It was 9:00 pm and I was still a bit sleepy from my 2-hour bus ride from Laoag City to Vigan. I waited anxiously at the Partas bus terminal amidst the flurry of passengers and conductors. I had arrived earlier this morning from Manila and the idea that I am finally in Ilocos was still simmering.
For years I have planned to go to Vigan as many people have been urging me to visit this heritage town once inhabited by the affluent Chinese-Ilocano mestizos. A town that is unparalleled in its preservation of Spanish colonial towns. After meeting Edmar Guquib (blogger and author of Explore Ilocos) during a previous fam trip in Puerto Princesa, my resolve to visit was stronger and we finally made time to plan a visit on April.
“Hey Kira!” Edmar greeted with his GoPro in hand. I gave him a tight hug and told him that I had seen the Vigan arch and some ancestral houses along the way, and I was very excited to be here. “Welcome to my hometown!” he proudly announced. And I couldn’t have been happier, with the best Ilocano blogger at my side this was bound to become a fantastic trip!
How to get there:
There are several options based on your budget and how much time you want to spend in Ilocos:
- Land travel – take the scenic route by riding the bus from Cubao to Vigan (12 hours), take the deluxe (sleeper) Partas bus if you want to be comfortable
- Fly – Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific also flies direct to Laoag City (50 minutes) which is 2 hours away from Vigan
EXPLORING ILOCOS NORTE – Pagudpud, Paoay, Laoag City
Since we stayed in Laoag, we took the van to Pagudpud (1.5 hours travel) and asked the driver to drop us off at the Pagudpud tricycle station where we can have our North/South tours. Renting a tricycle is the most economical way to go around next to driving your own scooter. If you decide to take the former, take note that one tricycle can only accommodate 3 passengers (by law). The rates have also increased so you may need to haggle a bit. We chose only specific spots we were interested in (the driver will show you a list) and negotiated the price down to P400 per tricycle for 3 tourist spots.
A first in the Philippines, these world renowned windmills along the Bangui Bay generate electricity that is collected in NAPOCOR Laoag then distributed across Ilocos. The first 20 windmills were built in 2004 with more added in recent years. Today’s running total? 49 windmills!
Aside from providing sustainable energy, the Northwind Bangui Bay Project aims to reduce 56,788 tons of CO2e (tons of carbon dioxide equivalent) of greenhouse gases. That’s 1.2 million tons of CO2! (source)
Cape Bojeador Lighthouse
The 125-year old cultural heritage sits majestically atop Vigia de Nagpartian Hill overlooking the South China Sea. Considered as the northwestern-most point of Luzon, Cape Bojeador Lighthouse looks both regal and spooky.
I was the only one from our group who went up the steps and entered. There’s a small museum and very old living quarters that I found quite interesting, perhaps because I live in an ancestral house myself. I was very much impressed with the preserved solihiya beds most of all.
I had to ask, “Are there any ghosts here?” To which the tour guide answered, “Yes. We hear footsteps and chains at night, whispers in an indiscernible language, and a white lady shows herself every so often.” My eyes widened — I do love a good ghost story! With the lighthouse’s history and old fashioned design, it was easy to see why some would decide to just take photos below and steer clear of the actual lighthouse.
Owned by the infamous Chavit Singson, Baluarte is a mini zoo, safari gallery, and weekend getaway for locals. There is absolutely no entrance fee and it’s a must-visit if you want to see the plight of caged animals. Edmar and I both agree that animals do not belong in zoos and must be allowed to roam freely.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking for me was seeing the stuffed animals on display at the Safari Gallery. These were animals that he hunted around the world — whether they were licensed gaming trails or not, animals should never be hunted for sport. It was a little disconcerting to say the least.
Paoay Church (Iglesia de San Agustín de Paoay)
There are only four (4) Baroque Churches in the Philippines:
- San Agustin (Manila)
- Miagao Church (Iloilo)
- Santa Maria Church (Ilocos Sur)
- Paoay Church (both in Ilocos Sur)
So a visit to Ilocos merits two (2) Baroque Churches already and may I say, they were a sight to behold.
With summer currently in the Philippines and the temperatures rising up to 33 degrees in Ilocos (but feels like 35, really), the famous Paoay Church is best visited during sunset when old church basks in the sun’s dreamy orange glow.
