Finding nothing better to do on a long weekend at the close of the May, I finally decided to accept the invitation of my work colleague Maricel Estrella for a group tour of the Ilocos. I’ve previously gone to Ilocos Norte a few times in the past, but they were mostly family visits to relatives and back then, I didn’t have yet a proper appreciation for its tourist spots. Since starting to travel as a hobby years ago, I’ve taken an interest in revisiting Ilocos. Our group of 10 people left Manila on a rainy night the day before. Since reports indicated that a storm just left the Ilocos region earlier in the day, we were hoping that by the time we got there, there would already be sunny weather. After an hour of trudging through traffic in Metro Manila, it was smooth driving northwards thereafter. It was a long, 10-hour drive that was only interrupted by a brief stopover for refreshments at the residence of Dennis, one of our companions in the group. We soon reached Laoag, the capital of Ilocos Norte.
Since our itinerary stated that our first stop would be in Ilocos Sur, I was quite surprised when out of the darkness, I suddenly saw in the distance large, lit letters spelled “LAOAG” pop into view. Apparently, we were to meet our guide in Laoag first (because the tour provider is based there) and only then would we proceed to Ilocos Sur.
It was actually still dark when we reached Laoag (4am) so we first had breakfast at a Jollibee branch, which thankfully was open 24 hours. While my companions were content with just hanging out and smoking while waiting, I walked around just to get a feel of the city. Since our guide was still due to arrive at 6am, I figured I could do a lot of walking before going back to where they were. I got to walk all the way to the Ilocos Norte provincial capitol. I was trying to soak in the atmosphere, trying to get a feel for whatever’s familiar since the last time I visited here. Nope. None. It’s as if I was visiting this place for the very first time. After lingering a few moments, I walked back to Jollibee.
So our guide Raffy finally came. After the customary introductions, we first proceeded to our intended hotel to park Maricel and Dante’s van before proceeding to Vigan in Raffy’s van. Not having the benefit of a good bed rest the night before, we were soon one by one dozing off. Our very first stop was not Vigan but the adjacent town of Bantay, specifically its famous bell tower and church (the Shrine of Nuestra Señora de la Caridad, or simply, the Bantay Church.)
As we were bound to discover, most Spanish-era churches in the Ilocos region have their bell towers as a separate structure. In the case of Bantay church, the bell tower is a good stone’s throw away (or make that 3 stones’ throws away) from where the church is, being situated on top of a hill. This was presumably to avoid instances where a bell tower topples over the church during a strong earthquake. I lost track of time when taking pictures here and I didn’t realize that all my companions were already back in the van. So after half-running towards the van and realizing I still had not snapped a photo of the church itself…
We then were on our way to Vigan town proper, which was just a short drive away. We intended to go first to the Syquia Mansion but the one who was supposed to conduct the guided tour was attending Mass (it was a Sunday), so we just proceeded to the Baluarte.
The Baluarte is a zoo owned by provincial strongman Luis “Chavit” Singson. A lot of its zoo animals roamed free on the grounds such as the deer, ostriches and turkeys, while some others, such as tigers and parrots, were understandably caged or restrained in some way. It was really just a place one could take a closer look and take pictures of animals. If it had some other function aside from being a zoo, there wasn’t any indication as far as we could tell. So we just took pictures.
Before long, we moved out and made a side trip to this place called “Hidden Garden”. I’ve never heard of this place before and the blogs don’t seem to mention it. And so it was a bit of a surprise when I saw a wall there full of framed pictures of politicians and celebrities who have visited the place. Anyway, the entrance actually looks as if it’s a pottery shop, but once you get past it, it leads to paths like this:
So it was indeed a “hidden garden”. Plants were actually for sale. Aside from that, there’s a cafe, an aviary and even a grotto with a prayer area. Raffy made a brief stopover at a store that sells souvenir t-shirts and other stuff, to any of us that were interested.
