Idyll Hands: Introduction

You have to love those serendipitious last-minute offers, especially if they involve all-expense paid trips out of town. That’s exactly what happened to me on a dreary Friday afternoon, when Nikko invited me to Ilocos the following week. Our trip would be sponsored by Parana Tours, who tapped When In Manila to feature the province.  I had to say yes. I promised myself I’d visit four cities this year and my trip to Capiz late last month was cancelled because everyone insisted I stay in Manila after finding out I’d be there for Halloween and the days of the dead.

I’ve always been intrigued with the Ilocos region. It’s in touch with the modern world but still embraces the past, from its architecture and ways of living. It still has that touch of provincial air with the relative convenience of this century. I mean relative because there were times when I would lose signal on my cellphone (hint: Smart has the best connection in Ilocos).

As far as I can tell, there isn’t much nightlife. Perhaps the locals have their own watering holes, but Ilocos isn’t known to travelers as a prime drinking spot. However, they make up for it by offering lots of nature-related and historical sights that are better than a pitcher of Mindoro sling. Ilocos is perfect for those who want to rejuvenate, meditate, or in my case, catch on some sleep. I was so tired that by the time we got to our cottage, I stayed in bed and slept right away.

Ilocos is rich in heritage, evident in the World Heritage Site Vigan City, the Cape Bojeador Lighthouse that dates back to the 1890’s, and other culturally significant areas like Kapurpurawan Rock and the Malacanang of the North. Of course, Ilocos wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the fabulous beaches of Pagudpud.

Ilocos isn’t for the cosmopolitan traveler. Ilocos is for those who want to get in touch with nature and their inner self. It’s for those whose pleasure is in wild adventures by the beach and quiet nights in your cottage, with the sound of the sea punctuating the still air. Of course, private debauchery can be at hand. But don’t expect the glitz, the glamour, and the fireworks of other tourist destinations. And it’s perfectly fine.

Idyll Hands: Nature Part I

The province of Ilocos is rich in natural landmarks, which I believe is much better than man-made ones. Every now and then I feel the need to reconnect with nature and its inherent beauty, and Ilocos is a perfect place for that. There’s a feeling of serenity in disconnecting from the real world and its trappings, and I achieved that on this trip. There’s something amazing about nature, at all the colors, textures, and formations, that it makes me want to become a devout Catholic. Someone must have created all these wonders, and it must have been a conscious decision.

One of the highlights on any trip to Ilocos is the sand dunes. Much has been said about the vast expanse of arid land, often appearing in films like Himala, Temptation Island (both the original and the remake), Born on the Fourth of July, Ang Panday, and Mad Max. Apparently, there are two sand dunes, the La Paz and the Paoay, and we went to the latter.

The dunes featured an hour-long ride on a 4×4 jeep on the wild terrain. It was a one-of-a-kind adventure and really scary. You go on high hills and rapidly drive down it, with you standing in the back and with nothing to hold on to but the jeep. I often found myself sitting out of fear that I’d get thrown off the jeep. It was really bumpy and scary but a lot of fun. The dunes were beautiful, with fine brown sand. There was a gorgeous view of the sea, sparkling like diamonds against the sun. It was really hot and the place offered no shade so it’s a very wise idea to bring a bottle of sunscreen.

We also got the chance to sandboard, one of the newest sports to hit the Philippines. It involves getting on a board and sliding down one of the dune’s steep hills. It’s easy and doesn’t require any special skills, all you have to do is lock your feet in and brace yourself for the fall. I had an exhilarating experience, which was clear considering I was the only one that screamed among the throngs of people.
Surprisingly, the 4×4 sand dunes ride cost only P2,500, to be divided by the group. There were six of us in the jeep and we had enough room to tumble around.

Another highlight of any trip to Ilocos would be Pagudpud’s beaches. Ilocos has been called the Boracay of the north, and a trip wouldn’t be complete without visiting either Saud or Blue Lagoon. We visited the Blue Lagoon, a less hectic alternative to the tourist spot that is Saud. The November sky was agreeable and it felt like summer. I literally ran to the beach to jump into the cool water. I haven’t been to the beach since 2011 so it was great fun. The sands were white, the water was beautiful, in short, the day was well-spent at the beach. Blue Lagoon didn’t have that much people so the area wasn’t crowded.

A unique feature of the province is the Kapurpurawan rock formation. Kapurpurawan is derived from the Ilocano word puraw, which means white, and refers to the stark-white formations created by the forces of the ocean. Stepping into the formation is like stepping into a surreal world, kind of like entering a real version of Ramon de Veyra’s Sputnik store in Cubao X. It was very impressive. The production team of Si Agimat at si Enteng Kabisote filmed there and built several housing structures that they left, adding to the appeal of the place. But with or without the movie sets, the charm of Kapurpurawan can still amaze even the most jaded of tourists.

