A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to embark on a two week vacation to the Philippines with my boyfriend, Genesis. His family being from the Philippines it was a natural first destination to Asia for me. As luck would have it the adventure started well before we were due to depart.
Our original itinerary included a week in the northern island of Luzon and a week on the southern island of Palawan. Each would offer us a different experience: Luzon with an exploration of Philippine civilization and Palawan with it’s natural beauty. Having booked our vacation back in September we had no idea what the future held. Unfortunately the Philippines would have to endure horrible devastation at the hand of Typhoon Yolanda (aka Haiyan), Palawan being directly in her path. While I’m confident they will recover and be stronger than ever, my sympathies go out to the people affected.
Not wanting these events to impact my vacation I decided to turn the week in Palawan into a week exploring various locales around Luzon. As luck would have it Luzon was unaffected by the storm, giving me the opportunity to explore the wonderful history and culture of the Philippines.
Day 1: Departure
It was Friday, our bags were packed, and we were on our way to the airport. I was so excited for this trip. Arriving at the airport, balikbayan box in tow, we discovered our flight was delayed. We’d have to wait until 1:30 in the morning to board but I was not deterred. Nothing was going to diminish my excitement for this vacation.
Some time later, after a couple movies and a few hours of sleep, I was pleasantly rewarded with an amazing sunrise. We were a couple hours the other side of the international date line and inching our way closer to the Philippines.
When we landed we were greeted by some of Genesis’ family who had hired a van for the remainder of our trip. Stepping out of the airport in Manila at about 7am local time I recall feeling like I had stepped into the midday sun of a Canadian summer.
After clearing the airport traffic we stopped at a market for some breakfast. We bought some fresh red snapper, crab, shrimp, and squid which they cooked for us. It was an amazing breakfast having spent 14 hours on a plane, and looking forward to another 8 hours to travel by van.
Later that evening we arrived in Solano, Genesis’ hometown. Coincidentally it was his mother’s birthday so we were welcomed with a bit of a feast. After eating and a visit with more of the family it was time to turn in.
Day 2: Bayombong
Our second day in the Philippines was spent exploring the provincial capital, Bayombong; but first a traditional Ilocano breakfast complete with dried fish, banana, veggies, rice, and pandesal (fresh from the trike vendor).
Following breakfast we spent the bulk of the morning exploring the market in Solano, getting fresh food for that night’s supper. It was a bit overwhelming at first, so many people and so much food, but I soon settled in to my surroundings. After the market we traveled into the provincial capital, Bayombong, visiting the local museum and Saint Dominic Cathedral.
Day 3: Waterfalls and Parrots
On the third day Genesis, his brother Adonis, and I ventured out to visit a nearby waterfall. Traveling by trike, one of the more common forms of transport in Nueva Vizcaya, we headed up a dirt path into the hills near Solano. After about 30 minutes along the rocky, muddy path we reached the trail head. From here it was a short hike across a rickety suspended foot bridge to a waterfall view.
Unfortunately we weren’t able to hike any further since a recent rain made the rocks far too slippery to attempt climbing. On the plus side this hike gave us a bit of an appetite. Upon returning back to Solano, we picked up Genesis’ mother and his aunt to go out for lunch (yes, more food). I thoroughly enjoyed the presentation at this restaurant; the carrot parrot was a nice touch.
Day 4: Banaue
On the fourth day we traveled to Banaue, a town famous for its rice terraces. This trip gave me the opportunity to travel by another popular form of transportation in the Philippines, the Jeepney; often wildly decorated world war 2 era transport vehicles. It was not the most comfortable form of transportation but it was extremely affordable, only costing a few dollars per trip.
After a few hours winding our way slowly up the road into the mountains we arrived in Banaue. Dismounting the Jeepney we walked around the village and up to the view point of the rice terraces. Unfortunately we arrived following the harvest and were welcomed by a thick mountain rain, cutting our trip to Banaue a bit shorter than expected. Even still I found the view stunning and well worth the trip.
Day 6: Road to Baguio
The sixth day marked the end of our visit in the Cayagan Valley, today we were off to the mountain city of Baguio. The road to Baguio is one of the most scenic roads I’ve ever had the pleasure of traveling. As you leave the Cayagan Valley, the road winds westward up into the mountains, reaching elevations of 1400 meters. Along the way we came across Ambuklao Dam, a hydroelectric facility on the Agno river in Benguet province. Having been on the road for a few hours we decided to stop, stretch our legs, and take in the view.
After the break we continued on our way. The road continued to snake ever higher until we finally reached the city of Baguio. Much to my surprise the climate here was completely different than what I’d expected from the Philippines; 23C and minimal humidity; a stark contrast to the 35C and plenty of humidity we experienced days before back in Solano.
After checking in to our hotel we went to Wright Park for a picnic and walked around the tourist attractions in the area. Unfortunately after a couple hours we would have to say good bye to Genesis’ family. It was time for them to head home and for Gensis and I to carry on with our vacation. The departure was a bit emotional but I’m grateful I was able to share some of my introduction to the Philippines with his family.
