One of the major cultural hubs of the Philippines, the genteel Old World charm and opulent history of Ilocos Sur reflects the hundreds and hundreds of years of being at the crossroads of European and Asian trade and commerce- a trip to Ilocos Sur is definitely a step back in time.
The entire Ilocos region which then stretched from the town of Luna (Namacpacan) in the province of what is now part of La Union to Bangui in what is now part of Ilocos Norte and was then called by its ancient name Samtoy (from the phrase “sao ditoy, which in Ilokano meant “our dialect) and the inhabitants built their 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.”
Photo by weiber
Before the expedition of Spanish conquistador Juan de Salcedo (grandson of another important Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi) arrived in Cabigbigaan, which was also known as Bigan (spelled as Vigan now and the capital of the current Ilocos Sur) on 13 June 1572, the region was already a thriving hub of international commerce with significant settlements of Chinese, Japanese and Malay traders – 408 kilometers north of Manila. Eventually the region became an important player and stop on the maritime silk route. On a side note, not a lot of visitors know that the name Vigan derived its name from a lush plant species of the taro family named “Bigaa”. Salcedo eventually declared Vigan as the capital and the headquarters of the Spanish settlement in the North and called it Villa Fernandina de Bigan and right after, the entire Northern Luzon as an encomienda and himself as the encomendero of Vigan and the Lieutenant Governor of Ylocos until his death in July of 1574. With this, Vigan prominently established itself as the center of the Hispanic presence in the north and this is pretty much evident with the fine fusion of European and Asian architecture in the city, best exemplified in the houses with their airy balconies, wide-opened windows and an unmistakable Iberian, Chinese, and Mexican air permeating the cobble-stone streets of Calle Crisologo in the Mestizo District also known as the Kasanglayan (literally “where the Sangleys/Chinese live”). The Mestizo District has the highest number of ancestral houses and colonial era architecture which was mostly built by the Chinese merchants who settled, intermarried and became the local elite of the 19th century. The houses were the result of a continuing evolution of the traditional Igorot nipa hut of the highlands with a distinct combination of Mexican and Chinese styles and Filipino touches like sliding capiz shell windows. A walk through the Kasanglayan felt like being thrown back into the past, an amazingly beautiful experience. Sometimes, referred to as the Intramuros of the North, the Kasanglayan has a different vibe altogether – it is quieter, and more laidback than its counterpart in Manila, but no less important nonetheless.
Vigan, unlike its sister cities of Manila and Cebu, survived the massive bombing campaigns of the advancing Americans during the second World War which left it relatively well-preserved and intact, went on to become the only Philippine city to become recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage City- the best example of a surviving European colonial town in Asia. According to rumors, Ilocos was called the “Rimat ti Amianan” or “Treasures of the North” because the hastily fleeing Japanese Imperial Army, buried their treasures plundered from the different Southeast Asian countries in the caves of Ilocos, fueling then a treasure hunting boom. Being the most popular destination in the Ilocos Region, it was quite a surprise not to find a lot of foreigners traveling in this area. We saw creeping commercialization in the area though, with souvenir shops occupying a significant lot of the ground floors of houses, however, this has not diminished its obvious charm as commerce has more or less successfully blended quite well with the area- with Vigan walking the fine line between outright commercialization and preserving its identity.
It was a big relief to hear from locals that constructions in the city are regulated and must meet certain standards which probably explained why the newish McDonald’s in the city center looked a lot like an oversized chapel with its own tiny belfry adjacent to the massive St. Paul’s Metropolitan Cathedral which is also known as Vigan Cathedral. St. Paul’s Metropolitan Cathedral was constructed in an earthquake baroque style, thick and massive and Salcedo himself supervised its construction in 1574. Horse-drawn carriages or calesas are de rigeur transportation for most tourists within Vigan and neighboring towns with the side of St. Paul’s Metropolitan Cathedral being converted into a quirky calesa parking lot. Rides are charged by the hour (PhP 150) and usually the “kutsero” or the calesa driver will double as your tourist guide taking you around the city’s numerous museums, and important sites. If you have enough time to burn or if you are staying in Vigan longer, a calesa ride is actually an excellent way to enjoy this beautiful city.
However, if you are in Vigan for a quick stopover, the best way is to go around in one of those tiny tricycles – motorbikes with side cars. When we say it is tiny, it is REALLY tiny and although they can seat two people inside properly, it wasn’t very comfortable but a whole lot faster than going around clickity-clacking in a slow calesa. Usually, a tour with the tricycles would set you back about PhP150-PhP200 for about an hour. Make sure you haggle and you get change. The drivers are generally courteous and they won’t bug you for more – a very welcome respite from the monster drivers of Manila. I would highly advise you to secure a map of Vigan and other Ilocos Sur sites at the Tourism Office near the Plaza Burgos (they are open even on weekends and the staff are ACTUALLY very helpful, friendly and knowledgeable) and then decide which places you want to head out to.
