By Roger Allnutt
Most tourists heading to the Philippines fly into the capital Manila and after a couple of days fly out to one of the popular island destinations such as Cebu, Boracay or Palawan.
However, the region north of Manila at the northern part of Luzon island is not be missed. An hour’s flight from Manila to Laoag brings you to the fascinating Ilocos region at the top of the Philippines archipelago. Prior to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors under Juan de Salcedo in 1572, the numerous tribes of the region traded with Japanese and Chinese merchants. The Spanish colonialists first settled in Vigan, which became the center for the “galleon” trade between the region and the Spanish settlements in Mexico, especially Acapulco.
Vigan, in Ilocos Sur about a two-hour drive south of Laoag, represents a unique fusion of Asian building design and construction with European colonial architecture and planning. It became a listed UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 as an exceptionally intact example of a European trading town.
The compact layout of the small town encourages walking as you admire the old buildings and plazas and see the tourists parading while shopping for souvenirs or eating at one of the many restaurants. Alternatively you can take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage called a calesa (pictured above) or on a mini taxi, a motorbike with sidecar into which up to four people can be squashed.
One strange sight was to see a sign over a doorway in the main street saying “accredited mortuary.” I peered inside to see a line-up of different coffins for use – many are apparently rented!
Several old mansions highlight the status of the wealthy families in the region. Syquia Mansion is one of the best ancestral homes in the Philippines and is still lived in by descendants of former President Elpidio Quirino (1948-54). Beautiful spacious rooms, lovely furniture and some superb antiques are inside.
Hotel Luna is a good choice of accommodation. Located in an old heritage house, all the facilities are modern while the house contains a great collection of artifacts and paintings. It is like staying in a gallery.
Much of the city life centers on Plaza Salcedo with the imposing St Paul’s Cathedral at one end. The Philippines is a strongly Roman Catholic country and the evening mass was well patronized by family groups – the service was actually in English.
The large fountain in the plaza is lit up at night for a performance of the dancing fountains with a colourful interplay of music and illuminated water.
Vigan is famous for the production of jars using the local red clay and also a hand loom weaving technique called Abel Iloco (pictured above); examples of the cloth, table runners, scarves etc make a good souvenir. The new Vigan Conservation Complex is an arts and crafts museum, training center and conservation laboratory that’s well worth a visit.
At Bantay, a village just outside Vigan, a stop of the St Augustin Church and Bell Tower is worthwhile. Climb to the top of the bell tower for panoramic views of the countryside with the rugged Cordillera Mountain range on the horizon.
Thera are many attractions round the regional headquarters of Laoag, in Ilocos Norte. There are many large churches, but the St. Augustine Church at Paoay (also UNESCO World Heritage listed) is superb with an imposing interior, unique balustrades along both sides and a large coral-coated belltower. The Museum of the North provides information on the local tribes in the area; many still live in the nearby Cordillera Mountains.
The region is mainly agricultural, producing crops including garlic, corn, rice, tobacco and dragon fruit. Try local delicacies like longganisa, a garlic-flavored sausage, or empanada in its deep pastel-colored wrapping. Other favourites are bagnet, crispy fattening pork belly, and chichacorn, crunchy flavored corn.
Ex-President Ferdinand Marcos was born in the area (at Sarrat) and at the village of Batac you can visit the museum about him and see his embalmed body in the adjacent mausoleum. His summer house on Paoay Lake can also be visited.
North again from Laoag there are interesting attractions round Burgos and Bangui. Buggy rides on the sand dunes are a new attraction although I found the ride very rough and I didn’t fancy standing up in the open back cabin.
The Kapaurpurawan Rock is a huge white rock seemingly precariously sitting on a rocky promontory; horse rides are available along the sandy beach. Nearby are some of the many wind farms installed in recent years to provide environmentally better wind power. It is very windy along the coast so the turbines operate most of the time.
Near Laoag I stayed at Fort Ilocandia, a large hotel complex popular with Chinese tourists. It has many sporting facilities including a golf course, casino and excellent restaurants. I was not taken with the mini zoo which had some animals and birds in small cages.
If you are really adventurous then include a visit to the Cordillera Mountains, particularly to Banuae to see the 2,000-year-old Rice Terraces, recognised as one of the wonders of the world.
Getting there: Philippine Airlines has regular flights to Manila from Los Angeles with connections to many internal destinations in the Philippines.
For more information check either www.ilocosnorte.gov.ph or www.ilocossur.gov.ph.
Roger Allnutt visited the Philippines with the assistance of Philippines Department of Tourism