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Vigan | Heritage Stewardship Above Selfies and Jump Shots

With the onslaught of imposed industrialization, climate change, political dramas and mass tourism, how long will the Heritage City of Vigan survive?
The hordes of tourists crisscrossing the cobblestone alleyways and swarming in and out of the museums have obviously lost the quaint town experience I expected of Vigan. Many visitors flock in for Facebook and Instagram-perfect selfies. These corner-by-corner narcissistic indulgences drowned me down the drain.

Vigan is more than just old buildings frozen in time. It is the repository of Ilocano 17thcentury affluence, the catacomb of Spanish power, the vault of Chinese Creole business dominance and garrison of World War II’s love and struggles. Today, Vigan thrives on its heritage tourism. However, it is an equivocal opportunity needing careful balance between economic sustainability and mindful attention to impacts on its cultural and historical integrity.
Over plates of Ilocano favorites, I sat with Edmar, a Vigan local and writer at, discussing on how to take Vigan less its Disneyfied feel possible. While we are proud that it is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for being the best-preserved example of a planned Spanish colonial town in Asia, most tourists here, especially Filipinos do not really care about why such honor came about. What matters to most of them is the World War II love story that saved Vigan from being burned by the Japanese kempeitai and taking wonderful photos of ancestral buildings as backdrop to their jump shots.
Most, if not all of the travel guides about Vigan, direct its readers on the easiest routes, either starting or terminating in the famed Calle Crisologo. However, following the historical significance of 16th-18th century quadricula layout of Spanish settlements, everything pivots around the public square with the church as its focal point. Following this route will teach us the relevance of each building relative to its position to economic, political and religious powers. All walks must begin in Plaza de Salcedo, in honor of Juan de Salcedo, who founded in 1572, as Justicia Mayor de esta Provincia de Ylocos, Villa Fernandina de Vigan. At night, the plaza gathers its guests and locals as it glows to a wonderful light and fountain show.
St. Paul Metropolitan Cathedral sits in the northern end of the square. Built in 1574, this baroque church survived earthquakes, fire and war that took painstaking years to rebuild and got fortified. Adjacent to it is the Arzobispado de Nueva Segovia or the Archbishop’s Palace. It holds precious ecclesiastical reliquaries of the Archdiocese of Ilocos Sur. At the back of the church is St. Paul College, of what used to be called Colegio de Ninas. A smaller square called Plaza Burgos lies beside the church where its belfry stands. Usually an oversight, Museo de San Pablo also sits at the back of St. Paul Cathedral. It houses religious artifacts collected from various churches in Ilocos.
Administrative buildings such as the old municipio, now the City Hall and the casa real or the Provincial Capitol flank the eastern wing and southern tail of the plaza. Walking past the UNESCO marker on Plaza Trese Martires, leads you to the Burgos Museum, the birthplace and residence of Father Jose Burgos, one of the 3 martyr priests executed in Bagumbayan. This museum houses Iloco and Tinggian artifacts.
Walking back towards Quezon Avenue will bring you to its busy business district. Taking this road straight to the end will get you to Simbaan a Bassit or literally a small church. It is a cemetery chapel on the southwestern side of the Liberation Boulevard.
Note: This is quite a long stretch; you may opt to take the tricycle (rickshaw).
Just right on the next block from Simbaan a Bassit is Crisologo Museum. The Crisologos are political and business figures in Ilocos Sur. This ancestral home, converted into a museum, holds important family memorabilia and typical Iloco furnishings.
Note: Within walking distance.
Heading east from Crisologo Museum is a road that leads to Quema House along Quirino Boulevard. Reflective of 18th-century architectural designs, Quema House is one of the best examples of bahay-na-bato. Walking westward on the same boulevard is Syquia Mansion, the Vigan residence of the 6th President of the Philippines, Elpidio Quirino. This house speaks of grandness, from spatial arrangements to furnishings, befitting a president.
