From the fair winds of the self-proclaimed True North, Ilocos Norte boasts of graceful, historic churches, deep aquamarine-colored seas, panoramic vistas of rugged mountains, hidden waterfalls and a multihued history that whispers of gold mines, bloody revolts and an interesting window to Philippine national politics.
Ilocos Norte, which is about 488 kilometers north of the Philippine capital of Manila, means two things to ordinary Filipinos – the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos who was born in the town of Sarrat and the sprawling 77-hectare Fort Ilocandia (http://www.fortilocandia.com.ph/hotel.htm) (one of the largest resorts in the entire Asia), which according to stories, were hastily built by the late President in time for his daughter, Imee’s wedding and primarily caters now to Chinese Mainlanders, Macanese, and Taiwanese high-rollers who fly in to gamble in its casino. So much so that the name Ilocos alone, is almost synonymous with the Marcoses, one of the most controversial Philippine political dynasties in recent memory. Undeserving or not, this hardy and sometimes misunderstood northern province is definitely more than the sum of its contributions to the political history of the country – and in recent years, a wave of change finally came to wake up one of the usually overlooked destinations in the Philippines from hiatus since the fall from grace of its beloved son as more and more Filipinos and the occasional foreigner discover one of the most interesting and beautiful northern frontiers of the Philippines.
Photo by Caloy and Myra
Like the other provinces in the region, which is usually collectively known as Ilocos, Ilocos Norte shares a deep history with its neighboring provinces. The extensive region was renowned for its gold mines and merchants from ancient China and Japan would visit and trade gold in exchange for beads, ceramics and silk with the early inhabitants of Samtoy, as the locals once called their place from “sao mi toy”, which meant “our language.” As the Spanish conquistadors solidified their control of Manila in 1571, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s grandson, Juan de Salcedo led an expedition to the North. After arriving and annexing Vigan in Ilocos Sur on 13 June 1572, Salcedo then marched onward towards Laoag, Currimao and Badoc towns (part of what is present day Ilocos Norte). This was when Salcedo found the natives lived in villages in small bays on coves called “looc” in the local dialect. The natives by the coast were referred to as “Ylocos” which meant “from the lowlands” (the “Igorots” of the Cordilleras on the other hand meant “from the highlands”). Subsequently, the Spaniards called the region “Ylocos” or “Ilocos” and its people “Ilocanos.”
Christianization grew and flourished under the watchful eyes of the Spaniards and this eventually transformed the landscape of the region as vast tracks of available land were appropriated and utilized for churches and belfries in the Spanish policy of reducciones, which are formation of communities to facilitate the Hispanicization and eventually the Christianization of the region. Then, communities were scattered and living in one was determined by bloodlines – these communities were moved to be in these new missions which were called bajo la campanas or within hearing distance of the church bells. Thus, it is not uncommon to find garrisons under church bells in town squares. The widespread building of churches in Ilocos resulted to stunning architectural marvels that we still see today, the most famous, and I reckon one of the most beautiful churches in the Philippines, is the gorgeous Paoay Church, built in 1704 (finished 90 years later) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a church of “Earthquake Baroque” style with 24 massive brick reinforcements running along its sides with walls made out of coral rocks, baked bricks, lumber, limestone mortar and sugarcane juice. Paoay Church is a unique fusion of Gothic, Baroque and Oriental touches as its façade has touches of Gothic familiarity, Chinese elements in its gables and a Javanese feel in its niches. It stands in all its beauty and splendor (pretty much how I imagined it to be when I first saw a picture of the church when I was in grade school) in front of a wide-open square, unlike the churches in other parts of the Philippines which are almost choked by houses and businesses.
Also in Paoay is a more modern structure with historical and political significance – the Malacañang Ti Amianan (Malacañang of the North- a reference to the Malacañang Palace in Manila which is the official residence of Philippine Presidents – makes you kind of wonder if indeed, Marcos intended to be a President for as long as he lived), a large, airy and colonial-inspired former residence of the Marcos family with sweeping views of the scenic Paoay Lake. Admission is PhP20. The building is not very well-kept and in various states of disrepair – peeling paint, discolored walls, and we saw a cow grazing right next to a grimy swimming pool t next to the house.
