From its meandering coastlines dotted with cream-colored to white sand beaches and protected marine parks and stunning geological formations, secluded waterfalls, centuries-old churches, Pangasinan challenges the traveler to get off the beaten path and explore its many treasures.
Located about 5-6 hours away from the Philippine capital Manila- the story of the beautiful crescent-shaped province of Pangasinan dates back from hundreds to thousands of years. The curious yet spectacular geological formation – the 123 islets of the Hundred Islands National Park off the city of Alaminos itself is said to be 2 million years old not to mention the fossilized giant clams that were found at the Coral Mountain found 2 kilometers away from Patar in Bolinao which have an estimated age of about 4-5 million years old.
Photo by Dave Ryan A. Buaron
Moving forward to a much younger era – an ancient kingdom called Luyang na Kaboloan was said to have existed inside the present day borders of Pangasinan (Agno River Valley and Pangasinan Plain) – way before the Spaniards had conquered and eventually colonized the Philippines, a legendary princess named Urduja was said to have ruled this ancient kingdom around the 14th century. The legend of this princess is also shared by the Ibaloi people of the Cordillera province of Benguet. The kingdom enjoyed full independence and flourished during the age of the Asian maritime trade that connected Pangasinan with other parts of the Philippines, as well as with other cultures and societies in Southeast Asia (and most likely with the Srivijaya and Majapahit Empires), China, India and the Pacific. It was believed that Malayo-Polynesian settlers established Pangasinan and the people of Pangasinan were heirs of this very ancient Malayo-Polynesian civilization. These Malayo-Polynesians were expert mariners who sailed ships along routes that extended to as far as Madagascar and the Eastern Pacific. Archeological evidence and ancient records from China and India show that the people of Pangasinan traded with China, Japan and India in 8th Century A.D.
Today, this pretty province which about 2.3 million people call home, is a lively mix of commercial activities, diverse cultures, colorful history, untapped tourism potential The name Pangasinan means “place where salt was made”, “land of salt” or “place of salt-making” – derived from the word asin, which meant “salt” in the Pangasinan language, and true enough the province is a major producer of salt in the Philippines with its many salt beds in most of its coastal towns – a primary source of livelihood. Pangasinan is bordered by the massive Cordillera Mountain Range, Zambales to the southwest, Tarlac to the south and the Lingayen Gulf and the South China Sea to the north.
When the Spanish seized control of the islands of the Philippines, the country was subdivided into provinces and in 1850, Pangasinan was “formally created” by Governor General Ronquillo de Peñalosa. During the Philippine Revolution, Pangasinenses (Pangasinan people) also rose in revolt culminating in the Battle of Dagupan days after General Emilio Aguinaldo proclaimed Philippine Independence 12 June 1898. The Battle of Dagupan which was led by Philippine revolutionary General Francisco Makabulos, the chief of the Central and Directive Committee of the Central and Northern Luzon, crushed the last remnants of the retreating Spanish forces which were being pummeled everywhere in the islands. Dagupan’s remaining Spanish forces made their last stand at the city’s brick-walled Catholic Church. Like dominoes, each town fell to the Philippine revolutionary forces – Santa Barbaram Malasiqui, Urdaneta, Mapandan, Mangaldan, Alaminos, Agno, Anda, Alos, Bani, Balincaguin, Bolinao, Dasol, Eguia, Potot, Labrador, Sual, Salasa, and Bayambang and Dagupan.
During the Second World War, the Lingayen Gulf was one of the most important and most strategic places of battle for the Pacific War Theatre. Just a few days after Pearl Harbor was bombed, on 22 December 1941, Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma of the Japanese 14th Army landed on its shores almost effortlessly – engaging in only minor skirmishes – the Japanese forces started their three year occupation of the gulf until the Lingayen Gulf Landings in 1945 – when about 203,608 soldiers landed and started the retaking of the gulf from Japanese forces.
The Bonuan Blue Beach of Dagupan was one of the landing sites during the Lingayen Gulf Landings by the Liberation Forces in 1945. It now features a Japanese Park, the MacArthur Landing Marker and Tondaligan Park (which is adjunct to the Bonuan Blue Beach). Dagupan is also known for its St. John’s Cathedral and its Old Spanish Railway Station. Unfortunately Bonuan Beach has fallen on hard times – with allegations of prostitution and underage drinking running rampant in the area. Dagupan, however, might have its saving grace in its grilled delicious boneless milkfish (called “bangus” in Tagalog) that can be had in this city which also serves as the province’s commercial center.
