I went to Basilan – alone and without a guide.
My bad. I decided to contact the local tourism office only a week before my planned trip. No response from them.
I tried to look for blog posts of solo female travelers going there without a guide nor a local contact. Just an assurance that I could do the same. But I couldn’t find any.
A couple of days to go, I incidentally met sir Jamju on facebook who is from Basilan. I bugged him with my travel plans. He seemed enthusiastic about it and assured me that it was safe to go alone as long as I took the usual safety precautions. I was overjoyed.
And so in Zamboanga- still fatigued from my practically sleepless overnight stay at the Mactan-Cebu Airport and my early morning flight to the Latin city, I checked in at the Atillano Pension House, rode a jeep to the pueblo, alighted at the Universidad de Zamboanga and found my way into the port, albeit lost for a few moments in the bustling Zamboanga City Public Market.
I paid P150 for the 9:30 am trip and walked nonchalantly into the Isabela City-bound Weesam ferry as if I had done this many times before.
The waves were raging violently and my stomach was churning, or so I thought. Bumpy rides have always thrilled me. My main concern was how to start my city tour that day. My seatmate, a middle-aged woman, spoke to me in Bisaya and exclaimed that the waves were terrifying that day. I was about to speak but she closed her eyes and soon fell asleep.
From my window seat, I enjoyed the misty landscape while figuring out what to do upon arrival. The clouds were threatening to rain but it was a sunny Basilan that greeted me when we finally docked after an hour.
Once outside the port , I instantly eyed the Sta. Isabel Cathedral. A relief. The cathedral would have to be my starting point.
And so in Basilan, using the guide sir Jamju made for me, I inconspicuously wandered on the streets of Isabela City like I had been living there most of my life. Nonchalant but still vigilant. The presence of military men was at first a bit unsettling but I eventually became used to it. It was peaceful, just like any other ordinary day back in my hometown in Leyte.
I saw a group of students in the park who appeared to be working on a group project. I sat on a vinta-inspired bench near to them and I could hear their cheerful chatter. A father and his little kid taking a stroll, a pair of lovers seated at a corner, women in their colorful hijab gathered around a table. The scenario looked very much different from the chaotic Basilan often portrayed in the news.
… basta, don’t go off the beaten track lang, I’m sure you’ll be ok. Tricycle fare should not cost you more than P10.00 anywhere within the downtown area. Sofia Hotel is right smack in the middle of town if u will stay overnight. Casa Rosario is right next to the wharf, but a much cheaper (and more basic) accommodation..
Some easily accessible places of interest:
Sta. Isabel Cathedral, Downtown (Mosaic mural entablature from Italy which accordingly costs something like P25,000/sq foot?)
The Twin Plazas (i.e. 1. Isabela City Plaza – right beside Sta. Isabel Cathedral; and 2. Plaza Rizal de Basilan – right in front of the Provincial Capitol – the layout is typical Spanish 17th century – plaza at the center, church and government bldg in the same axis, and all the prominent families – their houses converted into commercial bldgs now – around the plazas)
Provincial Capitol – site of the old La Fuerte dela Reina Isabela Segunda (Fort Isabela II), to whom the City (Isabela) is named. The Fort was occupied by the Japanese in WW2, bombed by the Americans, demolished after the war, replaced by the old Basilan City Hall bldg., burned to the ground in 1992, and replaced by the present structure.
Alano Zenith Bldg. – right behind Sta. Isabel Cathedral, first floor… you will find the YAKAN CRAFT store, selling trinkets and souvenirs of Basilan…(for pasalubong purposes)
Women’s Weaving Center – (ride a Tricycle, direct the driver to “Tabuk, Palar” near the NAPOCOR Barge – when ur there, walk directly to the guard of the huge Napocor power barge berthed at the end of the road, ask the guard where the Women’s Center is (its entrance is surrounded by a bushy, flowery wall enclosure so you might not be able to see the entrance from the road! hehe)… more souvenir items, plus weaving looms of authentic Yakan cloth…
Jollibee Basilan – the exterior is under renovation but the inside is business as usual. the 500th Jollibee Branch of the Philippines and (you may or may not put this in your diary)… “the most bombed” Jollibee branch anywhere in the Philippines! Hehe
If ur not into the usual burgers, try “Miss Inasal” (asawa daw ni Mang Inasal kaya may unli rice din. Hehe) its right in front of Claret College of Isabela (Sta. Cruz Brgy., Roxas Ave.)
