Three days in Zamboanga City

From centuries-old attractions and colorful weaving traditions to an exciting array of dishes rarely available outside the Mindanao region, the Latin City of Asia has many surprises in store

Colorful vintas at the shore of Greater Sta. Cruz Island

Colorful vintas at the shore of Greater Sta. Cruz Island

Founded by the Jesuits in 1635, Zamboanga City is an important trading hub located at the tip of the western peninsula of Zamboanga. One of four localities in the country that speaks Chavacano – a Spanish patois – Zamboanga prides itself as the Latin City of the Philippines. These days it remains a melting pot of mestizos, Visayan settlers and the indigenous Tausug peoples, making it an  important and vibrant city. If you have three days to spend in Zamboanga, here’s the best way to explore it.

Day 1

Morning. Getting to know a city through its history is an enriching travel experience, so start your trip by heading to historic Fort Pilar. Built by the Jesuits, it was designed to repel attacks from Muslims, Dutch, Portuguese and the British invaders and part of the network of defenses around the country. Abandoned in 1662 following the threat of the invasion of Chinese pirate Koxinga in Manila, it was rebuilt in 1718 and renamed Real Fuerza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza. It now has an outdoor shrine where religious devotees come to light a candle and say their prayers.

Fort Pilar is also home to the branch of the National Museum of the Philippines, which shows interesting exhibitions featuring the flora and fauna of the region, as well as artifacts from the Griffin Shipwreck that sank in Sulu Sea near Basilan Island in 1761.

Continue your excursion at the Rizal Park in the city center, where most of the structures were built during the American colonial period. The former municipal hall, now the city hall, was completed in 1907 and served for a time as the residence of the US Military Governor of the Moro Province.

Across the park is Plaza Pershing, built in 1928 and dedicated to Governor John Pershing. Along Valderosa Street, a heritage building occupied by the second oldest branch of the Bank of the Philippine Islands branch houses the BPI Lifestyle Museum where you can admire period interior and furniture.

Fort Pilar shrine with a bas relief of the Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza. Below it is the Spanish King’s coat of arms, attesting that the fort was built under his patronage.
The Griffin exhibit at the National Museum Zamboanga inside Fort Pilar
Artillery batteries in Pasonanca Park saw action during World War II.

Afternoon. A public park built by Governor Pershing in 1912, Pasonanca Park is a popular area for locals to hang around. It has a large camping ground, naturally fed swimming pools, as well as a city and Science Museum. It is adjacent to the Pasonanca Natural Park, a popular trekking area, and serves as the city’s watershed.

Evening. For dinner, Dennis Coffee Garden along San Jose Road in Baliwasan is a good place to try Tausug cuisine. It started as a coffeeshop in Jolo, Sulu, in 1962 and has four branches within Zamboanga. Highly recommended is the dulang platter, a smorgasbord of popular flavorful Tausug dishes such as chicken pianggang and tiyula itum, made with spices common in the region.

For dessert, try the jualan saing, or fried bananas, and pangi-pangi, a donut-type pastry popular in the coffee houses of Sulu and Tawitawi. Don’t forget to order traditionally prepared Sulu coffee, or if you’d rather have your cup of joe in the morning, then take home some coffee beans instead.

Day 2

Morning to afternoon. Load up for the day by having early breakfast at Jimmy’s Satti, a small eatery that is open from three to six o’clock in the morning only. Order a plate of satay, grilled beef or chicken skewered in thin bamboo sticks, served with a sweet spicy sauce and paired with rice balls cooked in coconut milk that is similar to the puso in Cebu.

Spend the rest of the day hanging out at the beach. We have two options for you below.

Your first option is to go island-hopping at Once Islas, or the Eleven Islands. To get there, hop on a bus to Ipil and drop off midway at Panubigan village, or around 40km from the city center, then take a tricyle to the ferry terminal. If you still have the energy, travel another hour to Merloquet Falls, which consists of a beautiful two-layered, curtain-type waterfall that is popular with Zamboangueños during weekends.

A more popular option is the pink sand beach of General Sta Cruz Island, though you will strictly need to arrange your visit with the Department of Tourism beforehand. (Their office is located on the ground floor of Samboangan Bayanihan, Cooperative Building along General Vicente Alvarez Street.) Just an hour’s boat ride from Zamboanga City’s port, the sand’s pink color is due to the crushed red corals abundant in the area that has been washed ashore. The DOT tour includes a lagoon tour with a visit to its mangrove ecosystem.

Also near the drop-off point for General Sta Cruz Island is a cemetery where some graves are adorned with wood carvings of a human on a boat, a reference to the Sama Badjao’s seafaring lifestyle.

Skewered grilled beef, tamuh in a sweet and spicy sauce at Jimmy’s Satti
Seafood paella at Country Chicken House
Curacha (spanner crabs) drizzled with special Alavar sauce at the Alavar Seafood Restaurant

Evening. Back in the city, you can tuck into dinner at Country Chicken Restaurant along Pasonanca Road, which boasts a huge menu, though Hispanic-Filipino dishes such as seafood paella and callos are both highly recommended. Soak in the restaurant’s cozy vibe and rustic interiors. For a night of fun, head to Paseo del Mar just beside Fort Pilar.

Overlooking the sea, it is a popular area for nightlife, with several open-air bars and restaurants. Look for an establishment that makes knickerbocker, a dessert concoction of fresh fruit with cream and topped with a scoop of ice cream that was first offered in Hacienda de Palmeras Hotel and Restaurant but has inspired copies.

Day 3

Morning. Your last day in Zamboanga City will be all about shopping, so start your day with breakfast at Busy Bee along Camins Road. This small shack is popular with locals and serves the best arroz caldo and fresh lumpia in the city. If you have the time, head to the Catholic church in barangay Santa Maria, where vendors outside sell a local fare only seen in Zamboanga: tamal. Derived from the Mexicam tamales, it is made with glutinous rice and filled with sotanghon (glass noodles). If you want tamal with eggs, head to the Magay Public Market for this delicious breakfast treat.

Afternoon. Some seven kilometers from the city center is the Yakan Weaving Village in Upper Calarian. The Yakans are the indigenous people of Basilan who have made a home in this area. They are known for their beautiful and colorful weaving patterns with intricate geometrical shapes. Apart from textile, they also sell wallets, table runners and bags. You can also watch women – some wearing traditional colorful Yakan finery – weaving on their backstrap looms.

A Yakan weaver using a backstrap loom
Colorful tepo mats woven by Sama Badjao at the Ayuda Badjao

For traditional tepo mats, the Ayuda Badjao in Caragasan, Barangay Maasin is the place to go. The Sama Badjao are traditionally seafaring people with the greatest population in Tawitawi. They are known for their mats made from pandan leaves then woven in colorful patterns.

For Malaysian and Indonesian products, the Canelar Barter Trade Center along Camino Nueva, Barangay Canelar is the best place to go. There’s coffee, chocolates and wafers, Maggi kari noodles, batik bags, sarongs and dresses as well as soaps and toiletries abound here. It’s a huge building with a collection of several shops. Haggling is allowed.

Evening. Save the best for last by dining at Alavar’s Seafood Restaurant along Don Alfaro Street in Barangay Tetuan, famous for their curacha crabs (spanner crabs) that abound in the city’s waters. The crabs are steamed and then drizzled with its delicious Alavar sauce that has hints of gata (coconut milk) and curry. It’s a flavorful dish and eating them with your hands is a must. They also have grilled seafood and meat platters.

Written and Photographed

Stan Cabigas

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