Mention Maguindanao or Sultan Kudarat and one would surely get the question whether it is safe to go and visit these places. It is a resounding "yes" everytime I encounter the question having spent a total of two nights and a full day on the roads of these two beautiful provinces and getting immersed with the rich culture and history of our Muslim brothers and sisters.
Prior to 1966, Cotabato was counted as one province with its rich and colorful history and culture dating back to pre-Spanish times. It was under the leadership of Sultan Kudarat in the 1600's that this region came together to successfully supress the Spaniards from their efforts to christianize the area. By the turn of the American regime, the Moro Province was recognized and established. It was in 1966 that South Cotabato was recognized as a separate province and was subsequently followed by the creation of Cotabato, Maguindanao, and Sultan Kudarat as independent provinces in 1973.
Our trip will bring us around the Cotabato City, the province's gateway, and on the roads of Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat to discover our Muslim heritage and culture as Filipinos.
The Charm of Cotabato City
Cotabato City is an independent city in Maguindanao. Founded in the 1500s, Kota Wati served as the capital of the Maguindanao Sultanate until its collapse in 1888. The sultanate ruled over a vast area of Mindanao during those times.
Called by a number of nicknames, the city aims to be the "Halal Capital of the Philippines". It is the gateway to Maguindanao with the Cotabato Airport and its bus transport network connecting it to other cities in Mindanao. It now serves as the capital of the Bangsamoro Regional Government with the recent ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law.
The Grand Mosque of Cotabato City
The Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Masjid, more popularly known as the Grand Mosque, is Cotabato City's premiere tourist icon. Situated along the banks of Tamontaka River, the mosque is the largest in the Philippines and costs a whopping US$48 million. Its construction was completely funded by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei with its architecture by Felino Palafox.
The Grand Mosque stands by its name. Coming in from Manila by air, our first glimpse of this architectural beauty was on our final descent to Cotabato Airport. But nothing beats having to see it face-to-face against the afternoon sun. Its grand design with its 141 feet minaret stands out of the skyline of Kalanganan's flatlands.
I have been fascinated with the history and architecture of old churches. I love the story intertwined with the aesthetic beauty of its structure. And coming face to face with the Grand Mosque of Cotabato City, it was my first time to appreciate the beauty of a place of worship of Islam. Unlike the places of worship of Christians, the mosque is void of too much fancy. Its main prayer room is bare as the faithful sits on the floor during their prayers. I was amazed at the sheer beauty of the mosque. There are a lot of photogenic spots that would tease your creativity but be responsible and conscious of the creative shots. Remember that the place is a sacred place among our Muslim brethren.
The Grand Mosque is open to the public but certain protocols need to be observed like clothing. Shorts, sandos, and sleeveless shirts are not allowed but do not fret as their is a store that rent out traditional Muslim attires when you need to dress appropriately. One should also be conscious that there are specific areas where photography is not allowed.
Getting there: From the city, take a public jeep to Awang and ask the driver to drop you off at the intersection of Sinsuat Avenue and the Tamontaka Bubong Road where you can get a habal-habal ride to the Grand Mosque.
For habal-habal arrangements to the Grand Mosque, you can contact Kuya Mohammad Edsa at +63935 9063067.
The grand Muslim architectural design of the new city hall of Cotabato against the setting orange sun was a perfect backdrop to describe a lazy afternoon in Cotabato City. Aptly called as the People's Palace, it is the center of the governance of the city. Its Muslim inspired architectural design make it unique and reflective of the region it represents.
Its sprawling grounds turn into a playground of sorts in the afternoon as the young adults play a round of soccer while the smaller kids enjoy playing tag. It was fun as we interacted with the kids who had no inhibitions having their pictures taken. The kids were very warm and friendly that we had a grand time interacting with them.
Getting there: From the Grand Mosque drop-off point along Sinsuat Avenue, take a jeep back to the city marked "Town" and ask the driver to drop you off at the new City Hall.
