After 12 years, I returned to visit Dumaguete City, which is known as the City of Gentle People. Back in 2007, I’d come here to see the municipalities of Siaton and Antulang and the beach resorts and dive sites in those places, including my personal favorite, Apo Island.
We arrived in Sibulan Airport with Roezielle Joy Iglesia and Michael Navarro of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and some members of the media to cover Dumaguete’s cultural festivities for National Arts Month (NAM), which is celebrated each February.
We stayed at Casa Rubin on Perdices Street, with some lovely establishments just walking distance from our home away from home, including The Market Place and Robinson’s Place Dumaguete. There were considerable numbers of foreign tourists here, particularly Europeans. Most foreigners, I guess, visit Dumaguete because Forbes Magazine listed Dumaguete as the 5th of its “7 Best Places to Retire Around the World.”
Dumaguete City is the provincial capital of Negros Oriental. The city’s name is taken from the word dagit or “to snatch,” from the pre-Spanish practice of conducting pirate raids to pick up slaves. The earliest natives of Negros Oriental are the Agta, or Negrito people, who are known here as the first settlers of the province. According to Philippine history, the people of Negros Oriental are descended from the nomadic dark-skinned, mountain-dwelling Agta tribes.
We went to Luce Auditorium of Silliman University to attend the Musikapuluan: Himig at Sayaw 2019 festival. According to Prof. Diomar Abrio, one of the NCCA music committee members, “Musikapuluan started [in] 2018 and now, is on its second year. This is the flagship celebration of the NCCA’s committee on music. The music festival included performances, lectures and workshops that celebrate Visayan traditional music.”
LEARNING, BREAKFAST, PIRATE RAIDS
One of the famous landmarks and best known of Dumaguete is Silliman University (SU), which had been established by American missionaries in 1901. This is also the first Protestant and American university in the country, and in Asia. It is the dominant institution of higher learning in Dumaguete.
SU earned the distinction of being known as the “center of learning in the South.” The city is also referred to as the University City and is the educational destination and melting pot for students from the Visayas and Mindanao. It is also considered a center of learning for many professionals, artists, scholars and the literati coming from all over the Philippines—and the world. This is the home of the oldest writing workshop in the Philippines, the Silliman University National Writer’s Workshop (SUNWW) established by National Artist for Literature Edith L. Tiempo and her husband, the internationally awarded novelist Edilberto K. Tiempo. Several generations of Filipino writers honed their pens at the SUNWW, which offers learning opportunities for its fellows, who spend three weeks at the workshop with some of the best writers from the Philippines, as well as from other parts of the world.
Sunrise is the best time to promenade along Rizal Boulevard. If Manila Bay has the best sunset, Dumaguete’s Rizal boulevard offers the best sunrise vista by the sea in the Philippines. Plus, this magnificent view is free. Pro tip: The best vantage points for enjoying this spectacular sunrise are the Chinese Bell Church and the breakwater separating Rizal Boulevard from the beach.
Jose Rizal once went to Dumaguete and walked along that baywalk, just in case you were wondering why the boulevard is named after him. Rizal had stayed in a house facing the bay. That house is now known as the Honeycomb Tourist Inn.
There is a monument along Rizal Boulevard called the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres Monument and anyone walking along the Boulevard will see it. It is especially lovely as evening approaches, when the sunset limns it in shades of pink and purple.
The Dumaguete Public Market is the best place for a cheap, filling and delicious breakfast. I noticed a familiar elderly couple at the market’s “painitan” area. That couple eats breakfast there daily and they look very happy with each other. You could find yourself fortunate enough to have breakfast with them should you visit this lovely city’s market.
The daily morning ritual of Melatuna Castel, 91, and her husband, Hermie Castel, 81, has been the subject of social media posts by Linda Mendoza that have gone viral. Mendoza helped the Castels build their new home and provide them with a fresh start after she discovered that they lived in a shanty made of scraps for more than 30 years.
According to schoolteacher Thelma Martinez, who helps her father, Nicanor Martinez when she isn’t at school, the Castels “do not have any children to take care of them. They are known now because they were interviewed by GMA’s ‘Kapuso Mo Jessica Soho’” program and Mendoza’s online chronicle of their lives.
Nicarnor Martinez cooks puto maya (rice cakes with coconut milk and ginger), which is made mainly of malagkit (sticky rice). The painitan stalls open as early as 6:00 a.m. from Mondays to Sundays. You may pre-order budbud (chocolate-laced sticky rice cakes) and puto maya as pasalubong. These products will last for three days or a week if refrigerated or kept chilled.
Budbud and puto maya are the traditional breakfast on every Negrense’s table. At Dumaguete Public Market, the customer may ask for condensed milk, chocolate or peanut butter as toppings for the puto maya, that is served on banana leaves and sold for P10 per piece. Budbud sa Tanjay is Negros Oriental’s version of suman (sticky rice cake). There are two sizes: The small budbud comes in plain, special, and chocolate and costs P12 pesos per pair. The big budbud comes in Tres Maria, chocolate and Choco-Mango and costs P25 pesos per piece.
