This was the same cobblestoned street from decades back, and these were the same heritage mansions from five centuries ago. Yet, on this day, the neighborhood looked and felt different. In the air was the lively chatter of countless tourists walking up and down this storied strip. They marvel at the impressive display of antiquity, then stop to chat, take pictures or browse through the many souvenir shops. A fleet of kalesa, the locally favored horse-drawn transportation, clip-clops by, their cabins filled with laughing, smiling passengers. The mood here was almost festive – a reflection, perhaps, of the local community’s excitement at having become one of the country’s top tourism destinations.
It was 1998 when I first set foot in Vigan. Back then, it was just a sleepy heritage town, but on this return trip 17 years later, it felt like a year apart. As a college senior on a backpacking holiday, I remember gazing at this picture-perfect row of ancient structures, and getting blown away by the fact that they haven’t changed much in 500 years. Vigan was a fascinating window into an era that I had only seen in fading photographs. I explored this locale for several days, and basked happily in the atmosphere of centuries past. I fell in love with Vigan and would eventually return, again and again, to these nostalgia-encrusted streets.
Port of galleons
The modern-day capital of the province of Ilocos Sur, Vigan used to lure much more than tourists and this starry-eyed photographer. This city on the north-western coast of Luzon was once a port of call for the galleon trade passing between Manila and Acapulco in Mexico. This was the Spanish kingdom’s answer to the Portuguese spice trade — a vast commercial maritime route that ferried goods from Europe, the Americas and Asia across the Pacific Ocean. From the mid-1500s to the early 1800s, Spanish ships would stop at Vigan to buy tobacco, indigo dye, earthenware and abel cloth for export to the Old World. This lively commerce served well the Vigan residents — mostly Filipino-Chinese Bigueños — and they grew in wealth and number. Their homes became showcases of opulence and luxury. European chandeliers and Chinese furniture decorated their grand salas. Fine glass and crystal ornaments adorned their tables, complemented by lavish food and exquisite silverware that revealed the extravagant lifestyle of their time.
Vigan was also the capital of the entire Ilocos Region, the focal point in the north for important religious, political or commercial events. The town thrived during the two-and-a-half centuries that the galleon trade flourished, after which it gradually receded into the sidelines of Philippine history. As its economy slowed, this once-busy trading port reverted to a sleepy old town. Its proud houses became ageing repositories of their illustrious past, with some even falling into disrepair.
Also read: 4 books about the Philippines you must read
It wasn’t until the 1970s that outsiders started to return to these parts – initially as the occasional guests of locals, and later on as a trickle of tourists going off the beaten path. Vigan arguably became a “mainstream” destination in 1999, the year after my first visit here, when it was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being the “best-preserved example of a Spanish colonial town in Asia”.
Thanks to several return trips over the years, I’ve seen this city change with the times. From the arrival of big fast-food chains to the establishment of new hotels within the kamestizuhan district (the area where most of the heritage homes are located), it was clear that Vigan was steadily rising back into prominence. But it was during my most recent visit in October this year that I saw just how far this city had come.
Sauntering down the Calle Crisologo, or Mena Crisologo Street, I noticed a bigger crowd of sightseers gawking at the structures all around. Many of the antique homes looked good as new, sporting freshly laid plaster and gleaming coats of paint. Souvenir shops brimming with T-shirts, fridge magnets, hand-rolled binatis cigars and wooden handicrafts beckoned from every antique doorway, replacing the simple stalls that sold native Vigan longganisa in decades past. And while I had previously moaned about the lack of proper dining options in this neighborhood, there now stood at least three espresso cafés, two restaurant chains, a streetside bar and dozens of family-run bistros, all located within walking distance of each other.
I headed into the NQB Eatery on Bonifacio Street — a former sari-sari (sundries) store, if I remember rightly — for a quick Ilocano meal. While I chowed down on savory bulanglang vegetable stew and sizzling bagnet (that’s pork belly slices, thrice deep-fried to crackly perfection), the friendly proprietress Nancy brought me up to speed on developments in her city.
“Vigan was already getting a good share of local tourists, but the title we got last December gave worldwide exposure to our city,” recounted Nancy. She was, of course, referring to the inclusion of Vigan in the “New7WondersCities” – a list of seven conurbations that display exceptional heritage, as defined by the New7Wonders Foundation. “Most tourists used to come here only during summer or Christmastime,” added the manager, “but this year it seems like every month is peak season!”
As Vigan re-entered the world stage, it was accompanied by the familiar symptoms of commercialization. For instance, prices have gone up — where I used to pay PHP650 for a basic room during my backpacking days, the current minimum rate seemed to hover at PHP1,500. There was also a slew of new hotels that had opened from converted old houses. Near the corner of Bonifacio and M. Crisologo, as I walked past a dilapidated mansion that was being restored, I bumped into Nato, a freelance tour guide. A former driver, he exchanged his jeepney for a tricycle, which he was now using to take visitors on day tours of the city.
“I never thought I’d be working with tourists, but this is where the money is,” observed the father of four. “The income is good and the work isn’t bad, so I’m making the most of this opportunity.” Indeed, Vigan has begun to see shades of mass tourism, while more and more of its antique buildings are being repurposed for business. The Bigueños may be happily adjusting to busier days, but it is comforting to note that many still treasure the old ways.
At the pagburnayan factories on the outskirts of town, craftsmen still hand-fashion clay pottery over centuries-old potters’ wheels. Workshops in Barrio Mindoro still knock up wooden kalesa carriages using time-honored designs. Over at Plaza Burgos, the streetside eateries remain the go-to place for traditional Ilocano okoy fritters and empanada patties. And while the red-and-orange bee and the golden arches now watch over the newly renovated Plaza Salcedo, it is still a familiar edifice — the 374-year-old Cathedral of Saint Paul — that gets filled to capacity on Sundays.
Relics of a Bigueño era
As for the Bigueños themselves, they remain as friendly and hospitable as ever. This I found out at dawn the next morning at Calle Crisologo. Hoping to have this row of heritage homes all to myself, I made my way there at 4am — only to be greeted by vanloads of noisy tourists. My notions of solitude and nostalgia all but obliterated, I stood by the doorway of an antique house, where a handful of bleary-eyed residents looked out.
“You must have been woken by their noise. Don’t you get irritated by all this?” I asked one of the locals, pointing to the long parade of loitering vacationers who were toting their selfie sticks.
“Not at all. We’re used to it!” smiled the local man. “We like to watch them in the morning after we wake up.” Seeing my surprise, he explained that tourists were guests, after all, and that guests were welcome to roam these streets anytime. “It makes me feel proud that our history is being enjoyed by everyone,” he added.
Perhaps the most poignant words about Vigan’s story come from a lady named Theresita, whom I met later that day. At 70, she’s the oldest resident of the Florendo ancestral house, which stands right at the heart of the heritage zone. This grandmother’s eyes lit up when I asked her what she thought of her historic abode.
“I moved into this mansion when I was 15 years old. When Vigan became a tourist attraction, people started telling me how special this heritage building is,” Theresita recalled. “I agree, but for a different reason. This house is where I took care of my husband and our four children. This is where my family lived and loved. This is home. That is why this house is so special.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Smile magazine.