Idyll Hands: Nature Part II

Ilocos is as lush with greenery as it is with strange alien-like rock formations and sapphire-blue seas. Proof of the botanical beauty of the province is the trek to Kabigan Falls. The trek was fairly easy, more like a walk in the park, amidst changing sceneries: from idyllic farmland to a gurgling stream, to a Silent Hill-worthy passageway, then a Forbidden Forest-inspired, well, forest. The trek was very enjoyable and didn’t tire me out. The walk to the falls was rewarding as I witnessed a majestic falls that extended up to the sky. Frankly, my awe was a result of not having been to a falls, and I was tempted to rip off my clothes and jump into the cold water.

An Incident of Huge Proportions happened to me in Kabigan Falls. I noticed a rock formation that I wanted to take pictures of with Nikko. I don’t really remember how it happened, but I slipped on some of the rocks and came crashing down, banging my knees and arms on the craggy rocks. I had some deep gashes on my right knee and arm, plus the indignity of having fallen in front of many groups. But as any supermodel would know, when you fall on the runway, you get up, strike a cute pose, and keep on walking. I disinfected the wounds and kept on trucking.

Because of the trauma of falling in Kabigan Falls, I was not able to savor the experience of going up Bantay Abot Cave. By then, I had changed from my rubber-soled XOXO sneakers to flip-flops, and the high tide, plus the slippery fit of my brother’s flops freaked me out as I made my way toward the cave. It was a rocky walk, and I had terrible visions of falling again and a rock going through my skin. And there was the almost vertical climb to the cave itself, and I decided to skip it. I didn’t want to risk slipping and rolling to my death in the most undignified way, so I went back. I made the wise decision of walking barefoot to get a better grip. The high tide and those rocks really scared me.

Coincidentally, one of the stopovers on my Ilocos trip was the Paraiso ni Anton, which locals say contains miraculous water. I ended up pouring a generous amount on my wounds, and though it relieved me for a while, it did not heal as fast as I hoped (I expected a miraculous recovery). Legend has it that you have to drink the water from the topmost source, but studies conducted by the DENR Regional Office and MENRO-LGU in 2011 states that the water is not potable.

But what was the most interesting, while we’re on the subject of water, is the Patapat Viaduct, the country’s 4th longest bridge. Now, there’s nothing interesting with the 4th of anything, but the Viaduct is the best place to view the Pasaleng Bay, a gorgeous body of water that is the most perfect shade of blue that it made me weep. It reminded me of the Aegean Sea, the sublime sea across the fabled Santorini island in Greece.

By then, I had already forgotten about my wounds. I think I just experienced a natural form of Stendhal Syndrome.

Idyll Hands: World Peace Center, Marcos Museum and Mausoleum, Malacanang of the North

When it comes to political territory, the Marcoses rule pretty much of Ilocos. The province is home to the Marcos Mausoleum, the Malacanang of the North, and this sort of shrine to the family across a Jollibee in a busy street. Such is Ferdinand’s popularity that there is a statue of the late president in Batac City, his hometown.

The “shrine,” or World Peace Center is this nondescript building in the middle of nowhere. In fact, Nikko and I wouldn’t have noticed it had we not crossed the road from Jollibee. The place we stopped for lunch was full, so we decided to brave the heat and walk towards the other end of the street for some grub. It was some kind of hall loaded with pictures from the Marcoses, including official-looking portraits of family members, including Borgy Manotoc. There was no one inside, no guests, not even people manning the exhibit. It was a little creepy.

The Marcos Museum and Mausoleum was more popular in Ilocos. It features memorabilia from the late president, from his time in the military to his presidency. However, the main attraction of the site is Ferdinand’s remains, fully preserved. It was kept in this crypt-like airconditioned room with artificial flowers and pagan-like statues, with soft music playing in the background. I had my doubts that it was really Marcos, because the preservation was painstakingly good, but the caretaker claimed it was really “the president.”

My favorite Marcos-related venture was the Malacanang of the North. It’s a 5-hectare property in Paoay owned by the Marcoses given to Ferdinand by Imelda on his 60th birthday. It was their official rest house in Ilocos until it was given to the government after their exile. It was eventually given to to the local Ilocos Norte government, headed by Gov. Imee Marcos, daughter to Ferdinand and Imelda.

The mansion is an example of Filipino elegance. It’s very spacious, with a wide veranda overlooking the Paoay Lake. It’s perfect for hosting large parties, which I’m pretty sure Imelda did in her time. Despite the size, it’s warm and cozy, because of the abundance of wood and natural light. I would love to live there.

Idyll Hands: Paoay Church, Bantay Bell Tower, Cape Bojeador Lighthouse, Bangui Windmills

Ilocos is rich in history, evident in the historic buildings. In 1572, the province was colonized, resulting in Spanish churches and bell towers that live on today.