After a few minutes, we went back to the town proper to check up on the Syquia Mansion just to see if anybody’s already home to conduct a tour for us. Beforehand, we were told that we needed to behave ourselves properly at all times while in the mansion because there was this strict “curator” who got ticked off very easily. Luckily, we found out that another person (who was considerably kinder and gentler) would be guiding us. So after some quick introductions, the mansion tour started.
The Syquia Mansion is so named because of its former occupants, the Syquia family, who were once (and in many ways still are) a wealthy and powerful Filipino-Chinese family from Ilocos Sur. At some point in the early 20th century, a certain rising young politician named Elpidio Quirino married into this family and for a while the soon-to-be President and his family made this mansion their home. However, it continued to be referred to as the “Syquia Mansion” rather than the “Quirino Mansion” because of the Syquias’ supposedly higher social standing.
Both inside and outside its walls, it’s obvious that the mansion is just a pale shadow of its former glory. Parts of the wooden floors creak, some furniture and decorations that were meant to be shiny just look plain dull. And while effort has been made to tidy the place up, I found the effort to be inconsistent. Overall, the place looks drab with only occasional bright spots where the restoration was good. But the tour itself was particularly informative, and I was impressed by the fact that almost all of the furniture and decorations were original.
After the tour was over, we decided to have lunch at Irene’s Empanada just across the street to sample the food that Vigan (and Ilocos) is famous for. We each had an empanada and shared 2 plate-fulls of bagnet to go with lots of rice. Needless to say, this was a very high-cholesterol meal, but it did indeed somehow enrich our Ilocos experience. I was hoping to eat somewhere that had some Spanish-era charm, rather than the turo-turo atmosphere of Irene’s Empanada, but I guess you can’t have it all.
At any rate, I had no complaints about the excellent food. In my past travels to Ilocos, I don’t remember ever tasting the native empanada, which is quite different from the empanada being sold in Metro Manila. For one thing, the wrapping crust is paper-thin and crunchy – almost like the kipingused in Lucban’s Pahiyas Festival. (In contrast, a lot of empanadas in Manila are wrapped with baked bread.)
After having our fill of lunch, we took a stroll towards the famous Calle Crisologo. This cobble stone-paved road is Vigan’s main attraction as it boasts of an uninterrupted line of intact Spanish-era houses from one side of the town, all the way to the other, ending in the cathedral. As the story goes, this town would have been burned by retreating Japanese soldiers in World War II, had it not been for the intercession of the Filipina lover of the Japanese officer who was supposed to give the order to burn the town.
Like the Syquia Mansion, most houses here have clearly seen better days. Some were even outrightly closed by the city government for safety and legal dispute reasons. But it’s a good thing that historically significant houses have been given appropriate markers to be better appreciated. It’s a street that thrives on tourism. One would encounter souvenir shops every few steps or so.
It’s also a great thing that the city government has been able to enforce a rule which stipulates that any new structure built here needs to conform with the period architecture of Spanish-era houses. Thus, you’d see modern fastfood restaurants like McDonalds, Chowking, etc. being less of an eyesore because they were modeled after the bahay na bato. One wishes that the same political will was exercised in the case of Intramuros.
After about an hour of walking around, we assembled at an agreed-upon meeting point by the Vigan Cathedral and were soon on our way back to Ilocos Norte to visit a few more tourist spots before finally checking in at the hotel. I had a much better time in Ilocos Sur than I expected. One criticism about Ilocos Sur (and Vigan) by most travel bloggers is that Calle Crisologo is all there is to it. While it’s true that everything that Vigan has to offer can be seen in one day (or even just one morning) it’s not true that the province of Ilocos Sur is something of a one-trick pony as far as tourism is concerned. The entire old town of Vigan is a UNESCO world heritage site and a lot of its places of interest aren’t actually in Calle Crisologo.
I would like to revisit Ilocos Sur solely in the future, and not just as a side trip like most tour operators from Ilocos Norte do. I’m particularly interested in visiting the Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion, which is similarly a designated UNESCO world heritage site, as well as other historic churches and sites, such as the Tirad and Bessang Passes.
(Next entry, Ilocos Norte.)
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This entry is part of the Ilocos series dated May 29-31, 2011: