Though not currently as popular as other destinations in Mindanao, Zamboanga del Norte teems with history and culture. The largest province in the Zamboanga Peninsula, it has a wealth of natural attractions as well.
It is dubbed the Twin-City Province, being the home of neighboring cities Dipolog, the provincial capital, and Dapitan, its cultural heart.
The latter has the distinction of being the country’s first Heritage Zone. The National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) made the declaration on May 27, 2011.
Either of these two cities is a convenient base for those thinking of traveling to Zamboanga del Norte.
To help you with the planning, here is a four-day guide to the best places to see and experience in the province.
Day 1: Sample the Best of Dipolog
Rizal Avenue corner Osmeña Street, Dipolog
Upon arrival in Dipolog, you can drop your things off first at ‘D Hotel. Centrally located in the heart of the city, this hotel has options that range from rooms to suites.
The hotel offers free breakfast, WiFi, and airport shuttle for guests. It has four dining options: Tonino’s Resto and Wine Bar for continental and Asian fusion cuisine; Deli at the Taylors Room for wine, cheeses, and cold cuts; Umami Room for Japanese cuisine; and Cucina Italiana for pizza and pasta.
You can book a Standard Room for as low as Php1,700/night.
For more information, visit ‘D Hotel’s Facebook page.
Airport Road, Dipolog
Another option is this hotel that is located only one to two minutes away from Dipolog airport.
All rooms have air conditioning, a refrigerator, cable TV, hot and cold shower, and minibar. Guests have access to free WiFi, 24-hour room service, and free parking. It also has an in-house restaurant that serves free breakfast, a coffee shop, bar, and music lounge.
You can book a Single Executive Room for Php1,850/night, Double Executive Room for Php2,450/ night, Garden Suite for Php4,850/night, and a Presidential Suite for Php8,900/night.
Visit Ariana Hotel’s Facebook page for more details.
Dakak Park and Beach Resort
Barangay Taguilon, Dapitan
The “it” place in Mindanao in the ‘90s, this resort still lives up to its reputation decades later. It remains a favorite among locals and those from nearby provinces. Day 3 of your trip can be spent just at this resort.
Dakak’s white sand beach is a jump off point for water activities, while its Adventure Zone offers outdoor ones.
The resort has accommodations that have scenic views of the Sulu Sea and the surrounding cliffs and mountains.
For reservations, visit Dakak Beach Resort’s official website.
Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral
You can start your trip with a visit to this church named after the principal patroness of the city. Constructed in 1894, it has since undergone several renovations, the latest of which was in 2009 when its façade was inlaid with marble.
Also called Dipolog Cathedral, its present altar is a replica of the retablo originally designed by José Rizal during his exile. One of the main attractions is its ceiling made of hardwood.
The cathedral was designated as one of the 500 Jubilee Churches for the quincentennial of Philippine Christianity.
Just across is Plaza Magsaysay which, though rather unremarkable, lends well for a pleasant morning stroll. The park sits right beside the City Hall.
You can spend the rest of the morning relaxing at this waterfall that is about 30 to 40 minutes from downtown Dipolog.
Nestled in the heart of a lush forest, Sungkilaw Falls challenges visitors with a rough hike, but its pristine and refreshing waters make the trek worth it.
With the help of the local government and Subanen communities, structures have been constructed in the area such as cottages and toilets. Trails had also been carved out for a smoother hike.
Spend the entire afternoon at this protected area that is home to different species of flora and fauna.
On the way, you can drop by the city center for some takeout lunch. Then you can proceed to picnic at the eco-park amid towering acacia, mahogany, rattan, and narra trees.
What started out as a reforestation project in 1952 is now 344 hectares of land covered with thick forests. It is a go-to place for families and friends for a weekend of camping.
Aside from the hiking trails and the camping site, it has a recreation of a Subanen Village, a hanging bridge, and an aviary.
Dipolog Sunset Boulevard
Cap off your day at Dipolog’s most famous strip. Promenade along this boulevard facing the Sulu Sea where you can catch the sunset.
While waiting for the sun to dip below the horizon, you can snack on the various street foods sold by nearby hawkers.
This stretch comes alive as dusk settles. It transforms to a hive of activity with a seemingly endless row of vendors selling all sorts of eats from barbecues to fried chicken skin, ice cream to fresh fruits.
Day 2: A Dose of History and Adventure
Church of Saint James the Greater
The bulk of your second day will be spent at Glorious Fantasy Land which does not open until 2pm. You can opt to spend the morning exploring some of Dapitan’s historical sites.
Start the day with a quick visit to the Church of Saint James the Greater. This was where Rizal heard mass every Sunday during his four-year exile.
There is a marker near the entrance where Rizal usually sat. He could not go near the altar during mass because of his excommunication from the Catholic Church.
The country’s National Hero painted a backdrop inspired by a church in Barcelona for the altar. Sadly, the painting was later destroyed in a fire.
Aside from its ties to Rizal, the church is also known for its distinct ceiling. Alternating orange and white rectangles form a swirling pattern, creating an almost dizzying illusion of depth and motion.
After visiting the church, you can go on a short hike atop the hill just behind it. There is a staircase by the entrance where you have to climb over 200 steps to reach the top.
Ilihan Hill served as the burial ground of Dapitan’s original settlers. Upon the arrival of the Spaniards, they renamed it Fort Dapitan and put up stone walls and cannons.
