Our Philippines road trip
My personal paradise is the Philippines. Not the beaches and beer Philippines, though. You can keep that. It's the Philippines that's covered in pines, isn't shy about its headhunting past and sees nothing wrong with blasting "Gangnam Style" whilst lasering a dancing Psy on an ancient monument in a three-centuries-old piece of Old Mexico in Asia. It's a Philippines where you can visit an embalmed dictator, enjoy smoky sunrises over rice terraces stacked up the mountainside and smoldering sunsets into the South China Sea. If you're lucky, you'll even see the Virgin Mary appear on the side of a church after sundown.
It took about a week for my family to see that Philippines on a trek from central Baguio City through the mountains and down the coast to Vigan and Luzon's northernmost tip. And we may have made some questionable decisions along the way, but it's not hyperbole to say it was the trip of a lifetime.
Baguio: City of Pines
Our journey to the north began in Baguio City, end of the line for long-distance buses from Manila. Once in Baguio you're on your own to find transportation through the mountains.
Designed by American architect Daniel Burnham as a place for U.S. officials to escape the heat of Manila during the early 20th century, Baguio City is a popular destination for lowland Filipinos seeking to trade the capital's smog and heat for the scent of pine forests and crisp mountain air. It's a great place to wear a jacket with your shorts and flip-flops, this is still the Philippines after all.
We had been to Baguio before, so we skipped the major tourist spots and instead visited the little-known Aguinaldo Museum, which is dedicated to the first man to be proclaimed president of the Republic of the Philippines, Emilio Aguinaldo. It presents the story of his life and a very focused, Aguinaldo-centric look at the Filipino's fight against Spain and later the United States. Most Americans don't learn about that part of our shared history with the Philippines, and this isn't the best place to start learning. But for anyone interested in Philippine history, it's collection is not to be missed.
The museum is dim-light with a reverent ambience as a guide tells the story of Aguinaldo. Many of the president's personal effects, uniforms, weapons and even the cross used to swear him in are on display. The tour culminates with a viewing of their greatest artifact, the first flag of the Philippines.
Enshrined in a room made to look like the courtyard of a Spanish villa with life-sized mannequins of Philippine Revolutionary figures standing in the balconies looking down, the flag is the focal point in the room with nothing to distract or take away from its importance. Faded and slowly deteriorating, it's still largely intact and it can be clearly seen how little the design has changed from then to today.
Kaingan: Unexpected Company
Despite the lack of organized transportation, it was surprisingly easy to find passage out of Baguio. Reputable-ish looking transporters and tour guides hang around the bus terminal willing to haggle for a few days of service. There was a discount for bartering in Tagalog, but a penalty for being a foreigner, so the price evened out and we came to something we could agree on.
When we lit out the next morning, we found our crew had gained an extra member. Our driver's tour guide friend decided to tag along on the trip, though he swore it wasn't an attempt to extort extra money from us and that he was simply along for the ride.
Despite our initial mistrust, he was a real good guy. When I mentioned I liked history he suggested we stop at the site Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita surrendered himself to American troops near the end of World War II. Now the Kaingan Shrine, it also houses a small museum on the traditional ways of the mountain peoples, commonly called Igorots, though they prefer Ifugao. This included clothing, baskets, weapons, tools, all the minutiae of pre-modern mountain life.
This was our first brush with this history on the trip as we learned about how they lived until fairly recently. The Ifugao, until the Americans put a stop to it, where headhunters and I was surprised to see just how much their dress and culture was like that of the Borneo headhunters despite thousands of miles of separation and different altitude. The shrine itself was even shaped like a giant Ifugao house made of cement. A house is composed of a tall, shaggy roof that almost completely covers a wooden house on stilts and is reached via ladder.
The scenery along the way was impressive as we drove from the pine-tree covered and smoke-scented mountains down into a valley and back into the tropical Philippines we're all familiar with and back up into the hills.
Banaue: Skulls and Sunrises
Banaue is the town with a view literally worth a thousand pesos as its famous rice terraces are pictured on the back of the bill. Standing at any one of the mountain-side overlooks, all of the mountains and valleys as far as I could see had been bent to the will of rice farmers over the course of centuries. The mountains were stepped almost to the top, the rice terraces unevenly shaped as they followed the contours of the landscape. Even more impressive is that because of this geography, all rice is hand-picked with no animal or mechanical assistance, just as it has been done since the Ifugao began planting rice.
The scene was both surreal and beautiful. During our short stay we saw the terraces under a few different lights- bright blue sky, foggy, overcast, rainy, sunset and most spectacularly, sunrise. Up early, I watched the sky and mountains turn orange and black as light struck at odd angles, casting shadows and changing as the sun gained altitude. I called out to my family to come watch and was politely told to take a picture. They were sleeping.