Sikwate, a small demitasse of thick hot chocolate, is the perfect add-on to budbud and puto maya. At P20 pesos per cup, sikwate is made with cocoa beans from Bacong, one of the coastal villages of the city. The cocoa is ground and molded into chocolate tablets, called tableas, right there in the market. You can buy these tablea in 10-piece packs for P20 per pack, or you could go for the 50-piece packs that cost just P100 per pack.
A short walk from the Dumaguete Public Market will bring you to the Campanario de Dumaguete, the Dumaguete Belfry and grotto. This is one of the four original bell towers in the city, and the oldest capanario of the four. It was used to call the Catholic faithful to prayer and, also, as a watch tower to safeguard the town from pirate raiders out to commit dagit upon the townsfolk.
To the right of this campanario is the one of the oldest churches in the Visayas: The St. Catherine of Alexandria Cathedral, also called the Dumaguete Cathedral. There are four stone pillars at the gate that bear the statues of the Gospels’ authors, the Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Across the church is the green oasis of Quezon Park and, past the park, sits Dumaguete City Hall. Quezon Park boasts of a playground, décor of vintage cannons, and a gazebo. This public space is a favorite Dumagueteno venue for community events and, even at night, couples engaged in ballroom dancing.
FREEDOM AND SANS RIVAL
Dumaguete’s Sans Rival Cakes and Pastries, on San Jose St, near Rizal Boulevard, is one of the favorite tourist stops in this city, and with good reason: They make, bar none, the best sans rival and silvanas in the country. The counter of this busy little café was crowded with people ordering large batches of these crisp, buttery and nutty meringue confections for their pasalabong (greeting gifts). Their sans rival loaf is heavenly, its layers of meringue filled with crushed cashews held together by the creamiest butter mousseline will make you forget who you are and why you exist. The original butter loaf is P345, and you can indulge in it by the slice for P35. They also offer the sans rival “mini,” which is the perfect size for pasalubong, for P210.
The most famous treats from this little confection shop are their silvanas, thin meringue wafers smothered with melt-in-your-mouth butter-cream filling and rolled in scrumptious cookie crumbs, which come in the plain butter flavor (P20 per piece, P165 per pack of 10) and chocolate (P23 each, P195 per pack of 10).
A word of warning: You may have to pre-order your pasalubong. They always have plenty of orders since, veteran tourists usually order their pasalubong in the dozens of each item. You can also buy these sweet treats at Robinson’s Place Dumaguete for the same prices.
The Sans Rival Bistro is almost always filled to capacity daily because they also offer other great cakes, pastries, lunch meals and pasta dishes. Everything is good there. This lovely bistro faces the bay and provides diners with a relaxing view of Rizal Boulevard and the sea.
It was a sweet pleasure to watch live performance in celebration of National Art’s Month, especially the Pasundayag sa Pantawan sunset performance on Rizal Boulevard.
The katutubo (native) dance of the Agta, called the Inagta, involves choreography in which the dancers mimic monkeys, snakes, frogs and crows. It was also lovely watching the Cordilleras’ traditional courtship dance called the Manok-manukan (chicken dance) and the Spanish-era Habanera de Jovencita from the Central Luzon province of Zambales performed live in this beautiful city. Dumaguete has ever been a place where cultural pursuits—be they musical, literary, thespian, or terpsichorean—are as natural as breathing.
Rizal Boulevard is, all at once, restaurant row and hotel strip—even Silliman University is located here. This bayside main road is the center of the city’s night life, and its cultural gateway. It is also the place to buy the best street food in the city.
One must-try is tempura—no, not the Japanese dish. Tempura from the street food hawker carts here is made of squid rolled in batter and flour, then deep fried, and people tend to mistake this tempura for the Chinese street food called kikiam, which it definitely is not. The best way to enjoy tempura along Rizal Boulevard is to dip it in your choice of sweet or spicy sauce while enjoying the salty sea breeze. A word of advice: You may not smoke or imbibe alcohol alcoholic along Rizal Boulevard, so please don’t.
SHOP WITH A HEART
I went to the Market Place, that small strip mall near our hotel. There is a souvenir store there called Subida that sells backpacks and other sundries made of dried pandan leaves. This is the only souvenir shop I’d ever seen where things are made of dried pandan leaves, which are harvested from the municipality of Guilhungan. Pandan leaves are usually used as condiments to add fragrance and flavor to steamed rice and to chicken or fish dishes, so these backpacks sold at Subida are pretty much one of a kind.
Subida also sells miniatures of Dumaguete’s ubiquitous pedicabs, which are crafted from recycled metal sheets by Andy Villaruel—who makes them with his feet, since he has no arms. This small shop with heart encourages local artist like Villaruel, and helps them make a living doing what they love. There are also works by Dumaguete’s artists exhibited in the store, and art collectors can buy these as gifts or home decor.
The cheapest option for local transportation is the pedicab, which is similar to the Metro Manila tricycle except it can accommodate up to six passengers, instead of the three-passenger limit on the tricycle. The pedicab is also similar to Thailand’s tuk-tuk. The minimum fare for a pedicab ride is P8, but expect to pay more and to negotiate before you get in if you want to travel further out to destinations like the airport or resorts.
We bid Dumaguete goodbye with smiles that promised we would return. This is a place that one just must put on the list of destinations one visits with regularity, for the kindness and gentleness of its people, as much as for its tourist attractions and, yes, the most spectacular sunrise in the Philippines.