Day 7: Exploring Baguio
On the seventh day, being our only full day in Baguio, we wanted to explore as much of it as possible. The first stop was to the botanical garden where we got acquainted with some of the native plants, artwork, and peoples.
Of course the trip wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the SM shopping mall and a stop a Jolibee. As luck would have it, it started to rain soon after we finished up at the botanical garden. The mall provided the perfect distraction to wait out the rain. Once it let up we went to visit the Baguio museum where we got to learn the city’s history and culture.
Following the museum we continued on to Burnham Park, named for the American architect (Daniel Burnham) who designed several buildings in Baguio as part of the Philippine Commission in the early 1900s. We strolled around the park for a while before heading back to the mall for some more shopping and a movie before we turned in for the evening.
Day 8: The Road to Laoag
Following a good night’s rest and a traditional Baguio breakfast of dried fish, rice, and egg it was time to pack our bags and catch a bus to Laoag. The ride itself would take us west through the mountains to the coast and then north to Laoag through several (very old) cities and towns. As with our drive too Baguio the view going down the other side of the mountains was absolutely stunning.
After a couple hours of our bus winding down the mountain we were nearing the coast. At this point the road veered north, worming its way along the Philippine coast, teasing us with sights of the sea several times along the way. It would be several hours before we reached the historic city of Vigan. Unfortunately for us this was just a stop along the way. The bus would stop here for a few minutes to transfer some passengers before continuing to our destination of Laoag.
A couple hours later we arrived on the outskirts of the city of Laoag. From here it was a short ride on a trike through the countryside to the coast.
As luck would have it we arrived at our destination, Fort Ilocandia, just in time to watch the sun set.
After a quick stroll around the grounds of Fort Ilocandia it was time to turn in for the night.
Day 9: Laoag City
We had a pretty lazy start to our ninth day in the Philippines. We slept in, had breakfast, went for a long stroll along the beach, had lunch, and then went for a swim. Following that we decided to spend the afternoon exploring Laoag city. It was a short ride from the hotel on the coast to the city.
One of the main tourist attractions to Laoag is the Sinking Bell Tower. The tower is believed to have been built in 1612 by the Augustinians and leans slightly to the north. It’s location is fairly central to other historical architecture like the St William’s cathedral, Ilocose Norte capital building, and court house. I can’t help but be reminded while visiting these places that the Philippines is a country with deep roots in Catholocism and they’ve done well preserving their roots.
After spending a couple hours exploring Laoag it was time to head back to Fort Ilocandia where we were treated to another amazing sunset.
Day 10: Relaxing at Fort Ilocandia
On our tenth day in the Philippines we decided to stay close to home and just relax; I think we needed a bit of a break from all the travel. After breakfast we went down to the beach and watched some local fishermen bringing in their nets they had set out the previous evening.
Following this we went for a swim in the ocean. I was really quite surprised with how warm the water was. This wasn’t my first time swimming in an ocean (I swam in the waters off Prince Edward Island when I was a kid), nor was it my first time in the Pacific (I took a dip in Hawaii last year), but it was my first time in the South China Sea and it was the warmest natural body of water I have experienced to date. We spent a couple hours playing in the waves, trying and failing to keep from swallowing the water. Once we achieved optimum sodium levels we decided it was time for lunch.
On our way to lunch we discovered Fort Ilocandia was home to a small zoo, we decided this would be a good way to spend the afternoon. Their zoo was home to several animals; not least of which were crocodiles, monkeys, and a pair ostrich.
After a walk with the animals we wanted to explore more of what Fort Ilocandia had to offer. Unfortunately some of the more exciting activities (like snorkeling and hot air ballooning) were only open to groups of four or more. Being off-season we basically had the hotel to ourselves so these activities were not accessible to us. It’s a bit regrettable that we weren’t able to enjoy these activities but perhaps we’ll have better luck next time, or come with a larger group next time.
The rest of the day was spent relaxing by the water.
Day 11: Paoay City
Our eleventh day in the Philippines we decided to get back to exploring. Following breakfast we hired ourselves a trike with the goal of seeing Paoay City. The main attraction in Paoay, like many other cities in Ilocos Norte, was an opportunity to take a step back in time and witness some centuries old architecture. In the case of Paoay this would mean a visit to St. Augustine’s Cathedral, a church built in 1710.
After strolling around the grounds of St Augustine’s cathedral we were escorted by our trike driver to the Ferdinand E. Marcos Presidential Center. The visit itself was a bit somber as I would learn this to be the final resting place of Ferdinand E Marcos, former president of the Philippines. That aside, it was interesting to see the way homes used to be built in the Philippines; an interesting mixture of cement, local wood, and windows made from translucent capiz shells.
Our next stop on the journey was a bit more exciting. Our trike driver took us back up the coast to a place somewhat off the beaten path. It was here that I would enjoy probably my most thrilling experience on this trip, riding in the back of a 4×4 across the Paoay Dunes.
