In recent years, however, Zamboanga has become synonymous with the precarious situation in Mindanao. No thanks to news dispatches that use it as dateline, the city has acquired a strife-torn image. Add to these the periodic advisories issued by embassies against travel to the southern city.
In reality, the trouble is either across the sea in Basilan or Sulu, or several mountain ranges away in the Zamboanga provinces of del Norte, Sibugay and Del Sur. Despite these negative impressions, the city is a lively getaway that is somewhat shrouded in mystery and awaits discovery.
Zamboanga until the 1990s was known as the “City of Flowers” because of the flower gardens that lined its major thoroughfares. In a strategic branding shift, it has assumed the moniker “Asia’s Latin City” owing to the deep Hispanic influence in its urban landscape and way of life.
Its Iberian-influenced mother tongue–Chavacano–a unique blend of Spanish, Visayan and local languages, is regarded by Zamboangueños as their crown cultural jewel. But the Spanish influence doesn’t begin and end there. In fact, the city has put in place a heritage code to help preserve its Old World charm even as it undergoes urban renewal. It is restoring colonial-era structures, identifying and preserving hundred-year-old trees and has imposed a building ordinance requiring new structures to conform to ethnic or Spanish themes.
The city takes pride in historic edifices such as the 105-year-old City Hall, and Fort Pilar, one of the country’s biggest fortresses, which houses the National Museum. The Fort’s outer wall serves as the Shrine of the Our Lady at the Pillar believed to have protected the city from Moro raids during the Spanish reign. New structures erected under the building code are the Centro Latino, the city’s civic center, and the Archive Building, which serves as a repository of Zamboanga’s history.
In the heart of the pueblo or town center is Plaza Pershing, named after Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, the American governor of the U.S.-era Moro Province. The once-shabby public plaza was recently spruced-up, and a dancing fountain was installed as part of the city’s urban renewal.
A few hundred meters away is the Bank of the Philippine Islands Museum, which restored the house of the prominent Barrios family to its former glory. Pershing used it as his official residence; later, it housed the bank’s branch managers.
Zamboanga is also a wondrous water world. Off the mainland is Sta. Cruz Grande Island, sought-after for its stretch of powdery, coralline pink sand and crystal-clear water. Situated about 20 minutes away, the island is also ideal for snorkeling as its lush marine life is slowly coming back to life.
A new destination is the Merloquet Waterfalls, a favorite of visitors and photographers alike because of its amazing multi-tiered cascades and refreshing water. The one-hour journey to Merloquet is a visual treat in itself because of the undulating terrain of the Zamboanga Peninsula.
Those who have been fascinated by the colorful vinta can now ride this age-old Muslim sailboat every weekend at the Paseo del Mar for an exhilarating afternoon cruise.
For a glimpse of Islamic culture, swing by the coastal village of Taluksangay, home to a majestic mosque, or the Yakan Village, which showcases the exquisitely woven crafts of this Basilan tribe.
Further up the city’s coast, wanderers can frolic in the Zamboanga Golf and Country Club greens, marvel at the delicate woodwork at San Ramon Penal Colony, chill out at Zamboanga Ecozone’s recreational facilities or at Bernardo’s Farm, the city’s emerging agritourism haven.
When the sun sets, the nocturnal colonies of Plaza del Pilar and Paseo del Mar come to life with the Latin beat of live bands performing Chavacano compositions. Diners can feast on local delights, most notably the luscious curacha or spanner crab at Alavar’s Restaurant, and wind down with the cool knickerbocker dessert at Palmera’s Garden.
Completing the experience is the favorite Filipino sport of bargain hunting and souvenir-shopping in the city’s traditional “barter centers.” Here, one can buy Muslim ethnic apparel and accessories, as well as Malaysian products bartered or traded in the backdoor state of Sabah.
And after indulging in Zamboanga’s culture, nature and cuisine, you will realize that danger is just a state of mind.
Bernard L. Supetran is a tourism consultant and editor of EZ Maps, which makes tourist maps of the Philippines’ top travel destinations.