Immaculate Concepcion Cathedral
At the heart of the city is the Immaculate Concepcion Cathedral - the center of the Catholic faith in the city. First built in 1948, the church sits, quietly, with its modern architecture, along Cotabato City's main street. Its simple facade scores differently against the grand designs of mosques found in the city, evoking a simple and yet elegant design.
Its interiors create a homey atmosphere with its high ceilings highlighted by gold and white retablo. Its altar is higlighted by an image of the Crucified Christ.
Getting there: From the People's Palace, take a jeep with the signboard "Town" and ask the driver to drop you off at the church.
Tantawan Park and PC Hill
The Tantawan Park and PC Hill forms part of the city's historical core. This small hill in the city provides a panoramic view of Cotabato and once served as the center of governance in the province - the building of the old provincial capitol still stands to this day. This is where you will also find the historic Kutabato Caves which, unfortunately, was closed during the time of our visit.
At the foot of the hill is the Tantawan Park which bears the image of the great Muslim leader and local hero, Sultan Kudarat. The highly honored sultan once ruled a vast empire in Mindanao and was responsible in deflecting Spanish conquistadors in Mindanao.
Getting there: The park and the hill is just walking distance from the Immaculate Concepcion Cathedral.
Cotabato City Plaza
Like other Philippine city or municipality, the Cotabato City Plaza is at the center of the activities and the city, in terms of its location. This is the location of the old city hall which is also stands out for its unique architecture that highlights Muslim culture. The city's own version of the Rizal Park stands at the front of the old city hall.
Across the street is another open space where city celebrations and assemblies are done. A huge stage highlights this part of the plaza. The plaza is also a great spot to warm up in the late afternoons with locals.
Getting there: The Cotabato City Plaza is just a few minutes walk from the Tamtawan Park.
Datu Odin Sinsuat
A 30-minute jeepney ride away from Cotabato City is the sleepy municipality of Datu Odin Sinsuat. Visitors of Maguindanao arriving via planes get to be greeted first by this municipality as the airport is within its jurisdiction. Traveling through its roads will make you wonder as to what other off-beat natural and man-made beauty this municipality is willing to share with the world.
Hiding behind the shadows of the Grand Mosque, the Masjid Al-Nasser Abpi, more commonly called White Mosque, is another mosque worth admiring as you traverse the roads of Maguindanao. The mosque highlighted by its domes and two minarets, donned in white and gold, is an unassuming attraction in the neighborhood. We can only admire it from a distance because the caretaker was out during the time of our visit.
Finding the mosque can be quite tricky because most locals are not aware that the mosque is a point of interest in the municipality. It is located inside a village along the highway. And while your there, check out Pon de Monggo while waiting for the van to the next destination.
Getting there: From Cotabato City, take a jeep to Awang that goes to Magelco. Ask the driver to drop you off at El Grande where you can ride a payong-payong to the White Mosque. Pan de Monggo is located along the highway.
Margues Blue Lagoon
20 minutes from the White Mosque is another hidden gem of Datu Odin Sinsuat - this time it is a natural wonder. Tucked along the sleepy town of Margues is a lagoon that forms part of the local's daily life but it is an amazing off-beat destination for travelers.
The blue hues of the lagoon, its surrounding flora, and the serene atmosphere create an enchanting vibe of the place. Locals say that the water springs from the bottom of the lagoon and its depth create the blue hues. It also serves as a water resource for locals where they take a bath or wash their cloths.
The Margues Blue Lagoon is a perfect place to relax and commune with nature because it is still void of the usual influx of travelers.
Getting There: The Margues Blue Lagoon is about 15-minutes away from the White Mosque by van. Ask the driver to drop you off at the Margues Elementary School.
Pink Mosque, Datu Saudi Ampatuan
A color that symbolizes peace and love turned this lovely mosque into an attraction. The striking pink color of the Masjid Dimaukom, also known as the Pink Mosque, stood out to be noticed, not only by the locals, but by travelers traversing the area.
