Ilocos Norte: An Affair with Miracles

“Walang himala!” (There are no miracles!) That was, at least, according to Elsa of the classic 1982 film Himala by National Artist Ishmael Bernal which, during its time, was foreseen as a low-yield production.

Twenty-six years after, however, the film carved for itself a niche in film history, especially after winning as the region’s Best Film of all Time in the 2008 CNN Asia Pacific Screen Awards. Miracles do happen, after all, though not always in the supernatural way we are accustomed to, but sometimes in entirely rational – yet equally unexpected – ways.

Miracle-making seems to come naturally to Ilocos Norte, on whose soil the movie was shot. For one, after the success of Himala and many other films shot on the arid environment of the North, the sand dunes of Paoay were never the same again. “Before, the folks in Paoay would cry over these sand dunes because they couldn’t farm there, but movie directors here and abroad love it,” Governor Imee Marcos said during our interview. And aside from being the popular movie set that it is, the dry wasteland has also been put to use by the locals as an eco-adventure destination for tourists who want to experience sandboarding and 4×4 dune-bashing.

From the success of the dunes, the rest of Ilocos Norte followed suit, in a series of other phenomenal events. For years, the windy coastline of the province has been at the forefront of the country’s surfing portfolio, and recently, this trend has transformed the long shoreline of Pagudpud, in particular, into a kite-surfing arena for enthusiasts both here and abroad. Likewise, Paoay Lake, in which locals are afraid to swim lest the greedy fish of an old legend pull them down, saw the staging of the 1st International Paoay Regatta in January 2013.

The crafting of miracles is also made possible in tangible form by the able hands of the Ilocanos themselves. Their specialty is the resourceful concoction of dishes from humble and endemic ingredients. Dishes like empanada (filled pastry), pinakbet (mixed vegetables), poqui-poqui (eggplant and eggs), and saniata (dragon fruit) rolls fill the tables of households during feasts and festivals, which the province proudly brandishes on an almost monthly basis. Just this May, we joined the locals in celebrating the solemn La Virgen Milagrosa Provincial Fiesta, which commemorates the arrival of the patroness of Ilocos Norte on the shores of the town of Badoc.

Local artists also spin magic and marvels by producing, out of a hostile environment, a wide array of crafts and products, many of which have, unthinkably enough, reached the shores of the West after the Ilocano exodus to Hawaii in the mid-1900s. The weaving of abel (textile) remains a living pursuit, thanks to communities that dedicate themselves to bequeathing the local skill to the next generations, while the baking of damili (red clay pottery) in the town of San Nicolas has been kept afire since the turn of the 19th century.

Ilocos Norte’s capital, Laoag City, may also be construed as a piece of ‘miracle’ of sorts, at least in terms of being an auspicious converging place in the midst of all these unexpected developments. For one, it is close enough for many travelers to reach at a moment’s choice. The provincial capital is an 8-hour, 477-kilometer bus ride away from Manila. Meanwhile, the Laoag International Airport, which serves as the main gateway to the province, is a mere 45-minute plane ride away.

Ilocos Norte, put simply, is a place where miracles big and small are shot, staged, and created by both divine and earthly interventions.

The Southern Tour: An Ilocano Pilgrimage

Having been occupied by the Spaniards as early as 1572, Ilocos Norte has a rich religious history, as evidenced by the numerous churches and religious structures that dot the province. Of note is the baroque Church of Saint Augustine, commonly known as the Paoay Church, one of the oldest churches in the Philippines. Construction of the church was started in 1704 using a mixture of coral and stucco-plastered bricks, and was completed in 1894.

The southernmost town of Badoc, meanwhile, is home to the 400-year old image of La Virgen Milagrosa, the patroness of Ilocos Norte and believed to be the cause of countless miracles in the province. In the year 1620, fishermen found two large wooden boxes floating off the coast of Badoc and Sinait (now part of Ilocos Sur). One of the boxes contained the La Virgen Milagrosa, an image of the Blessed Virgin holding the Infant Jesus. Perhaps by divine intervention and out of the Ilocanos’ devotion to her, the image chose to dwell in the town of Badoc. A commemorative chapel now stands on the site of the miraculous arrival.

Built in memory of the founder of the Philippine Independent Church, the Aglipay Shrine in the town of Pinili houses the remains of Gregorio Aglipay, a soldier, religious reformer and patriot who sought to reform the Filipino Catholic clergy after being excommunicated by the Vatican for inciting rebellion. His Iglesia Filipina Independiente, with members numbering around six million, is a living relic of the nation’s struggle against the clutches of colonial Spain.

Paoay Church (Paoay)

Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, the Paoay Church is a prominent example of the earthquake baroque architecture common in 18th century Philippine churches, featuring a mixture of Gothic, baroque and Oriental designs. The area surrounding the church has been refurbished to house heritage and cultural havens, which includes the Paseo de Paoay (for museums and shops) and Arte Luna (a gallery for local artists).

