ZamBaSulTa: Traversing Mindanao’s Southwestern Archipelago

After taking a daytour at the pink beach of Santa Cruz island in Zamboanga City, I went directly to port terminal for my second leg of my ZamBaSulTa (ZamboangaBasilan-Sulu-Tawi-Tawi) trip at Isabela City. I got a glimpse of Basilan at this (former) capital then I headed back to mainland to have a foodtrip. Then the next day, I took flight to Bongao for my Tawi-Tawi adventure, where I stayed at Ate Sidang’s humble abode. I roamed around the downtown the next day before heading to Sulu via an overnight ferry trip. I got at Jolo early afternoon for a tour hosted by Ma’am Jainab, a tourism officer. I stayed until dinner then slept again at at ferry now bound to Zamboanga City. Last day at mainland was spent in Pasonanca Park and buying souvenirs at Canelar Barter trade, then night flight bound to Manila.

Zamboanga Peninsula (Tagalog: Tangway ng Zamboanga; Chavacano: Peninsula de Zamboanga; Cebuano: Lawis sa Zamboanga) is an administrative region in the Philippines, designated as Region IX. The region consists of three provinces (Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga Sibugay and Zamboanga del Sur) and two cities (Isabela City and Zamboanga City; the former being part of Basilan province and the latter a highly urbanized city). The region was previously known as Western Mindanao.

Mindanao hosts three major demographic groups or what they call tri-people living in harmony: Christians (mostly immigrants from Luzon and Visayas), Lumad (un-Islamized and un-Christianized indigenous people of Mindanao), and Moros (Islamized people of Mindanao). Despite some ongoing conflicts within the region, people are peace-loving and can’t wait to invite us to appreciate the natural wonders, heritage sites and colorful festivals they offer.

On foreground are the tri-people sculptures by Kublai Millan at Peoples Park of Davao City: the boy playing a guitar-like instrument is a Christian, the girl at center with a flute is a Lumad, and the boy with kulintang is a Moro.

As a solo traveler, I carefully planned my visit here by searching on blogs and Facebook groups. From there, I collated the contacts of tourism offices in the area as well as trusted guides (based on trusted reviews by fellow travelers). I caught a promo fare for Tawi-Tawi flight. With this, I finally reached Philippines’ southernmost province (my 54th visited province so far) and include it in my #project81 by visiting Mindanao provinces one at a time.

BARMM west
The Bangsamoro, officially the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao or BARMM (Filipino: Rehiyong Awtonomo ng Bangsamoro sa Muslim Mindanao; Arabic: منطقة بانجسامورو ذاتية الحكم‎ Munṭiqah banjisāmūrū dhātiyyah al-ḥukm), is an autonomous region located in the southern Philippines. Highlighted are the provinces I visited for this trip: 53rd Basilan, 54th Tawi-tawi and 55th Sulu. All are within Sulu archipelago.

I have visited Northern MindanaoZamboanga Peninsula, and Davao Region before, so my goal this time is to cover ZamBaSulTa part of BARMM. Hence, my itinerary became ZamBaSulTa Solo Trip! Presenting my Itinerary below with Zamboanga City as my entry and exit point:

My ZambaSulTa Travel Map hopping on major airports and seaports within Sulu archipelago.


Isabela City
📍Basilan Provincial Capitol
📍Isabela City Hall
📍Cathedral of St. Elizabeth of Portugal
📍Kaum Purnah Mosque
📍Plaza Rizal
📍Malamawi beach
📍Isabela City Plaza
📍Isabela City Landmark

📍Tawi-Tawi Provincial Capitol
📍Bud Bongao Forest Park
📍Bud Bongao Photo Gallery and Museum
📍The White Mosque by the Bay of Tubig Tanah
📍Mindanao State University Tawi-Tawi College of Technology and Oceanography
📍MSU Hostel and Museum
📍Church of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary
📍Bongao Municipal Hall
📍Chinese Pier
📍Bongao Poblacion
📍Bongao Landmark

📍Sulu Provincial Capitol
📍Jolo Municipal Hall
📍Tulay Central Mosque
📍Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel 
📍Sulu Museum
📍Gov. Abdusakur Tan Square
📍Plaza Rizal
📍Sulu Landmark
📍Jolo Landmark

