Vigan—that old, historic, and renowned destination up north. It’s reminiscent of our ancient Spanish-influenced past, with centuries-long residential and commercial architectures or edifices spread along cobblestoned lanes. Even in the midst of touch-screen era—it’s a timeless subject, with its well-preserved structures and dramatic historical ambiance.

Visiting Vigan is, without a doubt, like setting foot in a time machine that zaps you back to specific pages in history in which the mestizos and mestizas were the untouchables and the epitomes of the elite and beautiful. But while living in the past, even for the space of time spent traversing its cobbled streets, is a priceless experience, maximizing your enjoyment of your trip to Vigan much, much more than the sum of its parts—or, in this case, the sum of its sites.


WHAT’S IN A NAME?

There’s an interesting anecdote on how the name of Vigan was derived. According to the official website of Vigan City, the name Vigan originated from a simple confusion between a Spaniard and a native. The Spaniard was walking along the banks of Mestizo River, when he had stopped by to ask the native: “Como se llama usted de esta lugar?”—basically, the Spaniard was asking for the name of the place.

Wondering what the Spaniard meant but noticing the Spaniard was pointing to a particular plant, the bewildered native had answered in his Ilocano dialect, “Bigaa Apo.” In Ilocano, Bigaa refers to a gigantic Taro plant that belongs to the Gabi family and thrives on the banks of the Mestizo River, while Apo is a term to address a person, an elder, or authority with respect. The Spanish conquistador Captain Juan de Salcedo deduced that the area’s name was Vigan from this case of “lost in translation.”


A BLAST FROM THE PAST


Situated on the west coast of Northern Luzon and fronting the South China Sea, Vigan is the capital city of the province of Ilocos Sur. Among all Philippine towns, Vigan is the most extensive, the oldest, and the only surviving historic city in the country. In pre-colonial times, Vigan was considered a significant coastal trading post. Chinese junks were already sailing to Isla de Bigan from the South China Sea by way of the Mestizo River which encapsulates the island long before the Spanish galleons dropped anchor in Philippine waters. Sea-faring merchants were on board to trade exotic goods from Asian kingdoms like China, India, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia, Indochina, and Arabia for beeswax, gold, and other products brought down from the mountains by the natives of the Cordilleras. 


MULTI-CULTURAL BIGUEÑOS

Bigueños, as the natives of Vigan are referred to, have a multi-cultural bloodline because of the intermarriages of locals with conquistadors and other foreign traders, particularly the Chinese. They are recognized as being very hard-working, friendly, and thrifty. They are Ilocano-speakers, but can also converse both in Filipino and English, so it won’t be hard to talk to them when you come for a visit.



HIT THE ROAD OR TAKE A FLIGHT

Taking a road trip to Vigan, either by private car or public bus, is the most common way to get there from Metro Manila. It may take you several hours to finally reach the heritage city, considering factors such as point of origin, speed of travel, and traffic. When taking a bus from Manila, travel time may range between 7 and 10 hours. We recommend midnight trips because travel time is shorter; however, the convenience of taking the red-eye trip means giving up the nature-watching you’d otherwise be able to do during the day. Buses that pass by or go straight to Vigan and other Ilocos towns are Partas Trans. Co., Dominion Bus Corp., Maria de Leon, and Viron Transit, among several others.

For travelers who prefer to take to the skies, this report from Manila Bulletin stating that Cebu Pacific Air and other airlines may soon fly to Vigan via Mindoro Airport is certainly good news. At present, however, only private planes and chartered flights operate in Mindoro Airport.

Once you get to Vigan, public transportation includes tricycles, jeepneys, and horse-drawn carriages called calesas. You may notice that tricycles are color-coded in order to identify the municipality these rides belong to. Here’s a run-down: green for Vigan, yellow for Caoayan, blue for Sta. Catalina, red for Bantay, and orange for San Vicente.


WEATHER, WEATHER LANG

Wondering what to wear to Vigan and what’s the best time to visit? Vigan’s dry season is from November to April, while the wet season is from May to October, so it’s best to pack appropriately. In these times of unreliable forecasts, though, it’s probably a good idea to pack outfits suited to transitional weather.


SAFE AND SOUND SLEEP OVER

One place to stay when visiting the historic city is My Father’s House Dormitelle, owned by Mr. Apolinario Go. Found in San Ildefonso, a quick 15-minute tricycle ride away from Vigan, it is a two-storey garden hotel that assures you of absolutely clean, safe, and sound accommodation. Their staff can help you even find your way around the city and neighboring towns. The dormitelle, as the name suggests, is home to a number high school students from the Philippine Science High School Ilocos Region in San Ildefonso.


