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Once Islas Travel Guide: Zamboanga’s Hidden Gem

Once Islas: The Eco-Cultural Tourism Destination of Zamboanga City

White sand Beach at Bisaya-Bisaya Island

Once Islas Travel Guide For First-Time Travelers

ZAMBOANGA DEL SUR, Philippines — During our PHILTOA Zamboanga – Tawi-Tawi Familiarization trip a couple of months back, the last but definitely the most exciting destination we visited was an island-hopping destination northeast of Zamboanga City called Once Islas.

Bisaya-Bisaya - Once Islas Travel Guide
Bisaya-Bisaya – Once Islas Travel Guide

The tropical haven is an eco-cultural tourism destination rich with majestic rock formations, fine white sand, and pristine blue waters. It is composed of 11 islands along the Moro Gulf, supervised and protected by the Zamboanga Tourism Office and taken under the care of the local community.

PHILTOA Zamboanga-Tawi-Tawi Fam Trip
PHILTOA Zamboanga-Tawi-Tawi Fam Trip
Travel Guide to Once Islas in Zamboanga City
Travel Guide to Once Islas in Zamboanga City
Bisaya Bisaya Island in Zamboanga
Bisaya Bisaya Island in Zamboanga

Only four islands (Sirommon, Bisaya-Bisaya, Buh-Buh, and Baung-Baung) were officially declared tourism zones by the city government and can be visited by tourists.

White sand beach in Zamboanga City
White sand beach in Zamboanga City

The remaining two islands belong to the city villages of Panubigan and Dita, while Sallangan, Simaddang, Lambang-Lambang, Baguias, Lampinigan, Kabugan, and Panganak islands and islets are not accessible yet to the public.

Local Community

The islands are mostly inhabited by the Sama Banguingui tribe, an ethnolinguistic group dispersed throughout the Greater Sulu Archipelago and southern and western coastal regions of the Zamboanga Peninsula. The Banguigui people practice the Islamic religion (they are a part of the wider Moro ethnic group), and depend mainly on fishing and seaweed farming for their livelihood.

Island Hopping Tour

Upon arrival at Zamboanga City Airport from our flight from Tawi-Tawi, we traveled by bus to Panubigan Barangay Hall about 34 kilometers away from the city center. Upon arriving at the barangay hall, we were required to register and were given a tourist briefing afterward. We were also entertained by a group of kids who performed traditional dances.

Local kids who performed traditional dances
Local kids who performed traditional dances

From the tourist center, we took a short walk toward the wharf. There are tourist-friendly and modern toilets along the road for those who want to change their proper swimming attire. At the wharf, we were subdivided into 9 passengers per boat, the maximum capacity of each tourist boat specially created for the island-hopping activity.

Island Hopping in Once Islas in Zamboanga City
Island Hopping in Once Islas in Zamboanga City

Each boat has one assigned tour guide. The city government trained selected locals to become tour guides to create more jobs for the locals.

After almost 30 minutes, we arrived at our first stop: Bisaya-Bisaya Island.

Approaching Bisaya-Bisaya Island
Approaching Bisaya-Bisaya Island

Like many tropical destinations in the country, Bisaya-Bisaya Island was endowed with beautiful white sand beaches and majestic rock formations that dazzled against the sparkling rays of sunlight amid the greenish-blue sea. One can walk on the sandy and rocky natural walkway during low tide to get to its islet.

Infinity pool

Also on the islet is a natural infinity pool—a tidal pool filled with seawater surrounded by rock formations. The water is warm from the sun’s heat but just enough for a relaxing dip. Visitors must be careful, though, with the rocky and slippery surfaces.

Tidal Pool at Bisaya Bisaya Island
Tidal Pool at Bisaya Bisaya Island
Island-Hopping in Once Islas Zamboanga City
Island-Hopping in Once Islas Zamboanga City

With a rented kayak, the tireless traveler can navigate the waters surrounding Bisaya-Bisaya.

A mosque on Buh-Buh island
A mosque on Buh-Buh island

While on our way to our next stop, Sirommon Island, our guide highlighted the only mosque in Once Islas located on the shore of Buh-Buh Island.

Sirommon Island was where we had a scrumptious lunch and short hiking activity. Considered one of the smallest islands in the country, Sirommon Island has a viewpoint where you can see nearby islands.

Sirommon Island in Zamboanga
Sirommon Island in Zamboanga

Unlike its neighbors, Sirommon’s beach is more laid-back, and it is ideal for light outdoor activities like sand bathing, snorkeling, and swimming. There are native cottages available for those who want to have lunch and picnic on the island. The island is also known for its beautiful snorkeling sites.

We were supposed to visit other islands, but we had a flight to catch in the evening, so we had to cut our island hopping activity short.

