Three times bigger than Metro Manila, six times the size of Cebu, one of the largest metropolitan areas not just in Asia but in the world, the Philippines’ fastest-growing city and, thanks to a zero-tolerance approach to law enforcement, the planet’s ninth safest city as recently as 2014. Davao: to those who’ve never visited Mindanao, the region’s premier city is perhaps better known for its statistics — and a certain sterility — than the flavor of its streets.
It doesn’t help that its remote location in the country’s deep south-east makes it somewhat tricky to get to. After landing in Manila, a newcomer to the tropical archipelago is more likely to hop on a short flight bound for the better-known island idylls of Boracay and Bohol than spend another two hours on a plane to get from the capital to Davao City (even though stats show that Davao welcomed two million tourists in 2014). To some avowed cityfolk living in Metro Manila, Davao’s even something of a punchline. It’s backward and unsophisticated, they say, a big city with a small-town mindset and little buzz.
Also read: Davao city guide
Yet for years Davao has been heralded as the country’s most liveable city, earning nicknames like “the Singapore of the Philippines”. And for all the brochure-ready figures that have been trotted out to support this claim, it’s the gushing testimonials — about the sense of safety, the light traffic flow, the low cost of living, the generally good air quality, all that space — of young urbanites who’ve relocated from Manila to Davao that truly piqued my curiosity. So what makes this enormous place tick? I’ve journeyed here to see the urban sprawl laid out in the shadow of Mount Apo, the real city that exists beyond urban myth and regional prejudice. In short, I’ve come with the aim of answering that question for myself.
At first glance
As I emerge from Francisco Bangoy airport on a Thursday evening, Davao seems strangely quiet, disconcertingly orderly, almost un-Philippine. There are no taxi touts in the spotless car park; everything’s in its proper place. Tank-like SUVs, compact jeepneys and trikes loaded with travelers purr down the gentle gradient into town. No motorbikes, no noise, no sleaze; a ubiquitous calm prevails.
I’d imagined the city as some kind of southern re-creation of Metro Manila’s Fort Bonifacio, a quasi-American theme park of consumer contentment, but it feels significantly older, or at least more lived-in. Even so, it comes as a surprise when I learn that the Apo View Hotel (150 J Camus St; +63 82 221 6430; apoview.com) built in 1948, is the Philippines’ second-oldest hotel.
Another revelation is the scale of the city proper. Metro Davao’s wider outskirts cover 244,000km2 — you can get a measure of its ridiculous scale from Jack’s Ridge, a WWII bastion-turned-viewing point — but it’s possible to breeze through Davao City, its business and commercial district, in just minutes even with the sleep-inducing 30km/h speed limit in the downtown area. Of all the compliments paid to Davao by new residents, the near absence of traffic snarls is the most frequently heard. Here the flow of vehicles only grinds to a halt near roadblocks where police clamp down on speeding drivers.
The oddly intimate geography of the place helps account for the fact its many dimly lit alleyways, well off the main drag, are packed with alluring eateries. My guide takes me to Belito’s Vineyard (Palm Dr, Bajada; +63 82 227 6726; facebook.com/belitosvineyard), a cul-de-sac charmer so secluded it feels as if I’ve been transported to a rustic village deep in taga-bukid country. Yet it’s first class, both as an introduction to the seafood-rich local cuisine (kinilaw is particularly good here) and to the warm hospitality of the Dabawenyos. One thing you notice straight away is the affordability of the food and drink here as compared to Manila or Boracay. Likewise, commercial rents are up to four times cheaper here for start-ups, and private accommodations are just as affordable.
Neat freak that I am, I clue in to yet another element of Davao’s magnetic appeal the moment I exit the restaurant: the streets are spotless. So much so that during my four-day stay, I see exactly one small pile of litter by the road. It’s a remarkably clean place, with recycling bins distributed throughout the city center and a citywide ban on outdoor smoking except in designated areas.
I strike up a conversation with frequent traveler Dan Andrews, a native of the US state of Pennsylvania who owns a manufacturing business in California, holds business seminars in Hong Kong and now calls Davao home. I ask him what makes this city the perfect base for him. “I’ve been visiting Davao for over two years now, and I have many friends in the area for business,” he says. “Davao is one of the best places in the Philippines to hire, and it was that, along with my love of pick-up basketball, that brought me here initially. I’ve found that during the times I needed to be based in the Philippines, it’s the spot with the best mix of things to do but still a slow pace of life, and easy access to nature and quiet.”
Dan’s words returned to me that night as I plugged in to my decidedly First World-speed hotel Wi-Fi, downloaded Google Maps and vowed to take a break from the virtual world the next day and step into something significantly more real.
Mountain to sea
“Relax. Explore. Repeat.” So says the Tourism Promotions Board’s slogan for Davao, which appears in a video picturing vast open spaces, glimmering lakes and hike-friendly mountains. Happy to do the tourist board’s bidding, at sun-up I head over to the lofty Eden Nature Park & Resort (Toril Barangay Rd, Toril; +63 82 296 0791; www.edennaturepark.com.ph), which is an hour from town via the city’s western outskirts. The drive along MacArthur Highway towards Mount Apo National Park gradually reveals a verdant, very different landscape. Setting aside the occasional shack, for the most part it’s a scene of comfortable rural living, complete with plantations, makeshift stalls and roadside homes. The sturdy road leads up a giddy incline towards Toril, a Japanese settlement dating back to the early 20th century.
