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.
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?
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.
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.
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.