Asia’s Latin city. Zamboanga city’s moniker is a tribute to its very Hispanic past. From its airport to its language, one can find a tinge of the Philippines’ unique past.
Seven hundred kilometers away from Manila, Zamboanga city sits on the southernmost part of the Zamboanga peninsula. It is so far away that my friends from Manila would always comment that it’s like going to a different country already. In fact Zamboanga city is closer to Malaysia and Indonesia than it is to Manila. The distance however should not discourage would-be travelers to Zamboanga city. The long flight or ferry ride is definitely worth every penny once you get to Zamboanga Hermosa.
To the older generations, Zamboanga city brings into mind the tree house in Pasonanca park (a natural park dubbed as the little Baguio of Zamboanga city because of its altitude and varying flora), the pink sand beach of Santa Cruz Island (one of only a few in the world), the sumptuous yet very affordable sea foods, Chabacano (which is the only Spanish Creole in Asia) and the mestizas. To the young ones though, Zamboanga city only brings terrorism into mind.
But while the mestizas are now only a part of the Alta Sociedad (since most of them have already migrated to different parts of the country and the world) and the Pasonanca Park is not as quaint and romantic as it used to be, Zamboanga city definitely still has a lot to offer. Named as Asia’s Latin city, one can definitely find traces of our colonial history in this city. From its airport, cuisine, edifices, customs, to its language, the extranjero would definitely feel as if he has traveled to the past.
The gateway to Asia’s Latin city is the Zamboanga international airport. This structure, although built for its obvious purpose has become a favorite among architecture enthusiasts. The unique design that the airport employs gives you a window to this city’s Islamic heritage.
Photo by christinaestrada
In the city center, one can find more architectural wonders. The city center is reachable by a tricycle or a jeepney (NO TAXIS). A tricycle ride would cost anywhere from 30 pesos to 50 pesos depending where you came from. A good thing to remember is that all jeepneys in Zamboanga city go to the city center and fare costs anywhere from 7 pesos to 10 pesos. The Zamboanga city hall is the heart of the city center. Zamboanga’s city hall is unlike any ordinary city hall. It is an edifice constructed by the Americans during the early 1900s. The building’s turn of the century architecture is one that is generally favored by the American colonial governments for its tropical colonies. Just besides the city hall is the Plaza Pershing which has a hanging garden on its entrance. It is one of the earliest structures made of cement in Mindanao. The stretch of pavement from the city hall going to the Fort Pilar shrine is dotted with old houses and government offices resembling Calle Crisologo in Vigan. Founded in 1635, the Fort Pilar shrine was a Spanish garrison. Inside its walls is a museum which houses numerous paintings, ethnic costumes, marine life exhibits, indigenous tribes’ memorabilia, and some artifacts from a sunken galleon.
Photo by lutykuh
Photo by Jerome Herrera
Photo by lutykuh
Just a stone’s throw away from the shrine is the newly opened Paseo del Mar. The Paseo Del Mar resembles the bay walk along Manila bay offering locals a respite from the demands of everyday life. This spot is frequented by Zamboangueños at night because the sun can be a bit harsh in the mornings. I would suggest that you visit the Paseo del Mar on mid afternoons so that you can appreciate the vistas of nearby islands such as Basilan and Santa Cruz. Not to be missed as well is the famous Zamboanga sunset which can rival that of Manila Bay’s. As the park is still a bit new (it was opened during the third quarter of 2009), it may get crowded especially during weekends.
Photo by Jerome Herrera
Still in the city center is the Metropolitan Cathedral of Immaculate Conception (referred to as ‘the cathedral’ by locals). Outside, the occasional tourist would think that it is a hotel or a mall because of its size and architecture. This common misconception arises from the fact that this cathedral is one of the most modern in Mindanao. The cathedral was built in a form of a crucifix and its façade was shaped after a candle.
Photo by Jerome Herrera
After all that sightseeing you might want to head to Pasonanca Park. Adorned with trees, flowers, shrubs, orchids, ferns, and a river, this park is truly unique. In the middle of it all is a tree house which was so famous in the 60s and 70s that when you mention the word tree house, Zamboanga city comes into mind immediately. Today though the quaint and cosy feel that the park used to have is gone. The small park has now been transformed to a huge park complex with three natural swimming pools (its water comes from the mountains), a flower garden, an aviary, and a butterfly farm. The surrounding area is known for its great dining and entertainment. The park, even transformed into something very modern and contemporary is still worth checking out though. Allot a full day in Pasonanca Park as it is a huge place. You might also want to pack food because there are not a lot of food stalls inside. The park is around 5 kilometres from the city proper. Tricycle fare would generally cost around 30 to 40 pesos and a jeepney ride would generally be at 7 pesos.
