Classified as Region Number 1, Ilocos Province is situated on the northwestern part of Luzon in between the West Philippine Sea and the Cordillera Central mountain range. It is here in Ilocos that travellers get to see and experience much of the province from scenic coastlines, limestone rock formations and windmills, sand dunes, UNESCO World Heritage churches, tribal museums to local delicacies.
The best way to cover everything that Ilocos has to offer is to start your trip right at the top in Ilocos Norte and then travel downwards to Ilocos Sur.
Laoag is the capital of Ilocos Norte and is the northernmost city in the Philippines. You can take a 45-minute flight from Manila to Laoag with Philippines Airlines or Cebu Pacific.
Alternatively, if you enjoy road trips, you can opt for a 10-12 hours’ drive by bus from Manila to Laoag.
Here are ten amazing places in Ilocos, namely, Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur:
1. Kapurpurawan Rock Formations
Kapurpurawan rock formations can be found on the rocky coast of Burgos on the northwestern tip of Ilocos Norte, just an hour and a half drive from Laoag. The unique creamy white limestone rock formations were sculpted by forces of water, sand, wind and weather over many, many years; some formations created streaks on the beach and formed natural pools whilst other rocks are quite massive in size.
The location is right on the beautiful Bangui Bay coastline with blue waters in striking contrast against the white colour of the limestone rocks; the area is quite exposed in the sun with no shelter nearby, therefore it’s advisable to be there early in the morning to avoid sunburn.
2. Bangui Windmills
Just a few minutes’ drive from Kapurpurawan is the Bangui Windmills, the first and largest “wind farms” of towering wind turbines facing the West Philippine Sea, helping to generate electricity for Ilocos Norte. There are about 100 wind turbines to date in these wind farms so much so that Ilocos Norte is known as the renewable energy capital in Southeast Asia.
3. Santa Monica Church in Sarrat
Also known as the Sarrat Church, Santa Monica Church is the largest church in Ilocos Norte and possibly in the Ilocos region mainly because of the length of its aisle. The church and the tower were built in 1779, its area includes a convent which is the third convent constructed as a result of previous convents destroyed by fire.
St. William’s Cathedral and the Sinking Bell Tower
St. William’s Cathedral (or Laoag Cathedral) was built in 1612 in Italian Renaissance design but its popularity is the sinking bell tower located 85 metres away from the church. The bell tower is said to be sinking at a rate of 1 inch per year as it was built on sandy foundations.
4. Taoid Museum
The Taoid Museum pays tribute to the province’s Cordillera roots in the neighbouring highlands. The well-curated provincial museum exhibits the culture and beliefs of the many Cordillera tribes, their way of life and rituals. The galleries in the museum also showcase the trade relationship between the lowland Ilocanos and the highland Cordillera people.
If you get the chance to visit the Taoid Museum, do ask for a guided tour as you will find the experience more interactive and insightful.
5. Sitio Remedios
Just 45 minutes from Laoag airport is a private heritage village resort called Sitio Remedios – a seaside resort recreated to resemble the charming Ilocano village typical of Spanish times. The resort consists of several vintage houses converted into guesthouses which are made of bricks and woods salvaged from mid-century structures in the towns of Ilocos Norte, walkways lined with pools and lotus plants, and a quaint chapel made of stone.
Facing the West Philippine Sea, Sitio Remedios evokes an old-world charm and will be loved by travellers who love history, architecture and design.
6. Suba Paoay Sand Dunes
The Ilocos province is not just historical sites as it also offers activities for the adventure and thrill seekers: 4×4 ride and sand-boarding! And these activities are to be found at the Paoay Sand Dunes which is gaining popularity as a tourist attraction.
The 4X4 jeep ride is like a roller coaster ride but you stand at the back of the jeep, hold on tight (and scream your lungs out) while the vehicle drives over big slopes, steep hills (45 to 90 degrees steep) and obstacles.
Sand-boarding is also held at the same sand dunes, and there are two types of sand-boarding – the sitting position which is at the 45 degrees platform and the other one is for the standing position (like surfing) at 90 degrees platform. (Most of us spent more time trying out the sitting position sand-boarding :-))
To avoid sunburn, it’s advisable to go to the sand dunes early in the morning around 7.30-8.00am. By the time you finish the activities, it would be around 9.30am after which you may return to your hotel to freshen up or continue with sightseeing in Paoay.
7. Malacanang of the North
Malacanang of the North is a sprawling mansion gifted by the former First Lady, Imelda Marcos to her husband, the former President Marcos for his 60th birthday. The mansion had been used as the offical residence of the Marcos family whenever they were in the Ilocos province.
The mansion is now converted into a museum after being taken into possession by the Philippines Government for 20 years when President Marcos was removed from power. There are galleries in the mansion exhibiting the office of President Marcos, the various agriculture and infrastructure projects spearheaded during his regime, private rooms and family memorabilia.
Malacanang of the North was designed with Spanish and Ilocano architecture and furnishings, with the mansion overlooking the scenic Paoay Lake.
8. Paoay Church
Completed in 1710, Paoay Church is an outstanding example of Baroque church architecture that was purposely designed to withstand the damaging effects of earthquake through the use of huge buttresses on the sides and back of the church.
The facade and walls of the church are made of large coral stones and bricks while the buttresses are adorned with scroll motifs which have become a distinctive feature of Paoay Church.
The bell tower was constructed to stand at some distance from the church as a protection against damage during earthquakes.
9. Empanada in Batac
While sightseeing in Ilocos, do not forget to have some meriendas (snacks) because the empanada is a popular snack in the Ilocos region. The Ilocos Norte-version of empanadas are tasty, crispy, orange-coloured meat pies filled with high cholesterol portions of longganisa (pork sausages) or bagnet (pork belly). The locals use anatto seeds to make the empanada orange in colour.
Do not leave Ilocos region without having an empanada or two!
10. Vigan in Ilocos Sur
Apart from Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur has some notable tourist attractions, one of which is the renowned, historic Spanish town, Vigan. Vigan is one of the few Spanish towns in Asia and probably the best preserved, dating back to the 16th century.
A fun way to appreciate Vigan is to go on a calesa (horse-drawn carriage ride) through the cobble-stoned streets which are lined with ancestral houses, some of which are converted into souvenir shops, restaurants, cafes and boutique hotels. Alternatively, explore the main street of Vigan – Calle Crisologo – during the wee hours of the morning when the light is soft as the sky gradually turns lighter with the rising sun, and the streets are empty.
However, as luck would have it, myself and a group of travel bloggers were caught in the middle of a typhoon in Vigan. Instead of going for a walk in Calle Crisologo at dawn, we walked at night, dressed in raincoats and armed with our cameras to take photos of the streets, eeriely empty save for a black cat crossing the street! 🙂
* I was delighted to be part of the Ilocos World Heritage Tour organised by the Tourism Promotions Board of Philippines. Opinions expressed in this post, if any, as always, are my own.
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