For administrative purposes, the Philippine government divides the country into three main regions — Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. The Mindanao region includes Mindanao island (shown in red on the map) plus a number of smaller ones nearby (in maroon); the Sulu Islands are off to the southwest, Dinagat and Siargao are to the northeast, and the small island province of Camiguin is in the strait between Mindanao and Bohol.
Mindanao is divided into 5 regions administratively. This guide uses the regions the same as those used in administrative terms:
- Zamboanga Peninsula — on the west; consists of Zamboanga City at the tip of the peninsula, Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur and Zamboanga Sibugay
- Bangsamoro (Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, or BARMM) — Formerly the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), it consists of two provinces on the mainland, around the bay on the west side south of the Zamboanga Peninsula — Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao — plus three in the Sulu Islands — Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and Sulu
- Soccsksargen — most of the peninsula on the south (the rest is ARMM); consists of North Cotabato, Sarangani, Sultan Kudarat and South Cotabato
- Northern Mindanao — consists of Bukidnon, Camiguin, Misamis Occidental, Misamis Oriental and Lanao del Norte
- Davao Region — around the bay on the southeast; consists of Davao del Norte, Davao del Sur, Davao Oriental, Davao Occidental and Davao de Oro
- Caraga Region — the peninsula in the northeast; consists of Agusan del Norte, Agusan del Sur, Surigao Del Norte, Surigao del Sur and Dinagat Islands
- 1 Cagayan de Oro or CDO, the most important city on the north coast
- 2 Davao , toward the southeast, the largest city on the island and 3rd in the country
- 3 General Santos , on the south coast
- 4 Butuan , northeast of CDO
- 5 Valencia (Bukidnon) , in the middle of Mindanao
- 6 Zamboanga , in the southwest at the tip of the Zamboanga Peninsula
- 7 Pagadian east of Ozamiz.
- 8 Cotabato City north of General Santos.
- 9 Koronadal north of General Santos.
- 1 Lake Sebu - Waterfalls, lakes and Lumad (T'boli) culture
- 2 Mount Apo – The highest mountain in the Philippines, a volcano
- 3 Mount Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary , a UNESCO World Heritage site
- 4 Siargao – Surfing destination off the northeast Pacific coast
- 5 Camiguin – Quiet island with fine beaches
How dangerous is Mindanao?
Most suggest avoiding much of the rest of Mindanao as well. See these advisories:
See also our article on War zone safety if you plan to travel in high-risk areas.
If you travel anywhere in the Mindanao region, most insurers will not pay out if you make a claim.
There are some western travellers in parts of eastern or northern Mindanao, like Camiguin or the surfing destination Siargao, and cities like Davao and Cagayan de Oro have quite a few foreign residents. Most of these people have encountered few problems and feel reasonably safe.
However, some tourists were kidnapped near Davao in late 2015 and later murdered, a bomb was set off in a busy Davao market in September 2016, causing many deaths, and in May 2017 radical Islamists more-or-less took over the town of Marawi and the national government declared martial law in all of Mindanao.
There is quite obviously some risk anywhere in the region.
Mindanao has a long, complex and remarkably colorful history. To settlers, it is a Promised Land (Lupang Pangako) rich in natural resources. Much of the region's history circles on a long, ongoing ethno-religious conflict between Christian migrants and native Muslims; religious clashes have been going on since the arrival of the Spaniards on the island in the late 1500s.
Until the late 19th century, almost the entire northern coast of Borneo and parts of the Philippines — more-or-less everything from Sarawak to Mindanao — was heavily infested with pirates, and most of the area was ruled by pirate kings. The Sultanate of Sulu ruled all of the Sulu Islands and Palawan plus parts of Borneo and mainland Mindanao, and its capital Jolo (on Sulu) had a great slave market. The Spanish, the British, the Sultan of Brunei, the White Rajas of Sarawak, and later the Americans fought wars against the pirate kingdoms and eventually shut them down, but it was quite a struggle.
Pirates from Mindanao often raided towns in other parts of the Philippines. Towns like Altavas and Bolinao were built inland to avoid them, while others had fortifications or a warning system like the Dumaguete bell tower. This may not be entirely ended; in 2001 a group based in Basilan grabbed 20 hostages near Puerto Princesa in Palawan and in 2015 another bunch grabbed four near Davao. In both cases the raiders arrived by boat and some hostages were eventually murdered.
