Hometown Stories

City of Treasure

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After spending years of hopping from one home to another, writer Val Vestil finds himself back in Cagayan de Oro, the city of his childhood.

Story by
Val Vestil
Photography by
Earl Ryan Janubas
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When my grandfather, a veteran broadcaster in Cebu, was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, he handpicked my mother out of his nine children to fulfill his request: to be brought somewhere nobody knew him, so he could retire peacefully, away from the public eye. I was only five years old then. My mom was uprooted from her home and career—and as a child, I was naturally brought along. Cagayan de Oro was the shotgun destination.

This move would foreshadow the rest of my life: always one place to another, living from one city to the next. I was born in Cebu and raised in Cagayan de Oro. After graduating from high school, I studied in Dumaguete City for college, and then lived in Manila. I spent half a semester of my university life in Daejeon, South Korea, then experienced a month-long sojourn in a ship crossing seas in the ASEAN region. Later, I worked in Zamboanga City with a peace-building non-profit organization.

My lived experiences are scattered across the country and the world, instigated by that one big move from when I was a child. It has often left me wondering: What even is home?

A motorela passing through Corrales St., which is lined with homegrown restos and bars
A motorela passing through Corrales St., which is lined with homegrown restos and bars. Motorela is a portmanteau of the words “motorized” and “caratella,” or horse-drawn carriage in Spanish.

In Cebu, I valued conversations of my heritage, so my roots became my home. In Cagayan de Oro—or CDO, as it is often referred to—it was my family. I connected deeply with the college community in Dumaguete, the cheap street food in South Korea, the underprivileged communities we served in Zamboanga City; I saw my home in these connections, like breadcrumbs one leaves behind.

When I came back to the city I was raised in—as a stranger, in many ways—I found myself urgently trying to connect with CDO.

I thought a quick trip to Museo de Oro was a good place to start. It is one of Cagayan de Oro’s few local museums that provide tourists and locals alike with a rich footprint of cultural heritage and archival documents on local history; housing exhibits that reveal the ethnohistory of Northern Mindanao and the ethnology of Mindanao.

The museum chronicles the history of CDO in huge murals by local artist Pennessencio “Nonoy” Estarte. These wall-to-wall murals depict the Himologan Village, an early settlement found atop a towering rock peninsula overlooking what is now the Cagayan River, dating as far back as 1622.

Many historians have attributed Cagayan de Oro’s name to the river where it draws its rich history from. But as with many origin stories, this had not always been the case.

One local legend ascribes the name to a love story between a beautiful princess and a vanquished warrior, according to anthropologist Dr. Antonio J. Montalvan II. However, he says, to rely on folk etymologies in explaining the names of places is “at most times inaccurate and clearly devoid of historical basis."

Whether in tourism, heritage, culture, or politics, Cagayan de Oro stands out in more ways than one—a city of hidden treasures true to its name.



What’s interesting about the word “Cagayan” is that the name is not exclusive to this town in Mindanao; other places in the Philippines also share this name: Cagayan province in Luzon, Cagayancillo Island in Palawan, and Cagayan de Mapun (now the Municipality of Mapun) in the Sulu Sea. All have one defining natural characteristic: the towns feature prominent bodies of water that either cut through or surround it.

The names are no accidents, Dr. Montalvan II tells me. Because of this geographic commonality, he believes that the name comes from an ancient word meaning "river." Other Filipino languages manifest this—the Ilocanos have the word “karayan,” while the Kapampangan call it “kayayan.” All of which hum to the familiar tune of the word Cagayan.

The phrase “de Oro” translates to “of Gold” in Spanish, and was affixed to Cagayan in 1949 under House Bill No. 54. This move was in recognition of the city’s rich history in gold mining dating to the 1500s.

Tapping into the city's etymology also helps us make sense of why it's also called, “City of Golden Friendship.” For Jenny Pabayo, who used to work in the city's tourism council, the nickname is a hat tip to Cagayan de Oro's history of hospitality and friendliness.

“When Christianity came to what was then called Himologan in 1622, Datu Salangsang welcomed the Recollects and gave them an area near the main settlement to build their mission,” she says. “Through the years, with the exception of a few skirmishes, there was no need for Moros to invade as they were always welcomed by the lumads.

A thousand identities

When locals are asked what icon best symbolizes CDO—like how the Vinta pairs with Zamboanga City, or how a strawberry makes one recall Baguio—there isn’t one ready answer.

Nilo Lazarito, a regional tour guide and trainer for the Department of Tourism, believes it could be white water rafting, which helped spark CDO’s tourism craze back in the early 2000s. Though it may not have been the first in the country, he says it helped put the city on the map.

“When rafting was introduced, it paved the way for people to see Cagayan de Oro as a tourism hotspot, because we served as a gateway [for Northern Mindanao],” he says. As tourists flocked to CDO, it strengthened the currency of the city, which in turn helped expose the neighboring areas of Camiguin, Bukidnon, and El Salvador.

Others may recall a pineapple, given Del Monte Philippines’ presence and its nationwide distribution coming from Northern Mindanao, but many argue that this is misplaced: the plantation is actually in Bukidnon (around 60 km from CDO’s town proper) while the cannery is in CDO.

Clockwise, from top: The City Museum's original structure was known as The Water Tank; a statue in the provincial capitol; a statue of former mayor Justiniano Borja, who is renowned in CDO's history for expanding the growth of the city eastward. Many things in town are named after him: a bridge, an old hospital, and a major street.

