Journey to the North

I opened my eyes at about 2 a.m. I had hopped on a 10-hour bus ride to Laoag, Ilocos Norte at the invitation of their provincial government’s media office earlier that evening. We seemed to have arrived at one of the pit stops. The painted lettering on one of the benches told me we had reached Vigan. Despite my efforts to catch as much sleep as I could (our itinerary started at 9 a.m. later that day), I felt a shot of giddiness. I had never been so far up north in the Philippines before. It was 4 a.m. when we finally reached the Laoag station. It was still dark and quiet, save for what sounded like a call to prayer from a nearby mosque.

Adventure was first on the list the next day. We rode straight to the Paoay Sand Dunes from our accommodations at Plaza de Norte. I was no stranger to deserts. I had crossed the expanse of lahar on a 4×4 on the way to Mt. Pinatubo back in college. I’d also gone dune bashing in the honey-colored Al Awir desert in Dubai. But nobody maximized the terrain and experience the way the Ilocanos did.

The author after a round of 4×4 dune bashing and sand boarding at the Paoay Sand Dunes.

Dune bashing done right

We stood in the back of a topless 4×4 jeep and held onto the rails for dear life as our driver picked the steepest slopes to run up and down. Think roller coasters, except bumpier; there are no seatbelts, and the relative safety of the ride depends on a single human being.

I couldn’t help comparing it to the more luxury experience I had doing the exact same thing in the Middle East. We were tucked into brand-new Land Cruisers and basically tossed around inside the air-conditioned vehicle on our plush seats. I remember thinking I didn’t travel all the way to the middle of nowhere to make pa-aircon.

Feeling the wind in my hair, the drop of my heart to my stomach, the tight, white grip of my knuckles, and the flecks of sand on my skin was the right way to go about this dune bashing business.

I also got to try sandboarding, which is another thrilling way to scream down those slopes. “Keep your feet on the board at all times,” a scrawny boy who could glide down the hill like butter told me in Tagalog. It proved to be a very useful instruction, as the fighting instinct I got while accelerating down the sand dune was to make it stop by flinging a limb onto the sand. But I heeded his words, and it made for a smooth ride despite my eruption of panic.

Aside from exciting sports, what was once a dry terrain of despair for the Ilocanos has also become a lucrative source of income, serving as a favorite venue for shooting films, such as the Filipino classics Panday and Himala, Mel Gibson’s Mad Max and the 2011 remake of Temptation Island. It has also become a venue to showcase new sculptures and installations by the likes of Leeroy New, and to stage events such as the Himala sa Buhangin art and music festival — a yearly tradition.

An active walk through history

The rest of our tour was an active walk through history, as Ilocos Norte is home to some of the most beautiful churches and ruins. We beheld the massive brick and coral stone facade of Paoay Church, which turned golden brown as the sun began to set. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is a grand example of earthquake baroque architecture, rebuilt and heavily buttressed to withstand the seismic activity in the Philippines.

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Honesty in the gardens of Paoay Church

We then rode south to Badoc to visit the quaint La Virgen Milagrosa Chapel. Built to resemble an overturned boat, it was constructed to commemorate the 400-year-old image of La Virgen Milagrosa, which fishermen found floating in the area in 1620. The discovery of the image is believed to have brought miracles to the once sickly town.

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Built to resemble an upturned boat, the open-aired La Virgen Milagrosa Chapel is the kind of place that makes you feel at peace with the world.

Whether or not you’re one to believe in miraculous stories, I can tell you that the small, open-aired chapel by the sea was the kind of place that made you feel at peace with the world. It made me wish I lived next door to it. It seemed that whatever you were dealing with, all you had to do was sit inside and feel the layers of mental and emotional grime wash away as you took in generous amounts of air and light, and listened to the sea a few feet away.

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The Santa Monica Church in Sarrat is the biggest in Ilocos and has the longest aisle. Our tour guide joked that this was the perfect place to get married if you were unsure, as the bridal march would provide a lot of time to still change your mind.

Meanwhile, the Santa Monica church in Sarrat boasts of being the biggest in the province and having the longest aisle. Our guide joked that it was the perfect place to get married if you were unsure, as the bridal march would provide lots of time for you to still change your mind. Right beside the church were the ruins of the old convent, which once held arched entrances for carriages, trial courts for sinners and torture chambers (which, interestingly enough, were kitchens during the Spanish era, and only converted when the Japanese took over). We were warned about ghosts.

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The convent ruins beside the Santa Monica church held arched entrances for carriages and kitchens converted into torture chambers when the Japanese took over. We were warned against ghosts.

Museums and haunted places

Speaking of ghosts, we were taken to a slew of museums that showcased the province’s history and culture. The Taoid Museum, which showcased the life and culture of the Cordillera people was most interesting. Learning about their various tools and utensils was a process of discovering that indigenous groups aren’t as backwards as they’re usually assumed to be. We learned that young children in the family are given the physically demanding task to beat and refine the rice, so they’re aware of the hard work it takes to live early on.


Our guides led us to the museum’s second floor, which is said to be haunted. Here they kept skulls from the Cordillera’s headhunting tradition. There were coffins meant for keeping their ancestors’ bones, animal skulls used to call on dead spirits, and other tools for killing and occult. I noticed Ilocanos don’t mind touching the artifacts in their museums, as the guides themselves did so every now and then. But here, it was strictly “no touch” — except I was only informed of this after we had left the venue, and I had been touching things.

“These are the weapons they used to kill their enemies,” the guide would say, and I’d reach out to feel the blade.

“They used these dog skulls to call on the spirits of their dead ancestors.”

“This is a dog skull? It’s so small,” I’d answer, and then reach out to feel the sharp teeth.

It’s been about a month since then, and I seem fine.

Proud heritage

Filipinos are often accused of being forgetful when it comes to history and where they came from, but Ilocanos seem to actively cultivate an awareness of their history and heritage. Not only do they have countless museums to commemorate the lives of various groups in the province, and of figures such as Juan Luna, but the community itself seems very involved in sharing their story. Much work is also given to the youth, as almost every venue we visited had a team of young interns tasked with walking us through the significance of each place.

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Ilocos Norte is home to many museums that showcase the province’s heritage and way of life. Pictured here is a tall chair that young women used to sit upon to entertain a suitor’s harana (courtship song). It was also used by mothers waiting for their children to come home.
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Statue of Juan Luna and Paz Pardo de Tavera by Joseren Alab Pagarigan at the Museo Nina Juan at Antonio Luna.

Even our tour itself was carried out by several people on their OJTs, who were capable and very maasikaso nonetheless. It made me wonder about the dimensions of the Ilocanos’ kuripot reputation. Were they really stingy, or — living so far from Manila and not having the best geographical landscape — did they just know how to make the most out of whatever they had?


Originally published in The Philippine STAR, Travel and Tourism (12 June 2016)

For more travel photos and vignettes, visit @catedeleon on Instagram

Photos by Cate de Leon


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