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Peaceful Paradise or Political Hotspot: Is it Time to Take Another Look at Visiting Zamboanga City

For decades, the Philippine and foreign governments have urged caution, or flatly discouraged travel to many parts of the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. That is starting to change.

One senior government official in Zamboanga City, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, says she knows that her town sometimes ends up in the headlines for the wrong reasons.

“Sometimes tourists are scared to come here because they hear bad news,” she says. “But once they are here, they enjoy it.”

While the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, and Zamboanga City in particular, has experienced political unrest in years past the Philippine government is now promoting it as a safe and peaceful tourist destination. The U.S. government does not prohibit its citizens from traveling to Zamboanga City but it continues to advise its citizens to reconsider travel due to security concerns. Officials in Zamboanga City consider this to be an overly cautious position.

Fort Pilar is an excellent starting point for a visit to the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga. Located in the center of town, it was built in 1635 by the Spanish as a fort but then it was later turned into a shrine where many believe that miracles took place. When the Americans took over the facility in 1899, it took on the name it carries today: Fort Pilar.

In addition to being a well-preserved example of Spanish fort-building, it also hosts peaceful well-tended grounds in the midst of the busy city. Inside the fort, Zamboanga City quietly hosts some of the most impressive museum exhibits in the Philippines.

In one exhibit, the evolution of the traditional outrigger canoes used around the Philippines but particularly in Zamboanga is on the display with detailed drawings of their construction. Though it seemingly was a simple craft when looking at it in the water, thoughtful work went into its design to keep it seaworthy even in rough weather.

The exhibit also displays the traditional houseboats seen around Zamboanga with facilities for eating, sleeping and living at sea for long periods of time. Painstakingly recreated fish traps and cages are also on display. People who live on the boats have an uncanny ability to predict bad weather. “If there is a typhoon coming, even if there are no clouds in the sky, they can tell and they come to shore,” notes the guide.

In another part of the museum, the relics of the 18th century vessel the Griffin offer a stunning dissection of the recovery of the shipwreck Griffin. Not far from that display, a sea-life display is arranged so that the farther you go into the exhibit the deeper the creatures found in the sea. The exhibit gets darker and more eerie the further you go.

One impressive attraction near the city is Taluksangay Village, which is home to an impressive mosque that might be the oldest in the Philippines. Despite its history, it is still functioning and hosts as many as 300 worshippers from the surrounding village. The Samal people in the village still live as their ancestors did in houses built on stilts above the water.

Zamboanga City is also home to a golf course that is worth a visit even if you have never played the game. Used by US General John “Blackjack” Pershing around the turn of the century, it is the oldest golf course in the Philippines. One of its fairways once served double duty as an airstrip, and administrators of the course say a light plane could still touch down there in a pinch.

Several holes look out onto Basilan Island and one stretch of the course runs along Yellow Beach, the invasion site of the U.S. military in 1945 that began the campaign to liberate the city.

For golfers, the course has a lot to offer as well. It a long and difficult course strewn with centuries old Acacia trees that seems to have popped up in the most maddening spots.

For those who want to shop, check out the city’s barter markets. They are located in the Baliwasan Commercial Complex; Sta. Cruz Market; Port Area; Multi-Trade Center along Valderrosa St; and the Canelar area. You don’t really barter at these shops. But you can haggle. Items from around the region, including beautiful batik clothing from Malaysia, are on offer.

For the intrepid shopper, nothing beats the public market. Situated along J.S. Alano Street right in the middle of the city, prices are rock bottom but there’s not much of a selection of souvenir items. There is an impressive fruit section for those who have not tried the amazing variety of fruit from the region. Your shopping list can begin with the following: lanzones, mangosteen, durian, marang, mangoes, bananas, and rambutan. If you don’t know the name of an item that looks interesting, just point at it. The friendly vendors will help you out.

When you are out on the town, try the popular local drink Zamboanga White. Named after a champion breed of fighting rooster, the drink is a shake made of lychee juice and vanilla ice cream, served with a slice of lychee on the rim of the glass. “It’s a little bit sour but not too sour,” estimates my guide.

Everyone has to decide on their own if they feel Zamboanga City is safe for travel, but for those who do visit, it’s a quaint and interesting destination.

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