Photo by Jerome Herrera
Twenty five minutes away from the city center is the virgin Santa Cruz Islands, probably the biggest chance of Zamboanga city to tap into the mainstream tourism industry. Developing it however has been costly and a logistical nightmare as it is off the Zamboanga peninsula. The greater Santa Cruz Island boats of a pink sand beach and a sand bar. Yes you heard it right, pink sand. While the smaller Santa Cruz Island is a white sand beach which is a great diving spot. Do not expect hotels, restaurants, and resorts in this place though, the islands are practically deserted. The only way to get there is by using a boat which would cost 100 pesos (round trip). Pick up and drop off point is the Lantaka hotel.
There are numerous beach resorts located in mainland Zamboanga city though as the city‘s borders are virtually shorelines. I however would not recommend them because most are rocky and too commercial.
Photo by lutykuh3rd
Photo by lutykuh3rd
There is a place in Zamboanga called ‘barter’ because there used to be a lot of barter activity in this area. The system was started by the great Ferdinand Marcos in a bid to appease the Moro rebels. Tax free products were exchanged between Malaysia and the Philippines. In the past, one can find Malaysian made products such as tea, coffee, candies, and malongs at rock bottom prices at the barter. Over time though (as Marcos was ousted), the barter system was ended. Today though, one can still find tax free Malaysian and Indonesian made products at cheap prices. Apparently, the second generation traders still continued the practice of selling products from Malaysia albeit no Philippine made products are ever sold in Malaysia as would have been the case in a barter system. As this place has been a frequent stop among tourists, you can also buy Zamboanga t-shirts and pearls from the barter. Don’t forget that this place is like a tiangge, so remember to haggle, haggle, and haggle!
Another great place to shop is the Yakan weaving center. This village is the home of the Yakan people; an ethnic tribe with special skills in weaving intricately designed traditional cloths on looms. These cloths are usually made into coasters, table covers, wall displays, bags, and purses. The yakan weaving center is about seven kilometers away from the city center and can usually be reached using a tricycle (40 pesos from the city center) or a jeepney (10 pesos from the city center).Note that these cloths are hand-woven, so they are a bit pricey.
Photo by shawi
Why Not Go
If you are an outdoor person, you might not enjoy Zamboanga city that much. We don’t offer spelunking, mountain climbing, and other outdoor activities. If you are friends traveling, you might find the city a bit boring. The things that Zamboanga can offer (such as shopping, dining, and sightseeing) are more apt for a family traveling.
Regarding peace and order, the city is relatively safe and is not as unsafe as the media portrays it to be. To be totally safe though, I recommend that you stay within the city center. The downtown area is pretty well guarded not only by the police but by the military. So don’t panic when you see military men carrying big guns in the city streets, it’s not a coup d’état.
Just be sure to exercise proper caution as you would when traveling to a foreign city and you should be fine.
For history buffs who want to relive the Philippines’ past, Zamboanga city is paradise. Not only would you get to see Hispanic manifestations in the architecture, but you get to experience it through its unique language, Chabacano. Extranjeros would often comment that hearing natives speak Chabacano makes them feel like they are in Mexico. From the time you get off the plane, stroll in its many parks and plazas, visit its churches, wander along the city streets, and talk to the locals, you would agree that it is truly Asia’s Latin city.
Best Time to Visit
Unlike most of the Philippines which is typhoon prone, the Zamboanga peninsula is typhoon free. Weather should not be factor when planning your trip to this place. The best time to go is during the Zamboanga Hermosa festival. This is the time of year when Zamboanga city is very vibrant and colorful. The festival features pageants, parades, street dances, concerts, a boodle fight (highlighting the city’s brand as the sardines capital of the Philippines), a Chabacano song festival, a regatta (wherein Zamboanga’s traditional outrigger called the Vinta are raced by locals), trade fairs (featuring traveling merchants from different cities in the country) and other fun activities. Just remember that public places are very crowded during the festival because people with relatives in Zamboanga city often choose to reunite with their relatives during this time. The Zamboanga Hermosa festival generally runs from October 1 to Oct 12. It culminates in a solemn activity called the Fiesta Pilar wherein Zamboangueños visit the Fort Pilar shrine to pray.
There are numerous hotels within the city center. One of the best that I always recommend is the Lantaka by the sea hotel. Aside from enjoying rooms with a majestic view of the ocean, you also get to be within walking distance from the fort pilar shrine, the city hall, and the main downtown area. This vintage hotel offers great facilities such as an al fresco restaurant and a large swimming pool set amidst coconut trees; both overlooking the waters between Zamboanga city and Basilan.
Less than a kilometer away from the airport is the Garden Orchid hotel. This airport hotel is perfect for businessmen. Equipped with a swimming pool, a restaurant, a garden, a lobby bar with live entertainment, and spa services onsite, it offers first rate services at very affordable prices.
