Surigao del Norte: Where Mindanao Begins
By Apolinario Villalobos
Despite the division of Surigao into two political units, namely, Surigao del Norte and Surigao del Sur, many Filipinos still mention just “Surigao” when they mean the northern half. This also happens when they refer to its capital, Surigao City. Whereas, for the southern half, “Butuan City” is always specified if they refer to the capital, just as when the province, Surigao del Sur is mentioned. Understandably, the Filipinos just cannot easily wean themselves from this habit because, the Surigao del Norte today, is what the whole Surigao was, even before the arrival of the Spaniards.
Before the splinter of Surigao into two provinces, it was a vast region that encompassed two-thirds of the whole Mindanao, covering a land area of 13,000 square miles. Within its original territory were both Agusan del Norte and Sur, some areas of Davao Oriental, Baganga, Mati, Caraga, and both the current northern and southern Surigao. Surigao del Norte is the link of Mindanao to the Bicol peninsula where Luzon begins.
Located at the edge of the Philippine Deep, the province is also teetering along the rim of the Asian continental shelf. These particular waters have been known as very treacherous even during the calm season characterized by the absence of typhoons. Magellan used this Pacific corridor as his entrepoint, particularly, Homonhon, when he explored the islands in 1521. After entering Surigao Strait, he proceeded to Leyte and Cebu where he met his fate in the hands of Lapu-lapu during the significant Battle of Mactan.
The chronicles of Pigafetta contained “Calagan” as his reference to Surigao which eventually did not refer only to the nape of the archipelago but also the islands dotting the Pacific coastline of Mindanao. The “territory” has been described by Fr. Francisco Colin in 1663, as one “beginning at Cape San Agustine, extending fifty leagues to the point of Surigao, and continuing along the west coast for fifteen leagues down the river Butuan which is its border area.” The fleet of
Local historians aver that the name Surigao may have been derived from the word “surgir” which means “swift current”. Another version of the story is its having been named after “Solibao”, a village chieftain who helped Visayan fishermen who were caught by storm and drifted to the said village at the mouth of Surigao River. Chief Solibao accommodated the fishermen in his abode. When the fishermen had recovered from their misfortune, they went home but later some of them returned to the village of Solibao to settle down with their families.
When the Spaniards came, and dropped anchor not far from the village during the 15th century, they asked the first native they met for the name of the place, instead they were told the name of their chieftain, Solibao. The Spanish chronicler mistook it as the name of the place and even misspelled what he heard and eventually wrote “surigao” in his log. From then on, the recorded name was made as reference to the northeasternmost tip of Mindanao. Today, the Surigaonons or Surigueῆos love to refer to their province as one “where Mindanao begins”.
The name was changed to Caraga which was derived from the word “calagan” or land of the braves or land of the fierce people. In a book published by Italian adventurer Giovanni Franceso Gemelli Careri, another adventurer, Francesco Combes was given the credit for the name. Combes supposedly derived the word “caraga” from a Visayan term, “kalag” which means soul or spirit, while “an” refers to the people, hence, “kalagan” or place of strong-spirited people.
Currently, Caraga as a region, carries the numerical reference as Region XIII by virtue of Republic Act. No. 7901 dated February 25, 1995, making it the youngest region of the country.
For travel writers, Surigao is a province or city of island adventures, fittingly attributed due to the interesting spots that practically dot the entire of 245.34 square kilometers area. Historically, its port is the oldest in Mindanao, having been built by the Spaniards in 1655.
What I will never forget was when I took a pumbpoat from Surigao city to Nonoc, Siargao, Bucas Grande, and Dinagat islands during the early 80’s. I saw the “line” created by opposing currents and when I was told that we were on top of the Philippine Deep, I was thrilled. I also saw the tops of “bakhawan” trees swaying to the currents miles away from shore, which showed the extent of the mangrove.
Nonoc Island was known for its gold, iron, manganese, silica, cobalt, copper, chromite and nickel. Long before the Marinduque was cited for its copper, Nonoc Island has already been practically stripped for its own copper and nickel deposits, that from a distance, its bare rust-hued soil can be perceived.
Other than Nonoc which is the largest island of the province, the other islands that number to more than two dozen compose two-fifths of the city’s land area. Hinatuan Passage serves as the demarcation line between these islands and the mainland. Prominent among these islands are Hanigad, Sibale, Bayaganan and Awasan which are fringed with mangroves dominated by nipa palm.
