In the Heart of the North

Growing up, two images always came to mind at the mention of Ilocos: arid flatland and Marcos Country. Not very alluring things. But about a decade ago, when photos of the seaside windmills started making rounds, the thought of Ilocos finally captured my imagination. Early this year, I was able to visit at last and discover the province for myself. Suddenly I’m surprised that people didn’t mention it more, with its rich history, gorgeous beaches, and awesome Ilokano food.

The tour started in Laoag, Ilocos Norte’s capital. It’s a bustling city, small and quaint but clearly well on the road to progress. Though tricycles (colorful Filipino-style tuk tuks) still dominated the narrow roads, our guide was proud to say that the city now had a Mitsubishi car dealership. Increasing commercialism was more evident in the outskirts, where a couple of malls have sprouted. There was something vaguely anachronistic about seeing H&M being sold in concrete blocks standing across Spanish colonial mansions.

Our first stop was the Ferdinand E. Marcos Presidential Center in Batac. It was a museum as well as a mausoleum, where the former president’s preserved body had been displayed for decades (while some say this was merely a wax replica). These days, the wax replica remained behind a glass coffin, while the real body was finally buried elsewhere.

The museum has two buildings: the museum itself, and the mausoleum, which displayed Marcos’s preserved body for decades.

My visit here was interesting, to say the least. Marcos and his dictatorship remains a touchy and controversial issue in the Philippines to this day. While our healthy economy faltered until it met its ruin in the 80’s, while thousands died in order to be silenced, and while the Marcos family continued to amass their wealth, Ilokanos remained steadfast in their loyalty to the province’s golden child, the country’s only dictator. These days, their power endures, with Ferdinand’s son still contesting his recent loss at the vice presidential elections.

Seeing the museum and its tribute to Marcos, I understood where their love came from. I could already see the troops of unknowing school children coming here for their field trips year after year, reading the museum’s write-ups about Ferdinand’s valor and dedication, his brilliance and service. The story began with his youth and ended with his election as Philippine president. In between were his years as a brave soldier and his stellar career as a budding politician.

As for the Martial Law he instated and ruled for two decades? It was like it never existed. It was conveniently erased, and thus would never be part of the truth of Ilokano consciousness.


The red, plaid shirt is said to be a favorite of Marcos’s. These days it’s one of the fashion staples of current Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte.
After the museum, we visited the “Malacañang of the North”, where the Marcos family resided in their heyday. It’s a gorgeous Spanish-style mansion fronting a lake. One side was almost entirely made up of floor-to-ceiling windows that opened up to a vast balcony. It evoked images of old-world parties where the women donned their Maria Clara’s and the men suited up in their best Barong Tagalog.

And then we entered Bongbong Marcos’s childhood room and were greeted by this image:

Young Bongbong Marcos on his war horse, donning his princely crown while waving our banner.
It was the most ridiculous painting I have ever seen, but it also explained the ego fueling the man to this day.

The master’s bedroom was also a sight, with the double king-sized bed and the 18-inch wide narra floorboards. Narra, a tropical hardwood species rampant in Asia, is famous for its strength and exquisite grain. They were heavily exploited because of the high demand, and it wasn’t until recently that regulatory laws have finally been implemented for their protection. Seeing the quality of the narra on these floors, their grain, their make, and sheer number, was such a grand statement of luxury and status.


Inside the master’s bath: I would like to know how many people tried using these before they decided to tape them shut and put that sign.

The main floor’s living room, where I could already imagine the grand balls taking place.

We passed the St. Augustine Church in Paoay next. It was a pretty impressive structure, looking more like a fortification than a place of worship. It’s a Baroque-style building completed in 1710, and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

Apparently what’s notable about the church’s architecture is how the Baroque style was adapted to the earthquake-prone country. One of its most prominent features are thick buttresses along its entire sides, which make the building feel massive while giving it additional support. Javanese, Chinese, and Gothic influences have also been noted along its facade.

What struck me most about the church, however, had nothing to do with its architecture (though I loved it too). What amazed me was how cool and breezy it was inside despite the scorching sun. The thickness of the walls and the height of the ceiling on top of small windows made for some great ventilation against Ilocos Norte’s infamous heat.


We ended the first day in the La Paz sand dunes. I got to try sand boarding (once and on my butt). But I also got to try the intense 4×4 ride through the desert. The only other time I’ve been on a 4×4 was during a trip to Mt. Pinatubo. Except that time we were sitting down. This time, we were on our feet the whole time.

We stood at the back of a jeep and clung on for dear life as it nosedived into steep slopes and bounced around the rolling terrain. All the while, sand flew around us, stuck to us in the heat, and caked us in a thin layer of sand-sweat icing.


Watching the sun descend on the dunes was pretty breathtaking though. I’ve never seen this kind of terrain in the Philippines before, so seeing the dunes bathed in soft gold as far as the eye can see was definitely memorable.


That night, I had the best Ilocos empanada of my life. It was at Sophia’s, a stall in Dap-ayan Foodcourt in Laoag. The food court was an open-air lot with a variety of kiosks selling food and snacks. We sat down for an empanada break, but ended up with an empanada dinner.

Ilocos empanada is one of the many delicacies of the region. It has a crust made of flour and achuete, which gives it the orange coloring. It’s stuffed with egg, sprouts, and grated green papaya. But the star of the dish is the garlicky, savory Ilocos longganisa. Longganisa is basically a Filipino version of chorizo. Most of the time it leans towards the sweet side, but the best ones – like the longganisas of Ilocos – are perfectly garlicky too. They give the empanada a kick and a bite. Sukang Iloko or Ilokano vinegar is lightly sprinkled before they are deep fried in a vat of sin. (I’m salivating at the mere memory of this meal.) To eat them, you can sprinkle more sukang Iloko to taste.

I ate them with a bottle of Coke that hot evening and overfed myself with two giant pieces. No regrets!


The following morning, we made our way to Pagudpud for the famous beaches and made a few stops along the way.

This unnamed salt refinery in the municipality of Bacarra gave me my favorite shots of the trip. It was also the most educational. The refinery itself was a roadside nipa hut at the edge of the sea. There was no indication that it was anything more than a shack, really. If not for our guide, we wouldn’t have given it a second look.

Inside were vats of boiling saltwater sitting over piles of burning husks, which they used as a heat source. Once the water evaporated, the salt deposits were shoveled into baskets before they were dried under the sun and packed.


Baskets were lined up on wooden planks, which hang over the vats of water. It makes it easier to shovel the salt deposits into the baskets once the water completely evaporates.

Rice husks were used to keep the flames beneath the vats going.

The hut was right on the beach, so its floors were a mix of compacted soil, sand, and salt. The thatched roof made of nipa, a kind of palm, was held up by bamboo poles.

Once the baskets are filled, the salt is taken out to dry before they’re packed in sacks, ready to be delivered to local markets.
After the Bacarra salt refinery, we drove further north into Pagudpud. Pagudpud had risen in tourists’ radars in the past few years thanks to the Bangui Wind Farm and the discovery of their white sand beaches. I was particularly excited to finally get here because the windmills were the main reason I wanted to go to Ilocos Norte in the first place.

And I certainly wasn’t disappointed.