Ilocos: Living on edge

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Have you ever caught yourself saying that “one of these days, I will travel alone?” At 22, that thought tugs terrifyingly often. I’d catch myself dreaming of the perfect trip away from friends, family, and work. How intoxicating must it be to become your own version of Indiana Jones, Jack Kerouac, or Alex Garland even for just a few days.

Little did I know that traveling to Ilocos isn’t just about reinventing oneself with a pop culture mold hammered by an urban upbringing. Rather, it’s about coming to terms with the Filipino heritage imbued with Juan Luna sensibilities, imeldific possibilities, and a Panday taste for adventure.

I did this all via a domestic plane and as I left the airport to set foot on my first stop, Laoag, I knew I was entering a rite of passage. So long national naiveté.

The Wind and the Windows

Photographer Lisa and I arrived in Laoag, in Ilocos Norte, at 9 PM— the cool breeze welcoming us the moment we descended the stairs towards the airport. We yielded to the darkness enveloping us on our way to our hotel Fort Ilocandia. Its sculptures, fountains, vast swimming pool, brick walls, and lush foliage kept my heavy eyelids from succumbing to sleep.

The next day, we met our tour guide Rizza, who brought us to the Malacañang of the North. Built in 1977, it was the late President Marcos’ official residence in Ilocos Norte. It was said that Imelda personally designed the stairs while the rest was born of Marcos’ vision. I was enamored of its sturdy structure formed from planks of Narra. But what makes this five-hectare estate more appealing is not only its construction but also the stories interwoven in each room.

Once you enter the master bedroom, you will be greeted by paintings showing Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. The former always captured smiling, which is in stark contrast to his images captured by the media.

From the veranda, you can view prominent houses across the Paoay Lake, such as that of the Fariñases, another prominent family in Ilocos Norte. Legend has it that an affluent village was once drowned in this lake because of the people’s refusal to help a beggar. Fishers even caught fish with gold rings. True or not, the house and the lake both have become the town’s gold mines since they continuously provide a nest for brides, grooms, tourists, and every history-hungry citizen.

The problem was I wasn’t just history-hungry; I also needed to try the land’s delicacies before my stomach grumbled. So after a drool-worthy round of Rizza’s descriptions of the Batac empanada (meat pie), we decided to stop over and grab a bite.

“Lagyan mo ng sukang Iloko (Add some Ilocos vinegar to it),” Rizza suggested before the meal. I did as instructed and, boy, did it make the empanada tastier than it already was! I, for one, am not a fan of sweet and light snacks, so I really appreciated this Ilocano treat. The crispy rice flour crust made orange by the achuete held the generous serving of papaya, beansprouts, egg, and longganisa (Filipino sausage). To top this off, we finished the meal with their local noodle soup, miki.

In the true spirit of road trip, we proceeded to Burgos to visit the Cape Bojeador Lighthouse. We passed by the winding roads carrying with us the epic scenery of the Cordillera mountain ranges. There was an abrupt change of climate from Batac to Burgos which showed that we were really in between the beautiful borders of the north—one was sunny and the other was windy. It was even drizzling, which made our trip more cinematic. Imagine climbing the spiral stairs of the lighthouse with the drizzle hitting your face as the wind gets stronger with each ascent.

We met caretaker Mang Jun, whose family served a saga-worthy number of years guarding the Cape on top of the mountain. The lighthouse was built during the Spanish regime as a signal tower for galleons passing by the South China Sea. From the top, you will witness wave after wave lapping up against the rocks. Upon seeing that sight, I knew I was prepared for more seas.

Wet is Our Appetite

We moved into the wetter and wilder frontier of the Bangui Windmills, which make you feel as if you’re a mere dot in the universe in comparison to these 70 meter-tall structures. What makes them seem so colossal is that these turbines are usually depicted as toys or figurines, and then suddenly, here they are, truly larger than life and seemingly untouchable.

