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Iloilo: Incessantly Indulgent

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I couldn’t take another morsel. Since the first day of the tour, I have been eating up to my ears and gorging my way through a relentless gastronomic deluge. But then again, it’s not every day that one gets to binge on a luxurious feast of fresh seafood, mouth-watering dishes and tantalizing delicacies. To hell therefore with the added pounds!

To say that our trip to Iloilo, with a side visit to its neighboring province, Capiz, was an indulgence would be a huge understatement. Our principal host, the office of the Department of Tourism Region VI, saw to it that I and my travel companion, Emman, were truly lavished with the adventures and delights that the Western Visayas region has to offer, providing us cozy billets at San Antonio Resort in Roxas City and at Amigo Terrace Hotel in Iloilo City. And throughout our tour, Emman and I were more than well attended to by our tour hosts, Pam Cababasay and Khariza Sofia, who accommodated us with generous doses of deadpan humor and warm Ilonggo hospitality.

Old-town heritage

I have never realized just how steep in history and cultural heritage Iloilo and the general region of Western Visayas were. In Capiz, we had a look inside the Santa Monica Parish Church in the municipality of Panay, just outside Roxas City. There in the church, declared a National Historical Landmark by the National Historical Commission, was housed the largest bell in the country, its ten-ton mass casted back in 1884 out of 70 sacks of coins donated by the townspeople. Alphonsus Tesoro, the provincial tourism and cultural affairs officer, mentioned how the provincial government has been positioning Capiz as a cultural destination, offering visitors an alternative stop where they can gather glimpses into the heritage and history of Western Visayas.

The following days saw us in Iloilo, where we visited the Santo Tomas de Villanueva Parish Church of Miag-ao and the parish church of San Joaquin, two olden churches with notable similarities and differences. Commissioned by Augustinian friars and built out of forced labor from the Filipino indios, both were constructed as fortress churches, their bell towers serving as lookout posts with which to warn the town of incoming raids by Moors. Their walls were made of coral stones plastered together with lime and egg white, and their pediments were elaborated with ornate bas-reliefs. Whereas the Miag-ao church was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the San Joaquin church was listed as a National Cultural Treasure by the National Historical Institute.

In San Joaquin, we likewise dropped by the Campo Santo, an old cemetery built in 1892 and set in Baroque architecture, while in Miag-ao, we visited a handloom weaving house where local women keep alive Iloilo’s hablon tradition.

Iloilo City itself equally shone as a heritage vessel with its colonial-era mansions, churches and public buildings. Tourism officer Erlyn Alunan, an amusing and jovial gabbler of a tour guide who traces her roots to Datu Paiburong (one of the ten Bornean datus who, according to oral tradition, were the progenitors of the Malayan bloodline in the Philippines), engrossed us with her knowledge of Iloilo history. She recounted to me the tale of how the arrival of the ten Bornean datus and their dealings with the indigenous Atis served as the tradition story that lies at the core of Iloilo’s annual Dinagyang festival. She narrated the interesting back stories behind the various places by which we’ve passed, among which were the Lizares mansion in the district of Jaro, home of one of Western Visayas’ prominent sugar barons; the Camiña Balay nga Bato in Villa Arevalo, an ancestral house typifying the Antillean architecture of old; the Yusay-Consing mansion in Molo, which was saved from neglect and now stands as a heritage museum; the St. Anne Parish Church, also in Molo, one of only a few Gothic churches in the country and which has gained the reputation of being a feminist church for its 16 images of female saints; and Calle Real in the city proper’s downtown area, where commerce and high-end living flourished amidst neoclassical and art-deco buildings during the Spanish and American eras.

Nature escapades

“It’s also known as ‘selfie island’,” Pam said, referring to Cabugao Gamay, one of several isles comprising the Islas de Gigantes (Gigantes Islands) which lie off the coast of the municipality of Carles in northern Iloilo. The marvelously gleaming white beaches of Cabugao Gamay and of Bantigue and the spectacularly towering limestone walls of Tanke which hides an enchanting saltwater lagoon all made the Gigantes Islands one of the highlights of our tour. So-san Bettita Marcelo, Carles’ municipal tourism operations officer, and Maria Pofe Bettita Esmilla, Carles’ municipal administrator, both told me of other sights in the Gigantes that were worth visiting – the old lighthouse at Gigantes Norte, the sandbar of Antonia Point, and the rock formations of Pawikan Cave.

Down in Miag-ao, we trekked to Tinagong Dagat, a hidden lake situated within the inner uplands of the municipality. From the municipal center, it took us a rather lengthy off-road ride across a river, up steep dirt paths, and past unexpected rice terraces before we got to the trailhead. The trek was considerably laborious, the lake (more of a pond, actually) nondescript yet quaint, but the view from atop the nearby knoll was stunning.

