Time Travel in Ilocos (Part 1)

Summer is almost synonymous with vacation but with just about everyone hitting Boracay and all the other beaches in the Visayas or Southern Luzon regions, it seems the better way to enjoy a refreshing break is to go farther up north. 

It was a last minute decision so we ended up taking the 9PM Vigan-bound Partas bus in Cubao. At Php 585 each one-way, you really can’t beat it. Also, since the travel is around eight hours, you can opt to travel by night and sleep the entire trip. I wouldn’t recommend air travel since the Laoag airport is more than three hours away from Vigan and there really isn’t much to see there unless you intend to go on to Pagudpud. 

Vigan, as most Filipinos know, is perhaps the best remnant of colonial Spain in the country, surpassing even Intramuros. Aptly so, since this city was patterned after the latter by its founder, Juan de Salcedo, in 1572. 

Old Churches

For those in love with old structure like myself and Ipe, the entire Ilocos region is a treasure chest, with more than seven churches at least more than a hundred years old.

Right in the center of the city is the Vigan Cathedral, or St. Paul’s Metropolitan Cathedral. Built in 1574, reconstructed over the centuries and finally finished in 1800, the church features beaten silver panels on its altars, and the carvings on its main doors hints of the city’s deep Chinese roots.

The church’s facade and bell tower, which is a separate structure located some ten meters to its left, right in the town plaza:

Just a ten-minute calesa ride from the plaza is the St. Augustine Parish Church (Shrine of Nuestra Senora de la Caridad), which stands proudly on a small hill overlooking the town of Bantay, its bell tower rising even higher in its mound some thirty meters from the church.

This church is a must see for tourist as its bell tower is in pretty good condition and you can climb up to the very top and get a good view of the entire town all the way up to the Cordillera mountains.

View of nearby towns from the Bantay Church bell tower; a cemetery marked by its white crosses and the Cordillera mountains looming in the distance.

Ilocos, aside from its famed cobblestone streets, is also home to two of the four Baroque Churches in the Philippines listed in the UNESCO list (the other two are in Manila and Iloilo).  

A thirty minute bus ride from Vigan found us in the town of Sta. Maria, where the Church of the Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion is located.
SInce the church is sitting on top of a hill, one can either go up the 82-steps leading up to it, or go through the back, which has a paved winding road passable by cars and tricycles.

This church is the better maintained of the two UNESCO churches in terms of its surroundings, which remains free of new structures and one can appreciate full Baroque architecture by going around the church and its octagonal bell tower. Sadly, the bell tower is closed off as it appears to be leaning already on its side and in danger of collapsing. I can’t help but admire the buttresses which fortify the structure (thus rendering it virtually earthquake-proof) and the exposed brickwork which gives it its reddish color.

 An image of the Virgin is carved onto the side of the church greeting parishioners who opted to take the stairs. 


To the right of the church is a courtyard overlooking green fields, with stone steps leading into what looks like a secret garden.

About two hours away from Vigan is the town of Paoay, which is home to the second UNESCO Baroque church in the province, the Paoay Church built in 1704. Arguably the best and most intricate church I have ever seen, fusing Gothic and Oriental influences with its Baroque structure.

The photo on the left shows the back of the church, with its carved, rounded buttresses reminding one of the temples in Thailand.  The growth of plants on its crevices only emphasizes the rustic appeal of the Church.

Facade of the church, with its numerous pointed gables and angular accents.

The bell tower, which served as an observation post of the Katipuneros.

The 24 buttresses which support the entire structure, show circular carvings, and are made of coral rocks.
However, while the Church itself is well preserved, new structures are being built right in its courtyard and the back view can hardly be seen without basketball courts, waiting sheds and gazebos marring the otherwise majestic view.

Another two hours away from Paoay is Laoag City, capital of Ilocos Norte, where the St. William’s Cathedral is located. Surprisingly, this structure is actually older than the UNESCO churches I mentioned above, having been built in 1590 by the same order of friars – the Augustinians.

Much of the church is modern looking now, with its facade painted white, hiding its true 16th century origins. 

Nevertheless, the church is famous for its sinking bellfry, which, if you are hardly aware of its existence, you are bound to miss, because it is located 85 meters away and partially hidden from view by taller and more recent structures. So-called sinking because the tower sinks an inch or so a year due to a natural phenomenon called desertification, whereby the soil on which it stands is changed to sand due to the hot weather (yes, it is very hot in Laoag). Add to this the tower’s obvious weight, and it makes for good sinking.

Up next: remnants of Spanish colonial era and Ilocano food

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