Agusan Marsh: The Real Water World

July 13, 2014

Agusan Marsh started to get some buzz when Lolong was announced as the world’s largest crocodile in captivity. It gained media attraction again when the 6.17 meter Guinness record-breaker passed away after more than a year of living in its meager cage in Bunawan.

Locals paddling at Panlabuhan floating village, one of the communities in Agusan Marsh.

No doubt the 19,000-hectare marsh is heaven for huge Philippine crocs, a few of them probably longer and heavier than Lolong. So when the Mindanao Tourism Council spearheaded a trip to the place for travel bloggers, my first question was, “Will I be safe from crocodiles?” While it is thrilling to see this reptile in the wild, I’m not sure how I’ll react if I see what looks like an aggressive mini-dinosaur without a cage.

Passenger and/or cargo boat in Agusan River en route to the marsh. If you’re lucky (or unlucky), you can see a crocodile swimming in the water or basking on the beach from the vessel. The predominant grass in the picture is called tigbao, a variety of bamboo sometimes used as furniture décor.

Amazingly, the Manobo indigenous people are a hundred times braver than me (or probably they’re used to the behavior of crocodiles and the risks of sharing the marsh with reptiles). The highlight of our trip is to spend a couple of days with these locals at Panlabuhan floating village, an ancestral domain at the heart of Agusan Marsh. It is accessible from Loreto municipality via outrigger-less motor boat ride for about an hour. During our trip, we had to transfer to a smaller wooden boat to be able to paddle along Dagon creek.

Invasive water hyacinths are dried and turned into handwoven bags and baskets as one of the means of living of Manobos.

“How do you know there are crocodiles around?” I asked a local while we were at the village.

“Through the water hyacinths. The crocodile usually hits the plants with its tail,” he explained.

“Are you not scared?”

“Thank God no one in our community ever got hurt by crocodiles.”


There was a time when I pondered why these people choose to live amidst waters, but during my stay in the community, I found the answers – peace, simplicity and minimalism. They are free from the hustle and bustle of a metro. There are no traffic jams to curse at, no social media accounts to update, no unpleasant smog to endure seeing, no materialistic whims to satisfy. They wake up, paddle, work, rest, and repeat. They do have a school, a church, a lodge for visitors, and a basketball court for sports, fiesta and other recreational activities.

Kids paddle to be able to play basketball during low tide.

When the water is high, the court is inundated. Yes, it’s the vanishing court.

I also appreciate the way Manobos embrace their culture. Our first activity when we got to the community was a ritual facilitated by Boyet Reyes, datu (sectoral leader) of the community. He and Ate Marites, another local tourist guide, gathered some food, poured a few light-colored drinks into glasses, collected one-peso coin from each of the visitors, and lit a couple of candles. A cigarette was also on the table; the smoke is supposed to be smelled by Baylan, the Manobo spirit believed to be with God. They insisted we should not take photos during the ritual - an indicator they want their gods respected.

During the prayer, Kuya Boyet addressed Baylan as Amigo, which means friend in Cebuano, and he fervently prayed for our safety during our stay in Agusan Marsh. After the ritual, all the offerings were thrown away while the remaining drinks were shared by everyone still as part of the ritual.

Preparing for the ritual. Ate Marites returned the coins to us on the second day. She asked us to make a wish before throwing it into the marsh.

I also admire how the Manobos adapt with nature. Kuya Boyet explained that their ancestors used to live in tree houses. But no matter how high their houses were, their abode always got swamped during flood and typhoon. This inconvenience made a couple of siblings thought of a smart idea: to build floating houses. This explains why all the buildings in the wetland are afloat and tied to the nearest bangkal tree. When there’s a storm warning, the Manobos drag their houses into a forest for protection. And yes, they can just move to another location if they don’t come into terms with their neighbor. :D

Floating houses in Sitio Panlabuhan. Of the 58 households in the community, about 10 have a solar panel donated by the local government. Locals use rainwater for bathing, cooking, and drinking.

