Las Vintas y Vistas de Zamboanga

With all the negative things we hear and see in the news about Mindanao, you might ask--why go to Zamboanga? Is it safe? What's there to see? Read on and you will find the answers.

The majestic Great Sta. Cruz Island

It wasn't my first time to visit Zamboanga City. I used to fly there often when I worked as a marketing and training coordinator for a multi-level marketing company. Back then, I would usually take the earliest flight, conduct training or hold an event, and then fly to Davao the following day. Simply put, there was no room to roam around; or sometimes, even if I have a tiny window to explore the city, I would rather stay in my hotel room, fearing that I might get kidnapped or worst, be a bombing victim. I must admit I went through that phase when I felt the place is very unsafe.


Earlier this year, my friend who is from Zamboanga told me nice stories about the city's month-long festival called Hermosa Festival, which annually takes place in October. I asked the same thing: is it safe? "Zamboanga is safer than Manila," he said. Convinced, I said I should give it another try and started to look out for an affordable airfare to Zamboanga. Like an answered prayer, Cebu Pacific had a "piso sale" in May and I was able to book tickets for an amazing price of Php 584, roundtrip. My husband and two friends were also able to book their tickets. Just like that, we are off to Asia's Latin City!

Our group in front of the city hall, which was designed by William Parsons, the same guy who did The Manila Hotel

Nearing the date of our trip, I was already in touch with Zamboanga City Mayor Beng Climaco, who, by the way, is one of the nicest mayors I have ever spoken to--enthusiastic, warm, and very accommodating. Her love for the city and her constituents reverberates through every word she utters (even on email!). She's gracefully simple and an icon of womanpower. Imagine, a lady running a progressive city in male-dominated Mindanao.

Her team helped us with our itinerary and in finding a safe accommodation as well as providing security for our group.

Bienvenidos A Zamboanga!

We arrived in Zamboanga at around 7:00 am. The two-hour flight seemed fast and swift as we were all asleep (sorry sunrise, didn't see you).

The airport
Setting foot at the Zamboanga International Airport after almost eight years made me realize how it had drastically changed since then. The vibe is modern now contrary to its rustic appeal in my previous visits. 

The minute we landed, Mayor Beng's team had already informed us that they were already at the parking area. As soon as we went out of the arrival gate, the team welcomed us and off we started our 38-hour journey to Asia's Latin City.

At Merloquet Falls
Our first destination for the day was the Merloquet Falls in the town of Vitali. Passing through vast rice fields, lush plantations, rolling hills, and coastal towns, our eyes feasted on the vibrant vistas of the Zamboanga Peninsula. Really, the images of terrorism and fear in my mind were instantly replaced by dreamy sketches of the city's rich and natural beauty. Why go to Zamboanga? Well, why not? It is blessed with such postcard-perfect views.

After a two-hour drive, we finally arrived at Merloquet Falls' jump off point, where we trekked an easy concrete 373 steps to the falls. It rained the night before so water was not as clear but the synchronized flow of the water onto beautiful rock formations compensated for it. The sound of every drop was relaxing.

There were huts where you could stay and have lunch. Our group brought all the food and supplies (charcoal, ice, drinks, banana leaves, etc.) because we were told that there are no restaurants nor convenient stores there where we could buy lunch. Mayor Beng's team took care of preparing the food we brought, boodle-style. It was really fun!

If you are swimming, make sure to bring a malong (a traditional tube skirt made of multi-colored cotton cloth with geometric patterns) so you can change into your dry clothes conveniently after. There are no restrooms or dressing rooms there, but don't make it an excuse not to swim--the water is very inviting!

After about two hours, we decided to leave Merloquet Falls so we could still explore more spots in the city. This was the most challenging part--going up the 373 steps again, with full tummy from the boodle fight! It really helped having an amazingly hyper tour guide to keep our minds away from the tiring climb! As a prize, we sang a few songs at the videoke machine near the parking area! Simple pleasures but definitely fun.


Curacha in Alavar sauce, medium, Php 850



Exhausted from going up the 373 steps and with no ample sleep the night before, we all fell deeply asleep on our way back to the city. We woke up when we were in front of Alavar, a homegrown restaurant popular for its curacha (a crossbreed crustacean with a combined characteristics of a large sea crab and a big spiny lobster, commonly seen in Zamboanga and Sulu) dish in its signature sauce. We were there to order the famous dish that we would bring the following day to Sta. Cruz Island. A medium-sized serving which is good for about four people is priced at Php 850. You may also buy the sauce to take home for around Php 200+ per pack.