As the same with anywhere else in the Philippines, the Spaniards conquered the region by the sword and by the cross: Augustinian missionaries evangelized the region and established parishes and built beautiful churches that still stand today. In 1578, by virtue of a Spanish Royal Decree, the seat of the old diocese of Nueva Segovia in Lallo, Cagayan was transferred to Vigan cementing the city’s reputation as the center of religious, political, social, and cultural activities in the north. The Arzobispado de Nueva Segovia which is the only surviving 18th century arzobispado and the official residence of the Archbishop of Nueva Segovia and the former headquarters of the first Philippine President General Emilio Aguinaldo in 1889 still stands today across the equally historic Plaza Salcedo. The Arzobispado charges PhP20 per person as entrance fees. Plaza Salcedo features the the 17th century Juan de Salcedo monument, the oldest of its kind in the entire Northern Luzon. Plaza Salcedo was also the site where the first Filipina to lead a revolt in the Philippines, Gabriela Silang, who was executed by hanging. Gabriela Silang was the wife of another famous revolutionary, Diego Silang who was the appointed as the Governor of Ilocos during the brief British Occupation of the Philippines until he was shot in the back by Miguel Vicos – a close friend who sold him out to the Spaniards.
As for foreigners undeservedly complaining about the lack of culture in the Philippines – Vigan spits culture in every street corner- its rich and colorful history screaming in many of its museums (most if not all, allow camera use inside the museums)– the most famous of which are the Crisologo Museum and the Burgos Museum. The Crisologos are one of the most prominent political dynasties in Ilocos Sur and their ancestral house which is now converted into some sort of a family shrine recounts its bloody history which in turn mirrors the relatively recent history of the province. On display are the glass-encased bloodied pants of long-time Congressman Floro Crisologo, the same ones he wore during his assassination in 1970, right in the front pews of the St. Paul’s Metropolitan Cathedral. Years before that, his wife, then-Governor Carmeling Crisologo was also a victim of an ambush in 1961 – the same Chevrolet which she rode is also on display in the museum. Likewise, newspaper reports of the infamous arson committed by Floro’s son Bingbong (Yes, a lot of Filipinos have doorbell names) who was eventually sent to jail in Muntinlupa are on display. Bingbong, was released ultimately because of good behavior, notwithstanding the double life imprisonment meted out to him for the misdeeds and went on to become a Bible-preacher and then recently, following the footsteps of his parents, a congressman himself. Entrance to the Crisologo Museum is free, but donations are strongly suggested by the lady we suspected was the curator/caretaker.
The Padre Burgos National Museum (built in 1788) was a different story but no less controversial by itself. It was the former residence of the renowned priest Padre Jose Apolonio Burgos, a Filipino criollo, one of the three martyr priests that were executed by the Spaniards in 1872 for treason and fomenting the Cavite Mutiny. The execution of the three priests by garrote inflamed Filipino revolutionists’ passions, among them the Philippine National Hero, Jose Rizal who dedicated his novel El Filibusterismo to their memory. The museum charges a measly PhP10 entrance fee and aside from the usual memorabilia of its prominent former resident, it also has a respectable collection of archaeological and ethnographic collections which include a partially opened Itneg/Tinguian coffin with human remains inside. The museum also has the 14 Esteban Pichay Villanueva paintings depicting the Basi revolt of 1807 (including paintings about hangings, beatings and other curiously gruesome scenes). Right next to the museum, is the Provincial Jail which was built in 1657 and was the birthplace of former Philippine President Elpidio Quirino on 16 November 1890. Other notable museums in the area are the Museo Nueva Segovia, Museo San Pablo, and the Syquia (PhP20/person entrance fees) and Quema Mansions.
Photo by Ryan Buaron
Being a fan of traditional Filipino weaving myself, I could not resist a trip to Barangay Camangaan (about 10-15 minutes away by tricycle from the Tourism Office near Plaza Burgos), home of the famous Vigan weavers which are known to produce abel, a local cotton fabric into shawls, hankies, placemats, blankets, gowns and even Barongs – the traditional Filipino shirt. We ended up having 2 Abel Iloco blankets at under PhP400. Although Abel Iloco products are sold in the shops of Kasanglayan, the prices in Barangay Camangaan are unbeatable plus you will be able to see local weavers in action. For pottery enthusiasts, the pagburnayan is a must-stop. Early Ilocanos used the burnay (earthen jars) for the fermentation of basi (sugarcane wine) and bagoong (shrimp paste) with some of the existing kilns dating back to 1823.
