Visit Iloilo in January, in time for the colourful mardi gras event. Every fourth Sunday of January, Iloilo, in Panay Island, celebrates this religious and cultural festival. They honour the Santo Nińo (a Filipino representation of the Child Jesus) by merry-making, exuberant dancing and chanting “Viva Senyor” in the way the Negrito settlers, performed in the early days of praying. The main festival consists of a number of “tribes” dancing in celebration, their skins painted black or brown. The men dress in traditional kilts with bows and arrows to reflect the originality of the Ati tribe, wildly and gracefully dancing to the pulsating tunes of drum music.
The Philippines remains the only Christian nation in Asia and yet is a country of diversity. Long before Christianity, we had Islam, Taoism and Hinduism due to the effects of foreign occupation,.Ours is so diverse, that each region has something unique to offer as a showcase in terms of heritage, culture and history. The Spanish, prolific, Christianity from the 16th century is still very much alive especially in the central islands of the Philippines. Owing to my passionate interest in culture and heritage, I love visiting religious sites that have historical significance.
In the town of Miag-ao,40 km away from Iloilo City, I visited the very famous UNESCO World Heritage Site Miag-ao Church, also known as Santo Tomas de Villanueva Parish Church. It was also called the Miagao Fortress Church because it served as a defensive tower against Muslim raids in the past. The church’s over-all architectural style is Baroque Romanesque and made of pure adobe, coral and limestone. Greeting me were two huge watchtower belfries that support the massive and ornately decorated church with a rich influence of Spanish, Chinese, Muslim and local traditions and elements. It gave me a delightful surprise to see such unique characteristics in a Catholic Church. Among the elements delicately carved in the façade, I noticed the coconut tree is the tree of life for the Filipinos. But I was a little disheartened to see a massive reconstruction taking place at that time to replace the hundred-year-old bricks and limestone. In my feeling, this downgraded the authentic ambiance of this 200+ years old church.
Leaving with a mixture of delight and disappointment, I headed back to the city. Iloilo City is a charming urban metropolis in the Central Philippines. Iloilo was among the most loyal cities to Spain during the revolution and uprising. Thus it earned its recognition from the Spanish Queen Regent Maria “ The Most Loyal and Noble City”. Over time, this title earned for Iloilo City the reputation of it being “The Queen’s Favored City in the South” (a title Iloilo City still claims but is now more attributed to Cebu City for reasons of economic progress.)
I was greeted with the familiar sweetness and warmth that the people of Iloilo are very famous for. They are known to be soft-spoken with a hint of Spanish in their dialect. One can easily pick up that he is in the soils where vivid and rich Hispanic culture once prevailed. I love the atmosphere each time I visit this beautiful and quaint city. There is always the sun in the sky that seemed to shine all day. It was warm, like every person I met on the streets, whose smiles were plastered on their faces. I like the fact that I come from a town in the southern part of the Philippines that speaks exactly the same dialect in Iloilo. That made my contacts with the locals more engaging and fruitful.
I went to Fort San Pedro, the fortress that guarded the islands against invasion and attacks. The Iloilo Fortress was stonework and had an embankment partly in the sea and on land. Again, I was dismayed to see the ruined state of the Fort, as it had fallen prey to vandalism and thieves. Adding to its state was the strong winds and seas hammering it. Today, there is a drive-in restaurant and an image of Jesus Christ in the center of the park and locals frequently come to the breakwaters for fishing. The history is being wasted.
Still fired with my self-claimed title as a travel enthusiast, I rode a jeepney, the local transportation to the beauty of Molo Church, a must-see in Iloilo. To my delight, this church was known as the feminist church because of the all-women ensemble of saints represented in 16 statues perched on the aisle pillars. Prominent for its red spires that crown its tall belfries, this lovely Spanish colonial structure can be best photographed during the late afternoon hours when the coral stone facade of the church reflects the soft golden rays of the sunset.
The afternoon sun was scorching when I walked the streets to see the famous mansions of the elite families in Iloilo, notably of Spanish lineage. The Lopez Heritage House is a national heritage house built in 1928 by Don Vicente Lopez. The house is poised in a sprawling 4-hectare property and stands as an important cultural icon. Its grand architecture tells a story of the aristocratic past. It is generally open to public tours and events.
I walked my way to Calle Real (The Royal Street) which holds a stretch of Iloilo’s heritage buildings constructed in the Commonwealth era. It was also a short but lovely experience to visit Museo de Iloilo that stands as the repository of the province’s rich cultural heritage.
Iloilo is definitely a must in my bucket list for next year. It’s a land worth visiting again. It never runs out of things that fascinate everyone who set foot and lay eyes on it. It has great coastal views and sandy beaches; the seafood is cheap and varied; plus more local products. And if I may borrow the famous words of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, “I shall return”!