I love old churches, it reminds me of the hard work of all the Filipino laborers during the Spanish era. Whoever said Filipinos are lazy must only take a look at our cultural structures to understand that we are far from being so.
On my last day I walked around Laoag and visited the Ilocos Museum which was surprisingly not as popular. I was discussing with a friend in Manila who was of Ilocano descent and she has not heard of this local museum. What a shame though as it is considered as one of the most ethnographic museums in the Philippines. It may be small but its large collection boasts of Ilocano, Igorot and Itneg artifacts, tribal clothes, household items, etc.
At the far end of the museum you’ll climb a staircase that will lead you a 19th century house replica.
Sinking Bell Tower
The history of the Sinking Bell Tower is quite interesting. Said to be built on top of sand, the structure sinks a couple of inches per year. The tiny entrance facing the busy main road used to fit an average person riding a horse, now the entrance can only fit a short person or a child. Seeing as the main gate was locked, I went around and looked for an alternate entrance but, sadly, didn’t find any.
EXPLORING ILOCOS SUR – Vigan, Bantay, Sta. Maria
The historical town of Vigan is most known for Calle Crisologo, a narrow street where all the affluent mestizos lived during the Spanish era. This tourist spot now showcases one of the most preserved ancestral houses in the Philippines: Capiz windows, intricate carved air vents, antique wooden furniture with solihiya (rattan weaved) seats, and grand staircases.
It’s a feast for the eyes, and though some found Vigan rather boring (I mean, there is nothing else to do) I beg to disagree. Lovers of old houses will marvel at the craftsmanship, and when visiting during the evenings the romantic ambiance of beckons.
Imagine yourself living during the Spanish era walking these cobbled streets wearing your baro’t saya (traditional skirt and blouse), riding a horse-drawn carriage, or perhaps sitting by the window fanning yourself from the heat while watching as people passed by.
But Vigan really has more to show than just ancestral houses (which are stunning in itself, by the way). Check out what else we did that day.
Pottery or Burnay-making is one of the industries Vigan has maintained for centuries, a skill learned from Chinese settlers. Folks can come over and learn about pottery and even try it out for themselves — it’s actually pretty fun!
Workers here can create 200-500 clay pots per day using only their skillful hands, a traditional kiln, and wheel. Compared to the usual terracotta pots, burnay is said to be sturdier even enhancing the flavors of bagoong (fermented fish) and basi (wine) when kept in these earthen jars.
Fr. Jose Burgos House
Padre Burgos is known as one of the 3 priests (GomBurZa) tried and executed in Luneta Park (Bagumbayan) in 1872. He fought steadily against the Spanish friars and pushed for equality among the Filipino clergy. His ancestral house in Vigan is located only 10 minutes away from the city and is walking distance from the provincial jail now turned into the Quirino Museum.
Any proud Ilocano will tell you that they are naturally brave and possess the innate ability to lead. Just browse through history and you’ll discover that Ilocanos were the first ethnic group to fight off the Spanish, with two (2) even becoming Philippine Presidents. Out of our 16 Philippine elected Presidents, two (2) are full-blooded Ilocanos: Elpidio Quirino (Ilocos Sur), Ferdinand Marcos (Ilocos Norte) while 3 are of Ilocano descent.
Just a few meters from the Fr. Burgos House, we come across the old provincial jail that has been transformed into an art gallery-slash-museum in 2014. The literal birthplace of Apo Pidiong (Elpidio Quirino) where his father was a jail warden. His mother delivered him on the second floor of the complex. Years later, Elpidio Quirino would become the Philippine’s sixth and most loved President.
The second floor of the structure houses historical photos of the Syquia-Quirino family, old furniture, Apo Pidiong’s clothes, his beloved canes, and other artifacts. The ground floor is an exhibit of Filipino paintings depicting the wrath of the Spanish friars, the wars over basi (prized Ilocano wine that the Spanish wanted to regulate and exploit), plus a display of burnays (Ilocano clay pots).
Bantay Church (Shrine of Nuestra Señora de la Caridad)
It was Holy Week and we parked our scooter at the side of Bantay Church. The heat was scorching and we could hear the Ilocano Pasyon being read in the background. Edmar dashed to the van where he heard the voices, expecting a group of old women reciting the narrative, but discovered only a recording. Live pasyon readings are done in the town of Gabu, we were told.
