IT WAS FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH. I was of the few who arrived in the meeting place. There were twelve of us friends who confirmed for this annual summer trip and I knew there was a hired driver along. With Friday the 13th and 13 people on an evening road trip, it was too easy to see myself starring some Hollywood horror flick. But no superstition could deter me from this adventure. I’d been so looking forward to this event. I had my favorite set of friends. I needed this break. Before I could feel the cold beads of perspiration trickling down my spine, my smiling friends disembarked from a dark shiny van. And much to my relief there were actually two drivers who would alternate on the wheel.
The journey began. We were finally conquering Ilocos Region. Three hundred fifty miles and twelve hours on the road. My butt could have gone numb forever, I didn't mind. It was all worth it. Because I had seen photographs of the landscape and heard of testimonials from several people who’d been there but nothing prepared me to the immense beauty that awaited us.
“Welcome to Vigan!” the driver announced around four in the morning as the engine halted in a dark square. And I opened my eyes to a sky devoid of stars, a seemingly plain canvass a painter happily whisked unto his palettes of blues and blacks. The air smelled of something familiar, old and rustic. As I inhaled the scent of the fresh fallen leaves swirling in the breeze, I realized Vigan was reminiscent of the town I’ve never been to in years. It felt like Bislig. A rooster frantically crows in the background and I could almost hear the yawns of the locals eager to start the day. My body thought it was home.
Vigan, the capital of Ilocos Sur, is 249 miles away from Metro Manila. It is the quintessence of an exceptionally preserved Spanish colonial town established in 16th century. With the unique integration of the Filipino, Chinese and European influences—reflected in a culture and townscape that remain unequalled in the whole of East and Southeast Asia—this historic town is a UNESCO world heritage site. Amidst my companion’s raptures of delight, I ambled on the cobbled-stone street with hushed excitement. Through the amber lamps illuminating Calle Crisologo, the influence of Spanish architecture was evident everywhere. Each single crevice and crack on ancient walls promised of stories never printed. The atmosphere was too enchanting. It spelled classic to my senses and I willingly drank in the history of the place.
Deep in my revelries I already imagined a hot cup of rice coffee and smoking in between sips as my friends converse about politics, our worries and hopes for the country, our personal dreams and whimsies. But to burst my bubble, no cafes or restaurants were open at the time. As as tourist from Manila, I was excited to dine in a regional restaurant serving authentic Ilocano cuisine. It disappointed me all the more to see the abundance of modern fastfood chains in the vicinity. This is a remarkable glitch in the whole vintage aura the old city projects.
The group had a hectic schedule to follow: Poaoy, Bangui and Pagudpud. So by six in the morning with hungry stomachs but ecstatic spirits, we were heading further up North.
Thirty seven miles from Vigan stands yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Philippines—San Agustin Church of Paoay, Ilocos Norte. It was built from 1653 to 1710. The Augustinian friars who ruled the land, without substantial engineering background, compelled their growing number of parishioners to construct a comfortable place of worship. With innate resourcefulness, the Filipinos were able to reinvent a European architecture with an oriental twist.
The Church of San Agustín is the best known Earthquake Baroque church in the country. It was designed to endure earthquakes frequenting the region. From the outside I counted fourteen colossal buttresses projecting along the sides of the dome. The walls were mainly made of coral stone blocks, with bricks and lumber finishing the upper part. To make things more interesting, prior to the invention of cement, the locals had to depend on tree saps to glue massive stones together.With that ladies and gentlemen, my forefathers were able to build churches, mansions, defense walls that still stand to this day.
The three storey coral stone bell tower was built a few meters away to protect the church in case of collapse. This structure has not only announced masses and ceremonies; it has also played an important role in the history of Philippine revolution. It served as a look out post for the Katipuneros (Filipino revolutionaries) in the 1896 battle against the Spaniards. During the Japanese occupation in World War II, the Filipino guerillas also used it to their advantage.
My friends and I gasped at the sight of this gothic monstrosity. This was something we only read about on the pages of our elementary History textbooks. Seeing the historical church for real is a personal milestone to me. Kneeling on an ancient pew, I mumbled my gratitude to the heavens. There were countless sculptures of Jesus Christ, his virgin mother Mary, and the rest of the saints. For a brief eerie moment, I could feel their eyes burrowing into my soul. I‘d been brought up by Catholic parents who imposed on their children to attend masses every Sundays because a family that prays together stays together. Though I have failed to live strictly by the religion as I grew older, my fascination in the Christian edifice has never faded.
