Exploring Ilocos Norte

By | Category: Travel destinations
front of Loag Cathedral

Laoag Cathedral also known as St. William’s Cathedral

The Philippines is not an integrated piece of land but an archipelago consisting of over 7,000 islands scattered in an area of 300,000 square kilometres in South East Asia. Surrounded by the seas of China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia it is the only Christian state in the region. Amazingly,  the diversity of these territorial islands forms a united country. The country’s heritage is a combination of natives who once lived in caves followed much later by a dramatic occupation by the Spanish and then a strong American influence after WWII.

Despite the vast Spanish influence over a 300 period, the country is little known to British and other European tourists.  This floating country of natural beauty has more to offer than just the buzz and the excitement of Manila and the sandy beaches from the Luzon region in the north to Mindanao in the south.

image of the Sinking bell Tower

separate from the cathedral is the Sinking Bell Tower

I landed in Manila for the first time but I planned to escape it’s tempting attractions to discover the lesser-known province of Ilocos Norte in the most northern part of the country and on the island of Luzon. It was only a one hour flight to land in Ilocos at Laoag City airport, which is 400 kilometres away from Manila. As the plane approached I could see a  velvet landscape hedged by calm sandy beaches.

I stayed in the luxury Fort Ilocandia Resort hotel, a hotel built in the Marcos era for the wedding of his daughter and which is just a twenty minute drive from Laoag. This was and is, Marcos country and the legacy of the long-term president and his family is everywhere.

Laoag has the same familiar buzz of Manila with streets covered with advertising banners over the shops, rolling Jeepneys (Filipino version of Jeep for public transportation), bicycles, tricycles and large steel decorated buses. I arrived at Aurora Park at the end of the Marcos Bridge, to find the Tobacco Monopoly Monument, one of the landmarks of the city, which was built in 1881 in commemoration of lifting the tobacco monopoly in favour of Ilocanos tobacco workers. Opposite the monument, on one side is Ilocos Norte Provincial Capitol building, constructed in 1917 in the neo-classical style and, on the other side of the square, the Marcos Hall of Justice.

Irene’s Tupig

As I strolled in the town centre, I went in search of the old heritage of the city which was founded by the Spanish in 1580. The most important remaining symbols of colonisation by the conquerors, which lasted until 1898, are churches and towers. In my brief tour of the city, I visited the Sinking Bell Tower and Laoag Cathedral known as St. William’s Cathedral.  The early settlers built a wooden chapel in 1580 which was consequently replaced by the current, purpose built, baroque style cathedral in 1612.  The façade of this historic church, which is covered by lime plaster in white and cream colours, depicts the image of San Guillermo el Ermitano,  the city’s patron saint. The church’s interior was spiritually calm and peaceful with simple decorations rather than the ornate architecture seen outside.

The church’s bell tower was built in 1612 is 85 metres away from the main church – common in the Philippines because of earthquakes –  and was constructed using locally made bricks and lime stucco plaster. Standing on very large columns placed at the four corners of this 45 metre structure, it is the highest building in the province and the highest bell tower in the country. The tower is known as the Sinking Bell Tower, because it sinks into the ground one inch every year due to its heavy weight and because the loose foundations are in sandy ground.  You cannot  climb the tower though because it has been closed for safety reasons.

other examples of local food

I continued my journey towards the south through narrow leafy roads in the green countryside passing small villages as I went. To break the journey, I stopped at a shop selling drinks and desserts at the roadside. There was a local bakery called Irene’s Tupig just behind it, baking a delicious local desert called Tupig which is made of rice, margarine, sugar, coconuts and coconut milk wrapped in banana leaves. Unlike any of the sterile conditions that we are used to in Europe food outlets, it was more like a casual, home bakery.

I continued my journey to the small town of Paoay, which stands very proud on the world map for its Roman Catholic Church of the Saint Augustine, built in 1710. The massive 24 buttresses around the building are a distinctive feature of the church, which enabled it to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. The bell tower, constructed separately from the church, looks like a Chinese pagoda.

visitors enjoying La Paz Sand Dunes

I finished my day by having dinner in the Herencia Cafe opposite the church and here I was able to sample regional food. My favorite was sinigang, a Filipino soup served with fish and shrimps which tastes both sour and savoury at the same time. With this there were a variety of local salads and dishes including pokpoklo (a seaweed salad), poqui-poqui (eggplant omelette) and the areas most well- known dish called pinakbet. This is made from a variety of fresh vegetables cooked in a shrimp sauce.

I started my second day around Laoag in an adventurous spirit. I arrived at the La Paz Sand Dunes, only 6 kilometres from Laoag city, but it was just like arriving in the Sahara desert. It was unbelievable to reach a vast, dry and sandy land near coastlines and not very far from Padsan River yet very close to the tropical green fields and mountainous range of Cordillera Central. In this area the hilly, loose sands are formed over a long period of time by wind and the flow of the seawater. The formations have created slopes of up to 30 metres. Over 30 square miles of sandy environment is perfect for driving 4×4 wheel drive Jeeps, just like what you may have seen in the movie, Mad Max.  Actually, scenes from Mad Max and Born on the Fourth of July were shot here. I suggest that you don’t have a heavy meal before this activity for obvious reasons!, Another less intense activity is sand boarding from the top of slopes.


a street in the city of Vigan

I continued my journey down to Ilocos Sur province in the south to visit the historic city of Vigan. We stopped at Plaza Burgos at the centre of the town. As I walked in the old town, it became easy to see why Vigan was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. The city reminded me of the same vibe I got in the Cuban capital of Havana, both providing a memory of the Spanish colonial era.

