Vigan, the Philippines

March 7 – 11, 2022

“We’ve only just Vigan…traveling again.” There was no resisting the tired pun because, as fate would have it, this trip happened to be our first since the lockdown in March 2020. Finally, the pandemic curve had flattened enough to allow the opening of provincial borders – no swab tests, just vaccine cards required. The trip was so stress-free I slept through much of the six-hour Partas night bus (Super Deluxe with toilet) ride from Cubao. We got to Vigan at 4 AM.

TTT and Ki @ Calle Crisologo, Vigan
Partas Bus (P to P – Cubao to Vigan)

I had visited Vigan twice before, Ki enough times to call it a home away from home. He would even call it by its old name, Ciudad Fernandina. There was no pressure to check off a must-see list. We kept the trip chill this way:

Stay at the Suburb

Ki booked an Airbnb a few blocks away from the heritage circuit. We stayed among locals who kept regular hours, not a touristic schedule. That said, we found Vacanza Home all dark and deserted at the unholy hour of our arrival. Everybody was still sleeping soundly, except for the owner’s father, perhaps awakened by the CCTV alert, who let us crash a vacant room until our 2 PM check-in.

Vacanza Home @ Formoso St., Vigan
DIY Brekkie @ Vacanza Home

Ki immediately felt at home, looking out our bedroom window to a distant yet familiar view to him – the Abra River Gorge. He made breakfast at the kitchen downstairs with our supermarket haul. We chilled away punishingly hot afternoons at the balcony overlooking the neighborhood. Across the street, a bahay na bato with typically airy windows gave us a clear view of the upper floor, unheard of in Metro Manila where houses were fortified with iron grills.

Abra River Gorge View from Vacanza Home
Balcony View from Vacanza Home

We had Edz, the house manager, to thank for making our stay issue-free. She was on hand to lend assistance but also kept her distance to allow for some privacy. Best of all, she gave her cheesiest Paro Paro G pose for a selfie with us. Her toddler son, cute as a button, followed her around like a little shadow. Even the elderly neighbor was neighborly to us. She always smiled with an enthusiastic “Good morning!” when we got back in the afternoon.

Paro Paro G with Edz @ Vacanza Home
Vacanza Home @ Formoso St., Vigan

Chill at the Calle

Our favorite times of day to promenade along iconic Calle Crisologo were in the morning before tourist activity began and in the evening when everything was winding down. The colonial vibe was so strong without the crowds and with just the occasional calesa running past us. Ki still remembered the 1990s when the street was open to vehicular traffic and paved only with asphalt. Tourism development had since turned it into a laid-back cobbled pedestrian street.

Calle Crisologo @ Vigan
TTT and Ki @ Calle Crisologo
Calle Crisologo @ Vigan

My major beef about this heritage site was that it encompassed all of just four blocks of one street. This time, though, the surrounding streets, both parallel and perpendicular, had been retouched to match the Spanish-era vibe of the main calle. There was more to explore, although a day would suffice to cover everything.

I bought wooden back rollers for my sibs from the funny, not pushy staff of Popz Souvenir Shop along Calle Crisologo. I wondered about the second floor of these old buildings. She said they used to be residential but were now left unused. Perhaps, in my next visit, I could see what would become of that particular building, said to have been bought by former satrap Chavit Singson.

Popz Souvenir Shop @ Calle Crisologo
Calle Crisologo @ Vigan
Calle Crisologo by Night @ Vigan

There was nightlife at the calle, care of BarTech, the only restaurant that set dining tables al fresco in the evening. Ki got his beer fix; I had my cucumber juice. The drinks gave us an excuse to chill while people-watching: A white backpacker barely looked up from his laptop, a lipstick lesbian couple was quietly enjoying their date, a flamboyant transwoman and her barkada were making a ruckus.

Ki @ Calle Crisologo
Hideous Monobloc Chair (Edward Cabato) @ Calle Crisologo

The lamp-lit calle achieved more of the Spanish ambiance at night, if only the restobar blared traditional music rather than 80s retro. When I posted a photo on Facebook, a friend immediately made a stink about the unsightly Monobloc chairs:

Those hideous monoblock chairs have become definitive of Philippine traditional culture of reducticum. How hard is it for them find rattan chair or birch stools, are we reaching for the stars...After all, it is Vigan. Why have chairs for Tapsilog corners in the ghettos of Manila…This might be some economic apartheid. I won’t have to ask though. But clearly, the privileged class sits on hard wood furnitures.