The Moros vigorously resisted Spanish, American and Japanese rule for several reasons: Moro nationalism, anti-colonialism, Islam, and piracy. Today some are still resisting the Philippine government. The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was established in 1989 to give them partial independence, and a peace deal between the government and the largest Moro militia group (Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF) was signed in 2012. However there are still armed rebel groups in some areas and a substantial Philippine military presence to suppress them; the two sides reportedly have ties to Al Qaeda and the CIA respectively. On January 2019, ARMM was replaced by the Bangsamoro region after a successful plebiscite.
Moros still talk about a battle at Bud Dajo on Sulu in 1906 where, according to Moro accounts and American critics of the war such as Mark Twain, American forces massacred almost 1000 people, mostly women and children. Some draw parallels with current events; naval guns were used at Bud Dajo to kill at a distance, much as drones are used today. In official American accounts it was a justified counter-insurgency action with some collateral damage, many of the women were armed and some of the children were being used as human shields.
Mindanao occupies about 98,000 km2 (38,000 sq mi), or about 33% of the Philippines' territorial area, making it larger than countries such as the Netherlands, South Korea, and Austria, to mention a few.
Mindanao has a great variety of terrain, having ten mountain ranges, two plateau areas, and many swampy lowlands. Most of the island has scattered mountain ranges, but the central and eastern parts has the most mountains, and sprawling plains between them, especially in the Soccsksargen region.
Most of Mindanao is covered with rainforest and some peat swamps, but they have been mostly cleared out for farmland and a few oil palm plantations.
Mindanao's population is diverse, even before colonial times. With a population of over 28,000,000 (2015 figures: over 22% of the Philippines' total), it is the second most populous island of the Philippines and the eighth in the world.
Most of Mindanao's non-indigenous people are of Visayan, and occasionally Ilocano and Tagalog heritage, mostly migrants brought by American-era resettlement programs in the 1930s. They form over 50-60% of the population.
The southwestern portion of Mindanao, from the Sulu Archipelago to Maguindanao and the Lanao provinces, is the homeland of the Moro (Filipino Muslim) people, which are rather a grouping of ethnic groups which practiced Islam long before the Spaniards arrived.
A predominantly Muslim group, the Sama-Bajau (Badjao, also "Sea Gypsies"), live mostly on boats and are found in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. There has always been extensive trade between Mindanao and Borneo, and the Badjao do much of that trading. They are also found in most other parts of the Philippines, and often seen as beggars or vagrants in the cities.
The rest of Mindanao, especially the forested interior, are the ancestral lands of the animist Lumad, rather an umbrella term for all the non-Muslim indigenous peoples of Mindanao. They used to live in most of Mindanao not inhabited by the Moros, until Christian immigrants, primarily Visayans and Ilocanos under American-era resettlement drove them into the mountains. The Lumad are facing an uncertain future, having been repeatedly accused of harboring communist rebels, but they are striving to keep their culture and lifestyle alive.
|City||Average temperature in January||Average temperature in May||Average annual rainfall|
|Davao||31 °C (88 °F)||23 °C (73 °F)||33 °C (91 °F)||25 °C (77 °F)||1760 mm (69 in)|
|Butuan||30 °C (86 °F)||23 °C (73 °F)||34 °C (93 °F)||24 °C (75 °F)||2060 mm (81 in)|
|Cagayan de Oro||30 °C (86 °F)||22 °C (72 °F)||32 °C (90 °F)||23 °C (73 °F)||1700 mm (67 in)|
|Cotabato||31 °C (88 °F)||23 °C (73 °F)||33 °C (91 °F)||23 °C (73 °F)||2500 mm (98 in)|
|General Santos||33 °C (91 °F)||23 °C (73 °F)||33 °C (91 °F)||23 °C (73 °F)||960 mm (38 in)|
|Surigao||29 °C (84 °F)||23 °C (73 °F)||33 °C (91 °F)||25 °C (77 °F)||3655 mm (144 in)|
|Zamboanga||32 °C (90 °F)||24 °C (75 °F)||33 °C (91 °F)||25 °C (77 °F)||1270 mm (50 in)|
Being 10 degrees north of the equator, most of Mindanao have a tropical climate, with just two seasons, though it really rains at any time for each season. In reality though, the climate is far from uniform, with the northern and eastern parts of the island which faces the Pacific generally wet all year, and the southern and western parts mostly hot and dry.
