Above: A kalesa (horse-drawn carriage) on Vigan’s Calle Crisologo.
A journey through the Ilocos region of Luzon reveals a Philippine heartland bursting with character and attractions, from the historic sites of Vigan and the sand dunes of Paoay, to wild beaches on the South China Sea where an adventurous spirit is a prerequisite, but roughing it is not
By Gabriel Malvar
Photography by Francisco Guerrero
The island of Luzon harbors plenty of architectural relics from its colonial days, from Taal’s massive Basilica de San Martin de Tours—the largest church in the Philippines—to the 17th-century walled city of Intramuros in Manila, where I live. But in the somber light of dawn, nowhere is more transporting than Calle Crisologo, the half-kilometer-long stretch of cobblestone that runs through the old Mestizo district of Vigan.
It’s 6 a.m., and the street is still slumbering. On either side of me are rows of two-story ancestral houses dating back at least two centuries, built in a grand fusion of Spanish, Chinese, and Filipino styles. The only sounds are the distant clip-clop of hooves on stone from a kalesa (horse-drawn carriage), and the faint murmurs of early risers from behind capiz-shell windows or stone gateways. There’s a magic about it that has me conjuring scenes from the past when Vigan—the country’s third-oldest Spanish settlement after Cebu and Manila—was a bustling colonial trading port. I picture merchants counting sacks of tobacco or clay jars of basi (sugarcane wine), and ladies sitting on the windowsills above, fanning themselves under terra-cotta-tiled eaves.
By mid-morning, the spell is broken, lost in the din of modern commerce and photo-snapping droves offloaded from tourist buses. Vigan today is the provincial capital of Ilocos Sur, part of the Ilocos region of northwest Luzon; whatever old-world charm the city retains is measured out in fleeting glimpses. After a last look at the Baroque bulk of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Plaza Salcedo, I decide that it’s time to leave.
Occupying a narrow corridor of plains bounded by the Cordillera range to the east and the South China Sea to the west, Ilocos offers a pleasant mix of bucolic scenery, empty beaches, historic sites (including two UNESCO-designated churches), and an easy pace for driving. My itinerary was modest: following the two-lane coastal road north from Vigan for four days, and finishing in the highland town of Adams, some 200 kilometers in all.
Despite the slow-moving motorcycle trishaws clogging my lane, I make good time on the road out of Vigan, and soon pass from Ilocos Sur into Ilocos Norte, its northern counterpart. The countryside here unfurls as a carpet of bright-green tobacco fields. In colonial times, the planting of this cash crop was compulsory in Ilocos. While that has not been the case for more than a century, judging from tobacco’s continued prevalence in local agriculture, old habits die hard.
I stop on the roadside for a closer look, and chance upon an extended family lounging under the shade of an enormous acacia tree, the morning’s work suspended by the midday heat. Freshly harvested tobacco leaves are stacked nearby, ready for drying. I also spot empty containers of basi littering the ground.
Whether for siestas or fiestas, sugarcane wine is enormously popular here. In fact, when the Spanish government ruled that locals could no longer brew the stuff, citizens of the northern town of Piddig took to the streets armed with spears and cane knives, and attacked the Spanish garrison. The uprising was suppressed, and the rebels were put to death. After the 1807 Basi Revolt, the Viganos and other southern Ilocanos branded the northerners fierce and barbaric. The latter returned the favor, calling their southern cousins colonial sympathizers.
Relations across the provincial border have improved since then, though there’s still an undercurrent of rivalry, whether over the relative prowess of each other’s fighting cocks, the beauty of their women, or the tastiness of their empanadas, the deep-fried meat pie that is an Ilocos-wide staple. (I prefer the thinner-crusted empanadas of the south, but I’d never dare admit that up here.)
For all its varied attractions, Ilocos Norte will invariably be linked with former president Ferdinand Marcos, whose legacy is both manifold and mired in controversy. In his home province, however, he is remembered as a hero, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the town of Sarrat, where he was born (in 1917) and spent the first eight years of his life. His family home is now a shrine to his early days, filled with old photos, period furniture, and even a barong (embroidered formal shirt) that he is said to have worn. Upstairs, the caretaker leads me to the teak-walled room where the young Ferdinand once slept; there’s a wooden writing desk in one corner and a window through which I can see the church where he might have attended Sunday school. Try as I might, I can’t imagine this quaint familial setting as the sort of place a dictator might grow up.
Nor does nearby Batac, population 50,000, seem a likely place for him to end up. Yet this is where you’ll find the Marcos Museum and Mausoleum, within which the embalmed remains of the once-great man lie in state, encased in glass in a cool, darkened room. I ask the crypt’s gatekeeper, Catalino Bactat, a question that he’s no doubt heard a thousand times before.
“Yes, that’s really the President,” he says, adding nonchalantly, “His body was coated with wax to preserve it.”
Directing the milling crowds with the precision of a drill officer, Bactat tells me proudly that he’s been warden here from the time Marcos’s body was flown home from Hawaii in 1993. He can’t explain the reason for the eerie choral music playing over hidden speakers, but he does recount that it had been the exiled president’s dying wish to be buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery) in Manila, something still vehemently opposed by the government. Instead, his final resting place is an anonymous town 470 kilometers to the north. Bactat considers that a raw deal. Dubious, I leave him to his work.
Sundown is the best time to view the Church of San Agustín at Paoay. That’s when the 19th-century Baroque edifice ceases to be just a UNESCO-listed landmark and transforms into a canvas of color and form. I take in the spectacle from an outdoor café across the road, watching as the fading light sparkles off the church’s old brick and coral-stone walls, and haloes its steeple with an orange glow.
“I guess you’re never late for Sunday mass, right?” I ask the café’s owners. They just laugh.
Paoay, a short drive west of Batac, is also home to the so-called Malacañang of the North—a lakeside mansion that was once a favorite holiday home of the Marcoses, and is now open to the public as a reminder of those spendthrift times. The town’s other main attraction is its sand dunes, which stretch all the way to the sea. From where I stand the next morning, on the back of a four-wheel-drive parked on the edge of a towering ridge, it looks like a swatch of the Sahara.
Accompanied by a group of local off-road enthusiasts, we tear across the trackless expanse, bouncing over the undulating dunes. Save for the distant, hazy ribbon of ocean, it’s a featureless landscape, sun-bleached and empty. In our wake, gusts of wind bury the jeep’s tire tracks under swirling sand, erasing any sign of our passage.
Near the shoreline, we come across an old woman making salt the old-fashioned way, by running seawater through a makeshift filter of sand. To measure the water’s salinity, she drops a tiny jellyfish into the catch basin. If the creature floats, it means that the water still has a lot of salt in it, and can be run through the filter again. If it sinks, then it’s time to get a fresh bucket of seawater—and presumably another jellyfish.