Governor Chavit Singson’s Baluarte meanwhile features a zoo, although I am not totally sold on the idea of keeping animals in cages – Baluarte’s animals which include a lot of deer, sheep and a couple of alpacas, roam freely in quite a reasonably wide, open space. Tigers and other animals like the sugar gliders, and pythons are in cages. How these endangered animals made their way to Baluarte is anybody’s guess. Baluarte also has a skeet shooting range (how a shooting range ended up in a zoo was beyond reason), pony rides and animal shows (we spied a very young orangutan quite disturbed by the loud music played during these animal shows). Entrance is free and the kids love it especially the huge replicas of dinosaurs that are close to the Hollywoodesque Baluarte sign.
Photo by storm-crypt
One of our favorite churches in Ilocos Sur is the St. Augustine Parish Church (also known as Bantay Church) in the nearby town of Bantay. This baroque-gothic style church is one of the oldest in Ilocos Sur (built in 1590) and features a separate belfry on top of a small hill a few meters away- which affords a superb view of the mountains in neighboring province of Abra on one side and with the South China Sea on the opposite side. The church was damaged during World War II and was reconstructed in 1950 with the restored façade now with a neo-gothic design with touches of Romanesque elements. The belfry, which also served as a lookout for approaching enemies (thus the word Bantay means “to guard”), along with the church was constructed using forced labor.
One hour drive south of Vigan is another UNESCO World Heritage Church, the massively baroque Santa Maria Church built in 1769 which also sits on a hill overlooking Santa Maria. This church was used as a fortress during the 1896 Philippine revolution.
If topiaries make you giddy, there is a mini version at the Flores Pots and Hidden Garden. Thick foliage, bamboo covered walks and a huge collection of plants (some of which are for sale) greet you. There is a restaurant and a souvenir shop that sells Vigan-style empanadas – ground meat and egg-with shredded vegetables fried inside thin pastry pockets as well as Basi wines. So far one of the best toilets we ever had – the toilet bowl overlooks a mini-garden – great for a little meditation while doing your business.
Like most Philippine cities and towns, Ilocos Sur is home to fiestas and celebrations. During Easter Season, tourists can join local devotees in religious processions of life-size statues in carrozas. The Vigan City Fiesta meanwhile is celebrated on the third week of January to commemorate the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul and the anniversary of Vigan’s cityhood – be on the lookout for its colorful Longganiza Festival.
Viva Vigan Festival of the Arts is probably the most famous of Vigan celebrations and is held every first week of May and includes Binatbatan street dancing, a parade of calesas, exhibition of traditional games, Abel fashion shows and religious rituals in honor of the Black Nazarene and Santacruzan amongst other things.
Vigan also celebrates the World Heritage Cities Solidarity Day every 8 September with events like Repazzo de Vigan, Historia Oral, Visita Museo ken Balbalay, Fotografias y Recuerdos, Comidas de Ayer, a smattering of cultural shows and exhibits.
Discover Asia International Travel and Tours (www.discoverpinas.multiply.com ) organizes trips to Ilocos with stopovers at Vigan and Bantay – kudos to our excellent drivers who also doubled as our tour guides as well. If you are traveling as a group, make sure you make it on time during meeting times – we had the unfortunate situation where a group of fresh university graduates from Leyte and Cebu who were not only exceptionally noisy, but were always late during agreed meeting times. We ended up just renting a tricycle and going around Vigan on our own. Nevertheless, Discover Asia has the cheapest and has the most intensive itineraries we ever came across on this trip and we were quite happy with their services.
*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
For those expecting huge malls or a throbbing nightlife, Ilocos Sur and specifically Vigan might be a big disappointment. Ilocos Sur does not have that urbane appeal of the more industrialized Philippine cities and provinces, but its charms come mostly from its quaint, provincial feel.
Ilocos Sur is a treasure trove of history and culture which is a truly amazing destination for fans of Philippine history. Ilocos Sur provides an intimate window to the colorful and oftentimes turbulent colonial past of the Philippines- a must go destination for people who want to see a different face of the Philippines as well as for those who want to understand the country, its myriad cultures and rich heritage a little bit closer than what is normally written in history books. Ilocos Sur is perfect for families, honeymooners and students of history and photography for its unrivalled heritage treasures.
