The Deep South
Tawi-tawi is the Philippines' southern-most province and is a splendid chain of 107 islands and islets. To most Filipinos, Tawi-tawi is as mystifying as folklore, and as seemingly inaccessible as the tallest mountains. But unbeknownst to many, this enchanting mini-archipelago is within reach to anyone who cares to visit.
The town of Bongao, Tawi-tawi's capital, is a fascinating blend of the old and the new. Old traditions are still very much observed by the townsfolk, while new technology and all its trappings are welcomed and have become an integral part of the people's lifestyles. Travelers will surely enjoy what this province has to offer when it comes to the pursuit of adventure and discovery.
For tourists who want to visit Bongao, Airphil Express flies there four times a week from Zamboanga City; and another airline is set to fly the same route within the year. There are quite a few small hotels on Bongao, but to experience island life to the fullest, stay at the Beachside Inn. It sits on an expansive property fronting an impressive coastline, and bounded to the west by the enigmatic Bongao Peak.
Beachside Inn has 20-odd air-conditioned rooms that, while far from being deluxe accommodations, will suit the needs of most travelers. The hotel also has function rooms, and a restaurant that's open from 7am to 10pm. The best part, however, is that the beach across the property is actually a scuba diver's paradise.
Contact: (68)268-1446. Room rates: P700-1,000 per night.
Blessed with miles upon miles of white sand beaches and pristine coral reefs, and surrounded by the Celebes Sea, Tawi-tawi is home to a host of marine life. There are about a dozen dive sites that have been established by the Tawi-tawi Divers Club around Bongao and SangaSanga islands alone. The other islands offer alluring underwater exploration opportunities as well.
One must-dive spot is the Pahut Plane Wreck. Sitting at a depth of 60 feet off the coast of Brgy. Pahut is a WWII fighter plane that is now home to various coral, squirrel fish and other sea dwellers. Visibility is crystal clear, although the current can get rather energetic in that area.
The dive site behind the Sanga-sanga airport is also highly recommended by locals. It features a deep wall, an explosion of coral formations, pelagic fish, manta rays, and even friendly marine turtles.
For more adventurous divers, Sitangkai should be in their bucket list. Dubbed the “Venice of the Philippines,” Sitangkai Island is the farthest of all the islands in the province. This town's main mode of transport is the venerable banca, and houses are interconnected by wooden footbridges. Diving there offers encounters with a variety of shark species, decades-old pawikan and other exotic sea creatures. The Tawi-tawi Divers Club has its own air compressor, scuba cylinders and complete sets of dive equipment. Contact: Dive Master Ramon Tañgon, (918)699-2822.
There is a fable surrounding Tawi-tawi's most famous mountain, Bongao Peak (or Bud Bongao). Near the summit is a Muslim grave that is considered a shrine, both by Muslims and Christians. In the capital, Christians number about 30 percent of the population. It is said that all transgressions will be forgiven if one visits and pays respects at this shrine.
Locals also say that to have visited Tawi-tawi is to have ascended Bud Bongao's peak. And it is one activity you mustn't miss, because the summit offers a breathtaking view of the white-ringed islands and, on a good day, a hint of Borneo on the southern horizon. It takes only about an hour's hike to climb.
The mountain is home to a large troop of native monkeys. Make sure to bring bananas or other fruits to keep the furry guardians of the Bud appeased.