A mere two-hour drive away from the busy southern Philippine city of General Santos lies a paradise surrounded in carefully guarded and preserved beauty. This little green getaway is centered on a natural lake, Sebu it is called. Covering a 354-hectare area, going down depths of up to 34 meters, and dotted with eleven significant islets, Lake Sebu is such a rich ecosystem that in olden days tribes have settled on its shores, fishing from the waters, picking fruit from trees and hunting the animals that gathered in the area. Two indigenous peoples, the Ubo and the T’boli, have become the traditional dwellers near Sebu, to the point that this day the land and the lake are recognized as their ancestral domain by the government.
But now the Lake Sebu area, which is part of a South Cotabato province municipality of the same name, has another claim to fame for the Philippines: being a premiere destination for eco-tourism. Thanks to the “triple threat” attractions of natural scenic beauty, protected wildlife and the local indigenous communities with colorful cultures to showcase and share, the lake and its environs have been considered by the provincial government as a true Eco-Cultural Center. The people living there owe a great many things to the lake. It has formed a very important watershed for the surrounding communities, providing irrigation for farming not just in South Cotabato but in neighboring Sultan Kudarat province. In addition, portions of the lake have been reserved for the aquaculture of tilapia fish, grown in underwater fish cages to quantity, and readily available in local markets.
But the major draw of Lake Sebu aside from the strictly economic advantages is the eco-tourism and adventure theme. Ever since the 1990s the Philippine Department of Tourism (DOT) has worked with the municipal government and the Mindanao Development Authority to capitalize on the resource-rich nature of the lake and watershed, due to being included in the territory being uplifted as a whole by the BIMP East ASEAN Growth Area (EAGA), a sub-regional economic cooperation initiative by Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. This has made Lake Sebu a notable destination for travelers not only from the rest of the country but also from three other Southeast Asian nations.
Now, reading about Lake Sebu is one thing; going there and seeing if the descriptions match the reality, it’s actually quite easy. The jumping-off point is General Santos City, which can easily be reached internationally through hubs at either Manila or Cebu, via Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific. Upon touching down at GSC International Airport, the next stage is going to the city’s overland transport terminal at Bulaong. There, one can take a bus ride to Koronadal City (also called Marbel), provincial capital of South Cotabato. From here travelers have a choice: a direct van ride to the Lake Sebu municipality itself, or a roundabout trip by going to Surallah by another bus, then taking a jeepney from there to Lake Sebu (formerly a part of the Surallah municipality). Both take less than two hours getting there. Lake Sebu itself is remote enough that only “habal-habal” motorcycles get around the township.
With travel logistics out of the way, it’s time to enjoy Lake Sebu! And you will be very surprised to see just how much can been seen and done here. While the municipality has no ATM, at least the area is mostly covered for all major mobile networks, so you won’t be out of touch. That said, the best scenic spots to look at are the lake itself, where you can get a guided boat tour that will take you around the water and stop at the islets there. Or you can rent out a kayak and row yourself. If you’re a more culturally-interested traveler then visiting the School of Indigenous Knowledge and Tradition (SIKAT) is highly recommended to see the T’Boli and Ubo culture up close. There’s also a museum dedicated to the T’Boli in town. Many of the eating places around will also serve up a wide variety of tilapia dishes to enjoy.
If you’re ready to go more out in the wild then you can trek to Lake Sebu’s sister lakes of Lahit and Siloton, then go on to see the Virgin Forest area and the famous Seven Falls. If walking’s too tiresome then you can head straight to the Lake Sebu zip-line to see five waterfalls from the air in one pass.
While excursions into Lake Sebu can be done all in one day from General Santos (thus you can book into hotels in the city to return to in the evening), there are also some well-appointed resorts in the town if you prefer to spend the night close to nature. Punta Isla and Dolores Lake Resorts are just a sampling of the places you can bed down at Lake Sebu.
Take our word for it; a trip to Lake Sebu is worth the time getting there. If you’ve decided to try it out for yourself then it’s highly recommended that you go anywhere from the 9th to 11th of November to be there in time for the annual local Helobung Festival.