4 Kilometers East of Paoay Church is Batac whose main attraction is the Marcos Mansion and Mausoleum where the glass-encased, embalmed body of Ferdinand E. Marcos lies in state on a mattress in an air-conditioned, dark and somber room while visitors file and have a glance at the body. Entrance is free but photography is not allowed inside the mausoleum (one guy’s camera was confiscated as he tried to sneak shots of the body, the camera was returned after making sure the offending photos were deleted.) Apparently the body was covered in wax, to preserve it well and make the late President look a lot like he was in his younger years; although Filipino conspiracy theorists suspect that the body is fake and just another con to perpetuate the Marcoses dubious political legacy. Well, I am not an expert on cadavers; I’d just rather leave it to the experts this time. Other Marcos memorabilia is on hand is also on view as well as the dictator’s writings, one of which was inscribed on marble outside the mausoleum: which more or less were ramblings which attempt to impress the visitors of the strongman’s intellectual and literary prowess.
Southwest of Batac are the towns of Currimao and Badoc. Currimao is known for its rock formations (which pretty much looked like dried up coral beds that stretch along most of its coastline fronting the South China Sea and the spectacular sunsets at Pangil. Among the rock formations, there are little lagoons which are nice for swimming. There are almost no accommodations here save for 2-4 open-air huts scattered along the coastline. Most just drive to the area and then leave in the late afternoon. The island of Badoc (of Badoc town) meanwhile is a surfing destination secret and not much is known of the area except that a few intrepid Australians surf the area. The waves are inconsistent but it is apparently on fire from October to early March and of course when there are typhoons or tropical depressions out in the South China Sea. The famous breaks are the Badoc Island Lefts (waves can get higher than 3 meters), Badoc Point (breaks are powerful with surfing up to 2.5 meters), Star Tubes (1-2 meter left hander), Turtle Head Rights (waves consistent up to two meters and hits a shallow reef). The island is uninhabited and all accommodations are on the mainland.
Aside from surfing, Badoc is also known as the birthplace of foremost Filipino painter, Father of Philippine Romanticism, and Philippine revolutionary hero Juan Luna. Luna’s most famous painting is the Spoliarium, a painting demanded of him by the Ayuntamiento, which was then sent to Madrid’s Exposición Nacional de Bellas Artes of 1884 which he won with three gold medals awarded in concourse. The painting depicts a chamber under a Roman arena where bodies of dead gladiators were being dragged into a shadowy area, possibly to be dumped in a bigger pile of dead bodies. The painting now hangs in the Main Gallery of the National Museum of the Philippines in Manila. His other works are the La Battala de Lepanto which was commissioned by the Spanish Senate and the El Pacto de Sangre which depicts the blood compact between Datu Sikatuna of Bohol and Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legaspi which is now displayed in the Malacañang Palace, the Rendicion de Granada and Ecce Homo. You should be able to visit the Juan Luna Shrine in Badoc which is a reconstruction of the two-storey house in which he was born (original house was burned down in 1861) which features a family gallery with vintage photographs of the Luna family, reproductions of the Spoliarium and El Pacto de Sangre and period accessories and furniture which is pretty common in museums and shrines in the region.
Photo by Dave Ryan Buaron
Going up further north is the city of Laoag, the provincial capital, which compared to Vigan in Ilocos Sur is a lot busier, and bustling with trade and commerce. Laoag City (which also has an international airport) serves as a jump off point and is the most convenient place to base yourselves if you plan to hop on to most of the destinations in the neighboring provinces of Ilocos Sur, Abra, Benguet and Cagayan. Laoag has a handful of attractions, the most intriguing of which is the Sinking Bell Tower, 85 meters away from the St. William’s Cathedral, which is one of the biggest cathedrals of the Philippines and concurrently the seat of the Diocese of Laoag. The Cathedral was then occupied by the Revolutionists of 1898 and by the American forces the succeeding year. The 45 meter high Sinking Bell Tower is considered to be one of, if not the tallest edifice built in the entire Ilocos Norte. Stories claim that when it was built, a person on a horseback could pass through its doors freely, but today, one has to stoop very low just to get inside the bell tower. Another Laoag attraction is the Museo Ilocos Norte (also known as “Gameng” – Ilocano for treasure) which is close to the Provincial Capitol and is the repository of Ilocano heritage and culture. The museum is housed in a former Tabacalera warehouse, a former factory for tobacco which the region is known for, and a throwback to the heydays of the Tobacco Monopoly during the Spanish period. The museum is open during weekdays (except during lunch) for a minimal fee.
