Zamboanga. Not exactly the top-of-mind location when one hears the word ‘vacation’, or better yet ‘beach’. I must admit I never really considered it a must-go place, let alone a place I bothered to get to know at all. When my Dad booked the family for a long Easter weekend vacation to Zamboanga, I wasn’t overly excited, but due to my desire to explore more of my home country, I was game.
There are only two domestic flights to Zamboanga a day and ours was at 4 in the morning. The flight took about an hour and a half from Manila– ample time for a nap, if you ask me. Upon arriving at the tiny airport’s waiting area, we were immediately greeted by an energetic Bienvenidos! by our tourist guide, Milabelle, who coincidentally is actually the president of the tourist guide association in Zamboanga.
At that point, two things kept running through my mind:
1. I was going to learn a lot from this trip thanks to our tour guide.
2. The people here speak Spanish!
Zamboanga is dubbed as the Latin City of Asia because its vernacular, Chavacano, is a mixture of 70% Mexican Spanish and 30% of other local dialects. Spanish happens to be on the top of my list of foreign languages to learn ASAP, so I was really happy to hear some Spanish being spoken around me. It’s just such a beautiful language!
Since we arrived early, we were immediately driven over to our lodgings. The first thing I noticed is how there weren’t a lot of people out and about yet. In the city, there would already be quite a few people on the streets even in the early mornings. Aside from the very few locals I saw, I didn’t spot quite that many tourists either.
Zamboanga is located in Mindanao, which over the years has had its tourism industry greatly suffer from the notion that going to any part of Mindanao is most likely life-threatening. On the contrary, all the while I was in Zamboanga, I had no feelings of fear about my safety at all! And since there are very few tourists visiting, at least right now, it is a whole lot less congested than the usual local vacation spots for a change. This is the sort of holiday I like.
15 minutes away from the airport is this lovely resort called La Vista Del Mar, where we are to stay the duration of our visit. As we were ushered to the dining area of the resort, we immediately got a glimpse of the vast Sulu Sea.
We were even greeted by this lovely mermaid who had come up to the surface for an early morning sunbathing session no doubt.
My favourite decorative touch were these colourful sails that lined the edge of the resort’s main plaza. They are made to look like the famous vintas and I imagine from the distance they make quite the colourful markers.
In the dining area, one can get a perfect view of the vista’s private beach.
The vista was very serene, and the breeze was light and tender against the skin. The higher up the sun rose, the more I began spotting fishermen and some early guests to the vista’s beach, but other than that, my travel group and the resort staff seemed like the only people in the place.
Of course the first order of business before we were allowed to go explore– or sleep– was breakfast. It was a classic Filipino breakfast of garlic rice, scrambled eggs, tapa, and some absolutely addictive pork flakes; a slight variation from the typical Filipino tapsilog, but the main concept is the same.
After breakfast, we were given leave to freshen up, walk around, or rest before heading out to sight-see. The tour doesn’t start until afternoon so we took to our rooms to stave off the heat. Walking about the resort it’s quite easy to fall into the charms of nature. There are so many trees and beautiful flowers scattered about, and the wind never fails to carry the sound of the crickets and the birds. Every now and then a frog jumps across the road startling me (especially at night!) but I got used to it after a while. The path to our rooms are made of stones and seashells, and some old corals even. So far I was liking the general relaxed feeling being in the Vista gave me.
I had no idea what the rooms looked like here, and from the outside, the casitas looked almost like huts and not much else. I’m completely fine with having an ordinary room when I travel abroad because I never spend any time indoors, but when I’m at a resort, the first thing that I look at is my room because I’m likely to spend as much time in there as outdoors. I had not researched about the Vista so I did not know what to expect.
The inside was actually quite lovely, the dim lighting making it extremely cozy. I slept like a baby the three nights we were here! Every thing was clean and organized. They even have walk-in closets for guests. The room is spacious enough for three to four single beds. And since it was incredibly hot during the day (this being the tropics during summer and all), we were grateful to get to rest in our air-conditioned casitas in-between activities.
Around lunch, Milabelle and her crew picked us up and brought us to one of Zamboanga’s famous restaurants called Alavar. (Now I promise you we didn’t just eat and sleep when we got here though right now that’s what it’s cracking up to be.) Much like our casitas in La Vista, Alavar was kind of deceiving as it looked to be quite a small restaurant from the outside.
