Vamos a Zamboanga!

Why this gem of a tourist spot, Asia’s Latin City, deserves more attention

The city’s municipal hall

With a push for local tourism, Pinoy “revenge travelers” didn’t waste time to book trips to many of the country’s popular destinations as soon as restrictions eased. Whether these tourist spots are accessible via land, sea, or air, Filipino revenge travelers have been flocking to these places for vacation.

One particularly interesting place to visit is Zambaonga city, which sadly has not been in the radar of many travelers pre-pandemic. Now, with flights from Manila to Zamboanga busier than ever, including AirAsia’s which has also recently started icargo flights to Zambo, it has become easier to visit Asia’s Latin City.

But if you’ve never been to Zambaonga, then you are (as cliche as it sounds) missing half of your life because this city, as well as the entire peninsula, is home to many beautiful spots that any avid traveler will surely enjoy.

Sunset visible along RT Lim Blvd. in Zamboanga City

From its pristine beaches—and I don’t use that adjective just for the heck of it—to its heritage that is teeming with influences from various cultures, thanks to the many indigenous peoples who call Zambaonga home, there is much to explore and appreciate in this city that was once a fort built by the Spaniards to fend off pirates crossing to the Visayas.

This fort, in fact, is still largely intact. Fort Pilar, one of the first places you should visit when you are in Zamboanga, is home to an image of the Virgin Mary that has a unique iconographical history. This image, which is one of Our Lady of the Pillar (hence the name Fort Pilar, from its full Spanish name Real Fuerte de Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza), features the Virgin Mary but with hair worn long and not covered by a veil. Oral history owes this to the Muslim painter’s decision to combine what he knew of the Virgin Mary (or Miriam in Islam) to that of what the Spanish Catholic tradition taught. It was, therefore, not uncommon to find Muslims lighting candles to pray in the promenade beside Fort Pilar where Catholic masses are held regularly.

Melding of cultures — A Muslim woman lights a candle at Fort Pilar, home to one of the most unique images of Our Lady of the Pillar

This image of that melding of cultures perfectly captures what Zamboanga city is—a peaceful place where people of various backgrounds coexist. Whatever violence once plagued this city’s recent history is no longer there. Now all that remains is peace, and the beauty that comes with the acceptance of every person’s differences.

This kind of respect is also seen in how Zamboangeños treat nature. It is home to perhaps one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen in the country, one that is considered a sanctuary and, therefore, has very strict rules for tourists to follow. Dubbed as the “pink beach,” Sta. Cruz Island is a 20-minute ferry ride away from where Fort Pilar is in the main city. To visit the island, travelers must book in advance and they have to sit through a 10-minute briefing where they are informed about the rules implemented in Sta. Cruz. These include not bringing any single-use plastic, as well as cigarettes and vaping devices. Bag inspections are done prior to boarding the ferries, which currently seat only up to 10 people as part of precautions against Covid. But don’t let wearing your facemask keep you from enjoying the sun, the pinkish sands (thanks to the pieces of red corals that wash on its shore), and the clear waters of Sta. Cruz Island.

From Sta. Cruz Island, the curious traveler can also take a banca ride to a mangrove sanctuary nearby. This one feels like you are in a nature documentary on some cable channel or streaming site. With tour guides belonging to a nearby Sama Banguingui—one of the indigenous peoples of Zamboanga—community called Bagong Pag-asa, you are taken on a banca tour of the bakawan or mangroves growing in the area. These guides explain the mangroves as well as the unique ecosystem that thrives around these plants, which include an interesting kind of jellyfish, one that doesn’t have a sting. On a side note, Bagong Pag-asa was once a community adopted by the late Gina Lopez, whose foundation still continues to help the families living there.

A restful afternoon by the beach at Sta. Cruz Island
A child enjoys the pinkish sands of Sta. Cruz Island
Weaving culture, heritage, and history at Yakan
A young Muslim woman practices her craft at the Yakan Weaving Village
The spires of Talungkasay Mosque, the oldest Islamic house of prayer in Zamboanga Peninsula

If you think that one island is not enough, well fret not. There are 11 more nearby. These 11, dubbed as Once Islas, are also considered home to the Sama Banguingui tribe. Currently, one can visit only three of these islands because the rest are considered protected sites, including one that serves as a burial site for the Sama Banguingui, who follow Islam as their religion. One of the curious islands belonging to this 11 was, according to the tour guides, home to a powerful shaman or priestess. When she was alive, people would flock to see her for her supposed “healing” abilities.

Zamboanga city, of course, isn’t just about its beautiful beaches. Culturally, the city thrives with a history that stretches as far back as the pre-colonial years. This is reflected not just in the city’s art and architecture but also in its culinary heritage. Owing to it being a coastal city, there’s a lot of seafood choices in Zambaonga, most famous among these is the curacha or red crab. It also has a unique dessert that’s somewhat like the halo-halo but isn’t. Called knickerbocker, it’s similar to a British dessert of the same name, except those who made it popular in Zamboanga patterned it after a variant they found in Indonesia.

The famous Zamboanga knickerbocker

Another culinary specialty the city has to offer is inspired by its Muslim heritage. I was able to try some during a visit to the community that is home to the first mosque in Zamboanga peninsula, the Talungkasay Mosque, which was built in 1885 (nearly 140 years ago). I was also fortunate enough to try some more of these dishes thanks to a friend from Manila who had asked one of her contacts in Zamboanga to send food over to the hotel where I was staying. Needless to say, these dishes were unlike any I’ve tried in the country. These, in fact, reminded me of those I’ve had the chance of enjoying when I visited Xinjiang Province in China some years ago.

Dubbed as Asia’s Latin City because of its language, which is chavacano (a mix of Bisaya and Spanish), Zamboanga should definitely be in your “revenge travel” list this year. You can fly to Zamboanga aboard one of AirAisa’s daily flights to the city from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 4. AirAsia started its flights to Zamboanga on October 2020, flying only twice a week. Now, with increased flight frequency and cargo operations, the airline serves more travelers who are eager to experience the beauty of one of Mindanao’s gems.

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