A journey; a self reflection | A road trip to the ilocos region, Philippines.

At the break of dawn Joycee and I headed down quaint Crisologo street. The cobble stone pathway is the most authentic at this hour with the dark blue moonless sky and the ambient tungsten light illuminating the picturesque 17th century structures. Here only a crow of rooster mingle the streets and the many vendor stall are tucked away hidden for atleast another hour or two. A sense of space re-creating the Spaniard settlement- a time portal to the past as few kalesa round the Mestizo district.

As the blue hour dissipated and the day breaks in the horizon, a street vendor shouts “taho!” Kuya, as we Filipino’s respectively address a man older that us, starts to march down the streets blaring his deep toned voice for a morning snack. Taho is a warm serving of silken tofu, syrup and sago or tapioca balls. We catch up with him as he’s already served a couple of warm tofu one handed ready to hand over. “Magandang umaga po,” he adds, magandang umaga kuya! and a good morning indeed. We warm our stomachs with the morning treat as the sun warm the rest of the senses.

Welcome to beautiful Vigan with its much preserved Spanish colonial homes and warm welcome from local Ilocano’s. Its charming narrow streets invite you in a breath of fresh air. The smell of freshly baked pandesal awakens the senses. A few blocks away is the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Conversion of St. Paul. It serves as the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Nueva Segovia. A morning walk in the glowing street lights with clattering kalesa make for a time travel back to the early 17th century era. The old soul in me gravitated towards the capiz windows and quaint narrow streets where I’m lost in the trance of time with my lovely wife. The cathedral is a UNESCO heritage site located in the heart of Vigan. A morning prayer of adoration and gratitude bring a sense of perspective as you sit in awe and look around its Baroque and Chinese inspired adornment.

Left: a traditional Kalesa early in the morning | a local vendor selling Taho

The kids are still tucked comfortably in the hotel at this hour with tito (uncle). This trip to the Ilocos region is a special one. We tagged along grandma, grandpa and uncle. It is truly a breathe of fresh air to be able to explore Vigan by foot with Joycee and absorb its unique and most romantic morning glow. You have to be here to be feel how much it is to be alive and consciously breathing. What powerful experience and influence a place can draw such inspiration.

We had the wonderful accommodation at the hotel Luna– a former colonial house made to a classy hotel boast elegance with displays of artworks by Filipinos and national artist. It has a tour guide free of charge! Immerse yourself in authentic indigenous handcrafted works of locals, littered beautiful artwork on every turn and a grand ceiling of intricate sculptures. An incredible appetizer to a generous welcome to a culture of beautifully preserved heritage.

clockwise from the top: Hotel Luna, the glowing Mestizo district at night, the colorful streets of Vigan, Lolo and India waiting for a Kalesa ride | The Kalesa driver, or commonly called Kutsero, takes the best care of their horses and carriage. They are mostly locals here in the area. They are few of the most gentle people I have met apart from the Mahout of Thailand

After an enticing tour we were quickly hungry for more authentic gestures. Breakfast buffet was subliminal at hotel Luna. The staff was exceptional as expected from the Ilocanos and the people of this region. Locally served delicacies and authentic dishes served with fresh fruit juice make for a generous and balanced meal. One cannot skip breakfast without a cup of Kapeng Barako (strong flavor “stud” coffee). A precursor to anyone starting their day exploring the subtle beauty of a well preserved modern Vigan. This was a refreshing and collectively warm welcome to a hospitable Filipino expression of comfort, the arts and culinary retreat.

We explored Vigan on a kalesa and made our first stop at the RG jar factory where we learned the traditional pottery making one on one with a skilled potter. They made sure they engaged the kids in the process and assisted them in the potter’s wheel as they formed their own pots into its form and shape. We also visited the Syquia mansion of president Quirino with its wonderful example of bahay na bato prevalent during the later Spanish colonial era.

images clockwise from top: Joel on the potters wheel, the kalesa taking us around Vigan, Bottom images: inside The Syquia Mansion of president Quirino

Restaurants and shops line the streets. Seeing Vigan at different time of the day was very important for me as a visual story teller and make for a nice pace for the whole family to immerse in its charm. Enjoy a nice ice cream or treat yourself to a memorable souvenir and gift from the locals. Vigan will surely treat you right.

Just minutes away from calle Crisologo is the Baluarte zoo. An interactive wildlife sanctuary that is free of entrance charge. There is a safari gallery with displays of taxidermy arrangements of various animals. Feed the tiger or take a tour around the lot to see the animals and wildlife the kids will surely enjoy.

Our Ilocos trip was a five day journey to the region. We started from the hustle and bustle city of Manila and into the the quaint west Philippines coastal roads that grace the south China sea. A 7 hour trip to the city of Vigan with beautiful coastal vistas and local vendors to buy souvenirs, local delicacies, fruits and sweet snack treats. My kids really enjoyed the slow paced lifestyle and welcoming locals. You know you have stepped back in time once you exit the main highway and into the rural barrio traveling through endless greens of rice fields, shorelines with thriving trees and vibrant fishing boats. The adventure surely will tell of different time isolated and exclusively limitless to where your imagination takes you. You should almost always take time to talk to locals and explore a variety of traditional Ilocano handicrafts along the way as the colorful fabrics and jars are folk arts that continue to tell stories and tales of old. They are not hard to spot as the local vendors display their stall on the streets with beautiful colors and pottery of many shapes.

We contacted a local tour guide for this Ilocos trip. His name is kuya Romeo. He rents out his van and drives it for you for the whole duration of the trip. He is included in all our itinerary and we treat him like family. We eat together and being a local we learned so much from him.