The windmills are even aligned on the shore in a single row—spinning round and proud that they are the first power source of its kind in the Philippines, and the largest in Southeast Asia. There are no hotels or amenities surrounding them, but the view as a whole is a marvel to look at. It makes one think of chance encounters, happy accidents, clandestine rendezvous, messages in a bottle, stranded ships, lost frequencies, and the like.

Fortunately, when you’re following a tight schedule, there’s no time to accommodate all the drama. So off we went to Saud Beach Resort in Pagudpud, and from there you can view the Bangui Windmills from a distance.

Once at Saud Beach, I dipped my feet into the fine sand and found myself enjoying the azure magnificence of the water. I mean, what can one really say about natural wonders? Everything reflects the heightened sublimity of mundane things—cumulus clouds, pristine waters, lackadaisical vibe, authentic cuisines—all clustered in one place. Australian travel journalist John Borthwick was so amazed with the place that he included Pagudpud as one of Asia’s best beaches.

Afterwards, we went for a half-hour ride to Maira-ira Point in Malingay Cove, otherwise known as the “Blue Lagoon.” Coined “the Boracay of the north,” it was a magical location, reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s movie, The Beach, which was shot in Thailand’s Ko Phi Phi lagoons.

After basking in the fine white sand, the wild waves, and the rocky terrain, Hannah’s Beach Resort & Convention Center seems like an oasis in the desert. Here, reproductions of astronauts, Mr. Bean, and other Pixar-perfect perks provide the perfect sanctuary for families who would like to enjoy the pools, playgrounds, and the gym that are all suited for guests’ communal needs. Hannah’s also offers activities such as trekking and kayaking, for the more adventurous. And literally above all this, once you reach the top of the mountain, you will see the panoramic view of the Blue Lagoon sprawling up to the verdant hills that surround it in real hobbit-dwelling fashion.

If you are the type of traveler who values intimacy, minimalism, and Zen-like rest, Kapuluan Vista Resort is your best refuge. It offers reflexology services which you can enjoy in your room or kubo (hut). You could also explore the coastlines through a boat ride. Kapuluan also offers food that will tickle your Westernized palate using herbs and vegetables from their own organic garden.

Salt of the Earth

One of the things that struck me about Ilocano cuisine is that their dishes share a garlicky flavor. Unlike the provinces of the south that produce many desserts, Ilocanos enjoy preparing meaty treats that are really great for a drinking binge.

Our dinner with Department of Tourism’s Senior Tourism Operations Officer, Marie Gonzales, in Currimao, Ilocos Norte’s Sitio Remedios opened my mind to a number of things. She told me that tourists are especially drawn to our local cuisine, especially the Chinese. Caught in between helpings of Ilocano dishes served in our candlelit reservation replete with flower arrangements, we ate bagnet, which is deep-fried pork best eaten with KBL also known as kamatis, bagoong, and lasona (tomatoes, fish paste, and shallots). Then there’s pinakbet, a meat-vegetable stew which uses bagoong (fish paste) mixed with eggplant, okra, chili peppers, squash, and other vegetables.

Scheduled to speak to tourism students after, Marie also shares that “Ilocos is one of the top tourist attractions in the Philippines. Media people from BBC and all over the world visit. All of them fall in love with the place. One even said that it’s very beautiful to really see the stars at night here.”

I had to agree. Sitio Remedios is a great alternative to modern five-star hotels, offering luxury without the usual trappings of commercialized facilities. It is composed of villas that are reconstructed from ancestral homes, aptly named according to where they originated. There’s Balay Piddig (or Piddig House), Balay Bacarra, Balay Dingras, Balay Ragsak, to name only a few.

Founded by Dr. Joven R. Cuanang, a director of the renowned St. Luke’s Medical Hospital, Sitio Remedios is the best place to let your hair down. Here, you can enjoy their infinity pool while watching the sunset seen from the South China Sea.

While enjoying the continuous spread of Ilocos’ beauty, Marie says, “Students say that they love the history and the Hispanic heritage of the place besides, of course, the obvious beauty of the beaches…Tourism is very high right now and we want to keep it at that. I hope everybody helps us to make this place more attractive to the world.”

