Zamboanga is a booming city in the south. More and more people put Zamboanga on their travel bucket list because of the blushing pink sands of Sta Cruz Island and the curtain-like cascades of Merloquet Falls. Travel bloggers, Instagram-famous backpackers, and foreign tourists post magnificent photos of the different wonders that Asia’s Latin City has to offer.
As a local, I have met a lot of people on social media who would ask for some tips in touring the city. One of their primary concerns though is the security in this part of the country. Zamboanga is often heard in the news because of kidnapping and armed conflicts that put this beautiful city in a bad light. Some would even assume that sound of guns serves as our alarm clock in the morning. The negative media attention that Zamboanga and the rest of the region have received gives more reasons why people fear coming here in mi Ciudad de Zamboanga. However, there are so many reasons to love this wonderful city and I can give you five.
- Tapestry of culture
Zamboanga is a pot of diverse cultures that have melted into one colorful tapestry. Being the center of Zamboanga Peninsula and the gateway to the Basilan, Sulu & Tawi-Tawi islands. There are a handful of different tribes that have settled in the city which includes the Yakan Tribe from the island of Basilan. The tribe is known for their woven fabric which is one of the most intricate in the entire country. A small village located in Barangay Sinunuc, Zamboanga City houses several traditional weavers who make placemats, pillow cases, table runners and other products with colorful and symmetrical patterns. Most backpackers would allot an hour on their itinerary for taking pictures but end up spending more time especially when they see the weavers in action. The different woven products are available in the stores in the village and sometimes in different cultural expositions around the country.
- The “Latin Vibe”
The City has imbibed a Latin feel after being one of the strongholds of the Spaniards during their 300-year occupation. This is immediately noticed when you listen to people speak Chabacano, the local dialect which is heavily laced with Spanish words and expressions. Some of the structures built during the Spanish era remain standing in different parts of the city. The most famous is the Fortaleza del La Virgen Del Pilar or more commonly known as the Fort Pilar. The Fort is a 17th-century military defense fortress that has been turned into a museum. One of the outer walls had been turned into a Roman Catholic Marian Shrine where devotees can light candles and attend the regular religious mass. A side attraction is the pigeons that flock the entrance of the shrine where tourists can take pictures while feeding the birds.
3. Pink Sand
The most popular attraction in Zamboanga is the pink coralline sands of Sta. Cruz Island which is just a 30-minute boat ride away from Paseo del Mar. The powdery white sand is mixed with red specks from red organ pipe corals that have been naturally pulverized by the ocean waves. This gives the sands an amazing pink hue. The beach is surrounded by crystal clear blue waters that are ideal for scuba diving. The lagoon at the back of the island, where a number of species of birds can be found, can be reached by riding the iconic colorful small boat of Zamboanga or more commonly known as vinta.
An ancestral cemetery of the Bajao tribe located at the side of the island can also be visited with permission from the tourism office. Miniature boats instead of tombstones mark the graves of the deceased sea gypsies. They say that the bigger the boat, the more important the person is in their community.
4. An explosion of wonderful flavors
The flavors in Zamboanga range from sweet to extremely spicy because of the influence Spanish cuisine and the spices from the nearby islands. The bounty of the sea can be experienced with festive servings of fresh fish, clams, prawns, squid and sea mantis. The infamous spanner crab or curacha is best enjoyed with Zamboanga’s famous Alavar Sauce. The sauce is made of creamy coconut milk and secret spices which bring a unique flavor to the different seafood. This would definitely make you want to order an extra platter of rice.
Authentic Tausug restaurants can also be found all over the city. A wide array of deliciously spiced food includes piangang which is chicken meat marinated in burnt coconut meat cooked on the grill or stove and the tiula itum which is the Tausug version of nilagang baka but added with burnt coconut and spices.
A food trip in Zamboanga will never be complete without tasting the boss of all desserts which is the city’s own rendition of the knickerbocker glory—a cup of sliced fresh fruits, gelatin, cream, a scoop of vanilla ice cream and another scoop of strawberry ice cream. I have seen a lot of my guests make double orders of this addictive dessert while watching the sun set and enjoying the cool breeze at Paseo del Mar. For large groups on a budget, the boodle fights and big platters in different restaurants that line up in Paseo del Mar would fill the hungry belly. Having a large number of Muslims in this part of the region, only a few restaurants serve pork dishes.
- Sailing with colors
Geography and History classes in grade school will never be complete without referring to national symbols and regional products. The vinta, a small boat with a colorful sail, is often used to represent Zamboanga.
The coasts of Zamboanga used to burst with colors from the unique designs of the vinta. However, the use of motorboat engines has resulted in decreasing use and visibility of the vinta. Fortunately, the annual Regatta de Zamboanga, which happens on a Sunday of the same week of the feast of the Nuestra Señora La Virgen del Pilar de Zamboanga, gives people an opportunity to see these delightful boats. RT Lim boulevard would be flocked by tourists and locals to witness fishermen paddling their vintas like there’s no tomorrow to claim the top prize.
Social media had been a great tool in promoting different places and Zamboanga is no exception. People get very creative on posting pictures with striking captions. Oftentimes, they are flattering but sometimes they can sound awkward from a local’s point of view. There had been a lot of posts where people would caption that they “survived” Zamboanga after spending a day walking in our streets. A lot would even compare going to Zamboanga as an adventure worth gracing the show “Don’t tell my mother”. I do not get how people “survived” Zamboanga when riding a jeep here is the same as riding a jeep in another city. Perhaps people base their presumptions on the things that they hear on the media. Zamboanga is not a war zone, we do not use gun shots as alarm clocks, and we do not dodge bullets for breakfast. The people here are hospitable and will assist tourists with directions when asked by tourists and locals alike. Zamboanga has malls, coffee shops and bars that are opening left and right. A lot of visitors were surprised that the night life in Zamboanga is booming and it wouldn’t be hard for a party animal to find his rightful bar.
There are so many reasons to love this wonderful city. Zamboanga is definitely a place where one can immerse in different cultures, explore the best that nature has to offer and enjoy the gastronomic delights. Other than the five things that I have mentioned, there are still more reasons to love Zamboanga. As what I always say to a curious backpacker, “you don’t need a lot of courage to go to Zamboanga, you just need an open mind.”