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Zamboanga Sibugay, at the crossroads

A dancer during the Sibugsay Festival
A dancer during the Sibugsay Festival

I was in awe. A school of small lupoy, a silvery fish was regularly breaking the surface as more than a hundred individual fishes leaped a few centimetres from the shallow water, its own way of evading predators. But with the early morning sun, the occasional flashes of light against a backdrop of expansive emerald waters and extensive coral gardens just below the surface, was just a sight to behold.

Buluan Island, a small island with a tadpole’s profile sits within a 63 hectare marine sanctuary, just two kilometres off the coast and part of Sibuguey Bay is just one of several protected areas that are found in the province of Zamboanga Sibugay. It is blessed with fertile lands, rich marine waters and gentle and friendly people.

Zamboanga Sibugay
The bedazzling provincial capitol

Zamboanga Sibugay, derived from Sibugay River that flows in the province, is the youngest province in the Zamboanga Pensinula and carved out from Zamboanga del Sur’s third congressional district in 2001. Mostly populated by migrants from the Visayas, Cebuano is the lingua franca with sprinklings of Chabacano at the west and Maranao in the east. Subanen tribes have been greatly marginalized and are living in the mountainous areas bordering Zamboanga del Sur. It’s the second biggest producer of latex, top provider of calamansi and abaca. Its seas are a source of commercial fish, have extensive oyster beds and seaweed farms for carageenan.

A lad having a good time at Olutanga's wharf
A lad having a good time at Olutanga’s wharf

It was more of a curiosity that I rode into the municipality of Ipil, now the provincial capital. In 1995 the then small and predominantly Christian town became headline news as it suffered the pillaging of the notorious Abu Sayyaf, raiding and burning the town, robbing banks and killing civilians. Seventeen years later, all that is a distant memory.

Riding on tricycles, one can’t escape the feeling of being in a frontier town that has now awoken to development. The rotunda’s towering structure is still being finished. The main highway is wide, four lanes, in fact, portions of cement has just dried while another section, the old and narrow road has been drilled, cracked and ready to be cleared out. Buildings are being constructed, telecom firms offer wireless broadband internet, hotels have free wifi and one of the top banks in the country will open its branch soon.

The town, the hub of commerce is actually at a crossroads, both literally, it strategically connects the provincial capitals/cities of Zamboanga, Dipolog and Pagadian; and figuratively, as it is trying to carve out a good name for itself. At the same time, flexing its muscles to lure businesses and tourists.

Children from farm duties on the way home
Children from farm duties on the way home

Tourism in the province is really in infancy. Zamboanga Sibugay, like the rest of western Mindanao is suffering from an image problem brought out by the Ipil raid in 1995 and muslim secessionists just a few years ago. But an actual visit can be surprising. Buses ply 24 hours good and well paved roads from either points of Zamboanga City, Dipolog and Pagadian, all with airports; walking at night is relatively safe and Sibuguey Bay is actually protected by a military fast action task force. While it is ready to intercept terrorist elements crossing the seas, if they happen to pass, only illegal fishermen have been sited and apprehended.

A fishmonger at the public market
A fishmonger at the public market

And this makes Zamboanga Sibugay a rich marine playground. The vigilance of the task force as well as the establishment of marine sanctuaries have resulted in extensive coral gardens teeming with fish and other marine life. Palm fringed islands with white sandy beaches and interesting sand bars that are only revealed during low tide are just a few of the possible places that can be explored and discovered. In these beaches, the water is so pristine that even at several feet, one can still see clearly one’s toes while a school of small fish can hover just a few inches from one’s nose.

In Olutanga Island, sea grass and mangrove forests are abundant. It has become a very interesting area for those who want to see sea snakes up close.  One of the fishermen’s shelter off sea has actually been the haven of these banded serpents and spends the night there by the thousands and it has been locally declared as a snake sanctuary, probably, the only one in the Philippines.

Stands of graceful rubber trees
Stands of graceful rubber trees
Rubber tree sap gatherer
Rubber tree sap gatherer

On land, one can marvel at the hectares upon hectares of graceful rubber trees. There are waterfalls and caves that are still to be explored. Tampilisan, actually a part of Zamboanga del Norte and just at the border with Zamboanga Sibugay, is just 15 minutes from Ipil. Here can be found Situbo Falls, one of the grandest waterfalls in the country with a wide curtain of water falling a hundred meters to the ground. Still another, Merloquet Falls in Vitali, (Zamboanga City), another border town and just 1.5 hours from Ipil, has beautiful, wide and a high cascade that just awes.

It was already afternoon and I motored up to the capitol perched on a hill. The structure is massive, an architectural tour de force with a design that incorporates Muslim and Subanen motifs. As I gaze into the horizon, the sun was setting. All was calm and a cool wind blowing. Hope and the wings of opportunity seems to by finally settling in Zamboanga Sibugay.

Zamboanga Sibugay is two hours from Zamboanga City, three hours from Pagadian City and four hours from Dipolog City all by bus.PAL flies to these three cities regularly. Transportation within Ipil and the rest of Zamboanga Sibugay is via jeepneys, buses, tricycles and ‘single’ or habalhabal, which are motors that travel for short distances. Pumpboats can be arranged for island hopping/diving.

Hotels in Ipil offer free wifi and the best so far for comfort, amenities and price is Casa Mea Hotel and Restaurant. Rates start at just P700 for a very spacious and clean room with a single queen sized bed. (062)3332-808/09228221657.

While there are no specific delicacies in Zamboanga Sibugay, there are several restaurants in Ipil and one of the most recommended is Southwoods Resto along the AH26 National Highway with its delicious and affordable Filipino and Chinese cuisine.

For tourism, it is better to visit the Provincial Tourism office at the capitol. They can give advice as well as arrange for guides. Provincial tourism officer is Eda Daarol, 09997369762.

This article originally published in the May 2012 issue of Mabuhay, PAL’s inflight magazine.

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