Ilocos Norte, which is about 488 kilometers north of the Philippine capital of Manila, means two things to ordinary Filipinos – the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos who was born in the town of Sarrat and the sprawling 77-hectare Fort Ilocandia (http://www.fortilocandia.com.ph/hotel.htm) (one of the largest resorts in the entire Asia), which according to stories, were hastily built by the late President in time for his daughter, Imee’s wedding and primarily caters now to Chinese Mainlanders, Macanese, and Taiwanese high-rollers who fly in to gamble in its casino. So much so that the name Ilocos alone, is almost synonymous with the Marcoses, one of the most controversial Philippine political dynasties in recent memory. Undeserving or not, this hardy and sometimes misunderstood northern province is definitely more than the sum of its contributions to the political history of the country – and in recent years, a wave of change finally came to wake up one of the usually overlooked destinations in the Philippines from hiatus since the fall from grace of its beloved son as more and more Filipinos and the occasional foreigner discover one of the most interesting and beautiful northern frontiers of the Philippines
Like the other provinces in the region, which is usually collectively known as Ilocos, Ilocos Norte shares a deep history with its neighboring provinces. The extensive region was renowned for its gold mines and merchants from ancient China and Japan would visit and trade gold in exchange for beads, ceramics and silk with the early inhabitants of Samtoy, as the locals once called their place from “sao mi toy”, which meant “our language.” As the Spanish conquistadors solidified their control of Manila in 1571, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s grandson, Juan de Salcedo led an expedition to the North. After arriving and annexing Vigan in Ilocos Sur on 13 June 1572, Salcedo then marched onward towards Laoag, Currimao and Badoc towns (part of what is present day Ilocos Norte). This was when Salcedo found the natives lived in villages in small bays on coves called “looc” in the local dialect. The natives by the coast were referred to as “Ylocos” which meant “from the lowlands” (the “Igorots” of the Cordilleras on the other hand meant “from the highlands”). Subsequently, the Spaniards called the region “Ylocos” or “Ilocos” and its people “Ilocanos.”
Christianization grew and flourished under the watchful eyes of the Spaniards and this eventually transformed the landscape of the region as vast tracks of available land were appropriated and utilized for churches and belfries in the Spanish policy of reducciones, which are formation of communities to facilitate the Hispanicization and eventually the Christianization of the region. Then, communities were scattered and living in one was determined by bloodlines – these communities were moved to be in these new missions which were called bajo la campanas or within hearing distance of the church bells. Thus, it is not uncommon to find garrisons under church bells in town squares. The widespread building of churches in Ilocos resulted to stunning architectural marvels that we still see today, the most famous, and I reckon one of the most beautiful churches in the Philippines, is the gorgeous Paoay Church, built in 1704 (finished 90 years later) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a church of “Earthquake Baroque” style with 24 massive brick reinforcements running along its sides with walls made out of coral rocks, baked bricks, lumber, limestone mortar and sugarcane juice. Paoay Church is a unique fusion of Gothic, Baroque and Oriental touches as its façade has touches of Gothic familiarity, Chinese elements in its gables and a Javanese feel in its niches. It stands in all its beauty and splendor (pretty much how I imagined it to be when I first saw a picture of the church when I was in grade school) in front of a wide-open square, unlike the churches in other parts of the Philippines which are almost choked by houses and businesses.
Also in Paoay is a more modern structure with historical and political significance – the Malacañang Ti Amianan (Malacañang of the North- a reference to the Malacañang Palace in Manila which is the official residence of Philippine Presidents – makes you kind of wonder if indeed, Marcos intended to be a President for as long as he lived), a large, airy and colonial-inspired former residence of the Marcos family with sweeping views of the scenic Paoay Lake. Admission is PhP20. The building is not very well-kept and in various states of disrepair – peeling paint, discolored walls, and we saw a cow grazing right next to a grimy swimming pool t next to the house.