On the outskirts of Laoag, one can find the 52 square miles of seemingly endless coastal sand dunes of La Paz (Suba), where scenes from Born of the Fourth of July and Mad Max along with many Filipino movies were filmed.
Photo by storm-crypt
After Laoag going north is the town of Bacarra famous for its Church which was constructed in 1593 and inaugurated in 1782 (destroyed in the massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake in August 1983 and reconstructed and inaugurated August of the following year. The main attraction however is its domeless belfry built in 1830, made up of coral and stucco whose original height was 50 meters with a wall five meters thick. The 1931 earthquake destroyed it, causing the top portions to tilt to the right (thus, it was once called the Leaning Tower of Bacarra). The tower was built away from the church similar to other churches in the region, to reduce the damage in case the tower comes crashing down in another major earthquake. This proved to be the case as the dome finally crumbled during the last big tremor as one can still see the pile of grass-covered brick debris strewn around the side of Bacarra Tower (a big cross is currently hanging from its top). Aside from the church and the bell-tower, we found the Bacarra town hall nearby quite charming with its Filipino-Spanish-Mexican architectural finishes as well as its deep blue paint which kind of reminded us something out of a vivid Dora The Explorer cartoon.
Further north are the towns of Pasuquin, Burgos, Bangui, Pagudpud, Dumalneg and Adams. Pasuquin is known for its salt-making and chunks and chunks of salt can be seen by the coast as well as the requisite rows and rows of tiny huts along the road selling the town’s famous produce. It was also in Pasuquin and Burgos that we noticed two quirky things, a hotel (Palalay Hotel) which has an ocean view but, and I am not kidding, is right next to a graveyard (now that’s what I call ambience) and a beach resort which is called Sexy Beach Resort – made us chuckle to see the sign: Sexy Beach Entrance.
The town of Burgos is also known for the oldest lighthouse, as well as the most visited lighthouse in the Philippines – the impressive Cape Bojeador Lighthouse (Tagalog – Ang Parola ng Cape Bojeador) was completed on 30 March 1892 and sits majestically on top of the lush Vigia de Nagparitan hill which also makes it as the tallest lighthouse in the Philippines with its tower 20 meters high (total height is about 160-170 meters high) .The brick-made lighthouse tower stands like a graceful sentinel of the treacherous seas around and is still functioning to date. Entrance is free, but the aged tower can only comfortably accommodate up to 4-5 people and affords the visitor a spectacular view of the rugged mountains and the beautiful waters of South China Sea. The design and construction was initially supervised by Engineer Magin Pers Y Pers and finished by Engineer Guillermo Brockman. The lighthouse has a little museum housed in one of the two weather-beaten brick buildings which can make anyone wax romantic (as long as one is not trampled by crowds of tourists trying to queue up to get into this really nice building during weekends), and a small and lovely courtyard. On a clear day, the lighthouse can be seen as far away as the towns of Pasuquin and Bangui.
Photo by World Bank Philippines
After the town of Burgos is Bangui, which gained tourism fame when in 2005, the first wind farm in Southeast Asia started operations with 15 wind turbines of about 70 meters tall rose along the 9-kilometer stretch of the beach on Bangui Bay. The turbines supply the Ilocos Norte Electric Cooperative with about 25 Megawatts of power. Discussions are rife of putting up additional 40 wind turbines in the mountains of the area. Tourists started flocking to the turbines which look like giant white fans, which makes it as a lovely spot for great photography. According to one of the locals however, the windmills have caused an adverse effect on the fishing industry in the area as the sound of the windmills scare away the fish which are the primary livelihood of the area. On the other hand, Northwind Power, the company that operates the windmills remits one centavo (PhP 0.01) to the Department of Energy for every kilowatt sold, half of which goes to an electrification fund, watershed management, environmental enhancement and health fund – whether any of these funds go to the affected locals in the area is anybody’s guess – we found two stalls selling Bangui honey and Ilocos garlic in the area and the old man manning his rickety shop seemed to be quite happy about the tourists flocking in the area.
