Gorgeous Zamboanga Islands

We were welcomed by a “Bienvenidos!” by the Alavar staff, as we entered this iconic Zamboanga restaurant for dinner. An excellent way to distress after a 3-hour flight delay from Manila. 

For a while there, I was disoriented… where am I?  Zamboanga is popularly known as Asia’s Latin city because of its unique native dialect.  The Chavacano dialect is a mixture of Spanish and various other local dialects and international languages.  It is also the oldest spoken language in the country reflecting a rich linguistic history of its people.

So rich in natural resources, it is dubbed as the “Sardines Capital of the Philippines” as sardine fishing and processing accounts for about 70% of the city’s economy.  Having said that, it is also known as the City of Flowers (the etymology of Zamboanga comes from the Malay word “jambangan” – garden of flowers.

I’ve always wanted to visit Zamboanga but never got around to it until now, upon my urging and the invitation of (my new and hubby’s old) friend.

An emerging tourist destination, the city continues to attract visitors because of its multi-cultural dishes, gorgeous beaches, and rich history.

On limited time, we went straight to the top sights:

The Great Sta. Cruz Island

It is known for its pink sand beach, sand bar, and mangrove lagoon.  Just 20 minutes away by boat from the Paseo del Mar, it is probably the most popular tourist spot in Zamboanga. 

The pink sand comes from the crushed organ pipe corals.

A protected area in the Basilan Straits, visitors are allowed to visit the sandbar but with a 15-minute time limit. 

There are also no accommodations on the island and camping is likewise not allowed.  No restaurants, only low-impact facilities, and structures were built on the island. 

There are locals selling seafood, and you can request them to cook it for you, for a fee.  In our case, our host brought most of the food.  A start in the right direction, don’t you think? 

Clockwise: sambal, pitik (sea mantis), Pyanggang chicken (cooked with burnt coconut and other spices), mud crabs… yum!

Make sure to also explore the mangrove lagoon because this was the highlight of my day.  You will witness an extensive mangrove system where flying foxes and various waterbirds roost.

Richard, the guide, talking about the different types of mangroves.
The group looking for stingless jellyfish

Costs:

Boat rental: P1,000

Entrance Free: P20/guest

Terminal Fee: P5/guest

Cottages range from P100-500 depending on the size.

Once Islas

Composed of 11 islands along the Moro Gulf, located within the boundaries of Barangays Panubigan and Dita.  Four are open to the public so far.  To ensure responsible and sustainable tourism development and cultural sensitivity, the islands are managed and led by the community of indigenous people who live there.  This is, of course, with the support of the Local Government Unit and the City Tourism Office.

Just an hour drive from the city proper, these islands are ideal for low-impact activities like swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, and trekking.  Formally launched in July 2018, Once Isla is the newest eco-cultural tourism attraction of Zamboanga.

We went to 3 of the 4 islands:

Bisaya-Bisaya

Beautiful, powdery white beach on one side and stunning rock formation on the other, which can be trekked with a guide. 

During low tide, they said that visitors can cross over to the smaller islet nearby and take a dip in the tidal lagoon.  We didn’t get to do this.

Bauang Bauang

Our second stop is a lovely island with powdery soft sand and crystal clear water.  

Sirommon

The island has a fine sand beach with a fabulous sandbar that appears during low tide. 

A short trek away, on the other side of the island, is a Sama Banguigui tribal community, which can prepare food if given enough notice. 

This side of the island is equally, if not more beautiful because of the mangroves grown on one side of the beach. 

Guests are required to book with the Zamboanga Tourism Office at least one day in advance.  Email them at tourism.zambo@gmail.com or call them at (063) 992-3007

Costs:

Entrance fee: P100

Environmental Fee: P100

Boat rental: P1,200-2,000 depending on the size and capacity

Cottages: P150

Other Important Information:

Alavar Seafood House: Dr. Alfaro St., Tetuan  (063) 991-2482

Abaniko Cottages

fields-to-falls

We keep talking about vacationing in Adams—but we knew better. We purchased the property beside the Chen’s with retirement in mind. It had a beautiful view of the river and a perfect spot to build a vacation/retirement home.

