Mindanao is the most southern island group in the Philippines. It is one of the four regions of the Philippines for which we offer our travel advice. However, because the country is the size of Italy but broken up into more than 7,000 islands, it is simply not possible to see all the great spots during your average two week vacation time.
Whether this is your first or more time coming to the Philippines, we suggest a good place to start your tour of this area is in Siargao, in particular if you like surfing, live jam music and the usual abundance of pristine beaches and other natural attractions but jammed packed within an easily navigable area. Otherwise you can fly into some big city like Davao.
Here are the most popular sites to see on mainland Mindanao:
Once in that window, you can click on See All Top Sites if you want to see more.
Mindanao is rich in many natural sites, many of them not commercialised, with great diving, surfing, mountain climbing and trekking, endless waterfalls and a nature as diverse as the people’s origins, temperaments and religions. Because it is somewhat off the beaten path and not commercialised, it is less expensive and ideal for budget travelers while being safe and ideal for the entire family.
We have not made it to this area yet but it is definitely on our bucket list, since we want to give tips on our own travel experiences in each area of the Philippines. Below is some more information on Mindanao, but if you ever make your way to the west part of the country, Palawan, we would love to arrange a custom private or group boat tour through the best part of the country, Palawan, between El Nido and Coron.
Attractions and tourist destinations of Mindanao
As mentioned above, Siargao could be a great place to start, because it is easy to fly to, and you give your chance to stay longer if you truly fall in love with the place, because it has so much to offer.
Siargoa is on an island northeast of the big island of Mindanoa, the second largest in the country, and on the opposite end of the mainland from where are the Muslims (more details below). They comprise less than 25% of the population there, about 65% being Christian, the rest being local animist traditions and the largest concentration of ethnic minorities in the country. The non-Muslim part is very chill and peaceful, and safe for the entire family.
Enchanted River, also known as Hinatuan River, is located in Surigao del Sur, so close to Siargao and a suitable second stop on your journeys.
It is located deep in the forest near mountains, so a good place for trekking, the river ideal for divers.
Its beautiful white sands make it perfect for beach lovers, while divers will be drawn to its giant clams and the sunken cemetery.
Tinago Falls is located in Iligan, referred to as the City of Majestic Waterfalls because it has 24 waterfalls. Some require extensive walking to circumnavigate while others are very accessible, making them good for families.
Lake Sebu, South Cotabato
Often referred to as the Summer Capital of Southern Philippines because of its cool climate. Make sure you have a jacket with you because it can get cold at night. Lots of things to do and sitesee, a zipline, trekking, with the stronghold of local, ethnic tribes adding a twist of culture.
For history buffs, due to its rich Spanish past and for which reason it is called the Latin city of Asia.
If you like historical monuments you could also check out the Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque in Cotabato City, the country’s largest mosque and funded by a sultan in Brunei.
History and facts about Mindanao
The name Mindanao is derived from the Spanish corruption of the name of the Maguindanao people, the dominant ruling ethnic group during the Spanish colonial period and meaning “people of the lake”. Before then there is evidence of human activity as far back as ten thousand years. Around 1500 BC the country was populated by Austronesians, who had a long history of trade with China prior to contact with Islam.
Starting in the classic period of Philippine history, from 900 AD, the people of Mindanao were heavily influenced by Hindu and Buddhist religions from Indonesia and Malaysia. This culture then spread on to Visayas and Luzon before becoming overcome by Spanish influence in the 16th century.
Islam then started spreading into the Philippines around the 14th century, mostly from the western Malay Archipelago:
This group of islands between the Indian and Pacific Oceans numbers over 25,000 islands, making it the largest archipelago in the world and fourth in terms of number of islands.
Natives of Mindanao had the option of either converting to Islam or to pay a tax. Even so, most remained animist, while most of the coastal areas populated by Visayans were later converted to Christianity by the Spanish. The following map depicts the various groups controlling the country in the 19th century.
Later the Spanish lost to the US in a war over Mexico and agreed to sell their claim to the Philippines for $20 million in accordance with the Treaty of Paris in 1898. Two later treaties between the US and Britain clarified the boarders between Mindanoa and Borneo.
The Moro conflict
But the locals on Mindanoa weren’t necessarily interested in the wheelings and dealings of international players. The Americans brought some semblence of peace to the area, but preferred the Christianised Filipinos, encouraging their migration from the Visayas and Luzon. The locals already had their structure of organisation and resented the influx of Christian Filipinos, who eventually became the island’s majority and given more authority and a greater share of the spoils from the region’s extensive mineral resources. New roadways crisscrossed over old ones while the original natives felt the natural wealth was syphoned off to the central government in Manila.
This lead to the Moro conflict, an insurgency in the area lasting from 1969 to 2019. At one point the Filipinos aspired to reclaim the eastern part of the Malaysian state of Sabah, in the process kiling 60 Muslim commandos. This led to the creation of the Moro National Liberation Front, seeking to establish an independent jurisdiction encompassing Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan (refer to the Sultanate of Sulu in the map above), continuing the 400 year struggle of the native Moros against Spanish, American and Japanese rule.
Considering that Mindanao accounts for 14% of the country’s domestic product, is considered its breadbasket and the country’s largest supplier of major crops such as pineapples and bananas, all while leaving the Moros behind in the dust and poverty, it seems they have some justification for grievances.
However, since president Duterte came to office and who himself is from Mindanao, referred to as “The Philippines’ Land of Promise”, a peaceful solution has been put on the fast track, with the country’s congress promising to plough through a long-delayed bill establishing self-rule for Muslims.
The island’s largest city of Davoa boasts a Chinatown larger in land area than any other in the country, Mindanao itself larger than 125 countries in the world, such as the Netherlands, South Korea, Austria, Portugal, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Ireland.
If your travels through this beautiful country take you to its western part, Palawan, we would love to show you around on a custom private or group boat tour to 82 pristine beach islands between El Nido and Coron!