Long before the famed Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan set foot in the southern part of this archipelago in 1521, there already existed a thriving civilization believed to be hundreds of years old. This ancient settlement, dubbed as the Kingdom of Butuan, covered present portions of Mindanao and formed part of the Asian empires Majapahit and Sri-Vijayan.
This is evident in the series of archaeological finds excavated near the Agusan River, which includes pottery, metalcraft, bronze Hindu statues and relics of the “balangay” – the now iconic prehistoric boats.
Proof of antiquity
Butuan is a “museum city” of sorts with the presence of the National Museum and the Balangay Shrine attesting to its long history of trade and cultural relations with other Asian empires dating back to the fourth century.
A must-see is the Bood Promontory & Eco-Park in Barangay Pinamanculan, which historians claim to be the site of the first mass, based on the accounts of chronicler Antonio de Pigafetta.
This ancient civilization is the basis of the historical assertion that the first mass witnessed by Magellan himself happened in the vicinity of Butuan City, contrary to the officially-recognized site in Limasawa Island, Leyte.
In fact, local historians point to two possible sites of the tell-tale mass that ushered the Catholic faith into the archipelago—Masao village in Butuan and the riverine town of Magallanes, named after Magellan himself.
Nearby is Magellan’s Anchorage, a tableau memorializing the historic docking of his fleet in the area.
Another proof of the place’s antiquity is the Beguibel Shell Midden in Barangay Bonbon, an excavated dump site of prehistoric shells estimated to date back to the Neolithic Age 7,000 years ago.
With all these things put together, it is neither exaggeration nor empty boast when the City claimed, “In the beginning there was no Philippines, but there was Butuan.”
What to do
The city and its mother province, Agusan del Norte, are not just the stuff made for National Geographic viewers but for expats and local travelers who desire the eclectic blend of the Old World charm and the comfort of modern living.
It is the commercial, educational and transport hub of the Caraga region or northeastern Mindanao, with a modern all-weather, day-and-night airport which serves as the aerial gateway for those bound for Surigao del Sur and Agusan del Sur’s tourist spots.
After a heady museum hopping, pump up the adrenaline at the Delta Discovery Park for a rough buggy ride, a Zorb ball ride, and an exhilarating 1.3-kilometer zip line, which claims to be the longest in Asia. The hilltop park offers a spectacular 360-degree vista of the city and Mt. Mayapay in the horizon. Below, one can take a refreshing dip in the spring-fed natural pools.
Foodies will find Butuan a gastronomic escape with its wide array of home-grown restaurants, coffee shops, music lounges, and watering holes, battling it out with popular franchises.
It also boasts of fine, star-rated boutique hotels, which won’t disappoint for staycations or special events. One note-worthy accommodation is Almont Inland Resort, an old guard in the local tourism scene, an urban escape taking pride in its delectable buffets.
The quaint Balanghai Hotel is another landmark establishment that incorporates elements of the area’s rich cultural heritage to bring you a “museum ambiance.”
Beach bums can explore the fringes of the city and ride off to Carmen, situated 44 kilometers away, which has white sand and gin-clear waters ideal, and a diverse reef in the Gosoon Fish Sanctuary. The town has six dive sites, with Punta Diwata Reef and Balete Wall as the most noteworthy, with its lush reef life, and the country’s biggest spongebobs.
Meanwhile, the coastal barrio of Vinapor is dotted with resorts, with a stunning view of the azure waters and naturally sculpted cliffs.
Still within the same coastline is Amontay Canyon in Nasipit – a 700-meter picturesque rock formation near the sea. Nearby is Amontay Beach Resort, offering water sports such as wakeboarding, banana boat, speed boat, pedal boats, kayaks, stand-up paddle boards and jet skis, as well as ATVs and motor bikes.
Cruise along the historic Agusan River en route to Magallanes – another probable site of the first mass, evidenced by the memorial marker erected in 1872 by local Spanish authorities. The Municipal Hall has a mini-museum of excavated earthenware, jars, coffins and other implements which attest to a precolonial settlement. Also within the town is the Centennial Bitaug Tree, a 500-year-old hardwood abundant in Mindanao.
History buffs can swing by Cabadbaran, the capital city of Agusan del Norte, considered as the province’s heritage town due to its colonial period ancestral homes. The most prominent of them is the Atega Mansion, the abode of revolutionary hero Don Andres Atega. Still inhabited by his descendants, the house is a “living museum” of sort with its remarkable state of preservation.
For a glimpse of its checkered past, visit the Cabadbaran Museum at the old municipal hall where memorabilia and artifacts are on exhibit.
Get a cowboy experience at the Calo Horse Farm, where you can get horseback-riding 101. You can opt to scale the 686-step Mt. Pongkay Prayer Mountain, which rewards climbers with lush flower gardens, panoramic view of the cityscape, and an ambiance for prayer and meditation literally closer to the heavens.
Further east is the Kitcharao Ecological Rest Area Park, which overlooks the scenic Mainit Lake – the country’s fourth biggest lake. Located at 150 meters above sea level, this 477-hectare nursery park of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is within the Kitcharao Reserve and Communal Forest, which is abundant in exotic and secondary-grown trees.
If the placid waters beckons, give in and take a relaxed lake cruise on board a rented boat and be amazed by the bucolic scenery unnoticed even by the jaded travelers.
Now who says ancient cities are boring? Butuan has proven that a prehistoric city like it can be hip hideaway.
By BERNARD L SUPETRAN