The moment you set foot in Zamboanga City, won’t you want to stop wandering, and just head straight to the beautiful island facing its coasts?
In plain view from the city, Great Sta. Cruz Island’s clean sand looks white. But take a closer look, and you’ll see that the sand actually has a pinkish hue.
Last year, this pink-sand beach made it to the list of National Geographic’s 21 best beaches in the world. The crushed red organ pipe corals create the sand’s unique color.
Sta. Cruz Island is 4 km from the city’s Paseo del Mar, where bookings can be done by chance passengers and where visitors are reminded of the rules. The fare is at least P1,000—good for 10 persons. Advanced bookings are encouraged by management.
The boat trip takes 15-20 minutes from the city to the island. The crew, who are also residents of the island, occasionally turn off the engine in the middle of the trip while the boat passes over one or two huge, dark-blue waves.
Great Sta. Cruz is 251 hectares, while Little Sta. Cruz is about 21 hectares. The recreational area and the pink sand beach in Great Sta. Cruz stretches 350 meters long.
The Great and Little Sta. Cruz Islands were declared protected landscapes and seascapes in 2000 under Presidential Proclamation 271. The surrounding areas were also declared buffer zones.
Little Sta. Cruz is a strict protection zone. It is not open to the public. There are critically endangered marine turtles on both islands—hawksbill, green and olive ridley turtles.
Just like several barangay in Zamboanga named after saints, the island got its name during the Spanish colonial period.
Visitors are allowed on Great Sta. Cruz only from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Visitors are limited to 500 persons per day. The city government and island keepers practice risk-reduction management and encourage visitors to be responsible ecotourists.
No trash should be left on the island. Washing of utensils in the swimming area is not allowed. Collection of corals and shells is also prohibited, except for the fish catches, souvenirs and trinkets sold by residents of the island.
Once on the beach, visitors can enjoy beach volleyball and take photos in a tree arrangement with Zamboanga City in the background.
Security remains a concern, but visitors need not worry because they will be accompanied by the Coast Guard and armed policemen the whole time.
Sandbars are fleeting, and their formation depends on the northeast and southwest monsoons (amihan and habagat, respectively). They usually appear when it’s habagat season, and disappear when it’s amihan. The length of the sandbars changes with the current.
According to Richard Aliangan, operations officer of the Protected Area Management Unit, the sandbars slowly get separated from Little Sta. Cruz.
The sandbar reflects the sunlight brightly, and waves come from opposite sides, meeting each other on an edge, like the closing of zippers—an unbelievable sight.
There are different species of mangroves on the island. They are even assigned genders. Those with pointed leaves, the size of a bud or coffee bean, are male, while those with blooming broad leaves are female.
Majority of the over 400 people living on the island are fisherfolk with alternative livelihoods, including tourist operations. Most of them also have motorized boats to travel to and from Zamboanga City (still docking at Paseo del Mar).
There are light-brown stingless jellyfish in the island’s lagoon. The tour guide explains the do’s and don’ts of holding them. The hands should be free of sunblock first, so that the jellyfish skin won’t be affected.
The jellyfish, which also come in gray-to-violet colors, should never be totally taken out of the water.
“Visitors get excited while touching the jellyfish, and their fear lessens,” Aliangan said in a phone interview.
Great Sta. Cruz happens to have a burial ground or heritage tombs for the Badjao tribe. There are artifacts, boat-shaped grave markers that are locally called “sunduk,” and mugs above the grave. This burial ground is part of a reserved national park under Presidential Decree 654.
The island also serves as a venue for Zamboanga’s celebration of Fiesta na Isla, an eight-week festival from April to May with activities like sand sculpture-making, boat racing and mussel-eating competitions. There are cultural performances such as the traditional “Pangalay” dance in which the dancers wear hand accessories, making their nails look unusually longer, imitating the wings of a bird.
Aliangan also said that there is a plan to allow visitors to walk around Great Sta. Cruz through eco-trekking. It will cover 6-8 km.
As the song goes, “Don’t you go to far Zamboanga…” The place can make visitors want to always come back, if not stay.
How to get to the city
Direct flights to Zamboanga City are available in Manila, Cebu and Davao. One-way fare ranges from P2,000-P4,000 depending on the promo and the time the ticket was booked.
Where to stay
Upon arrival, there are a number of hotels to choose from. The nearest one to Paseo del Mar is Lantaka Hotel by the sea, a perfect place to view the sunset. But for travelers who want to be practical, other convenient and budget-friendly hotels in the city proper like Hermosa Hotel and Red Cross Youth Hostel, which is just in front of Lantaka, can be the best choices.
Zamboanga is also known for food like curacha (red crab), spicy satti and chicken pianggang. There is also a wide variety of eats in Paseo del Mar. One famous restaurant that offers a seafood platter is Barcode. Zamboanga’s famous dessert called “Knickerbocker” is the ideal healthy finish. It is a mix of melon, apple, mango, pineapple, jelly and condensed milk topped with strawberry ice cream.