Zamboanga City
📍City Hall of Zamboanga
📍Plaza Rizal
📍Plaza Pershing
📍Bank of the Philippine Islands Zamboanga
📍Royal Fort of Our Virgin Lady of the Pillar of Zaragoza
📍Our Lady of the Pilar Shrine
📍Paseo del Mar
📍Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
📍Pasonanca Park
📍Butterfly Park in La Jardin Maria Clara Lobregat
📍Maria Clara Lobregat Statue
📍El Museo de Zamboanga
📍Parque de Ciencia de Zamboanga
📍Pasonanca Tree House
📍Camp Scout Limbaga
📍Santa Cruz Island’s Pink Beach
📍Canelar Trading Center

Zamboanga to Isabela: Php70 ferry + Php11 Terminal Fee
Isabela to Zamboanga: Php170 fastcraft + Php4 Terminal Fee
The Kaum Purnah Mosque is the oldest mosque in Basilan island. It is painted white and has a minaret with yellow colors on its upper half. It greets visitors on ferries as they sail the channel into Isabela
Basilan (Chavacano: Provincia de Basilan; Tausug: Wilaya’ sin Basilan; Yakan: Wilayah Basilanin) is an island province of the Philippines in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region. Basilan Island is the largest and northernmost of the major islands of the Sulu Archipelago. It is just off the southern coast of the geographic Zamboanga Peninsula. The Yakan people mainly reside here in Basilan. Also known as dream weaver having a significant number of followers of Islam, it is considered as one of the 13 Moro groups in the Philippines. Basilan’s name may also derive from its iron ore deposits, basih-balan, the Tausug word for magnetic iron. Roughly translated and abbreviated, however, basih-lan means “the iron (magnet) trail” or “the iron way”. My 53rd province!
Isabela, officially the City of Isabela (Chavacano: Ciudad de Isabela; Tausūg: Dāira sin Isabela; Yakan: Suidad Isabelahin; Sama: Siti Isabela) or simply known as Isabela City, is a 4th class city in Basilan, Philippines. It is also colloquially known as Isabela de Basilan. 
Santa Isabel Cathedral in Isabela City, an art deco cathedral with a mosaic altar reminiscent of Roman-Byzantine cathedrals, named in honor of the patron saint of Isabela.
The beautiful mosaic altar of the cathedral
Isabela City branch of Jollibee infamously known the “most bombed” branch
Isabela City Plaza (formerly Plaza Misericordia) /Plaza Rizal. The twin plazas of the city have remained at the very center of Basilan’s socio-political scene to this very day.
Plaza Rizal with Basilan Relief Map at the back of Rizal monument
Isabela City Landmark at the City Plaza
Basilan Provincial Capitol, site of Fort Isabela II. The original fort was bombed and destroyed towards the end of World War II, having been used by the occupying Japanese forces as a munitions dump. A newer Capitol Building was built on the spot where the old Basilan City Hall stood after it was burned in the early 1990s. The new building is a celebration of Muslim and Christian influences which shaped modern-day Basilan, and still occupies the highest point of the city proper.
I should have proceed next to Malamawi Island but due to time constraints, I left immediately to catch the last trip of fastcraft back to Zamboanga City.
ZAM-TWT flight – Departure going to Tawi-tawi Php150 terminal Fee
Sanga-Sanga Airport (Sinama: Landing Sanga-Sanga) (IATA: TWT, ICAO: RPMN), also known as Tawi-Tawi Airport, is an airport serving the general area of Bongao, the capital of the province of Tawi-Tawi in the Philippines. Palanjal kam ni Tawi-Tawi means Welcome to Tawi-Tawi! in Sinama, the dominant language of the province.
Mount Bongao (famously known as Bud Bongao) is a 250 hectare, 350-meter peak and is the most famous mountain not only in Bongao but also in the province of Tawi-Tawi. According to the locals, one can only say that he has been to Tawi-Tawi if he has climbed Bongao Peak.
Tawi-Tawi (Tausug: Wilaya’ sin Tawi-Tawi; Sinama: Jawi Jawi/Jauih Jauih) is an island province in the Philippines located in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The capital of Tawi-Tawi is Bongao. The name Tawi-Tawi came from the Malay word ‘jauh’ meaning far. According to historians, early traders used to call the islands “jaui-jaui” (far away) referring to its long distance from mainland Asia. And since Tawi-Tawi is the Philippines’ southernmost province, it’s one of the places in the country.
Bongao, officially the Municipality of Bongao, is a 2nd class municipality and capital of the province of Tawi-Tawi, Philippines. Much of the Bongao area was the center of Bajau culture and arts for hundreds of years. Hence, their major language is Sinama. Today, Bongao is a minuscule cosmopolitan site that is becoming a model of multicultural society. In downtown Bongao, there are mosques for the majority Muslim population, a Catholic church, a church for Protestant inhabitants, and a Chinese temple.
From the airport, Kuya Ladz fetched me and let me took a rest at their humble abode near the airport. After an hour, I went with Ate Sidang for a visit at MSU then when to wharf for a cultural presentation. I was happy to witness such activity.