Plaza del Norte (Laoag)

Formerly known as the Ilocos Norte Hotel and Convention Center, Plaza del Norte is one of the province’s preferred accommodation options as it lies right across the mustvisit Malacañang of the North. Equipped with spacious function rooms and a chapel, the hotel is a regular venue for local weddings and events, and is frequented for the excellent dishes of its restaurant, Cafe Ayuyang.

Nagbacalan Loomweavers (Paoay)

Leaders in the production of Ilocos Norte’s inabel products, the community of Nagbacalan in Paoay formed their cooperative of weavers in 1992 to keep the pre-Spanish tradition alive and to help members earn from the craft. Using age-old techniques, the 45-member strong group produces placemats, napkins, runners, bags ,and other products with designs passed down from their ancestors.

Sitio Remedios Heritage Village (Currimao)

Located on the coast of Currimao, Sitio Remedios is a private resort recreating an Ilocano village typical of the mid-fifties. The village’s seven balays (houses) were made from old wood and bricks saved from surviving mid-century structures, and built to imitate the typical architecture of select Ilocano towns. With its own chapel and quadricula, Sitio Remedios is a favorite venue for weddings and events.

Juan Luna Shrine (Badoc)

The birthplace of the famous master and patriot, the Juan Luna Shrine is a wood-and-brick building which houses a number of the artist’s personal memorabilia, as well as reproductions of Luna’s most famous works. Born in Badoc in 1857, Juan Luna and his family lived in this house until it caught fire in 1861, prompting the family to move to Binondo in Manila. The existing structure is a reconstruction made in the 1970s.

La Virgen Milagrosa Chapel (Badoc)

Built on the cove separating Ilocos Norte from Ilocos Sur, the La Virgen Milagrosa Chapel was built to commemorate the arrival of the La Virgen Milagrosa de Badoc, believed to have come from Japan and sent floating into sea by missionaries fleeing the country. The open-air chapel, built like an upturned boat, bears bamboo fittings and maritime decorations to recall the 400-year story repeated among the locals of Ilocos Norte.

Kapurpurawan Rock Formation (Burgos)

The Kapurpurawan Rock Formation is a tourist destination created by the splash of ocean waves upon the rocky coast of Burgos. From the jump-off point, the formation can be reached by foot or by horseback, and features the curved white structure that gleams under the sun (“puraw” is white in the local language). Not far from the site is the statue of Lam-ang, the mythical being of the Ilocano epic.

Bacarra Church & Bell Tower (Bacarra)

The Church of St. Andrew the Apostle was built by the Spanish Augustinian friars in the town of Bacarra in 1593. The church’s bell tower, built at the same time as the church, lost its dome to an earthquake in 1983, earning the moniker “the Dignified Domeless Bell Tower of Asia.” Behind the church, the Museo de Bacarra traces the history of the town and the church, including photos of the bell tower when it was still intact.

Cape Bojeador Lighthouse (Burgos)

Also known as the Burgos Lighthouse, the Cape Bojeador Lighthouse is the highest elevated, still-original and active Spanish-era lighthouse in the Philippines. Built in 1892, the beacon overlooks the picturesque Cape Bojeador and has guided everything from galleons to modern ships away from the rocky shores of Burgos. Being the most accessible of all of Luzon’s lighthouses, the lighthouse is a favorite subject for many tourists and photographers.

The Northern Tour: Harnessing the Forces of Nature

If you’re on your way to Ilocos Norte from Cagayan, chances are you’ll be passing through the Patapat Viaduct, a 1.2-kilometer long winding cliffside road touted as the French Riviera of the Northen Philippines. This viaduct starts the Pan-Philippine Highway which stretches all the way to Zamboanga City in Mindanao.

A short while from the viaduct is the town of Pagudpud, home of many world-class shores and beaches, including the famous Blue Lagoon. Also known as the Maira-ira Cove, the lagoon lies on the northernmost tip of Luzon and is a favored venue for surfing and other water sports.

Found as well in Pagudpud are the shorelines of Saud and Caparispisan. Saud Beach is a white sand enclave ideal for swimming, snorkeling and scuba-diving, while Caparispisan is a sports sanctuary which is earning an international reputation as one of the best kite- and wind-surfing sites in the country and the world, what with a strong sea breeze and a constant current favored for both sports.

Further south and you’ll be treated to a view of the Bangui Wind Farm. This innovative project utilizes twenty 70-meter high turbines which produce energy using the same breeze that nourishes the shores of Pagudpud and Burgos.

Bangui Wind Farm (Bangui)

Constructed from 2005 to 2008, the Bangui Wind Farm features twenty wind turbines standing along a ninekilometer coast facing Bangui Bay. Functioning as one of Ilocos Norte’s prime sources of energy, the coast is also a popular tourist attraction and is featured as one of the province’s enduring symbols. Additional windmills are expected to be completed this year.

