“IN THE beginning, there was no Philippines but there was BUTUAN.” A staunch tagline in Butuan’s tourism may sound boastful, but nonetheless rings true.
Once an ancient territory shrouded with urban legends, Butuan graces the pages of history books as one of the oldest settlements in the Philippines. It has emerged in years to be an exciting source of archaeological finds in Mindanao, proving it is not made up of tall tales about prehistoric Philippines (the discovery of the 21-carat figurine Golden Tara in 1960 encouraged treasure hunters in its rich soil).
Now the regional center of Caraga and a strategic point for agri-aqua and forestry commerce in the Agusan River Basin, this highly urbanized city has a rich ethnic past that spans more than a thousand years, with earliest recorded trade missions from the Philippine islands to the Chinese Empire in the 11th century, its name appearing in the chronicles of the Song Dynasty. The Song Chinese manuscripts documented the Early Age of Commerce when a booming maritime trade occurred, referring to a Kingdom of Butuan as a major trading port with China, Kingdom of Champa (Vietnam) and Southeast Asia.
At its peak in pre-colonial Philippines, Butuan was also perceived to be a flourishing civilized settlement, the center of trade and commerce in the 11th century. In the 70s, accidental archaeological digs revealed nine finely crafted balangays (oldest sea vessels now called Butuan boats and declared National Cultural Treasure) carbon dated to 320 AD in Japan. This established the Filipinos’ technically advanced seamanship and boatbuilding skills at par with neighboring and seafaring countries. Also excavated were coffin burials with strangely deformed skulls.
Since then, more diggings revealed rich deposits of pre-Hispanic artifacts, ceramics, porcelain, glass beads, bronze vessels, antique utensils, gold and silver ornaments along the riverbanks, indicating a thriving trade relations existing long before the Spaniards came to our shores. Many of these ancient relics can be found displayed in an old family residence like the Navarras who have unearthed them in their fishponds.
In 2011, the Kaya ng Pinoy Inc. group led by Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) Undersecretary Art Valdez and members of the all-Filipino Mount Everest team successfully embarked on a return-to-roots seven-month journey aboard handcrafted balanghays named Diwata ng Lahi, Masawa Hong Butuan and Sama Tawi-Tawi, from the mouth of Manila Bay to the tip of the Sulu peninsula and back. This project was to revisit the Philippines’ seafaring legacy to remind Filipinos that they “were once master of the seas, trading with ancient China using the balanghay.” They sailed away in the ancestral manner, with navigation used by the earliest mariners - steering by the sun, the stars, the wind, cloud formations, wave patterns and bird migrations -- and were welcomed back at the port after months of hardship and challenges at sea. (Read www.balangay-voyage.com)
Lush ricelands and rolling hills occupy much of the delta that is Butuan, which sprawls across the Agusan River (country’s 3rd longest river). Gentle slopes of Mt. Mayapay and neighboring Diwata mountain ranges surround the valley from monsoon storms. Mayapay’s plateau provides a fun climb destination easily accessible by transportation or by hiking as well.
In covering as many of the city’s highlights and historical tours in one day, must see trips are the National Museum, Balangay Shrine Museum, and a newly excavated balangay site. These are rich repository of historical materials proving Butuan's primeval existence. The Banza Church Ruins is the oldest stone church wreck in Mindanao, built in 1625 by friars and burned down in 1753 by Moro Pirates. Interestingly, what remains of its beauty was a bell tower engulfed by a huge balete tree. A more scenic view would be to approach it from a river boat cruise that will take you along the Masao River where floating cages thrive from settlers on riverbanks.
Now officially a tourist destination, the 500-year-old Bitaog tree in Magallanes, Agusan del Norte inaugurated its launch on June 1998, when it was declared the Philippine Centennial Tree. The country’s oldest tree has a trunk that measures 290 centimeters in diameter. Here in Magallanes you can also find the Magellan Marker or Landing Site, erected in 1872, to commemorate the historic milestone of the first Mass as written in the journals of historian Pigafetta. To this day scholars still argue about the accuracy and conflicting reports between a legendary Mazua island once connected to Butuan and Leyte’s Limasawa Island.
A unique community in Barangay Pagatpatan is blessed with a rich supply of flowing underwater stream containing methane or low quality odorless gas. The locals refer to it as “miracle water” that is said to be potable, which still needs further study. A few residents have ingeniously hooked up tubes and hoses from the water supply to their cooking stoves, saving up on gas. A demonstration revealed fire igniting from the water source when you light a cigarette or strike a match.
The Bood Promontory Ecopark is a historic hill site where Magellan and his men were said to have built a huge cross and celebrated the first Mass on March 31, 1521.
The Bequibel Shell Midden (prehistoric trash pit) in Barangay Bonbon is an excavation site of shell relics believed to be the food source of a civilization surviving as far back as the Neolithic Period. Fascinating grave markers uncovered skeletal remains carbon dated to 7,000 years ago.
Although in the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List as a significant archaeological site, present day Butuan also has modern amenities to entice tourists beyond cultural exploration. Delta Discovery Park is a newly opened exciting zipline with a length of 1.3 kilometers. Night spots are flourishing, particularly food destinations like Baron for the barbecue, kinilaw and fresh seafood, or Uncle Sam’s delicious burger, tadyang and bulalo. Try local delicacies like “palagsing” delicately wrapped in banana leaves; laksoy is the best tasting nipa wine fermented crudely from a vat; the homegrown Tribu Premium Coffee Manobo Blend, or the cool KooKoo Nut to quench your thirst. Many hotels abound in the city, like Balanghai Convention Hotel, Dottie’s Place, or the Almont Inland Resort, to name a few.
Kahimunan Festival is Butuan’s version of the Sinulog, celebrated to pay reverence to the city’s patron, Sto. Niño. The Adlaw Hong Butuan (Charter Day Anniversary) is celebrated on August 2, presenting the city’s modern culture through street parties, beauty pageants and lavish float parades.
For the arts, there’s a young up and coming artist named Kit Gresos who carves tribal creations and handicrafts using glazed paper mache. His award winning pieces are on display in Butuan’s Tourism Office while his other colorful earthly masterpieces called “Papelemento” are on sale starting from a price range of P2,300.
Located at the Northeastern part of Mindanao, Butuan takes an hour and 45 minutes from Manila and 55 minutes from Cebu by plane. It is also accessible by sea within 36 hours from Manila and 12 hours from Cebu. From Davao, Butuan can be reached by land in 5-6 hours. (Visit www.butuan.gov.ph)
(Visit the writer’s website at www.jojiealcantara.com)