The Great Mindanao Adventure: ZamBaSulTa Itinerary and Guide

Zambasulta itinerary
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One of the best backpacking routes in the Philippines is ZamBaSulTa. ZamBaSulTa refers to Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi provinces. The route typically starts in Zamboanga City, which serves as the gateway to other provinces.

This is a great trip because it allows you to experience the unique culture, history and food in Mindanao in a single swoop. The Philippines as a whole is very westernized especially Manila, but these places in Mindanao have kept and nurtured their rich heritage. You can see and experience it in the traditional woven products of the Yakan tribe in Zamboanga and Basilan, the delicious bangbang sug and latal plate in Sulu and the simple, laid-back life of locals in Tawi-Tawi.

I went here with a small group sometime in late 2019. This is without a doubt one of my favorite trips in the Philippines.

So without further ado, here’s our ZamBaSulTa Itinerary and Guide.

Tips on Planning your ZamBaSulTa Trip

Here are some things to consider when planning your trip:

  • It’s important to coordinate with the respective tourism offices for your trip, particularly in Basilan and Sulu. Just let them know your date of arrival and planned things to do, if any.
  • Make sure to plan your work leaves in advance. This route takes as short as 7 days to 10-12 days, depending on the places you want to cover.
  • Do not rush your time. I’ve seen people do 1 day in Basilan, 1 day in Sulu, and so forth and this type of traveling is not only exhausting but also often not enough to cover every must-do activity in a given province.
  • I have written separate guides for the provinces included in this route, so please read up on them because I have included as much details as possible. The Quick Reference section can be found at the bottom of this post.

10 Days Itinerary in ZamBaSulTa

Here’s a sample 10 days itinerary to ZamBaSulTa.

Day 1- ZAMBOANGAArrival in Zamboanga City
Check in at accommodation in Zamboanga City
Zamboanga City Tour
Day 2 – BASILANCheck out of accommodation

6:45AM – 8AM Take first-trip ferry to Lamitan City
8AM – 1PM Lamitan City tour
1PM – 2PM Take bus to Isabela City

Check in at accommodation in Isabela City
Free time
Day 3Check out of accommodation

8AM – 3 or 4PM Lampinigan Island and Malamawi White Beach Resort
4:30 or 4:45PM – 6PM Take last-trip ferry back to Zamboanga City

Check in at accommodation in Zamboanga City
Day 4 – TAWI-TAWICheck out of accommodation

Take first flight to Sanga-Sanga Airport
Early check in at accommodation in Bongao

10AM – 2 or 3PM Take ferry to Sitangkai
Sitangkai tour
9PM – 4 or 5AM (next day) Back in Bongao
Day 5Bongao town tour
Day 6Island hopping in Tawi-Tawi
Day 7Check out of accommodation
Take flight back to Zamboanga City

Open time / Relax / Or day tour to Great Sta. Cruz Island

9PM Take last-trip ferry to Jolo
Day 8 – SULU6AM Arrival in Jolo
7AM Check in at accommodation in Jolo

8AM – 3 or 4PM Island hopping in Panglima Tahil
Day 97AM – 11PM Tandu Beach
12PM Check out of accommodation
1PM – 5PM Jolo town tour

8 or 9PM Take last-trip ferry back to Zamboanga City
Day 10 – Head home6AM Early-morning arrival in Zamboanga City
Optional: Buy pasalubong in the barter
Flight back to Manila

This is the rough itinerary that we followed. We weren’t able to visit Sitangkai because we only booked for 2 days in Tawi-Tawi. However, it’s a must-see in the province so I included it above.

Below I’ll give an overview of the provinces so you have an idea on how to plan your itinerary.

Zamboanga

Your trip will likely start in Zamboanga City. This is a vibrant city with interesting history and culture. You can explore the city on your own to see heritage buildings, island hop in the nearby Sta. Cruz Islands or Once Islas and shop for locally made products.

If you are short on time, I recommend staying here for only 1-2 days. You can always go back here in the future since it has a major airport that is accessible from other parts of the country.

Note: For this trip, I am including Zamboanga City only instead of the individual provinces of Zamboanga del Norte, del Sur and Sibugay.

How to get here:

  • From Manila or other airports, take a local flight to Zamboanga.

Ideal stay: 3 days

Fort Pilar Shrine in Zamboanga City
Fort Pilar Shrine in Zamboanga City.
Yakan Weaving Village, Zamboanga City
Various woven fabrics.

Basilan

Basilan is known for its white-sand beaches.

Most backpackers only spend a day here to visit Malamawi White Beach Resort in Isabela City. I recommend staying at least 2 days so you can also visit Lampinigan Island and drop by Lamitan City (the former capital of Basilan).

How to get here:

  • From Zamboanga City, take a ferry to either Lamitan or Isabela City. Travel time is only 1-2 hours, depending on sea conditions.

