An adventurous 4×4 ride over the sandy coastal desert at La Paz Sand Dunes, in Ilocos Norte province, feels much like a dash across the Emirati deserts. The experience however is in complete contrast to everything else in Ilocos Norte’s capital, Laoag, where the most intrepid ride is one on a traditional horse carriage or kalesa (PHP2,000/Rs 2,500 per vehicle).
These kalesas (PHP150/Rs 190 per hour) also clatter on the cobbled streets of Vigan, the capital city of neighbouring province, Ilocos Sur. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vigan is the best preserved planned Spanish colonial town in all of Asia. Steep roofs and window panes fitted with a mosaic of capiz shells characterise most buildings here.
In one of Vigan’s narrow lanes, Fidel Go’s pottery workshop offers a glimpse into the Chinese tradition of pottery brought to Vigan by Fidel’s ancestors, years before the European colonisers came here. The centuries-old method begins with a buffalo stomping on wet clay to break it down. It is then kneaded, shaped on the wheel, and finally decorated with hand-drawn motifs.
The history of Ilocos’s Asian and European inhabitants comes together at Syquia Mansion, the family home of the late Elpidio Quirino, Philippines’ sixth president. The mansion is named after Quirino’s wife’s family, who hispanised their Chinese family name SyKia to gain social standing. The family home, parts of which are open to public, is filled with vintage wooden furniture and large portraits of family members. The terrace garden has an ornate marble fountain, and the peep holes in the master bedroom were once used to keep a tab on visitors.
That Vigan takes its architectural aesthetics seriously is also evident in the newer buildings, which too are built in the colonial style; the Starbucks doesn’t look much out of place beside the 18th-century St. Paul’s Cathedral. Out on the streets, cosy cafés sell local specialities like bagnet (fried pork belly) and longanisa (chorizo) sausages, and stalls dish out crispy crescent-shaped empanadas. Handicraft stores and tobacco and souvenir shops line Vigan’s narrow cobblestone alleys that brim with the familiar bustle of a modern small town.
STAY The Playa Tropical Resort Hotel in Ilocos Norte offers both rooms and poolside villas (www.playatropical.ph; PHP3,800/Rs 4,850).
EAT Cafe Uno’s old-word decor has nooks of knick-knacks. It serves local specialities including bagnet and longanisa sausages.
With famous dishes like sisig and kare-kare originating here, one of Pampanga’s biggest draws is its food. Kapampanga, the people of the region, pride themselves in being good cooks. Photo by: Noel Celis/Stringer/Getty Images
Claustrophobia battles with curiosity when being covered by warm, grey volcanic sand while lying in a trench dug out on a sand bed. This is the sand bath at Pampanga’s Puning Hot Spring and Spa on Luzon Island, couple of hours northwest of Manila, and at the base of Mount Pinatubo, the region’s most famous volcano. The entire landscape of Puning is almost primitive. Plunging gorges cut through forested limestone mountains and a lahar-swathed dry riverbed. Following the cocooning on a coal-heated bed of sand is a 10-minute massage, which involves the slight masseuse gently walking over visitors’ arms, legs and shoulders—a rather relaxing experience once the initial awkwardness passes. The session ends with a volcanic mud pack. Besides the sand treatment, a visit to Puning either begins or ends at the hot springs. Concrete pools of mineral-rich spring water from Mount Pinatubo, surrounded by shacks with lounge chairs, are perfect for a rejuvenating soak (PHP3,000/Rs 3,770 per person, including activities and lunch).
All the staff at Puningare from the local Aeta community. The Aetas are believed to be Austronesians and Philippines’ first inhabitants. Much of the Aeta’s lands and the region’s landscape was reshaped by a violent explosion of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. But members of this community, who take pride in living in harmony with nature and who had helped train their American colonisers in jungle survival in the 19th and 20th centuries, rebuilt their lives. The volcanic eruption, however, forced many of them to vacate their homes in the nearby Pamulaklakin forest.