Best Time to Visit
The best time to go to Vigan and in Ilocos Sur in general is during the fiestas and other celebrations as the town comes alive with different activities. A trip during the clear summer months as well affords a stunning bluest of skies – perfect for those postcard perfect photogenic shots of the Kasanglayan.
Where & What to Eat
Photo by Ryan Buaron
A friend told us that Ilocos was a food trip. And she could not have been any more correct. I used to have Vigan Longganiza (Longganiza are Chinese-style sausages, and sometimes used interchangeably with the Spanish word for the sausages – chorizo), and never really quite liked it as I found it too garlicky and sour. My trip to Ilocos changed all that, and yeah, it was love at first bite, err, second or third bite. We were meant to have breakfast at the stylish Café Uno along Bonifacio Street (Vigan Longganiza, Egg and Rice is about PhP 95), but getting there at 8AM on a Friday, the place was unbelievably packed with people and we overheard a kid complaining that they were waiting for 2 hours for their breakfast. We saw people seated with empty plates (not served yet), and we instead left the restaurant and asked a local for other restaurants in the area. We headed instead to a small open-air, modest looking eatery in front of Plaza Burgos named Talakis Food Corner, where we were promptly served for more than half the cost than we would have probably paid for the same thing in Café Uno. For four pieces of Vigan Longganiza, 2 sunny side ups, 2 cups of fried rice and 2 cups of instant coffee set us back PhP 130 – now that is a steal! The best places to eat usually are the places where locals eat: cheap, quick, authentic and unpretentious. Check out the Food Plaza in Vigan for cheap and good eats.
Ilocos Sur is also known for Tinubong, sticky rice dessert snack stuck inside a hollow bamboo – it usually sells for PhP35 a piece and you have to literally smash the bamboo to open it. Fun I say. The best ones from what we heard from the seller are the ones coming from the town of Magsingal. Other notable delicacies (mostly rice-based) are dudol, bibingka, patupat, and suman can be had at the Kankanen makers of Barangay San Jose in Vigan.
Bagnet (deep-fried pork and a huge personal favorite) and Empanadas (egg, ground meat, shredded vegetables fried in paper thin pastry is to die for) are amongst the traditional Ilocos fare that one should never ever miss – unless one is a vegetarian.
Ilocos Sur is also famous for dishes that have names that would usually elicit snickers from Tagalogs as some have pointed reference to the human genitalia – the gourd in the Ilocano dish of Dinengdeng is called Kabatiti; Aubergine omelets are Puki-puki; String beans are called utong; and the Vigan’s milder and chunkier version of that yummy Pampanga’s Sisig is called Warek-Warek.
Photo by Ryan Buaron
Ilocos Sur nightlife centers on the restaurants and cafes in Vigan. What could be more romantic than dinners in a colonial café? It’s best to take a step back and take in the ambience of the past quaffing a bottle of that famous Ilocano sugarcane wine – Basi.
My to do List
1. Take a calesa ride through the Mestizo District.**
2. Visit and shop for Abel Iloco in Barangay Camangaan.*
3. Take a quiet break over Vigan Empanadas amidst lush greenery at the Hidden Garden.*
4. Do a biking tour (Vigan-Bantay) – Contact Dr. Charles Rabara (+63 .77.722.2297)**
5. Go Museum Hopping (Crisologo Museum, Burgos Museum, Syquia and Quema Houses).*
6. Take home Vigan Longganiza.*
7. Check out the churches of Bantay, Santa Maria and St. Paul’s Metropolitan Cathedral.*
8. Try your hands in making your own burnay at the Paburnayan.**
9. Take pictures! Ilocos is an awesome place for photography. So pack that camera and extra memory sticks and head out to Ilocos Sur!
*- 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 Ryan Buaron
If you are not coming with a tour group, Partas buses are the most reliable forms of transport to Ilocos Sur from Manila as well as Dominion Bus Lines, Aniceto Bus, and Viron Transit which plies the Manila-Vigan route regularly. From Manila, it is an 8-hour, 408-kilometer ride to Vigan along the scenic Manila-Ilocos Highway.
If you are coming from Laoag City in Ilocos Norte, there are domestic flights daily from Manila-Laoag which is then an hour and a half ride by buses (Fariñas, Maria de Leon, RCJ, F. Franco, Autobus and Partas) or rented vans to Vigan.
Tricycles, calesas and rent-a-vans are the mode of transport within Ilocos Sur. Tricycles are PhP 10/head, Calesas are at PhP150/hour (maximum of 4 people. 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 with Tagudin the first town of Ilocos Sur. You can get a more detailed map of Northern Luzon (Ilocos Sur included) at one of the bookstores in Manila before you embark on this trip.