As the country’s top producer of corn and the second largest for rice, Isabela has become a go-to for both agricultural products.
One of its cities—Santiago—is strategically located between the southwestern part of the province and the northwestern boundary of Quirino. This easily makes it a gateway to the vast plains of Cagayan Valley, and one of the trading centers of the region and the province.
“The city has always been a melting pot in terms of trade,” says Tiolo Valdez, project development specialist at Santiago City local government’s City Information, Culture and the Arts, and Tourism Office. “Despite this, there has never been a tourist destination the city was known for.”
This was how the idea of establishing Dariuk Hills was born.
Situated in three of the city’s unnamed, lightly forested hills, which are the highest points of the city, the area was first developed in the late 1990s. Further developments were made in the following years.
Today, the locals commonly refer to it as the “Sacred Mountain” because of its features.
Stations of the Cross
Dariuk Hills is home to 14 life-size Stations of the Cross.
The figures depicting Jesus Christ on the day of his crucifixion are placed from the foot of the hill. Going from one station to another involves a light trek.
“These stations are the reason why so many visitors come here during the Holy Week,” Valdez says. “Roman Catholics say their prayers and commemorate the suffering of the Lord here.”
The Stations of the Cross lead to the Transfiguration Chapel, a small 50-seater chapel.
Unlike typical churches, masses are held during special occasions only.
“For instance, we hold a mass here when we are launching our festival,” Caldez shares. “This happens when we celebrate Santiago City’s Balamban Dance Festival.”
Happening every month of May, the festival features a cultural dance of lowland Christians that originated in Santiago. The dance depicts the graceful movement and fluttering of butterflies, which is what Balamban means.
For private individuals who wish to use the chapel as a wedding venue, Valdez says the local government allows it—free of charge—upon approval of request via a letter.
Shrine of Our Lady La Salette
Outside the chapel, visitors can see the shrine of Our Lady of La Salette. The Transfiguration Chapel was built in her honor.
“You will notice that the Our Lady of La Salette Shrine faces the east,” Valdez points out. “That’s because it’s where the sun rises.”
From the five-foot-tall shrine, visitors can enjoy panoramic and unobstructed views of Santiago City.
Pre-pandemic, Dariuk Hills is the venue of numerous events here.
“The Scout Jamboree was held here,” Valdes says. “They usually stay in the camping areas.”
These camping areas are wide clearings where visitors can freely set up their tents.
For families who come visit Dariuk Hills, it’s an ideal venue for a picnic.
Health-conscious locals, meanwhile, come for a jog—made more challenging through the area’s steep, winding roads. Others hold quick zumba sessions, while others simply go on a walk to relax.
Rules to follow
Dariuk Hills, which opens as early as 4 AM, does not charge visitors any entrance fee.
The Santiago City local government’s only requirement is to keep the place at its best natural state.
“Visitors are not supposed to leave their trash here,” Valdez says. “Since this is a public area, liquor, as well as speakers and loud music are not allowed, too.”
To keep watch, a number of staff from the City Environment and Natural Resources Office regularly make rounds in the premises.
Apart from maintenance, improving Dariuk Hills is in the works.
A currently-closed butterfly sanctuary, for instance, is set to be redeveloped.
But the bigger plan is this—building an ecopark. Valdes says their team has visited ecotourism destinations and has attended webinars on the subject in preparation for the project.
“Part of the tourism development plan is to turn it into a modern theme park,” Valdez shares. “The theme will center on Dariuk Hills’ best feature—nature.”
All tourist destinations in Isabela have health and safety protocols in place to protect locals and visitors alike. Everyone is expected to comply by wearing face masks, regular handwashing, and practicing physical distancing.
To check out up-to-date information regarding local destinations that are open and the safety protocols and requirements needed for each location, you may visit www.philippines.travel/safetrip or download the Travel Philippines app at app.philippines.travel or the Google Playstore.