekends. Its open-air restaurant and seaside cabanas offer beach lovers unrestricted access to this side of the Pacific Ocean. And because the waves at Dahican Beach tend to get strong during the high tide, the resort’s management has created a breakwater within which children can safely swim and enjoy the water, within view of parents and guardians.

For those who like to travel in groups and create a home away from home, Kanakbai (literally meaning “My Home” in the native Mandaya language) Tropical Homes, the only other private accommodation along Dahican Beach’s seven-kilometer shoreline, is the perfect choice. A private complex housing two two-storey tropical villas and a beach-side garden, Kanakbai also makes available for guests a kitchen and mini-bar area and a large open living space. According to Kanakbai’s caretaker, families and large groups of up to 12 can fit in the villas’ bedrooms, with much more room to spare (and mattresses available) in the living area.

After a brief tour of Kanakbai’s facilities, my sister Ena (who was also my photographer for this trip) and I took turns at the hammock and openly daydreamed about bringing our family over to Mati. As we took photographs and sipped ice-cold refreshing drinks (Coca-Cola for her and buko juice for me), we understood the quiet charms of a laid-back, seaside life and found ourselves looking forward to the time when we could once again visit Mati with our loved ones in tow.

The home of skimboarding champions

Although Dahican Beach is great for those who want to get away from the stressors of city life (and, depending on the season, to witness green sea turtles lay their eggs on the sand), what it is really perfect for are skimboarding, surfing, and other water sports. The currents of the Pacific Ocean, coupled with the clear shoreline, make it perfect for catching just the right wave. And thanks to a local group of resident skimboarders called “The Amihan Boys” (which actually has two girls in the group), locals and tourists alike have been flocking to Dahican Beach for skimboarding lessons. The beach has gained such a following among skimboarders, in fact, that Dahican Beach hosts annual skimboarding competitions and has been dubbed the “Surfing Capital of Mindanao.” In April this year, visitors flying in from California and Australia will be there to witness the event.

We caught up with Allan Plaza, whose brother Jun helped to set up the Amihan Boys and has served as their mentor. According to Allan, the group started out when “Kuya Jun” noticed a group of orphans hanging out by the beach, seemingly taking an interest in skimboarding. Kuya Jun offered to lend them skimboards and the rest, they say, is history. Today, many of the Amihan Boys are champion skimboarders several times over. Sonny Boy “Bayogyog” Apoyo is a seven-time national champion, while 19-year-old Mark “Bad Boy” Amparado is a three-time national champion. Moreover, five of the Amihan Boys were tapped to represent the Philippines in an international skim competition to be held in California, but the group was able to raise just enough money to send two of them.

Aside from skimboarding and giving lessons, the Amihan Boys act as Dahican Beach’s version of Baywatch lifeguards. Thanks to the support of the local community as well as foreign benefactors, the Amihan Boys have also received training in lifeguarding, marine life preservation, and scuba diving, among others. On the afternoon that we were there, the group was able to rescue an ailing sea turtle. Just a few days before we arrived, they were able to rescue a dugong (sea cow) that got trapped in fishermen’s nets.

As the stewards of Dahican’s shoreline, the Amihan Boys also ensure that litter is kept off the beach. “When visitors here are caught smoking, drinking, or littering on the beach, their punishment is one month’s worth of community service cleaning up the shoreline,” shares Allan in Filipino.

“But what if they are here only for a few days?” I asked.

Allan was chuckling as he replied, “It doesn’t matter how long they stay, as long as they clean up!”

The Amihan Boys and the local Dahican community are examples of how, with the right kind of support, achieving sustainability can be as simple as catching the next big wave.

Dream Weavers—Literally

If the Amihan Boys have found their home and their identity amid the waves of Dahican Beach, there is another community in Mati that mostly stays hidden from the public eye, their art and their crafts communicating messages from another plane.

They are the Mandayas, and they make up around 70 percent of the indigenous peoples in Mati and many parts of Davao Oriental. Known for their vibrant and colorful beadwork, as well as for their handwoven cloth called dagmay, the Mandaya have a mystical quality about them and are very particular about honoring certain traditions.

