Northern Disclosure: Ilocos Norte

a spot of zen — in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

Some of the best trips are borne from a minimum of preparation and a maximum of indiscretion. Planning an almost last-minute trip up to Ilocos Norte during the busiest time of the year is not the least stressful mission one can undertake, especially with foreigners in tow. It seemed rather foolhardy already, exploring longganiza land, famed for its pork sausages and dishes, while dragging along a Jewish friend. Defying the Holy Week rush, braving bumpy bus and tricycle rides, shrugging off dodgy weather, and coping with the peculiarities of Ilocano cuisine and culture, we persevered, arrived in one piece, and by Jove and Jehovah, resolved to have fun!

the foam can be deceiving — in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

Laoag, the provincial capital, is a sleepy, simple city, a cozy, convenient pit stop from which one can plot out a game plan for the region. We spent a night at the comfy, friendly Palazzo De Laoag to recover from the tiring trip, get our bearings, and run some errands. For our first proper meal in Ilocos, we trooped to local culinary legend La Preciosa to try out some authentic Ilocano cooking. The funnily-named Poki-poki, a dish of eggplant sautéed with eggs, onions and tomatoes, was a hit among our quasi-kosher little party.

the ilocos sky and surf change with the winds — in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

The next day in our adventure, we continued north to the crown jewel of Ilocos Norte – the beach town of Pagudpud. My previous tour of Ilocandia had only taken me as far up as Laoag, so this stretch was just as fresh to me as my foreign charges. As each town whizzed past our windows, we’d catch such show-stopping sights as waves crashing dramatically into cliffs, wide green swathes of rice and tobacco fields, the majestic lighthouse at Cape Bojeador and the windmills at Bangui. As we crossed over what seemed like a low hill, descending into a lush valley, the very air and light seemed to change. This was not the dry, dusty Ilocos Norte that textbooks teach, but a tropical coastal ecosystem all its own, an island within an island.

holy hole.

Reaching Pagudpud proper, we crammed ourselves into a tricycle and vroomed in the general direction of the beach. Whizzing down a narrow but solid road, picturesque hills, farms and flowers on either side, we had to dodge the odd water buffalo or farmer laying out rice stalks to dry, the grains forming golden sidewalks by the wayside. The resorts soon started mushrooming along our path. We caught glimpses of the coastline and the tops of palm trees, but the surf remained just a sound. So we dodged souvenir stands and scaled sand dunes, finally skidding down onto the seafront. And there she was…

Saud beach, immortalized incognito by Filipino cinema through many a melodramatic romance or cheesy musical extravaganza. But my movie memories paled in comparison to actually standing on this sunny spot, the smell of the South China Sea filling my lungs. Although never quite achieving the level of popularity and development as other Philippine beaches, there’s still something special about Saud. Even during peak season, with hordes of infant young building sandcastles and shrieking on banana boats in front of the main drag of resorts, it’s only a short stroll from its center to secluded coves and isolated stretches of beach, where you’d be lucky to stumble upon a lone fisherman or hermit crab. Wherever you choose to chill out along Saud, the windmills of Bangui spin lazily across the horizon, mesmerizing one into a quixotic daze. It was around that point, hypnotized by the whirl, when we decided to stay an extra day.

paying their respects to the religious figure

Maybe we could have just bummed on the beach indefinitely, but the rest of Pagudpud had a few more postcard-ready sights worthy of mention. So back into the trusty tricycle we go, the tight squeeze and twisty turns tempered by the bracing coastal breeze and wide blue sky overhead.

Kabigan falls

First stop on our hop was Kabigan Falls, a must-do if the tourism brochures were to be believed. There’s a mandatory paid guide for the hike up, and we got a particularly Nazi-like escort who kept up a no-nonsense pace as if she were leading us to a concentration camp. But as a young sage/popstar recently sang: “Ain’t about how fast I get there. Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side. It’s the climb!” I guess “Fraulein Falls Guide” was no Miley fan, so dutifully trudge up we did, clear streams and cows rambling calmly beside us, cloud-capped hills looming in our faces, with enough vividly-colored vegetation in every direction to get green burned into your vision. The 1.2 kilometers of exhilarating scenery along the way made the falls themselves seem almost like an anticlimax.

Patapat viaduct, scene of many a dramatic shoot — in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

it may be blue but it sure ain’t calm. Maira-ira beach

Heading back down, the pressure of finding our way up gone, we hiked down at our own pace, breathing in great lungfuls of the fresh, moist air., practically smelling the oxygen. Next tricycle stop was the Patapat viaduct, yet another spot that lends itself well to cinematic purposes (a popular Korean TV series filmed its big romantic climax here). This elevated stretch of highway hovers 31 meters above Pasaleng Bay, snaking along the Cordillera Mountain Range for 1.3 kilometers. The view of tempestuous sea against towering stone, dramatic clouds brushing the peaks of forested hills, is truly Wuthering Heights-worthy. From there we motored on through a series of striking rock formations, eventually arriving at the vaunted blue lagoon at Maira-ira beach. Smaller and more secluded than Saud, Maira-ira’s attraction used to be its undeveloped isolation. But for good or ill, commercialism has crept into this once serene and secret spot. Several many-roomed resorts have sprung up just over the past couple of years and are seeing brisk business. Whereas before you could lie on the sand and hear nothing but the surf, now the lagoon resounds with laughing vacationers, howling in glee as the strong currents carry them back and forth like a carnival ride. Throughout the coast, we saw waves of all shapes and sizes, some powerful enough to challenge even top surfers.

the waves come in

But it’s body-boarding that seems to really have caught on, with bronzed mermen tirelessly throwing themselves into the water again and again, trying to catch that perfect patch of surf. As sunset falls, the restaurants and bars turn on their night lights, parents tuck in their tired kids, and the adults sit out under the stars for dinner and drinks. Nowhere near as bustling as Boracay or Puerto Galera, evenings at Pagudpud are more wholesome than fulsome. Depending on your outlook, you may either be pleasantly or disappointedly surprised at the dearth of foreign backpackers or big tour groups. We did stumble upon some raucous shows and impressive live music during our stay, but this was more the exception than the norm. For those bewitched by this northern siren, the beach, the breeze, and a beer are all that are necessary to bliss out.

– text and photos by Jude Defensor. first published in What’s On & Expat Newspaper, 2009

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