Nearly 368 kilometers north of Manila, on a hill overlooking Luzon Bay in Ilocos Sur, foreign tourists wanting some escape from the congested metropolis due south can find great company in serene beaches in the country’s far northwest.
They can start at the Hundred islands in Pangasinan, near the gulf where Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his allied forces landed on Jan 9, 1945 as part of the liberation of the archipelago from Japanese Imperial troops.
Then they can drive farther north and stay for some time at the Nalinac Beach in the calm waters of Bauang town just south of the provincial capital of San Fernando City in La Union.
Not far from Nalinac is the Pug-os Beach in the coastal town of Cabugao, Ilocos Sur, which hosted in 2008 a national convention of Ilocano writers at home and overseas.
Near the garlic-producing town, where warriors walked at the turn of the 20th century and during the Japanese occupation, is Sadiay Baybay beach resort in Badoc, the town of the brothers Antonio and Juan Luna, the general of the Revolution and the country’s foremost painter.
Due north are several beaches which have hosted regional and international conferences.
But beyond the beaches of the Ilocos Region, which stretches from Pagudpud town in this province near the boundary with Cagayan facing the Babuyan Channel to Rosales in Pangasinan near Tarlac, are yet other tourist come-ons.
And residents have reason to be proud of these attractions.
Two of these are baroque churches, which have made it to the World Heritage List.
They are the Roman Catholic Church in Paoay town – birthland of the Galaritas, the Blancos, the Villanuevas, the Toledos, the Valenzuelas, the Baysas — and the Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion Church which is nestled on a hill in Santa Maria, rich in myth and folklore.
The Santa Maria Church, also called The Church of the Lady of Assumption (Church of Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion), is a parish church in Ilocos Sur, 98 kms south of Paoay where the legendary Paoay Lake is.
Standing tall on top of a hill, it is one of the four Baroque Churches of the Philippines that is inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Santa Maria Church is a complex art of clay bricks and mortar.
The Santa Maria Church stands on an elevated hill legend suggests is the nipple of the mythical Aran, the energetic wife of Angalo (pronounced Ang-nga-lo).
The church door can be reached by walking up 85 stair flights from the cemented highway, a junction of the MacArthur Highway – named after Gen. MacArthur — which meanders through the region.
Historians say it was originally a citadel complex and was a center for Spanish missionaries who made inroads in the 16th century to evangelize the uplands after the arrival of Spanish conquerors in 1521.
It has since become the center of attraction for tourists and a perfect haven for the people who love to explore ancient culture and history. The long staircase that leads to the church imparts what some observers call idyllic.
The Paoay Church, also called Simbaan ni San Agustin, was built in 1704 from coral stones, mortar and molasses.
Historians call the church structure “earthquake baroque.”
It is only a few kilometers from the inland Paoay Lake, which was mercilessly whipped during the onslaught of typhoons Karding and Paeng in 2022.
The lake, according to legend, took shape when the community north of the town proper exploded in much the same manner as the Biblical Sodom and Gomorrah.
Old hands in the town, inheritors of the silky smooth oral tradition, say Filipino builders adopted a foreign architectural design and style which complemented local conditions.
Sitting on an earthquake-prone region, the builders apparently propped up the church’s nave with thick stone buttresses.
They feature a scroll motif capped by intricately carved pinnacles.
While other concrete buildings and other church structures in the region have succumbed to earth shocks—the Philippines straddles the Pacific belt of fire—the Paoay Church has remained standing without a scratch.
Its outside feature is a crossbreed between a medieval Spanish church and a Javanese temple.
The Saint Augustine Church is famous for its distinct architecture highlighted by the enormous buttresses on the sides and back of the building.
It was declared as a National Cultural Treasure by the Philippine government in 1973 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the collective group of Baroque Churches of the Philippines in 1993.
Despite the ferocity of two major earthquakes that rumbled underneath the region and the nearby Cordilleras as from July this year, the San Agustin Church in Paoay hardly suffered a scratch.