Mindanao State University – Tawi-Tawi College of Technology and Oceanography (MSU-TCTO) is an autonomous campus of the Mindanao State University system located in Sanga-Sanga, Bongao, in the province of Tawi-Tawi, Philippines. Home of Tambuli Cultural Dance Troupe, Ate Sidang showed me her office here, filled with musical instruments, garments and accessories showcasing the colorful Sama heritage.
Igal is the traditional dance of the Sama people, the dominant ethnic group of the islands of Tawi-Tawi in the Philippines. As a traditional ‘fingernail’ dance, similar to our Malay neighbors, this type of dance resembles those of the Balinese and Thai movements,with a twist of bamboo castenets and poles. Here, they showcase the dance by balancing act on large jars. As a whole, Igal heritage dance depicts the life of Sama people such as fishing, courting between couples, martial aspect between tribes, and others mimicking the movement of sea creatures and fluid movement of sea itself. I suddenly remembered the Pangalay dance (from Tausug people) danced by my classmated way back in my elementary days.
In some references, Sama-Bajau have sometimes been called the “Sea Gypsies” or “Sea Nomads”. Historically in the Philippines, the term Sama referred to the more land-oriented and settled Sama–Bajau groups, while Bajau referred only to more sea-oriented, boat-dwelling, nomadic groups. Even these distinctions are fading as the majority of Sama-Bajau have long since abandoned boat living, most for Sama-style piling houses in the coastal shallows. Sama is believed to have originated from the Austronesian root word sama meaning “together”, “same”, or “kin”
Witnessing the cultural presentation of the Sama people was such a great privilege. Opening my eyes to this colorful tradition kept by the peaceful-loving people made me realize that we have diverse cultures waiting to be unraveled, only if we are brave enough to see them personally. Thanks Ate Sidang for this opportunity.
Tambuli Cultural Dance Troupe with yours truly (n_n)
A museum just beside the performance hall. Bones of marine animals are displayed here at MSU-TCTO wharf.
White Mosque by the Bay
Located at Barangay Tubig Tanah, this cute white mosque gleams just a few meters from the seas of Tawi-Tawi. Despite of small size, it sits perfectly by the bay amidst the blue sky on a clear day, with green grass and few coconut trees around.
Me on the other side facing the bay. It means the mosque has symmetrical façades.
Kuya Ladz brought me here at Tawi-Tawi provincial capitol with viewpoint of Bongao island.
Tawi-Tawi: My 54th province!
The busy Ridjiki Boulevard at Bongao Poblacion. Tricycles abound near the publoc market. We fetched Reech, Kuya Ladz’ son and we bought food for dinner.
Padjak everywhere! It is their local pawnshop ubiquitous within Sulu archipelago.
The tricycles of Bongao are very colorful.
While waiting, Kuya Ladz gave me some piyutu, a cassava staple snack.
You know you’re in this part of Mindanao where you can buy Malaysian goods mostly on barter trade centers like in Pagadian, Cotabato and Zamboanga cities. Being the closest province to Malaysia, no wonder Tawi-Tawi markets are full of imported goods. Well, these noodles are among my favorites!
Chinese Pier – Historically before Spaniards arived in our shores, people of Mindanao were actively trading with Chinese particulary Hookien from mainland China. The Chinese themselves assimilated with the natives and now, this pier became a fishing pirt and local pier for jumpoff to other island municipalities of Tawi-Tawi.
The waters around Tawi-Tawi are abundant with seafood! Most premium catch were delivered to customers early in the morning, leaving the locals with fresh catch of the day. We resorted buying some fish and big clams for dinner.
Before heading back to Sanga-Sanga, we had some snacks at one of the popular merienda joints in Bongao. I had ordered their special halo-halo and pastil. Delicious!
These little snacks are savoury! Must try!
I spent time reading this book of Reech. It was about stories from indigeneous tribes of Mindanao. The book is written in Filipino and other textbooks are written in Tausug, despite the majority of Tawi-Tawi people speaks Sinama.
Relief goods from Tawi-Tawi!
The next day, we hiked Bud Bongao, the famous mountain of Bongao, Tawi-Tawi. Bud Bongao is composed of six limestone pillars that form six of its peaks, which serves as view points for the islands and locations they are named after. These peaks are BongaoPajarSibutu (summit), SimunulTambisan, and Tinondakan.
The Peak is famous for several reasons. The mountain is considered sacred where it is believed that two preachers who are direct followers of Karim ul-Makhdum, are buried under what is called Tampat Rocks – they would carry their sick to the peak and pray for their healing. It offers a panoramic view of Bongao and its neighboring islands and finally, it’s a Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) conservation site being home to some endemic and endangered species of plants and animals.
Many of the locals also climb Bongao peak on a regular basis which to them is the true reason that is keeping them physically healthy and strong and helping them recover from sickness by climbing the mountain as a form of exercise. Kuya Ladz told me that visitors also make a wish by throwing a coin from one side of the peak to the other side. They believe that if their coin will reach the top of the other side of the peak, their wishes will come true.
