Between them making up half of the Ilocos region (La Union and Pangasinan provinces make up the other half), Ilocos Sur and Ilocos Norte line Luzon’s northwestern coast. Long and narrow, Ilocos Sur is sandwiched by the sea on one side and the Cordillera Mountains on the other. For most tourists its highlight is undoubtedly Vigan, one of the most atmospheric and enjoyable cities in the country. Walking its cobbled streets and exploring its heritage homes gives an inkling of the former importance of this trading city. Ilocos Norte is still strongly associated in Filipino minds with former President Ferdinand Marcos, and his family continues to wield considerable political power in the province. Sites related to the Marcos family in the area include Ferdinand’s birthplace in Sarrat, the mansion known as the Malacañang of the North beside Paoay Lake and Ferdinand’s mausoleum in Batac. Getting away from the Marcoses, on the northern coast the town of Pagudpud draws visitors from across Luzon with some of the best beaches on the island.
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An unmissable part of any North Luzon itinerary, VIGAN is one of the oldest towns in the Philippines. Lying on the western bank of the Mestizo River, Vigan was in Spanish times an important political, military, cultural and religious centre. The old town, with Plaza Salcedo and Plaza Burgos on the northern edge and Libertad (Liberation) Boulevard to the south, is characterized by its cobbled streets and some of the finest old colonial architecture in the country – it mixes Mexican, Chinese and Filipino features. Various governmental and non-governmental organizations have joined forces to preserve the old buildings; many are still lived in, others are used as curio shops, and a few have been converted into museums or hotels. Vigan’s time-capsule ambience is aided by the decision to close some streets to traffic and allow only pedestrians and kalesas. A ride in one of these horse-drawn carriages makes for a romantic way to tour the town.
Vigan’s old town is where most of the beautiful ancestral houses are located. Also known as the Mestizo District or Kasanglayan (where the Chinese live), the old town runs roughly from Plaza Burgos in the north to Liberation Boulevard in the south. The most important thoroughfare is elegant old Crisologo Street, which has been given a makeover and is closed to traffic – a rarity in the Philippines. Architecturally, the houses are fundamentally Chinese or Mexican, influenced either by the immigrant architects from China’s eastern seaboard who prepared the plans, or by ideas picked up by the Spanish in their South American colony. But they have flourishes such as sliding capiz-shell windows and ventanillas (ventilated walls) added by local artisans.
Although most houses are still private homes, a few are open to the public. These offer an intimate view of ilustrado life at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Crisologo Museum on Liberation Boulevard has displays about the history of the influential – and sometimes controversial – Crisologo family, including the car in which Governor Carmeling Crisologo was ambushed in 1961. Syquia Mansion on Quirino Boulevard is the ancestral home of former President Elpidio Quirino, an eye-catching red-brick colonial house that has been restored and furnished in nineteenth-century style and contains a collection of presidential memorabilia. Quema House (t077/722-2542), at the junction of Liberation and Quirino boulevards, can only be seen by appointment. It is chock-full of beautiful old polished wood furniture, curios and oil paintings.
The busy and congested streets of the Ilocos Norte provincial capital, LAOAG, can’t compete with Vigan’s historical core when it comes to aesthetic appeal, but there are a handful of things to do and see in Laoag including one of the country’s best museums. The city also makes an excellent base for exploring the beautiful coast at nearby La Paz and Suba or touring sights associated with former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
The most interesting attraction in the city is the Museo Ilocos Norte, which provides an overview of the province’s history and culture. Close to the main plaza, it’s housed in a restored Spanish-era tobacco warehouse. Exhibits include vintage costumes, farming equipment and tribal artefacts. There’s even a replica of an ilustrado (educated middle class) ancestral home complete with antiques, and the souvenir shop has some interesting books and gifts.
Close by are the Sinking Bell Tower and St William’s Cathedral. The bell tower was built by Augustinian friars with a door big enough for a man on horseback to pass through. The tower has sunk so much that today you can only get through the door by stooping. The cathedral, one of the biggest in the Philippines, was built in 1880 on older foundations. The Marcos Hall of Justice, the square white building on the west side of Aurora Park, was where a young Ferdinand Marcos was detained in 1939 after being accused of the murder of one of his father’s political opponents. Marcos wanted to graduate in law and used his time in detention wisely, swotting for the bar examination and successfully preparing his own defence.
Pagudpud and around
Pagudpud and around
From Laoag it’s a couple of hours by bus to PAGUDPUD, a typical provincial town providing access to several wonderfully picturesque beaches. The Pagudpud area is deservedly becoming known as a destination that has all the beauty of Boracay, but only a fraction of number of tourists and none of the nightlife.
Saud Beach (“Sa-ud”), a few kilometres down a narrow road to the north of town, is a beautiful long arch of white sand backed by palm trees. Resorts on the beach hire out snorkelling equipment, and can provide bangkas (P5–600 for half a day) so that you can head to the best spots. Birdwatchers should check out the area behind the Saud Beach Resort. East of Saud (30min tricycle ride; P200–250) is the glorious Blue Lagoon (also known as Maira-ira Beach). The setting is stunning, with dazzling water lapping a sugary crescent of sand; the breaks also attract surfers from July to January. One stretch of the beach has been overdeveloped with a large and incongruous resort, but it’s possible to get away from that and still enjoy the sand and sea. From March–June, boats offer dolphin-watching trips (P300). To the west of Pagudpud and accessible by tricycle (P70–100) is the beach at
Ayoyo. It’s not sandy, but it’s still beautiful and it rarely sees foreign tourists –there’s little here except palm trees and sea, overlooked by a single resort.