A Queen’s Province: Isabela

In the island of Luzon, a province was named after a Spanish royalty, Isabella II. This province is part of the Cagayan Valley Region (Region II) and is the biggest province in the island, 2nd biggest province after Palawan. As to why they chose the queen’s name as the name of their province, it may not be too clear. Isabela was formed in 1856 when the queen was only 25 years old.

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Queen Isabella II

Unlike Queen Isabella’s reign, the history of the province is not a bit troubled at all. Some towns from Cagayan and Nueva Vizcaya were taken to form the province of Isabela. During the revolt against Spain, Isabela did not have a significant part except on the time when Emilio Aguinaldo was captured by the Americans in the town of Palanan.

At present, Isabela is one of the richest provinces in the Philippines. Agriculturally-based, it has a strong rice and corn industry. The triumvirate cities of Santiago, Cauayan and Ilagan forms the commercial and business backbone of Isabela, making it a first-class province and a melting pot of Northern Philippines.

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The Corn Capital of the Philippines

Tourism may not be fully developed, but Isabela may soon be planning a footprint to encourage people to visit their province’s beautiful spots.

The challenge for most tourists, especially for weekend warriors, is the 10-12hrs travel time to Isabela on a bus. The Pan-Philippine Highway has very good road condition though. I should say the province is very much accessible by land travel. If you need to cut off time, you may opt to travel by plane. Isabela has an airport located in Cauayan City, that caters to Cebu Pacific flights from Manila.

Isabela can be visited on a weekend. But if you have an itinerary that includes visits to the eastern coast or the lush protected forests, it may require you more than just two days. My visit to Isabela was for the weekend. I decided to do the triumvirate city trip topping it with the visit to Tumauini.

My Isabela trip started with a long daytime bus travel to Santiago City. The initial plan was to take a night bus on a Friday but since I still got an important thing to do at work, I moved my travel on a Saturday.

If you travel by bus, your options are Victory Liner, Five Star and Florida Bus Line. I first went to the Victory Liner at Kamias Terminal in Quezon City, hoping to catch the early morning trip to Santiago City. But there was already a long queue for the chance passengers bound for Tuguegarao. I made a mental note for myself that should I plan to ride on a Victory Liner soon, I must book a seat online.

I decided to go to the Five Star Bus Terminal in Cubao. Luckily I got a seat for their 5:30am trip to Tuguegarao. As of present, Five Star Bus Line doesn’t have an online ticketing service. They are on a first-come-first-served basis. The bus left before 5:30am. I caught some sleep en route to Isabela.

In a little over 9 hrs, I reached Santiago City. I basically didn’t have a list of places to visit in this city. But like most of my travels to new places, I would always go to their town hall, town plaza, the church and then some old buildings or houses.

Santiago City got its name from Santiago Apostol de Carig. It was originally part of the province of Cagayan. It is one of the 3 commercial and trading hubs of Isabela. So why should you visit Santiago?

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Santiago’s Festival

When you come to Santiago City in May, you get to experience the Balamban Dance Festival. Started in 2014, the festival is about the butterflies (Balamban) expressed in a dance depicting the movement and fluttering of the wings. This dance was also done during wedding ceremonies in the city. I visited the city hall and noticed a big colorful display sign of the festival. Too bad I arrived a day after the celebration. Balamban Dance Festival is often scheduled on Santiago’s cityhood anniversary.

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Balay Na Santiago

From the city hall, I then moved to Balay na Santiago. A Palacio del Barrio (barangay hall) before, this structure now houses a museum, a library, a function hall and an exhibit area. Balay na Santiago is a stone house typical of the Spanish time houses.

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St. James the Apostle Parish Church

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Modern design of the Adoration Chapel

A tricycle ride brought me to St. James the Apostle Parish Church across the corner of Carreon St. and the City Road. The church is of modern day design of bricks, concrete and stained glass. Beside the church is a modern chapel with an interesting mosaic.

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An interesting mosaic

From the churchyard, one can see a water tank almost 30m high. This is the Santiago Concrete Water Tank considered to be a city heritage treasure because of the colorful mural. It is a prominent marker in Santiago City.