river-view

But somewhere along the way, that home (using repurposed wood from old houses) turned into three cottages that we turned into a bed and breakfast intended for the more discerning travelers, and we’ve, in fact, managed to lure some city folks to come visit. Adams is about 2 hours from Laoag and a 45-minute (thereabouts) drive up bumpy roads (for now).

grounds-2grounds-3

For nearly three years now, the cottages beside Ilyn’s Homey Place, which we named Abaniko (from the shape of the lot), has been home to more than a few travelers visiting Adams.  Our rooms are simple but has all the basic comforts such as clean, crisp linens and towels, screens (to keep the bugs out), cold and hot showers, and a lovely balcony that can ease your stresses away.  Me and my book in the balcony makes me a happy camper

roomenvironmental

Ilyn of Ilyn’s Homey Place is Ilyn Chen, an energetic woman with big round eyes and a warm smile. She met her husband while working in Taiwan. The couple came for a visit and Chunyi fell in love with Adams, Ilyn’s hometown. They eventually settled there and opened their home to visitors, mostly backpackers and locals from neighboring towns. We met them because everytime we go up, we stay with them. We have become friends and like Chunyi, we fell in love with Ilyn’s town.

koi-and-tilapia-togetherkoi

Chunyi, on the other hand, loves his fish. He has tilapia and koi ponds around the properties.

koi-pond

He also likes to cook and dishes out fantastic food. He said that every meal he creates are those he misses (from Taiwan) or merely loves.

chinese-pork-adoboChinese Pork Adobo

It wasn’t easy convincing him to cook for our guests, but he eventually relented, and his meals have become part of the highlight of our guests.

ulang-in-sate-sauceUlang in Sate Sauce

It has its ups and downs, our little B&B—typhoons, collapsing bridges, floods, landslides… you name it.   But small wins like discovering Chunyi’s culinary passion, happy guests, good feedbacks, lush garden, beautiful blooms, improved road conditions, all make up for the obstacles.

grounds

It’s an open invitation, folks. It’s glorious here. Come on up while the weather is still lovely and crisp.

lotus-flower

Sabtang Revisited

I once walked the entire island in two days. That was when there was no transportation except for a pick-up truck that took our backpacks to Sumnanga, halfway around the island and where we spent the night. Ten years later, I spent the night in the School of Fisheries in Centro and still call it rugged. Fast forward to now, and all it took was half a day to visit all the famous sights.

transport-around-island(via this…)

The only way there is still by falowa (a boat without an outrigger, used by the Ivatans to ferry around the islands)

falowa

but it can now sit 70 (some even more), making Sabtang more accessible. And so the island is packed with daytime visitors (like us… sigh).

tourists

Various developments noted and yes, the old rugged Sabtang may have been lost forever, but it still manages to exude its very own charm…

LighthouseThe fairly new light house (it was in the middle of construction when I was last there some ten years ago) standing tall as you approach the island.

coastlineThe beautiful coastline as you approach Savidug

charming-house

typical-stone-house-with-cogon-roofTypical stone houses with cogon (grass) roof.

stonehouse-mountain-backdrop

mountain-backdropThe mountain backdrop adding to its charm.

chavayan-housesHouses in Chavayan

savidug-ruinsThe ruins in Savidug

country-lifeScenes of everyday life in the island

little-island-girl

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chamantad-cove-tinya-viewpointChamantad Viewpoint

morong-beachMorong Beach

mahayao-arch

mahayao-arch-2The famous Mahayao Arch in Morong Beach

lunch-at-morong-beachLast but not the least, lunch at the beach before heading back to the main island of Batanes.

 

Minalungao

It’s the first days of summer, and this draft has been on the back burner giving way to other bigger trips I’ve had.

So before I start writing about my next destination, which took place last month in an icy setting and is the exact opposite of what we will be experiencing in the coming days, I’d like to take you to a place in Nueva Ecija. A little gem, they say it is. It was a spur of the moment and as these things go, we all made it.  Sometimes to plan is vain.

The small part of an otherwise well-paved road was only wide enough for our Explorer to safely get its way past the stream, thanks to this boy who helped us navigate our way.