Fort Pilar

Lighting a candle at the shrine
Afterwards, we headed to Fort Pilar to pay our respect to the Our Lady of the Pillar, the patroness of the city. As our guide said, do not mistakenly think that "Pilar" is a name of a person (e.g. Pepe & Pilar); rather, it refers to the "pillar" where Virgin Mary stood on an apparition to the Apostle James the Great on the banks of Ebro in Zaragoza, Spain. Fort Pilar or Real Fuerza de Nuestra SeƱora del Pilar de Zaragoza is an al fresco pilgrimage site where many devotees flock year-round. It is also a 17th-century military defense fortress built by the Spanish colonial government and now a regional museum of the National Museum of the Philippines. The fortress is surrounded by manicured gardens, souvenir shops, and is just a stone's throw away from the reclaimed Paseo del Mar, our next destination.

Sunset as viewed from Paseo del Mar; Badjao kids on the boat



Amazing. Breathtaking.

A cleaner and cozier version of Manila's baywalk (along Roxas Boulevard), Paseo del Mar is a perfect spot to watch the sunset while having another iconic ZamboangueƱo delight: the refreshing Knicker Bocker. It is a glass of chunky tropical fruits topped with two scoops of ice cream. Imagine halo-halo, banana split, and fruit salad in one delectable cup. At Php 65, this is definitely a good find.


Knicker Bocker, Php 65
 After a long day out, we were finally brought to our home for the night, the Garden Orchid Hotel. If you are like us who think safety and convenience are top priorities, then stay at Garden Orchid Hotel. Sure, it's a bit expensive compared to other hotels and pension houses in the city, but its proximity to the airport (upon landing you will immediately see the new building of the hotel) and its tight security, you can peacefully sleep at night without being paranoid! I have stayed in Grand Astoria and Marcian Business Hotel in the past, and while both are cozy and reasonably priced, nothing compares to the safe and sound feeling we had staying at the Garden Orchid Hotel. Plus, the rooms as well as the common areas are well-designed, and the food are fairly priced and delicious, too! Thank you Ram and Dynah for recommending this place to us.

The view from our room 
Our well-appointed room
Bathroom is clean and sleek
Baked clams
Adobong pusit
Kinilaw na tanguigue

Las Islas en Vintas

Our second day in Zamboanga started with a big, happy breakfast of bacon, sunny side up eggs, garlic, rice, fish, and brewed coffee, enough to keep us awake and kickin' for our whole day itinerary.

#happybreakfast

Call time was at 6:00 am but we begged to be picked up at 6:30 am instead. From the hotel, Mayor Beng's team picked us up and brought us to Paseo del Mar where the port that hosts the local outrigger-less boats called jongkong bound to the Great Sta. Cruz Island. If you wish to rent the entire boat, you would need to shell out Php 1,000 (roundtrip). However, if you don't mind sharing the boat with other tourists, you may do so by paying just Php 100 per person. Minimal entrance and cottage fees also apply.

Aboard the jongkong
Our destination
Barefoot luxury
Hola from Zamboanga!
In front of the burial grounds


 From the jetty, it took us about 15 minutes to reach the Great Sta. Cruz Island. Popular for its pinkish sand brought about by pulverized red organ pipe corals, the island is frequented by local and foreign tourists alike who would love to get a doze of vitamin sea. As we got closer to the island, we couldn't help but be mesmerized by its idyllic beauty--the pure shores and crystalline waters fringed by verdant trees. Again, ask me, why go to Zamboanga? With this captivating refuge, why not?

At the sandbar

There are actually two Sta. Cruz Islands: the Great Sta. Cruz Island where we went and stayed for the day; and the Little Sta. Cruz Island, the smaller of the two, which is exclusive for research purposes only. Little Sta. Cruz Island is off limits to tourists, however, a sandbar in between the great and little islands may be a fair alternative.

Like Merloquet Falls, there are no restaurants on the island, so it is better to bring your own food and supplies with you. There are locals who sell freshly caught seafood from time to time, but then again, better safe than sorry. Alcohol is strictly prohibited on the island, and trash should be brought back to the jetty upon your return. I must commend the local government for implementing these rules. Really, we can have clean fun without alcohol, right? You choose: beach or hangover? I choose the former. And boy, if you smoke, be responsible enough not to throw your cigarette butts on the shore.

