Wild north: 72 hours in rugged Ilocos

Mari-An Santos goes on a three-day tour of Ilocos Norte, exploring its wild sand dunes, glorious beaches, and colonial past

By Mari-an Santos

Day 1
Limestone rocks

Kapurpurawan Beach's limestone cliffs. By Daniel Soriano
I arrived at the Farinas bus station in Laoag at 5:30am after a seven-hour journey on the bus from Manila. After a quick phone call to my hotel —  the Ilocos Norte Hotel and Convention Center (now Plaza del Norte Hotel and Convention Center) —a shuttle van appeared in 15 minutes and I was off to the hotel and checked in in no time. My room had a comfortable queen size bed, hardwood furniture, and nice local touches like the use of the Ilocano blanket called abel. After a quick shower I fell into a deep sleep.

The following day I was up at 8am and devoured a heavy Filipino breakfast of dry pork adobo, corned beef, dried milkfish, scrambled eggs with rice and fresh watermelon shake. Then I was off to explore the province. I got a van rental from the Provincial Tourism Office which was quite convenient. Our first stop was the 65-foot-tall Cape Bojeador Lighthouse, also called the Burgos Lighthouse, first used in 1982 and still functional today. I walked up its spiral staircase to the lantern room and was rewarded by the view of the immaculate blue South China Sea, and the nearby towns of Pasuquin and Bangui.

The magnificent limestone cliffs of Kapurpurawan. By Daniel Soriano
From the lighthouse, it was a 16-minutre drive or so on the Pan Pacific Hightway to Kapurpurawan Beach, famous for its magnificent white limestone cliffs and the Kapurpurawan Rock formation, formed by the strong waves of the South China Sea. I got on a view deck and then walked down the paved steps to the shore. I could  hear the crashing of the waves as I walked down a path, overgrown on either side, and saw a solitary Pacific swallow flying overhead at short intervals. The landscape changed as soon as I stepped on level soil, to get to Kapurpurawan Rock. The rugged rock and its crevices presented quite a dramatic sight as the sun's rays hit its surface. Old folks here said that the formation was much bigger years ago, but was battered down by the strong waves and the elements. It took me 25 minutes to get to the rock sculpture. Surrounding rocks were wet and covered with moss and rather tricky to step on.

I saw two women and a man walking the stretch of the beach with plastic bags, closely checking the rocks. I later on learned they were harvesting seaweeds to process into gamet, known as the Japanese nori used in miso soup and other Japanese cooking.

Paoay sand dunes 4x4 ride. Photo by Ferdz Decena
After going back to Ilocos Norte Hotel and Convention Center to briefly freshen up, I was off once again – this time to the nearby Ilocos Sand Dunes, immortalized in the Hollywood movies Mad Max and Born on the Fourth of July. The 88-hectare sand dunes is a protected area, with patches of trees and wild foliage. The best way to experience it these days is to go sandboarding or go for a thrill ride on a four wheel drive. Trails have now been established for 4x4 rides, going up sand peaks and navigating downhill slopes. I did not hesitate to go on the four-wheel drive, but ended up screaming from the top of my lungs as we zoomed briskly down steep slopes. The wind howled and blew forcefully. I watched as the big, yellow, full moon, slowly rose in the sky. Our 4x4 drivers, Manong Elmer and Joseph, maneuvered the jeep across the sand, with only moonlight and the faint headlights to guide our way. A brahminy kite suddenly passed in front of us, spreading its wings just two feet away. A truly breathtaking day.

Dinner was spent at Giannis, a garden setting with mellow piped-in music. My hotel was just 15 minutes away. I relaxed while feasting on dried beef tapa – beef strips marinated in soy sauce and simmered until dry – and Giannis fried rice and iced tea. The chocolate cake was a perfect sweet ending.

Day 2
Currimao: A fine beach and ancestral houses

The seaside town of Currimao used to be the center of the Spanish-era tobacco trade, with the Currimao Port central to its operation. These days, tourism has replaced tobacco. But despite this, not many know that Currimao has a gem of a beach with fine, black sand, and clear waters. It’s a 40-minute drive from Laoag City. The waters were calm when I stopped by the beach and I was able to walk a considerable distance from the shore before I was waist deep in water.

Sitio Remedios' courtyard and chapel. By Oggie Ramos
My next stop was Sitio Remedios, also on Currimao Beach. Sitio Remedios is a heritage village with Spanish-era houses.There were no electronic gadgets in the rooms, with the Wi-Fi service the only reminder that I was in the 21st century. The proprietor Dr. Joven Cuanang built the ancestral houses using original architectural pieces from Spanish-era houses in Ilocos Norte. Each home retains a distinct character and is adorned with antiques – from furniture to cutlery. The chapel facing Currimao Beach is also designed in the Spanish era. The beach was dotted with fishing boats, with fishermen waiting for the cover of night to sail to sea.

Less than five minutes’ walk down the beach is Playa Tropical, a two-storey longhouse with standard rooms and cabanas facing the sea. It’s a favorite of Borgy Manotoc, son of Ilocos Norte governor Imee Marcos. 

My day ended with dinner at Sitio Remedios, a feast of sweet and sour talakitok fish, bagnet (deep-fried pork), and pinakbet (mixed vegetables with fish paste).

Day 3

It takes about an hour-and-a-half to get from Laoag to the National Highway, then 20 minutes from there to Kapuluan Vista Resort in Maira-ira Cove or Blue Lagoon in Pagudpud, reputed to be one of the best beaches in Luzon. It’s the last resort at the end of the road. We pushed on past the resort – about a five-minute drive – to find the perfect vantage point for watching the sunrise. Here, I sat on the beach littered with crushed shells and corals looking out at the Dos Hermanos Islands, watching the sky turn from dark to light tinged with pink, orange, and yellow. The waves hit six feet, but closer to the shore, the water was clear and calm. This side of Pagudpud attracts local and foreign tourists who come for the surfing.

Kapuluan Vista Resort. By Jocas See
Maira-ira Point, 80 kilometers north of Laoag City, is also called Blue Lagoon because of its sparkling blue waters. About 10 minutes from Kapuluan Vista Resort, the sand is notably finer and you can see Timmangtang Rock and the adjacent Bantay Abot Cave, with its distinct hole visible even from a distance. Pacific swallows and brown shrikes fly overhead.

If you have time, stop by Nacatnagan Cliff and Kabigan Falls racing down some 90-feet to a refreshing pool.

Saud Beach. By Oggie Ramos
My next stop was Saud Beach, often likened by tourists to Boracay, 20 years back. The waves at Saud were fun to ride and were good enough for skimboarding. Swimming in the smooth, cool, clear water was the perfect way to end the long day.

How to get there 

By land, take a Partas bus from Aurora Boulevard in Quezon City to Laoag’s bus terminal. Trips are in the evening beginning at 7pm, with fare starting at P797 (about US$18). Land travel takes about 10 hours.

By plane, book a flight on Cebu Pacific Air, which has daily direct flights from Manila to Laoag. Air travel is about one hour.

Where to stay. Plaza del Norte Hotel and Convention Center or Kapuluan Vista Resorta beachfront resort in quiet location.

Originally published on InFlight Traveller April to May 2011. Updated January 2016