Thanking him after, he offered to be our guide. Enterprising young man. And so for 500Php, the then 14-year-old AJ took us around his playground.

We navigated the short but somehow challenging, sometimes slippery rocks and trail to the cave that AJ said would take only 5 minutes. “Akala ko 5 minutes lang sa loob ng cave, bakit parang 20 minutes na kami ditto sa loob ah?” (I thought it only takes 5 minutes to explore the cave, why does it seem like 20 minutes already?) I asked AJ. “Kasi ang bibilis nyo mag lakad!” “Because you all walk so fast!” he said. He has a point.  🙂

In the foothills of the Sierra Madre lies a protected area in the municipality of General Tinio (sometimes also called Papaya – don’t ask me why) where the Penaranda River flows cutting through magnificent limestone walls.

One can trek to the caves through the limestone wall, swim in the crystal clear, refreshing water or simply soak in the scenery while enjoying a packed lunch on the raft.

Do try to make your way there if you haven’t. An enjoyable day trip it certainly was.

Responsible Traveling

Sagada's-RealityCredits: Papers by Splendid Fin 4ever Swirls and Now is paper in green; The Design Girl paper 1; Elements from Scrap Matter’s Life Little Surprises: leaf and flower by Scrapmuss; frame by Gwenipooh Designs; Splendid Fin Now is Striped ribbon

My first entry to Sagada was in 1994. I was instantly drawn to it because it reminded me of a TV series set in Alaska that I love. Remember Northern Exposure? Rustic town, log cabins, lots of trees, hilly and winding roads, cool weather, sunflowers, indigenous people… well, it doesn’t snow in Sagada, but you get the drift. But more than that, it had caves, waterfalls, rice terraces, lakes and green pastures too. It has become my haven of rest, my respite when the going gets tough in the metro. I’d frequent it through the years.

St-Mary'sUnobstructed view of St. Mary’s Episcopalian Church back then.  1997.

Back in the days when going to Sagada entails eight to ten hours of (no air conditioning) bus ride and two very bumpy, dusty jeepney rides because you dare not subject your car to the condition of the road (fit for a 4×4 only) leading up to Sagada. Inaccessibility kept Sagada away from the crowd. You had to adore the place to keep going back or even attempt a visit back then.

Walking-to-Lake-DanumWalking to Lake Danum.  1997.

Back in those days, we’d walk everywhere. Sumaging Cave, Lake Danum, Kiltepan, Echo Valley, except for Bomod-ok Falls, where we’d take a jeep to the jump off point to the village of Fedelisan. I remember my first attempt to the falls—muddy and slippery and scary.

narrow-path-to-the-falls
The terraces were narrower then unlike the wider cemented walkways of today (done for the tourists in mind).

Fedelisan-terracesSome paths only had rocks to step on. That was scary.

Back in those days, there was no way to book a room in advance. We’d take a chance and stay wherever there was room. We’d take cold showers because we didn’t know that they sell hot water by the pot for 10 pesos. Crazy, I know. But those were the best times.

The way to Sagada has gotten so much easier because the roads are paved now. Visitors tripled, probably quadrupled over the years. Accommodations of all sorts have sprouted, eateries too. Subtle changes I didn’t mind at all. I actually loved the new additions until my haven of rest started to morph from a tranquil, laid-back escape into a noisy, car-packed town. I now become nostalgic of what Sagada used to be and desiring the old one back.

IMG_7145Basura and problema  naming ngayon (we now have a problem with trash),” says friend and guide Fabian. In the many years that travellers (mostly foreign and local backpackers) have come, trash had never been an issue until recently.

And that recently is when the Filipino hit flick, “That Thing Called Tadhana” unwittingly made Sagada an “in” thing.   Nothing wrong with that but sad to say, many of new visitors are irresponsible tourists leaving not only their footprints but also their trash behind.

