Sakayan Festival

Sakayan Festival, also is traditional boat festival and the Isabela City Cityhood Anniversary celebrated in Isabela City, Basilan, Philippines every April 25. The date might be declared a holiday (such as Proclamation No. 707 in 2019).

The city also celebrates the religious fiesta in honor of St. Elizabeth of Portugal every July 8.

What is Sakayan Festival?

In the past, the city of Isabela held the annual Cocowayan Festival in time for its cityhood anniversary. It was a cultural festival that focuses on bamboo and coconut, which are raw materials central to the local economy of the city. According to a news report, it was the 11th staging in 2012 and thus placing its inaugural year in 2002.

Sakayan Festival is a celebration of the way of life of the people in Isabela City. Its people rely on fishing as their primary means of livelihood. Its first festival video teaser was released in October 2019 for a supposed launch the next year. It was postponed in 2020 due to Covid-19 pandemic, but its activities pushed through online.

One of the newly introduced festivals in the region, its name comes from the wooden boat fitted with outriggers that is used for fishing. It can also refer generally to maritime vessels and outposts for transportation or travel.

Thus, the festival is symbolic of the people’s deep connection with the sea and their livelihood that depends on its bounty. It has become an expression of thanksgiving for abundant harvests of the sea.

It is also a reflection of its people’s lineage to the Austronesians who traveled to the Philippine archipelago thousands of years ago. They were sailors who invented sea crafts that allowed them to travel and occupy territories across the Indo-Pacific region.

Moreover, it also represents Isabela City’s identity as a place of different migrants that has transformed it into a place with a diverse, multi-cultural population.

History of Isabela City, Basilan

Sakayan Festival is also a founding anniversary of Isabela City. The city is located in the northern portion of Basilan, a province that belongs to the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region that also includes the provinces of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao del Norte, Maguindanao del Sur, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi.

Interestingly, Isabela City is not part of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region and it is independent of Basilan; it is considered part of Region IX (Zamboanga Peninsula: Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, and Zamboanga Sibugay).

The Yakans are believed to be its first inhabitants. They speak the language similar to the one spoken by the Samal. Yet they differ as the former’s lifestyle is more adapted inland as opposed to the latter’s marine way of life.

The Yakan’s land-based culture relies largely on agriculture such as upland rice and copra, and they are known for their intricate weaving and elaborate dress. Then Islam was introduced centuries before the Hispanic period.

Additionally, Spanish influence is ever-present in the city particularly its very name, Isabela de Basilan, which not only distinguishes it from the province of Isabela in Cagayan Valley Region but also comes from Queen Isabel II of Spain.

The Spaniards propagated the Christian faith to the natives such that the city holds the yearly religious fiesta of its patroness to this very day. Moreover, one of the city’s famous structure is the twentieth-century Santa Isabel Cathedral, the seat of territorial prelature of Isabela.

In 1637, the Society of Jesus from Zamboanga arrived in the northwestern portion of Basilan inhabited by aborigines that was called “Pasangen.” Fr. Francisco Lado, SJ baptized the leaders of the settlements present in the area. The Jesuits established their presence by inviting more Christians.

However, the Spanish military withdrew from the Philippine south to focus their forces in the north to address the growing threat of Chinese warlord Koxinga in the 1660s.

The mission of the Jesuits survived despite the loss of military support until they were expelled in 1768 and the Augustinian Recollects took over. The Jesuits came back and resume their administration by replacing the Recollects in 1862.

In 1726, Sultan Badar Ud-din gave up Basilan to the Spanish crown in exchange of agreement in trading and commerce. Soon the treaty was rescinded and hostilities broke out between the Muslims and the Spaniards. Christian settlements were subjected to attacks from the sea in what is now known as Moro raids.

In the 19th century, Basilan became part of Zamboanga (which was a corregimiento in 1832 and later a gobierno militar five years later). France also took hold in the southern Philippines that led to the chieftains declaring independence from the Spaniards in 1845.

Eventually, the French gave up their claim and the Spaniards reinforced their influence and constructed a stone fort called Fuerte Reina Isabela Segunda, an important base for their naval presence in Mindanao.

In 1850, the Recollects constructed the church between the fort and the coast. In 1860, Isabela became the capital of the district that included Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. As Basilan was ceded to the Spaniards by the sultan of Sulu in a treaty in 1878, the Spaniards transferred their naval fleet to Isabela a year later.

Tensions plagued the city throughout history. With the coming of the Americans in 1899, the Sultan of Sulu entered a treaty that enabled autonomy in Basilan.

However, the Americans did so to buy time while they suppress the revolution against their rule elsewhere in the country. Added to the conflict was the migration of Christians to Mindanao encouraged by the government. In the 1970s, Basilan saw clashes between separatist movement and government forces.

From the American period, Basilan was part of Zamboanga. It was declared an independent city by virtue of Republic Act No. 288 on June 16, 1948 and in 1955, the mayor was chosen through popular election through Republic Act No. 1211.

Basilan separated from Zamboanga as an independent province through Presidential Decree No. 356 on December 27, 1973. The decree also declared Isabela as its capital. The inauguration of the first provincial officers took their oath on March 7, 1974.

Isabela became a city through Republic Act No. 9023, otherwise known as “An Act Converting the Municipality of Isabela, Province of Basilan into a Component City to be Known as the City of Isabela,” that was signed by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on March 5, 2001. The law was enacted through a plebiscite on April 25, 2001, and this is the date that the Sakayan Festival commemorates yearly.

In that same year, the city voted in a plebiscite not join the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. Afterwards in 2019, the city also did not vote to be part of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in a plebiscite held in January 21.

Sakayan Festival Activities

In 2021, its calendar began in April 23 and culminated in May 4 with the awarding of winners of various competitions; in 2022, from April 25 to May 18; and in 2023, from April 25 to May 6. Activities included state of the city address delivered by the mayor, agro-Industrial Trade and Tourism Fair, exhibits, talent contest (singing, dance, essay writing), social services (like job fair, medical-dental mission), food and cooking fest, sports, parade, Sakayan boat making competition, float competition, and Dia de Isabeleños (a day set where government services are offered and can be availed by the constituents).

How to reach Isabela City, Basilan

One can book a flight bound for Zamboanga International Airport. Ferry schedules are available from Zamboanga City to Isabela City.


Sakayan Festival Summary

NameSakayan Festival
CelebrationCulture, Cityhood, Boat
DateApril 25
Duration12 days
Historical eventConversion of the municipality of Isabela to a component city in 2001
LocationIsabela City, Basilan
OrganizerCity Government of Basilan