Mindanao can be said to be outside the typhoon belt, but it can be struck by typhoons during the final months of the year.
Francisco Bangoy International Airport in Davao City (DVO IATA) is the main port of entry by plane, and there are international flights from Singapore (on Silk Air), Hong Kong (on Cathay Dragon), Doha (on Qatar Airways), Quanzhou (on XiamenAir), and Manado (on Garuda Indonesia). Laguindingan Airport (CGY IATA) is the second most important airport, but only receives domestic flights and has a short runway which cannot accommodate larger aircraft.
The other airports with regular flights are:
- Zamboanga City (ZAM IATA) - Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines from Manila and Cebu, PAL Express from Kota Kinabalu (suspended).
- Dipolog (DPL IATA) - Cebu Pacific and PAL Express from Manila, and Cebgo from Cebu
- Pagadian (PAG IATA) - Cebu Pacific and PAL Express from Manila and Cebgo from Cebu.
- Ozamiz (OZC IATA) - Cebu Pacific from Manila and Cebu, and PAL Express from Manila
- Cotabato City (CBO IATA) - Cebu Pacific from Manila and Cebu, Philippine Airlines from Manila
- General Santos (GES IATA) - Cebu Pacific from Cebu, Iloilo and Manila. Philippine Airlines from Manila, Cebu, and Iloilo
- Camiguin (CGM IATA) - Cebu Pacific and PAL Express from Cebu, SkyJet from Manila
- Butuan (BXU IATA) - Cebu Pacific and PAL Express from Manila and Cebu
- Surigao City (SUG IATA) - Cebu Pacific from Manila and Cebu
- Siargao (IAO IATA) - Cebu Pacific from Manila and Cebu, PAL Express from Clark and Cebu.
Zamboanga, Pagadian, Dipolog, Cotabato, General Santos, and Butuan, can accommodate flights using medium-sized jet aircraft like Airbus A320s or Boeing 737s, but the others are only capable of accommodating turboprop planes and small business jets.
- Ferries from Cagayan de Oro connect with Manila, Iloilo, Bacolod, Cebu, and Tagbilaran .
- Zamboanga City is connected by ferry to Manila (via Dumaguete), and Sandakan in Malaysia.
- Lipata port in Surigao City is served by roll-on/roll-off (RORO) ferries link from Leyte, and ferries from Cebu.
- Nasipit in Butuan has ferries from Manila, Iloilo, Bacolod, Cebu, and Jagna.
- Dapitan is served by RORO ferries from Dumaguete on companies such as Aleson, Montenegro, and Super Shuttle.
- Dipolog has ferries from Manila, Iloilo, Bacolod, Cebu.
- The other ports in Iligan, Ozamiz, and Dipolog is connected to Manila, Iloilo, Bacolod, and Cebu.
Philtranco has buses from Davao, Cagayan de Oro, Butuan, Tandag, Bislig, Tagum and Surigao going to/from Manila via Lucena, Naga, Legazpi, Calbayog and Tacloban. PP Bus Lines also has a similar daily service from Manila to Davao City, but with non-air-conditioned vehicles.
Mindanao is as vast as Luzon, and as said above, roughly the same size as some European countries such as Austria or Netherlands. By land, bus travel is the best mode of transportation, but for even longer distances, air travel is faster and safer.
Mindanao's long-haul bus services are dominated by the Bacolod-based Yanson Group of Bus Companies (YGBC), which runs under three brands:
- Bachelor Express. Largest bus company in the eastern Mindanao area, it operates most routes in Caraga and Davao regions from its Butuan hub, as well as services along the Butuan-Cagayan de Oro corridor. Bachelor Express buses can be easily spotted through their bright yellow livery.
- Mindanao Star. Runs from Davao City to Cotabato City, Davao City to Koronadal via Kidapawan, and Davao City to General Santos
- Rural Transit. Serves most of northern, central and western Mindanao, with routes from its Cagayan de Oro hub to most of Northern Mindanao, Zamboanga Peninsula, Koronadal, Davao City, and Cotabato City, as well as from Zamboanga City to major destinations within Zamboanga Peninsula.
