11 Islands. Zamboanga became one of the most visited cities in Mindanao last year. The most common city attractions that visitors would likely cite would probably include Sta Cruz Island, Fort Pilar and Merloquet falls. These tourist spots already graced the pages of several magazines and newspapers.
However, the convenience getting to these tourist spots have partly influenced their popularity. Public transport going to these spots has made them more accessible for tourists and locals. Curious backpackers, however, would find more excitement from an off the beaten path which could give a totally new experience. Oftentimes, the most beautiful spots are those that remain hidden and elusive from many.
In a very quiet barangay somewhere in the outskirts of Zamboanga, a hidden attraction has been making rounds on social media after being featured in a documentary on a major TV network—“The 11 Islands”. The documentary described it as a barren paradise. This group of islands is still unknown to many and locals from the mainland have not set foot on the fine sand beaches of the islands because it used to have a reputation of being a hideout of pirates. Only a few brave adventure seekers have dared to explore these islands. .Seven islands are under the jurisdiction of Barangay Panubigan while the rest are under Barangay Dita. The access point is the port of Barangay Panubigan where you can see all of the islands from a short distance. More and more people are curious how to get there. Unfortunately, there are no established tours in the islands. Last February, I had the chance to organize a Do-It-Yourself tour for five friends from Manila and two wanderers from Iligan. We scheduled our trip on February 14, a perfect day to fall in love with nature.
Coordination is key
Proper coordination with local authorities is important especially since there are no commercial island-hopping tours in the area. This can help ensure a safe and well-organized trip. I went to Barangay Panubigan weeks prior to our tour and personally met Mr Bashir, a local who volunteered to help us coordinate with barangay officials for clearance and security escorts. Hon Baser A. Andong is not a commercial tour coordinator but we were lucky that he went out of his way to accompany us and arrange additional boats to accommodate us. A few days before the trip, I confirmed with Hon Andong the number of people joining us. We calculated the boat rental fees and the gasoline consumption for the tour. (Note: We had to rent a public utility van since there are no public transport service that could directly take us to Barangay Panubigan)
There are no food establishments in the area so we had to bring packed lunch and snacks for everyone including the boatmen and security escorts. We also made sure the food we prepared is halal as a sign of respect for our guides and the predominantly Muslim community. Big Ben’s Kitchen, a local food delivery service prepared our meals for the trip.
Our group set off to explore Zamboanga’s best kept secret after all the meticulous planning. Our van ride to Barangay Panubigan took less than 40 minutes. As we alighted from our vehicle upon reaching the dock, we were already greeted by the beauty of the islands, which we could already see from where we were standing. We met our military escorts and hopped into the boats and took a short boat ride to our first stop, Bisaya-Bisaya beach. We quickly unloaded our things under the shades of coconut trees. Looking around, we were just awe-struck by the picture perfect scene and this awakened the shutterbug in all of us. The small island was packed with a lot of surprises. The calm waves that the kissed the shores and the cerulean waters were a pleasure to our camera lenses.. We further trekked around the island and marveled at the beautifully chiseled rock formations. Everyone got spellbound by the view and the peacefulness of the place made it difficult for us to leave. Our guide insisted with the guarantee that other islands are equally stunning. We lost track of time and realized that it was almost lunch time so we needed to hop on to our next destination.
Our guide then took us to Bobo Island that was inhabited by a few families. A small mosque and a few houses lined the beach that promised some shade under the scorching heat of the sun. Relatives of our guide welcomed us when we finally docked. Living in a paradise not often visited by tourists, people in the island seemed shy but remained very accommodating. We had lunch at a beachside cottage owned by the one of the residents and got to talk to them about their place. You can feel the locals’ sense of pride as they described the beauty of their island.. “It is very peaceful here in our place and the stories of pirates in our islands are stuff that should stay in history books. People should come here and see the beauty for themselves”, says one of our boatmen. Not a trace of pollution can be found on its white shoreline and crystalline waters. Bobo is far from the chaos of urban civilization and one can’t help but feel jealous of how the island’s residents wake up every morning with a spectacular and peaceful view.
