I’m losing control! A steep slope pushes my steering wheel to a different direction. I scream in panic and excitement as the ATV gets stuck on the edge of a ridge, roaring and stirring sand as it digs itself deeper. Driving one on a seemingly infinite stretch of coastal sand dunes is a constant wrestle with the wheels. Illuminated by the sunset’s afterglow, some 4×4 trucks emerge from the dust and roar throughout the dunes as they race with each other. I arduously push the vehicle out towards a gentler trail and find my way to the middle of the desert.
I am at the Paoay Sand Dunes, an 88-hectare expanse of wild thirsty sand that is remarkably gaining popularity among tourists and thrill seekers travelling to Ilocos Norte, a province located at the northwest corner of Luzon Island. With its endless hills and valleys, the landscape resembles the waves of the adjacent West Philippine Sea. Here, one can either traverse the silky dunes through 4×4 Rough Riding vehicles or try sand boarding, a sport that requires its players to ride a plank of wood and slide over sand folds.
The Ilocos region is home to some of the country’s oldest colonial-era churches. I find myself gawking with wonder at a UNESCO World Heritage Site the following morning. One doesn’t have to be religious to appreciate St. Augustine Church’s bold and magnificent Baroque architecture. Also known as the Paoay Church, it was built in 1694 by Augustinian Friar Antonio Estavillo. To prevent possible destruction due to earthquakes, enormous buttresses of about 1.67 meters thick were built to support the sides and back of the massive edifice. While its façade displays few Gothic features such as the use of finials, its triangular pediment shows Chinese and Oriental influence. Just like other Spanish-era churches in the country, the Paoay Church is made of large coral stones on the lower part and bricks at the upper levels. A three-storey bell tower, which was constructed separately to prevent it from toppling over the church during earthquakes, stands a few meters away. A survivor to bloody rebellions and countless catastrophes, the belfry was used as an observation post by the katipuneros during the Philippine Revolution against Spain in 1898 and again, by the Filipino guerillas during the World War II.
Fueled by a peculiar yet delicious brunch of Pinakbet and Dinuguan Pizza at Herencia Restaurant just across the church, we drive to Malacanang ti Amianan(Malacanang of the North) in the municipality of Suba. Built as a gift of Imelda Marcos to former President Ferdinand Marcos on his 60th birthday, the two-storey mansion with a traditional “bahay na bato” design stands on a scenic 5-hectare property. It has large rooms and a grand sala with antique furniture and fixtures, a well-tended garden, balcony and capiz-shell windows that open to a breathtaking view of the Paoay Lake. The Philippine Government sequestered this property when the president was overthrown from power in 1986. After more than 20 years, the mansion was handed over to the Provincial Government of Ilocos Norte. It was renovated, restored and later on, converted into a museum, where mementoes of the former President and his family are reposited.
A young girl selling souvenir items and snacks calls out to us as we exit the mansion’s gate. The mouthwatering aroma of a freshly cooked Empanada wafts through the air. How can I resist an authentic Ilocos Empanada? The orange-crusted half-moon shaped delicacy is cooked as ordered to ensure crunchiness and it only takes seconds for the girl to make one. She skillfully rolls out the dough, fills it with shredded young papaya, cracks an egg over the center, seals it edges and drops it in boiling oil. She says it tastes even better when dipped in Sukang Iloko (sugarcane vinegar). I finish three large servings.
We drive further to see the rock formations in the town of Burgos, located on the northwestern tip of Ilocos Norte. Beautifully sculpted over the years by the roaring waves of Bangui Bay, the Kapurpurawan Rock Formation is a sight to behold especially under the blazing sunlight, when its chalk-like and creamy white surface gleams brightly. Kapurpurawan comes from the Ilokano word “puraw”, which means white. One needs to trek along a craggy trail or go horseback riding to see the stunning limestone formations up close.
Here, it is impossible to miss the enormous windmills towering over the surrounding hills, their blades constantly swirling in the wind. There are hundreds of them, says the driver, and to see some of them up close, we head to the nearby Bangui Wind Farm, which was built by the Northwind Power Development Corporation to reduce the emission of harmful greenhouse gases and to generate clean and renewable energy for the province. The nine-kilometer windswept shoreline of Bangui Bay has 20 units of 70-meter wind turbines, each capable of producing electricity up to a maximum capacity of 1.65 MW. Amazingly, the windmills of Bangui alone support forty percent of Ilocos Norte’s electricity.