IMG_7146

I have yet to understand their psyche but I sense a lack of respect for nature and the surroundings. While waiting for the sunrise in Kiltepan (which by the way was packed with perhaps 200 people taking “selfies”that morning),

crowd-in-Kiltepan

taking-selfiesI’d hear words like “Bet ko nandito parin tayo ng 7 o’clock” (bet you we’re still here by 7 o’clock), like the sun will never rise.

sunriseSana natulog nalang tayo” (we should have just slept in), one said before leaving because the sunrise wasn’t spectacular.   Folks, the sun will rise, that’s for sure but life does not promise dramatic ones every day.   I tell myself to chill because people think differently but how do you explain this one— “Pinaasa lang tayo ng sunrise” (in essence, it means – the sunrise led us on).   Really? Like nature owes you?

I always encourage people to travel because it is enriching. Depending of course on how one takes a trip, the experience can be priceless. But, we need to change our travel habits and be responsible travelers, to be responsible enough to properly dispose of our trash, respect local tradition and most especially their environment. I hope one day we learn to be just that.

‘Responsible travel’ means assessing our impact on the environment and local cultures and economies – and acting to make that impact as positive as possible. – Tony and Maureen Wheeler, Lonely Planet

Begnas: A Ritual for Good Harvest

Happy and contented with finally being able to see up close the Panag-apoy, witnessing another festival is, what I would like to think of as, a bonus.

a-few-days-ago-2Walking to town from Ex-Mayor Killip’s house, which we rented for our stay, we saw these men in traditional Igorot clothes.

Former Sagada Mayor Tom Killip invited us to watch their ritual for a good harvest if we have time before heading down. Of course, we have time, we will make time.

dancing-2

Deeply rooted in culture and tradition, the Kankanaey community of Sagada celebrate a Rice Thanksgiving ritual that follows the cultural calendar of the Igorot. The dates of the Begnas are usually decided by the tribal leaders via age-old omen and signs and, therefore, have no fixed dates.elder

It is generally held to mark the different agricultural cycle—pre- planting or land preparation, planting and harvest—and apparently happens three times a year, loosely in March, June and November.

We were advised to be there early so not to disturb their celebration. Being early has its advantages.vantage-point

From our vantage point, we were able to watch the celebration up close without being in the way.gathering-in-the-dapay

Arriving in traditional clothes, men and women from different barangays gather in the hosting dap-ay.to-the-patpatayan

It starts with a group of men in a single file going off to the rice fields to sacrifice a pig on sacred ground the community calls patpatayan.practicing

Meanwhile, the men left in the dap-ay started to perform their traditional dances, not to entertain us (but perhaps themselves) but that we were.   After a half an hour perhaps, they came back, still in single file, to the dap-ay with the pig divided into pieces. The ceremony ends with everyone participating in the dance and the pieces distributed to each community.

dancing-3

pig-distribution

I am honored to have seen this tradition and was well worth setting our trip back for a few hours.

I leave you with more photos of the celebration:

a-few-days-ago

dancing-4

dancing

Panag-apoy: A Sagada Ritual

In Sagada like the rest of the country, All Saint’s Day is the day they gather together and remember the departed. families-gather

But while it is common to light a candle or two, the indigenous community of Sagada, instead burn wood from old pine, locally known as “saeng”.

lighting-the-saeng

The Panag-apoy, as the Kankanays call this ritual, was an event I had wanted to witness since I learned of it many, many years ago.   Not for lack of trying but victorious, I never was until two years ago. The threat of rains, I thought, would once again thwart the gathering as it did in my previous attempts.

sun-showing

But lo and behold, the sun came out on that 1st day of November and finally allowed this curious spectator a glimpse of this unusual ritual.

A ritual that’s been practiced since the 1900s and is not purely indigenous. It is a combination of Anglican rites, influenced by the teachings of American missionaries, and the Igorot culture. St.-Mary's

It starts with a liturgical service at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin.

priest-blessings

Followed by the blessing of the saeng and the tombs. And as the priest moves around, one by one the saeng gets lighted and laid by the tomb.

bonfire

ablaze

By day’s end, the Sagada cemetery behind St. Mary glows in the dark. And truth be told, it is a surreal sight to behold.  
glowing-in-the-dark

Like me, many go to witness, document or to just experience this amazing tradition unique to the northern Kankanays.

spectators-wait

more-spectators