Where & What to Eat
Zamboanga city is a seafood haven. One of the best restaurants in the city, serving the best food in town is the Alavar’s Seafood House. Alavar’s is best known for its very delicious bagoong and Curacha (a type of crustacean that can be found in Zamboanga’s waters. This place can be a bit pricey though and service is a bit slow. While the food is definitely worth the price, there are other restaurants which offer great tasting seafood as well at lower prices. Mano Mano Na Greenfield Restaurant is another great place to dine in. Mano mano means that you use your hands for something, in this case eating. This restaurant is usually packed with locals at any time of the day, and any day of the week. The main reason for this is that this restaurant offers good food at very affordable prices, not to mention good service. Their menu consists of sea foods and mainstream Filipino dishes. The main structure is like an open veranda which allows cool breeze to enter the restaurant. The building is made from bamboo and the roof from nipa which gives it a very traditional atmosphere. Food is served in trays made from bamboo covered in banana leafs.
Hai San Seafood Market and Restaurant is also a good dining option. This is a Chinese restaurant that offers seafood cooked using Chinese recipes. What makes this restaurant unique is the chance for diners to choose from freshly caught fishes. The chefs would then cook it for you. Hai San’s specialties include Curacha cooked in garlic sauce, latu salad (a type of seaweed), lapu lapu, and lobsters.
Now if you want to dine by the sea, I would recommend the outdoor restaurant in the La Vista del Mar beach resort. This restaurant offers dining along the ocean with gentle breeze blowing by.
As Zamboanga city is home to a significant number of Muslims, you can also find cuisine here that was created by Muslim tribes such as the Tausugs. One very famous Tausug dish is the Satti. Satti is actually coagulated rice immersed in a reddish sweet and spicy sauce. You eat it either with grilled chicken or Isaw (intestine).
Alavar’s seafood house is located in the village of Tetuan. Mano Mano Na Greenfield Restaurant meanwhile is in the village of Santa Maria. If you wish to visit the outdoor restaurant at the La Vista Del Mar beach resort, you would need to travel 6 kilometers away from the city center. It is located along the west coast highway. The Hai San restaurant can be found on Ledesma Street (near the city center). These are short stretches of road and relatively small villages and finding these places would not be difficult at all. Also, you don’t have to worry about getting lost as all tricycle drivers would know where these places are by heart.
Now, if you want to taste the Satti as well, just go to the city center and you’ll definitely find a small eatery offering this dish.
Making reservations, though prudent is not necessary. If you wish to contact these restaurants however, your front desk or hotel concierge would definitely have their phone numbers.
My to do List
1. Stroll along the city streets, specifically from the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception to the city hall and finally to the Fort Pilar shrine
2. Wade through the crystal clear waters and lie on the pink sand beach of Santa Cruz island
3. Buy some cheap pearl earrings, necklaces, and bracelets
4. Eat great seafood at rock bottom prices
5. Spend a full day at the Pasonanca Park
6. Eat spicy Satti in the morning
7. Buy some imported chocolates from Malaysia and other items at the barter
8. Watch the Yakan people weave using giant looms at the Yakan weaving village and bring home the finish product
9. Try to speak Chabacano with a local
10. Watch the stunning sunset at the Paseo del Mar
My preferred mode of transportation to Zamboanga city has always been by a ferry. Just the ferry ride itself can be considered a vacation already. It would be like going on a two day cruise if you’re from Luzon and a one day cruise if you’re from Visayas. What I enjoy most about ferry rides is the chance to see all of the Philippines from a good vantage point. If you ride a super ferry, the ship makes a stopover in metro Cebu which gives you a chance to appreciate the beautiful skyscrapers dotted in front of its mountains and if you ride a Negros navigation, you get to see Bacolod’s and Iloilo’s historic ports. A trip from Luzon to Zamboanga city would usually cost around 1000-1500 pesos and from Visayas to Zamboanga city 500 – 800 pesos. Now if you prefer a quicker ride, take the plane. It shouldn’t take more than an hour and a half. Be prepared to pay around 2500 – 3500 for a plane ticket (from Luzon) though. Both Super ferry and Negros Navigation has voyages to Zamboanga city twice a week (Wednesday and Saturday for Super ferry and Thursday and Sunday for Negros Navigation) while Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines offers morning and afternoon flights to Zamboanga city daily.
Be aware that the seaport is not that organized in Zamboanga city. If you need help with your luggage, approach only those porters with an ID. From the airport or seaport, take the tricycle (again NO TAXIS). A tricycle can fit in approximately four people. Remember to agree on a fare before getting in. Some drivers overcharge simply because you came from the airport or the seaport.
Jerome Herrera was born and has lived in Zamboanga city, Asia’s latin city for twenty years. Having lived in that part of the country for most of his life, he has extensive knowledge on that region. Over time, he hopes to see Zamboanga city regain its former glory as the tourist destination of the Philippines through its new branding as Asia’s Latin City. Read more [+]