For traditional “Muslim cuisine” try any of those Kitchenettes and carinderias along Ulbert Tugung Road, right beside Isabela City Police Station and the Public Market. Order a cup of “KAHAWA” … you will not regret it.
If you have extra time, you could also get a tricycle and ask to be brought to Begang (7-kms from the city center)… we call this our “Little Cebu” as most of the people there come from Cebu (my mom included! hehe)… a little bit farther in Baluno, you will find the first Rubber Plantation in the Philippines (used to be owned by Sime Darby/BF Goodrich – now operated by a coop)…
On the other side of town (you will cross the Aguada Bridge), you could ask the tricycle to bring you either to Calle Posporo (San Rafael Brgy). Residents are mostly Chavacanos, and then go to Calle Bisaya (Aguada Brgy) most of the people there used to be Bisaya (Cebuanos), now its a much more ethnically mixed…
Barangays and place names in Isabela are pretty easy to remember and easy to get your bearings from: There is a Sunrise Village (eastern part – rich people mostly, this is where all the Mayors of Isabela build their big houses, just a stone’s throw away from the present City Hall) and a Sunset Village (west – populated mostly by indigenous Samal/Bajao). Other Barangays are typically named: Eastside, Westside (Dona Ramona Alano), Seaside, Port Area, Isabela Proper, Marketsite – all within the poblacion…”
But I knew that my Basilan trip would be incomplete without seeing the white beach of Malamawi Island- just a nearby barangay of the capital city. So I walked back to the port, asked a man in uniform, and found the small bancas near the fish vendors.
For a short 5-minute ride and 5-peso fare, we reached the island. I spoke to the habal-habal driver in Bisaya, told him to bring me to the white beach and either fetch or wait for me. He agreed for P100 since I was the only passenger and said he’d wait for me.
The road was winding, narrow, and uphill. The driver, whom later I would know as Roland, asked if I had friends waiting for me over there. I nodded, thinking of one safety precaution when travelling solo. Don’t let them know that you’re really alone.
But he would soon find out the truth.
It took us around 25 minutes to reach the beach. My expectations of a desolate place proved otherwise. There was small group of teenagers having a picnic. But just them. And an old man clad in a camouflage jacket sitting on a distant cottage. I saw Roland walk towards him.
By the shade of some trees, I found a spot to sit on and breathed the fresh air. If only I had a hammock with me, it would be a perfect spot to set up one. I could stay there for hours in solitude and indulge in the serenity and the beauty of the place. Malamawi, with its fine white sand, and pristine waters will definitely give the best beaches in the country a run for their money.
I’ve heard that this is not the best beach in Basilan though. Further in the province are still more unspoiled beaches, often elusive to tourists and travelers. I can never imagine how delighted would I be, if I get to see them as well.
I left my small backpack behind and started taking a stroll. My daydreaming was soon shortlived when the old man I just saw earlier approached me.
I told him I was from Zamboanga and was supposed to be with a friend who didn’t show up. He eventually found out I was lying. In a concerned fatherly tone, he scolded me for going there alone. He seemed doubtful of my name and said it sounded Chinese to him, so I took off my glasses and showed him my big round eyes.
I asked for his name but he insisted on being called “Lolo Police.” In the end we were already laughing with Roland joining us. We shared a few stories and a few laughs. It felt good to finally have somebody to talk to.
I was surprised to learn from Lolo Police that sir Jamju owns the place. I would later know from sir Jamju who really Lolo Police is. Manong Maang, the caretaker of the beach, was one of the best boxers during his youth.
Manong Maang and Roland
I wish I stayed longer but I had to leave for the 4:30 pm last trip back to Zamboanga. So I bade goodbye and thanked him. He assured me that I was safe with Roland and even invited me to come back. “Bring at least five people with you!” he smiled.
I unexpectedly met some good souls in Basilan and if given the chance, yes, I’d love to go back, even without a guide. Definitely, there’s a lot more to discover.
It is still highly recommended to contact the local tourism office when planning a trip to Basilan. For those who plan to visit Malamawi Island, you may contact my kind habal-habal driver Roland Enriquez at 09261260019.