We set off, this time, to Buguias Island which has the longest stretch of beach among the 11 islands. Buguias’ beachfront is perfect for bumming after a morning of taking pictures, trekking rock formations and swimming. The shoreline is wide and the water is not deep which is perfect for swimming. Byrone, one of my friends from Manila, wondered how such a beautiful place could be feared by many. The silence in the islands gave us nothing but a feeling of peace and tranquility.
We had high hopes that we can hop to all the islands in one day but we conceded that we couldn’t get to all. “So many islands, so little time” was just what I told myself. However, we left without any strand of disappointment. After all, the three of the 11 islands already gave us so much to enjoy that day. Hey, who would dare complain about a calming afternoon nap under the shade of bushes on an unadulterated beach?! The peace and quiet of the island, which was serenaded only by the sound of calm ocean waves made us feel that we are in another world. We felt like survivors of a shipwreck washed ashore in an unknown island in the Pacific. We laid down our mats as time unknowingly passed by. We may have not docked on each island but we were easily satisfied by just even one of the three islands we set our foot on.
Camouflage and guns amidst the sun and white sands
Going around here in the south may feel different from your usual travel destination. Trekking through areas which are classified as critical like the 11 islands may entail a security escort. Proper coordination with the military and/or police is necessary for off-beaten track destinations. This can be properly done by getting in touch with their respective offices ahead of time. Having local contacts is also very helpful. Being escorted by men in uniform does not mean that you are going to a war zone (the 11 islands is far from the image of a war-torn place!). Most of the time, these are precautionary measures to avoid untoward incidents.
Security of visitors is a paramount concern for a city like Zamboanga, which time and again, has appeared in the news due to not-so-desirable circumstances.. Visitors should bear in mind that negative occurrences do not happen on a daily basis. One can still enjoy the different attractions that our beloved city can offer.
There were a few rules to follow during the tour but our escorts never made us feel restricted. It would be helpful that while you try to have fun, do your best to observe proper behavior, customs and practices while you’re around them. These men in uniform are on duty to keep you safe and secure so they should be afforded the space and respect for them to effectively do that. You will be around armed security escorts and you may not be able to resist your curiosity to ask their permission to get close and hold their ammunition. However, my best advice is: leave the guns alone and just try to enjoy what you came there for – the people and the view. An accident free vacation is a mindset that you should always hold so let the experts take care of their firearms.
Great scenes will always make you want to take out your camera. However, before you start pointing and clicking, I would strongly suggest that you ask people if it okay to take their photos or that of their place. That is the most respectful thing to do and you can never go wrong with this.
The same is true for security escorts who will likely join you in photo ops or even offer to take your photos. However, do ask them first as there may be security sensitivities or you might already be distracting them from doing their job. They are happy to help but they are to do one important job: protect you. They are not your personal photographers.
Posting photos online are another matter. You have to be sensitive of the captions you write. In my line of work, we always say, “Do No Harm”. We have to be careful about treating the communities and places we have visited as part of our conquest, hence, label them as “conquered”. Take extra care in ensuring that you do not reinforce any negative impressions of what are currently regarded as “highly insecure areas” especially if your experience was nothing but magnificent and pleasantly memorable.
Treat people and communities with respect. Remember, you are just visiting their territory. They are happy to assist but do not expect them to do everything for you at your beck and call. Do not assume that you are a welcome distraction in their daily routine.
We have rules when we go on nature trips and I believe they still apply: Take nothing but photos. Kill nothing but time. Leave nothing but footprints. And for the less travelled areas that are, unfortunately, labeled as ‘insecure’ or ‘unsafe’, let our captions reflect our experience and not our assumptions. You don’t need a lot of courage to travel, you just need an open mind.
2,000.00 Food (Packed lunch good for 15 persons with extra rice from Bigben’s Kitchen)
1,000.00 gratuities (tip)
1,500.00 van rental (2 way)
1,300.00 boat rental and gasoline expenses
6,000.00 TOTAL (divided by 8pax)
Hon Baser A. Andong (Barangay Panubigan). Please read the entire article before sending any message.
Benj Rutherford (Big Ben’s Kitchen) follow Big Ben’s facebook page.
Van rental 0926 338 8520
IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: the 11 islands is temporary CLOSED to the public. Please read this article:11 Islands: Closed to the Public