We pay our respects and visit the bell tower. Because of its strategic location, the bell tower was also used as a watchtower during WWI and WWII. The word “bantay” after all, means “to watch over” in Filipino.
Santa Maria Church (Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion)
The lesser known yet equally captivating Baroque Church in Ilocos is Santa Maria Church, about 45 minutes via scooter from Vigan. The legend says that the Virgin Mary was initially enshrined in Bulala but kept disappearing and was always found perched on a guava tree in the town of Santa Maria. As this happened several times, eventually the locals built a church here and became known as the Santa Maria Church.
As I climbed the imposing set of stairs (85 steps in all), Santa Maria Church still seemed larger than life and resembled a fortress atop a hill. It was protected by a defensive wall built to keep the Moros out. The church was also reinforced by strong buttresses meant to withstand earthquakes and storms.
WHAT TO BUY
You might be disappointed that I didn’t do a lot of shopping. I’m not really one to buy pasalubong because I believe that pictures and experiences are worth more. But if there was only one thing you have to buy before leaving Ilocos, it must be…
Inabel in bright colors
Never leave without taking home their distinctly handwoven fabric called Inabel. Weaving cotton or acrylic and polyester with a traditional hand-loom, the entire process is precise and labor-intensive, with techniques passed on from generation to generation. Lovers of Inabel will tell you that scarves, blankets, and bed covers will last years and are even considered as heirloom pieces.
I was able to find some at the souvenir shop of the Ilocos Norte Museum in bright, cheery colors. I purchased 2 yards of cloth (to be made into a personalized scarf) and a gorgeous pink bed cover with an eye-catching boho fringe. I must, must go on a weaving tour on my next run so I can see the different designs and patterns from around the Ilocos province. No wonder a lot of my friends go on Inabel haunts and spend hours (some days!) visiting shops, these are too gorgeous to pass up!
WHERE TO EAT
Cafe Leona is a known tourist trap but it’s a quick fix if you’re hungry and can’t decide what or where to eat. Named after the famous Ilocano poet, Leona Florentino, Cafe Leona offers Filipino, American, and Italian dishes and is conveniently located at the start of Calle Crisologo (you can’t miss it!).
Arrive at 11am to ensure you have seats, the place gets rather full come lunch time. You can choose between viands that are ready made or order from the menu.
Flavors & Gourmet Bulalohan
Perhaps the only bulalohan in Vigan F&G is owned by Ms. Lisa Pascasio, a fastidious cook and lovely host. She was the reason we kept coming back during my 4-day stay because of her bubbly and accommodating personality. Food here is fast, delicious, and homemade.
Don’t forget to leave your mark! Guests are encouraged to leave their art and messages when they come visit.
Our friends Heather and Third from Palawan also got engaged here!
Of course, you have to try the local Ilocos Empanada which seemed to be everywhere in Ilocos. These large snacks are filled to the brim with mashed squash, beansprouts, or lettuce mixed with egg and chorizo.
While most have their own variations (Laoag’s version has sweeter chorizo while Vigan’s is garlicky), one must head to the stall beside the Church in Batac to enjoy the authentic unadulterated recipe locals have been enjoying for decades. Best eaten piping hot with [spicy] Ilocano vinegar. I can only eat one piece, unfortunately, it’s so darn filling!
Johnny Moon Cafe
A few steps from the Ilocos Norte Museum is the Johnny Moon Cafe (aka Juan Luna). I was attracted to the quirky art, but since I just had lunch I only had space for coffee and dessert.
I had brewed coffee and their Inkalati ala mode, warm bananas, camote, smothered in melted muscovado sugar, topped with vanilla ice cream. It’s a nice place to hang out, work, and read a book in since it’s usually empty in the afternoons.
Ilocos, you took my breath away
On my last day I was half-hearted about leaving, I wanted to immerse myself more in Ilocano culture. I wanted to hop back on the bus, head to Vigan or Batac, and explore on foot. But, our family tradition is to spend Holy Week in Manila. So, I guess I’ll be back in Ilocos this June.
Did I miss anything? What other places, beaches, cafes should I discover and visit? Sound off in the comments.