17th-century Spanish military defense fortress, Fort Pilar. Photo by Playground Films PH courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

In 1635, the Spanish government set foot on Jambangan Bunga, which means a place full of followers. 

Today, that is called Zamboanga City. You can get a glimpse of its rich past and how it blossomed through the centuries by simply taking a two-kilometer walk tour.

Zamboanga became a Spanish military defense fortress and home to El Real Fuerza de San José (Fort St. Joseph now renamed Fort Pilar), one of the four bastioned forts in the Philippines. Because of this, the strong Hispanic influence is evident not only in religion but also in architecture, food, language, and traditions.

The region’s language, Chavacano, is the only Spanish-based creole in Asia and is very much alive in the city. Chavacano emerged in the 18th century and developed beautifully even after the 300+ years of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines.

“Chavacano was actually born from the time when Spaniards were building properties and forts,” says Errold Bayona, president of Asociacion de Guia Turistico del Zamboanga. 

These Spaniards came to Zamboanga along with a thousand Ilonggos, Bayona continues. “But since they were short-staffed, they started hiring locally. This is where all the mix of dialects began. As Spaniards gave their instructions, and the workers answered using their own language.” 

First Stop: Zamboanga City Hall

As you get to the center of Zamboanga City, you will immediately notice landmarks and sites that exhibit a bygone era — as if time travel is real.

The walk tour’s jump off point is Zamboanga’s El Ayuntamiento (City Hall) that has been standing for centuries. This structure was completed by the United States Federal Government in 1907.

Zamboanga City Hall showcases Antillean architecture where the building’s framework and design is a mix of American and Spanish influence. The constructors used huge cut stones as exterior walls to suit the Philippines’ warm climate while inside flooring with Molave hardwood.

“If you also look closely, there are stars carved on its roofing. It was believed that those symbols were taken from the American flag,” Bayona shares.

Inside, you will get to appreciate that the floorings are still tucked with wooden nails as wire nails were not available yet during its construction. Even 100-year-old chandeliers are still being used and well maintained by the city hall staff.

Second Stop: Plaza Pershing

Two blocks away from the town hall is an open-air park called Plaza Pershing. The plaza was named in honor of Philippine-American War US General, John “Blackjack” Pershing. City bazaars and local events are usually held here. 

While Plaza Pershing seems like a typical park, Hispanic influence is still present in terms of city planning. As the Spaniards strategically place plazas near churches and town halls for ease of access.

Third Stop: Century-old Acacia Trees

As you turn to Rizal Street during the 7-minute walk, an entire road stretch filled with century-old Acacia trees welcomes you. This path used to be the former marching grounds of the Spaniards.

“With the help of DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources), we were able to carbon-date the acacia trees along Rizal street,” Bayona says. “That’s why each tree has its own steel belt indicating its age.”

There is also a ordinance that protects all heritage trees in Zamboanga City. Any form of destruction or cutting is highly prohibited except when the trees have become weak enough and might cause accidents to the walking public.

Fourth Stop: Pettit Barracks

At the end of Rizal Street, you will see remnants of the Pettit Barracks. 

The Spanish headquarters was turned over to the American troops in 1899 and renamed after Colonel James S. Pettit. He was in-charge of Zamboanga’s civil affairs and acted as commanding officer of the 31st Infantry U.S. Volunteer.

The ruins of Pettit Barracks are currently within the compound of Bureau of Internal Revenue Region 9.

Last Stop: Fort Pilar

You may take your final stop at Fort Pilar Shrine or Real Fuerza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza (Royal Fort of Our Lady of the Pillar of Zaragoza). This was built as a military defense fortress of Christian settlers against Moro pirates in the 17th century.

More than 27,000 coral blocks made from egg whites and sand were used to construct the fort. The image of the Blessed Virgin Mary is situated right at the center of Fort Pilar’s courtyard, where locals would often come to offer prayers.

“The reason why the Blessed Virgin Mary has been very significant to each and every Zamboangueno, even way back, is because miracles would always happen. Even during the tsunami in 1976,” Bayona shares. “Zamboanga would always get spared from destruction. And because of that, the people always believed that the image is with us.”

Locals both Christians and Muslims offer their prayers to the Blessed Virgin Mary every Friday at Fort Pilar’s courtyard. Photo by Playground Films PH courtesy of the Department of Tourism.

Inside Fort Pilar is the regional branch of the National Museum. Here, Mindanaoan artifacts, archeological finds, several ethnographic materials of Yakan, Subanun, and Sama Bajau, as well as a replica of the latter tribe’s famed houseboat are exhibited. 

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday except during religious holidays. There are two visitor sessions, 9 A.M. to 12 P.M and 1 P.M. to 4 P.M.

How to Book 

With the remnants of yesteryears at every corner, Zamboanga City’s Heritage Zone Walk Tour gives us an opportunity to understand the past that shapes our present.

To book a guided walk tour on Zamboanga’s Heritage Zone, tourists may coordinate with iTravel Tourist Lane at (062) 991-1174 / +63917-722-6410 or through their Facebook page.

The tour starts at Php 1,500 per person, inclusive of air-conditioned van transfers. Discounts may apply for group bookings. 

However, due to COVID-19 and safety protocols, the walk tour within Zamboanga’s Heritage Zone is temporarily suspended until further notice.

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; itraveltouristlane2020@gmail.com

09062087106; milabelrichter01@gmail.com

(062) 990-2100; knowelle_88@yahoo.com

09177103094; happycampers349@gmail.com

0930-061-1690 / 0997-745-2957; mtrtravel2021@gmail.com or mtrtravelvic@gmail.com

Travel safely!

Explore Zamboanga City responsibly by making sure that you comply with the province’s health and safety protocols, such as wearing face masks and practicing social distancing.

Ensure that you have acquired travel authority at https://s-pass.ph/ prior trip. Bring a copy or screenshot of this along with your vaccination card and valid ID upon arrival. 

For the latest travel information about Zamboanga, you may visit their official website or Facebook page. You may also review updated safety protocols and requirements on Philippine destinations at www.philippines.travel/safetrip or download the Travel Philippines app at app.philippines.travel