Figuratively and literally, Eden works on many levels: it’s an undulating patchwork of gardens, water features, sports facilities, private cabins, a spa and nature attractions, all connected by walkways that provide a workout and a welcome blast of mountain air. The real draw for daytime visitors is the wildlife: fan-flaring peacocks that strut around like they own the place, a smattering of wild horses, a deer herd and an impressive number of rare bird species. A sort of all-in-one family health resort-cum-zoo, Eden also offers a fine opportunity to soak up views of mighty Apo.
Those who aren’t inclined to leg it along hilly trails might find Malagos Garden Resort (Caliban-Baguio Rd; +63 83 301 1375; www.malagos.com) — with its orchid nursery, butterfly sanctuary and bird parks — a satisfying alternative. Blessed with plentiful coastline to go with its hilly outskirts, Davao is generally typhoon-free and its year-round warmth and best-of-all-worlds situation make for easy access to islands and beaches. Though Isla Reta (on Talicud Island, boats depart from Sta Ana Wharf downtown) is more remote and, inevitably, more enticing, Samal — a short sea crossing away — is the largest and most popular of the islands here. It’s the best option if an idle afternoon of pristine sand and translucent seawater — served up in this case courtesy of Paradise Island Beach Resort (Samal Island; +63 82 233 0251; www.paradiseislanddavao.com)— is what you’re after. The 10-minute ride from the city in an outrigger boat (PHP40) offers a preview of Samal’s palm-filled interior while the return trip on the final boat at 5.30pm features fabulous views of the sinking sun as it casts an orange halo around Apo’s boulder-strewn peak.
Its proximity to nature’s delights notwithstanding, Davao City is better described as solid and functional than spectacular. But just about any city looks impressive from on high and that’s the selling point of Jack’s Ridge (Shrine Hills, Matina; +63 82 297 8830; www.jacksridgedavao.com), my next stop. Davao’s best vantage point, it’s also home to the city’s best traditional Filipino fare. If you neglect to try the kare-kare at Taklobo (+63 82 297 8830), with its super-rich peanut sauce, your heart might thank you but you’ll have missed a sublime treat. The restaurant’s quintessentially local kinilaw, bagaybay (tuna testicles) and bihod (fish roe) deserve a mention, too.
Back in the downtown area, another don’t-miss Davao diner is Toryano’s Chicken Haus (Legazpi St; +63 82 221 5556), a cholesterol-rich carnivore shack serving crocodile sisig alongside lechon manok (skewered poultry), tinola and a mean sinigang (meat and tamarind soup).
Packing away all that salty animal flesh is thirsty work. So after a hearty meal I head off to Huckleberry Southern Kitchen & Bar (Rizal St corner Bangoy St; +63 82 285 2586; facebook.com/HuckleberrySouthernKitchen), an instant-hit concept space twinkling with fairy lights and boasting personality in spades. This eatery with its “modern Americana cuisine with dishes from the deep south,” as co-owner Chris Pamintuan puts it, occupies the ground floor of the Casa de Oboza, which was built in 1929 by the family of a former mayor. For true-blue local flavor, try the Cacao Old Fashioned, where nib rum infused with Mindanao coffee beans is used in place of whisky. Davao isn’t a city overflowing with hipster nightspots but this retro-modernist curio could prove the game-changer.
Despite a local tendency to stick with old foodie favorites, other entrepreneurs have set up stall here to considerable success. There’s the cozy BU Tapas, Bebidas y Bodega (Pelayo St; +63 82 284 6364; facebook.com/BUtapasbebidasybodega), Davao’s first tapas bar, which is owned by an Australian of Spanish-Filipino descent; the original Hoy, Panga!, a tuna specialist that’s hitting it big nationwide on the strength of its imaginative take on seafood (grilled tuna flakes in a deep-fried bun, anyone?); and the bright, inviting Sea Green Café and Lifestyle Shop (Circumferential Rd, Dona Vicenta Subd; +63 82 305 4765), whose claims to fame are its “soul food” (aka healthy pescetarian dishes) and killer coffee. Starbucks has notably refrained from opening here and, given that local chains such as BluGré Coffee (Matina Town Square, Gen. Douglas MacArthur Highway, Talomo; +63 82 297 7431; www.bluegre.com) which was established in 1998, have been so successful, it would likely be tough to penetrate the market. Within a 200m radius of Sea Green, several foodie haunts have opened in the past year alone, including a dim sum joint, an Italian eatery and an upscale pâtisserie.
While the food scene appears to be thriving, at the moment culture isn’t among the city’s strong points. Still, there are pockets of promise that suggest more might be revealed if I had a few more days to spare. I could find out what’s on offer beyond live-music spaces like Sales Bar (Tekanplor, Sales St; +63 923 249 3810; facebook.com/SalesBarTekanplor) in quiet Chinatown, a graffiti-ed refuge for rock bands and iPod battlers, and Soundbox Bar (J Camus St; +63 82 282 4220; facebook.com/SoundBoxBarDavao), a music and revue space that keeps the party crowd happy, and modest indie cinema Cinematheque Davao.
And while the city lacks a major performance space, I suspect there’s no shortage of performers waiting in the wings for a proper venue. One night I see a talented dance troupe practicing by a roadside shopfront, likely for lack of anywhere else to bust their moves. And these are proper, energetic moves — a mix of choreographed hip-hop and easy, freestyling that seems to capture some of the city’s urban spirit.
Ahead of my visit, I’d expected a city far more straight-laced and restrictive than the one I end up discovering. I come away with one abiding impression — that Davao’s defining characteristic isn’t on-edge obeisance, but a far more relaxed contentment. Davao’s benign climate and ambience mean that it always feels like summertime — and yes, the living here is undeniably easy.
“Relax. Explore. Repeat”? Thanks, don’t mind if I do.
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Smile magazine.