The Philippines is a nation of intertwined splendor and adventure that relaxes and rejuvenates the human spirit. Home to more than 7,000 islands, while there are countless places to explore, one province stands out for a well-rounded experience: Negros Oriental. This province comprises the eastern half of the island of Negros, with Negros Occidental as its neighbor. It is one of the four Central Visayan islands at the center of the Philippines archipelago. Dumaguete City is the province’s capitol, commonly known as the nation’s “City of Gentle People”.
There is an ongoing joke amongst Filipinos and foreigners alike of the “Dumaguete Bug” – they say people fall in love with the island so much that they stay, and let me tell you, I got bitten. Charmed by the surreal diving, pristine hiking, and a cultural richness that warms you to the bone, I opted to stay when the pandemic struck and the Philippines closed its doors; it’s still one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I highly suggest a one-way ticket or a flexible return date because chances are, you’ll want to linger in this paradise, too.
About 12mi (20km) south of Dumaguete City is Dauin, home to some of the best diving in the world, especially for micro marine life. Each aquatic trek is calming or exhilarating, depending on the dive. I’m a huge fan of night diving for Twilight Zone vibes. Another liberating challenge is freediving; there are instructors galore to guide you into an empowering single-breath submersion.
Poblacion is the best area to start, iconic for its diverse corals, schools of tropical fish, and occasional groupings of squid and barracuda. Turtle Haven is about a kilometer south (aka Dauin South), a place so turtley I decided to live just 50ft from its shore. I promise giant sea turtles silently communicate their wisdom when you swim next to them, eye-to-eye. It’s not uncommon to find them asleep as well, camouflaged against the coral. I guarantee at least one for every snorkel or dive session.
Apo Scuba is a little shop where you can rent your tanks (US $2.75) and equipment (US $2-20) if you require any. There are guides for hire (US $10) who can not only take you to any site you wish, but locate whichever critters you’re interested in, including frogfish smaller than your pinky nail. Apo Scuba also arranges boat trips to Apo Island, which is a must for drop-off deep diving and drift diving.
I visit the sulfur springs often because the journey is good for the heart and the sulfur is good for the skin. Dauin’s sulfur springs are tranquil with less than half a dozen hikers at a time. There’s a winding drive of 5mi (8km) up the mountain – a three-story bamboo watch tower will greet you at end of the road. I enjoy feeling like I’m on top of the world with a locally brewed coffee in hand overlooking rainforest, farmland, and islands in the distance. The Dauin sulfur springs are a right turn at a green jeepney wait station – there aren’t any signs so stopping for directions always helps. Hiking to the springs takes about half an hour through lush greenery. Then, voila! Yellow, sizzling streams cut through the towering mountains down below. There’s a small waterfall but if you want majestic ones to sit under, check out the sulfur springs in Valencia (prepare for several visitors with a US $2 entrance fee). The best day to go is Sunday because the Valencia market has many delectable breakfast options before 10am on the way up.
Twin Lakes is the place to wash away any anxiety stuck in the shoulders. Its fresh waters reflect the sky so perfectly it’s impossible to take a bad photo. For me, the lure of seeing rare wildlife, such as monkeys and leopard cats, pulls me in, but for others, it’s often the kayaking (US $3/hr) and boat riding (US $5/hr). Located just north of Dumaguete City in Sibulan, the drive is a feast for the senses.
Mount Talinis is for brave hearts and die-hard hikers. I urge travelers to take two days for this 12mi (20km) trek, camping for the night by one of the two lakes. Categorized as difficult, this hike will test your coordination, patience, and resilience over a 5,000ft (1500m) incline but it’s well worth it. Snaking tree roots reach to the sky on tree trunks, clouds mist the ground – it’s like stepping into a legend where a dragon waits around the corner. Guides that know the terrain are necessary, costing around US $20 a day with equipment to rent (US $3).
Known as the organic island, Negros Oriental has the richest-quality food that leaves you satisfied in the healthiest of ways. Many farm animals freely roam the countryside, and it’s the norm to come across pecking chickens in the jungle, including high up in the trees! I’m guilty of slurping down a fresh fruit shake every day, sometimes paired with a mango float, a cultural dessert of mango, cream, and graham cracker crumbles. Tanduay with calamansi juice is how locals take their rum but only the toughest can stomach tuba, aka coconut wine. While lechon (pork belly), adobo (vinegar chicken/pork), and bangus (milkfish) are classic Filipino dishes worth trying, there are also so many vegetarian options that sprang up over the pandemic for greener eating.
Dumaguete City is known as the nation’s literature epicenter and boasts a fantastic art scene for a population of only 130,000. The lamppost-decorated Rizal Boulevard overlooks the sea and springs to life for the best street food. Dakong Balay lays at end of the festivities displaying provocative local artwork that highlights the many layers of Filipino culture. Mugna Gallery and Shelter are also delightful centers for viewing paintings and sculptures.
At the end of the day, it’s a treat for the eyes to watch the everchanging personality of the sky as it shifts from pastel pink and purples to silver gray to blinding gold. Negros Oriental melts people into a satisfied and enriched state.
Getting to Negros Oriental is easy with several different options, depending on your budget and time. If you’re in a rush, fly to Dumaguete City from Manila or Cebu (US $20-50) and get a spectacular bird’s eye view of islands peppering the ocean. Riding the bus (US $8) from Cebu is a speedy adrenaline trip but you’re in safe hands – simply hop on at the South Bus Terminal and prepare for a 4-7 hour journey. My favorite method is by ferry via OceanJet from Cebu, offered on Mondays and Fridays for US $24, taking about 6 hours.
Pedicabs are the most popular form of public transportation once in Dumaguete, costing US $0.40 for 2km in the city. There are buses, vans, and jeepneys that will take you wherever you’d like to go on the island but for autonomy and good fun, rent a motorbike for US $7 a day. (Make sure you’re licensed, and always wear a helmet.)
Like most travel destinations in Southeast Asia, update your vaccines and boosters such as hepatitis, measles, and rabies just in case.
The biggest unspoken currency of the Philippines is smiling. Everyone is happy to help if you get lost, get a flat tire, etc. the more you flash your pearly whites. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the degree of hospitality – tip where you can.
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