Little did I know that it’s actually a connection of several restaurant “wings” with a small plaza in the middle, no doubt to host weddings and the like. I loved the elegant decor.
At the far end of the plaza, marking the boundary between the restaurant and what I imagine is either the kitchens or the residence of the owner (since I saw a lot of people walking to and from the restaurant to that area) was a collection of birds. One of them, the myna would hilariously imitate anything the guests say.
Lunch consisted of a selection of seafood, something Zamboanga is rather famous for– shrimp, clams, tuna and all other sorts of fish. A must-eat when you’re here is their curacha crab (in the photo below) which in this case came with an absolutely finger-licking sauce.
Now that we’ve had our fill, it was time to go for a little bit of sight-seeing. Our first stop was the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception; dubbed as the most modern in the Philippines apparently because it’s the only church with an elevator. When our tour guide told us that on the way here, I actually thought she was joking.
Frankly, I was quite impressed by the very modern facade of the church. The stained glass window in front would’ve cast a marvelous shower of colours later in the afternoon.
The church is made up of two levels and can seat about 2000 or more people. The running joke about the church is that since it’s so big, anybody getting married here would have a chance to change their minds during the long walk to the altar.
There are a lot of beautiful churches here in the Philippines, and most of them boast of being “one of the oldest” or “most historical”. It’s rare to find a church that focuses on being one of the most modern like this one.
Boarding the bus again, it took a really short time to get to our next stop. One moment we were at the cathedral, the next we were marching up to Fort Pilar. Its full name is Real Fuerza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza but it is simply much easier to call it Fort Pilar.
Fort Pilar is nestled between the reclaimed esplanade called Paseo del Mar, and the National Museum of Zamboanga. This area remains to be one of the best maintained historical sites in Zamboanga. Further, it is a testament to how despite welcoming modernism to the city, one can still see the very strong Spanish influences in Zamboanga.
I have to admit this was one of my favourite places we visited. I’m not sure if it’s because of the colourfulness of it, or the liveliness of all the greens and the people, but something about the fort feels so rich and beautiful. I don’t think I’ve ever visited a fort in this country I liked as much as this one, nor shot a panoramic shot that I favoured so much. The detailing on the Altar of The Shrine I thought was very Filipino. According to legend, the Virgin Mary has appeared here on several occasions already, such as when she saved the people of Zamboanga from a tsunami after a violent earthquake in the 1890’s.
Because of the very religious nature of Fort Pilar, the locals continue to come here to leave their prayers and ask for blessings.
Walking across Fort Pilar, we arrived in a small enclosure by the Paseo del Mar where by the looks of it seems to be the area where all the pigeons flock. There are vendors outside who sell popcorn to attract and feed the pigeons. A bunch of people from my tour group tried to get a photo of the pigeons flying all round them, first by luring them in with food, and then startling them so they all take flight together all of a sudden. It was such a sight to see, if only it did not involve dodging bird droppings so much. I can’t multitask photography and bird-dropping dodging apparently.
It was rather unfortunate that we were unable to visit the nearby National Museum. It was closed and under construction. However, since this area does remind me a lot of Intramuros back in Manila, I can already imagine what it might be like inside. I hear there are old cannons and artifacts from the war.
We boarded the bus and drove to yet another favourite spot of the locals: Pasonanca Park. The first thing you see when you approach the compound is a tree house nestled atop a large and very ancient-looking tree. Apparently, you can rent the treehouse for free as long as you ask permission from the mayor’s office. The treehouse does look surprisingly sturdy, to be honest. And to be high up among the leaves of the trees where it is perennially cool… I think I would totally dig that.
The park coincidentally houses the headquarters of the Zamboanga chapter of the Boy Scouts of the Philippines. I used to be a girl scout in my high school years so I’ve heard stories from my boy scout friends about the camping trips they took in this place.
The park is large and incredibly green. Even the teepees in the middle of the park are green! At the far end of the park is an amphitheatre featuring an area where a bonfire may be lit. I can imagine what fun it must be to attend a scout council meeting around that gigantic bonfire, and I’m quite sure the locals do too as a lot of them seem to enjoy having picnics down there.
Our first day in Zamboanga was almost over, and so far so good!
Other posts in this series: