“I’m not a diver, I’m a diva,” reads the caption of Angelo Villanueva’s photo where he is shown posing on a boat with Dumaguete’s turquoise waters in the backdrop. He is donning a two piece—a bikini bottom and a bright orange turban, that is. If anything, the image partly captures how life in unhurried, low-key, idyllic Dumaguete has allowed this former fashion stylist and 90s club scene figure to continue letting his fabulous flag fly.
“From fast-paced urban chaos to time really slowing down—it was the best decision I've ever made,” says Villanueva, who moved to this seaside city in Negros Oriental in 2009.
Before Dumaguete, Villanueva’s life in fashion and Manila’s party scene was at an exciting point. “I was working in such a creative environment,” says one of local publishing’s early stylists. His services were sought after in runway shows, events, and product launches. On top of a busy career in fashion, he was a familiar sight in Manila’s happening clubs from Malate to Makati, where he straddled between DJing and playing door bitch.
Before he made the big move to Dumaguete and left the “big bad city,” he did question his readiness, asking the Manila boy in him, “Will I survive?”
But not only did Villanueva survive; he thrived and comfortably carried on with his ‘diva’ persona, this time around as a local tour guide, an ambassador for Dumaguete’s rich culture and its popular and hidden attractions. In his fabulous caftans, big jewelry, big shades, with a native bag in tow, the towering figure (that’s why he’s called “Supermodel Diva,” a moniker from his ABG’s days) accompanies bakasyonistas on bespoke tours around Negros Oriental organized by the company he runs, Dumaguete Outdoors. “The transition was really quite easy. I totally adapted to buhay probinsya,” he says.
The decision to move to Dumaguete was also partly due to his family’s links to the province. “My grandparents were both Negrosanons and my father was born here,” shares Villanueva, one of three sons of Fidel V. Ramos’s former Press Secretary, Hector Villanueva.
The fierce and fearless ex stylist shares the same story with so many others—expats and Manila’s urban warriors alike—who have decided to make Negros Oriental’s idyllic city their home. In the process, the place has somehow transformed them—and mostly for good. “[My] lifestyle has changed from the crazy years of city living. [Dumaguete] has given me a healthier, younger, positive outlook in life.”
Dumaguete’s ‘charms’ are world famous, so much so that Forbes Magazine ranked it fifth in a list of seven best places to retire in around the world in 2014. It was also the first city in the Visayas to be given the Best Retirement Area Deemed as Retiree-Friendly (RADAR) status by the Philippine Retirement Agency under the Department of Tourism in 2019.
‘Best Retirement Place’ status notwithstanding, Dumaguete ticks so many boxes for anyone looking to set one’s roots in a place characterized by small town comfort with a cosmopolitan vibe. Top on that list are its beaches and natural parks that stretch to the rest of Negros Oriental. The easily affordable cost of living and sunny climate (the city is rarely visited by typhoons) are also prime considerations for retirees who move here.
Dumaguete also boasts an international crowd comprised not only of students (there are around 300 foreign students from 53 countries studying in Silliman, according to the university’s website) but tourists and expats. There’s also a good number of restaurants that serve international cuisine.
Dumaguete is also known for its vibrant academic, cultural, art, and literary scene that springs from this University town’s seven colleges and four universities, the most recognizable of which is Silliman University which is now 120 years old.
What pulls this charming mix of attractions together is the most prominent of all Dumaguete landmarks, the 780-meter long Rizal Boulevard that overlooks the Visayan sea and is the center of activity in the city. It is one of the first places where new visitors will likely have their first encounter with the town’s famed ‘gentle people.’
It was no surprise then that when the local government announced it will support plans to put up a fully-funded PHP 23-billion township just 30 meters offshore from Dumaguete’s coastline, residents like Villanueva were caught off guard. The tour guide joined a few protest actions last year against the rise of the 174-hectare reclamation project dubbed as Dumaguete’s “Smart City.” The project was put on hold last September.
According to his Instagram, the past few months, Villanueva has been visiting different spots in the country, reuniting with old friends, likely taking advantage of the more relaxed pandemic restrictions. But summer is here and the diva is back home in Dumaguete and “back in action,” as he puts it. Doing his tours again, taking his visitors to Apo Island, the Manjuyud Sandbar, the Casaroro Falls in Valencia. Showing everyone the charm and soul of this lovely city of Negros Island.
Dumaguete’s charm and soul are the very reasons people like Villanueva choose to stay here for good. “Dumaguete draws you into its arms,” he says. “Everyone knows each other to some degree. It's safe and a wonderful environment to live in. You may never want to return to the concrete jungle.”