About an hour and half from Puning, Pamulaklakin is an ecotourism zone today, and is maintained by the Aetas. They conduct guided trails through the forest, telling visitors about their connection with the land. Among other things, they talk about the uses of the region’s flora—the rattan tree, whose pulp supposedly helps cure diabetes, the sour vinegar leaf used in cooking, and the gugo tree whose crushed bark when mixed with water lathers up to make shampoo that’s still used by some locals here. This particular forest walk ends with a rendezvous with Tata Kasoy. Dressed in traditional Aeta clothing, comprising only a loincloth and sash, the almost toothless Kasoy demonstrates how to make fire and even fashion a spear from bamboo. His mischievous gummy smile and flirting serves as an add-on.
STAY Clark, in Angeles city, about two hours north of Manila, is a convenient location to explore Pampanga. The 154-room Park Inn by Radisson has comfortable rooms and is right next to the SM City Clark Complex (www.parkinn.com; doubles from PHP3,570/Rs 4,500).
EAT Two of the Philippines’ well-known dishes, sisig, finely chopped wok-tossed pig ear and face, and kare-kare, a peanut-based beef curry, originated in this region. At SM City Clark, the restaurant chain, Max’s, serves these and more.
One of the most exciting discoveries made in the dark calcite caves of the underground river was the complete fossil of a dugong-like animal. Photo by: John S Lander/Contributor/Getty Images
The archipelagic region of Palawan claims to be Philippines’ “last ecological frontier.” Brochures advertising swimming with sea turtles and nurse sharks and those brandishing secret lagoons and pristine beaches of El Nido and Coron islands are plastered inside local tour operators’ offices.
While snorkelling in the waters off Pandan Island, in Honda Bay along Palawan’s west coast, this claim doesn’t seem far-fetched. Schools of multihued fish move with the currents, orange starfish stick to giant corals, and clusters of black and spiky sea urchin cling to rocks. Pandan is one of the few privately owned islands on Honda Bay, which is part of an island-hopping tour that begins from the region’s capital, Puerto Princesa. Aboard bangkas(local fishing boats) visitors are taken first to Luli, short for “lulubog-lilitaw”, which means rising and sinking in Filipino. That’s because this sandbar surfaces only during low tide. With a little lagoon, it is the perfect spot for leisurely swimming.
Pandan, a 15-minute boat ride from Luli, is the next stop, and is great to snorkel or go kayaking. The weariness of the hours spent in the waters is best overcome by a lunch of succulent grilled crabs, roasted vegetables, chilli-and-vinegar-tossed sea grapes and fresh pineapple. Locals also flash freshly caught crabs and mussels here, ready to cook on request (contact a local travel agent for the island tours; from PHP1,300-1,500/Rs 1,635-1,885 inclusive of lunch).
Evenings back in the capital can be spent strolling along City Baywalk. A busy promenade, this is supposedly the spot where the Spanish docked their ships in the 1800s and discovered the port city. Locals and tourists here—many riding pastel-coloured rented tricycles—sip on buko (tender coconut) shake while street vendors sell snacks like balut (boiled duck embryo that’s eaten straight from its shell), sweet-sour raw mango with salty-sweet shrimp sauce, and crispy potato chips.
At the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, about 80 kilometres north of the city, a hike up the forest trail leads to a zip line. Whizzing over the blue-and-green landscape, the minute-long ride feels like watching a film on Palawan on a 360-degree screen. The park, a UNESCO Heritage Site since 1999, is home to monitor lizards, macaques and an eight-kilometre-long underground river, half of which is open to boat tours. Within the dark subterranean ecosystem, the highest point is about 196 feet. Limestone formations here are illuminated by the boatman’s helmet torch revealing mushroom-like protrusions and large pillars that look like melting candles. During the 30-minute tour, the swishing sounds made by flying bats and swiftlets are constant company. Sometimes the boatman’s torch even catches a python or two (PHP2,000/Rs 2,500 inclusive of permit, guide and a buffet lunch).
STAY A five-minute drive from the underground river, the Sheridan Beach Resort and Spa’s rooms open up to views of the resort’s private beach (www.sheridanbeachresort.com; doubles from PHP6,558/Rs 8,270).
EAT Puerto Princesa’sBadjao Seafront restaurant overlooks a mangrove and serves seafood dishes, including grilled lapu-lapu fish, sweet-and-spicy crispy calamari, and creamy seafood soup.
is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.
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