I can smell adventure in the cool and salty morning breeze. After cruising past isles tangled in jungle and fishermen piling agar-agar seaweed into their outrigger canoes, our seven-meter buti — a native longboat with an upturned prow — floats over the emerald shallows and slides onto the shore of a palm-lined island. The blush-pink sand along the waterline bakes under the sun, and the deserted beach, strewn with smooth stones and coral fragments, stretches out into a sandbar submerged by the incoming tide.
This tropical idyll could have been anywhere in Bohol or Siargao or Palawan if it were not for the decorative vinta -— that multicolored fabric traditionally used on Moro sailboats across southwestern Mindanao and a distinctive cultural motif of Zamboanga City — propped up under the shade of coconut trees, reminding me that I am farther south in the archipelago.
We have just arrived on Sirommon, our first stop in Once Islas, a cluster of 11 mostly uninhabited islands and islets belonging to the remote barangays of Panubigan and Dita, about 40km northeast of the city proper. Here, the isles are lush and the air is languid, and it feels worlds away from the dangerous reputation and negative press associated with the city and the rest of southern Mindanao. Economic progress in a region plagued by a continuing insurgency by various armed separatist groups has been relatively slow, and tourism, while showing great potential, has always hobbled along.
“I know my city can offer a lot more in terms of tourism,” says Sarita Sebastian-Hernandez, a former newscaster who has been the city’s tourism officer for the past 17 years, pursuing her passion to change her hometown’s marred image brought about by all the unflattering media coverage. “It’s frustrating, but we don’t give up easily.”
Zamboanga City has long flaunted its strong Hispanic heritage, calling itself “Asia’s Latin City”. Its most famous historical landmark is a 17th-century colonial fortress called Real Fuerza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza. The local lingua franca is a Spanish-based creole called Chavacano, used among the different ethnolinguistic groups in the city (“Once Islas” means “11 islands” in Chavacano). Once Islas, however, is out to show off a different side to the city’s multicultural make-up: the indigenous culture of its Moro people, particularly the Sama Banguingui, who had been there before the Spanish arrived.
The Sama Banguingui people have flourished along the coastline of Zamboanga City for centuries, since the heyday of the Sultanate of Sulu, which spanned five centuries, from 1405 to 1915, for which many of them served as warriors. Tracing their ancestral heartland to a namesake island in eastern Sulu province, the Sama Banguingui are among the diverse ethnolinguistic groups scattered across the Sulu archipelago, Zamboanga Peninsula and northern Borneo collectively known as the Sama-Bajau, which includes the more familiar Sama Dilaut (Badjao), who live a nomadic seafaring lifestyle in contrast to land-based Sama tribes. A planned cultural village, to be built in mainland Panubigan, will highlight this little-known ethnolinguistic group.
Intrepid backpackers were the first to uncover the tourism potential of Once Islas, their online posts triggering enough buzz to start drawing in more and more visitors to this overlooked area. While some welcomed their arrival, others were agitated by the sudden intrusion.
“The place has never been frequented by people, so naturally some locals were hesitant,” Sarita explains. “They were scared that the influx of tourists would ruin the sacredness of their culture.” Before things got out of hand, the city government stepped in to manage the impact of tourism. Prior to officially launching them as a tourist destination, the islands were temporarily closed for over a year to organize, educate and prepare the communities. Visitor guidelines were also established to preserve the ecological balance of the area and respect the culture and traditions of the Sama Banguingui who, like other Moro ethnic groups in Mindanao, practice Islam. For instance, while the consumption of pork dishes by visitors is allowed, cooking of pork isn’t. Likewise, alcoholic drinks — also haram or “forbidden” in Islam — aren’t permitted. Moreover, the islands are closed every Friday, an important day of prayer for Muslims.
The Sama Banguingui have assimilated with neighboring Moro ethnic groups like the Tausug and Yakan, adopting many aspects of their cultures, such as their traditional cuisine and clothing. As we wait on the beach, a procession of villagers garbed in vibrant attire descends from the hillside to welcome us, accompanied by the rhythmic din of an agung, a large brass gong, and rabbana, goat-skin tambourines used on religious and festive occasions. The celebratory welcome reminds me of my visits to rural villages in Malaysia and Indonesia, which share a lot in common with the culture of Muslim Mindanao.
Leading the entourage is Tausug community adviser Metchana Ahamad Abdul, regal in a bright-red sablay and sawwal (loose blouse and trousers) embellished with gold sequins; her head adorned with a sulban (head wrap) of the same color. Metchana has volunteered to show me around her ancestral land. Her husband is a fifth-generation descendant of Imam Sayyari, a Sama Banguingui warrior who had served the Sultan of Sulu and later settled on Sirommon. “We’re looking forward to opening these islands to visitors,” says my 44-year-old guide, who has also been busy helping local women establish alternative livelihoods in anticipation of tourists, such as cooking native delicacies to sell. “Not too long ago, this place was just no man’s land.”
While their primal beauty rivals popular beach destinations in the country, it has been just over a month since Once Islas officially opened up for tourism in July. Decades of political unrest have hampered development in these islands, which were former strongholds of bandits and separatists from the 1970s, until a final peace agreement was signed between the Philippine government and the secessionist group Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1996 — a landmark accord that led to the concretization of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). “After the agreement, the locals who fled the crossfire eventually returned,” Metchana explains, “and peace has now prevailed in these islands.”
Before we proceed to Sirommon’s other beach, Metchana gestures to an abandoned hut with woven bamboo walls and iron-sheet roofing where an MNLF commander turned peace advocate by the name of Akbari Samson, also a fifth-generation descendant of Sayyari, once lived until his untimely death seven years ago. His humble dwelling, she reveals, will be converted into a small museum about the life and achievements of the local hero, admired by Muslim and Christian villagers alike. An easy hike over a hill brings us to a beach named Playa de Isabelle, where a young woman performs pangalay, a mesmerizing regional dance, characterized by elegant body movements, that originated in the Buddhist concept of celestial angels called bidadari before the arrival of Islam in the Philippines in the 13th century.