As nice as the rice terraces are to view from afar, to truly appreciate their scale they must also be walked. That morning we followed a father, his toddler on his shoulders, through the terraces on the narrow dirt lip around the watery rice paddies. After walking a spell, we came to a small settlement of traditional Ifugao huts and traditional-style huts made of corrugated metal where our guide told us they eventually plan to start having cultural shows to help drum up money.
Before leaving, we stopped into a souvenir shop where the owner announced we were the first guests of the day so he rolled out the family bones. A blanket holding the remains of his ancestors to be precise. I'm not going to call them fake or real or question exactly what that was all about, but we politely accepted his hospitality and handled grandfather's remains. Then we paid him 300 pesos because he needed to slaughter a chicken for bringing out the bones.
Our unexpected tour guide knew a bit about these parts, so he took us to a little off the main path museum that became one more highlight on the trip. The Hiwang Village is a collection of huts turned repository for local artifacts. The caretaker brought out a ladder so we could climb into a few and see the trove of rice god idols and woodwork. Outside was a colony of stonework statues and Buddha.
Decorating a few of these huts were trophies from their headhunting days: human skulls lashed to animal skulls. When I asked the caretaker what the significance was for that, he told me there was none. Just decoration. He explained that most of the skulls are from World War II. When the Japanese came, he explained, the Ifugao revived their old ways and visited the new interlopers.
Inside one of the skull-adorned huts was a Japanese sword, likely a very old family heirloom due to its fine work and European-style hilt, which was popular to do with old swords in the late 1800s. Inside was the sword, outside was the former owner's skull. I made a mental note not to annoy headhunters.
Beyond the rice terraces and skull trophies, Banaue itself feels like a rural shanty town, a mix-mash of solid buildings and those made of bare cinderblocks and corrugated metal with American country music playing from inside bars.
Travelling with large sums of money is generally not a good idea, but coming out here we learned it's the only option. The town's only ATM is just for show and personnel at our hotel told us that credit cards don't always work here.
After leaving Banaue for our next stop, we were treated to many more rice terrace views because while Banaue’s are the most famous, they are not unique to that town.
The scenery changed again as we neared Sagada. The road winded along the side of the steep mountain where we had a potential rockslide to one side and a steep drop off on the other. Occasionally rockslides had partially blocked the road and our driver carefully took us around. Almost at Sagada, we came to a deep cut in our path with a rickety-looking temporary bridge laid over it. A sign read, "No Heavy Vehicles" and before I could question what constitutes "heavy," our driver sped on over it. Welcome to Sagada.
Sagada: Spelunking and more Bones
A traditional funerary custom is to hang the coffin off the side of a cliff, usually held in place with poles or on a ladder-like string of coffins strung together. Outcroppings of coffins can be seen in the general area, but a very well-known set is a short hike through Echo Valley out behind the St. Mary the Virgin Episcopalian Church, which is another local quirk. The mountains are one of the few areas that never converted to Catholicism, despite the church's none-too-subtle methods of coercion. Guess it's hard to threaten headhunters. So they're not Catholic. They're primarily Protestants as those missionaries came to the area with the Americans to start schools and hospitals in the early 20th century.
Hiking in the woods to look for coffins was fun and easy, but the real challenge was spelunking. Taking off our shoes and putting on clothes we didn't mind getting wet in, we entered Sumaging Cave. Don't get me wrong, we didn't just go exploring a random dark cave without experienced supervision. Sagada has some strict rules concerning tour guides and to enter the cave, we first had to get one from the town information center. He also showed us a few burial caves where old coffins were stacked atop each other in massive piles and pointed out another set of hanging coffins along the way to Sumaging. He was good like that.
Sumaging is exciting and a bit dangerous. My little sister constantly teased me about my lack of balance the whole way down to the bottom. Going down an incline of smooth, wet rocks with a lantern for light, we relied on hand and foot holds to get from point to point. The cave rock formations are beautiful and sported descriptive names like the water-filled Dinosaur's Footprint and the Pregnant Woman. Despite that, I had to remain on alert as one bad step could cause a bad fall and it would be very difficult to get an injured person back up, especially a six-foot tall man such as myself. The cave itself is also pitch black except for the light from our guide's lamp and a headlamp he'd given my sister, adding an extra level of excitement and caution to the situation.
The cave bottoms out in a pool of water leading to a narrow underground river that leads to another cave. I have a few minor phobias, and both claustrophobia and a healthy respect for drowning are among them. I'd managed to screw up the courage for the cave, but I couldn't bring myself to try out that narrow, watery track.
The Road to Vigan
Sagada was our last major stop in the mountains, but on our way to the northwestern coast we stopped at the Battle of Bessang Pass Memorial, which commemorates a late World War II battle between a Filipino force led by American officers against the Japanese.