Traces of its tumultuous past, however, are almost gone save for its many historically important churches – some of which run up to about 400 years old like the church of St. James Fortress or more commonly known as Bolinao Church. Constructed by the Augustinians in 1609 (which means it is 400 years old as of this writing), this brick-stoned church made originally of adobe and coral stone was severely damaged during devastating Typhoon Emong of 2009 when its roof was virtually ripped off by about 275 kph winds in the very same year that it celebrates its 400th birthday. Right now, the church is in a very sad state- and is in dire need of help. Donations come in but unfortunately not enough to do the speedy reconstruction of this beautiful church. For those interested to help, I don’t have the contact details of the current parish priest, but I will post it here as soon as I have the information or anyone could just contact the Pangasinan provincial government through its website – http://www.pangasinan.gov.ph/. The church also houses Aztec looking engravings (tongue protruding and grinning faces) on the base of its antique altar – we reckon that this was of possible Mexican/Aztec influence brought over during the Galleon Trade.
Photo by ranesbluesky
For the Catholic religious, Pangasinan means one thing – pilgrimage to the Our Lady of Manaoag whose Spanish-Romanesque (with touches of Italian and German Renaissance architectural composition) church which sits on a hilltop in the town of Manaoag plays host to a supposedly miraculous image of Mary whose ivory image was brought to the Philippines by Fr. Juan de San Jacinto from Spain by way of Acapulco. Apparently four bombs fell on the church during the last days of the World War 2 which damaged the façade – one fell on the roof of the church and did not explode boosting perceptions that the image was indeed miraculous. Check out other centuries old-churches – St. Vincent Ferrer (1614) in Bayambang, Parish of St. Ildephonse (1699) of Malisiqui, St. Dominic Parish (1587) in San Carlos; St. Joseph Parish (1810) in Aguilar, Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes (Salasa) (1720) in Bugallon, Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in Lingayen (1575); St. Peter Martyr Parish (1835), and St. Peter & Paul Church (1588) in Calasiao.
Bolinao probably has the finest beaches in the entirety of Pangasinan – with the beach in Patar (about 30-45 minutes away from Bolinao town centre) the most scenic and the most well-known. I was prepared to be underwhelmed by Patar (about 45 minutes away from Bolinao town- PhP200 tricycle ride), but instead, I was welcomed by a gorgeous looking cream colored sandy beach, and very clean, turquoise waters which reminded me of the cream-colored to golden beaches of Australia (which probably partly explains the presence of a small Aussie community in the area). The beach is pretty clean, and there are no pushy touts in the area, and on an ordinary weekend, you can get a piece of solitude in Patar. We found the beach in Patar extremely likable and didn’t mind just chilling out with a beer for breakfast in one of the small open-air nipa huts in the area. Be forewarned though, we spied a karaoke machine in the area (we secretly wished it would surrender and break down against the salty ocean air). We encountered a group of Koreans living in Baguio City who tried to practice their English on our group (which was composed by 3 Australians and 1 Filipino). Our expat writer, Scott Allford cheekily suggested that Patar is better than the most famous and apparently best Korean Beach- Haeundae Beach (where you have more people than sand and you have to pay to be under one of the gazillion umbrellas on the beach). The Korean guy replied, that Patar has no nightclubs – and all of us (me and the three Aussies included) smiled – Exactly – and this is the main reason why Philippine beaches are better than most of the popular beaches in the world – beaches like Patar are relatively unspoiled, charming and not too commercialized which is the way beaches should be. If a low pressure area is nearby, Patar Beach (reef break) also offers great surfing opportunities and there is little surfing community in the area mostly composed of resident Aussies.
Apart from Patar, there are other notable beaches in Bolinao – the Balingasay Beach, and the stretches of beaches along Ilog Malino. There is a Marine Sanctuary on Silaki/Silaqui Island which features Giant Clams. In other parts of Pangasinan, other beaches that are worth checking out are Sabangan Beach off Infanta, Tambobong White Sand Beach (favorite of anglers) of Dasol, and the Tondol White Sand Beach of Anda.
Patar’s Beach, however, has faults of its own – the disgusting pile of concrete called Treasures of Bolinao, the most prominent hotel in the area, not only basically encroached on the beach itself but had the chutzpah to build an elevated walkway on three natural rock formations- an illegal act, if not a total crime against nature if not against the law. Sensible travelers and residents in the area have complained about this eyesore which unfortunately wasn’t destroyed by the last big typhoon that hit Bolinao. I would like to dissuade anyone from patronizing the services of this horrible, horrible hotel until they rectify this grievous act against nature.
