The Churches of Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur

Living reminders of a colonial past ensure an unforgettable road trip

Both Ilocos Sur and Ilocos Norte are extremely popular tourist destinations. Their infrastructure is very good, native delicacies abound and a variety of local handicrafts provide memorable souvenirs.

The region is also renowned for its heritage churches and structures. They say that when traveling, the journey is as significant as the destination.  Nowhere is it more true than in this unique patch of Northern Luzon where almost every town has something to offer.
Before the city of Candon – roughly over 300 km from Manila – is Sta. Lucia, formerly known as Dumangague. The church here is worth a visit since it is the only one in the Ilocos region with a dome.

Candon, 61 km south of Vigan, also makes a wonderful pit stop. A major hub, it boasts bustling food chains and snack stands that allow travelers to restock munchies for the rest of their trip. Candon Church is another tourist magnet. Originally built in the 1700s, it has undergone several renovations due to earthquakes and the wear and tear of time. The interiors reveal paintings of the 20 mysteries of the rosary on canvas by Redentor Castillo, which were unveiled in 2007 and measure almost 150 feet long.

Halfway between Candon and Vigan is the town of Santa Maria that features Santa Maria Church perched on a hill and accessed by an impressive staircase. Declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1993, the sturdy brick structure served as fortification back in the Spanish times.

Vigan, established by the Spanish colonizer Juan de Salcedo in 1572, is a favourite base for travelers to explore the surrounding countryside. Recently voted one of the New 7 Wonders – Cities of the World, along with Beirut, Havana and Kuala Lumpur among others, Vigan has worked tirelessly to preserve its image as a cultural gem. Downtown, Crisologo Street has been maintained as closely as possible to its original state. A major tourist area, nearly the entire street is lined with shops showcasing furniture, souvenirs and handicrafts. Vigan Cathedral, erected in 1790, retains most of its original features despite several renovations.  It has 12 ornately carved altars.

From Vigan, quick trips to two more heritage church sites, Bantay and San Vicente, are easily possible. The Bantay Belfry, which served as a watchtower, is now a popular attraction that invites visitors to climb to the top and enjoy a panoramic view of the area. (Pictured on page 25, Travel Section opener.)

With the Ilocos region prone to earthquakes over the centuries, bell towers were often built away from the main church since these were usually the first casualties due to their smaller base and superior height.

The baroque style church in the quaint town of San Vicente was built in 1795. Despite a series of renovations, it has kept an unmistakable old world charm.
Heading north towards Laoag from Vigan, the small town of Badoc with an interesting heritage church beckons. The church’s façade has been painted and renovated, and the unique “earthquake baroque” buttresses – a term coined especially for Philippine churches due to the country’s propensity for earthquakes – along the side walls remain an outstanding feature.   
Back on the national road, one reaches Paoay, famous for the St. Augustine Church. One of the most recognisable in the country, its distinctive architecture is said to resemble the Javanese style found in Borobudur Temple. Equally unique are the 24 massive buttresses – each about 1.67 meters thick.  It was completed in 1710 but underwent repairs after the earthquakes of 1865 and 1885. In 1993, it was designated a Unesco World Heritage site.

Laoag City is the capital of Ilocos Norte and its political and commercial center.  Many people opt to fly to the city from Manila to avoid the long eight-hour car trip.  The church of Laoag is likewise a heritage jewel that has undergone several reconstructions due to damage by fire and earthquakes.  The current structure was repaired in 1873 and restored in 1880.  Its bell tower, located 85 meters away, is said to be sinking due to the sandy foundation.  

About 7 km east of Laoag lies the town of Sarrat, where one finds the largest church in the province. Built in 1779, Santa Monica Church has one of the longest naves in the country. The interior features great wooden trusses, most of them dating back to the 18th century. The adjacent convento was converted into a museum.

Also to the east of Laoag is the small town of Piddig.  Its heritage church is located atop a small hill in a beautiful  open area.  Sadly, the building was recently decommissioned due to deteriorating structural integrity.

Traveling further north, one reaches the town of Bacarra where the bell tower of St. Andrew the Apostle Church clearly shows the ravages of earthquakes, the most recent one inflicting further damage. To highlight what is left of their heritage, the local leaders converted the ruins into a tourist attraction, using spotlights to enhance the area.   

These are but a few of the old Roman Catholic churches to be found in the Ilocos region.  When one stands in front of these magnificent reminders of our heritage and faith, one cannot help but be filled with awe, marvel at their sheer bulk and wonder: how did they do it?  

Without benefit of modern construction equipment, the missionaries, side by side with the locals, toiled to build these churches. Construction took many years of hard work: each block of stone hewn to an exact measure, and primitive cement that would last centuries made from, among other things, crushed seashells, eggshells and egg whites.  

Even as the missionaries shared their knowledge of architecture, the Filipinos surprised them with their craftsmanship and artistry in creating these edifices of both faith and culture – lasting treasures indeed for generations to enjoy.