Perhaps it can be said that no other city in the Philippines piqued my curiosity as much as Zamboanga in the western tip of the island of Mindanao. There’s just so many things that differentiate it from the rest of the country. Nevertheless, I had to think twice about coming here. My main consideration was not really about the sights to see or the things to do but more about the reputation. As far as I can remember, newspaper datelines containing the name “Zamboanga” usually detail not so pleasant news. Not all of them paint an accurate picture of the city however – Zamboanga can actually be used to describe other points in the peninsula rather than just the city and most of those incidents that appeared in the papers actually did not occur in the city.
the zamboanga international airport
The city of Zamboanga is distinctive in a couple of things. First is their language – Chavacano. It’s an interesting Spanish-based creole that has mosly died off in other parts of the Philippines. In Zamboanga, it lives on and is commonly used in the public sphere. It was interesting to see the same print ads with the same celebrity endorsers that I often encounter in Manila but translated to the heavy Spanish slant that is Chavacano. The other thing about Zamboanga is of course, its proximity to the far reaches of the Philippines. By far reaches, I am referring to the provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi; places that are only a few hundred miles away but seemingly a lot farther based on people’s perceptions. This means that the city is a melting pot of cultures, and the modernist cathedrals, temples and grand mosques in the downtown area attest to this. To a greater extent, Zamboanga of course also functions as a jumping point to Sabah, Malaysia, and as of this writing there are plans to re-start flights between the city and Sandakan in April.
I arrived in Zamboanga on a Sunday morning, fresh from a bout of rain. As the plane made a sharp turn above Basilan, I could spot the city from up above. Despite being one of the Philippines’ largest city by population, Zamboanga is not so dense and it was evident through the relatively scattered urban landscape. The first thing that greeted us upon landing was the distinctive airport terminal building. I remember seeing a scale model of the Islamic-inspired terminal building in Paoay when I visited the Malacanang of the North. Zamboanga’s airport was apparently one of Marcos’ pet projects. Nowadays, it serves as a good example on the usage of various local architectural styles in public buildings. It’s just a shame it’s not being applied to other government buildings.
city hall of zamboanga
Zamboanga’s city center is actually pretty compact. From the airport, it was walking distance to Zamboanga city’s largest hotel, the Garden Orchid Hotel where we stayed. There were no taxis in the city but I saw plenty of tricycles. Fares vary and depends on the passenger’s negotiating skills. But it’s not expensive. At most, a ride to the city center from the airport takes only around 10 minutes or so.
fort pilar was crowded even when i returned that night
Many of the city’s points of interest are actually found here. Alighting in the Zamboanga City Hall, places like Plaza Pershing and the Lantaka Hotel, from where one can get excellent views of Basilan, are just within walking distance. From what I observed, the city center follows pretty much the same style as other provincial cities with the city hall or ayuntamiento being fronted by a small park or plaza. A farther 10 minute or so walk is Fort Pilar, perhaps the most famous of Zamboanga’s attractions. Also known as the Real Fuerza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza, it was originally built in the 1600’s. It was later on rebuilt in the 1700’s and was later used by various occupying forces such as the Americans and Japanese. There is a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Pilar built on the eastern wall some time in the 1700’s. This remains to be a popular worship spot. Even muslims come to pray here. We had also attempted to enter the National Museum which is located inside the fort but it was under renovation at the time of my visit.
satti and satay – same same but different!
They say that Zamboanga is one of the driest major cities in the Philippines and I wouldn’t be surprised. I came in February and it was still scorching hot. Typhoons are said to be a rarity here and earthquakes virtually nonexistent. Since it was getting to be quite warm, we decided to have brunch at around 11AM. We decided to try satti – a local specialty. I was most curious to try this since I live in Singapore and am no stranger to satay which is almost exactly the same. The major difference is that satti is a lot smaller. It takes maybe around 8 to 10 sticks plus a cup of rice to work out as a decent meal. Tip: If you are looking for more things to try, check out this guide on where to eat in Zamboanga.
With still quite a bit of capacity on the gastronomy side, we then went to have lunch at Alavar’s. This restaurant is famous for its seafood, including curacha. And it doesn’t disappoint! Though the price is on the high side.
the treehouse at pasonanca park
It got even warmer during the afternoon. It was a good thing we used this time to visit Pasonanca Park. Said to be the “Little Baguio” of Zamboanga, owing this monicker to the summer hill retreat in Luzon, it’s nowhere as cool as Baguio though the lush vegetation provided some much needed shade. Of note here is a treehouse and the boy scout grounds. We also passed by the Maria Lobregat Garden, making a stop at the butterfly park on the way there. Granted the admission was merely Php 5 but there wasn’t really much to see inside the butterfly garden.
Before ending the day, we stopped by the Yakan Weaving Village. I had read about it in a magazine and was hoping to chance upon a weaver wearing her tribal costume. In the end, I did encounter a weaver but to my dismay, she wasn’t wearing the local attire. The products being weaved here – scarves, tablecloths and purses – reminded me of the same style of tais weaving being done in East Timor. I wondered if there’s any connection between the two.
The next day, we pretty much had nothing to do. So it was a good thing that Harvey, a friend from college, texted me. He learned that I was in Zamboanga through my Facebook posts and offered to show me around his city. He took me to the western parts of the city, where we passed by Badjao villages as well as a lot of factories.
the view from the cross at abong-abong park
He also took me to Abong-Abong Park, where there is a stations of the cross as well as a commanding view of Zamboanga and Basilan from the hilltop. I had meant to come here the day before but wasn’t able to due to transportation constraints, so it was a big relief to finally get to visit.
All in all, I did get to enjoy my short visit to Zamboanga. It may not be the conventional city for tourists but it is easily my favorite city in Mindanao. The abundant sunshine, cheap seafood as well as the relaxing pace of life are contributing factors to this. Also, it certainly helps that the city is outside the typhoon belt. And the local dialect — Chavacano which I haven’t encountered anywhere else in the country. In a way, it deceives me in terms of where I actually am. It’s a slice of the exotic in my own country.
Where to stay in Zamboanga
I personally stayed at the Garden Orchid Hotel. It is the only large hotel in Zamboanga of international standards and is arguably the best one (make sure to book a room in the new wing). You can also compare for best rates for hotels in Zamboanga HERE.