Check any guidebook and it is likely to describe Dumaguete, the capital city of the province of Negros Oriental, as charming. Full stop, no qualifiers. But chances are that if you are the kind of person who would benefit from a guidebook, your definition of the word “charming”—like mine—is very different from how it is used in the Philippines.

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We arrive in Dumaguete from Bohol expecting a quaint little city that is picturesque, walkable, maybe even frozen in time. You know, the kind of place you’d take pictures of and people would immediately squeal “how cute!” Instead we find a place reeking of fish and fry oil, where the growl of traffic and engines revving rumbles 24/7, and the streets are in a barely navigable state of squalor. In essence, Dumaguete looks very much to us like every Filipino urban environment has, just on a slightly smaller scale. Maybe that’s what accounts for its charm, like when you miniaturize foods and they automatically become cute?

We had a hard time sleeping in Dumaguete due to the noise from trikes... maybe the secret was to sleep IN them?!?
We had a hard time sleeping in Dumaguete due to the noise from trikes… maybe the secret was to sleep IN them?!?
Generally you don't need to tell people not to pee on a charming city!
Generally you don’t need to tell people not to pee on a charming city!

Dumaguete is rundown and dirty, but hey, this is the Philippines!

None of this is to say that Dumaguete is a cheerless hellhole—adjust your expectations and scratch beneath the surface grime, and you’ll find you’re actually in an amiable little city. The buildings are colorful, there are some good examples of Spanish architecture peppered around the town, and the people, as always, are unfailingly chipper and glad to see you. It even has a strange Mexican-esque restaurant, the confusingly named Mooon Café (not a typo, there really are three Os in the name), a place offering up chimichangas and nachos, and pitchers of virulently colored drinks named after cartoon characters. We have a jug of “Speedy Gonzales” to celebrate our arrival; they didn’t taste like much, but aye carumba! When we’ve drained the last drop, it is all we can do to stumble home and simply pass out.

Pitcher of Speedy Gonzales!
Pitcher of Speedy Gonzales!
Nachos!
Nachos!
Chimichanga!
Chimichanga!

In keeping with our conventional definition of “charming”, one thing Dumaguete does have going for it is that it’s a relatively small place. If you’re quick on your feet and willing to brave the tumultuous Filipino traffic and blazing heat, it’s easy enough to explore the bulk of the city on foot (though, if you’re white, expect every trike that passes you to slow down and solicit your patronage). Strolling along its boardwalk, we are invigorated by the expansive views of the sea and the cooling breeze, gradually meandering a few streets over until we are standing in the central square. Located in front of the city’s historic church, we get lost amidst the groups who congregate there with no purpose other than hanging out. The Philippines are an intensely Catholic nation, so its citizens flock to churches like bees to the hive: this is the place to be. We don’t see much that makes us feel we need to take out our cameras, no pictures leaping out at us, so maybe it’s simply just a good place to be.

A typical scene at Dumaguete's vibrant central square
A typical scene at Dumaguete’s vibrant central square
The city's iconic belfry
The city’s iconic belfry

Every day is like Sunday in the Philippines!
Every day is like Sunday in the Philippines!
Filipinos head to church like bees to honey
Filipinos head to church like bees to honey
Close-up of the church
Close-up of the church

Gyros and a bag o' drink
Gyros and a bag o’ drink

Dumaguete is a college town, so it’s got a swanky-looking mall (from the outside at least… whether you’ll find anything you actually want to buy there is another issue, but indulging in the free A/C was nice!) and plenty of cheap eats. See above: that entire “Mexican” act of gluttony only cost us about $12USD! One day when walking by the local high school, we pop into the canteen (more like a general store crossed with a junk shop) and pick up two gyro-like wraps & a bag of drink (if your beverage comes out of a glass bottle & you want it to go, they’ll pour it into a plastic bag for you so they can keep the bottle) for less than $1USD. Heck, this city even gave birth to a world-famous bakery, so if you can’t find anything sweet to say about Dumaguete, clearly you are doing something wrong!