Just 2 blocks south of Syquia Mansion is an alley that intersects with the famous Calle Crisologo. It is referred to as Mestizo District or the Heritage Village. This long strip of cobblestone pathway is decked with heritage buildings dating from 16thcentury. This made Vigan earned its UNESCO recognition.
Note: The intersection leads you somewhere in the middle of Calle Crisologo. The best way to see its entire stretch is to walk back towards Liberation Avenue. If you follow this itinerary, at this time of the day you should be hitting Calle Crisologo under the softer sun.  
Calle Crisologo terminates eastward to the ancestral home of Leona Florentino, the Mother of Philippine Women’s Literature. Her home is now converted into a restaurant called Café Leona serving Filipino and Asian fusion dishes.
A day is never enough to see all of Vigan. Infact, some of it sits on the outskirts of the poblacion. Pagburnayanis Vigan’s showcase of its excellence in making earthen storage jars for vinegar and Ilocano wine called basi. These pockets of pottery workshops are located on the southwestern end of Liberation Boulevard.
Ilocos Sur is synonymous to Chavit Singson and so is its open to public zoo named Baluarte. Roaming deer, ponies, ostrich, peacocks are its main attractions. Other caged animals like Bengal tigers can also be viewed in Baluarte.
Moving further westward is a road that leads to the river where a 45-minute Mestizo River Cruise takes you back to Vigan’s rich story that flourished on its banks.
Within the same plane as Pagburnayan and Baluarte but a bit further up are the famous abel weaving workshops. Abel is a handwoven tapestry popular among the Ilocanos.
Popular for its bonsai and other tropical ornamental plants, The Hidden Garden in Barangay Bulala gathers guests who love to see the horticulture bounty of Vigan. It also has a cafe frequented by tourists and locals.
Outside Vigan is the famous town of Bantay where the famous bell tower of Sanctuario de Nuestra de Caridad of St. Agustine Parish. It sits on a hill and overlooks on the nearby towns like Vigan, the Province of Abra and the West Philippine Sea.
The best way to cap the day is to wait for the sunset at Mindoro Beach.
Note: If you are not driving around Vigan, hire a tricycle (rickshaw). This usually ranges between P125-P150 per hour. The sites on the outskirts of the poblacion sit quite afar from each other. This saves you time and effort.
Filipinos are blessed with architectural wealth such as Vigan. But heritage stewardship is everybody’s duty. As responsible travelers, we must do our part in ensuring positive environmental responses and share its history. While there are grants from heritage conservation agencies, I personally believe that Vigan must stretch its development outside the poblacion to unclog the heritage village. With the uncontrollable influx of tourists coming in each day, the pressure it takes on its centuries old buildings is too much. Therefore, foot traffic in museums must be properly directed and motorized vehicles on the cobblestones of the heritage village must be prohibited.
Vigan may have survived the bombings of World War II, the countless earthquakes and fires of time, but will it last longer with mass tourism?
From Manila (Private Vehicle/Approx 408 KM)
  • Take the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX). Exit to Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX).
  • In SCTEX, drive straight to the newly opened Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway (TPLEX). This will lead you to the exit in Paniqui Tarlac. As of Dec. 23, 2013 TPLEX terminates in Paniqui but once completed, it will end in Rosario, Pangasinan.
  • Take the McArthur Highway passing through Urdaneta in Pangasinan.
  • Follow the national highway that leads to La Union. You will drive past Bauang, San Fernando and Candon.
  • Further up north, you will arrive in Vigan, Ilocos Sur.
From Manila (Commuting of Public Transport/6 hours)
  • Take the bus from Cubao Terminal to Vigan, Ilocos Sur. Bus lines such as Victory and Partas regularly ply this route. Alternatively, there are northbound buses in Manila area such as Florida Bus Line.
Via Airplane from Manila
  • Fly to Laoag Airport. Check the web for schedule and tariff.
  • Drive or take the bus from Laoag to Vigan. This should just take you about 2 hours travel time.
  • If you are taking the poblacion, especially around the heritage village, I strongly recommend walking around. This helps us save on the pressure and vibration of traffic on its age-old structures.
  • Tricycles (rickshaws) and calesas (horse-drawn buggy) are widely available.

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