Before sunrise, we find ourselves on a plane to Zamboanga City, our jump-off point to a province our mothers vehemently forbade us from visiting-Basilan. The name evokes fear, and admittedly, I associate the place with terrorists and their mutilated victims. Perhaps expecting an occasional gunfire or at least a little tension in the air, we are surprised to find Isabela City, its capital, to be just like any rustic city we’ve been to. Bustling streets and business establishments. Boisterous teenagers on the sidewalk. A crowded Jollibee. “This is our typical day. Contrary to what you see on television, our city is safe.” assures Ate Yanyan Pineda, our vivacious guide from the tourism office. According to her, Mayor Cherrylyn Santos-Akbar is keen on reversing the negative image brought about by the Abu Sayaff by ensuring tight security at all times.
Basilan is home to several ethnic groups, such as the Yakan, Tausug and Badjao, whose stilt villages fringe the Isabela Channel. Though most of these groups thrive on fishing, agriculture is the province’s main source of livelihood. Aside from the typical palay, corn and coconut, Isabela’s rolling hills are strewn with coffee plants and rubber trees.
A scenic boat ride along the channel, followed by a quick habal-habal ride, takes us to a secluded slice in Malamawi Island, where a beautiful white beach awaits us. The sand is fine and soft like flour and the water, clean and sparkling. If the province’s notorious reputation has done any good, it has kept Malamawi Island away from irresponsible tourists. There are few cottages for rent, and soon, overnight facilities will be completed. “Aren’t you scared of our province?” asks one of the locals. “Do I have a reason to be scared?” I ask him back. He smiles, and tells me that just like any other place, unfortunate events happen sporadically. “It is generally peaceful here,” he declares. Though pressed for time, we linger a little more. I tell you, the water here is irresistible.
Ate Yanyan then takes us to Cabunbata Falls, a roadside scenery located just 7 kilometers from the city center. Concealed by a few Mahogany and Rubber trees, it is a perfect place to just sit meditatively and listen to the gentle cascade and the whistling of the birds among the lush vegetation. We also drop by the Rubber tree plantation and the rubber factory. Embarrassingly, I didn’t know rubbers come from trees. According to a factory attendant, rubber production is a meticulous process. They carefully tap the trees as early as two in the morning because the cool air encourages the latex to flow freely. Rubber is among the major agricultural products of the city.
Sunset finds us back in Zamboanga City, munching on a popular snack called Knickerbocker (fresh fruits with milk and ice cream) at Paseo del Mar, aseafront parkway that is clustered with bars and restaurants. Locals and tourists converge here at dusk to enjoy the view, the fresh air and the good food. Like Tawi-Tawi and Basilan, Zamboanga is unfortunately plagued with a notorious image. Remember the siege two years ago? “Everything is peaceful now as it normally is,” assures Huge, our friend who is a local. The local government’s effort to turn the tide of fear is evident on the presence of police officers in public places.
When you visit this progressive city, don’t be surprised when the least Spanish-looking person inside the jeepney says “Pasahe, por favor!” It doesn’t take a genius to see Spain’s legacy to the Zamboangenos. The Chavacano dialect (a fusion of Spanish and Visayan languages), old stone houses and the ancient coral walls of Fort Pilar are just a few of the obvious ones. Zamboanga City was once a Spanish settlement and a garrison town that protected Spain’s interest in the region. In 1635, Fort Pilar was built as a defense fortress against the Moro pirates and raiders upon the request of the Jesuit missionaries. An important landmark, it stands today as an outdoor Roman Catholic shrine and a museum.
On our last day, we decide to check out the remote Merloquet Falls. Located in the village of Sibulao around 78 kilometers east of the city, the waterfalls is only for those who are willing to endure a 2-hour bus ride from the city center, a 30-minute habal-habal ride and a 10-minute trek. Determined, we proceed despite the heavy downpour and the bumpy motorcycle ride. Our exhaustion vanishes when we see the wide and gorgeous cascade draping beautifully on the moss-covered cliff. The falls has an upper tier that is not visible from the ground. Smaller but just as beautiful, it can be accessed by climbing a slippery and difficult trail, with a rope and the trees’ undergrowth as handholds. I sit with my back against the cascade for a while. The natural massage is pure bliss.
Don’t leave Zamboanga City without visiting the Canelar Trading Center. Inside the open-air shopping mecca are endless rows of colorful and intricately designed malongs, bags, batik dresses and sarongs. Serious bargain hunters would be delighted to find Malaysian and Indonesian products, from clothes to chocolates, at dirt-cheap prices.
Admittedly, I brave these forbidden places for bragging rights but I end up humbled and educated. While most think that terrorism is an everyday occurrence in the region, we experience the people’s genuine warmth and their tremendously rich culture. Not everything you hear in the news is true.
1.) ZAMBOANGA CITY– There are daily flights from Manila, Cebu and Davao to Zamboanga City
- Fort Pilar, Paseo Del Mar and the Canelar Treading Center are just a tricycle-ride away from anywhere in the city.
- To reach Merloquet Falls, ride a bus bound for Ipil, Pagadian or Dipolog at the terminal. Alight at the bus stop in Brgy. Vitali. (2 hours, Php 130) Hire a habal-habal to Merloquet Falls in Brgy. Sibulao. (30 minutes, Php 130)
2.) BASILAN– Fly to Zamboanga City, ride a tricycle to the port and ride a Weesam Express to Isabela City in Basilan (45 minutes, Php 150) Unless you personally know a local who can show you around, make sure to coordinate with the tourism office for accredited guides.
- There are small boats that go regularly to Malamawi Island from the Isabele City port. Just ask around. (5 minutes, Php 5 fare)
Who to Call:
1.) Zamboanga City Tourism Office– (062) 992-6242
2.) Yanyan Pineda of Basilan Tourism Office 09158553785