First impressions: Dumaguete is hot, humid, crowded and all grown up

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The boulevard along Rizal Avenue is the main attraction on Dumaguete’s waterfront. It shows both progress and the desperation of poverty.

If Dumaguete City was a musical, the hum and whine of a motorcycle engine would be its chorus.

I have never seen so many two-wheeled commuters zipping in and out of traffic. Scooters, dirt bikes and even the occasional Harley can be heard rolling down Rizal Avenue, the town’s main boulevard.

On just about every street corner in this town you will find rows of parked motorcycles.

“Are these bikes for sale or rent,” Meg asked pointing to a row of motorcycles about 150 feet long and two deep in some places. “There is so many of them.”

It seems to be the vehicle of choice for the locals. It allows for quick travel through narrow and crowded streets where traffic crawls along at 15 miles per hour, if you’re lucky.


The drive from the airport to our hotel was an eye-opener for me. Thirty years is a long time to be away and I could barely recognize my old neighborhood.

It looked like every open lot in the city has been bought and built on. The house of my youth now has an internet cafe on the front yard where we used to play catch. Smoke from a grill billowed out back as we drove by and my guess is that they are selling food in there as well. Where there used to be mango trees and old acacia trees there are only houses and hostels, popular with young European backpackers and adventurers.

My town has grown old. Wrinkles and blemishes now dominate her once smooth radiant skin. She seems to be carrying more weight than she ought to. Her streets are packed with motor vehicles. The buildings lining them look tired and even desperate. She has even picked up the big-city smell of diesel exhaust and rotting garbage.

Thank God for the sea breeze. The gentle salty air blowing in from the Tanon Strait feels good. It is cleansing. It blows the stench away even for just a moment.

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The shops in downtown Dumaguete are colorful and a fun diversion.


After more than 40 hours traveling, we decided to get our bearing in Dumaguete and went for a stroll through downtown.

That was a hoot.

From the colorful shops selling clothing to the souvenir vendors, one thing surprised me. We did not get one aggressive sales pitch.

It seems the work of polishing the tile floors inside the Lee Super Plaza in the heart of downtown is never completed. In the middle of a Wednesday afternoon and workers were polishing every one of this superstore’s five floors. This place sells everything from microwave ovens to stationery supplies to lumpia. If you’re a Starbucks fan, you can have your very own coffee mug with Seattle-based company’s logo for 199 pesos or roughly $2, depending on who changes your money.

Stepping outside to the damp humid air, we walked in a couple of clothing stores. Meg was especially attracted to the colorful fabrics that were being used.

“Except everything here is so tiny,” she said showing me one of the colorful blouses. “I’ll never fit into one of these.”

We never checked the prices thinking we’ll walk around some more in the next couple of days and get a better idea of what constitutes a good deal.

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Sidewalk vendors set up tables along the boulevard to sell food and drink to mostly locals who go to the sea wall after the day’s heat has cooled down.


As we walked down Rizal Avenue you can see a city’s growing pains.

Shakey’s Pizza has been shuttered, it seems for a while now.

An old restaurant building sits vacant dust accumulating on its once proud facade.

But farther up the street  workers are busy erecting a new sign for a dive shop. Construction workers are sanding and varnishing an outdoor bar next door to the Mexican tapas bar. Business seemed to be going well with tourists and locals dropping in on the handful of restaurants and bars along the boulevard.

Some things never change. Young local women hanging on to the arms of older, much older, European and North America men. Some are tourists and some are living here in retirement. Everyone seem to be having a good time.

Every where you go panhandlers are there as well. You can’t lose them. Desperation does not need an interpreter.