Further south, I went scuba diving off the shores of San Joaquin, with the gracious reception by Felipe Uygonco, an avid underwater photographer and one of Iloilo’s prominent corporate figures, and by Abdon Santocildes of Lhetz Snorkel and Dive Camp. The reefs were teeming and vibrant with life, as a great deal of San Joaquin’s coastal waters have been declared marine protected areas.

Gastronomic bliss

When it comes to hospitality, Ilonggos zealously enjoy keeping their guests well fed. At Carles, we lunched on a delicious smorgasbord of seafood dishes that the municipal government served at Bancal Wharf. Over at Miag-ao, the municipal government courtesy of tourism officer Anthony Selorio, brought us to Doming’s, a roadside eatery that is now a favorite dining stopover of visitors traveling the southern parts of Iloilo. At the behest of Doming’s manager, Maria Dolly Moradilla, daughter of the restaurant’s original owner, we were served, among many other viands, KBL, an Ilonggo soup dish comprising three main ingredients from which it got its name: kadyos (pigeon beans), baboy (pork), and langka (jackfruit). Down in San Joaquin, we had our repast in Garin Farm where, aside from delighting at the ritual noontime feeding of the goats, turkeys, and pigeons, we enjoyed a spread of all-organic food from the farm’s produce.

At the Ocean City Seafood Restaurant, we sat down to a table of Filipino-Chinese fusion cuisine, partaking of crispy tadyang ng baka (beef ribs), grilled blue marlin and sizzling crab meat. Over at Breakthrough Restaurant, Mia Robles-Ng, who manages the restaurant chain for her parents, treated us to a feast of shellfish – abalone, scallops, diwal (angel-wing clams), lobsters and crabs – punctuated with a dessert of halo-halo served in fresh coconut husks. At the Emilion Specialty Restaurant at The Grand Dame Hotel, it was a splurge on sashimi, tempura, and maki rolls as we helped ourselves to their Japanese buffet.

For breakfast on our last day in Iloilo City, Pam and Khariza took Emman and I out for some authentic La Paz batchoy at Netong’s. I asked Patrick Guillergan, who currently runs the Netong’s family business started by his grandfather, what makes for a truly authentic batchoy experience.

“It’s the ambiance,” Patrick replied, as he pointed out the fact that we were right in the midst of meat stalls and vegetable stands in La Paz public market. Batchoy, Patrick explained, traces its origins to when leftover pork entrails from the market were mixed with Chinese noodles to come up with a satisfying meal for everyday laborers. It is customary for a diner to ask for unlimited refills of the kaldo (broth) before finishing off the miki (round noodles) and pork innards garnished with spring onions and pork cracklings.

Later in the day, we stopped at Deocampo Barquillos where I witnessed how those delicately rolled wafers were made. And for what was perhaps the most impressive point of our culinary excursions, we had a wonderfully set traditional Filipino banquet at Camiña Balay nga Bato, where in the comedor of the vintage colonial house, I could almost imagine how the dignified illustrados of olden times must have dined. The molo soup, an Ilonggo-original dish resembling Chinese wonton soup, was a must-try, while the tsokolate de batidor that they served for dessert was absolutely to die for.

“The secret to their tsokolate here is with their batidor (whisk or stirrer),” Erlyn said. “The batidor that they use is made up of guava wood, which gives the chocolate drink its rich, nutty taste.” In her humorous jabber, Erlyn added that stately decorum demands that the cup be held with the pinkie up and that no more than one small cup is served for reasons that one may get drunk if more is consumed. Having tasted the dark elixir, I could only concur to just how intoxicating it was.

Burgeoning capital

Iloilo City stands as a queen city on the rise with its development of more world-class business centers, modern residential townships and fashionable lifestyle enclaves. Within the Iloilo Business Park in the city’s Mandurriao district, the Iloilo Convention Center, with its elegant lines and motifs inspired by Iloilo’s Dinagyang and Paraw festivals, as explained by the ICC’s supervising manager, Alyanna Cortum, billowed like a white wave amidst the growing bustle of corporate buildings and BPO centers. The ICC, also familiarly referred to as the Icon, bore testament to Iloilo City’s emergence in the global limelight when the ICC hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in 2015. “’Western Visayas First’ is the umbrella campaign of our office,” Atty. Helen Catalbas, DOT’s regional director for Region VI, declared when I asked her about her office’s thrust. “It is meant to instill pride of place among Western Visayans.”

Down at the Iloilo Esplanade, a 15-feet statue of the legendary Datu Paiburong stood watch alongside the Iloilo River. Erlyn told me how her supposed great-great-great-great grandfather ruled over what was then named Irong-Irong, the name giving reference to how the river meandered to the shape of a nose (irong in the old Karay-a language). Under the fabled chieftain’s rule, Irong-Irong prospered and grew, the same way that Iloilo now thrives and flourishes. Whether Datu Paiburong was a mere myth or a factual figure, I’m pretty sure he would have been proud to see how far a long way his domain has come.

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