Our guide, Noy
Entering the vast lagoon
The stingless jellyfish garden



Upside down jellyfish
Richard showing us a crab in captive

Fresh lato
Centuries-old mangrove
Besides the fabulous beach,the mangrove lagoon should not be missed. The mangrove-laden lagoon can be accessed by a small jongkong and a smaller paddle boat from a small community located at the lagoon's unassuming entrance. The paddle boat ride costs Php 150 and can accommodate a maximum of three people. Boats are donated by the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation, an organization whose main advocacy is to provide yellow school boats to help children get to school, primarily because they are struggling through water and over large expanses of land to get to school. The foundation started with a project in Zamboanga City and has helped many communities and children since then. Richard, who heads the team that manages Sta. Cruz Island toured us around the lagoon. He gave a lot of valuable information about the mangroves, the upside down stingless jellyfish, agar-agar, lato (edible seaweeds), as well as some bird species that can be found in the lagoon. The tour was very educational, relaxed...highly recommended!

Are those vintas? Yes!
Achieved!


At the end of the lagoon tour, we were treated to a unique ride--two vintas were waiting for us! In my many visits to Zamboanga City, I haven't had the chance to see, how much more to ride, a single vinta (a local boat with an iconic colorful geometric sail)...ever. We were so ecstatic when we saw the colorful boat! Muchisimas gracias Dynah, Noy, and Richard for making this possible. Experience a vinta ride for only Php 100.

On our way back
Badjao Burial Grounds
On our way back to the beach, we passed by the Badjao Burial Grounds where Richard explained more about the locals' culture about death and burying the dead. In front of thr burial grounds is a spectacular strip of white sand bordered by clear waters and on the far background, the Little Sta Cruz Island. It was all stunning vistas in every angle.

At lunch, we were treated again to a boodle-style feast complete with Alavar's curacha in its eponymous sauce, crispy shrimps, grilled fish and pork, lato, and rice. It was one huge lunch! We were so happy to have the chance to share this meal with Mayor Beng's super efficient team.

We swam for like an hour after having lunch and then we all packed our stuff and headed back to the mainland. On our way, we passed by the sandbar in between the Great and Little Sta. Cruz Islands. The sandbar became a perfect backdrop to our mandatory jump shot!

#weloveZamboanga #travelwhileyoucan
I observed that there are many tourists flocking to the Great Sta. Cruz Island now, both local and foreign. Maybe because the city's security landscape had significantly improved. I also noticed that the management of Sta. Cruz Island is serious in implementing rules and guidelines to keep the eco-balance of the island, as well as to help give the locals sustainable livelihood instead of dynamite fishing and the like. Kudos! Keep it up!


Pops of colours!
Our next stop was the Yakan Weaving Village in Brgy. Calarian. The Yakans are known for their exquisite weaving techniques, and thus, each piece they make is like a treasure to cherish. On offer were table runners, bags, purses, and a lot more. Items are a bit pricier than the usual souvenir items you can find in stalls around the city but the craftsmanship is way, way better. Also, we have to take note that as long as there are people who would buy their creations, they will continue weaving and thus, their tradition that has been passed on through the generations will be kept alive for the years to come.

Our last destination before we leave for Manila that night was of course the Canelar Barter Trade Center. Here, every stall is brimming with vibrant shawls, as well as cookies, chocolates, coffee, noodles, and a lot more from our neighboring countries Malaysia and Indonesia. I made sure to buy my favorite Old Town white coffee, Kari noodles, as well as some pashminas to boot. Prices here are relatively low than in other souvenir shops.

The 38-hour journey to Asia's Latin City taught us many things. For one, the place may be painted as "unsafe," but for us who went home unscathed, we never felt in danger at any point. Yes, we were provided security, but the many tourists we saw in the various spots we went to do not have guards and they were all as fine as us. I strongly believe that we are liable for own safety wherever we go. It pays to be vigilant and be street smart. Second, the people of Zamboanga City are nice and friendly. Even the intonation of their local dialect, Chavacano, is very sweet and charming to the ears. And most of the people we've met have a good sense of humor, too! Plus, whether you are a tourist or a local, a Filipino or a foreigner, they will treat you the same way. Food is also very affordable here. Your Php 100 can go a long, long way! The city's culinary scene is also interesting, so if you have a few days to spare, dedicated a day specifically to indulge in the scrumptious gastronomic delights of Zamboanga.

Are we going back? We would love to! Muchisimas gracias Zamboanga! Hasta la vista!


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Special thanks to Mayor Beng Climaco and her team, Dynah, Noy, Marianne, Rowell, Narciso, and George for taking care of us during our trip. You are all amazing! 'Til our next visit!


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