According to lore and legend, the patterns and the methods of weaving dagmay have been passed on to them by the Tagamaling, a tree-dwelling spirit. It is believed that the Tagamaling enters women’s dreams and transmits instructions for weaving the cloth, thus giving the dagmay its sacred quality. According to Attorney Al Aquino, a Mandaya and the founder of a little “museum” of Mandaya artifacts called Lungga Center, in Madang, different patterns have different meanings and cannot be used indiscriminately. It is also believed that cutting the dagmay cloth improperly, especially when it cuts across the human figure, can cause illness.

“A woman has to be clean and pure while she is weaving dagmay,” shares Atty. Aquino. “Women who have their monthly period cannot weave, and once a woman starts weaving, her husband cannot touch her.”

Living faith

The people of Mati are proud of the fact that Christians, Muslims, and lumad (indigenous peoples) live side by side in peace. Aside from our visit to the Mandaya “museum”, we were also brought to the Carmelite Monastery in Barangay Matiao, where life-sized tableaus depicting the different mysteries of the Rosary are sure to put one in a meditative mode.

Before one comes face-to-face with life-sized sculptures of the archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, one must first cross a hanging bridge. Although moderate in height and length, it is a reminder of the fragility of life and of the fleeting nature of material things. Upon reaching the section of the Joyful Mysteries, the first in the series, Bible passages are brought to life through sculptures created by Bicolano sculptor Jose Barcena.

Walking slowly around the monastery grounds and gazing at the faces of the Biblical characters depicted in the tableaus (and feeling that having photos taken with the tableaus would be too blasphemous), I marveled at the fact that people’s faith drove them to create wonderful works of art such as this. This, coupled with Mati’s other natural gems, makes this the perfect location for a Holy Week soujourn.

Nature’s bounty

And what would a journey be without some nourishment?

One of our first introductions to life in Mati was lunch at a popular lunch and merienda (snack) spot called Seaside, aptly called such because it was right beside the baywalk fronting Pujada Bay. There we had the freshest, most sumptuous grilled tuna panga (jaw) I had ever tasted in my life, as well as halaan (fresh clams) soup that was served steaming hot and had just the right taste of ginger. (I normally don’t eat “wet seafood” or even clam soup, but this version of halaan, I loved enough to have second servings.) Also on the lunch menu were grilled liempo (pork belly) and seaweed salad. It seemed that the only thing missing was ice-cold San Mig Light—but then it was too early for that.

Some of Seaside’s other specialties are their empanada (meat pie) and fried lumpia (spring rolls). According to our guide Gretchen, locals flock to Seaside in the afternoon to partake of some of the yummy pies and rolls or to take them out for family and friends. Late on our first night in Mati, as we were taken over by both fatigue and hunger, my sister and I reached for the empanadas, chewing blissfully while stretched out on our beds, finishing them soon after the take-out bag was opened and regretting that we didn’t purchase more for the next day.

The next big thing

Mati City is poised to be Davao’s next big thing, and the local government is making the necessary preparations to welcome more tourists and investors into its fold. According to City Councilors Alan Andrada, Alan Acera, and Rey Oliveros, an urban planning study was commissioned in 2010 to create the Pujada-Dahican Master Plan, a 25-year development plan that would focus on four thematic zones building on Mati’s natural strengths. There are also plans to add to Mati’s 11 hotels, five resorts, and handful of lodging houses as well as develop a transport loop that would allow tourists to visit the most popular sites in Mati more efficiently.

According to Councilor Andrada, “What’s great about Mati is that it’s not congested so development is manageable.”

Board Member Rabat expressed the same sentiments. “We want to be able to develop Mati without burdening its natural resources or having to worry about pollution and environmental degradation later on.”

Moonlight over Mati

Few cities are as abundantly blessed as Mati, and this was none more evident that night of March 19, 2011, when the brightest moon in two decades made its presence felt around the world. While the rest of the Philippines complained on the social networks that the “Supermoon” was hiding behind the thick clouds, the Supermoon was shining brightly over Mati, its round face casting a bright light over the sea. The moon shone brightest just before dawn.