In reality, if you visit Negros Oriental, you will be hard-pressed to avoid Dumaguete, even if, at the start, you’re largely blind to its charms. It’s the major entry & exit point to the province and makes a great base for exploring the surrounding environs, which is well worth doing. We started and ended our 2-week jaunt around the island here, and I’m not too proud to admit that when it was time to leave, we looked on Dumaguete with something very much like fondness. Peering through the misty veil of memory, I still have my doubts as to whether Dumaguete is actually charming, especially if held alongside a city that doesn’t happen to be Filipino in origin. I suspect for most foreign visitors with only 3 weeks to blaze through this beautiful country and for whom Dumaguete would be nothing but an overnight pit stop, the answer would surely be no.  Nevertheless, perhaps for those who can give Dumaguete a little more time to work her magic, they’ll find themselves charmed unexpectedly.

Written by: Stephenie Harrison


In another life, I moved from Toronto, Canada to Nashville, TN to pursue my doctoral degree in Psychology. That chapter of my life is now finished, but I did earn the right to demand you call me Dr. Steph (though I respond just as well to plain old Steph). I am an avid reader whose book collection is rivaled only by my many pairs of cute shoes. I also like to knit, hold impromptu karaoke parties, and try new and unusual foods. Generally not all at the same time. I also really love to learn languages, which may explain why I took 3 years of Latin in highschool. I’m turning over a new leaf, so instead of looking forward, I’m going to work on enjoying the present, so the country I’m most looking forward to is whichever one we’re in right now!

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Read comments (10)

  1. March 22, 2013 at 11:13 am
    Mar. 22, '13

    Great post, I love places that take time to grow on you and we felt that way about a lot of the smaller locales in the Philippines. Dumgaguete was on our list of places to go when we return to the Philippines and now you have me even more excited to visit and wait for the charming city you describe to reveal itself to me. I love reading your Philippines posts as they bring back such good memories. Enjoy Vietnam!
    Erica from Livingif.com recently posted..South America’s Must Eat Meal

    • March 24, 2013 at 6:12 am
      Mar. 24, '13

      We didn’t really think Dumaguete was all that when we first arrived, probably because we had a totally different notion of what “charming” meant… something along the lines of quaint. But after having spent more time in other Filipino cities, I definitely see how people could view Dumaguete as charming and even laid back, though it’s certainly not bucolic. We wound up passing through it twice and on the second time through it was like coming home for a few days… when you’re traveling long-term, what can be better than that? 🙂 Also, the surrounding attractions are really fab, so it’s well worth a visit for a few days the next time you’re in the Philippines.

  2. March 23, 2013 at 4:50 am
    Mar. 23, '13

    The Philippines are quickly climbing my list of where to go next… great photos!!

    • March 24, 2013 at 6:13 am
      Mar. 24, '13

      OMG, you totally must visit The Philippines! It remains one of our favorite places we have visited in the past 7 months and just thinking about it (and blogging about it) brings smiles to our faces. Hopefully as we get up more posts, it will climb even higher on your list! 😀

  3. March 24, 2013 at 9:26 am
    Mar. 24, '13

    Thanks for sharing this to us Steph. Was looking for a good list of places to visit the Philippines and because of this post, you help us get a better idea. Awesome photos, too. Happy travel!

    • March 24, 2013 at 7:52 pm
      Mar. 24, '13

      Thanks for commenting, and we’re so happy you found this post useful. We’ll have plenty more posts on the Phillipines coming up (we spent nearly 2 months there), so keep reading for further inspiration!

  4. May 24, 2013 at 3:02 am
    May. 24, '13

    Gee Steph!

    We would like to thank you for giving a great review about Dumaguete. I’m from Dumaguete and I didn’t know that other people really appreciate more than us to the place that we had been with almost all our lives. Glad I have read your blog!

    Cheers!

    Your friends from Real Estate Dumaguete dot com
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  5. Kirk
    July 15, 2014 at 2:59 am
    Jul. 15, '14

    I think this is the most honest, straightforward blog I’ve read about Dumaguete. I’m from the place and i’m glad you had a great time there!

    • July 17, 2014 at 9:21 am
      Jul. 17, '14

      Glad you approve, Kirk! I think people’s descriptions of Dumaguette (especially those in guidebooks) can sometimes be a bit over the top, but it was definitely a nice little place and we enjoyed our stay there.

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