Being an inveterate beach bum myself, I could not resist a trip to the town of Pagudpud famous for its white sand beaches which consists of the beaches of Pansian (which is close to the border of the province of Cagayan and usually deserted), Maira-ira (also known as the Blue Lagoon but more like a cove than a lagoon), and Saud (its two kilometer arc was named by the Sunday Herald Sun as the number 1 of the best, but lesser known beaches in Asia). Maira-ira, we reckon has the best and the bluest waters and on an Independence Day weekend, we were surprised that there were not throngs of people there (although one of the locals told us that during Easter, the beach is clogged with a lot of tourists and the traffic of cars going to the lagoon can be pretty bad). The beach is considerably clean (though we saw a little bit of trash – it was fairly manageable), and the waters are nice and warm. The sand is not too shifty either and the idyllic scenery is occasionally punctured by the sound of whizzing of banana boat rides (which we think should be banned from the area soon).
Photo by storm-crypt
Going to Saud from Maira-ira can be a little tricky. There are not a lot of tricycles nor vehicles ferrying people unless you hire one at the Pagudpud town proper yourself (PhP 600 for a trip around the area). We ended up leaving the tour group in Maira-ira and took a korong-korong, a tricycle without any cover at all and mostly used for deliveries rather than transporting people. It probably took us about 30 minutes to Saud, which was almost deserted. The waters are rougher in Saud in June but the beach is wider, cleaner and longer and the sand is a little finer (although Boracay still wins hands down when it comes to sand quality- although there are less people and zero touts in Pagudpud) than Maira-ira. Most of the accommodations in Pagudpud are in this area and a cold San Miguel is easy to get from any of the resorts’ restaurants. From Saud, one can see the windmills of Bangui in the distance. If you have to go back to Laoag the same day, you can take a tricycle from any of the resorts and head to the very sleepy Pagudpud town proper by about 4-4:30PM you should be able to catch an open-air bus to Laoag. An air-conditioned bus leaves for Manila via Laoag at 7PM, but when there is really nothing to do in the town proper, might as well take that non-air-conditioned one.
The other towns of Ilocos Norte have their own attractions as well – there is rock-climbing in Adams (which according to a friend, as the town has zero crime rate – one can rent the town jail for the night); the winding Patapat Viaduct which hugs coastline and the Agua Grande River Park at its end; beautiful waterfalls up the Karingking River in Solsona as well as the Kabigan Falls of Pagudpud; birdwatching in Marcos town and the red-bricked, Baroque and Neo-classical Style, controversial Santa Monica Church in Sarrat where Marcos’ daughter Irene had her fairytale wedding to Greg Araneta, where the entire town was converted in a Potemkin village – which included whitewashing of the antique altars and the entire stock of Colonial Filipino costumes at the Cultural Center of the Philippines brought to Sarrat to dress its townsfolk to complete the theme transforming the farming village into a Spanish-Filipino colonial town and a red carpet that stretched out for miles. The wedding cost roughly US$10 Million, not including the new hotel and airport. Two months later, a powerful earthquake destroyed the church’s belfry and the altar of Santa Monica. The church’s ruins has a torture room that features two brick-encrusted pillars which according to a Filipino historian were used to hang Filipinos accused of treason during the Spanish regime.
There is almost a festival happening every month in Ilocos Norte (except for the months of July, August and October) but the most famous is the Empanada Festival of Batac in June and the Pamulinawen Festival in Laoag City in February.
Several arranged tours go to Ilocos Norte (usually in conjunction with a trip to Ilocos Sur as well) and the one we went with Discover Asia International Travel and Tours (www.discoverpinas.multiply.com ), although some areas were not covered by the official itinerary, however, we left the group to see those places by ourselves.