The construction of the Pink Mosque was commissioned by Samsodin Dimaukom, a prominent politician in the province. It was beautiful to look at the mosque as it glistens under the noon sun. Interestingly, the color became so prominent that the whole town seem to be painted in pink. I guess the local government took the color a notch higher by literrally painting the whole town pink.
Getting There: Take a van or a bus along the highway in Margues. Ask the driver/conductor to drop you off at the Pink Mosque. Travel time is about an 45 minutes to an hour. The place is hard to miss because the town is pretty in pink.
Sultan Kudarat Provincial Capitol, Isulan, Sultan Kudarat
Hands down to the province of Sultan Kudarat for having the grandest provincial capitol that I have seen in the Philippines. The new capitol building sits on a sprawling field that faces the vast oil palm plantation. It was like a palace in the midst of a hacienda.
What makes the provincial capitol stand out is its unique architecture that reflects the Muslim culture. Its yellow-gold dome is evident againsts its white facade that it takes on a similar look of a mosque. It really has the vibe of a sultan's palace - a true representation of one of the great sultans that ruled Mindanao. A monument honoring Sultan Kudarat sits at the center of the sprawling lawn of the
Getting There: From the Pink Mosque, head back to the main highway of Datu Saudi Ampatuan where you can take a van or a bus headed to Isulan. The trip takes about an hour by van. You can ask the driver to drop you off at the Isulan Rotonda where you can take a tricycle to the Sultan Kudarat Provincial Capitol.
POST TRAVEL NOTES
Maguidanao may seem tough on the outside but, in reality, the vibe is very laidback, peaceful, and tame. There are a hundred and one checkpoints as you traverse the province but you get used to it. I guess most locals do because the province has long been in the middle of skirmishes between the military and rogue groups. But let us be clear that these skirmishes, most often than not, are easily controlled, isolated, and far from the usual tourist trails and local communities.
What stood out for me was the warmth of the locals. From small kids, bus ticketing officers, bakery owners, and your habal-habal driver, they were very helpful and made us comfortable through their smiles and conversations. I did not feel any fear at any given time of the trip. I seriously wish that off-beat travelers continue to open the province to the world. There are still a lot to discover on this side of the Philippines and, with these discoveries, open more opportunities for the locals and its communities.
Getting There: Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific have regular flights to Cotabato City, the gateway to Maguindanao.
Sample Travel Itinerary
Day 1: Arrival in Cotabato City / Cotabato City Tour
- The Grand Mosque (Habal-Habal Contact: Mohammad Edsa - 0935 9063067)
- People’s Palace
- Immaculate Concepcion Cathedral
- PC Hill and Tantawan Park
- Old Cotabato City Hall
- Cotabato City Plaza
Day 2: Asik-Asik Falls, Alamada, Cotabato (Click here for trip details of the trip. Contact person for habal-habal arrangements from
Midsayap: Jun Camap – 0919 4558958)
Day 3: Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat Road Trip in the morning enroute to Lake Sebu.
- White Mosque (Datu Odin Sinsuat)
- Margues Blue Lagoon (Datu Odin Sinsuat)
- Pink Mosque (Datu Saudi Amapatuan)
- Sultan Kudarat Provincial Capitol (Isulan)
Lake Sebu Walking Tour (PM)
- Lake S’bu
- T’Boli Museum
- Lake Sebu Town Center
Day 4: Lake Sebu Tour (Contact person for Lake Sebu Tour: Ronald Maguan – 0997 2482160). Travel to Glan in the afternoon.
Day 5: Glan Tour
- Lago Beach
- Sta. Catalina de Alexandria Church
- Glan Municipal Hall
- Taban Beach
Travel to General Santos City in the afternoon
Day 6: General Santos City Tour
- General Santos Fish Port
- Queen Tuna Park
- Pioneer Street
- Plaza Heneral Santos
- Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage
- Tiongson Arcade
Day 7: Early morning departure to Manila
Marc del Rosario
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