Sirommon Island
Sirommon Island

Nevertheless, this island-hopping destination in Zamboanga is truly a must-visit for beach lovers and adventure seekers wanting to explore the rich tradition of the Zamboanga Peninsula and the warm hospitality of the Mindanaoans. While here, you will also discover that there is so much to see in the region, such as beautiful beach resorts, scuba diving resorts, museums depicting the history and tradition of the southern part of the archipelago, nature parks, mighty mountains and more.

How to get to Once Islas

Travelers can book a flight to Zamboanga via airasia.com, mobile.airasia.com, or the AirAsia Mobile App. AirAsia flies to Zamboanga at the following schedules:

  • MNL-ZAM – 2X Per week (Z2 651) with a travel time of 1.4 hours. Flights depart at 8:20AM and arrive at the Zamboanga International Airport at 10;00AM.
  • ZAM-MNL – 2x Per week (Z2 652) with a travel time of 1.4 hours. Flights depart at 10:30AM and arrive at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Terminal 4 at 12:10PM.

From the city proper, travelers may rent a private vehicle or take public transportation. Visitors can take a bus northbound from the Zamboanga City Integrated Bus Terminal. From Panubigan crossing, visitors can take a tricycle or habal-habal to Panubigan Mini-port, the jump-off point to Once Islas.

Note that advance bookings must be made with the city tourism office because a maximum of 200 guests are allowed per day on the islands, and the trips are strictly regulated. The tour is from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, except on Fridays, considered a holy day of the week reserved for prayer and rest in Islam.

Going to Once Islas: Pre-Travel Guide

Once Islas is an eco-cultural tourism destination in Zamboanga City. It comprises eleven islands, four of which opened to the public in 2018. The four islands, namely Sirommon, Bisaya-Bisaya, Buh-Buh, and Baung-Baung islands, were declared tourism zones by the city government with beach cottages, trekking trails, and kayaking and snorkeling sites. The other islands are Sallangan, Simaddang, Lambang-Lambang, Baguias, Kabugan, Panganak, Lampinigan.

The name Once Islas, meaning “eleven islands,” is derived from the Chavacano dialect of the locals. The Sama Banguingui, a Moro ethnolinguistic group, mostly inhabited the islands. With the help of the local government and tourism agencies, they manage the eleven islands and promote tourism to create a livelihood for the locals. Once Islas is a great model of what cooperation can achieve.

Once Islas is perfect for low-impact activities like island hopping, kayaking, swimming, snorkeling, and trekking. There are no commercial establishments on the islands, so visitors should expect to enjoy a day full of activities surrounded by the sea. Visitors should be mindful of the local customs and practices and bring modest clothing to respect the community. Beachwear is inappropriate for visiting mosques, be sure to bring a cover-up.

How to Book a Tour to Once Islas

Visitors accommodated are limited to 200, and bookings are closed when that ceiling is reached. This is to ensure responsible and sustainable tourism development in the eleven islands. Bookings are accepted at the City Tourism Office by phone at (062) 975-6341 or by email at [email protected] Walk-in bookings to the office are not allowed.

Once Islas is open to visitors every day except for Fridays in deference to the locals’ prayer day. Island hopping is open for day tours from 7AM to 2PM. Here are the steps to book your island hopping tour:

  • Step 1: Online Booking (1 week before the scheduled trip) – Guests will be accommodated through the email address at [email protected] Walk-in and impromptu booking will not be entertained.
  • Step 2: Secure Booking Acknowledgment Slip (BAS) – Guests must fill out an online booking form. Guests will be receiving Booking Acknowledgment Slip to confirm the booking.
  • Step 3: Payment of Entrance Fee and Environmental Fees – Only guests with BAS can pay at the City Treasurer’s office 2 days before the scheduled trip. The Payment collector will not accept the payment in the absence of BAS. The entrance fee costs Php100 per person, while the environmental fee costs Php100 per person.
  • Step 4: Upload of Vaccination Card – Only vaccinated guests are allowed on a Sunday Schedule. Sunday guests shall be required to email their vaccination cards to [email protected] Children below 17 years old and adults 66 years old and above are not allowed unless vaccinated.
  • Step 5: Secure Confirmation Slip – After processing payment, email the OR to [email protected] for the issuance of the confirmation slip. No confirmation slip, No Entry.
  • Step 6: Health Declaration – Guests are required to accomplish the Health Declaration form upon arrival at the reception area in Barangay Panubigan.
  • Step 7: Payment of other Fees – Guide Fees is Php300 per group of 5. Ferry rental for Island Cruise is P2,000 per group of 5, while BiBa route only costs P1,200 per group of 5. The cottage fee is Php150 per cottage
  • Step 8: Proceed to the Barangay Panubigan Mini-Pier.
Island Hopping in Once Islas
Island Hopping in Once Islas