Then there's the motorela, which for Nilo represents the ingenuity of CDO. Invented by CDO local Rafael Floirendo Sr., the motorela is a portmanteau of the words “motorized” and “caratella,” or horse-drawn carriage in Spanish. It was said to have ushered in the era of motorized commuting in Cagayan de Oro, after being patented in 1964. The design had become so popular that neighboring areas began to adopt it, extending to places as far as Palawan and Bohol.

For many local guides and experts, the lack of a unifying symbol for CDO stems from a lack of consultation between private industries and the local government. Dr. Montalvan II, a former university professor, argues that many of the symbols we see today are generated by the local tourism board, hence they’re engineered to appear ancient and traditional. There’s a lack of interest to engage in  research on Cagayan de Oro's cultural traditions, he says, which explains why some things are left out.

Left to right: The Sharief Alawi Islamic Center in Barangay Balulang was almost destroyed during Typhoon Sendong; the Shrine of the Black Nazarene Church or, as the locals call it, the Jesus Nazareno Parish Church.

A GOLDEN CITY

The more I get to know CDO, the more I realize that maybe its beauty and uniqueness lies in the fact that there is no single icon that can best define it. Whether in tourism, heritage, culture, or politics, Cagayan de Oro stands out in more ways than one—a city of hidden treasures true to its name.

Cagayan de Oro is surrounded by two provinces and two municipalities; to the south, the provinces of Bukidnon and Lanao del Norte; to the east and west, the municipalities of Tagoloan and Opol, respectively. Its strategic location has made it the gateway to Northern Mindanao. In fact in 2014, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) dubbed CDO as one of nine cities around the world to be an “Emerging City of Tomorrow,”—based on the city’s “size, fast growth, significance as part of an urban cluster linked to cross-border exchange, and geographical variety.”

When you place yourself in Divisoria—CDO’s central business district—you can be up in the mountains overlooking the cityscape from restaurants like High Ridge or Amaya View, or down by the beaches in less than 30 minutes.

Viajero cafe's roasted pork belly at Cagayan de Oro city
The Viajero Outdoor Centre is go-to hub of the city’s outdoor-adventure community.

My lived experiences are scattered across the country and the world... It has often left me wondering: What is home?

The city’s density and diversity have also enabled it to become a crucible of opportunities for homegrown businesses, products, and services that would give nationwide and mainstream competitors a run for their money.

Businesswoman Reina Bontuyan is a testament to this; seeing the need to take advantage of the great landscapes in and around CDO, Reina and four other friends opened the Viajero Outdoor Centre in 1994, an outdoor and mountaineering shop that offers a wide range of local and imported backpacking equipment.

“The warmth of this community and the culture we have created among Kagay-anons with a shared interest in mountaineering and environmental preservation is what has sustained us in Viajero,” Reina says.

Viajero has become the go-to hub of the city’s outdoor-adventure community. They also train people to become skilled outdoorsmen, from learning the basics of mountaineering to caving, rope access, and more. It is only one example of the numerous homegrown assets here in Cagayan de Oro, proving that the city can also stand on its own.

In terms of food, many restaurants have been birthed here in the city and received national acclaim for their unparalleled dishes. Bigby’s, Cucina Higala, Circa, Missy Bonbon, Sentro, Cuchara Verde, and Redtail Shrimps, among others. CDO is even home to the famous SLERS Chicharon, which has become a household name nationwide when we speak of these crunchy pork cracklings.

Reina Bontuyan of Viajero Cafe

CDO also hosts a thriving culture and arts scene with its many museums and theater halls. There’s Xavier University’s Museo de Oro, Capitol University’s Museum of Three Cultures, La Castilla History Museum, and the City Museum of Cagayan de Oro which was originally a Water Tank Tower built in 1922 and eventually refurbished in 2008 to house vintage photos of CDO’s history and other memorabilia.

It was also in this city where I discovered and nursed my love for theater acting, not only because of the community, but also because of the local theaters that set up different shows. Liceo de Cagayan University’s Rodelsa Hall has been home to local adaptations of shows and musicals like “The King and I,” “Sound of Music,” and “Oliver Twist!” (where I played Artful Dodger!), while Xavier University’s Little Theater has been a melting pot of locally-produced and written dramas that have since been restaged and toured across the country.

I feel like I now have a moral obligation to connect with the city in ways I never did.

With all this and more, it’s clear that CDO has the power to be a trendsetter and trailblazer for innovation and everything homemade. In fact, this is reflected in the local expression “Tsada!” which is used to describe anything as nice. It’s an expression meant to exude fervor and passion, a testament to the positivity and warmth distinct to Kagay-anons.

The next time you hear a Bisaya say “Tsada!,” you can most definitely be sure that you are in the company of someone from Cagayan de Oro.

Writer Val Vestil

There is so much to love about CDO, but is it enough to want to make me stay? Having lived most of my life trying to make sense of the concept of home in the cities I’ve inhabited, this was the question I have always struggled to answer. But now, I can simply say: yes.

Since I grew up in transience, I have gotten used to unearthing new places and seeking the thrill of being in the unknown. But there has always been that quiet voice deep in my heart desiring for belongingness.

I resonate immensely with what Reina said when I asked her what makes CDO home: “It’s like eating arroz caldo on a rainy day: it’s a comfort place. I know the people, I know the culture, I know the beat of the city. There were instances where my family and I could move to other countries, but we never did because my love and pride for CDO is deeply rooted.”

Her home is a place Reina knows inside out. Without saying it, I understood what she meant by a love deeply rooted. These are the roots I continue to try and unearth in my quest to rediscover CDO. More than ever, I know they are there.