This post is actually a response to a comment we had on RTTP asking for an honest and true account of what it's like to live as an expat in two specific areas of Mindanao, Iligan and Cagayan. I thought the response deserved more attention and so have decided to publish it as a post.
It should be noted that Mitchell's response is specifically for these two areas and is based on his personal experiences. There are areas of Mindanao that are known hot-spots for various terrorists groups and you should always do your due diligence before travelling to the region. For more information on the subject you can check out our article, Travel Advisories for the Philippines and the many other resources and references available on the Internet.
The terrorism threat category for these two areas is ‘moderate' which is also the same as Manila while more popular tourist destinations such as Boracay have just had their terrorism threat category changed to ‘high'.
Much of the advice that Mitchell offers is applicable to living anywhere in the Philippines and indeed any country where YOU are the foreigner and YOU are the visitor.
Here's the response…
Yes, I agree, there are conflicting reviews on the internet. Most of the negative comments are mostly from people who have never been to the region. For all intents and purposes, my looks are European, coming from a Spanish-French ancestry. I've learned to be part of the scenery. I can tell you how good Iligan and Cagayan is, but this would be biased, because I have family and friends in these areas.
The key word to your safety is to be a friend. There is a Canadian, Kyle “Kulas” Jennerman, who has been living in Cagayan de Oro for the last three years, and have traveled nearly all of Mindanao, mostly alone, sometimes with a friend. If you want to see videos of Iligan City and Cagayan de Oro, and Mindanao, and the rest of the Philippines, look for his facebook page, Becoming Filipino, or his website by the same name. Kulas has lots of videos. YouTube also have videos by locals of Iligan and “CDO”, as some people fondly call Cagayan.
I don't know how old you are but age shouldn't matter. Intent matters, because this will affect how people relate to you. If you're travelling alone, some people will think that you're there to find a “wife”, or sex. Be sober. If you're a drinker, stay in hotels with security guards. Don't be alarmed if the guards are armed.
Be a friend. Say “ma-ayong boontag” (good morning) ma-ayo means good “ma-ayong adlaw” (broad “a”) (good day), “ma-ayong gabi-i” (good evening or night). Say “salamat” (thank you), or “palihoog” (please)
Public transport is completely different to the UK. Everyone speaks English. It would be a good idea to familiarize yourself with the money and words used in relation to money. Taxi's are available and inexpensive. Buses – take your pick, jeepneys are the most common, use jeepneys for the experience. Ask the driver to stop at a specific place and let him know that your not familiar. “Dili ko anad”.
Plan your daily trip. Ask for help from the locals. Trust your feelings about someone. There are opportunistic people, like anywhere else. Smile always. A grumpy face attract grumpy people.
Don't be demanding – always say please.
Do not flash your money/wallet. Only have enough money for the day's trip. A thick billfold, bulging and visible while in your pocket, will attract people.
Pre-book your accommodation. Don't assume, ask, if you're thinking of a specific thing like air-conditioning and room service.
Dress like the locals. By this I mean – don't flash your western name branded clothes. Some locals will dress like that. But that's them, and they're local.
Iligan and Cagayan de Oro are full of Westerners. More so in Cebu.
Depends what you want to see or experience. You haven't really asked any question. I can be more specific. Your mention of “home office” tells me you're not a “regular” traveler.
I don't have a business. I have nothing to promote other than how beautiful the place and people of Iligan and Cagayan are. Be a beautiful person, and the beauty of the place will be revealed to you by the locals.
Never a good idea to broadcast your trip/itinerary on the internet. The aussie that got kidnapped about three years ago was a victim of circumstances. He was married to a local – had an argument – upset some people – kidnappings can be arranged. He also wrote about his trips around the world. Naturally, some people thought that he was rich, and a target.
Be a friend. Be visible. Go where there are a lot of people. People are most likely to help you, and protect you from other opportunistic people, if you are a friend.
If you're only travelling between Iligan and Cagayan, visit their city government's respective websites. There are plenty of sand and seas and rivers to enjoy. People are friendly, if you are friendly.
If you have any specific questions for Mitchell then please feel free to post them in the comments below. Please keep your comments short and to the point as the comment section is not the place for lengthy posts and explanations.
Thanks for your understanding and have a great time in the Philippines!
Thank you Mitchell, a very informative script. You’re quite perceptive as it is true that I am not a frequent traveller hence my questions. As for age; well suffice is to say I am retired now.
I do go to Mindanao, mostly around Butuan City area. I have also been to Davao a few times, Surigao, Siargao and CDO. I wouldn’t go to Zamboanga City though as I wouldn’t feel safe. Just my opinion of course 🙂
I have been to Mindanao,Cdo and Butuan. Cdo is called the friendly city,I found it so. Is much more modern than Butuan and Butuan was very hot,not many expats were there compared to CDO. Can fly into CDO but I understand they built new airport nearby. Took bus to Butuan think it was 4 hours.
I was pleased to see your comments, the Philippine climate is something I can only discover once I am there and I do hope it’s tolerable?