A few minutes away by foot from Patar is the Cape Bolinao Lighthouse (30.78 Meters/101 Ft.) on a hill on Punta Piedra Point, it is the second tallest in the country after the Cape Bojeador Lighthouse in Burgos, Ilocos Norte. The Bolinao Lighthouse was built in 1905 by British, Filipino and American engineers and is one of the 5 most prominent lighthouses in the country. The lighthouse is literally dying and in need of immediate repair after it was severely damaged by Typhoon Emong. The building right next to it lies in ruins and almost all hope has been abandoned as no one seems to have done anything about this important piece of history. With the Philippine Coast Guard as the sole owner of the Lighthouse and the Local Government of Bolinao as the main caretaker, we hope that the lighthouse will eventually be saved and preserved and continue to stand as a sentinel of Bolinao and safely guide the ships that pass around the area. The Lighthouse has a 140-step winding stairway that goes up to the illumination tower and when it is working in its best condition (not at the moment of course) is visible 44 kilometers away guiding ships led to the Bolinao area by the Zambales lighthouse (presumably Capones Island Lighthouse) and then toward to the Poro Point Lighthouse in La Union. According to the late Bolinao historian, Catalino Catanaoan, Cape Bolinao’s Lighthouse original light machine was manufactured in England, while the lantern, with three wicks and chimneys was imported from France. For its first 80 years of operation, kerosene was used in the lighthouse in Bolinao and then when the local electric cooperative extended its operations to Patar, the lighthouse began to run on electricity (which seems to be extremely fickle in Bolinao- we caught a power outage whilst we were in Patar).
Photo by Dave Ryan A. Buaron
There are three popular caves in Bolinao but only two are worth recommending. The three caves are Enchanted Cave, Wonderful Cave and Cindy’s Cave. All charge a nominal entrance fee. Enchanted Cave is the most popular, with crystal clear natural swimming pools underground, coral formations, stalagmites and a display of fossilized Giant Clams. Wonderful Cave is small and a little private but there is a time limit of about 30 minutes per stay. Cindy’s Cave is the shallowest amongst the three, with the kitschy addition of a shower in the middle of the swimming area (that was a little bit random, we think) and apparently, not the cleanest waters either. You may also want check out Cacupangan Cave, (as well as Binmatya and Arasaas Caves) in Mabini town with an underground flowing into the Balincaguing River (do this only during the dry season) and the 200 meters long Villacorta Caves (also in Mabini) features basin-like formations, terraced rock, a chamber and gypsum flowers.
Apart from beaches and caves, Bolinao is also known for its waterfalls – Bolinao Falls 1 and 2 (not as named imaginatively as the Wonderful and Enchanted Caves) but what they lack in creative names they compensate with their refreshingly clean waters and seemingly unspoiled, pretty scenery. The waterfalls are located in Samang Norte which can be reached in about 40 minutes by tricycle with mostly very bad roads on the way. Tara Falls is nearby the bridge going to Anda but it is too small and unimpressive and unless you have time to kill, is not exactly on our must check out list. You may also want to check out Mambaciano and Mayaman Waterfalls near Canal Bay in Sual and Antong Falls in Sison.
Photo by Dave Ryan A. Buaron
The Fourteen Mile Reef off Santiago Island is perfect for diving and is teeming with marine life and hard and soft corals.
Unarguably, the Hundred Islands National Park is the ultimate crown jewel of Pangasinan tourism where its 123 islets sitting on the tranquil waters of Lingayen Gulf congregate in a small area just off the city of Alaminos. The islands, most of which are uninhabited, offer snorkeling, swimming, spelunking, camping and kayaking opportunities with its many strips of white sand beaches and sand bars. The best developed is probably Quezon Island (named after the Philippine Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon) with facilities that include 2 dining pavilions, grilling area and Giant Clams Garden. Governor’s Island, meanwhile, who once played host to the Philippine edition of that campy reality TV franchise – Big Brother has a house here which one can now rent if one decides to stay at Governor’s Island. Governor’s Island also has a view deck which boasts sweeping views of this beautiful National Park. For people with kids, the Children’s Island meanwhile has the shallowest waters in the marine park and perfect for children to practice their swimming skills. The Hundred Islands National Park has Bantay Dagat (literally “Sea Guardians”) who protect the marine park from illegal fishing and also double as lifeguards in case of emergencies – when in my case – I had a bad case of cramps when I was swimming by Marcos Island – the able men of Alaminos heard my frantic cries for help (I already went underwater at least three times) and saved me just in time. So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Mamerto Viray, Jesusito Ancheta, Ridard PAmo, Samuel Navarro, Deomedes Danan and Norberto Danan. You guys ROCK!