*updated Ryan: 19/11/2009 – Discover Asia International Travel and Tours does not have their best guides anymore, and lately, it has been very difficult dealing with them. I could no longer vouch for the quality of their services.
Why Not Go
There is not a single megamall in Ilocos Norte for those missing the humungous malls of Manila, although Laoag has a quaint Friday Night Market by the river (we didn’t find anything interesting though with rows of second-hand clothes, pirated DVDs, books and some food stands – although the atmosphere is quite jovial if not quirky). We found Laoag generally safe and the people helpful and friendly, although as common sense dictates, stay away from areas that are not well-lit at night.
Travelling Ilocos Norte gives a lot bang for your buck as the province is literally crammed with a lot of historical places, nooks for adventures, fine beaches and excellent cuisine that is indigenous to the region. It is perfect for the sportsman whether for surfing in Badoc, golfing in Fort Ilocandia, Rock-climbing in Adams, Trekking in Solsona and Nueva Era; excellent for families and people on the lookout for white sandy beaches; must-go for fans of architecture and history and a requirement for a traveling gourmand.
Best Time to Visit
The best time to go and check Ilocos Norte is during the drier months and during the summer months as the waves at the beaches of Pagudpud can get pretty rough during the wet season. For surfers, it is a different story, typhoons and tropical depressions can help fuel the waves off the Badoc Coast – requisite conditions for surfing. Otherwise, check the local weather with the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical & Astronomical Services Administration (
www.pagasa.dost.gov.ph ) for weather forecasts – when the weather in Ilocos is great, then it is time to pack your bags and head to Ilocos Norte!
There are a lot of places to stay in Ilocos Norte (mostly in Laoag) from the super-swanky Fort Ilocandia Resort & Casino (www.fortilocandia.com.ph) to Saud Beach Resort (www.saudbeachresort.com) and Villa del Mar (+63.919.899.5673/+63.920.553.4161) in Saud Beach, Pagudpud.
Photo by Dave Ryan Buaron
If you get past by the fact that directly in front of it is a gas station (the driveway IS the gas station itself), the Balinese-Moroccan inspired Java Hotel (www.javahotel.com.ph ) on G. Segundo Avenue (Bacarra Road), classified as a First Class Hotel is actually a very good place to stay and base yourself as it is right on the highway going to Pagudpud and Cagayan in the North and is just about 1 and ½ hours away from Vigan in Ilocos Sur. It has 46 rooms well-appointed rooms complete with Cable TV, IDD/NDD access, a mini-bar with a fridge, hot/cold shower and a bath tub in its suite. The area also has free Wi-Fi. The building was tastefully designed by the top architectural firm in the Philippines – Palafox Associates, whose founder hails from the nearby town of Bacarra. The staff are very attentive and friendly. For PhP1,800 which is a Standard Double – the room was big, clean and actually can put some of the Manila hotels to shame. The hotel is best for travelling families and groups of friends. During a talk with Mr. Nelson Abadilla, the Operations Manager, he said that the hotel is set to expand by 2010 adding a new building, establishing the hotel into another important Laoag landmark.
Photo by Dave Ryan Buaron
Like the rest of Ilocos region, Ilocos Norte is not an exception when it comes to gastronomic adventures. The best meals we ever had was at the Dap-ayan ti Ilocos Norte (Rizal Avenue corner Llanes Avenue, Laoag City) which is a small enclosed complex of open-air restaurants – the best place to satisfy your need to have some of that Laoag Empanada (Batac has its own version of Empanada) – egg, shredded vegetables and longganiza inside fried thin pastry pockets. Laoag Miki is also served here and was equally sumptuous as well- despite its unusually bright and orangey color. Meals range from PhP35 up which wasn’t bad as our tummies were pretty happy after eating at the Dap-ayan. The Ilocano trademark Bagnet, which is basically scrumptious cholesterol-clogging goodness of deep-fried pork is available but we suggest that you get your fix somewhere else (we got half a kilo of bagnet at the second floor of the Laoag City Wet Market for only PhP175). The tapas of Java Hotel’s Eagle’s Nest restaurant was very tasty especially when dipped with the local spiked sugarcane vinegar called Sukang Iloko (Get your stuff at legit looking shops instead off the highway; we were warned that some of the stuff sold by the highway is watered down).