My reason for the visit is to see if retirement there were possible. At least I won’t be alone as I do have Filipino friends living there. However I am keen to learn as much as I can before flying over there which is why I placed my first question on here.
The airport at CDO has moved to Laguindingan Intl Airport but they are relatively close to one another.
I felt I knew a lot about the areas already but only now (as I plan my first trip) do I realise how little I really know.
The main worry, and the only thing that may prevent me from visiting Iligan is safety. I am told this should not be a problem that I need to worry about too much.Mitchell’s comments have helpd to ease my mind on this situation.
I also agree with Rick’s comment on Zamboanga City, I also feel that the place is not ideal for the novice traveller.
Butuan and surroundings are full of foreigners now, even spreading down to San Francisco and now entering my own area after Barobo.
My dear father-in-law and the rest of my wife’s family is in the Philippines, mostly on the island of Cebu. I have heard warnings about Mindanao and think that Cebu is a lot safer for the “white” man, though after reading this article I see that even Mindanao can be partly safe if a person uses caution. Thank you for taking the time to write this. Bob.
We travelled the Philippines for 9 months from Mindanao including,Sultan kudarat,Lanao, including Lake Bulu-an,Iligan, Davao,To Butuan. Jolo,Zamboanga, And of course to the North of Luzon(Abra). The Visayas of course.
Not forgetting Palawan, it is beautiful and we never stop visiting Palawan, It is safe and peaceful.
Pilipinos are very hospitable and friendly and we never get into trouble.
I must say it depends on your vibration. Travel simple and act like locals!Have fun!
And Never write in the internet about your whereabouts! For me its personal!
Always good to read about other people’s views but the only way to really find out is to actually visit the place and that’s exactly what I will be doing in a few months’ time. Hopefully I will then have some constructive comments to post on my return.
I just returned from a month in CDO visiting family and friends (my wife is a filipina, I am Canadian caucasian) This was my 3rd time staying there. I spend time in resorts as well as much time in the neighborhoods. It’s a great place. When I am here I act like a local and I am appreciated for it.
Accept their customs and their way of life and don’t bring western expectations with you or you may become frustrated. For every detail you might find lacking here you will find many more qualities in people that you will not find back in your home country. If you are out walking alone in the city look everyone in the eye and return the greetings with a smile as they come. Don’t look like a timid target and walk with confidence and you will do fine.
Don’t be shy to pack a good piece of cardboard with you to fan yourself when the heat becomes intense.
Tips are not always expected here but they are truly appreciated… Even just 50 pesos will make a big difference to them and will also ensure great future service. I tip because I can afford to and I truly appreciate the service and it’s in my nature to do so.
Corruption is prevalent in this country at all levels. There are the wealthy and then the very poor. No in between. Resort, retail and labour workers are paid an incredibly low wage in relation to the cost of living here. Resort workers are not allowed to bring their own lunches to work and are permitted only to buy from the restaurant at a discount and often will not eat throughout the entire day since a meal could cost more than a 1/2 day’s wage. (I know this because my sister-inlaw works at the resort)
I have just returned from my first visit to Mindanao’s Iligan city.
Before I went I was very unsure about safety but safety never proved to be an issue.
When you go the Philippines it may well become a shock to the eye but once you get to know the people and their ways you will soon discover the Philippines is an exciting place.
The main problems, I found, were language, getting about, the heat and their foods.
Apart from the language all these problems were soon overcome (I was fortunate to have a local guide with me for the duration).
Most can speak a little English if you allow them the time and don’t rush.
The Philippines is nothing like the west, once you discover their ways I am sure, like me, you will be in for a real treat.
One caveat, for what it is worth, I found their roads to be horrendously difficult to navigate and strongly advise you not to try until you have been driven by a local.
Jay Alexander says
Great article that specifically addresses my personal concerns! I am going to live on the western side of Leyte in my wife’s hometown of Baybay City where I have travelled 3 times (twice in the 80’s and once in 2008.) I am learning Visayan, have adopted many aspects of the culture as my own, will live off the land and do everything in my power to contribute to the community. I hope to inspire, be inspired and perspire!
Mike donnelly says
I have visited cdo and Iligan city for the past 10 years 2 times each year and I never had problem but to clarify I am careful whom i mix with and usually have escort with me
I have returned to Iligan city for another short stay (4 weeks) but this time in their rainy season.
I intend to retire here (provided I can understand their visa system) hence my second visit.I have one more planned next year before I finally decided for the best.
On my last trip I was extremely concerned about safety but now I am puzzled as to the numerous posts about safety. Provided you are aware of your surroundings, don’t venture to places you would not otherwise venture to then there is little reason to worry.
It’s true there are plenty of arm guards around but most are very polite and approachable.
Remember to always be friendly and life will become so much easier.
There is no denying that the place can be a real culture shock (to westerners) but you can soon adapt.
The roads are horrendously hazardous but I travel by Jeepney (sometimes taxi) so the only problem I have is crossing their roads. Their language is something else but at least most can speak a little English so you can get by.
