For intrepid adventurers who adore the sea and its surrounding local culture, and have yet to be in the Philippines, Ilocos Sur awaits to be stumbled into by them. Up in the northern part of Luzon, the biggest island of the Philippines' 7,100 island-archipelago, the region is easy to reach in an hour of plane-ride from the main gateway in Manila.
Most travelers would take the more affordable trip by taking the bus from Manila. And they would be most willing to endure at least 10 hours of bus riding or driving through a maze of national and municipal roads of the Philippine highway system. They will pass by and observe the quaint and continuously growing settlements under different stages of development in the provinces of Bulacan, Pampanga, Tarlac and Pangasinan.
If you are short of time, take the more comfortable but pricey choice of flying from Manila and landing in Laoag International Airport, which is a 2.5-hour drive to Vigan. Hire a vehicle to bring you to the attractions found in the other half of Ilocos (known as 'Ilocos Norte'). You can look forward to a more comprehensive and engrossing trip covering the whole Ilocos region ('norte' and 'sur' combined, or the Spanish words for north and south, respectively).
Visit Ilocos Sur to get a clear picture that offers reflection and shades of northern Philippine culture, most elements of which are not usually observable and displayed in the highly urbanized Metro Manila, the national capital region. To-date, Ilocos Sur has no big city located in its region, which is not similar to what's almost conventional in other regions outside of Metro Manila. With the region's minuscule population compared with that of the 12-million population living and working in Metro Manila, Ilocos Sur is still considered very provincial. The province is, however, far from making visitors and residents alike to be less enthusiastic with life. If you like to lead a life that's measured beyond many factors that typically define a quality life, Ilocos Sur is among your best choices in the Philippines.
For example: look more closely at numerous Filipinos who have tasted life and work abroad but have decided to spend their retirement years in Ilocos Sur. Also, you will have opportunities to meet and mingle with a different set of proud and learned members of the elite classes who are more and regularly in touch with their fellows of more humble means. These elites own most of the commercial lands in the province. And they are among the highly educated in the province. Those who have worked and stayed for some time abroad have joined their ranks in the more recent years. You can observe carefully how a lot of these retirees' elegantly designed houses stand proudly amid typical and humble-looking houses, which you will find completing the very interesting and gradually changing natural and man-made landscapes in the region.
Food remains to be a major but downplayed reason to make a trip to Ilocos Sur. Something of the wild, game-y, crafty and fresh comes into mind when partaking of its regional cuisine & mdash; and you will start to see it in your mind that Ilocos cuisine makes up for a regular, healthy diet. 'Not that flavorful' comes to mind when you first partake it at first. But the local meals found in Ilocos Sur, which are prepared sensibly by making extensive use of what are available and bountiful in the surrounding local communities, provide opportunities to enjoy real, honest to goodness, home-cooked food. Try the authentic version of 'pinakbet,' which is prepared mainly by steaming fresh vegetables, flavored with anchovies, and topped with grilled pork or fish during the last few minutes before finishing the cooking. Try, too, their 'bagnet,' or the version of pan-fried pork that tastes better than those you've had before.
Plentiful local varieties of tomatoes, garlic, onions, eggplants, bitter melons bring tinges of various flavors to your palate; they taste better than those commercially found and grown. The region's black vinegar and anchovy taste a lot better, too. For example, its locally sourced pork tastes meatier. Also, empanadas are a 'must-taste' snack food in this region, which is an example of hispanic influences in cooking. If you have the opportunity, observe keenly how members of a typical household in Ilocos Sur would prepare their meals in quick, unpretentious style. And they're made up of mostly fresh ingredients (check out 'malunggay, saluyot, ar-arosit or fresh seaweed'). Be pleased to know that locals even have their locally grown grapes up in this part of the Philippines.
Find time to visit the following:
Places of Worship
The Sta Maria Church (or the 'Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion Church'), a must-see UNESCO heritage site as 1 of the 4 Baroque churches of the Philippines , has been featured in a number of Philippine movies including those where the late Fernando Poe, Jr. (a Philippine national artist) had starred in and produced. There is also the 'Simbaan a Bassit' (or Ilocano for 'small church') in a Vigan cemetery, which reminds you of a few old Spanish churches in New Mexico or in California. The belltower of Bantay Church ('The Shrine of Nuestra Senora de la Caridad'), which you may come across from a view of a hill seen from the highway going to Vigan (or as shown in the video somewhere in this posting), actually was used as a watchtower for marauding pirates hundreds of years ago and who would capture the locals for slave trading in other lands. Try to get permission from church administrators to get inside the tower and go up its highest landing. You will be rewarded with different angles of a kaleidoscopic view of the sea and the nearby Hispanic city of Vigan.
Old Hispanic-Style Buildings
Vigan, the provincial capital, was the location of the fiefdom of Spanish conquistador Juan de Salcedo, which site he started in 1572 and has been designated as a UNESCO heritage site. A walk along its remaining cobbled streets lined with ancestral, stone houses (some of which have structures built of now-rare hardwood on the upper floors) leaves lasting impression. For so many generations, many houses have been residences of the well-established Chinese traders who have married with the local folks. A number of their houses remain vestiges of wealth that have been earned and accumulated when tobacco was the main agricultural product from this part of Philippines during the Spanish period.
Visit the National Museum branch (it is actually the ancestral house of the Crisologo family), where you will be introduced to symbols of Ilocano culture, including memorabilia items from many notable heroes of the Philippines. You would notice that visitors would head off to Ilocos Sur because they have heard a lot about Vigan, which happens to be among the best preserved hispanic neighborhoods where people still live and work even if the colonizing Spaniards have been gone over a hundred years ago. A heritage site like this surprises the jaded traveler as to how it has remained preserved to-date given the propensity of some to destroy whatever reminds them of their immediate past. However, Vigan is not all about the past and the old; it is also about the updated nooks and corners that appeal to some and actually look garish to a few who have strong preferences for checking out the local culture whenever they travel.
Visit the region's unpolluted coastline facing the South China Sea. For example, Apatot beach in San Esteban has its island reef formations not far from the shore and that has an old, crumbling watchtower. Narvacan's beach in Sulvec offers openings for dramatic and romantic scenes with its rock-like formations found on its shore. Another old watchtower in this municipality can be checked, and can serve as an interesting background for photo shoots. Check, too, the beach in Santiago and Candon plus the one in Cabugao for its fine white sand.
On the eastern front of this province, check out the formations of mountains, valleys, rivers and waterfalls. From the city of Candon, take the public transport to explore the province's interior and elevated municipalities, including Lidlidda, San Emilio, Banayoyo, Quirino, Salcedo, Gregorio del Pilar (formerly Concepcion), and Cervantes. Communities made up of ethnic groups from other inland provinces have been established here a long time ago, which may surprise those who have always been living in the city. Relatively prosperous and still following unique cultural practices largely unappreciated and unfamiliar to most Filipinos up to now, they have kept their down-to-earth lifestyles. From these communities, you may venture to other provinces located in the Mountain Ranges in Luzon. They include the provinces of Quirino and Isabela. Keep in mind that a number of communities here have descended from tribes that practiced headhunting up until the American period officially ended in the Philippines after World War II.