Things to do in Once Islas

The islands are decorated with Vinta sails that make the experience truly Zamboanga. Before proceeding to the islands, visitors are welcomed with a short briefing on the dos and don’ts of the island. These include:

  • Overnight stay is not allowed.
  • Nudity is not allowed.
  • Bringing pork, alcohol, and smoking paraphernalia are not allowed.
  • Littering and vandalism are not allowed. Observe cleanliness
Bisaya-Bisaya Island in Zamboanga's Once Islas
Bisaya-Bisaya Island in Zamboanga’s Once Islas
Bisaya-Bisaya Island in Zamboanga City
Bisaya-Bisaya Island in Zamboanga City
Rock Formation at Bisaya-Bisaya Island
Rock Formation at Bisaya-Bisaya Island
White sand Beach at Bisaya-Bisaya Island
White sand Beach at Bisaya-Bisaya Island

Bisaya-Bisaya Island

Popular for its white sand beach and turquoise green waters, Bisaya-Bisaya Island, has great rock formations ideal for trekking. During the low tide season, visitors can take a short walk to an islet with a natural tidal pool. The island has a small community that maintains the island ensuring the place is clean, including the cottages and beach area. They also sell fresh coconut juice upon request.

Mosque at Buh-Buh Island
Mosque at Buh-Buh Island

Buh-Buh Island

Cultural tours are offered at the only mosque in Once Islas, located on the beach of Buh-Buh Island. Beachwear is inappropriate for visiting mosques, so be sure to bring a cover-up or wear modest clothing.

Baung-Baung Island

The calmer waves of the island are ideal for swimming, but the highlight of this island is the 15-minute trek to a view deck overlooking the Bisaya-Bisaya island.

Sirommon Island is one of the best snorkeling spots in Once Islas
Sirommon Island is one of the best snorkeling spots in Once Islas
Sirommon Island, Once Islas
Sirommon Island, Once Islas
Lunch at Sirommon Island
Lunch at Sirommon Island

Sirommon Island

Ideal for snorkeling and diving, Sirommon Island has a popular sand bar perfect for beach photos and sunbathing. Visitors can enjoy a warm meal in one of the native cottages with the island’s relaxing atmosphere. Since this is the last stop, this island is the perfect place to have lunch or heavy snacks.

Things to bring to Once Islas

  • Beachwear
  • Snorkeling Gear
  • Sunscreen
  • Food and drinks – Because there are no commercial establishments to buy food, visitors should pack their own food, drinks, and utensils for the trip. This should also include reusable water bottles.
  • Change of clothes – After a dip on the beach, although visitors can wait until they get back to their accommodations
  • Cover-ups – Optional; Beachwear is inappropriate for visiting mosques
  • Personal Toiletries
  • Electronics – With the likes of cameras and power banks to document the tour

Once Islas Travel Expenses

  • Entrance Fee: Php100 per person
  • Environmental Fee: Php100 per person
  • Cottage Rental Fee: Php150 per day
  • Hiking Fee in Sirommon Island: Php50 per person
  • Kayak Rental in Bisaya-Bisaya Island: Php300 per hour, 2pax
  • Guide Fee: Php300.00 per group of 5pax
  • Boat Rental Fee: Php1,200 to Php2,000, 5pax
Tourist Orientation
Tourist Orientation

Upon arrival at the tourism center, visitors are given a detailed orientation of rules (like dressing appropriately out of respect for the local’s customs) that they must abide by while on the island-hopping trip. They can also bring their own food but are discouraged from including pork and alcohol.

Tourism Contact Info

Zamboanga Tourism Office
Address: Paseo del Mar, Zamboanga City
Telephone: +63 (62) 975-6341
Email: [email protected]

Once Islas is waiting for you to add them as your next beach destination, with Zamboanga’s Pink Sand Beach and Malamawi Beach in Basilan. Your beach adventures in Once Islas involve exploring Bisaya-Bisaya, Sirommon, and Baung-Baung. Once Islas is another island paradise to see with deep turquoise green waters, white sand beaches, and a local community to welcome visitors with warm hospitality.

Searching for the best hotels and affordable flights? Check out our complete list of affordable hotels and resorts via Agoda, or you may also see available Airbnb properties in the city.

Want more updates about new resorts in Zamboanga City? Please follow #TeamOutofTown, on Facebook, TwitterInstagram, and Pinterest for more travel ideas.

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Written by Melo Villareal

Melo Villareal is the Online Publisher of Outoftownblog.com. He is an Accountant by profession who left the corporate world at the age of 23 to explore his beautiful country and the rest of the world. Today, Melo works as a part-time Social Media Manager for local and international clients. His full-time work focuses on discovering interesting culture, explore different cuisines and take memorable photos from local and international destinations he's visiting.

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