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In the Land of Oz

Barely two hours by plane from Manila, the city of Ozamiz still felt like a world apart when i first stepped onto the airport tarmac on a hot morning in March. This is the capital of Misamis Occidental, a province in northern Mindanao anchored to the west by Zamboanga del Sur and del Norte. Conflict in Mindanao has often made travel to this part of the country inadvisable, which is why, for many Manileños like me, Ozamiz is uncharted territory. 

Ozamiz has a population barely reaching 15,000 (for context, consider that over 12 million souls are jostling for space in Manila). It was first called Misamis, a name derived from the Subanen word kuyamis, a variety of coconut (the Subanen were tribespeople indigenous to the Zamboanga peninsula). When the Spanish arrived, they built a sturdy stone fort to guard against pirates from Lanao. From this outpost, the city grew to what it is today. The little fort, called colloquially the Cotta, and more formally as the Fuerza de La Nuestra Señora dela Concepcion del Triunfo, still stands today, looking across Panguil Bay to the shadowy shores of Lanao del Norte. It’s one of the only two Spanish colonial structures still standing in Ozamiz. 

In search of local flavor 

From the fort, it’s a just a few minutes by car to the city center where I took up my search for Ozamiz’s food treasures. Home cooking is where you really find the authentic cuisine of a place, but if you’re a stranger, the best place to start is at Johann’s Cuisine. This restaurant opened in 2002 under Chef Johann Dagandara and is already a landmark—everyone in Ozamiz can point out its location. On the menu are dishes that feature ingredients and produce unique to Misamis. Kinilaw na laya, for example, makes use of an indigenous fatty fish called laya that’s known for its pleasing flavor profile, and local tabon-tabon for acid. Don’t miss the lechon baka, which is Dagandara’s riff on the lechon baboy that Misamis is so known for. Lechon is something of  an obsession to the locals, and is ubiquitous at all gatherings. Outstandingly succulent with crisp, crackling skin and tender juicy meat, they say the secret is in what the pigs are fed. There are respected lechoneros to be found all over the city who are proud of their craft.

A meal on the water 

Adventure and superbly fresh seafood are to be found outside the city,. Sapang Dalaga, a municipality known for its panoramic mountains and gorgeous lakes, is a two- hour drive east of Ozamiz. Our first stop was the Shrine of Christ the Redeemer in Barangay Caluya. Patterned after the iconic statue in Rio de Janeiro, the shrine is built on a hill overlooking a staggering view—the blue- washed vista encompassing Murcielagos Bay, Naputhas Island, Mount Malindang, and Dioyo River. The sun, fresh breeze and the 100 steps you’ve got to climb will work up your appetite, so you’re ready for the next stage. 

This would be Caluya the town proper, a small fishing village on the edge of a lake. Small floating cottages are anchored at the center of the lake, accessible via a ten-minute ride on an outrigger boat. The practice is to order lunch from villagers on the mainland, who will cook the freshest catch of the day. The result was a feast of grilled seafood: shrimp and spider shells called saang, and local freshwater fish that were caught that morning.

A mangrove-covered island
More precious than gold is the island of Bawbawon, a tiny paradise of only 30 hectares in the municipality of Plaridel. It’s the site of the Bawbawon Island Marine Sanctuary, a safe space where fish lay eggs and wild birds can nest. Partially covered by mangrove forests, the island is uninhabited and can only be accessed via a 1.3-kilometer bamboo bridge built across the water. The mangroves play a crucial role in keeping the ecology in balance: these are breeding and nursery grounds for marine life, including commercially-important shrimp and crab, and serves as a buffer between land and sea, minimizing erosion. The locals sometimes call it Punong Kalanggaman, which means “Home of the Birds.” In the shallows of the mangroves, you can see rabbit fish, gisaw and other fingerlings. 

Young boys from Plaridel occasionally cross to the island to gather coco fronds and dried mangrove for firewood, and then picnic at Puting Bulas, a sandy beach of broken corals. Local tourists have recently discovered the island. On days when visitors are abundant, an enterprising citizen from Plaridel will set up a temporary sari-sari store and sell bottled water and chips, but will pack up and leave by end of day. We noticed how the growing number of local tourists have begun to leave litter on the beach, a serious concern. Bawbawon is an animal sanctuary, and visitors should be better-behaved guests. 

The heritage homes of Jimenez
The old town of Jimenez is a heritage site known for the beautiful art deco homes that its citizens built at the turn of the century. Jimenez is in the municipality of Oroquieta which used to be the financial capital of Ozamiz, and hence was the home of many well-to-do citizens. 

At the center is San Juan Bautista Church, built in 1880, which became a National Cultural Treasure in 2001 as the best-preserved Spanish colonial-era church in Mindanao. Around the corner is the cream-and-pink Casa de Ozamiz; locals are proud to point out the interesting wood detail on its roof. Arguably most famous is the Old Bacarro Printing Press, originally the residence of the Tac-An Nacion family. This was built in 1914 and became a printing  press during the Japanese occupation when emergency money was printed on the premises. A walking tour of the town revealed interesting architectural details (ventanillas, grillwork), and fascinating anecdotes about the old families who used to live in the houses.