Across from Playa de Isabelle is Mudjie Wise Key Islet named after Dr Mudjekeewis Santos, an acclaimed Pampanga-born fisheries expert who pioneered the study of marine biodiversity in the area in 2012. His assessments revealed that the islands are an important nursing ground for sardines, vital for a city considered to be the center of the sardine industry in the Philippines. These reef-fringed islands, it turns out, offer not just fabulous beaches, but could potentially be great for scuba diving too. If there’s any doubt over the bounty of these waters, that disappears the second I see the seafood prepared for brunch — all of which, I am told, was harvested around Once Islas.
The generous spread is enough to make a glutton blush: heaps of flower crabs, stewed squid, ceviche-style tayum and baumbang (varieties of sea urchin), grilled kahanga (spider conch), sihi (turbo shell) and kaykay clams Metchana herself collected from the very beach where we enjoy our meal. Rounding off the generous spread are bangbang (Moro snacks) like hantak (rice pretzels), panganan (corn pretzels) and noodle-like rice fritters called jaa, also known as lokot-lokot among Chavacanos.
Keen to uncover what more the destination has to offer, we return to our boat and shuttle over to the next islands. Aside from Sirommon in Dita, the southernmost islets of Bisaya-Bisaya and Baung-Baung in Panubigan have also opened their shores to visitors. A fourth island called Buh-Buh will embrace tourism soon, offering cultural tours at its mosque and village.
Named after Visayan fishermen who once frequented the islet, Bisaya-Bisaya is the smallest in the island group. But what this three-hectare islet lacks in size, it makes up for in its picturesque desolation, making it the most popular stop among tourists. Beyond its white-sand beach, circling the main islet with trained local guides along its rocky coast reveals geological wonders.
Like the rest of the islands stretching between Mindanao and Borneo, Once Islas was formed when tectonic movement lifted undersea ridges, characterized by dark-colored volcanic rocks, that were then sculpted into otherworldly forms by wind and wave. At Bisaya-Bisaya, we amble across eroded surfaces that saltwater gouged into honeycombs and crocodile scutes, the rough-hewn trail leading to a promontory called Buli’ Kappal, shaped like a boat’s stern as its Sama Banguingui name suggests. We leap over large crevices that waves splash into at random intervals, drenching anyone who traverses at the wrong moment. Then we kayak to smaller adjacent islets to snorkel over teeming coral gardens before taking a relaxing dip in a natural infinity pool. Once Islas is nothing short of a petrological playground.
Snorkeling house rules:
- Prepare your own food, water and utensils. Ready-to-eat pork dishes are allowed — but no whole lechon (roasted pig) and cooking of pork, please!
- Smoking and drinking alcohol are not allowed
- Wear modest swimwear
- Bring along your own snorkeling gear
- Explore the islands with an accredited local guide
- Segregate your trash and take it all back to the mainland
The tidal flats of Bisaya-Bisaya’s smaller islets overlook nearby Baung-Baung, another uninhabited islet which harbors more fascinating rock formations that haven’t been included in the tours. “You’re about to be the first tourist to circle the coastline,” Sarita tells me. I’ve been to Mindanao so often that I treat it like a second home, but sometimes the thought of treading somewhere no other tourist has ventured still gives me the chills.
The trail here is more challenging. We soon find ourselves crawling over basalt columns jutting out like broken pillars of ancient temple ruins that surround Batu Pari, a frog-shaped monument where superstitious fishermen used to offer coins, as payment to nature spirits, after hunting for lobsters.
But the workout also preps me for the pièce de résistance of Baung-Baung — Batu Allum, also known as Piedra Vivo in Chavacano, a 40m-tall basalt monolith towering over riotous foliage. I can’t say no to the invitation to leg it up another trail and clamber to its peak. According to the island wardens, the pinnacle gets its name — which means “living rock” — from the belief that it has slowly grown taller over time. It’s quite a precarious climb, but daring visitors who conquer their fear of heights are rewarded with a dramatic bird’s-eye view of Bisaya-Bisaya, framed by the sapphire-blue horizon of the Moro Gulf. Taking on the challenge, I slowly scale the near-vertical rock face, holding on with sweaty palms to a shaky bamboo pole that serves as a makeshift rail.
Upon reaching the flat top, the incredible vista reveals itself just as the clouds retreat, the afternoon sun illuminating the water. While the Philippines abounds with many attractive islands, Once Islas stands out as a promising model of what peace and cooperation can achieve. This tranquil chain could very well be stepping stones to a greater understanding and appreciation of the real Mindanao. I stand there squinting against the glare, wondering what other secrets the rest of the islands will reveal someday, whittled by time and tide like long-lost treasures.
Once Islas is open every day, except Fridays: from 7am to 3pm, with a daily carrying capacity of only 200 visitors. Before heading to the islands, all guests are required to book their tours at least a day in advance and preregister at the Zamboanga City Tourism Office at Paseo del Mar. +63 62 975 6341; firstname.lastname@example.org
How to get there: Located 40km from the city proper, Panubigan Ferry Terminal is the designated jump-off point to the islands. To get there, take a van (P60) bound for Barangay Curuan from the downtown van terminal at the corner of Tomas Claudio and Saavedra streets, or a northbound bus (P50) from Zamboanga City Integrated Bus Terminal, to Panubigan crossing, where a habal-habal motorbike (P20) can take you to the barangay hall to settle the fees.
This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Smile magazine.