While on our drive we also saw a rare Filipino mountain guerilla! He was standing beside the road smoking a cigarette and wearing homemade-looking black fatigues, though our driver swore he was just part of a local government-backed militia.
Leaving the mountains for the province of Ilocos Sur was like entering another country as the landscape flattened out, the rugged mountains replaced with diminutive hills and miles of crops, their gently greens and browns standing in stark contrast to the vivid blue water of the South China Sea as we headed up the coast.
Not only the landscape changed but also its content as we began seeing smatterings of Spanish Colonial-style buildings that would have been more at home in Latin America than in modern Philippines.
We finally left the Philippines and entered Old Mexico upon passing under the white arch reading "VIGAN."
Vigan: Old Mexico
This whole trip grew out of a desire to see Vigan, the last Spanish Colonial town in Asia. Founded in the late 16th century, it was laid out in the typical style of a Spanish city in Mexico, with the church and town hall facing each other across a central plaza, and the stucco-clad buildings are built in the style of the Mexican towns as well. Many of the original buildings have been preserved and new ones are built in the old style to maintain that special ambience.
The best way to tour Vigan is on a kalesa, or horse-drawn carriage. They're a common sight in the historic Mestizo District and our kalesa driver gave us the grand tour. Vigan is a historic place composed of historic places. Filipino heroes and martyrs were born in town and many of those homes have been preserved and are open to the public.
One of my favorite was the Burgos Museum. Originally the home of a Spanish soldier built in 1788, it was the birthplace of Father Jose Apolonio Burgos, a Filipino priest wrongfully accused of treason and one of three executed by the Spanish in 1872. This execution was one of the events that led to the revolution.
Its later history includes the use of its first floor as a post office, which is now a museum of local history, and the upper floors are maintained as though the Burgos family still inhabited it. Vigan seems to have cornered the market on antique furniture because every one of these old homes is resplendent with it.
We also played a game of “spot the bedpan” here as there was one under the bed. After seeing one on display with National Hero Dr. Jose Rizal’s furniture back in Manila, I had to explain what it was to my sister. From then on, whenever we visited an old house, she began looking for bedpans as those are the only true mark of authenticity.
One of the more peculiar birthplaces is that of President Elpidio Quirino, who was not born in a wealthy mansion but in the Ilocos Sur Provincial Jail. Opened in 1657, while most buildings of its vintage are now fancy hotels or museums, it’s been so good at being a jail that when we visited it was still being used for its original function. (Last year it was converted into a museum) An employee gave us a tour, pointing out that the wooden stairwell is centuries old and showing us where the future president would be born - in the warden’s office because his father was the warden. Thought this was going a different direction, didn’t you?
A unique local souvenir are little kalesa made of lacquered paper. You can buy one in a Mestizo District shop, or buy directly at the jail from the prisoner craftsmen who create them.
Quirino may have become president, but he didn’t leave his hometown behind. His home, the Syquia Mansion in the Mestizo District, gives a glimpse at the life of a wealthy Mestizo, Chinese-Filipino, family in the last century. Well-appointed as the other homes, it also had hidden walkways so servants could work without sullying the halls and a man-powered fan that was swayed over the dinner table to keep flies away.
The preserved homes are almost common, but religious architecture is also plentiful in both Vigan and in the surrounding province. Of particular interest is a style of Baroque church, the "earthquake" Baroque, which is unique to the Philippines and Latin America. The "earthquake" Baroques stand apart from others due to their massive buttresses, thick walls and physically separate bell towers. Built like miniature fortresses, they could withstand earthquakes and civil unrest with equal ease. During the Philippine Revolution churches would often serve that purpose for the revolutionaries who would also use their bell towers as look out points.
On our way up to Vigan we stopped in the town of Santa Maria to visit its earthquake Baroque, one of four in the country that constitute a UNESCO world heritage site. And during our time in Vigan we took a day trip up north to see another in Paoay, the Church of St. Augustine. They may not have the endless fine details of Europe's Baroque churches but they have a physicality to them that impresses, still dominating the landscape as they have for centuries.
Just outside of Vigan is Bantay and though its church isn't registered with UNESCO or as big as ones mentioned above, it's still a fine piece of architecture and the view from the bell tower made it easy to see why Filipino revolutionaries a hundred years ago used these as lookout points. We could see for miles in every direction, our view ending at the distant mountains and at the horizon over the South China Sea.
History aside, there is an extreme oddity in Vigan that needs to be seen and that is Baluarte. Baluarte is the truest expression of the phrase "dito lang sa Pilipinas," or "only here in the Philippines." It's the former governor's personal petting zoo, theme park and grab bag of whatever he owns and feels like displaying. There are life-sized dinosaurs, live ostriches that enjoy mingling with visitors, caged tigers, his personal yellow submarine and a giant golden tower all in the midst of an otherwise rural area of small farms and tiny homes on the outskirts of town. Plus it’s free.
