Travel log: May 30-June 1, 2015; Philippines
There are many things Ilocos is not. Not breathtaking the way Banaue is, with its cascade of rice terraces carved into the mountainside; not stay-up-late-exhilarating like Puerto Galera or Boracay; and—at about 400 kilometers north of the capital, from Manila to Vigan—not nearly as accessible as either Tagaytay or Corregidor.
But the province of Ilocos is well worth a visit. Even if you skip famous landmarks such as Pagudpud’s beaches and the Kapurpurawan rock formation—which can be challenging to reach without a private vehicle—the city of Vigan and nearby Paoay offer enough history and charm to satisfy any city-dweller craving a trip out of Metro Manila. With its dusty streets, colonial-era churches, and museums ranging from the quaint to the macabre, Ilocos is a provincial idyll, where travelers can appreciate the rustic beauty of time-worn architecture amid the constant stream of everyday life.
Famed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vigan boasts some of the best historical sites in Ilocos, and is unmissable. Daily buses ply the route from Manila to Vigan, but even the overnight trip takes at least 7 hours. Sleep isn’t guaranteed either—the Viron Transit bus we took not only blared constant loud music, not only burst into bright lights at each stop (there were many), but also maintained a minimum temperature of freezing. Fly if you can afford it, but only the Laoag airport is operational, and it’s another two hours from Laoag to Vigan by bus. Alternatively, you can also drive the whole way from Metro Manila.
Vigan’s main attraction is a cobblestone street lined with old, Spanish-style houses and souvenir shops selling t-shirts, woven bags, basi wine, and local cigars. Visitors should walk the length of Calle Crisologo at least twice: early in the morning and at night, when the occasional rains and yellow lamplight give it a truly otherworldly feel.
Located at one end of Calle Crisologo, Plaza Burgos is best-known for its food kiosks selling empanada and other street food. It was built in honor of Father José Burgos, a martyr born in Vigan.
Right next to Plaza Burgos is the larger Plaza Salcedo. It is flanked by St. Paul’s Cathedral on one side and the Archbishop’s Palace on another.
The Bantay Bell Tower is a short tricycle ride from Vigan proper. Said to have been the people’s watchtower during colonial times, the belfry sits on a hill and offers an impressive view of Vigan and surrounding areas. Nearby is St. Augustine Church, which also has a small, open-air chapel.
Back in Vigan, you can escape the afternoon heat by visiting the Syquia Mansion, a historic house owned by the family of former First Lady Alicia Syquia Quirino. The house provides visitors with a glimpse of life during the 19th century, with its spacious rooms, wooden floors, flowing curtains, and capiz shell windows.
Another house worth stopping by is the Crisologo Museum, named after former Congressman Floro Crisologo, who in 1970 was killed by an unidentified gunman outside St. Paul’s Cathedral. The museum houses his memorabilia and other possessions, including the bloody clothes he died in. But don’t be taken aback: leaving the museum, the strongest impression I came away with was not of death but of a life well-kept and cherished.
West of the Crisologo Museum is the Pagburnayan district, where earthenware jars called burnay are manufactured using a method dating from pre-colonial times. Visitors can see massive kilns, try their hand at the potter’s wheel, or buy souvenirs from one of the many stalls outside.
Vigan can be explored in one day. If you have time, we suggest taking a short walk just past the Govantes River, where you can have a change of scenery and see what life is like for residents outside the main city.
From Vigan, you can take either a mini-bus or an air-conditioned bus to Batac. Like jeepneys, mini-buses are almost always available, but are cramped and often stop to pick up passengers. Our supposedly two-hour journey lasted almost three hours. The bus option is preferable, but departure times are variable and far between, so ask at the station hours before your intended departure.
Marcos Museum and Mausoleum
The Marcos Museum tells the glorified story of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, from his childhood to his rise in power. He is described as an impossibly heroic figure, and his accomplishments—as well as his famous 11-day courtship of the future Imelda Marcos—are retold as if part of a legend. His remains, preserved using formaldehyde, are on display at the mausoleum.
The Santacruzan is a procession held at the end of the month-long celebration of Flores de Mayo, a Philippine religious festival honoring the Virgin Mary. We stumbled upon Batac’s version of the Santacruzan by accident, as we arrived in the city on May 31.
Paoay, home of the famous St. Augustine Church—commonly known as Paoay Church—is a short jeepney ride west from Batac.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the centuries-old Paoay Church remains impressive from the outside, with its beautiful stone façade and massive walls built to withstand earthquakes. Unfortunately, the interior is in need of restoration: the wall paint has cracked in many places, and the unattractive ceiling—made from corrugated sheets—could be replaced with something more commensurate to the church’s external grandeur.
Paoay Sand Dunes
Billed as the only desert in the Philippines, the Paoay Sand Dunes are located right along the coast of the West Philippine Sea. There are three activities: 4×4 ride, sandboarding, ATV rental. But they don’t come cheap! It’s P2,500 each for the 4×4 ride with sandboarding (1 hour); P1,500 for just the 4×4 ride (30 minutes); and P800 to rent an ATV (30 minutes). Sightseers are welcome, but without a vehicle you can’t fully explore the area.
Paoay Lake is more remarkable for its story than its scenery. Supposedly an entire village was submerged underwater centuries ago, either as a result of a tremendous earthquake or the wrath of God. Plaques on the view deck detail both the historical and mythical versions of this narrative.
Nearby is the Malacañang of the North, former President Marcos’ official residence, now a museum. We had heard good things, but unfortunately it’s closed on Mondays.
Your hired tricycle should take you back to Paoay proper, from where you can jump on a jeepney to Laoag, the capital of Ilocos Norte. Laoag doesn’t offer much by way of tourist attractions, but it is convenient to end your trip here, as it’s the only city in Ilocos with a functioning airport (20 minutes away).
Sinking Bell Tower
Built on sandy foundation, the belfry of St. William Cathedral supposedly sinks at a rate of one inch per year. Its main door, now buried halfway, was originally able to accommodate a man sitting on horseback. At 45 meters high, the bell tower is hard to miss at any time of the day, but is more photogenic at night.
Tobacco Monopoly Monument
The monument, erected upon the abolishment of tobacco monopoly in the region, does not immediately catch the eye, and could be missed if not for these gigantic letters in front.
Ilocos Norte Provincial Capitol
Right behind the Tobacco Monopoly Monument stands the provincial capitol building. The surrounding greenery provides a welcome break for the eyes.
This tiny but charming museum features the rich cultural heritage of Ilocos Norte and houses many well-preserved artifacts.
Nearby is the well-known Johnny Moon Café, inspired by the renowned Filipino painter Juan Luna and his iconic mustache.
Where to sleep
For an overnight stay in Laoag, we highly recommend Balay da Blas Pensionne House, where clean, homey suites are available at bargain prices. Their in-house restaurant, Saramsam Ylocano, serves some of the best food in the city.