Tarlac and Ilocos Sur, the Philippines
February 25 – 28, 2017
It started out as an out-of-town sleepover, not the epic road trip it ended up to be. Friends and I drove to Tarlac at Perfy’s behest. She had just arrived from the US on her dad’s birthday. The bienvenida-cum-birthday party was to be held at the newly-built Limpin’s Farmhouse, her mom’s pet project. It was the resort’s soft opening as well. The triple celebration was a family affair.
Night had fallen when we reached the town of Victoria. But we could not miss the farm resort’s sign at a corner even in the darkness. Perfy was not kidding; it truly was open to the public! We stopped the car to record the sign and our excitement for video posterity.
We had “baptized” the non-chlorinated pool the year before when it looked out of place in the middle of a sugarcane field. I had fond memories of the pool. It was where I taught myself to swim and where I first went, ahem, skinny dipping. With groundwater pumped into it, my eyes and other sensitive parts of my anatomy were free from chemical irritation. This time, we could see her mother’s vision almost completed with shower rooms and landscaping. Her mom’s green thumb had made its mark in the lovingly tended plants and flowers all over the place.
We hogged the pool all morning before the first excursionists of the day came. By then, we had retreated to our room beside the dining area that transformed into a multi-purpose hall when necessary. We mostly turned it into a Zumba studio. A lush Indian mango tree beside it practically begged my besh Danson to go mango picking. The city boy was not about to climb up the tree; he quickly produced a long stick with a wiry pouch from the back room. His efforts yielded a harvest of ten fruits, enough for our merienda and still had some to leave with our gracious hosts.
The moment of truth came late in the afternoon. Preparing to go back to the city, somehow we were convinced – one reluctantly, the rest excitedly – to go on a road trip to Ilocos, about four hours and more than 200 kilometers away. It helped that Tarlac was halfway from Manila to the northern province. It was almost midnight when we arrived at Candon where Perfy’s friend, Cheffy, was waiting to accommodate us in one big room at SkyLite Hotel conveniently located beside the highway. What made the unplanned trip a superhuman feat was the fact that Ki, who offered to drive, had developed intestinal issues a few hours before.
Ki was down and out by the time we all crashed into bed. There was no rest for the weary, however; we had more miles to cover the next day. He didn’t give up the wheel to someone else because driving somehow distracted him from his gurgling gut. In the next town, Santiago, we had a field day posing in the middle of dragon fruit and tobacco fields.
The real side trip was at San Esteban where we had a brush with history. Or rather, we brushed up on our history. A historical marker commemorated an incident on November 23, 1944 at the height of WW2, but it was news to me. The now-serene and cutely named Apatot Beach was the landing site of USS Gar, a US Navy submarine used to transport artillery, war supplies, and intelligence documents. The town of San Esteban at that time was a nerve center of a US Armed Forces in the Philippines infantry.
A replica of the submarine was prominently displayed at the beachfront. It was this barangay‘s claim to fame. According to the marker, one of the Filipino soldiers that led and guided the unloading of war equipment was San Esteban native Lazaro Guzman. Another name almost eclipsed him, though – former president and dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Surprised to learn about his participation in the historic operation, I took it with a grain of salt, given his dubious war medals and especially since he established the historical marker himself in 1982 while in power. In retrospect, I conceded he was a native of Ilocos; his wartime involvement would have been completely plausible.
Back at Santiago, we finally got to what we came for: Cheffy’s employment at yet another Santorini-inspired resort, Vitalis Villas. The white-and-blue cliffside villas had recently opened; some areas were still under construction. We just came for the afternoon, not for the night. There was not much to do aside from looking out to the blue sliver of sea that was Santiago Cove from the resort restaurant.
We came all the way to Ilocos; we might as well make the visit memorable. I never had an adventurous bone in my body; I especially detested the sensation of falling in any way. I figured if I had to make an exception for the first time, it would be through a zip line across this picturesque cove which connected Villas Vitalis to its sister resort, Vitalis White Sands. A golf cart took us to the zip line tower at a hilltop offering a vertigo-inducing view of the sea and the distant destination. Not for the faint-hearted, but I stuck to my guns. Ki skipped it for obvious reasons.
It was then I learned that the zip line figured in a plane crash four months earlier. A small plane got caught in the wire and plunged into the cove, killing a student pilot and her instructor (RIP to both). Macabre much, but what to do? I already had my harness on. I didn’t want to overthink; I just wanted to get it over and done with. And so I plunged 650 meters across the sea. The ride took about a minute, enough time to take in the over-water view. It turned out to be a pleasurable experience, not the stomach-up-my-throat sensation I had expected. As with most fears, there was actually nothing to fear. It would’ve been a wee bit anticlimactic if not for the spectacular view while suspended mid-air.
After our late lunch at Vitalis White Sands, we were on the road again to Vigan further north. As any tourist, we made several stops along the way. Passing through the town of Sta. Maria merited a visit to Our Lady of the Assumption Church, one of the country’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Walking up its 85 granite steps was a major part of its attraction. Indeed, Spanish era churches served more than a religious purpose. I would be inclined to believe they were primarily erected as citadels to protect seaside settlements from pirates and invaders.
Sta. Maria Church was not located at the town center in front of a plaza, as in most of our provincial towns. In Sta. Maria, the church lorded over the town at its hilltop location. It represented, quite literally, the role of Catholicism in the colonization of our islands. The town could easily be scanned from the top of the steps, much more from the church belfry.
The same could be said of St. Agustine Parish Church in Bantay. Curiously, the church’s belfry was several meters away. Bantay Tower, ensconced atop a smaller hill, was similarly used as a watchtower. In modern history, it had been known as one of FPJ’s favorite shooting locations for his action movies.
Finally, we made it to our final stop: Vigan, which was practically Calle Crisologo, the vortex of heritage-chasing tourism. Spanish era houses that had been preserved, restored, repurposed – at times perfectly like a movie set – took up about four blocks of the cobbled street. That was it. Despite a crowd of photobombers, the iconic street was still a screaming photo op. My camera battery had already died and I had to make do with my blurry phone shots. More than any touristy concern, I could only hope the locals took care of the horses pulling carriages of all sizes.
Cheffy had arranged for a tour of Hotel Luna, a block away from Calle Crisologo. Touted as the first and only museum hotel in the country, it delivered the goods. The building itself was antique built in 1882. A 20-foot mural by Rene Robles adorned an entire wall. Artworks by Filipino masters, dead AND alive (think Luna, Abueva, BenCab, Orlina) were displayed in several halls and corridors. We checked out some rooms that evoked bedrooms of centuries past. The pool was almost private – in the middle of an inner courtyard – if not for several floors of rooms opening up to its full view.
Alas, it was a long day AND a long way. Our guide did her best in showing and telling, but I was exhausted beyond any absorption and retention of historical information. It called for another visit or even a stay. We capped the evening with a dinner of bagnet before making our way back to Perfy’s hometown.
Our drive back to Tarlac and to Manila the next day was the trippiest of trips for Ki. He guzzled electrolytes and had to stop several times for toilet breaks. In the final leg of the epic road trip, he was pooped from pooping and just slumped under a palm tree in a pit stop along NLEx. I had to give it to Ki – driving with running bowels all the way to the finish line made him a LEGEND!