Other places of interest would be the Manleluag Spring National Park in Mangatarem, the Agno Umbrella Rocks (three mushroom shaped stone boulders) of Agno, the hot and cold springs of Mt. Balungao near Rosales, the Limahong Channel (where the infamous Chinese corsair escaped after his failed attempt to establish a colony on the shore of Manila Bay).
Why Not Go
If you are looking for a high-flying nightlife like in more organized tourist destinations, it is not quite the way it is in Pangasinan (save for the Hundred Islands National Park). There are quite a few malls in the main cities but otherwise, living is basic and in most areas, there are even no ATMs around.
For an ordinary long weekend getaway, Pangasinan offers refreshing respite from the more popular Philippine destinations with its quaint coastal villages and charming beaches that rarely see outside visitors. You can basically see the sun rise over the Hundred Islands and drive westward to Patar Beach and see the sunset on the same day! Now how cool is that!
Best Time to Visit
Best time to go is during the dry season and during ordinary weekends. Patar Beach and a lot of tourist spots usually get pretty crowded during Easter but are okay during most of the year.
There are resorts and hotels all over the major cities and if it is usually near the beach, there should be a hotel or two. For a more complete listing of hotels in Pangasinan please contact – http://www.pangasinan.gov.ph/ or you may contact the Department of Tourism Regional Office in La Union – Martin Valera, Regional Director, (Oasis Country Resort, National Highway, Bgy. Sevilla, San Fernando, La Union 2500 Tel.: (6372) 888 2411 Fax: (6372) 888 2098 Cell. Phone: (0917) 791 5346 Email – email@example.com; www.visitmyphilippines.com)
Photo by Dave Ryan A. Buaron
We stayed at Solomon’s Paradise (http://solomonsparadise.multiply.com/) on Patar, pretty basic with wide beds, nipa hut style, fan and a little veranda. There is a little beach nearby with pretty rock formations. Australian expat Brett Solomon owns the place, pretty good chap and loving the quiet life of Patar. Food is mostly Filipino but to his surprise, we requested vegemite on toast for brekkie, but he nevertheless happily obliged. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at their cozy place and we won’t hesitate to go back (hopefully Brett will stock up on Aussie beers next time we drop by!).
Photo by photospill
Dining in Pangasinan is a hit or miss thing but one could never go wrong with a serving of Boneless Bangus (or Milkfish). Bangus happens to be the National Fish of the Philippines as well and we had the best Bangus we ever had in Pangasinan- grilled or fried- the serving is large and cheap (compared to the its diminutive cousins served in the restaurants of Manila. Alaminos has its own take on the longganiza as well. And the sweet sticky rice with coconut dessert called tupig which seemed to be ubiquitous in this region is a must try.
Another must bring home item from Pangasinan is a bottle of fermented fish paste – Pangasinan’s take on that important Filipino foodie must-have- the bagoong. Make sure to pick one up whenever you are in the area.
Pangasinan nightlife is more associated with Dagupan although it is a little shady and not highly recommended. The best way to spend your nights in Pangasinan is by the beach, having quiet barbecue dinners under the stars and enjoying the sweet solace of being so far and away from the lunacy of Manila urban life.
Photo by Dave Ryan A. Buaron
My to do List
1. Kayak or do island-hopping at the Hundred Islands. **
2. Snorkel and check out the Giant Clams at Silaki Island. **
3. Chill out the Patar Beach in Bolinao.*
4. Sample the Boneless Bangus.*
5. Take a dip at the waterfalls of Bolinao. *
6. Do a pilgrimage to the Manaoag Shrine. **
7. Bring back a bottle of the famous Bagoong Pangasinan.*
8. See the Bolinao Lighthouse.*
9. Cool off from the searing sun by relaxing in the pools of Wonderful and Enchanted Caves.*
10. Share a glass of local wines (tuba) with locals of Dasol.
*- 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.
4. Heat stroke- take plenty of fluids – make sure you have a few bottles of ion-based drinks handy.
If you are not coming with a tour group, there are many buses that ply to different points in Pangasinan. If you are heading to the Hundred Islands in Alaminos and Bolinao – Victory Liner and Five Star Buses leave Manila as early as 12 midnight. For going back to Manila, Victory Liner only goes as far as the Cubao terminal from Bolinao during Fridays and Saturdays. Skip the ordinary buses of Five Star as they can be extra filthy. Other bus lines that go to Pangasinan are Dagupan Bus Line, City Trans, and Philippine Rabbit. There are jeepneys and mini-buses between towns as well as tricycles (motorcycles with sidecars). Do not forget to take a road map of Pangasinan before embarking on a trip.
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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