Another iconic landmark one shouldn’t miss in Burgos is the Cape Bojeador Lighthouse. The 66-feet cultural heritage structure was one of the many lighthouses built during the Spanish period and was first lit on March 30, 1892. Perched on top of the Vigia de Nagpartian Hill overlooking the scenic Cape Bojeador, it still functions today as a guiding light for ships that sail the northwestern part of the Philippine archipelago.
“Ako po’y pagod na pagod at ang sapatos ko’y pudpod!” (I’m extremely tired and my shoes are worn-out!)
This famous line by the Batangueno peddler who once came to the village of Tongotong resonates to this day. It became popular among bystanders that Tongotong was renamed as Pagud-pudpod and later shortened to Pagudpud.
At the northern tip of Pagudpud, we find a beautiful cove named Maira-ira Point, more popularly known as Blue Lagoon, tucked behind the verdant rolling hills. A glance at the long strip of white sand and the clear aquamarine waters delivers a rush of excitement. We find a good spot to watch surfers ride the big swirling waves. One side of the beach is strewn with picnickers playing volleyball and frisbee.
With the influx of beachgoers, the Blue Lagoon is hardly a secret these days. There are newly built resorts, restaurants and cottages near the beach for the convenience of those who traveled long hours to see this paradise.
After romping in the churning surf, we head straight to Kabigan Falls in the village of Balaoi to wash off the salt on our skin. A thirty-minute trek along a scenic trail lined up with Narra and Bagobo trees takes us to the foot of the waterfalls. We watch the mesmerizing cascade in silence as it rushes 112 feet down into a concaved basin. Squinting through the haze of the large spray, our guide says the falls is an important water source for the rice fields nearby. Unmindful of the punishing cold, we jump into the rocky pool and swim to our hearts’ content.
The Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” plays in my head when we reach the Patapat Viaduct, the last stop of our sightseeing tour. It is located at the foot of the cliff of the North Cordillera Mountain Range, which snakes throughout Northern Luzon. The 1.3-kilometer coastal bridge, which hangs 31 meters above sea level, was built during the Marcos regime to connect Ilocos Norte to the Cagayan Valley Region. Just imagine the convenience this brings to motorists and travelers.
Besides the Pinakbet Pizza and Empanada, the poqui-poqui and warek-warek shouldn’t be skipped when you are in Ilocos. Don’t be deceived by their funny names because they are pretty much pleasing to the palate. To cook poqui-poqui, the eggplants are first grilled then sautéed with onion, garlic, tomato and eggs. It is usually eaten for breakfast or served as a side dish. The warek-warek is a famous delicacy you’ll find in almost every occasion up north. Comparable to the sisig, it is made of grilled pork’s face, tongue, brain and liver. Those with sweet tooth can enjoy the vibrant pink dragon fruit ice cream, which is available from the streets to the finest Ilocano restaurants.
The Ilocos Region is crowded with tourists these days, but it’s all for the right reasons. Rich history and culture, breathtaking views, magnificent architecture, delightful local cuisine and thrilling adventures can all be enjoyed here, putting it on top of the must-visit places in the country.
By Plane: Cebu Pacific and Philippines Airlines have regular flights to Laoag City in Ilocos Norte
By Bus: Go to the Cubao Bus Terminal and ride a sleeper bus bound for Laoag City, Ilocos Norte. Several bus companies like GV Florida, Partas and Farinas Transit have regular trips to Laoag City. Travel time is 10-12 hours.
To go to Pagudpud from Laoag City:
Option A: Ride a jeepney from the Terminal. Travel time is 2 hours
Option B: Ride a tricycle to Claveria Tours, then ride a bus bound for Claveria. Tell the conductor to drop you off at Pagudpud’s Baduang Market. Travel time is 1-2 hours
To go to Paoay from Laoag City:
Ride a tricycle to the jeepney terminal, then look for one that is bound for Paoay. Travel time is about an hour.