Laoag, the capital of Ilocos Norte is the political, economic and industrial hub of the province. If you think Laoag, you think of the Marcoses. Who would ever forget the family who reigned the country for over twenty years? The Philippines went up and dramatically down during Ferdinand Marcos’ governance. His ostentatious wife is world famous for her intense affection on the beautiful and grandiose. Her excessive extravagance has won her a spot on the dictionary—Imeldific.
In spite the corruption and the bloody years of Martial Law, among other things, the Marcoses are well loved in Laoag. One of the attractions in the city is their ancestral mansion converted to a museum. It stores documents, photographs and memoirs of the family. A mausoleum was even built in his honor and people from all places visit the site to lay eyes on the waxed figure of the late president.
It was noon when we arrived in Pagudpud. The coastal town lures tourists from all over the world into its sandy trail. And my friends and I were more than happy to bask in the beauty of Pagudpud's two most revered beaches: Saud and Blue Lagoon.
Saud is home to the most promising resorts in town. Most of the posh resorts offer cottages fronting the ocean and a package tour to the attractions in the area. For travelers on budget trip "home stays" (homes for rent) are available at a reasonable price. The locals have ready smiles and are eager to be at a visitor's service. Our group went straight to Polaris, the one and only public resort. My friends and I are nomads. We are always after what Mother Nature has to offer, and not some VIP accommodation.
Since it was a Saturday and we were at a community resort, I wasn't surprised to see that most of the beach huts were occupied. Families were celebrating. Old school mates were reuniting. Lovers were kissing. Children were playing. Everyone was merrymaking. We were too excited to dip into the water, we never cared for lunch. Saying that it was so much fun is an inarticulation on my end. A beach bum will find no idle time swimming, snorkeling, diving, boating and surfing in Saud. Star gazing and camping at night by the shore proved to be exciting too. The only drawback was the temporary power outage and lack of tap water. But the inactivity of our iPods even amplified the tranquility of the atmosphere.
Blue Lagoon is also known as Maira-Ira Point. The overlooking view from the highway offers a picture of the sea forming an elegant arch. Rock formations on the right end are astounding. And the islets of Dos Hermanos (Two Brothers) seem to be two sentinels watching over the cove on the left end. People say it is the Boracay of the North sans the numerous bars and other establishments on the shore. I haven't been to Bora, I couldn't compare when we went there the next day, all I knew was that I was immediately smitten by the sight.
What I loved most about Blue Lagoon was its laid back feel. It was like a secluded place and we seemed to be the first people to discover the tropical haven. Walking on the white powdery sand, I felt the grains bringing sublime tickles to my feet. The water glistened in the sunshine and I was lulled to serenity by the humongous waves. The rain forest against the blue sky was immaculate, as if Mother Nature was announcing her strong favor to this land. Hearing the laughters and banters of my friends, I could have died and my soul ascended to heaven. Bliss.
They are nineteen proud brothers.They tower among the mountains. They own the skies. With the ocean as their audience, the windmills stand on the gray shore unabashed by their sleek nakedness. The blades lazily flirt with the salty breeze. As if lovers on a first date, each one anticipating what seems to be a tedious courtship.
That's what was going on in my mind as I marveled at the enormous windmills up close. The bluish greenish sea and the limitless horizon were hypnotizing, I forgot about the heat and the blisters emerging on my soles.
Located at the municipality of Bangui, Ilocos Norte, The Northwind Bangui Bay Project is the first wind farm in the country and the largest in Southeast Asia. The project was aimed to produce renewable energy to help reduce greenhouse gases which aggravate global warming. Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the then Governor and forerunner of the project, must be very proud that the windmills now cater to forty percent of the power requirements in the province.
Before we drove back home, we made our last stop at Vigan. It was a bit crowded in the day. Calle Crisologo was lined with various antique shops and stalls selling crafts and memorabilias. I was mesmerized at the sight of the ones made of coconut shells and other raw materials and hardwork and pure passion. I will always be proud of the genius of the native Filipino. How could anybody else make such marvelous piece of art out of scrap? And that’s without formal training yet. Only in the Philippines indeed.
The city also boasts delicacies such as bibingka (rice cake) that looked and tasted like cassava cake to me, longganisa (ground meat wrapped with intestines) and empanada. Empanada is certainly not one of my favorite food but Vigan's must be really good because I found myself savoring every bite.
| A group of competitive young professionals, currently thriving in the same city, who grew up in the same small town, went to the same high school and speak the same dialect. We fondly call ourselves, "The Gang".|
In three days, I have fallen in love with the Ilocandia Region. If to immerse in such rich cultural heritage, bask in the pristine beaches and have an amazing adventure with friends, I wouldn't mind the intense northern heat and long hours of travel. I'd surely go back in a heartbeat.