The descent. Aside from being a sacred mountain, Bud Bongao is also famous for hikers. A 3,608-step cobblestone trail has been constructed from the jump-off at Barangay Pasiagan that ends at a view deck constructed on Tambisan Peak. The view deck offers a vantage point overlooking Celebes Sea and Tambisan Island in Sabah at 317 metres (1,040 ft) above sea level.
Bud Bongao Photo Gallery and Museum. Here, you cn have a glimpse of sights and activities offered by tousism office. See the musical instruments used in Igal heritage dance such as the Kulintang (row of gongs).
Gandingan (set of suspended gongs) and Agung (standalone gong)
Dabakan (single-headed Philippine drum) and Gabbang (bamboo xylophone)
The fauna diversity of Bud Bongao
The Sama mats are the most intricate and one of the finest-grained in the country. The most commonly used material is the pandanus plant which grows abundantly in the limestone-based island of Tawi-Tawi.
Thanks Bongao Municipal Government for improving the facilities for citizens and tourists alike.
Church of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Bongao Poblacion. I try to visit every catholic church wherever I go, as a sign of gratitude that I made it to the place safe and sound.
The altar of Bongao church. I was very thankful to get to see daily life here in the southernmost part of our country. I bid farewell to Kuya Ladz at Bongao Port, and thanked his family for taking care of me for two days. My heartfelt gratitude to the most friendliest family I’ve ever encountered. Magsukul! (n_n)
Ate Sidang made packed meals for me, so I can survive the breakfast and lunch while in ferry. This one has clams in adobo and breaded variants.
This was my lunch while having stopover at Siasi, Sulu: big fried fish with breaded clams and lots of rice.
This was my breakfast I bought the day before. Perfect with boiled egg.
Overnight ferry from Bongao, Tawi-tawi to Jolo, Sulu: Php650 + Php10 Terminal Fee
Arriving at Jolo with Tulay Central Mosque on foreground and Bud Dajo a few kilometer away-
Sulu (Tausūg: Wilāya sin Lupa’ Sūg) is a province of the Philippines in the Sulu Archipelago and part of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
Its capital is Jolo on the island of the same name.The majority of Jolo’s people are Tausug – the Moro ethnic group that dominates the Sulu Archipelago. Tausug derives from the words tau meaning “man” and sug meaning “current”, which translates to “ people of the current”, because they were known to be seafarers with military and merchant skills. The Tausugs are known as the warrior tribe with excellent fighting skills.
Sulu: My 55th province!
Suku Provincial Capitol is one of the most picturesque capitols in the Philippines. The design and elements incorporated reflect the Moro identity.
The stained glass windows are awesome. Ma’am Jainab of Sulu Provincial Tourism Office accompanied me in my day tour at Jolo, and she let me roam around the capitol after registration at the tourism office.
Jolo, officially the Municipality of Jolo (Tausūg: Dāira sin Tiyanggi), is a 1st class municipality and capital of the province of Sulu, Philippines. Jolo was the center of the government of the Sulu Sultanate.
It is said that the Hokkien Chinese traders who frequented the place, named Jolo after hó lâng (好儂). Hó lâng meaning ‘Good People’ reflects the Chinese perception of the natives. Chinese traders would leave goods on Jolo’s shore, and find them undisturbed on their return. The phrase was eventually extended to hó lō͘ (好路) meaning ‘Good Community’.
Sulu Museum. The branch of National Museum is in a two-story building that was once the seat of the Provincial Museum and Library of Sulu. It is located in Jolo, the provincial capital of the main island of Sulu province. The Sulu Museum and Library was established through a Sangguniang Panlalawigan resolution in 1981 to house ethnographic materials of Sulu culture and a library.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral is a Roman Catholic cathedral located in the town center and is the biggest church in town. Plaza Rizal is across the cathedral
The altar of cathedral with Risen Christ
Tulay Central Mosque. The main mosque of the capital of Sulu province. The mosque is dominantly coastal, as the people who adhere to it are the Tausug, who call themselves as people of the sea. The mosque has four towers and one dome. The dominant colors of the mosque are white and green.
Gov. Abdusakur Tan Square commonly known as Plaza Tulay across the central mosque
Tiyula Itum is a very spicy soup. It is beef with broth mixed with burned grated coconut meat giving it a blackish color. My favorite Tausug dish!
Piyanggang is a dark-colored chicken dish made of the same pulp used in the Tiyula Itum but with added coconut milk to make it creamier. The taste reminds me of tinutungang manok of Bicol region but with more roasted flavor.
Thanks Jolo and Ma’am Jainab for warm welcome and showing me a glimpse of Jolo, Sulu. (n_n)
Going back to Zamboanga City, I took an overnight ferry: Php765 inclusive of Travel tax and Terminal Fee