After a grand time at Sitio Redemios, our adventures of the palate brought us to Ilocos Sur, where, at Grandpa’s Inn in the cobbled heritage strip of Vigan, we witnessed a live action culinary show by resident cooks Ms. Amy and Ms. Toni.

At Grandpa’s Inn, I saw how the Ilocano favorite insarabasab is cooked. It’s meat that is grilled to perfection and then mixed with onion, tomatoes, and sukang Iloko. I also was able to enjoy adobong saluyot or jutes marinated in vinegar, soy sauce, and garlic.

Topping my list are the ginisar na bogi and ginisar na ipon which are sautéed fish eggs and prawn with garlic and onions.

Blood, Diamond

More international influences greeted us when we settled in Java Hotel in Laoag City, a quick drive away from La Paz Sand Dunes. The 50-bedroom structure’s architecture borrows from Balinese Moroccan aesthetics while inserting a Hispanic-Filipino touch. Beside it, the Eagle’s Nest Bar & Restaurant offers Japanese and American cuisine. However, we were still in the mood for local fare and continued to taste the nuanced flavors of Ilocano dishes that are best eaten with sodas, beers, and shakes.

Tourists may be dumbfounded by the Filipino’s blood stew dish, dinuguan, but it gets even crazier here in Ilocos since the innards are cooked to a crisp. Filipinos are indeed bonded by culinary culture with this blood pack.

Other outstanding dishes in the region are the imbaliktad which is stir-fried beef with garlic, ginger, and onion; and puqui puqui, which is sautéed grilled eggplant in onion, tomatoes, and egg.

Gastronomically astounded, it wasn’t just my stomach that I wanted to feed—my brain was hungry too.

The Juan Luna Shrine in Badoc satiated this. Here, one will see the surroundings that paved the way for Ilocano artist Juan Luna to emerge as one of the immortal heroes and geniuses of the Philippines—a list shared only by the likes of National Hero Jose Rizal. Memorabilia such as family portraits and caruajes (carriages) swarm the space, complemented by reproductions of Juan Luna’s paintings, including The Parisian Life (1892) and Spoliarium (1884).

The Rest is Not History

While Luna’s gift of intellect racked our brains, it was also a signal of being reminded of a heightened state of mind and higher beings. Vigan’s St. Paul’s Metropolitan Cathedral, built by the Augustinians, boasts baroque architecture standing in the commercial center of the city.

And even if you’re not religious, the Paoay Church would take your breath away with its fusion of gothic, baroque, and oriental architecture. A UNESCO Heritage Site, the structure is built with coral blocks, stucco plastered bricks, and a mortar coming from the mix of sand, lime, egg white, and molasses.

Meanwhile, the Marcos Mausoleum in Batac and the Ilocos Norte Museum in Laoag are cultural signposts depicting the rich history and culture, as well as the evolution, of the Ilocanos. The museum displays items showing Ilocano roots, including items from their ethnic contemporaries, the Itneg.

The Marcos Mausoleum has been housing the well-preserved remains of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos since 1993. And no matter how his dictatorship is portrayed in media or in popular culture, this place shows that the man has an avid following. With his series of plates and letters, one will bear witness to his progress from prisoner to the Philippines’ longest-ruling president.

As my trip drew to a close, I shopped at another UNESCO World Heritage-listed site, the Vigan Heritage Village in the Kamestizoan District. Comprised of ancestral houses with ancient tile roofs, hardwood floorings, balustrades, and azoteas, the architecture is something that you can’t buy anywhere else. So more than the souvenirs available here, it’s the blast from the past experience of having to travel via calesa (horse-drawn carriage) amid the Spanish- Mexican-Chinese-influenced streets that move its visitors.

Afterwards, I went to Cormel Foods to buy some authentic sukang Iloko, and then to the Laoag City Market to buy some garlic and longganisa. After all, it wouldn’t be a complete Ilocos trip without taking some of these delicacies home.

But then I thought, what is home anyway? Away from Manila, most of the locals I met in Ilocos will not trade their lives here for the supposedly “greener pastures” of Manila or other countries. Looking back at my recent experiences, I began to understand why.

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