It was quite windy that day, but as our vehicle danced playfully across the dunes, sand blasting in our face, holding on for fear of being catapulted, I found myself forgetting about all the worries in my life. I could think of nothing else but the fun I was having. I was living in the moment.
After our joy ride was over, and a few minutes to calm ourselves down, we were off to our next destination. We drove back out to the main road, following it around Paoay lake for several kilometers until we reached the far side. Here we reached a rather large house which I would soon learn was one of the many homes of the Marcos family. This home in particular was set up as a museum, not only of the former president’s life but of the people of the Ilocos region.
We wandered the grounds of this amazingly beautiful property for quite a while. As luck would have it, upon leaving we met a local man who knew the area well and offered to be our tour guide. We decided to hire him for the next, and what would be our last, two days in Ilocos Norte. Upon our return to Fort Ilocandia that evening we were gifted another amazing sunset.
Day 12: Pagudpud
On our twelfth day we ventured north along the coast toward Pagudpud. The driver we met the day before escorted us the entire way, showing us some sights we may have missed if we had tried to go it alone. Our first stop was a salt mill just off the road to Pagudpud.
It was interesting to see how they made the salt, something I had perhaps taken for granted before visiting the Philippines. After farming and milling the rice grain the waste product is the grain casing. Instead of throwing out this casing they use it as fuel for fire. The fire is used to heat salt water from the ocean to its boiling pont. As the water boils the sodium content distills into salt crystals which are then farmed our of the water. It was really interesting to watch this process unfold before my eyes.
The next stop along the way was a very old lighthouse perched on top of a rocky hill just east of the coast. The lighthouse was constructed and first lit in 1892 and still functions today, marking the northwestern most point of the Philippines.
We continued our journey up the coast to the town Burgos to visit the Kapurpurawan rock formation, a limestone monument scuplted by the elements over thousands of years.
It was a little bit of a hike to get down the hillside to visit the rocks but it was well worth the journey. The geology was unlike anything I had seen in the Philippines and I had found myself, for the second time, challenging my assumptions of this being a country of beaches and palm trees. The first time of course was seeing pine trees and experiencing temperate weather in Baguio. The hike also presented me with an opportunity to make a new friend.
Further up the coast we stopped by a wind farm. It was somewhat unexpected but unsurprising at the same time, as the coast in these parts was really quite windy.
It was rather curious to see a country without the financial capabilities of Canada embracing this technology.
We carried on to our destination, soon arriving in Pagudpud. As we drove further along the coast, coastline turned to mountains and we found ourselves in a bit of rain but that did not deter us.
The road continued and eventually lead us back out to the coast where we came across a sleepy little resort. We decided this would be a good place to stop for some food before heading back down to Laoag for the evening. We walked into a small roadside restaurant where a woman cooked us up some fresh tuna and prawns.
After a healthy dose of seafood we made our way back “home” to rest up for our final day in Ilocos Norte. Our driver, Mario, to return in the morning.
Day 13: Vigan
Our thirteenth day in the Philippines was also our last day in Ilocos Norte. Since we didn’t get to see much of Vigan on our first way through we decided we wanted to see it before we left. The trip to Vigan was a few hours round trip so we had plenty of time to fit it in before flying to Manila later that evening.
We arrived in Vigan shortly before lunch and spent much of the mid-day walking around this old city. I was yet again amazed to see the preservation of their rich history and ways of life. Many of the buildings, built hundreds of years ago, still standing despite decades of pummeling by nature. Many of the people still practicing crafts using the traditional techniques taught to them by their ancestors.
I felt so grateful that I was able to see this city on foot and to meet the people of Vigan. Unfortunately I was unable to stay for long as we had to eat then return to Laoag so we could catch our flight to Manila.
Much later that evening we had landed safely in Manila and after quite some time in Manila’s infamous traffic we checked into our hotel.
We were only in Manila for two nights before we had to head home. I found Manila to be quite hectic in contrast to the much more relaxing lifestyle I had experienced throughout my journey around Luzon. We spent much of our time walking to and from restaurants and shopping malls. Much of my experience in Manila reminded me of why I left Toronto (too busy, too noisy, too smoggy).
Don’t get me wrong though. I enjoyed my time in Manila. It was just different, and a bit of a disorienting.
That said I still look at my time Manila as positive experience. After all, it gave me the opportunity to visit with Adonis (Genesis’ brother) and I able to experience a filipino hilot massage, complete with hot banana leaf across my back.
Back to Reality
This whole vacation has been an amazing journey. It has been a feast for the eyes and the mind; and at times just a feast.It was relaxing, busy, enlightening, and rejuvenating. I feel like I was able to have an authentic Philippine experience with a dash of frivolity. Perhaps the best part was being able to share some of that with Genesis and his family.
In the end my time in the Philippines was successful. I came back to my life in Vancouver re-energized and enlightened, something I hope to achieve in all my vacations.
I’m already looking forward to returning to the Philippines someday, perhaps next year. There is so much more this country has to offer and I can’t wait to experience it.
If you want to see more pictures of my trip, I’ve posted a photo album on trovebox.