Philippines · Travel Tales · Zamboanga City

Travel Tales: Zamboanga City

Months ago, there were a few who were somewhat worried when they learned that I was going to Zamboanga City for a three-day trip. There was always the misconception that it’s unsafe, that there were terrorist threats and bombings and Muslim insurgents. I have several friends and acquaintances, though, who hail from the city, and they are very much alive and safe. They were excited that I was going to visit. It was rather infectious.

I was going to visit the city primarily to get to know the roots of my best friend, Joey. (For reference, see: How to Date a Teacher.) You’ll never really know a person till you know the land where he grew up, as Ralf, a good friend and another Zamboangueño, put it.

There was the threat of typhoon Quinta on Christmas week. I was constantly texting Joey for weather updates (PAGASA predicted partly cloudy skies). Here’s what he said: “When you come here, you will learn that this city doesn’t follow rules. Even weather ones.”

Very interesting, I thought. With that, I took a 4:20am Air Philippines flight to the place formerly known as the City of Flowers.

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What the former City of Flowers calls itself now has been somewhat of a joke among Joey and his friends. Zamboanga City now goes by the moniker “Asia’s Latin City”, which is a clear reference to its Spanish influence — especially the Chavacano language, which is essentially Spanish creole using Filipino syntax and grammar. Still, when you talk about a “Latin” city, you cannot help but ask — do the people here recite the Aeneid or read Ovid?

I guess it’s little quirks like these that I found quite endearing about Zamboanga. That and its old-city charm, which I encountered the morning of my arrival — when Joey brought me to the old town and Fort Pilar.

Fort Pilar used to be a military fortress and is now a museum and a shrine to Our Lady of the Pillar. Devotees come here to pray to the patroness of the city, who apparently has worked miracles so convincing that even some Muslims come to pray. Getting there was a pleasant walk along quiet streets, if only the sun wasn’t so hot, contrary to weather forecasts.

The Shrine to Our Lady of the Pillar
The Shrine to Our Lady of the Pillar

Each bell represents a different name for the Virgin Mary
Each bell represents a different name for the Virgin Mary

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You’d need to buy multicolored candles from one of the stalls outside the fort if you want to pray for something to the Virgin Mother. You buy them depending on what you’re praying for: for example, a red candle stands for “love” and a purple one stands for “travel”. I got candles for wisdom, studies, good health, and career as well. Then we entered the shrine, which is actually the outer wall of the fort converted to an outdoor amphitheater-like shrine where Masses are held. We lit the candles up and placed them along with others.

Say a prayer before leaving the candles.
Say a prayer before leaving the candles.
A candle for a wish. I think my wishes have already started to come true. :)
A candle for a wish. I think my wishes have already started to come true. 🙂

(It’s the superstitious in me talking, but my purple candle fell to the water almost immediately after I lit it. Inside I was like Luke Skywalker screaming the long, echoing “Noooo!” in The Empire Strikes Back.)

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The museum was closed, but the lady caretaker allowed us to walk around the courtyard and to the balcony overlooking the Paseo del Mar. Most of the buildings were restorations and only once side retained the original structure.

The restored structures housing the museum
The restored structures housing the museum
The original structure
The original structure

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Overlooking Paseo del Mar
Overlooking Paseo del Mar

We took a walk around the busy old town afterwards. Several government buildings had a Filipino structure, with capiz windows and balconies reminiscent of the bahay na bato. Even Jollibee took hold of the idea. This, I was told, was a government directive. I thought it was a good move and gave the area character. I saw the city hall in broad daylight, but as Ralf told me, I had to see it at night. I did, eventually — but more on that later.

We eventually got to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception — it has probably the strangest-looking facade I’ve seen in a while, but the strained glass is fantastic.

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

The stained glass windows depicting the stations of the cross and the different archdioceses of Mindanao
The stained glass windows depicting the stations of the cross and the different archdioceses of Mindanao
A stained glass window at the entrance to the cathedral, showing symbols of Zamboanga City
A stained glass window at the entrance to the cathedral, showing symbols of Zamboanga City

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Joey’s friend Vince told me that any trip to Zamboanga is a food trip. I was inclined to agree as I noticed the growing pile of lanzones and mangosteen peelings in front of me.

Here are some of the places we ate at while I was there: there was Antonio’s near Pasonanca Park, mainly for drinks; Country Chicken, a short jeepney ride from Pasonanca; Mano-Mano (we ate at the Greenfields branch); and the famous Palmeras in Sta. Maria. I was stuffed for most of the trip, and I loved that everything was relatively cheap! It also seems that every famous restaurant there had its own version of the “bilao”, which is essentially a bilao of varied viands — the seafood bilao of Palmeras, for example, had fish fillet, calamares, oysters, and shrimp.

I was also introduced to a couple of varieties of mangoes. There’s a strong-smelling variety called huani — it smells like a sweeter durian. I left it in my hotel room, and my room smelled of it all the while I was there. I also tasted these little mangoes, so small that you cannot bite into them but suck on them instead, and they are called chupadera — a most appropriate name, in my humble opinion.

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Here are the rest of my posts about Zamboanga City 🙂

Part Two: The Great Sta. Cruz Island and the Zamboanga City Hall.

Part Three: Mt. Abong-Abong and Pasonanca Park

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