When Dionysius the Areopagite remarked that God is invisible because he is immeasurably manifest, the sage and saint could have had a prior vision of Lake Danao. Providing a vast vista of majestic mountains and silver-lined clouds, sparkling Lake Danao is nature at its most splendid, peeling heavy layers of the divine disguise.

More than half a dozen lakes bear the name Danao, but that of Cebu distinguishes itself in more ways than one. Iconic Lake Danao in San Francisco, Camotes is the largest lake in the Visayas at 680 hectares; surrounded by half a dozen of the town’s 15 barangays, the lake is also the longest at 4.9 kilometers. It likewise bears a singular shape – something approaching the infinity symbol; then again, when you come to think of the endless possibilities the lake affords, the coincidence is only too apt.

A slow boat to San Francisco

Lake Danao may be a little distant from mainland Cebu – more than 70 kilometers away, in fact – but it is worth going the extra nautical mile. If you are not pressed for time, you can cross to Pacijan Island by boarding a slow boat to San Francisco; with this route, it can be said that the road to Lake Danao begins at the port of the city of Danao.

What the slow boat lacks in speed it more than makes up for in scenery; the Camotes Sea, a liquid lane through which Magellan entered Cebu, gently shimmers in green-tinged blue, while the view of island coasts smoothly crossfade. After a couple of hours, one finds the “Lost Horizon of the South” at the approach of the wharf in Consuelo, a barangay along the western coastline of San Francisco. Suddenly, Lake Danao is tantalizingly close. Eight kilometers and 15 minutes later, you start to click away as the picturesque panorama unfolds before your eyes.

Last summer, the science team of Cebu’s Provincial Tourism Office visited San Francisco to make a site assessment on Lake Danao; made up of top-notch marine biologists, foresters, historians, and bird experts, the team set out for the vast lake to determine its suitability for ecotourism.

The lake can be accessed from different points in the barangays that border it: Cabunga-an from the north, Sta. Cruz from the northeast, Northern Poblacion from the southeast, Campo from the south, Union from the southwest, and Esperanza from the west. You can follow a trail or blaze your own and immerse yourself in its environs, or tour the lake along a bike path that practically encircles it, or traverse its entire length with the use of a motorized vessel.

Prelude at the park

With building anticipation, we went posthaste to sitio Patabog, barangay Union, where Lake Danao Park is ensconced. Managed by the municipality, the park holds the key to plenty of the lake’s possibilities. Before reaching the lake, one passes through two resorts that form part of the park – the Kanlingiw Garden and Pool and Mr. Tasie Family Park and Resort. Together, they offer an assortment of activities and amenities that enhances the entire experience. For starters, you can summon your inner equestrian and engage in horseback riding; then, you may take rod and reel and try your hand at fishing; later, you can hit the pool for a refreshing dip; after which, you can head for the resto and relish delectable seafood. Having saved the best for last, you then descend to the lake for the ride of your life.

Life at the lake

At nearly noon, we boarded a speed boat that took us around Lake Danao. We had no sooner left the dock than we started to see visions of nature in its pristine pulchritude. The shapeshifting skyscape – endlessly wide and arrestingly beautiful – provided the backdrop for the mountains, reminding the jaded it is the divine canvas. The mountains in the middle ground – natural skyscrapers linked in a range – inspired marvel and awe in equal measures. In the foreground, green and grand Lake Danao was stirring in its stillness; somehow, in its serenity, one hears, if faintly, the One who made it all: “Be still and know that I am God.”

While the speed boat slowed down and ground to a halt, the team observed the flora and fauna that thrive along the freshwater lake. The soli-soli plant, from which the town’s festival is named, flourishes along the lake’s fringes; when it withers, the plant is woven into mats, hats, décor, and doormats, providing a lifeline to the locals. The lakeshore likewise teems with mangroves, vines, ferns, coconut trees, neem trees, nipa, maribago, ipil-ipil, bitaob, bani, bogo, and lumboy, among other species.

Lake Danao’s slowly moving water abounds with various vegetation on its surface and under it, such as waterthyme, water lily, water hyacinth, water spinach, and different seaweeds. Moreover, the lake is also home to several fish species including tilapia, bangus (milkfish), halwan (mudfish), and pantat (catfish).

Err on the side of caution though, when contemplating on testing the waters; the lake can seem shallow enough for wading but could actually get one in deep trouble. The average depth of Lake Danao’s waters happens to be 14 feet.

From the vantage of the speed boat, the team’s eagle-eyed aviphiles had a field day. Wildlife biologist Andrew Ross Reintar kept his Celestron Ultima 100 spotting scope ready and trained it on the water birds that floated out of their comfort zones, while bird expert Pedro Villarta and forest warden Jaime Getaruelas kept their binoculars close, zooming in on the birds at rest and in flight. Throughout the course of our exploration, the three bird specialists, along with the science team, were able to see a modest sampling of local avifauna from their improvised viewing deck: flying or floating along the lake were little grebes, little egrets, a few terns, a whisker tern, an olive-backed sunbird, a zebra dove, an osprey, a Philippine tailorbird, kingfishers, little herons, black-crowned night herons, Rufus night-herons, tufted ducks, and Philippine ducks.

If nature is the art of God, as Dante had written, the biodiverse sanctuary that is Lake Danao is easily one of His masterpieces.

Vital importance

While the aesthetic appeal of Lake Danao by itself suffices as its reason for being, its full worth more than meets the eye. For instance, the rice fields in sitios Danao and Patabog would hardly produce yield without the water these receive from the lake. Also, most of those who live near the lake catch fish for daily sustenance and occasional profit. Then, too, the lake, which has received regional distinctions for sanitation, also serves as a place for personal cleanliness; many locals head for the lake to bathe and wash their clothes. Lake Danao likewise serves as natural drainage; for the six barangays that surround it, the lake is a catchment area.

In the cause for conserving wildlife, the lake plays a vital role. For many bird species, Lake Danao functions as a migration stopover and breeding ground. In addition, it serves as a natural sanctuary for various animals, plants, fishes, and organisms.

A tale of two islets

An excursion to Lake Danao would be considered wanting if one fails to pay Isiong and Isiang a visit. They are not local officials before whom one makes a courtesy call; rather, they are islets in the middle of the lake that one should view at close quarters. A legend endures concerning their origin – a childless couple who lived in a place where the lake now sits caused the rise of the two little land masses after a series of unfortunate circumstances.

The following day, we went back to the lake, expressly to cap our lacustrine adventure with that sense of completeness. This time, we tagged along team photographer Richard Moneva to capture the stunning sights we saw the day before. We first passed around the islet that is rendered inaccessible by the mangroves with which it brims. Then, we proceeded to the second islet which has since been renamed Kanlingiw. It’s small enough to be able to walk from one end to the other without seeing a marked change on the hands of your watch’s dial.

The boatman, who doubles as caretaker of Kanlingiw, revealed that former mayor Al Arquillano had the islet landscaped during his term, which explains why the round islet, encircled by nearly-equidistant coconut trees and carpeted with fine Bermuda, is reminiscent of a tropical golf course. A putting green would be a welcome addition and a golf cart would be in order. There is an inner ring of trees which includes a talisay, a balete, a binunga, and a bangkal, while soli-soli, nipa, and kawayan can be seen where the land meets the lake.

In Kanlingiw, the beauty of Lake Danao is on full display. It is the ultimate vantage point of the lake. And it takes some will to finally leave it.

Lake Danao, wrote one author, is the heart of San Francisco; up close, one realizes it is its soul as well.


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