11 islands: Zamboanga’s best kept secret

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.

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The 11 islands in Barangay Panubigan, Zamboanga City.

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.

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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.

04 a11 Islands_09_watermark (800x452).jpgUnadulterated wonder

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.

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Rock formations in Bisaya-Bisaya Island.
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Rock formations in Bisaya-bisaya island.

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.

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The mosque in one of the islands.

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.

 

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A relaxing afternoon nap in Buguias Island.
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Fine white sands in Buguias Island.

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.

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The finest sands in the 11 islands.

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.

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12 a11 Islands_03_watermark (800x452).jpgThere 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.

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Rock formations in Bisaya Island.

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.

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Team JustGoMindanao. Valentines Day in the 11 islands.

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.

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Rock formation at the back of Buguias Island.
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Marvin, UJ, Kaye, Hetty, Jeannette, Rod, Harrold, and Byronne.

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Expenses:

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

200.00 snacks

 

6,000.00 TOTAL (divided by 8pax)

 

 

Contact Numbers:

 

Hon Baser A. Andong (Barangay Panubigan) 0926 366 2081. Please read the entire article before sending any message.

Benj Rutherford (Big Ben’s Kitchen) follow Big Ben’s facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/Benj.V.Rutherford?fref=ts

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

 

73 thoughts on “11 islands: Zamboanga’s best kept secret

    1. it’s really safe. just make sure that you coordinate weeks prior. 🙂

  1. Mas marami pa pong island Jan maliban sa bisaya bisaya at bagias..may searoommoon,lambininigan,kabugan at panganak…napakaganda PO na maitururing mong paraiso

    1. kinapos na po kami sa oras nung pagpunta po namain. babalikan po namin yan 🙂

  2. Im from Zamboanga but this is unknown to me. Ill assure to drop by here soon

    1. madali lang po talaga mag organize ng trip to 11 islands. just read everything on the article po

  3. WoW!!! Just WoW!!!

    Thank You for choosing #Bigbens Kitchen despite our lack of experience..

    Keep up the good work uj!!!

  4. I read the article and I can’t help but to fall in love with the place. I have relatives (mom’s side) in Brgy. Dita… I hope I can manage to convince my friends and loved ones to also come here. Thanks for this article! Happy birthday!

    1. thank you!! let your friends read the article, it’s very transparent. 🙂

  5. Wow! This is wonderful! Thank you for sharing. I’ve always wanted to explore that part of the region. So helpful!

  6. This is impressive! I am a Cebu-based Zamboangueño and I am looking forward to bring my friends there. You’re blog is very informative.

    1. i’ll publish more articles about Zamboanga so that you will have more choices 🙂

  7. so. overwhelmed by just the photos plng. amazing.punta tlga ako dito.

    1. let’s be proud of the beauty of Zamboanga! dapat po tayo ang mauna kaysa mga turista 🙂

  8. That’s one, informative and creative blog article you have there. I myself is a Zamboangueno, but I myself is not aware about this place. Once again, well done! 😀

    1. thank you so much sir. Please like our fb page JustGoPilipinas for more updates 🙂

  9. Very Nice place, I knew this before but afraid to visit the place since they said is a bit dangerous, however when this was featured on TV am quite happy that at last the beauty of the place was seen but the sad side is the locals are so poor. My only hope that through this we can also help the locals of the islands or the barangay where it belongs bring forth revenues for them by establishing a cooperative where they can serve local tourist by selling food , act as tourist guide, banca rental , through this they ( locals) can generate income and at the same time preserve their islands.

    1. That is the reason why I posted the number of Mr Bashir, the local who will help people tour around the 11 islands. I hope that the government or other organizations that has the technical capacity may help the community come up with a cooperative.

  10. Hello.. it’s not Mr Bashir but Hon Baser A. Andong.. ( i have checked the cel number posted above)… a very accommodating Barangay kagawad of Panubigan.. True enough, the eleven islands is a paradise and the local folks are peace loving…

    1. Thank you po. I’ll edit po. Napakahumble naman ni Honorable Baser Andong. Di po sya nagpakilala sa amin as a barangay official.

  11. in zamboanga, people believed that this place is the refuge grounds of the pirates. that’s why no one dared bravely during our time to do the same adventures that you are doing now. not unlike the Sta Cruz island, this area of the city is restricted for locals and tourist alike. It’s been years now since the last time I visited zamboanga. What surprises me more being a zamboangueno myself, that this place is now ready for tourism, anytime soon. well hopefully… thanks for sharing this blog.

