CHARISSE AQUINO-TUGADE finds out how two “national exports” have put this southern Mindanao city on the tourist map.
General Santos or “Gen San” is known for two things—unbelievably fresh tuna and the world’s best pound-for-pound boxer. The city and the towns around it have quickly impressed travelers with its authentic culture, copious natural resources, and, of course, the occasional sighting of the eight-division world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao.
Born from the swells of Sarangani Bay, Gen San is surrounded by the equally beautiful provinces of Sarangani and South Cotabato. Culture here is packed and heavy with gritty authenticity. Maybe it’s because this is the land of the B’laan, T’boli, Maguindanaon, and some spritely Indonesian seafarers, to name a few of the major ethnic groups that were the first inhabitants of the area. In the 1930s, people from Luzon and the Visayas started moving in, adding more texture to the landscape. Reverberations of all kinds are found here today, from the indigenous settlements, modern malls, beach resorts, coral dives, tuna eateries, colorful fiestas, and everything and anything Manny Pacquiao.
So where does one start? A trip around the city is quite easy. For those who seek adventure, the city is a gateway to the raw and untouched provinces around. There are two musts when you arrive here: first is experiencing tuna first hand, and second is tracing the footsteps of the Philippines’ pambansang kamao (literally, “national fist”), a moniker for the boxing legend-turned-congressman Manny Pacquiao.
For the freshest tuna, look no further than General Santos Fish Port Complex (Brgy. Tambler, General Santos City). A world-class facility, it can accommodate a whopping 750 metric tons of tuna and tuna-like species every day. You can roam around the port and take a gander at the incoming tuna and view the hustle of the fishermen. The Philippines is among the world’s top 10 tuna producers, and with seven tuna canneries right smack in Gen San, tuna here is king. Every street corner sells some sort of tuna product—raw, cooked, smoked, fin, tail, belly; it’s almost a sin if you don’t.
If it’s your first time in Gen San, visit Sarangani Highlands (Purok Wal, Brgy. Tambler) for a killer view of the Sarangani Bay and amazing yellowfin tuna dishes. If you want fresh seafood and tuna in all shapes and sizes with a price that can’t be beat, visit Tiongson Arcade (Tiongson St., Brgy. Lagao). Think of stalls upon stalls of grilling stations and restaurants as far as your eye can see. Red Trellis Seafood Garden (Tiongson Ext. corner Calina St., Brgy. Lagao) is located at the corner and not only serves tuna, but is famous for their opulent crab with coconut milk. Pacquiao is said to dine at Ranchero’s Grill (Villa Consuelo Subdivision, National Highway), which not only serves tuna in all its glory like tuna kinilaw and sizzling tuna entrails, but superb baby back ribs as well.
Raised in a poor, single-parent household, Gen San-born Pacquiao has risen through the ranks to become one of the most famed boxers of his generation. Celebrated as the “People’s Champ,” he is known to host concerts after his million-dollar fights, occasionally acts, and is also a congressman for the Province of Sarangani. Together with his wife Jinkee, they raise a bi-coastal family with both of them heavily investing in their hometown and Sarangani. Oh, and one more thing, they are both really, really nice. When visiting Gen San, the Pacquiao stamp is everywhere. Look around, and he’s either been there, or owns the place. The boxer attended Saavedra Saway Elementary School in Barangay Labangal and dropped out of high school when he left home at the age of 14. A few years back, he enrolled in Notre Dame of Dadiangas University (Marist Ave., General Santos City). You may visit the school museum in the university for a glimpse of Gen San’s history.
For a glimpse into Manny’s home life, tourists can take a peek at his grand mansion in NLSA Road, Barangay Lagao. You can’t enter his residence, but you can view the stately manor from afar. If you are looking for overnight accommodations, snooze at Pacquiao’s newest hotel, Roadhouse Economy Hotel (Aparente Ave. and Block 1 Dadiangas Heights Subdivision, General Santos City).
Up for shopping? Have your fill of Pacman-related novelty and souvenir items at the Team Pacquiao Store (Robinson’s Place, Jose Catolico Ave., Lagao). If you are an aspiring boxer or just an enthusiast, take a jab at the People’s Champ Gym (Family Country Hotel and Convention Centre, Mateo Road, General Santos City) and see Gen San’s boxing hopefuls train. If you’re lucky, you can meet Pacquiao himself. Pacquiao trained in this gym when he was an up and coming boxer and sometimes still trains there today.
Since the boxing champ is an all-around sports and outdoor enthusiast, he is seen quite frequently around his congressional district taking in what nature has to offer. Check out Lemlunay Resort (Tampuan Point, Maasim, Sarangani Province) in Maasim, the closest town to General Santos City. Here you don’t only find breathtaking views of the bay, but intact coral reefs populated with Napoleon wrasse, giant clams, and juvenile jacks.
For more snorkeling options, hire a boat in the neighboring town of Kiamba, hometown of Manny’s wife Jinkee, and head on to Tuka Marine Park (Poblacion, Kiamba, Sarangani Province). For a holistic travel experience, Maitum is your best bet. Go river tubing in New La Union (Barangay Malalag, Poblacion, Maitum, Sarangani Province) where Manny has adventured; hike with a T’boli guide to Zion Cave; and check out 2,000-year-old anthropomorphic burial jars in an ancient archaeological site. n
For general tourist information, contact the City Economic Management and Cooperative Development Office – City Tourism Division at +6383 554 8448.