Ideal stay: 2 days

Contact: Lamitan City Tourism Office: Facebook | Isabela City Tourism Office: Facebook

Bulingan Falls in Lamitan City
Bulingan Falls in Lamitan City.
Lampinigan Island in Isabela City, Basilan
Lampinigan Island. (Photo by Froilan Pernis)

Sulu

Sulu is one of the least-visited provinces in the country. During our trip here, we saw that there were only around 200 visitors for that year.

You can explore Jolo and visit the city landmarks, including the capitol building and mosques. Sulu also has beautiful islands and beaches, so one of the things you shouldn’t miss doing here is island hopping.

Safety is still an important issue in Sulu. As such, the Sulu Provincial Tourism requires tourists to coordinate with them first. They will help with your accommodation, tours and itinerary. They will also provide military escorts during tours.

Personally, I was not terrified about visiting Sulu but I won’t tell you whether or not to proceed here. If you’re a foreigner, there are other safer places in Mindanao you can go to. That’s why I keep on repeating how important it is to get in touch with the tourism office to secure your visit.

How to get here:

  • The most common way to get here is via ferry from Zamboanga City to Jolo (capital of Sulu Province). Travel time is 7-9 hours. Note: There used to be a fast craft by Weesam Express plying the Zamboanga-Jolo route in only 3 hours, but it is no longer available.
  • It’s best to take the overnight ferry so you won’t waste a day in commute. The last ferry leaves at 8-9PM and arrives at 5-6AM the next day. It’s advised to purchase tickets in advance because it can get fully booked; at least in the morning on the date of your departure is fine.

Ideal stay: 2-3 days

Contact: Sulu Provincial Tourism Office: Facebook

Tandu Beach in Parang, Sulu
Tandu Beach.
Stilt houses in Sulu
Stilt houses in Sulu.

Tawi-Tawi

Tawi-Tawi is my favorite stop in our ZamBaSulTa trip so I personally recommend spending as much time here as possible. It’s easy to love Tawi-Tawi because it’s very laid-back, the locals are friendly and the food is delicious. One of the livelihood here is fishing so you can find cheap fresh seafood and also local delicacies.

There are a handful of activities you can in Tawi-Tawi, including island hopping tour to Panampangan Island (considered the longest sandbar in the Philippines) and other nearby islands, trekking, exploring communities and more.

How to get here:

  • The easiest way to get here is to take a local flight from Zamboanga City to Sanga-Sanga Airport in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi. Travel time is 45 minutes. There are also ferries available but travel time is long (18 hours).

Ideal stay: 3 days

Contact: Tawi-Tawi Tourism Office: (Provincial Tourism Officer: Mobin N. Gampal) 09271840851

Summit view in Bud Bongao
View of the mainland.
Island hopping in Tawi-Tawi
Off to island hopping. (Photo by Ja Mere)

Budget and expenses

Here are the major expenses you should consider on your ZamBaSulTa trip (Updated as of 2020).

Zamboanga– Island hopping in Once Islas: P2000 plus other fees (good up to 9 pax)
– Boat to Great Sta. Cruz Island: P1000 (good up to 10 pax)
Basilan– Lamitan City tour: P1000 via habal-habal or P2400 via private car (good up to 5 pax)
– Boat to Lampinigan Island: P2500 (good up to 10 pax)
Sulu– Island hopping in Panglima Tahil: P5000 (good up to 15 pax)
– Car rental for land tour: P3000 (good up to 5 people)
– Tour guide fee: P500 per head (rate is good for the duration of your stay)
Tawi-Tawi– Tricycle for town tour: P1000 (good up to 4 pax)
– Island hopping: P9000 (good up to 10-15 pax)

Your final budget will depend on your accommodation, food and activities and how many you are in the group.

Following the itinerary above, in a group of 5, a safe budget would be P13,000-15,000 per person.

Reminders and Tips

Sulu Capitol building
Sulu Capitol. (Photo by Ja Mere)

Here are some reminders and tips for your trip in Mindanao:

  • It’s best to go with other people to share expenses with. There are activities that are budget-friendly and others not so (e.g., island hopping in Tawi-Tawi easily cost around P9,000). You can go solo and hope that there are other people on your tour date, but you’re playing a game of chance. Remember that there are few tourists visiting Mindanao.
  • Be respectful of the communities you visit.
  • While Zamboanga City is used to tourists and takes no issue with how you dress, other provinces such as Sulu and Tawi-Tawi may still require more conservative clothing especially for women.
  • Don’t forget to tip your local tour guides especially if you’re satisfied with their services.
  • Finally: Let’s spread positive experiences about Mindanao!

Quick Reference

For quick reference, here are the rest of our posts about our ZamBaSulTa Trip:

Zamboanga:

Basilan:

Sulu:

Tawi-Tawi:

Has this guide and itinerary to ZamBaSulTa been helpful to you? If you have any questions or comments, let me know in the comment section below.

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