The city of Vigan has been an important trading hub for Spanish conquerors since it was established in 1572. Over  time it has also been influenced by the Chinese and, as Chinese traders mixed with Ilocano, they settled in the Mestizo district of the city. The streets have been planned in a grid design with two storey buildings made of brick and wood with Chinese style roofs. Today, some houses and shops have deteriorated due to the unrepaired damage they received in WWII and the economic decline that followed. However, many buildings have been restored to their original glory and there are more projects underway to lift the spirit of the city.

entrance to St Paul's Cathedral in Vigan

St Paul’s Cathedral in Vigan

The cobblestone streets  are restricted to pedestrians and horse carriages allowing you to imagine  what the city’s life was like in the 18th and 19th centuries. The city’s atmosphere, combining the old grey stone buildings with some newly white and yellow painted hotels and shops with its multicultural heritage, has created an amazing place and allowed Vigan to be voted as one of the winners of the world’s new seven wonders of the world along with Beirut, Doha, Durban, Havana, Kuala Lumpur and La Paz.

The main landmark of the city in the Plaza Salcedo is the St. Paul’s Cathedral or Vigan Cathedral, which was primarily built as a church in 1641. Other significant buildings in the Plaza are the 18th Century Archbishop’s Palace (the Palacio del Arzopispado), the City Hall and the Provincial Capitol Building.

the watchtower cum bell tower in Bantay

I continued my journey and, in a few minutes, reached the town of Bantay, which is adjacent to the city of Vigan, here, my purpose was  to visit Bantay Church known as the St Augustine Parish Church. The church was built in baroque-gothic style in 1590 and stands as one of the oldest churches in the region. Like other churches, the bell tower is also built away from the main church, But here it has been constructed on the top of a hill overlooking nearby mountains and the South China Sea. From the top of the tower I enjoyed a panoramic view of Vigan, Bantay,  a backdrop of green and mountainous land as well as the seas beyond.

The bell towers of churches in the Philippines were not just religious monuments. They had another purpose. They acted as watchtowers to observe pirates and any activity or attacks by enemies.  What was built by the Spanish to echo the voice of Christianity witnessed a fundamental change when Filipinos revolted against Spaniards because they used these towers to fight back.

the lighthouse in cape Bojeador

Cape Bojeador Lighthouse

I started my third day by going to the north of Luzon to visit Burgos municipality in Ilocos Norte region before my flight back to Manila. There I was to see Cape Bojeador Lighthouse but, to get there, I had to take a small tricycle to reach it. The lighthouse was built in 1892 by the Spanish on Vigia de Nagpartian Hill overlooking the headland of Luzon at the south of the China Sea. There is a stunning panoramic scenic view of the sea and the green, steep hills around the lighthouse, which is still operational. Several rooms in the lighthouse are used as a small museum to display antique furniture and the story of the lighthouse.

I continued my journey in the hilly roads and reached a high point overlooking Kapurpurawan Rock Formation. I walked down a steep path to get to an open green landscape which abuts the coastline. I was amazed to see how the forces of nature on the rocky coast have created the stunning formations showcasing amazing works of art. It was fascinating to observe the natural beauty created by the waves crashing on rocks over centuries. This open-air museum of erosion and corrosion has become one of the most visited locations in the region.

the Kapurpurawan Rock Formation

Leaving Kapurpurawan I headed towards Pagudpud Beaches which are in the most northern part of the island. Arriving in Saud Beach, I had lunch in one of the many beach-front restaurants from where, in the distance, I could see the wings of windmills and I was curious to find out more. I had seen many of them as I drove here. On our way back to our hotel I stopped at Bangui Bay which is where the first windmill farm was set up. It wasn’t just the first one in the Philippines, it was the first in South East Asia. There are twenty giant, 70 metrre high tri-bladeed windmills positioned 326 metres apart. Man has overcome nature to convert the hidden energies to a clean source of electricity for the benefit of the region and that means that 40% of Ilocos’ electricity is supplied from these windmills.

Pagudpud Beaches

the clear sands that make up the Pagudpud Beaches

I ended my tour of Ilocos Norte and Sur, but it was only a glimpse of what one could explore in this region. I wish I had more time to see Paoay Lake and the nearby residence of the former president Marcos (the Marcos Memorabilia Museum) not to mention the Juan Luna shrine, the Bacarra Domeless Tower and the many natural caves that are located around Ilocos. That will have to wait for another holiday.

Images and story © Mohammed Reza Amirinia

For more about the Philippines, click here.

For more images of Reza’s time in the Philippines, go to http://www.amirinia.com/philippines/




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