Edward Cabato
Ki and TTT @ BarTech, Calle Crisologo
Ki and TTT @ Calle Crisologo

Hang Out at the Plazas

A departure from convention, Vigan had two plazas. Both were sun-baked at noon and thereabouts. Plaza Burgos, the smaller one beside Saint Paul Cathedral’s Bell Tower, was where we had our first empanada at the food court. Plaza Salcedo was the major one, surrounded by the Vigan Cathedral, the City Hall, and the Provincial Capitol as it were. How curious that these plazas honored a martyr for the country, Father Jose P. Burgos, and a Spanish conquistador, Juan de Salcedo. I thought it was very Filipino – making a hero out of the oppressed while idolizing the oppressor.

Saint Paul Cathedral Bell Tower @ Plaza Burgos, Vigan
Salcedo Obelisk and Saint Paul Cathedral @ Plaza Salcedo, Vigan
Dirty Ice Cream @ Plaza Salcedo, Vigan

Despite the heat (in the words of a foreign vlogger: “Google says 27 degrees but I’m dying!”), we hung out in these plazas. It was a non-intrusive way to immerse in local culture. We had no scruples about eavesdropping to conversations in Ilokano as words went over our heads. We jammed to old songs, some in Ilokano, blaring from a nearby loudspeaker. We cooled down with “dirty ice cream” and halo-halo from roaming vendors and, later that night, designer brew from a pop-up coffee shop appropriately called Kappe Rampa manned by teenagers.

One late afternoon, we watched an outdoor variety show by a local entertainment company, AVQ Productions. The host easily identified us as tourists (my touristy cap and arm guards were dead giveaways) and hollered a greeting in Tagalog. Later in the evening, we were treated to a zarzuela performed by local actors. What a surprise that the art form was still alive and well. It might as well be in Vigan. The city’s lifeblood, Calle Crisologo, was named after Mena Pecson Crisologo, a renowned Ilokano novelist who also wrote zarzuelas.

AVQ Productions @ Plaza Salcedo, Vigan
Kappe Rampa Pop-Up @ Plaza Burgos, Vigan

Eat, Eat, and Eat Some More

Architectural heritage could only go so much. The rest of the time was dedicated to food stops, the first of which was at Plaza Burgos Food Court in the morning of our arrival. What better way to start our day than having Vigan longganisa for breakfast? They served the small, rounded variety of this native sausage. It got along famously with fried rice, sunny side up, and coffee (in sachets only though). What set this longganisa from others was the use of homegrown cane vinegar and garlic in its traditional preparation.

Okoy, the pancake-shaped mix of deep fried shrimps and eggs, was another specialty eaten by itself (as snack) or paired with rice (as meal). Ilokano cuisine, I found, was known for mostly fried specialties. I wondered about the incidence of heart disease in the region.

Vigan Longganisa Breakfast @ Plaza Burgos Food Court
TTT Having Okoy @ Plaza Burgos Food Court
Casa Jardin @ Vigan

Of course, no one could escape the famous Vigan empanada. Who would want to skip this tasty treat anyway? We had it almost daily, but the first one was at Casa Jardin for a dose of colonial ambiance along with it. But how was the touted empanada? The galapong wrap, fried to a crisp, contained a healthier veggie-heavy filling. The dish used two of my favorite ingredients – toge or mung bean sprouts and monggo or mung beans. The meat filling were cuts of longganisa, the skinless kind.

Empanada and Okoy @ Casa Jardin, Vigan
TTT @ Marsha’s Delicacies and 1995 Studio Cafe

My love-hate relationship with all things fried made me ambivalent about bagnet or deep fried pork belly, perhaps the food most associated with Ilokano cuisine. It was practically chicharon as a meal. Apart from the roadside snacks of it, I had the designer version at Marsha’s Delicacies where they paired it with tofu. I felt I betrayed the dish for getting more of the tofu than the bagnet. Speaking of designer dishes, I also had Vigan longganisa rice, actually a meal in itself.