Ilocano fare is quite diverse: For those craving for the exotic, one should never miss the “abu-os” or ant eggs to vegetable broths called Dinengdeng. Herencia de Paoay in Paoay is known for their Pinakbet Pizza and Dinuguan Pizza.
We also ate at the Chicken Ati-atihan (G. Segundo Avenue, Laoag) and ordered Sizzling Chicken with Potatoes and Vegetables and we were shocked to find the “potatoes” was a single thin slice of fried potato the size of nickel and the “vegetables” was a single string bean sliced in half. The chicken was tiny and sprinkled with barbeque sauce that obviously came from a packet.
Don’t forget to get a bottle of the local spirit- sugarcane wine named Basi (the expropriation of which sparked the Basi Revolt in Piddig town in 1807. The Spaniards banned the private manufacturing of the wine and mandated that Basi should be bought from government stores.) The wine has a bit of an acrid, dry, earthy taste with strong hints of sugarcane – not exactly my favorite, but was worth a try.
Ilocos Norte nightlife is virtually composed of unimpressive restaurant-bars in Laoag, especially in the shady Discolandia district which can be as camp as it gets (a police report online tells of an arrest in one of the bars in the area in an operation by the local police against unauthorized possession of firearms) . Other than that the resorts of Saud in Pagudpud have quite good places to dine and drink.
Photo by Huno
My to do List
1. Climb up the dramatic Cape Bojeador Lighthouse.*
2. Visit the windmills of Bangui.*
3. Trek up the river of Karingking in Solsona and take a dip by the magnificent waterfalls.*
4. Chill out on the beaches of Pagudpud**
5. Check out the Sinking Bell Tower of Laoag and the Domeless Belfry of Bacarra.*
6. Sample yummy Ilocano chow at Dap-ayan ti Ilocos Norte – the Laoag Empanada is just uber-delicious.*
7. Catch the sunset at Pangil in Currimao.*
8. Walk around the sand dunes of La Paz.*
9. Stroll the lovely grounds in front of the majestic Paoay Church.**
10. Take the surfing challenge off Badoc Coast.*
11. Get a glimpse of Philippine History and visit the Malacañang Ti Amianan and the Marcos Mausoleum.**
12. Make your friends at home jealous and take pictures! Ilocos is a great place for photography*
* – Highly Recommended
**- Recommended by Locals
Stay Away From
1. Mosquitoes! – just bring bug repellent to be sure
2. Dust Mites. – bring Lysol with you, if you think the hotel room is oldish and not cleaned properly.
3. UV rays – Apply ample sun protection and sunglasses. Ilocos can be pretty humid and searing hot when the sun is out.
Photo by Dave Ryan Buaron
Laoag City is 45 minutes away by plane from Manila (Through Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific Airlines) and also serves as an international gateway with the Laoag City International Airport which receives chartered flights from China and Taiwan (Mandarin Airlines currently has suspended its flights from Kaohsiung).
If you are not coming with a tour group, Partas buses are the most reliable form of transport to Ilocos Norte from Manila as well as RCJ, Philippine Rabbit, Maria de Leon, Florida and Fariñas Trans.
Philippine Rabbit and Partas also do connecting trips to Baguio while GMW heads to Tuguegarao via Pagudpud.
Tricycles, calesas and rent-a-vans are the mode of transport within Ilocos Norte. Tricycles are PhP 10/head, If you are taking your own car and you are coming from Manila, take the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX) and then connect through the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX), exit at Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac and follow the National Highway through Pangasinan, La Union and Ilocos Sur. You can get a more detailed map of Northern Luzon (Ilocos Norte included) at one of the bookstores in Manila before you embark on this trip.
Laoag City is about 9-12 hours away by land from Manila, 6 ½ hours from Tuguegarao and 5 hours away from Baguio City.
Ryan supports socially and environmentally responsible and sustainable tourism, as well as the promotion of the Philippines as an alternative Asian tourist destination.
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