Mornings made better at Lake Sebu

Gael Hilotin

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If you are searching for paradise in its most basic form, void of luxury trappings and the crowds they attract, you'll definitely get into Lake Sebu’s slow-paced atmosphere

FISHERMEN TENDING THEIR NETS at Lake Sebu. All photos by Gael Hilotin

MANILA, Philippines – “Welcome to our ancestral domain,” the gigantic sign greets arriving tourists.

Lake Sebu is one of the safest and most peaceful places in Mindanao. This humble 2nd municipality of South Cotabato is home to the indigenous peoples the Tirurays, Ubos, Manobos and T’bolis — the latter being the majority group.

The major livelihoods here are agriculture and aquaculture. In fact, their placid lake is dappled with tilapia cages. Locals here live life on their own terms: slowly, traditionally and with a profound respect for their culture and their past.

THE AUTHOR's HOST, A T'boli family

I have longed dreamt of meeting the T’boli dream weavers in their iridescent native costumes, but the universe did not cooperate.

My host, Maria Todi, a T’boli cultural worker, was scheduled to attend a conference in Iloilo for a few weeks; she left me in the care of her young nephew, Toytoy.

“Our long house (traditional T’Boli house) was destroyed by the storm 2 days ago. But you can stay in my room,” she texted. You’ll find deeply warm people like Ms. Maria spread over the area of Lake Sebu, boasting of many of life’s quieter charms.

Decisions. Decisions. Decisions.  

“Maybe, I’ll discover something else,” I murmured with great optimism.


Coming from Sultan Kudarat, I decided to go straight to Lake Sebu.  

The passenger van wound up through sweeping panoramas of rolling plains, evergreen rice fields, corn and pineapple plantations and thick-forested mountains. This stunning region offers visitors a genuine sense of pastoral life.

Getting around Lake Sebu is pretty easy with the abundance of dirt cheap habal-habal (motorcycle) for as low as Php 5, not to mention that drivers here are not abusive.

If in Thailand, pink lotus flowers are associated with the highest deity in Buddhism — the Buddha himself — at Lake Sebu, they are ordinary plants inhabiting the bodies of water. Lotus flowers bloom early in the morning because their pollinators also awaken at dawn.

The young teenager Soysoy, a friend of Maria Todi’s nephew, offered to guide me. I was lucky because, instead of taking the boat tour from touristy resorts, Soysoy took me to the house of his uncle where we borrowed slim wooden canoes for paddling around the lake.

LOTUS FLOWERS IN FULL bloom at Lake Sebu

Paddling in the midst of lovely lotus flowers floating in the placid lake at daybreak is a surreal experience. The vista of misty mountains adds more drama to the early morning scene of fishermen tending their nets.

While you won’t find a single beach here, Lake Sebu exhibits such raw appeal that you’ll quickly forget about the lack of sea. 

This hinterland boasts of magnificent 7 waterfalls instead. Concealed by dense tropical jungles and towering massif, Falls 1 and 2 of Lake Sebu can be reached by habal-habal plus a few minutes of trekking. 

FALLS NUMBER 2 OF the 7 waterfalls in Lake Sebu

The 7 waterfalls have T’boli names that pretty much describe them:

  • Falls 1 is called Hikong Alu, meaning “passage falls”; this is where adrenaline junkies ride the zip line
  • The beautiful falls 2 is known as Hikong Bente or “immeasurable waterfalls.” To get here, tourists can take the 700 step-stairs from Falls 1 or take a habal-habal or private vehicle. 
  • Falls 3 is Hikong B’lebed meaning “coil or zigzag falls” 
  • Falls 4 earned the name Hikong Lowig meaning “booth” 
  • Falls 5 is Hikong Kefo-i or “the wild flower”  
  • Falls 6 was baptized as Hikong Ukol or “short falls” 
  • Falls 7 was given the name Hikong Tonok, meaning “soil”

Lake Sebu is an impeccable respite from the cosmopolitan lifestyle; a blissful place where time moves at a crawl and days pass by lazily (but staying too long here could make returning to “real life” a little hard).

How to get to Lake Sebu in South Cotabato:

1) From Manila and Cebu, there are direct flights to General Santos

2) If you’re coming from Davao, Bukidnon or Cagayan de Oro, take a bus bound to General Santos

3) From General Santos, ride a bus bound to Koronadal 

4) But if you are coming from Cotabato City, Maguindanao or Sultan Kudarat, ride a bus bound to Koronadal  

5) From Koronadal bus station, take another bus bound to Surrallah

6) From Surrallah, there are jeeps or vans going to Lake Sebu. Once there, you’ll find an abundance of resorts and hotels that cater to tourists.

Resorts offer boat tours on the lake and a good dining experience with T’boli cultural shows.

You may also opt to hire a habal-habal to take you to a good spot near the lake. –


Gael Hilotin is a female solo traveler currently backpacking around the Philippines. Follow her adventures at The Pinay Solo Backpacker




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