If anything on my Facebook news feed is to be believed, it is that everyone and their mother have been to Ilocos. Everyone but me. And so, with a hiatus from work and school and with a new camera on hand, I decided to go on a four-day trip to Ilocos Norte and Vigan. Alone, obviously.
It is a relatively easy trip, wherein I took a 10-hour bus trip from Manila for the night, half-sleeping and shivering. We all know how long haul bus trips can be: perpetually cold. I came prepared with a long cardigan, and a parka for good measure but even then still ended up beaten by the cold. The temperature was set to ‘arctic’, I suppose. I arrived before sunrise at the historical town of Laoag where, after a quick breakfast, I took an early morning stroll around town, to the sinking bell tower of St Williams Cathedral. It really is literally sinking at about an inch per year and, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, is proof that architectural failures–that somehow withstood the test of time, are a marvel on their own.
Tricycle tours are also common in Ilocos and most are accredited by the provincial government. The tours would take you to the famous tourist spots, with the driver also serving as the tour guide and occasional photographer— at least for times when you had to get pictures of yourself the traditional way: picturesque background and the tourist, i.e. you, at the foreground. Selfies won’t cut it in this trip. I took one such tour in Laoag going to nearby town of Paoay, where the sand dunes and Paoay church are located. Unfortunately, there’s not much to see in the sand dunes if you are not going to rent a 4×4 at least. And at 3,500 per hour, I’m going to need more than imaginary friends with me. Not that I have imaginary friends. *cough*
Paoay church (officially St. Augustine Church) was another story, and in my opinion a good trip to do alone— dramatic tendencies aside. Being a weekday, I had the church almost all to myself with only a couple of gardeners working on the church’s grounds. It is a perfect day for a prayer, and I am not really religious, mind you. But how can you not, when the peacefulness of this place practically invites you for a quiet moment? I took a stroll outside the grounds afterwards. The people are just starting to get on with their day: school children in hushed tones as they passed by, shopkeepers sweeping stray leaves on the storefronts adjacent to the church grounds, a lone stranger with a camera dangling on her neck… it is the quiet town morning a city girl like me has read of but has rarely experienced. And there I was, in the middle of it all.
This calmness carried on to my trip to Pagudpud, about 2 hours drive from Laoag City. I took the local bus– not air-conditioned– which is surprisingly perfect for a trip like this. Plying the Daang Maharlika Highway, the bus passed by coastal roads, farm lands and quaint towns. It was midday then, but the gentle breeze from the Amihan made the ride comfortable— no frigid bus AC can compare.
Alighting at Brgy. Saud in Pagudpud, I chartered another tricycle tour. But I do have to eat lunch and so I was taken to a local eatery serving homemade Ilocano fare where I ate Dinegdeng (local vegetables cooked in a broth of fish sauce) and Dinakdakan (grilled pork chops topped with tomatoes and onions), served together with a hot bed of rice and downed it all with an ice cold bottle of Mountain Dew. It was good, and for 70 pesos, there’s nothing to complain about. After lunch and a bit of freshening up at a homestay that I booked for the night, my Pagudpud tour commences.
It started raining just as we arrived Kabigan Falls and for a moment, I feared that the trip will get cancelled. I was reassured though, both of Manong Allan, my tricycle driver, and Larry, my hiking guide that it was still safe to hike to the waterfalls. Passing rice fields, the trail slowly led to a forest, following the rough, muddy trail and at times crossing makeshift bamboo bridges over rushing streams. During summer months, Larry told me that the trail and the falls itself will be packed with so much people, there will even be stalls selling food and drinks. Hard to imagine that fact then for we were the only people there, the last ones we saw were back at the tourist center although it made sense– it is one of the most famous tourist spots in Pagudpud, next to its beaches.
Farther into our hike and as we got near to the falls, the forest got denser and the canopy of trees served as a shelter from the heavy rains but not, as I would later on discover, from the gusts of water coming from the falls. I wanted to take a photo of the falls up close but the water kept on getting on my lens every time, at times even I couldn’t see with so much water in my eyes. Perhaps it was due to the inclement weather that the falls suddenly seemed imposing, you can almost hear it roar amidst the stillness of the forest. Or perhaps there were no other people there– just my guide and me, that the falls evoked a force of nature being bigger than any of us, our problems and worries even more dismal. Including my worry of getting that shot I have in my head. So I gave up. Whatever it is, I reckon that as we headed back, a good couple of feet now from the falls, I looked back and there it was, its beauty glistening at me: cascading fresh water dropping to a concave rock pool, framed by lush foliage. Now without all that fear and preconceived ideas I had, I captured the falls at its true form– a hidden paradise. That is why I love photography, it offers you that choice to see things in a new light. You might not get the picture you want, but it will surprise you when you choose to see things from a different perspective.
As we headed back to the tourist centre, the rain started to calm down, with just a light drizzling by the time I got to Patapat Viaduct. As the skies cleared up however, my camera decided to die, as the battery emptied out. Wasn’t I lucky just a few moments ago? Oh well.
While it has stopped raining, it has to be said that farther into the trip, we are also deep into Ilocos Norte, meaning that the ‘normal’ weather from the months of September to December, includes the strong Amihan winds and overcast skies. The weather can be quite unforgiving, I must say, for tourists like me expecting clear skies and soft, gentle breezes but it shouldn’t hinder anyone from experiencing Pagudpud. The northern lands are always characteristically unpredictable and that is part of its beauty.