I also admire how well Manobos know their birds in their own dialect. Kuya Boyet could readily identify which ones he has seen while skimming the bird book brought by Kuya Nestor, one of our companions. According to the list created by Rufino Miranda, Protected Area Superintendent of DENR - Agusan del Sur, there are about 127 species of birds in the wetland, 30 of which are endemic. This makes it a paradise for birding and bird photography, especially during migratory season. Birders would also love to visit the place during dry season, when the huge Lake Kanimbaylan dries up and forms a number of mini-ponds. It is during this time when a lot of birds flock for easy fish feeding.

Terns on trunks.

“I think it’s pretty difficult to take bird photos here,” I told Sir Jovic, a bird photographer from Koronadal City. “Because you’re sitting in an unsteady boat, you have to mind your balance while taking pictures. You can’t move freely because you might fall and become a prey of crocodiles.”

“Challenging,” Sir Jovic corrected. “Agusan marsh is perfect for extreme bird photographers - those who’d do anything all for the love of feathered friends.”


I see giraffes. Do you? 

The marshland geography is another thing that awed and at the same time saddened me. As we approached Panlabuhan, the first thing I noticed was the shape of bangkal trees. They looked like huge sticks made alive by green vines (or leaves) covering them. I thought they were recovering from the wrath of Typhoon Pablo, but it was exactly the opposite - the trees are actually about to die. Due to climate change, the wind and water gradually washed away the soil in which they grew to Lake Bukugon, another area in the marsh. As a result, the trees don’t have anything to hold on to. They will soon rot and die. In ten years, the area will become a huge body of water with hundreds of rotten trunks underneath.

Water lilies.

“What will happen to your houses” I asked.

“We may have to move to Lake Bukugon, too. Good thing we have sighted bangkal trees sprouting there. In time they will grow and produce lush leaves. Nature has its own way of healing itself and bringing balance into the marsh.”

“Indeed.”





We went home with a happy feeling - that feeling that makes any wanderlust look forward to a return. Our stay in Sitio Panlabuhan was a humbling experience, its reality totally different from what we face every day. It's what I love about the place; it pushes me out of my comfort zone to discover what people in this part of the country consider ordinary.

Thank you, Mindanao Tourism Council, Provincial Tourism Office of Agusan Del Sur and LGU of Loreto for organizing this trip. Special shoutout to my fellow travel freaks (Olan, Louie, Leah, Jonallier, Madayaw, Caroline, Sarah, Dan, Kelzie Nicole, Jayvie, Matt, Jeniel, Jovic, Ida, Jea, and tourism officers) for the fun photoshoot and warm company. Until next time!

With the weekend warriors in our Mindanaoan costumes. This is an integral part of our desire to promote Mindanao tourism.

Grade 5, Section 10 - Masipag. :D

Tips for those who want to visit Agusan Marsh: 
  • Activities in Agusan Marsh: crocodile search, birding at Lake Gawa-gawa, Manobo culture appreciation, and paddling wooden canoes to your heart's content.
  • Bring your own food and water, or coordinate with a restaurant in Loreto for your meals. 
  • Insert a mosquito repellent in your bag; it will come handy in the evening. The lodge has mosquito nets, though. 
  • Contact Marites Babanto before you visit the area at +639305287194.
Loreto municipality is still in the process of organizing tourism initiatives. Hopefully, I can provide more specific guidelines in the future.

Bring your bravery, enthusiasm, and energy to ride these boats, too!

How to get to Panlabuhan floating village in Agusan Marsh:
  • Take the bus to Trento, Agusan del Sur. 
  • Take the habal-habal (motorcycle public transport) to Loreto municipality. Fare is about Php250.00 per person. If coming in a big group, it would be better if you have your own vehicle. Currently some parts of the road are under construction, so expect a dusty ride. 
  • Take the boat to Panlabuhan village. This should be pre-arranged, so please reach out to Marites beforehand. 

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3 comments

  1. Kikit, nindut kaayu pagkasulat nimu. Mura ko nimu gitransport pabalik sa Marshland. Naglagot ko wa ko ningderetsog bugsay padulong sa vanishing basketball court.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lan, salamat kaayo. Sige lang kay basin makabalik pa ta, hopefully. Magdula na ta sa vanishing basketball court. :D

      Delete
  2. take the buuuuuuussssssss....

    ReplyDelete

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