Other major bus companies are:
- Davao Metro Shuttle (DMS). Based in Davao City, they operate medium-distance services between the major cities in Davao region. Despite its name, they also operate routes to Veruela in Agusan del Sur and Arakan in North Cotabato, and also operate one route in Leyte. DMS's fleet are a mix of minibuses and full-size buses, with minibuses used in some short routes and some routes plying Davao-Tagum.
- Super Five. Runs from CDO to Balingoan, Iligan and Valencia
- Yellow Bus Line (YBL). The oldest bus company in Mindanao, it has services between Koronadal and Tacurong, Isulan, General Santos, and Davao City via GenSan and Digos.
Most cities and towns in Mindanao have one centralized bus station, generally near downtown. The hub cities, Davao, General Santos and Cagayan de Oro, have one central terminal providing easy transfers between bus lines, though Cagayan de Oro is an exception, with two separate terminals, which means you have to take local public transport to reach the other terminal. For example, if transferring from a bus coming from anywhere in western Mindanao to a bus headed for Davao, you must take a jeepney or a taxi to the terminal for trips to eastern Mindanao.
Traveling by bus through Mindanao can be dangerous, especially in Northern Mindanao, Zamboanga, and Bangsamoro. There have been cases of terrorist groups planting bombs on buses, and passengers can get robbed by bandits. Due to those, buses in Mindanao may only stop at designated stops and stations, and luggage are inspected by transportation police before being placed onto the cargo compartment.
Flying is a possible alternative to the slower provincial buses for long distances in Mindanao, and are the only other way to get between the mainland and Sulu Archipelago beside the ferries.
Cebu Pacific and Cebgo flies to Cagayan de Oro and Zamboanga from their Davao hub and to Cotabato City and Tawi-tawi from Zamboanga, while PAL Express flies to Zamboanga and Siargao from Davao and to Tawi-tawi from Zamboanga.
By car or motorcycle
Driving is not a good option due to the relative high accident rate, the risk of being attacked and robbed by bandits around Bangsamoro, and the lack of rental agencies outside the largest cities, but is an enjoyable experience as open roads are more possible here and some inland locations are only best reachable by car or motorcycle.
Mindanao proper has a good network of national highways, linking most major cities with each other. Traffic is relatively light, with less cars but more motorcycles, tricycles, and larger and longer trucks. Most cities and towns only grew during the American era, with more centralized settlements surrounded by large swaths of rural land, and roads are quite wider as there are a few houses built close to the road. Road quality has been improved through efforts to widen the most travelled highways, but this is only true for most of the mainland (except Bangsamoro or the former ARMM).
Car rental is only available on the largest cities (e.g. Davao), and if you intend to drive a lot, you could either bring a vehicle from Luzon or buy one within the island (useful if you intend to stay in Mindanao for the long term).
Small tourist towns and the outlying islands (e.g. Siargao, Camiguin) have motorcycle rentals, but is only good for trips within a few kilometers from town.
Ferries and boats connect mainland Mindanao with outlying islands. There are also a few services between coastal cities in the mainland, but are slower than a bus ride or a flight.
Most Mindanao residents speak Visayan languages like Cebuano (often called Bisaya by the speakers themselves) and Hiligaynon as their first language, reflecting the Visayan background of most of its migrant population. Cebuano is most widely spoken, but the varieties or dialects spoken will be different from Standard or General Cebuano, and may contain influences from other major Visayan languages.
Tagalog, while mostly a second language in most of Mindanao, is widely spoken in Davao Region, and also has an influenced the dialect of Cebuano spoken in that region. A mix of Cebuano and Tagalog called "Bisalog" is common spoken in Davao Region, most commonly in Davao City.
Ilocano can be encountered as well, especially in inland Cotabato where some Ilocos residents settled back in the 1930s.
Languages native to Mindanao are numerous; among the notable of them are Surigaonon in the Surigao provinces of Caraga, Maguindanaoan in Maguindanao, Maranao in the Lanao provinces, and Tausug in Sulu. The animist, jungle-dwelling Lumad also speak their own languages but are less useful as most can speak the lingua franca of their area.
The Spanish-based creole language Chavacano, is spoken and understood as a first language in Zamboanga City and Basilan.
See the information box in the Understand section.