CLUTCHING THE METAL FRAME of our 4×4 navigating a rough terrain, I try to keep my balance. The vehicle hits the bottom of a sand dune and scatterings of beige sand are strewn from the tires. The force of the descent sends my chest hitting the metal frame and I let out a weak “ow.” I forget for a moment that I am in a sandy coastal desert and imagine myself either in the Middle East or in the Australian Outback.
But we haven’t left the Philippines; we haven’t even left Luzon. We’re in Laoag doing a tour of the sand dunes in the western part of the city. It has been barely an hour since we arrived by bus after an overnighter from Manila, and now I’m questioning the wisdom of embarking on an intense activity after 10 hours on the road without at least eating breakfast first.
Standing on the back of the jeep with me are my brother Joseph and our friend Dave. Joseph, a law student, isn’t exactly the adventurous type but I can see excitement in his eyes. Tightening our grasp on the metal supports, we howl as we plunge into another steep descent.
THE LAST TIME I WAS IN THE ILOCOS PROVINCES was in 2009, when I did the classic Pagudpud-Laoag-Vigan tour with some cousins. It has become one of my favorite trips as the tourist spots in the Ilocos Region really do live up to the hype heaped upon them, particularly in Ilocos Norte, where a collection of white-sand beaches and gorgeous rock formations are deserving of superlatives.
So, on a long November holiday, when heads of Asia-Pacific states descend upon Manila for an economic meeting, Joseph, Dave and I head north for another go in Ilocandia, as the traditional lands of the Ilocano people are sometimes dubbed.
Travelers to Ilocos often start in Laoag, which, aside from being the capital of Ilocos Norte, is the only city in the region with an international airport. With upscale hotels, restaurants, and now malls, it’s also a convenient base for explorations around Ilocos Norte, and neighboring provinces Ilocos Sur, Cagayan and Abra. But that’s about it.
“Aside from the sand dunes, there’s really not much to see here,” our tricycle driver Roxy says. It’s true. Laoag may be steeped in history, particularly concerning former President Ferdinand E. Marcos, who is still highly regarded in these parts. But that history has been buried within the concrete structures and unexceptional modern trappings, and the historical sites are technically in neighboring towns, particularly in Batac and Paoay, where we spend the rest of the morning.
AT AROUND PAST TWELVE – I think, because I don’t mind not looking at my phone when I’m exploring – Roxy takes us to the market to buy a half-kilo of bagnet (roasted pork belly), then to a streetside diner for lunch. With Ilocano cuisine topped perhaps only by Kapampangan and Bicolano in terms of prestige, if not taste, eating out in Ilocos is always something to look forward to. Ilocano dishes, reflective of the people, are simple and make use of the natural bounty in their surroundings.
Today, in this diner packed with locals, we order pinakbet (a vegetable stew of eggplants, string beans, bitter gourd and okra) and poqui-poqui (a salad composed of grilled eggplant, tomatoes and onions), along with rice to accompany our bagnet.
When we finish our lunch, Roxy drives to the bus terminal. We’re departing for Pagudpud, where we plan to stay the next two days before backtracking to Vigan in Ilocos Sur. A bus conductor immediately calls us to a bus waiting for the last few passengers to fill the remaining empty seats. We climb the bus, take our seats and feel the vehicle roar to life as it heads towards the northernmost town of Luzon island.