Because seeing life-sized dinosaurs at sunset are a sign that your night can't stop now, after seeing Baluarte we returned to Plaza Salcedo, the town's central plaza, for the dancing fountain show. The plaza is composed mostly of a giant fountain, which like a Filipino Bellagio, has nightly performances. Water jets shoot up and spray in rhythm with an eclectic mix of traditional Filipino songs and today's hottest club hits. To take this all a step further, laser figures are drawn against the central obelisk in the fountain. The show begins when a laser figure of the governor welcomes you to Vigan with a big thumbs up. Before the night was over, I watched Laser Psy horse-dance to "Gangnam Style."
While in Vigan we stayed at Villa Angela, a 19th century Spanish mansion turned bed-and-breakfast complete with antique narra wood furnishings and beds. It's traditional, but they also have ice cold air-conditioning and wifi. So perfect, my family questioned whether or not we needed to really leave and see anything else. Villa Angela's brush with fame came when Tom Cruise stayed in the master bedroom while making Born on the Fourth of July. We had originally booked that room but changed when my sister decided to come along on the trip.
Once in Vigan we had intended to stay there for a few days, but Villa Angela offered day tours with staff members for a fun Ilocos experience. Ours took us to the northernmost tip of the country. Not just any country, but Marcos Country!
Ferdinand Marcos was the president and/or dictator of the Philippines for 20 years before the People Power Revolution ousted him from power in 1986. Despite that, his family is still popular in Ilocos Norte, just to the north of Vigan. His wife Imelda, she of the shoes fame, is a representative, his son Bongbong is a senator and daughter Imee is the governor.
That was my first Marcos surprise, the next was getting to see the man himself. Laying in state like Lenin in Russia, Ferdinand Marcos’ embalmed body lays in full uniform on a mattress under glass in a shrine room. It felt strange to see him, a controversial leader who died so long ago that there were still U.S. military bases in the Philippines. Hated so much that he was driven from the capital and nation, but so loved locally he’s reverently displayed so visitors can pay their respects. I’d seen a lot of new things in this country, but Marcos’ waxy figure on that bed was the most out there. The feeling I got seeing him was a mix of curiosity, oddity and just strangeness.
After seeing the man, we then visited his house, which is now a museum courtesy of Governor Marcos. Marcos’ “Malacang of the North” (Malacanang is the presidential palace in Manila) was built in the Spanish style on the shore of Lake Paoay. Opulent yet still tastefully done, it’s quite the classy affair, and like President Aguinaldo’s museum, tells a very Marcos-centric narrative some may have trouble stomaching.
As a foreigner, I’m fascinated by such places both for their roles in history but by the stories told, which are aimed at the internal Filipino audience and not me. I was engaged by what I learned but took it in as a neutral third party.
The rest of our day was less politically sensitive and more pure fun. Our drive kept us northbound and we stopped a few more times for cultural sites like the Cape Bojeador lighthouse, which looks like a real life Scooby Doo set, the Spanish mansion Philippine artist Juan Luna was born in and the alien landscape of Palpalookada Nature Park.
Palpalookada’s coastline is known for it’s white, almost organic outcroppings of sharp, sandy stone along the water, the Kapurpurawan rock formations, which contrast with the craggy cliffs and beachfront around it. The only way to reach this area is via miniature horses, as far as my little sister was concerned, anyway.
Our day ended not too much further up the road at Aparri, standing amidst the beachfront solar farm, towering white windmills planted right on the sand, and watching the sunset into the sea from the Philippine’s northernmost point. It was a burning red that faded orange where it met the purple sky as it burned its way down from above and was extinguished in the water. Sunsets in this ocean and at this latitude are always the most spectacular, each like a one-time work of art, one I was glad could be appreciated with my family.
Our driver took us back to Vigan right after and we stopped one last time for something he swore up and down would make the whole trip worth it. But we could only see this at night, he said.
A beautiful way to end the day, our driver still had to show us just one more thing to make the trip complete. Seeing World Heritage sites, visiting an embalmed world leader, riding miniature horses and sharing a Hallmark moment weren’t enough for one day, we still needed to see the Sinking Tower of Laoag.
The sinking tower is an old church belltower that was built on soft ground and true to its name, has sunk several feet. It sounds like a gimmick, but that’s not the tower’s real attraction. Its real attraction is that if you see it after dark and you look at a certain spot from the right angle you will see the face of the Virgin Mary. Now the day was truly complete.
That’s the short version of our trip to paradise, it had everything we could have wanted to do and more, except take a break. The trip was physically exhausting, and in the end, it was almost an overload of new experiences and excitement.
It was one of the best weeks of my life.