4 Kilometers East of Paoay Church is Batac whose main attraction is the Marcos Mansion and Mausoleum where the glass-encased, embalmed body of Ferdinand E. Marcos lies in state on a mattress in an air-conditioned, dark and somber room while visitors file and have a glance at the body. Entrance is free but photography is not allowed inside the mausoleum (one guy’s camera was confiscated as he tried to sneak shots of the body, the camera was returned after making sure the offending photos were deleted.) Apparently the body was covered in wax, to preserve it well and make the late President look a lot like he was in his younger years; although Filipino conspiracy theorists suspect that the body is fake and just another con to perpetuate the Marcoses dubious political legacy. Well, I am not an expert on cadavers; I’d just rather leave it to the experts this time. Other Marcos memorabilia is on hand is also on view as well as the dictator’s writings, one of which was inscribed on marble outside the mausoleum: which more or less were ramblings which attempt to impress the visitors of the strongman’s intellectual and literary prowess.
Best Time to Visit
The best time to go and check Ilocos Norte is during the drier months and during the summer months as the waves at the beaches of Pagudpud can get pretty rough during the wet season. For surfers, it is a different story, typhoons and tropical depressions can help fuel the waves off the Badoc Coast – requisite conditions for surfing. Otherwise, check the local weather with the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical & Astronomical Services Administration (
www.pagasa.dost.gov.ph ) for weather forecasts – when the weather in Ilocos is great, then it is time to pack your bags and head to Ilocos Norte!
Where & What to Eat
Like the rest of Ilocos region, Ilocos Norte is not an exception when it comes to gastronomic adventures. The best meals we ever had was at the Dap-ayan ti Ilocos Norte (Rizal Avenue corner Llanes Avenue, Laoag City) which is a small enclosed complex of open-air restaurants – the best place to satisfy your need to have some of that Laoag Empanada (Batac has its own version of Empanada) – egg, shredded vegetables and longganiza inside fried thin pastry pockets. Laoag Miki is also served here and was equally sumptuous as well- despite its unusually bright and orangey color. Meals range from PhP35 up which wasn’t bad as our tummies were pretty happy after eating at the Dap-ayan. The Ilocano trademark Bagnet, which is basically scrumptious cholesterol-clogging goodness of deep-fried pork is available but we suggest that you get your fix somewhere else (we got half a kilo of bagnet at the second floor of the Laoag City Wet Market for only PhP175). The tapas of Java Hotel’s Eagle’s Nest restaurant was very tasty especially when dipped with the local spiked sugarcane vinegar called Sukang Iloko (Get your stuff at legit looking shops instead off the highway; we were warned that some of the stuff sold by the highway is watered down).
Ilocano fare is quite diverse: For those craving for the exotic, one should never miss the “abu-os” or ant eggs to vegetable broths called Dinengdeng. Herencia de Paoay in Paoay is known for their Pinakbet Pizza and Dinuguan Pizza.
We also ate at the Chicken Ati-atihan (G. Segundo Avenue, Laoag) and ordered Sizzling Chicken with Potatoes and Vegetables and we were shocked to find the “potatoes” was a single thin slice of fried potato the size of nickel and the “vegetables” was a single string bean sliced in half. The chicken was tiny and sprinkled with barbeque sauce that obviously came from a packet.
Don’t forget to get a bottle of the local spirit- sugarcane wine named Basi (the expropriation of which sparked the Basi Revolt in Piddig town in 1807. The Spaniards banned the private manufacturing of the wine and mandated that Basi should be bought from government stores.) The wine has a bit of an acrid, dry, earthy taste with strong hints of sugarcane – not exactly my favorite, but was worth a try.
My to do List
1. Climb up the dramatic Cape Bojeador Lighthouse.*
2. Visit the windmills of Bangui.*
3. Trek up the river of Karingking in Solsona and take a dip by the magnificent waterfalls.*
4. Chill out on the beaches of Pagudpud**
5. Check out the Sinking Bell Tower of Laoag and the Domeless Belfry of Bacarra.*
6. Sample yummy Ilocano chow at Dap-ayan ti Ilocos Norte – the Laoag Empanada is just uber-delicious.*
7. Catch the sunset at Pangil in Currimao.*
8. Walk around the sand dunes of La Paz.*
9. Stroll the lovely grounds in front of the majestic Paoay Church.**
10. Take the surfing challenge off Badoc Coast.*
11. Get a glimpse of Philippine History and visit the Malacañang Ti Amianan and the Marcos Mausoleum.**
12. Make your friends at home jealous and take pictures! Ilocos is a great place for photography*