I’ve always believed that if one were to see only one region in the Philippines, then it better be the Visayas. It’s got some of the best beaches, yes, but there’s something more about this cluster of islands. This is where the Spanish empire made its bridgehead into the Philippines, and here history has not been overrun by urban sprawl. The major cities here are cosmopolitan, but at the same time retain some of that wonderful laid back atmosphere.
I must admit that I haven’t been around much of the Visayas myself, and there’s still much of it to be discovered for me. And, that’s why I’m very glad to have recently visited another of its major cities…Iloilo.
Iloilo gained prominence through commerce and trade during the Spanish colonial era, and became one of the most important ports of call in the Philippines. The textile, and later, sugar industries gave fuel to the growth of Iloilo’s wealth, and traces of its rich history can be found simply by walking through its streets. From the buildings at the historic city center – which have a lot of heritage though not kept at their best state, to the old mansions of prominent families in Jaro, and the old churches scattered across the various districts and neighboring towns, one can see why the Spanish crown named the city “La Muy Leal y Noble Ciudad”, or The Most Loyal and Noble City.
The New Iloilo Airport
If first impressions truly last, then airports must play a big role in a traveller’s experience. Thankfully, 30-45 minutes away by car from Iloilo’s city center is one of the country’s newest aerodromes. The new Iloilo Airport, opened last 2007, has an attractive design patterned after the shape of an airplane’s wings, sort of like a “baby” version of Japan’s Osaka-Kansai terminal. The terminal building itself is “small”, or should I say “cute”, in comparison to its counterparts in Cebu or Davao, but it is wonderfully space efficient that despite having 5 flights on the night we departed, it didn’t feel congested inside the departure area. With a runway length of just 8,000 feet, it’s not going to host a Jumbo Jet service (you need at least 10,000 for that), but it can adequately handle domestic and short-haul international traffic. This is, after all, the country’s fourth busiest airport.
One of the first places we visited was the district of Jaro. It was the center of commerce in the area during the Spanish colonial period, and hence it was home to many prominent families from that era. The Lopezes and the Ledesmas, among others, have ancestral houses here.
Jaro is now a modern commercial and residential district – Jollibee’s big smiling face makes sure of that, and taxis are abundant so going around is no big hassle. However, old houses and mansions are still scattered across several blocks – of varying states of preservation or disrepair, and these give glimpses of the district’s glorious past.
The Neighboring Towns
Some of the neighboring towns within the province of Iloilo are as old as, if not older than, the city itself. One of these towns gained much prominence courtesy of its UNESCO recognized church, and it goes by the name of Miag-ao. The town is not that easily reachable from the city. It’s roughly an hour away by car, and 1,000PHP more or less by taxi, back and forth (“more” or “less” depends on your negotiating skills), however it’s a must see.
Built in the late 1700’s, the church is known for it’s fortress-like structure, but there’s more to it that pictures can’t adequately give justice to. The stones that make up the church itself are quite unique, and in contrast to most churches from that era which look dark and “monochromic”, Miag-ao appears bright and appealing on the outside, even on a dark and rainy day. The other unique feature of the church is the intricate bas-relief carved on the hard stones of its facade. The amount of artwork etched in stone cannot be rivaled by any other church I’ve seen in this country.
The church was closed when we went there so we can’t go in, and it was raining like mad so I could only take a few pictures, but the sheer spectacle of the church’s exterior works made the long trip worth it nonetheless.
On our way back to Iloilo City, we passed by another old church at the town of Guimbal. Nowhere near as grand as Miag-ao, but it is one of the oldest churches in the country, and is of historical value nonetheless.
The streets of Iloilo may be one big museum, but there’s one place where you can find the small artifacts that date back from the pre-Spanish times to as recent as the Japanese occupation. The Museo Iloilo is small and modest – not airconditioned, and it takes aroud 5 minutes to go around the whole place, but if you don’t expect too much, you’ll appreciate the effort to preserve small bits of the area’s past.
It’s hard to go anywhere, within this country or out, without looking for a mall. Malls are not just places for shopping, or for a weekend stroll…they’re also places of refuge for travellers – the default “home base” once you run out of things to do, or when an unpleasant surprise comes up (eg. hard rain).
Iloilo City does not lack of shopping areas. There is of course an SM City – a prerequisite for any city to make it to the “big leagues”, plus a couple more SM department stores and a Robinson’s place. There are also arcade-type places, filled with food outlets and some boutiques. The most popular of these arcades is Smallville, a cluster of bars and restaurants that stay open far into the night. There’s also a newly opened one called the Plazuela, an elegant looking, eye-catching arcade, especially when lit up at night.
There is, of course, more to Iloilo than what the eyes could see, and we’ll get to that in the second part of this story.
* We visited Iloilo last July 2011. All photos taken with Panasonic Lumix LX5.