6 thoughts on “First impressions: Dumaguete is hot, humid, crowded and all grown up

  1. My husband is from Dumaguete. We are in the midst of opening a large manufacturing corp. there and are moving there with our children and American business partners this summer. We currently live in Portland, Oregon. Any advise or tips? I know that certain things aren’t available or are very expensive there. What would you say would be good items to stock up on here in the states and ship there. Any advise would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Dumaguete will have most of the things you need. Here are a few things that you might want to stock up on:
      — If you are a coffee drinker, you might want to stock up on coffee beans.
      — A comfortable, American-style couch. You will be hard pressed to find one in the Philippines.
      — Throw rugs and bathroom rugs, if you like that sort of thing.
      — Wine. If you can get it shipped to you, do it. The same with your microbrews. San Miguel is the only brew available that is cost appropriate.
      — Beef is expensive and not available the way we have them here. I’m sure you can have steaks shipped or befriend a local butcher at the market to give you a call when they get a cow in.

      My wife helped me think this out. It is not a very long list because, she said, “I would just live like they do as much as possible.”

      A few other things to consider: Do not underestimate the need for air conditioners at home and in the car. Wear sunblock year round. Get a maid and a driver. Be patient. Have a local show you around and introduce you to people. Find a lawyer. They are great as friends and can facilitate many things for you. Look at them as fixers and “wheel greasers”. Silliman University Medical Center and Holy Child Hospital are good facilities. Send your children to Silliman or St. Paul. If you are there in the summer, it means school has already started. School starts in June and ends in march in the Philippines. Typhoon season also starts about the same time. So do not be surprised by the weather. It will still be warm but when the winds hit, you will be amazed at its strength. Dumaguete is fairly sheltered, so you do not have much to worry about.

      By the way, here is a link to a travel piece i wrote for The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash.:

      Don’t be afraid to take the kids out to enjoy what Negros island has to offer. Make a trip to Apo Island and the sand bar in Bais City.

      I hope this helps. Good luck.

      1. Thanks for your advise.
        My family and I are in Dumaguete now and I must admit I am surprised at the lack of food variety here. Thank goodness for Lee’s Hypermart which seem to have the largest variety of imported groceries, but there is still very little choice overall.
        Soda flavors, cereal, margarine, yogurts, cheeses, mexican and even other asian foods i.e. Chinese/ Japanese are extremely limited here. You rarely see fresh milk it’s usually only the shelf stable types which tastes fine and comes in all the regular milk fat percentages, like non fat, whole and 2%, there are also lots of powdered milk here too, like an amazing amount! You can easily find soy here, but you won’t find any almond milk yet. My favorite. Hopefully they will soon! You won’t find any diet soda pop other than Pepsi or Coke light or the max/ zero varieties occasionally diet 7-up. No Dr.Pepper or Cherry anything. 😦 .
        I do notice that there are a lot of foreigners living here.
        My kids are at Silliman, and although there are other Americans and foreigners at the school, I really wish I could find an expat group for my high schooler, so that he could meet other kids that are new to the area and trying to adjust to a new country.
        Both of my children and I have been treated amazingly well here and have been very welcomed by the locals.
        We have been very fortunate because my husband has lots of family here to help us out and “show us the ropes.” We would not have been able to do it without them!

      2. Hello Lauren: I’m glad to hear you and your family are settling in. After all the development and progress that Dumaguete City has experienced in the last decade, it is still a “third world” city. For dry goods that you miss from the Stateside, you can have it shipped to you. LBC Express has offices in just about every major American city and they can ship “Balikbayan” boxes at very competitive rates. (By the way, I do not own any interest in the company. I just thought shipping might be another option for you.) Also, the principal at SUHS, Earl Jude Cleope, is a former classmate of mine. We both went to Silliman. He would be a good resource to ask about other ex-pats in the area that may have the same issues you have. Good luck and God speed. David

  2. Shakey’s closed just within the past 2 years, the reason behind that being that they opened a branch at Robinson’s mall which opened in 2009. For some time they were both operating, but I guess the demand wasn’t enough to justify keeping both branches, and I can imagine the rent at the Boulevard must be quite high.

    1. Thank you Mike. I wondered about that. I did notice the Shakey’s restaurant inside Robinson’s mall. The silver lining in all this is that demand for storefronts on the boulevard may indicate a growing local economy. Cheers.

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