Pink sand beaches are quite rare. There are a only a few of them around the world, the most famous of which can be found in Bahamas & Bermuda. Thankfully, we don’t have to travel abroad to set foot on one. The Greater Santa Cruz Island in Zamboanga City, in the southern region of the Philippines, is famed for having pink coralline sand.
This small inhabited island located in the Basilan Strait is just 4 km south of the downtown area of Zamboanga City. It can be reached within 20 minutes by motorized boats. In recent years, the beach has gained popularity as a tourist attraction in the city. I’m really glad to have visited this bucket-list worthy beach prior to my trip to Tawi-Tawi.
The beach here gets its rosy color from the abundance of red organ pipe coral (tubipora musica). The coral is bright red, and eons of surf erosion have resulted in tiny red particles being mixed in the existing white coral sand, giving the beach its blushing pink hue. If you walk down the beach, you can find a lot of pieces of the red corals that have washed up on the shore.
Aside from the lovely color of the sand on the beach, another interesting thing about Santa Cruz island is its abandoned cemetery. Underneath a canopy of trees in the forest on the Eastern part of the beach is an old Badjao burial site.
The Badjaos, known as sea nomads or gypsies of Sulu Sea, believe that the journey continues in the afterlife. Amidst the concrete markers in this cemetery, one can find miniature boats made of wood and vinta sails of tattered cloth, to transport the departed on their great voyage beyond the sea. The sight of the dry leaves and weather-beaten boats among the cracked gravestones was haunting and beautiful at the same time.
After taking a dip in the beach’s clear waters, we went to explore the other side of the island. While walking along the shore on the other side of the island, I noticed wild grass that resembled sea urchins. Our guide told us that locals sometimes race these spiky grass balls along the shore, letting them be blown like bales of hay in the wind.
The local government is developing the island for eco-tourism activities. The inland part of the island is dominated by a huge mangrove laden lagoon with a small Badjao village. Some of the women from the village sell souvenirs like bracelets, necklaces and earrings made of beads, wood and pearls harvested from the sea.
They also sell miniature vintas, the traditional boat used by Badjaos and Moros for inter-island transport of people and goods. The boats’ striped sails, which represent the colorful culture and history of the Muslim community, is an icon of Zamboanga City. The best time to see these boats in action is during the Regatta de Zamboanga, during the city’s La Hermosa Festival, held every October.
Another smaller island, called Little Santa Cruz Island, has beautiful white sand, but is closed off to the public as it serves as a military installation. The area surrounding the Greater and Little Santa Cruz island is a protected landscape and seascape, and efforts are underway to rehabilitate the coral reefs which suffered from illegal coral reef mining in the past. The colorful marine life and excellent water visibility, makes the place ideal for snorkeling and scuba diving. We took the boat out a few hundred meters from the island and went snorkeling for a while. I wouldn’t have minded snorkeling the whole day, but we had to make our way back to reach festivities in the city by the afternoon. The current wasn’t too strong, so I ended up swimming/treading all the way back to the shore.
On the way back to the Paseo del Mar port from Santa Cruz island, we noticed a spot in the middle of the sea where the water was much shallower and clearer. We had to make one last stop at this tiny sandbar. There was just a small strip of white corals above water, for a few people to stand on, while the waves crashed into it from both sides. It was a lovely and surreal sight.
HOW TO GET TO SANTA CRUZ ISLAND, ZAMBOANGA:
- The Greater Santa Cruz can be reached with any motorized vinta (outrigger) or boat from downtown in about 15-20 minutes from the port in Paseo del Mar.
- Transport costs P1,000 per boat (boat is good for 1-10 people).
- It’s best to coordinate trips with the local tourism office to ensure military escorts. The DOT office is located near the front of Lantaka Hotel by the Sea.
- You can also go directly to the port in Paseo del Mar as walk-in clients (no guarantee that boats will leave everyday esp. if waves are too strong).
- There are no overnight accommodations on the island, though there are a few covered picnic huts and adequate bathroom facilities for visitors. The place is ideal for half-day or day-trips.
- Entrance fee: P20.00/pax, Terminal fee: P5.00/pax, Cottage fee: P100 (small – 6 persons), P200 (large – 10 persons), P500 (pavilion – 15-30 persons)
- The cost of the boat can be kind of expensive if you’re travelling solo, so try and join other people to keep costs down.
- Be sure to bring your own food and water for picnics or if you plan to spend the day, as there are no stores on the island.
- Things to bring: swimwear, sunblock, drybag (for camera & gadgets), snorkeling gear, money for souvenirs.
- Please do not take home corals and sand from the beach.