Traveling and living in Mindanao, The Philippines

Children fishing in Davao
Children fishing in Davao

To most people looking at the Philippines, from overseas, there are pristine beaches, lush rice terraces and all manner of diving opportunities. But, there is also one giant black spot; Mindanao. Just about every country has it black listed as a no go area.

It’s not my place as a traveller to get into internal politics nor disputes. Nor do I fill my journal here with such writings.

The basic outline is that there are several internal conflicts in the region resulting in kidnappings, prison breaks, bombings and other not so peaceful actions. Including the killing of more journalists than anywhere else in the world as of late 2009.

Rural Bus in Mindanao
Rural Bus in Mindanao
Local bamboo ferry
Local bamboo ferry

Indeed in 2008 the President declared it a warzone, its still one today in certain regions. Or at least under emergency rule at one time or another – just don’t tell anyone as you’d never guess it was!

So what better place for me to go and live in for a while?

In truth it has nothing to do with it being a warzone more than it is unexplored. The place is not visited that often by tourists, nor travelers. Davao, is an exception and an extremely safe city. As is Cagayan de Oro which is the gateway to Camiguin island. Even Zamboanga City to the far west is a safe place, if you know how to travel safely.

I’ve found Mindanao to have more indigenous festivals than any other region in The Philippines. There are cool forested regions, the food is good and never have a I seen any misgivings. The army is certainly more present in Mindanao than anywhere else, but then that’s a good thing considering the troubles there. Stop and search procedures on buses take place regularly, though never very thoroughly.

Having lived and traveled in other hot zones like West Africa, Pakistan and during the riots in Tibet I know all too well the pluses and minuses of such regions.

The army is a presence in Mindanao

  • They can be expensive due to the fact that few tourists go there, so the accommodation is usually equipped only for the business class.
  • The people can be shy due to the over cautious attitude often needed in such places.
  • As a foreigner I stand out and am talked about more than anyone else. My movements noted, and I will be the center of all things gossipy. This can be good, and bad. But I know how to handle it.
  • Getting to some areas may be difficult, due to both communication and transport changes in such regions. e.g. Not everyone will quite understand why I would want to go into the highlands …

Devoid of backpackers, tour groups and package tourists Mindanao offers a refreshing cultural aspect of the Philippines that many people simply do not get to see or experience.

Whilst the beaches are not a touch on Palawan, nor are there massive rice terraces like in Banaue, there is a wealth of festivals and local culture that’s hard to get anywhere else in world. It’s hard not to feel alive in such a place!

Welcome to a new part of my travels and search for home in the Philippines. It’s time to see the places others fear to go and time to get to know some locals … And oh yea, did I mention that I might have secured some short term “work” cough, I mean “volunteer opportunity” cough, I mean …

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Coming soon:

Seeing the Unseen: Introducing some people …

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18 Replies to “Traveling and living in Mindanao, The Philippines”

  1. I lived in Mindanao for the first 15 years of my life and I never encountered any of those stories that are plastered all over the newspapers. There *are* conflicts in certain places but not all of Mindanao is unsafe. As you said, the presence of the army is comforting in a sense.

    1. -SleeplessInKL- Yes the media hypes a lot of what goes on in Mindanao up a lot. Unfortunately the media has also had a lot of tragedy there too, so it’s hard not to blame them in that sense. I think that if these issues can be resolved Mindanao has the potential to be one of the main attractions in the Philippines, if handled correctly.

  2. Adore this. Am really looking forward to reading about Mindanao, never heard much about it before. I looked in the bookstore about Lonely Planet and they say so little about it! So you’re right. Loved the last post too. Keep going

  3. sounds amazing and living in an emergency state actually is’nt as scary as it sounds.just lots of checkpoints although i am very dissapointed that i’ve never been asked to show my ID :p

    1. -riko- :) Well your comment certainly made me smile. No, I’ve not been asked for ID in most places either. I think those that look like tourists get away with this. We’d spend most of our time searching for it. Takes too long, which is probably a good thing come to think of it. And yes, living in an emergency state, is far from scary.

  4. …what kind of volunteer opportunity did you find? Join the army? Sorry, just jocking. :)

  5. I spent December and January mainly in Dipolog. Completely safe. Had a few excursions to see my inlaws in the sticks about 3 hours drive south. Plenty of army check points but we were only searched briefly once. The pick up was full so I think they were looking for assault weapons hidden among my tools. Most of the problems now seem combined to the far south of Zamboanga and the muslim autonomous zone.
    Hope you enjoy Mindanao. I did!

    1. -Maaarrghk!- Yes most of the problems are in the autonomous zones. A shame, as some of these places offer a lot in terms of hospitality, natural beauty and resources. As I’ve written before, the security of bus checks and mall checks in The Philippines, are something I find monumentally ineffectual to the point of actually being dangerous themselves.

  6. im visiting my feuance who lives in mindano.a place called balubohan rizal zamboana del this a safe place to visit im white british and not sure of the no go zones there.all relpys very greatfull thankyou

    1. You’re a “white british” who has issues in spelling and grammar, along with an interesting IP address. Personally, I don’t think you should go there. Read the latest reports from your Embassy on recent kidnappings and shootings in the area.

  7. Having stumbled across your website, more by chance than not, I wonder if you can help me clarify something about Iligan City?

    My intention is to retire there (in a few years time) but I am reading conflicting reports as to the safety of this area for British citizens.

    There are very few places we can call “Very Safe” as most places have their own problems, however would it be foolhardy to retire there and am I reading too much into the “dangerous” information I am finding on the web?

    I look forward to reading your comments.

    1. Hello Kevin,

      Iligan City is a 50/50 place in terms of safety for foreigners. More so on the safe side than non-safe if you have some experience in living or traveling overseas.

      There have been a few bomb attacks over the years, but nothing directed at foreigners per se. Likewise with kidnappings. Most kidnappings happen between Iligan and Zamboanga city. Note I wrote between, and not “in” said cities. Iligan itself, while it does have few expats around is not such an exciting place. It was also pretty devastated by the typhoon this year. There are more retiree expats in the much safer city of Cagayan De Oro which is just an hour or so to the North East of Iligan. Or again in Davao way down south in Mindanao. In terms of not being totally isolated that is.

      You might also want to do some online searching for expat forums in any town, join them, and ask some questions. Just take a little of what’s said with a grain of salt. There are some very nice expats in Mindanao, but the majority like their beer and girls so it can be a bit slanted in terms of relevance. Another place you might like to ask is on a good reference guide and

      There are a few British retirees around, but it’s mainly North American and a few Australian, and North European.

      Hope this helps!

  8. Whenever I try to read up about Mindanao (specifically Iligan city) I am left wondering “How Safe”?

    I have my reasons for wanting to retire there quite soon but there is scarcely any welcoming news about safety that I have found and I would dearly like to know more.

    To put it simply; is Iligan City a safe to retire to (for a UK citizen) or is it inadvisable for the time being?

    1. It really depends on how sensible you are. If you parade around with lots of money. Or give out lots of money to Filipino family members then you are raising your “value”. Essentially Iligan is safe with a rare few kidnappings. However there have been a few violet occurrences over the years that were not just targeted at foreigners but the actual city.

      There’s not much in Iligan so that might be worth a thought too.

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