Luzon, home to Manila, is the largest island in the Philippines and the fifteenth largest in the world by land area. It is famous for volcanoes. colonial Spanish cities, the best and oldest rice terraces in the world and (last century) American military bases. I'm driving north, with Neil and driver Henry to explore. I've borrowed Henry from work. I've been strongly discouraged from driving in the Philippines. Apparently, if there is an accident and someone is hurt I will get lynched. Henry becomes more chatty as the journey progresses. We've dubbed him Henry the Navigator, as he isn't great at finding the way. To be fair, the signposting is pretty bad. and we have been subjected to endless misdirections from the helpful locals.
North towards Bagiuo, a long day’s drive (because of the traffic) through Metro Manila, (mainly Quezon City which is larger than Manila itself) and skirting Manila Bay, which forms one of the best natural harbours in South East Asia. It’s just a shame it’s on the main hurricane route.
Past Pinatubo, which, with Taal and Mayon form the three most famous volcanoes in the Philippines. Its eruption in the 1990s was the most cataclysmic since Krakatoa. But it’s still a popular climbing excursion. Through Angeles, which latterly was home to the American Clarke Air Force Base and is now the Sin City of the Philippines, a red light district and magnet for solo male travellers. It also has an overlooked and pretty colonial Spanish centre.
Baguio, known as the “City of Pines,” is an attractive mountain town of universities and resorts, popular because the weather is usually cooler here.
Continuing north to Banaue; to say this is a hidden gem is an understatement. The Ifugao Rice Terraces of the Ifugao peoples begin at the base of the Cordillera Mountain range, extending several thousand feet upwards and are known locally as the "Eighth Wonder of the World". Two of the terrace clusters, Bangaan and Batad, are designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Wikipedia says that their length, if put end to end, would encircle half of the globe. The terraces are thought (arguably) to be more than 2,000 years old. They are irrigated by means of mountain streams and springs that have been tapped and channelled into canals , which run downhill through the rice terraces.
Suffice it to say. that the rice terraces here are more ancient and far more magnificent than anything Bali has to offer, simply stunning, with their emerald dotted platforms running down the steep valleys. What’s more they’re virtually deserted, apart from the odd Ifugao attired in feathery millinery. The tourist shops provide an interesting foil to the stunning scenery. They are wonderfully chaotic, dusty treasure troves.
Sagada, also in in the Cordillera Mountains, has still more plunging rice terraces, but is distinctive for the hanging coffins of Echo Valley, displayed high on the cliffs. Close by more centuries-old wooden coffins are stacked in burial sites in caves. The Lumiang Cave houses over 100 coffins the oldest date back over 500 years.
They are stacked in a macabre wall nine layers high an eye-catching wall at the entrance of the cave that rises nine layers high. It has been estimated that the oldest coffins are around 500 years old. There are different theories as to why they're placed at the entrance. Daylight may help to ward off evil spirits. The coffins are small, in length. It's thought that the bodies were laid in a foetal position - you exit life as you you came in. We have to take a jeep to get up here. the road is too bad for normal vehicles. But it's a fascinating visit.
Heading north through La Union province, into the Ilocos Region of Luzon now. This is where we find the renamed colonial architecture of the Philippines - mainly churches. Santa Maria Parish Church is one of a group of four Baroque churches awarded UNESCO status. Its grand full title is The Church of Our Lady of the Assumption. It's sturdy rather than beautiful built of bricks and mortar atop a hill so as to keep a wary out for the Chinese and Muslim invaders. Friars and soldiers lived here together.
Next stop, on the west coast, is Vigan, with its preserved Spanish colonial and Asian architecture. Vigan is picture perfect with its cobblestone streets, malecón, horse-drawn carriages (calesas), bell towers and rustic mansions. The highlight for me is the white baroque cathedral of St Paul, with its distinctive triangular façade and Plaza Burgos, known for its street-food stalls. Others would say it's the classic Calle Crisologo, with over 200 houses still preserved from the Spanish Colonial period. Vigan has also received the UNESCO accolade.
The streets are lined with life size statuary, saints alongside Bugs Bunny. Live chickens in a basket amidst them. Some nuns roll by in a calesa. This is where we sample bibingka, a Filipino baked rice cake, which is traditionally cooked in a terracotta oven lined with banana leaves. The Filipinos eat it for breakfast or as a merienda (mid-afternoon snack) especially at Christmas. (Christmas goes on a long time in the Philippines. You can often hear carols in September.)
A little further north and another important religious building. the Roman Catholic Saint Augustine Church, commonly known as the Paoay Church, at Paoay, in Ilocos Norte. It was completed in 1710, and is another solid building, with huge buttresses. Nevertheless, it's still picturesque, with its bell tower alongside. The bell towers were built separately in case of earthquakes.
The other tourist must-see here is the Malacañang of the North. It was Ferdinand Marcos' home, when he was president and is now a presidential museum. It was built by the Philippine Tourism Authority in 1977, in time for Ferdinand Marcos's 60th birthday. He was born in Sarrat, not so far away, and this area is very much a Marcos stronghold, despite all the attendant corruption.
North, some more. Laoag is the capital of Ilocos Norte region (the regions are subdivided into barangays) and home to the capitol building. Another place rich in history, with its numerous colonial ancestral homes. The Laoag Cathedral was built in 1612 by Augustinian friars to replace a wooden chapel.
Tourism is up and coming here, with new hotels being constructed. There's even a McDonalds. My Lonely Planet hasn't caught up yet. We've followed instructions to find accommodation and ended up in a school camp. There are weaving demonstrations, cane wine, local vinegar and melons and mangoes galore. And, as is often the case in the Philippines, there are some signs that are amusing to us westerners - in this case a hospital offering assorted types of circumcision: 'Summer time is circumcision time.....,'
Right on the tip of Luzon, is the white-sand beach resort of Pagudpud. The Marcos-era mansions contrast with the photogenic but poorer rural dwellings in the stilt villages here. The food isn't yet tourist standard either. It's truly terrible. Our soup is cabbage water and chicken stock. I'm beginning to wish I hadn't by passed the McDonalds.
It's a long way back to Manila (560 kilometres) and Henry is exhausted. I risk it and take to the wheel. Next stop, El Nido.
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