Dapitan Heritage Zone
The NHCP determined 33 heritage structures in Dapitan’s Heritage Zone, giving rise to its moniker the “Shrine City.”
Aside from the Church of Saint James the Greater, a bike around town reveals century-old ancestral houses and other timeworn structures.
One of the few remaining original heritage houses in the city is that of Pablo Page’s. Built in 1919, it was often the venue of gatherings among the local social and political elite in the ‘50s to the ‘70s.
Another ancestral house is that of Aniano Adasa’s which now houses the Dapitan Tourism Office. It was built in 1900 and has American and Spanish influences.
Since 2016, the local government has been working with the national government and the private sector to preserve their historical and cultural treasures.
Spend the rest of the day at Mindanao’s biggest theme park. It has over 30 rides and attractions for all ages. Adrenaline junkies can go on a ride at their Zimmerman roller coaster and the Galleon, while kids can take a spin at the teacup ride or the ferris wheel.
Glorious Fantasyland is also known for its musical show entitled “Nia and Anwar” which starts at 8pm. After the show, visitors are treated to a colorful “Festival of Colors” parade with its 12 elaborate floats. A fireworks display punctuates the night every weekend.
Glorious Fantasyland’s all-in package of unlimited rides, show, parade, and fireworks display during weekends is at Php1000/adult and Php500/child 4ft below. Gates open at 2pm and close at 10pm or later depending on the volume of guests.
Day 3: Discover Dakak
Dapitan is not only synonymous with Rizal but also with Dakak Park and Beach Resort thanks to the TV ads that ran regularly in a popular noontime show in the ‘90s.
The resort is a 15-hectare area that is known for its lush coves and 750-meter white sand beach. Visitors can engage in different water activities such as jet-skiing, parasailing, kayaking, paddleboarding, and banana boat riding.
Dakak also has excellent dive spots for amateur and professional divers. Its waters are home to soft corals, marine invertebrates, large basket sponges, sea anemones, clownfish, and octopuses. If you are lucky, you can encounter blue spotted rays. There is even a wreck of a passenger ship.
If you prefer land-based activities, the Adventure Park offers rappelling, rock climbing, airsoft games, and horseback riding. It has all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) for rent and one of the longest dual ziplines in Asia.
If you are not staying in Dakak, a day tour will set you back Php1,000/adult and Php500/child. The fee includes access to the beach, dolphin and kiddie pools, Adventure Zone Area, Aquasport Center, and restaurants.
Not included are rental fees, the golf course, and Villa Angelina.
Day 4: Retrace the Steps of Rizal in Dapitan
Rizal Disembarkation Site
It is only fitting to begin your final day in Zamboanga del Norte at the site where Rizal started his life as an exile. He disembarked from the steamer S.S. Cebu at Santa Cruz Beach, 7pm on July 17, 1892.
Marking the point of landing is a monument conceived by Antonio Tuviera and designed by Architect Nilo Ajo Ferraren. It is composed of bronze statues of Rizal, ship captain Delgras, and three artillery men.
The statues were sculpted, installed, and bronzed by Ronel Roces, a former apprentice of National Artist for Sculpture Napoleon Abueva. The groundbreaking ceremony was held on December 29, 2009.
Across the landing site is a 20-foot cross symbolizing the propagation of Christianity in Dapitan.
Rizal Park and Shrine
This 16-hectare protected area aims to preserve the memories of Rizal during his exile in Dapitan from 1892 to 1896. He himself purchased the estate.
The property has five faithfully reconstructed bamboo and nipa houses. All were originally built by Rizal and had been rebuilt in their original locations.
The biggest of the five is Casa Residencia which served as Rizal’s residence.
The other structures are Casa Redonda, the quarters for Rizal’s students; Casa Cuadrada, a secondary dormitory to accommodate his growing number of pupils; Casa Redonda Pequeña, a henhouse; and Casitas Hospitales, two structures originally intended as tea houses but Rizal converted them into clinics for patients from far-flung areas.
Near the shrine’s main gate is Museo ni Jose Rizal. It houses several memorabilia including Rizal’s letters, wardrobe, medical instruments, fishing tools, and replicas of his artworks including those of his wife Josephine Bracken.
The original blackboard, table, and chairs used in his school are also on display.
Do not miss the heart-shaped rock where Rizal wrote his longest poem, “Mi Retiro”, which has 24 stanzas. This is also where he exchanged vows with Bracken.
Admission to Rizal Park and Shrine is free.
Dipolog is the gateway to the province of Zamboanga del Norte. Major local airlines like Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific have direct flights to the city. There are also daily buses from Zamboanga City to Dipolog and Dapitan.
The cheapest way to explore the cities is through jeepneys and tricycles. You may also rent your own vehicle. Exploring downtown Dapitan is best done on a bike. Coordinate with your hotel for rentals.
Outsource the Planning
For a seamless trip, you may leave the planning to DOT’s accredited tour operators in Region 9:
(062) 991-1174 / 0917-722-6410; firstname.lastname@example.org
(062) 990-2100; email@example.com
All tourist destinations in Zamboanga del Norte have health and safety protocols in place to protect locals and visitors alike. Everyone is expected to comply by wearing face masks, regularly washing their hands, and practicing physical distancing.
To check out up-to-date information regarding local destinations that are open and the safety protocols and requirements needed for each location, you may visit www.philippines.travel/safetrip or download the Travel Philippines app at app.philippines.travel or the Google Playstore.