FOOD TRIP!

While Calle Crisologo, that street chock full of age and legacy, is a definite must-see, Vigan is also a great place to food trip! So if you’re on a diet, ditch it for now! You wouldn’t want to miss the famous empanada, salty longganisa, or crispy bagnet—most travelers leave the historic city with the taste of these delicacies completely etched on their taste buds . For vegetarians, the dinengdeng and pakbet are a hit as well. Bigueño cuisine is something you definitely won’t regret sampling, for all your hips and waistline may not thank you for the additional inches!

Whether you’re a foodie on a budget or not, dining choices come in heaps. Of course, you can never go wrong with the usual Jollibee, McDonald’s and Max’s Restaurant, but taking a chance on local restaurants in Vigan is a commendable dining adventure. Café Leona and Uno Grille are reasonably priced yet superb local restaurants we have tried and can give you the thumbs-up on. For street food dining, you may want to try Plaza Empanadaan, known for its empanadas and other local street treats. From Tuesday through Saturday in front of Café Leona, you get to enjoy your dining experience al fresco—a favorite among tourists.


FOR FESTIVE HEARTS

A festival buff wouldn’t want to miss the cultural festivities in Vigan, such as the week-long Viva Vigan Festival of the Arts or Binatbatan Festival every first week of May, the Vigan City Fiesta on January 22, and World Heritage Cities Solidarity Day on September 8—all for the purposes of strengthening cultural appreciation and awareness and promoting local tourism.


ARTS AND CRAFTS

Among the few surviving traditional arts and crafts of the city is abel-weaving. Abel-weaving is a delicate process which results in one of the finest native products in the country, which the city is known for. Cotton yarn or sagut is woven to make abel fabric—these are 100 percent local since northern Philippines is known for growing cotton plants whose flowers are processed to produce yarn. It’s said that the Spanish weaving industry in the galleon trade era was almost killed by the surprisingly high demand for the handwoven abel Iloko products. People from the Vigan barangays of Camangaan, San Pedro, and Mindoro continue to weave abel to this day.


The burnay or pagburnayan industry in Vigan is also a huge arts and crafts attraction among tourists. Chinese artisans were said to have brought burnay technology to Vigan, set up the cottage industry, and relied on the locals for labor and supplies of clay. Art enthusiasts should definitely visit Ruby Pottery and meet owner Fidel Go, a National Folk Artist who was recognized as a Manlilikha ng Bayan for his jar designs.

The craftsmen and women of Vigan are also known for collecting and restoring antique furniture, along with the production of native bags, home decorations, and other local artsy pieces by Bigueños. These items, which are mostly found at the tiendesitas in Calle Crisologo, sell like hotcakes to tourists and locals alike. But to get the best deals on some of your pasalubong, make sure you polish your haggling skills.


EDUCATION AND RECREATION IN ONE

Even while in the company of family and friends, a summer vacation in Vigan can turn into a pleasurable educational and recreational trip—what with tourist attractions like Calle Crisologo or the Heritage Village, Baluarte and its roster of supplementary attractions, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Crisologo Museum, and other museums and religious sites. Most of these don’t require entrance fees; however, you may encounter one or two that may ask for contribution for maintenance and upkeep. If you would like to get extensive information about these attractions, you can also visit the Provincial Tourism Center, Ilocos Sur Tourism Information Center, or the Vigan Heritage Commission.


TOURISM’S PRIDE


Vigan is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. Still maintaining much of the atmosphere of its centuries-long existence (the city was founded in the 16th century), it has been referred to as Asia’s “best-preserved example of a planned Spanish colonial town.” According to the UNESCO website, Vigan architecture reflects the fusion of cultural elements from the Philippines, China, and Europe, which resulted in a culture and townscape that is incomparable in the East or Southeast Asia.

And city officials and citizens aim to be the primary tourist destination in Region 1 and to uphold its recognition as a World Heritage Site, so Vigan is continually being developed by the local government. For instance, the Vigan Heritage Conservation Program is dedicated to maintaining the authenticity of the city; it creates legislative security measures and embarks on doable projects that help preserve the city’s cultural heritage. Furthermore, the Vigan Tourism Council is being empowered, beautification projects are being implemented, and a Vigan Culture and Trade Center has been established to assist in improving tourism in the area.

Vigan is a treasure found, kept, and restored—and we have only uncovered half of it. Check out the photos in the slide show below for just a brief glimpse at the sights that await intrepid travelers up north.

(All photos by Lorela U. Sandoval)

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