Zamboanga City: La Ciudad Latina de Asia

Zamboanga City: Day tour at Santa Cruz Island’s Pink Beach

Zamboanga City: Food trip at Asia’s Latin City

For contacts if you want to explore these places:
Zamboanga City: Turismo Local De Zamboanga
Basilan: City Government of Lamitan and Isabela City Tourism
Sulu: Sulu Provincial Tourism
Tawi-Tawi: Kindly contact the former tourism staff and tour guide Nursida Jaluddin. She can help you guys regarding tours, food, homestay, etc. Highly recommended with her husband Kuya Ladz. Ikumusta nyo po ako sa kanila! (n_n)

7 thoughts on “ZamBaSulTa: Traversing Mindanao’s Southwestern Archipelago

  1. Ang saya ❤ Huhu nag-enjoy ako magbasa! Ang ganda nung capitolio nung Jolo. 'Yun bang piyanggang manok kuya, parang ginataan lang pero prito? Hahaha

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep. The best Sulu capitol ang ganda! Parang ganun. Sa akin kasi, naprito na ung manok with black toasted coconut. Mas malasa than tinutungang manok ng Bicol for me. 🙂


  2. I’m an Indonesian that have just moved to Manila and I stumbled upon your blog by accident. I must say that the resemblance in culture between the people in Mindanao to the similar ethnic groups in neighbouring regions of Malaysia and Indonesia are uncanny, then again in Sabah and North Kalimantan for example there are established population of Bajau and Sulu people since time immemorial that moved between Borneo and the Sulu archipelago before any colonial boundary. I notice that the word “padjak” is a Malay loanword spelled in the old Dutch orthography (modern Malay/Indonesian: pajak) and it has two meanings in Malay; one is tax (the most common meaning) and the other is market. Definitely related to how the Sulus are using the word! Overall great post and I’m planning to see the opposite part of the Philippines that is closer to where I’m from 🙂 !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow thanks for your comment and I really appreciate it. Indeed Mindanao is very diverse and my travel in this part of our archipelago is one of the memorable trips of my life. I’m grateful that I met my host of Sama ethnicity and introduced me to their culture. I hope that I can visit again to explore more especially the masjid and delicacies they have. Cheers for more travels! 🥰


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