  12. Is this in Zamboanga City or somewhere in Zamboanga Del Sur or Zamboanga Del Norte?

    1. there are no commercial tours yer po. you might want to try a DIY backpackers trip

  13. Wow! Its my first time to hear about this place, it surely looks like an amzing place to visit. I’m not even familiar with the name of the barangay. How far is this from the main city? I hope I can join one of your adventures to undiscovered or hidden areas of Zamboanga.

  14. Just wow! Pwede po bang makijoin if ever babalik kayo dito? I will be in Zamboanga this weekend but will just check out Sta Cruz island medyo malapit lang. Pero sana soon makapunta ako jan sa Panubigan. very informative write up.

    1. Hello po! Wala pa po kaming planned trips! You may DM me on my IG account @ujalmocera for your trip this weekend.

  15. happy to see another zambo blogger!!! 🙂 haven’t blogged about zambo for some time though…. baka pwedeng sumabit if you go exploring off the beaten destis of zambojambo! 🙂

  16. I’m from Manila, working here in Zamboanga… was invited last week to go there… due to boredom, i agreed without hesitation.. little did I know about the notoriety of the place… but… this is such a beautiful place… very unadulterated… during our stay, i never felt threatened even without the escort… folks are friendly… we just went to bisaya-bisaya beach. During low tide you can actually go to the nearest island by walking through the water…definitely want to go back and go to the other island…

    1. Yes sir, you can go there without escort at your own risk. It is still best to seek clearance from the local authority because you will still be their liability if anything happens to you po. Well, at the end of the end of the day, I can only advocate for responsible tourism but can’t force people to comply with it. I would still highly recommend that people would inform the barangay officials. It’s all up to you po. I just make it a point that this blog will help people understand the risks and how to respect the barangay officials that we have talked to. I don’t want to be blamed someday that I have attracted a lot of people but failed to give the proper advice 🙂

  17. Informative and visual. Thank you. I grew in Lamitan, schooled in Zbga but ventured this far. On my next visit would love to get in touch and plan a trip to some of the 11 islands.

  18. Muchas gracias…been there, did swim there, lost my non waterproof watch due to excitement to dive in the crystal clear waters…..have always pushed the local government to look into its potential and involve the locals in the area by opening an opportunity for them to improve their way of life……

    1. wow! that’s great. I agree, the local government does need to push a little bit more to help the locals. I wish that I can have the opportunity to talk to them someday. muchas gracias!

  19. can i ask, is it safe to go there? some of my friends told me that is not safe to go there because of bad people. is it true?

    1. It is safe as long as you coordinate properly. Please read the entire article carefully for more details. thanks

  20. plan po namin sana noon pumunta jan kaso dh namin alam kong paano. but now thanks to you may idea na kami..

  21. We will visit Zamboanga on October 21-23, I hope we could visit these islands. Can you give me a must visit in Zamboanga?

  22. Hola! UJ!

    Puede pregunta acerca na boat rentals na “Panubigan”? Si Cuanto personas puede occupa na un Banca?

    Gracias 🙂

    1. You can contact the number po and kayo na po mag usap. depende kasi yan kung ilang tao ang pupunta. 🙂

  23. sir uj matagal ko NA pong binabasa yung blogs nyu about zambuanga sibugay and since po. taga ipil kayu gusto ko PO sanang mag patulong Kung may mga kakilala PO kayung Vigare Family taga jan po kc yung tatay ko taga ipil matagal na po kcng Hindi sya nkakauuwi and eversince po di po kmi jan nka punta at wala din po kming kontak sa pamilya nya. matagal ko na po kcing hinahap yung pamilya ng tatay ko Wala akong mkita sa facebook nag babakasakali lng po ako baka matulungan nyu ako. salamat po GOD BLESS!
    Mayren Abayon Vigare po nag Aklan

  24. In 1984 i n my American husband went by motorized banca operated by a local in 30 min to the 11 group of islands and landed on the first island off the coast of zamboanga city in baranggay Bolong. The pristine sea water showed us we wer in corrals heaven twas like were were in an enchanted sea flower garden. Thewhiteshore was filled with shells of all kinds, the island was rocky part on the sides n the uppermost of the island was coconut trees, ,It was enchanted paradise. during that time the other farther islands were infested with moro rebels. Perhaps there wer some inhabitants but i saw one male farther away on the rochy shore while we were on the rocky side , he didnot bother us.

  25. Definitely a good read! You just fueled my curiosity and made me choose Zamboanga as my next stop. Thank you and please keep on sharing good stuff like this.

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