Hilly, best describes Surigao. Emanating from the valleys, Surigao River, also known among locals as Kinabutan River, meanders through the city and pours out into the fertile delta comprised of mangrove swamps which lately, a significant portion of which has been overtaken by the massive urban development. The outflow is the confluence of the three major bodies of water: Pacific Ocean, Surigao Strait, and Mindanao Sea.
The history of Surigao is splashed with rich commercial intercourse of the natives with foreign traders dominated by Chinese, Indians, aside from those that come from the southernmost part of Mindanao. The natives of the province who are securely-entrenched in the hinterlands are called “Mamanwa”.
The current location of Surigao is what was known then, as Bilang-Bilang which was also the site of the original port used by fishermen and traders, later renamed to Banahao which eventually became an integral part of the expanded Caraga. Siargao which was known then, as Caolo, served as a the provincial capital until it was razed to the ground, causing the transfer of the political and trade center to its present location, to be named later as Surigao.
Interestingly, there are two villages in the province named after William Howard Taft and George Washington when the Americans took over from the Spanish. During the period, Surigao experienced rapid transformation to become a premier province of Mindanao. New roads were constructed, connecting the towns, with the construction of the port capping the Americans’ magnificent effort.
During the WWII, the commercial landmarks were practically demolished, the Surigao Strait having been used as the arena for showdowns between the Allied Forces and the Japanese Imperial Navy. More than fifty Japanese warships were sank by American bomber planes and as the war ended, not a single ship flying the Japanes was seen along the coast of the province.
Surigao is people by various migrants from the different parts of the country, among them, being the Bisaya from Cebu and Panay Island, the Waray from the nearby Leyte and Samar, as well as, the Tagalog from Luzon. It became a city in August 31, 1970, by virtue of Republic Act No. 6134, with Pedro Espina as the first city mayor. Surigaonon is the dialect spoken by the locals. Although, there are sprinklings of Visayan words, Surigaonon is distinct, in itself.
Strolling around the city, a visitor of Surigao will already be occupied with what it can offer such as the Surigaonon Heritage Center cum Rock and Mineral Museum that houses ancient burial jars, Chinese porcelain and other archaeological finds from Pahantungan at Placer. Being a mineral-rich province, a significant collection can also be viewed at the museum. At the city’s heart is the Luneta Park initially built during the Spanish regime, fronting the equally historic cathedral. It is suggested that the city market be visited, too, for the province’s marine products and local delicacies that can be partaken at unassuming food stalls.
Located at Hikdop Island, Buenavista Cave, with its three entrances can be found. A knee-deep pool leads to the main chamber with its “King’s throne”. The cave also features interesting formations of stalagmites and stalactites, other caves worth visiting are Mapawa and Silob.
To complete an exhilarating exploration of the province, suggested for inclusion in the itinerary are the Zaragoza Rock formations in an area known as an ancient burial ground, with the rocks resembling giant vases with pockets of trees on their crests; the whirlpools of Bitaugan, the formation of which are heralded by explosions as the ebb tide is occurring. The whirlpools are called “pahibongan”, which eventually vanish after the seemingly inaudible explosions; Raza Island with its quick interplay of high and low tides; the Day-asan floating village dominated by a dense mangrove forest; the Manjagao mangrove forest, a marine and bird sanctuary; the San Pedro Cantiasay footbridge connecting Nonoc and Sibale islands; the Sukailang waterfalls with a height of fifty feet; and to cap the explorations is of course, a respite at any of the province’s beaches, foremost of which are the Mabua, Ipil, Basul, Berok, Panomboyon, and Sagisi.
Just like the rest of Philippine provinces, cities and towns, Surigao also has its own festivals, such as Charter Day celebration from August 25 to 31, highlighted by a grand parade and beauty pageant. The Bonok-Bonok Maradjao Karadjao Festival celebrated every 9th of September, features the culture of the Mamanwa tribe, and the city’s patron saint, San Nicolas.
Aside from being linked to Luzon via the Pan-Philippine highway that starts from Laoag City in the north down to the central cities of Mindanao, Surigao is also accessed through its airport that serves direct flights from Manila and Cebu. For the adventurous, however, buses can be taken from Manila, affording an opportunity of glimpses of Bicol and Leyte.