Johnny Moon Cafe (Burgos)

Famous for its mix of traditional Ilocano and Western dishes, Johnny Moon Cafe’s branch in Burgos features the same varied menu cooked in its original Laoag store. Located right at the entrance to the Kapurpurawan Rock Formation, the restaurant is an ideal place to satisfy one’s hunger with bagnet, longganisa and poqui-poqui after the trek to the rock formation.

REFMAD Farms (Burgos)

Famous for its production of saniata or dragon fruit, Ilocos Norte’s prominent plantation is Editha Dacuycuy’s 10-hectare REFMAD Farms. Aside from selling the fruits, the facility also makes all kinds of products from the dragon fruit’s flesh, flowers, skin, and stem, such as wine, meat patties, vinegar, and ice cream, and plans to export the Ilocos variant to other countries in the coming years.

The Eastern Tour: In the Footsteps of History

Going east from the center of Laoag takes any visitor on a roadtrip across Ilocano heritage and history. Right next to Laoag is the humble town of Sarrat, famous not only for the 17th century Sta. Monica Church and Convent, but also as the town of birth of Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos. The traditional bahay na bato in which the leader was born is preserved today as a piece of history, with many relics of the prominent family hanging on its walls.

From Sarrat, a visit to the town of Piddig is a fitting tribute to the brave and mighty souls of the Ilocanos. Erected in the town plaza is the 15th Infantry Memorial, a monument dedicated to the heroes of World War II. The town is also the cradle of the Basi Revolt, a notable uprising of farmers and brewers when the locally produced basi (sugarcane wine) was monopolized by the Spanish government.

Meanwhile, the rice granary of the province, Dingras, is home to the Josefa Llanes Escoda Museum and Monument, erected in honor of the World War II heroine and founder of the Girl Scouts of the Philippines, who is famously immortalized in the country’s highest note denomination.

Further east into the mountains, a cultural trip to the Nueva Era Eco Park immerses visitors into the local Tingguian culture and offers accommodations in the form of tents, cabins and tree houses for a true encounter with nature.

Marcos Birthplace (Sarrat)

President Ferdinand E. Marcos was born in Sarrat on September 11, 1917, in the ancestral home of the Edralin family. A traditional stone house typically owned by well-to-do farmers at the time, the museum contains memorabilia of Marcos’ childhood and education. It has also been transformed to pay tribute to the Ilocano mother and the weaving process of Sarrat’s binakol, which dominates the ground floor.

Sta. Monica Church and Diocesan Museum (Sarrat)

The longest in the province, the Sta. Monica Church in Sarrat is about 105 meters in length and features an outstanding system of roof trusses. Beside it are the ruins of the old convent, which is now home to the Diocesan Museum housing the church’s Spanish-era treasures. Under the bridge connecting the church and the convent, placing one’s ear on one corner lets you hear what another whispers upon the opposite one.

Himala sa Buhangin!: Tradition in Creativity and Creativity in Tradition

Capping the weeklong celebration of the La Virgen Milagrosa Provincial Fiesta was “Himala sa Buhangin!” a whole-day celebration held on the sand dunes of Paoay. A repeat of the same event held two years ago, this year’s “Himala” featured the best in music, film, arts and sports.

To further strengthen its potential in tourism, the Paoay Sand Dunes was chosen to become the venue for the event. The day started with zorbing, sandboarding and 4×4 leisure driving and dune-bashing for early visitors who dared to immerse in the site’s famous terrain. Competitions on sandcastle making and 4×4 racing also kept spectators cheery with suspense and excitement.

The evening festivities saw thousands of locals and tourists arrive and converge into the large, ornamented stage built for the event. Stalls selling local street and comfort food like empanada and longganisa dotted the perimeter of the space. Dominating the space, however, was the “Chrysalis,” a large 40-foot structure made of bamboo, abaca, and other local materials, which symbolized both the province’s religious heritage and its budding tourism industry. The light-up of the structure, along with the other installations surrounding it, signalled the start of the night’s program.

Gracing “Himala” as its guest-of-honor was Nora Aunor, star of the movie after which the festival is named. Finding herself wistful and nostalgic upon being back on the dunes, she led the unveiling of her statue together with Governor Imee Marcos and artist Gerry Leonardo, who fashioned the fiber glass sculpture after the actress’ famous pose from the movie. The reveal was followed by the release of hundreds of sky lanterns and the start of a repertoire of local and modern music to the delight and enjoyment of the audience.

In keeping with tradition, the program ended with the “light-up” of the Interactive Sculpture Park, in which designated temporary installations made of repurposed wood and bamboo were set afire to symbolize the end of the provincial fiesta. The governor likened it to a local practice of burning old crops in farmlands to clear space and make way for the planting season. A spectacular fireworks display soon followed, and the evening concluded with more music and partying, and the hope that the following “Himala sa Buhangin!” will be bigger and grander than the one before.