Paoay Church | Ilocos Norte, Philippines

As we continue the journey north we took a quick visit to the awe inspiring well preserved Paoay church. Its beautifully distinct architecture highlighted by the enormous side buttresses draw you in closer to a facade of massive pediment rising and a patina to illustrate the years of its existence. We had the kids play in the grass and enjoyed local ice cream here to combat the warm and humid day as we found solace in its grandeur structural inspiration.

Not far from the Paoay church rest the Malacañang of the north. The two story mansion sits on a peaceful greenery with a grand view of the Paoay lake. This was the residence for the Marcos family while he was the president of the Philippines. It has been made into a museum open for the public. The seven rooms, believed to be the lucky number for the late president, were made into an exhibit each with a theme of historical significance from the Marcos era.

The Malacañang of the North | clockwise: old photographs of the late Ferdinand Marcos and family in the palace, a portrait of “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr and entering through one of the exhibit room | each room (7 of them as believed to be Marco’s lucky number) centering on a theme of Marcos’s public programs

Our travel continued on towards the northern region. The further north you travel the deeper the ilocano dialect become compared to the Iloocos Sur region. The traditional weaving you see more prominent throughout this region knit the culture of the Ilocanos- handed down from generation to the next. Men wear long strips of handwoven loin cloth called wanes and the women wear a wrap-around skirt called lufid. A bright patterned of red and white with occasional hues of green and yellow. The rich tradition is embedded within the people. The simple way of living marked by their hard work and productivity reflect a well preserved tradition. The land is lavished in agriculture, farming and fisherman reflecting a community of closely knitted family.

Top: morning rush hour in the streets of Laoag without the the traffic and the Laoag city hall | bottom: cape Bojeador lighthouse in Burgos

Stop by a local carenderia or a modern filipino fused restaurant and you cannot miss a menu of the famous ilocano empanada consisting of the very essential ingredient of vegetable, egg and the laoag longanisa wrapped in pastry and deep fried to perfect merienda or snack. But the main diet is a subtle ingredients of what is grown within the ‘bahay kubo’. A healthy boiled or steamed vegetable-mix and fresh caught fish reflected in the Ilocano liefstyle. A refreshing contrast to many well seasoned dishes known around the region. A passion that speaks volume to whoever step foot in one humble kitchen of wonderful culinary resources. A travel through green grassy plains and the ocean vistas all in one savory dish.

We stopped by few local attractions in Laoag city, the picturesque cape bojeador lighthouse in burgos and marveled the beautiful coastline and windmill of bangui ilocos norte with well maintained highway that run along cliffs and coastlines. This is a road trippers dream. In my honest and humble opinion- the Big Sur of the Philippines Island.

The travel to get to Pagudpud, one of the northern most province in Ilocos Norte, was well worth the many hour trip as the rich culture throughout the region bring charm to the well preserved colonial era. It boast a refreshing holiday retreat by the beach that resets the mind from the hard pressed urban lifestyle.

Bangui windmills | Bangui, Ilocos Sur

We headed our way back south to our final destination up the mountains to Bagiuo City where the Cordillera ranges became more prominent. Here the hills and valley meet and the roads take sharp winding turns as you ascend to skim the clouds. It is here where the weather is much cooler and the vegetation is richer for special crops to thrive not very commonly grown in the Philippines like lettuce and strawberries and wonderful variety of floral selections.

enjoying a morning boat ride at the Burnham Park lagoon

We toured a few attraction areas like the Philippines military academy, the mansion house and the wright park. There are many fun activities to do with the kids in Burnham park like a boat ride in the lagoon, a nice leisure walk and a bike ride along display of flower beds within the lush green wooded area.

We enjoyed a local ilocano dish pakbet (a mixed vegetable dish with pork) and enselandang (fresh mixed salad of eggplant, onions and tomatoes) for lunch. If you are in for authentic and a deep dive into culinary adventure then you must try pinapaitan and dinakdakan. A true Ilocano dish that leave no left over in the kitchen and a lasting impression to ones palate of flavors.

A very memorable place we visited was the Mines park view. A vista point overlooking the steep valleys down below. A wonderful easy walk of picturesque Bagiuo surrounded by lively trees, hill side floral displays and tall pines all around for a truly breath of fresh air. Here we get to rent and wear a traditional igorot costume. A wonderful expression of gratitude and experience with the kids as I introduced them to where their grandparents originally came from and the beautiful tradition that is written all over their blood line.

Mines park view point and the traditional igorot costume

Gratitude overwhelmed me as we closed this journey to the Ilocos region. Being able to get a glimpse of how rich and beautiful this region, it brought a sense of home one cannot leave behind. A truly enriching travel of generous grandeur gesture one will hold within as they plan another trip back to this region., even before leaving.

The trip to the Ilocos region was intimate as it brought a sense of my own identity coming from a generation of ilocano family.

We put a punctuation to this wonderful travel at the heart of the cordillera mountains- the christmas village in Bagiuo country club. There, we were welcomed with a sweet memory of the Filipino christmas tradition and a magical integration of a snowy fantasy every Filipino child and adults alike dream about- reliving the very child within.

I like to leave this on a very inspiring note., That is to travel where you continue to seek your own identity and find it in every person you meet along the way. Ilocos was my guiding compass, connecting me to my very own ancestral fabric and heritage. A sought out land of gold back in the 17th century now live in the golden hearts of the ilocano’s.

Bagiuo country club | christmas village

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