We didn’t have to move for coffee and dessert at 1995 Studio Cafe, which shared the space with Marsha’s. The waiter explained that the owners belonged to the same family. We also noticed there were chevron-shaped holes around the table corners. Again, the waiter explained they were umbrella holders. The ading schooled us in so many ways.

Bagnet Tofu Sisig and Vigan Longganisa Rice @ Marsha’s Delicacies, Vigan
House Pizza @ 1995 Studio Cafe, Vigan
Iced Raspberry Latte @ 1995 Studio Cafe
Grandpa’s Inn @ Vigan

Our last meal in Vigan was at the ancestral house-turned-heritage hotel Grandpa’s Inn. Beside the lobby was Cafe Uno, a quaint, brick-walled coffee shop that also served meals. I went for poqui-poqui (mashed eggplant with egg) mainly for its naughty-sounding name in Tagalog. The waitress suggested Vigan longganisa as a perfect pair for it. Again? But we were in Vigan, so yes I went for it – again. I relished the ubiquitous longganisa, to be honest.

Poqui Poqui and Vigan Longganisa @ Cafe Uno at Grandpa’s Inn
Braso de Mercedes @ Cafe Uno

But yes, there came a point when we craved for more pedestrian, familiar tastes, which took us to McDonald’s for a Korean burger and Milkyard for Korean milktea. The irony was not lost on me. I realized I considered actual foreign food as my default fare.

K-burger @ McDonald’s Vigan
Milktea @ Milkyard, Vigan

Meet the Locals

Our digs in the suburb allowed us to venture to residential neighborhoods and be privy to the normal, daily life of Bigueños. Ki led me on to the banks of Mestizo River, part of the network of waterways used for trade in history. Of late, a sightseeing cruise plied through the river, but the operation was halted even before the pandemic. A local man said, in its place, some sort of Disneyland was to be built on the opposite shore. Heritage was not enough to keep tourists, apparently.

TTT @ Mestizo River, Vigan
Walking by Mestizo River @ Vigan

We bumped into some menfolk fishing with dart guns. One showed off his catch – a small tilapia still flailing and bleeding. Hunting always shocked me for its violence and carnage. Further on in our stroll, we passed by an abattoir. I could not and would not even peek in.

Fisherman and Marites the Pupper @ Mestizo River, Vigan
Cuddling Kids @ Mestizo River, Vigan

Meeting locals was not exclusive to one species. A dog with cocked ears literally checked us out as we approached the riverside neighborhood. Was it curiosity or suspicion? Good thing we never got to know. A pupper named Marites, though, gave us a much warmer welcome. I also spotted a pair of kids – young goats, not human – cuddled in the noontime heat on the sandy footpath. City-bound for much of my life, I was reminded that animals also had personalities.

That led me to comfort an albino pony, one of the horses pulling carriages at Calle Crisologo. I asked the calesa driver if he had a name. It was Rolly. He was small and young. It broke my heart that he had his entire life ahead of him in blinders, saddled with the load of the calesa on his shoulders. Another was an older female named Rosalinda. Her blinders could not hide her sad eyes. She would alternately rest her hooves while standing and waiting for calesa riders. I could not bring myself to support their slavery, but if not drawing calesa, what other, perhaps harsher, abuse would they have to endure or even die for? Perhaps the management of Calle Crisologo could showcase the stables and the care of these horses as part of the tourist circuit, if only to assuage the guilt of animal lovers.

TTT Comforting Rolly @ Calle Crisologo
Ki with Rosalinda @ Calle Crisologo

On such a somber note, we ended our Vigan trip and caught another Partas (an emordnilap of “satrap”) night bus to Cubao. Ki originally wanted to extend our trip to Baguio. We checked several sources, both in person and online, and found that it was easier to go back to Manila then to Baguio than directly from Vigan, which was perhaps a quarter of the distance. Another realization was that inter-provincial travel by public transportation in this country was still backward.

Thank you for reading! Your support is much appreciated. Donate now:

Donate Button with Credit Cards