All of the seemingly bad weather however, seemed to have worked in conjuring up a lovely sunset. It is interesting how we, as tourists, take sunrises and sunsets as if they are a rare occurrence when really, it happens every single day wherever we are in the world. But I have just juiced may camera and the colours over at Saud beach, I tell you, were out of this world– definitely not something you see most days. And the clouds hanging above the orange skies made for an interesting horizon. So I snapped away. What can I say? I am a sunset junkie just like everyone else.
The following day didn’t see much change in the weatherfront. To say it was windy in Ilocos in general is observant. But to say it is windy in Bangui, specifically? Well, it is an understatement. Unrelenting winds coming from the Amihan and the roaring waves of the sea power these towering, white turbines, providing electricity to most of Ilocos Norte. Located along Bangui Bay, facing the West Philippine Sea, the setting for the wind farm is raw, rough, and wild, with the sea proving to be dangerous even along the shore. The riptide is obviously strong and has, infamously, claimed lives one too many times.
This wind and sea comes into play in shaping the natural beauty of the Ilocos Region and this is apparent in the unique rock formation of Kapurpurawan in Burgos. With its white limestone facade and equally awe-inspiring landscape, it is a perfect example of the rugged, untamed beauty that Ilocos offers and easily my second favourite spot, next to Kabigan Falls.
The morning went into a much calmer route on my way to Cape Bojeador Light house. A heritage site, it is the highest-elevated, still active Spanish-era lighthouse in the country. To this day, it still guides ships to safety from the rocky coast of Cape Bojeador. I also learned that one can even book a room at the light house, though with very basic accomodations.
Following my tour of Burgos, I took another local bus back to Laoag. After a quick lunch at Saramsam Cafe (the Saramsam pasta, is a must) in downtown Laoag city, I hopped on another bus that would take me south of Ilocos, to the heritage town of Vigan. I was some kind of a bus hopping legend at this point.
While Vigan is famous for Calle Crisologo, I decided to also take a look at how the artisanal products sold on those small shops along the famous street are made— particularly the Burnay jars and the Abel cloth. After a bit of rest at my hotel, I took a tricycle to the Pagburnayan, the area where the burnay jars are made and made my way to Ruby’s Pottery. It was late in the afternoon and so the place was a little deserted but I was still lucky enough to witness a demonstration for another small group.
The Burnay is an earthenware jar and visually, can easily be mistaken for terracotta. If you’ll as ask any bigueno though, they’ll testify that the burnays are far more sturdier than terracotta. For that afternoon’s demonstration, the potter only made a small jar which was molded in a minute. It takes a lot of skill to mold clay for sure but the guy made it look so easy. According to him, the clay used in making the Burnay are first trampled on by carabao– sort of kneading the dough, I suppose. And making the burnay itself usually involves two people– one spinning the base and the other molding the clay. It is certainly an artisanal product with the only 3 pagburnayans in the country, all located in Vigan, making it and every jar done the old-fashioned way. Originally, Burnay jars are used to store salt, local vinegar, basi (a local Ilocano wine) and bagoong (fermented fish paste). The more traditional basi and bagoong makers still use them and claims it makes their product taste much better. Nowadays, more people buy the Burnay jars mainly for decorative purposes.
The Abel loom weaving I was most excited to learn about. My grandmother is Ilocano and I remember growing up with these colourful blankets made from the Inabel cloth. They were warm and strong and beautiful and my Nanay always seems to have a dozen of them whenever I ask for a blanket.
I was taken to Barangay Camangaan were most Abel products are woven. I was dropped off at Rowilda’s, which is among the more famous shops selling able cloth, and was quite lucky to be given a tour by the owner, Mr. Dominic. He told me that he has been in the business since 1975, learning the Abel weaving craft from his grandmother like how most learn about the craft–from their ancestors dating back to the Spanish colonial times.
The process of weaving the world-renowned cloth is very labor-intensive, making use of wooden handlooms and lately, as I have also noticed on this visit, handlooms made of steel. According sir Dominic, even his children know how to weave although he is afraid that today’s generation would prefer to work in the city with corporate jobs, rather than master this skill. I wanted to not to believe him although I cannot disagree as well. But with local and ethnic fabrics slowly gaining attention as of late, I am hopeful that this craft will continue on, providing nostalgic kids like me with beautiful fabrics that remind them of home.
Of course, a trip to Vigan would not be complete without walking along the UNESCO Heritage site of Calle Crisologo. And though I have been there before, I cannot tire of its post card pretty surroundings: the cobblestone streets, the antique houses and the occasional Calesa passing by. A stroll along this street is always a good idea, ideally with a sorbetes in hand. At night, the street is even more beautiful, with tables taken out by the restaurants along the street for dining al fresco and with the warm lights adding to the nostalgia.
After an early dinner of Poqui-Poqui (an eggplant and eggs meal, an upgraded tortang talong, if you will. And yes, it is a funny thing to say) at Cafe Uno, I headed down to Plaza Salcedo, a five-minute walk from Calle Crisologo, located just in front of the Cathedral. A lady who I chatted with over Ilocos empanda that afternoon told me that there is a “dancing fountain” show at the plaza every night at 7:30. Naturally, I have to see it. Children and parents, giddy teenagers and obvious tourists like me filled up the plaza, anticipating for the show. I positioned myself on a staircase beside the massive fountain (its like a huge pool, really) for better view. True enough, at 7:30, the fountains started “dancing” along to the music. It was December so it was a no-brainer that Christmas songs would be played. The mood was fun and festive and it was the perfect way to end my trip.
I can see why Ilocos is a favorite. It has a lot to offer for a lot of different people with different interests: history, food, adventure and of course, breathtaking sights. Even though I did this trip alone, I never felt bored once and the people were warm and friendly making my first solo trip experience quite memorable and inspiring. Every one has been to Ilocos. And now, I am one of them.