Food and accommodation can be cheap but it depends upon your expectations. Keep a close eye on your cash as it can soon vanish, having said that there is really no need to carry wads of cash about.
A previous entry, by Brian, suggested you pack a piece of cardboard to use as a fan – what a good idea Brian!
As a foreigner people may try to rip you off as everyone thinks you are rich (in their eyes you probably are) so try to keep a grasp of how much things cost.
If you are with a local then let them negotiate prices, they are less likely to be overcharged.
Dr. J. A. Lynch says
Ken’s comments are very sound advice.
I have been going to the Philippines for 11 years. My wife and I have been married ten years last month. We just got back from a five weeks in the Philippines. We attended a wedding in Davao, stayed three days on Samal Island and went to see President Duterte’s house. For the most part I did not think too much about safety but did not disregard it. Visited the place in Davao the bomb was placed. In our travels we go to Bukidnon to visit relatives and also CDO. Most of the time is in CDO and we purchased a condo a block from a large Mall. I have never ridden in a Jeepney and don’t intend to. They are not meant for six foot 225 pound men. So I walk to the Mall or take a cab to the expats meeting places. I also have never been in a bus so I can’t comment on them. You can get American food if you like (even junk food like McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts or Pizza Hut etc.) or you can eat Filipino style which is cheaper so depends on what you want to spend. I don’t know if it was addressed but as foreigners we can not own land but we can own condos. There are two condo projects in Peublo de Oro near golf (18 hole Robert Trent Jones II designed), shopping and restaurants that are designed/owned by an Italian architect. You can rent a condo in the completed project by the day, week or month. The newer project is a little more upscale and phase one will be done in about 18 months. It will have six 11 story buildings and a 35 story hotel. Each project is on opposite sides of the mall about 100 yard walk. Great Italian restaurant opened in September in the completed project. If you want any information email me and I can help. One thing to be careful of is American expats that try to lure you in to a “business” or sell you part of a gold mine. Yes both happened but I did not bite. Funny both guys claimed to be sponsored by a church in the USA.
As for retirement in the Philippines, I have 3years, 9 months and two days to go but who’s counting. I have yet to check with the government there but I think if you can prove you have $800 coming in per month (3x the average monthly pay for locals) you can get residency.
KEVIN JOHN WALSH says
Thank you for the mention Doctor;
You may also like to know that I have made up my mind and plans are afoot to emigrate next year.
At the present I am still baffled by their visa system and struggling to ensure I have everything in place before I go. Trying to get everything just right is a nightmare but it has to be done.
I am trying for the S.R.R.V Classic visa as I feel that is the one which is most suited to my needs.
I hope to post my comments on how I achieved it, once completed, so that others (from the U.K) will have a clearer idea of how its done.
I assume the P.R.A are aware of the difficulties and have been extremely helpful..
I am also taking the big step of getting married and as I have known my lady friend for well over 10 years I feel it is high time I did just that.
Will I miss the UK? Definitely I will! It is a superb place to live. Alas it is now almost impossible for the average retiree to bring and marry a foreigner to the U.K.
I want to make another trip to tacuron city mindanao but I have read of the abductions and now I’m hesitant, I really think I’m over reacting, but what I read has me thinking,
KEVIN JOHN WALSH says
Although Tacuron city is much further south than I have been I would ask yourself is anywhere safe?
I am English and even here we have suffered at the hands of terrorists, surely we can allow terrorism to dictate our lives?
My advise, to you, would be to decide what you really want in life then go and do it.
Besides,whenever I have been to Mindanao, I could not understand those terrorism warning. Terrorism – what terrorism?
Mark Collier says
Having traveled several times to Illigan, CDO, Butuan, and the areas around them. This is good advice. A smile and being friendly will go along way for staying safe.
I would just add….be AWARE. Always have a local with you. Know that being white, black, or just non-filipino automatically puts you on the short-list for being a target. Most likely a target for peddling a tip, or just over-charging you, But, maybe worse.
I was stunned to hear that an attempted assassination/shoot-out at CDO’s airport happened the day after I left. That thought never crossed my mind while I waited, blistfully ignorant, the day before in the same parking lot for my flight.
That was back in 2014 right? You just can’t be ready for things like that and it doesn’t define the Philippines in any way in my opinion. I live in Canada and that same thing happened just down the street! In fact a targeted hit just happened last night not far from my work here and the yellow tape is still up..
I am going to CDO next month. I’ve been there many times and never had a problem. My wife has big family lots of brothers and nephews on my side. I always look everyone in the eye, never head down, always friendly and generous but also street-wise and not afraid to say no. People can generally sense when you cannot be tricked so they won’t even try to if you don’t act like a fool
You always need to mind where you go and at what time of day or night… no different than anywhere in the west.
Philippines is not a place for anyone who has no patience or an understanding that everywhere out in the world will be much different than your own home is. It is up to you to adapt and don’t expect the opposite.