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The Santiago’s water tank – a city landmark

After Santiago, my next stop was Ilagan City which is about 86kms north. There are vans at Robinson’s Place Santiago City heading to various towns, even as far as Tuguegarao. The van was supposed to bring me to Ilagan. But since most of the passengers got off in Cauayan City, I was asked by the van driver to transfer to a jeepney at SM City Cauayan. Ilagan City is just about 51kms.

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Near Bonifacio Park

Arriving in the capital city, Ilagan at 6:30pm, I decided to have a quick munch before finding a room for the night. Buses do not enter or pass by the streets at the city proper. They just navigate along the Pan-Philippine Highway in Alibagu and Baligatan area. I would presume that hotels and accommodation are not so many, hence the room rates are a bit high. But I didn’t get to explore the Centro that time so I wouldn’t know any other hotels. I got a room at Limah Joy Hotel for 12-hr stay at Php 790.

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The transport doesn’t come cheap too. Although jeepney ride to the city proper is only Php 8, if you choose to ride tricycles from one barangay to another, the minimum fare is Php 30. It would go as much as Php 50-100 if beyond 6pm.

Ilagan, said to be the corn capital of the Philippines, is the capital of Isabela. Its old name is Bolo and it is one of the biggest cities in terms of land area.

Quickly after I checked in and dropped my bags in the hotel room, I went to the provincial capitol complex. This is a vast government complex that has an amphitheater and monument to Isabella II. The province was preparing for their foundation anniversary.

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Queen Isabela’s Monument

I made a quick tour of Ilagan the following day.

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Ilagan, Kilos Na! (Ilagan, Act Now!)

At Bonifacio Park near the provincial office of PNP Isabela Police, the world’s largest ‘Butaka’ – a long-armed chair most common during the colonial times. Ilagan’s ‘butaka’ is said to be the world’s biggest, as awarded by the Guinness Book of Records.

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The Butaka: Long-armed chair

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Bonifacio Park

From Bonifacio Park, a jeepney with a CENTRO signboard would take you to St. Ferdinand Church. This is Ilagan’s old church located right across Rizal Park at the corner of Sta. Ana and Rizal St. Ilagan celebrates its fiesta every May 30 in honor of St. Ferdinand of Castille. The city also celebrates the Mamanggi Festival (Corn Festival), corn being the top produce of Isabela.

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St. Ferdinand Parish Church

The church may not look as old as some of the churches of nearby towns. Stories state that the 18th century church was destroyed by a typhoon in 1866 which led to the order to destroy the stone walls in the hope of building a much bigger church. Only the belfry withstood the test of time.

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Across St. Ferdinand’s Church is Ilagan’s Rizal Park

Riding a jeepney back to the Pan-Philippine Highway, I got off near the Ilagan Public Market to take the van ride to the town of Tumauini. A distance of about 39km, Tumauini is just about 45mins trip. I needed to visit this town because of this:

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Tumauini Church

The church of San Matias is a brick structure of Baroque-style. This church is included in the tentative list for the UNESCO World Heritage Site under the Baroque churches of the Philippines. This church was built from 1783 to 1805. Description from wiki states that: The church building is made entirely of ornately designed red bricks in its façade and its interior walls. A closer look at the brick façade shows numbers and dates for the correct sequence of the bricks in Forto’s design. The façade is flanked by two pseudo-Corinthian columns and niches, one located above the entrance and the two remaining larger niches on each side of the columns. The church’s circular pediment is unique relative to all other churches built during the Spanish Era.

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A church made of bricks

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A beautiful brick facade

A personal visit to the church would allow one to appreciate the labor poured on the aesthetics of the church. The façade is something to be amazed at. Unique also to the church is its cylindrical bell tower, currently in white with details akin to cake ornaments.

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Historical Marker

Tumauini Church was also declared as a National Cultural Heritage by the National Museum. It is also a National Historical Landmark.

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With a simple prayer of thanks, I left Tumauini and waited for the Five Star Bus that would take me back to Metro Manila. The almost 12 hours travel through Isabela and 5 provinces after it, gave me much time to have the experience sink into my mind and soul. Isabela, my 65th province.

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