The Paoay Church is one of the landmarks in the Ilocos province. The church was built in 1710 and is made of coral stones, bricks, egg whites, and lime. It is one of the three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the province as one of the best Baroque churches in the country. It also holds the distinction of being Earthquake Baroque, because of its resistance to seismic conditions.

The church is historically relevant. In the Philippine Revolution, the bell tower served as an observation post for the Katipuneros against the Spaniards and later on against the Japanese in World War II. Socially, the bell would ring louder depending on the prominence of the clan getting married.

The church is beautifully maintained, and fortunately, isn’t renovated to make it look new. It still has its antiquated charm. Surprisingly, it is still open and offers mass. You have to enter by the side because the main doors are closed. It was a good thing that Nikko and I decided to check the bell tower because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have been able to enter. The retablo wasn’t as grand as I expected, but I did like the flooring.

The Bantay Bell Tower is just as historic. It’s even older than Paoay Church, having been established in 1593. The Bantay Church is witness to many attacks, having been pillaged, burned down at least three times and bombed three times. Mysteriously, the church still stands today.

Though the church is beautiful, the bell tower is the attraction of the parish. It reminds me of the abandoned statues in Ayutthaya, Thailand, except you can climb up this one. It looks ancient inside and can be quite scary climbing up the rickety stairs. The atmosphere makes it easy for you to imagine what it would be like living in the Spanish period. Unfortunately, we shared the climb with other tourists so it was crowded and noisy.

The tip of the tower offers panoramic views of the area. My favorite is the cemetery that looks like Santorini from afar.

The Cape Bojeador Lighthouse is another stopover on my itinerary. Honestly, the lighthouse didn’t interest me that much. Historically, it was built during the Spanish period in 1892 and is the most-visited lighthouse in the country. This is apparent, one look at the walls and you’d see the vandals.

What I enjoyed about the lighthouse is the view. The tower faces Cape Bojeador and the South China Sea, and this cliff with a little house. Or perhaps it was a large house and we were far away? Either way, I’d love to own a cottage by the sea, far from civilization. According to the people I toured with, the house on the cliff and the lighthouse were used in Walang Hanggan.

One of my favorite parts of the trip is the visit to the Bangui Windmills. The 20 windmills are located by the shore, and the thing that surprised me the most was its size. I never expected them to be so huge. Each tower stands over 70 meters or roughly the height of a 23-storey building. The 20 towers cover a stretch of nine kilometers and one windmill can power over 1,600 households. The towers can be climbed, and first-timers usually take about 40 minutes to get to the top. That is really high. Each blade is 41 meters long.

It was scary to look at, especially up close, but the 20 windmills look great together. The way they are arranged follows the coastline so it looks elegant. It’s easy to get mesmerized by the lazy spinning of the blades, and it would have been better if all the windmills worked. Nikko and I weren’t quite sure if some of them are broken or didn’t have enough wind power, but it would have been nice if all of them were spinning.

Idyll Hands: Baluarte, Burnayan, Calle Crisologo

Baluarte is the famed home of Gov. Chavit Singson in Vigan. It is part political headquarters, part zoo, and part wildlife sanctuary and facility. It is home to several tigers, ostriches, deer, and other interesting animals. It also features a butterfly garden, a petting zoo, and daily animal shows. I thought the butterfly garden was pretty standard but I overheard someone say that it’s better than the one in Sentosa, Singapore. Honey, no.

We didn’t get to tour the entire 80 hectares of land because of the unbearable heat, but I did enjoy watching the deer. It was my first time to see the creature and spent a large chunk of time just watching them. They looked so beautiful.

Equally beautiful is the Burnayan, a little spot that preserves the tradition of pottery-making. The Burnayan preceded the Spanish in Vigan and was established by Chinese settlers, and the process remains faithfully the same. It’s basically a roomy hut with earthen floors and a large quantity of pots and vases made by the potters. They showed us the process of pottery, which looked easy but which I am sure is quite complicated. The potter made it look so easy. Each pot is shaped for two minutes and  dried for over a week. According to many, burnay (made from Ilocos soil) is stronger than terracotta.

One of the highlights of any trip to Ilocos is Calle Crisologo in Vigan, the street known for its preserved Spanish-style architecture. It is one of the iconic places in Ilocos and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s the only place in East and Southeast Asia that has that kind of architecture.

The place is visually amazing, but all the houses are converted to shops that cater to tourists. So don’t expect preserved interiors and quaint memorabilia, as they are replaced with chichacorn and Vigan longganisa. In spite of the tourist trap, it’s a good thing to know that the prices are exactly the same as other places. But it is an experience walking through and imagining yourself as a Spanish mestizo walking on a summer day.

Oddly, I saw a friend there. I was walking along, when I heard someone scream my name. It was Christian, a college classmate of mine in UST. It’s always a surreal experience to see someone you know out of town or the country. This summer, I saw a high school teacher in Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok.