From the time you see this word printed on a large billboard at the airport terminal's main building, you realize you're just a few steps away from exploring one of the Philippines' oldest cities, a place that's blessed with a rich historical and cultural heritage quite unlike any other. And that’s none other than Zamboanga, dubbed by its drumbeaters as Asia’s Latin City.
I guess the tagline’s no exaggeration. For there indeed is a delightful slice of the Spanish heartland’s fervor and flamboyance right smack in the western tip of Mindanao. And nowhere in the country could you find the legacy of Spain’s more than 300-year reign so deeply ingrained than in Zamboanga, whose name was derived from the Malay word jambangan, a "place of flowers".
It’s a legacy that’s intricately woven into the Hispanic architecture of old houses and buildings, in the formidable walls of historic Fort Pilar and its shrine, in the aristocratic mien of the Zamboangueños, and, of course, in that lyrical lingua franca, Chavacano, which is an interesting potpourri of Spanish, Tagalog, Ilocano, Hiligaynon, Tausug, and other Pinoy dialects.
For history buffs like me who want to travel back to the days of Spanish Philippines, Zamboanga is definitely the place to be. Just listening to the locals speak Chavacano truly made me feel like I was either in Spain, Mexico, Argentina or some other Latin American country. And after zooming in on her breathtaking scenery, feasting on her delectable cuisine, and touching base with her people, this incorrigible viajero felt as if he had traveled to a distinctively unique corner of the world. Truly, Zamboanga rocks!
But I must admit that this wasn’t exactly my initial impression of the city. Time was when she struck me as some highly volatile danger zone that serves as crime laboratory for terrorists, extremists and their ilk. I also thought then that anyone who went to that place ran the risk of being kidnapped by the dreaded Abu Sayyaf.
Can’t blame me (and many others) for thinking that way. Bad—and, if I may add, irresponsible—press has a way of shaping the way we sometimes view people, events and places. My short but sweet visit to the City of Flowers, however, changed all that. Now, I look at Zamboanga more positively, that is, as one of the country’s most charming, fastest-growing and worth visiting metropolises, offering tourists a number of surprises that wouldn’t give them any reason to get bored while they’re there.
Indeed, Asia’s Latin City is muy fabulosa! So, for extranjeros out there who want to know what’s in store for them if they visit our Little Spain, here are some activities you’d most likely enjoy pursuing:
Stroll around town. A good starting point would be Paseo del Mar. By day, this sprawling seaside promenade (which struck me as Zamboanga’s version of Manila’s Baywalk) offers stunning vistas of the city’s awesome seascape. It’s best to visit the park in the mid or late afternoons so you can catch a panoramic glimpse of Basilan and the two Santa Cruz islands. Not to be missed also is the fabulous Zamboanga sunset which can give the more world-renowned one at Manila Bay some serious competition.
At night, Paseo sizzles with activity as huge crowds of locals and tourists flock to the numerous food stalls and shops which offer a variety of cuisine as well as live entertainment. Other interesting places worth checking out are Plaza Pershing, the century-old City Hall building with its vintage architecture and the adjacent Plaza Rizal where a monument of the national hero is prominently displayed.
Lying a few kilometers away from the pueblo (downtown), Pasonanca Watershed Park is another distinctive tourist landmark in the city. Considered as the only one of its kind in the country, the park, which is gently traversed by a stream, teems with trees, flowering plants, ferns, shrubs and various species of orchids. In the middle of it all is the iconic tree house, which used to be so famous some three to four decades ago such that the city became synonymous with it.
Through the years, however, Pasonanca has evolved into a huge park complex with three natural swimming pools, a floral garden, an aviary, and a butterfly farm. Around the watershed are several dining and entertainment establishments. A full day would be required to explore the whole complex.
Search for interesting facts about the city’s Hispanic past. Perhaps the best place to learn more about Zamboanga’s history during the Spanish era would be Fort Pilar, the old fortress located near Paseo del Mar, which has been converted into a branch of the country’s National Museum. This museum displays a vast collection of ethnographic materials of various tribes, colorful blankets and clothes, hats, back-strap weaving loom, model houses, musical instruments, houseboats, fishing tools and household items, among others.
Zamboanga’s answer to Manila’s Intramuros, Fort Pilar is officially called Real Fuerza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza (Royal Force of Our Lady of the Pillar of Zaragoza). Attacked by the Dutch, stormed by the Moros, cannonaded by the British, occupied by the Americans and seized by the Japanese, the nearly 400-year old impregnable fortress has survived time and the elements. Today, an open-air shrine adjacent to the fort has been erected in honor of the miraculous Our Lady of the Pillar, the city’s patron saint. Sunday masses are being held in this Marian shrine.
Supplicate in churches and mosques. Like a few other cities in Mindanao, Zamboanga is a melting pot of various spiritual beliefs and traditions. Hence, one can find a number of churches and mosques dotting the city’s landscape. For Christians, there’s the city’s Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, one of the modern churches in Mindanao. At first blush, I thought the cathedral was a newly constructed shopping mall because of its sheer size and modern architecture.
Meanwhile, Islam’s worshippers can also visit the mosque in the village of Taluksangay, which is probably one of the most beautiful in the entire island.
Shop till you drop at the barter center. Time was when the "barter" system was very much alive in Zamboanga, especially during the Marcos years but this came to an end with the former regime’s ouster. However, one can still find tax-free products from Indonesia and Malaysia being sold at cheap prices in various places in the city.
Canelar Barter Center is one of the more popular sites frequented by tourists looking for pasalubong such as t-shirts, dresses, shawls, pants, towels, canned goods, chocolates, biscuits, sotanghon and other goodies. Since it is a tiangge, I took every opportunity to haggle to the max with the Muslim traders just to get the best bargains.
Sup and sip. When it comes to seafood, Zamboanga offers some of most delectable cuisine this side of the country. Curacha, a unique sea crab species inhabiting Zamboanga’s waters, is one dish that foodies shouldn’t dare miss. One of the city’s famous restaurants, Alavar Seafood House, offers the tastiest curacha in town. Worth trying also are the Zamboangueños’ version of yummy Spanish dishes like callos and paella. Other culinary delights can also be savored at Haisan, Café del Sol, New Country Chicken House, Palmeras, among others.
And for those who think that the City of Flowers has no nightlife, why not head for Talisay Bar at Lantaka Hotel by the Sea, La Vista del Mar and other newer establishments for a sip of your favorite booze? Also, never miss trying a glass of Zamboanga White, a creamy concoction of lychee juice and vanilla ice cream, which is named after a breed of cockfighting rooster native to the city.
Swim and snorkel in the city’s fine beaches, particularly those at the twin islands of Great and Little Santa Cruz, which I didn’t have time to explore. Visible from Paseo del Mar, the larger one boasts of a pink-sand beach and a sandbar while the smaller one has a white-sand beach that’s ideal for diving. Almost deserted, there are no hotels, restaurants, and resorts in these islands. A trip there has to be arranged in advance with the Department of Tourism (DOT).
After trying all these things, I bet you’ll agree with me that Zamboanga is probably the closest that less fortunate souls like us who can’t afford a trip abroad can get to old España. So, if given another chance, I’d really love to come back. Por eso, vamos a Zamboanga!