I decided to go to Tawi-Tawi because I got so disappointed of not being able to go to Batanes (the hotel that I really liked did not have any available rooms for my chosen dates). So if I couldn’t go to the northernmost province, why not just go to the southernmost province?
There were a few friends who warned me against going to Tawi-Tawi. They thought that this place was too dangerous that I would get kidnapped or, worse, murdered. I did not tell my parents about going there. I only told them that I was going to Zamboanga. I got a few words from my mother when she saw my Facebook posts.
This trip was probably the closest I have ever gone to backpacking. In my past travels (all within the Philippines), I would have everything organized before I leave. But this time, the only things I was able to arrange were the hotels I was staying in. I was planning to just follow what other travel bloggers did which was to find a tricycle driver who would take them to these nice destinations. Good things happened when I got there.
I was off to a bad start. I didn’t realize until I got to the Silay/Bacolod airport that I was on a plane bound for NAIA Terminal 4 (the old domestic airport). I panicked because the plane I was taking going to Zamboanga was on Terminal 3. This was my first time to go from one terminal to another. I found out when I got there that it would only take a short taxi ride. There were shuttle buses, I guess, but I was told I had to wait for about an hour.
The plane ride going to Zamboanga was uneventful.
When I arrived in Zamboanga, I was escorted by Miss Benita Feliciano to the van that would take me to La Vista del Mar Resort where I was staying for a night. I was really glad that she was very nice to me and I thought she made me her friend. She was also at the airport the next day and checked me in for my flight going to Tawi-Tawi without me being in the airport yet. I googled her name and apparently, she is connected to or used to work for the Lobregats.
Anyway, La Vista del Mar was such a nice resort and with very nice people. I forgot the exact price of the room I got (I think it was about P1000) and it being in front of the beach was worth it. The staff also made sure that I had good internet connection in my room, which I really needed because I was still working that night. And since I was leaving early and could not take the complimentary breakfast, they gave me a complimentary dinner instead.
The next day, I arrived safely in Tawi-Tawi. Rachel’s Place, the hotel where I was booked, provided me with a van to and from the airport. When I arrived at the hotel, I was immediately checked in. Being the awkward person that I am, I did not ask if it was all right to check in at 8am when the check in time was supposed to be at 2pm. I just assumed. I ate and then went immediately to sleep.
Miss Marivic at Rachel’s Place was the only one who replied and followed through out of everyone we contacted in Tawi-Tawi. I’m used to booking hotels way ahead of my trip but I guess the hotels in Tawi-Tawi are not used to advanced booking.
I woke up around 2pm and I was too stressed thinking about what I would do in Tawi-Tawi. I had too much anxiety thinking about approaching strangers to be my tour guide. The provincial tourism office was no longer replying to my assistant-friend so the guide I was hoping to get from them did not materialize. I googled half a dozen numbers and no one replied to me at all.
Fortunately, when I went downstairs, the hotel staff offered me one of their members to be my guide. My friend Kitkat knows the hotel’s owners and she spoke with them and asked them to make sure I was well taken care of. I have very few friends that I was very happy that I had the right connections among them.
My guide’s name was Noy and he took me to public and private beaches. We went to Danmar and Ipo beaches (I hope I got the names correctly), as well as those roadside beaches that can be accessed freely by the public. We also went on a long walk, which I realized the next day was really long – when we were on top of the mountain, Noy pointed to me where we started and where we ended. We walked until we found an empty tricycle that would take us back to the hotel. I got a few nice shots of the beaches, the sunset and Bongao Peak.
The beaches are comparable to those in Cebu, maybe with finer sand and a little cleaner. They’re also not overdeveloped.
Along the way, I saw the military was very visible so I started feeling safe. There was a time, however, when I woke up late at night that I felt paranoid imagining the presence of armed men around the hotel. These were just my imaginations of course. The hotel is gated so if there were ever intrusions during my stay, I would hear them. I didn’t exactly see the gate as something that would block anyone from going inside the hotel.
We left for Bongao Peak at 7am the next day. This time I had four of the staff members as my guides. In addition to Noy, Peping, Ardi and JR went with me. I must say they were excellent guides. I seldom talk but they made me feel at ease.
We stopped by the market to buy bananas for the monkeys, and water, candy and some snacks for us. I was surprised to see their market was no different than the markets in big cities. It almost looked exactly like Libertad in Bacolod.
The access point going up Bongao Peak was a few minutes of tricycle ride from the town proper (the beaches we went to the day before were a little farther). When we started the hike going up, I quickly realized that I was not wearing the right shoes. To make matters worse, I was wearing my new white socks. Talk about inexperience! My companions had a better time hiking because they were wearing flip flops. Noy had me wear his slippers and I had a better time climbing. I was still too inexperienced though.
I had fun photographing the monkeys. My guides would throw the bananas at them and they enjoyed eating them. There were dozens of them. Peping threw a candy at one monkey and that monkey knew how to take the wrapper off! I did not notice this right away, but we did not see any monkey when we were going down the mountain, so that was weird.
There were small huts or cottages made of bamboo and covered with white blanket near the top of the mountain. I was told these were sacred to locals. They would go inside and pray to have children. I hope I got that information right. At the same time, my assistant-friend was texting me and telling me that locals there would tie plastic bags around tree branches. I don’t know what it was for but, yes, I did see lots of plastic bags tied around branches. I thought they were just some form of vandalism at first.
The view from the top of the mountain was really cool. It was worth the difficult hike. Well, it was difficult for me. It has been years since I last hiked a mountain. I just couldn’t imagine how hard it was for other people carrying their children with them while hiking up and down the mountain. Anyway, back to the great view. Here are my shots….
I still had a difficult time going down the mountain so I had walk barefoot. It was more manageable and I had fun stepping on the mud.
We went inside the Sandbar Lepa Resort after the hike. When I was still planning my trip to Tawi-Tawi, I really wanted to book a room here but I never received a response from anyone there. It was a great place nevertheless. The rooms looked good and new. Just a little more push and this would be a great resort. We swam for a few minutes then went back to Rachel’s Place.
I had a few bottles of beer after lunch (yes, they have beer there!) and spent the entire afternoon and evening sleeping.
For some reason, I love Tawi-Tawi and I promised to myself that I will be back there. I was too excited to go there because there was this “whether or not I’ll get out alive” factor. I think that’s an overstatement. You’ll see everywhere in Bongao that they strive for peace. Maybe the Muslim minority in the country just had a bad rap after all those not-so-good news that came out of their region during the past decades. But they’re a bunch of nice people. Although they are aware of the security issues in their area and how outsiders see them, they always tend to be helpful. Anyone can be your tour guide around Bongao, but of course, just be careful.
I will be back there to explore the other islands – Sibutu, Simunul, Sitangkai and Panampangan. I was really hoping I could go to Panampangan but that could wait until next time.