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August 10, 2007


By the latte-colored Pinacanauan River, one of the two tributaries of the great Cagayan River here in Penablanca, the Cal-lao Ecotourism Zone Visitor Center was inaugurated, serving as gateway to the cave complex Callao, one of the latest discoveries for tourism development, much touted by the provincial and national governments. Little local boys, darker than the river, served as our guides, reciting bits of information about the cave, amusing many guest mothers and grandmothers, and making their mothers and teachers proud. They can be disarming, bouncing up the concrete steps to the main cave chamber while many of us were getting tired midway.

Mercifully, the sun and the heat, intense this mid-June in Cagayan, abated. Instead, the sky became gray, and a light rain poured, soaking the visitors. It was a welcome respite from the oppressive heat. Many people say that rain during an occasion is a kind a blessing, auguring fortune and bounty. It was auspicious now that we are climbing to the cave for the formal start of the closing ceremonies for this year’s National Heritage Month, a recent government-mandated celebration to highlight the Philippines’ heritage. Now led by an organization, the Filipino Heritage Festival, Incorporated, partnering with government and private agencies and different local governments, the celebration has a wide array of activities from traditional theater to rock concerts, from folk crafts show to cultural tours, in different parts of the country for the whole month of May. This year, 2007, the National Heritage Month opened in the Visayan island of Leyte and was now closing in the province of Cagayan at the northeastern corner of the main island Luzon.

The national elections were held in mid-May, a messy affair in the country, and Cagayan, like many provinces and towns in the country, took time to sort things out, delaying this event. Finally being held, it looked very promising, starting out from under the earth.   

Nine kilometers east of Tuguegarao, Cagayan’s capital city, the quiet town of Penablanca, formerly a barrio of Tuguegarao called Bubug until it became a separate town in 1896, lies at the foot of the Sierra Madre mountain range, which straddles the northeastern flank of Luzon. Within its slopes are numerous caves, more than 300 of them it is said. The National Museum has documented 75 since 1977. Some of these caves are known to adventurers and spelunkers, and are open for exploration and recreation, including the Sierra Cave, the Quibal Cave, the Odessa-Tumbali Cave System, the Jackpot Cave, the Roc and San Carlos Caves. The Callao Cave is the best known and the more accessible and “developed.”

In 1935, a 4,136-hectare area was declared the Callao Caves National Park, now called the Peñablanca Protected Landscape, to protect and develop the extensive cave system along the Pinacanauan River. The path to the Callao Cave is concreted, fringed with ornamental plants, leading to stairs that wind on the side of the mountain. Somewhere up, a view of the river, fields and hills opens through the vegetation as if a reward for the effort. One arrives at the gaping mouth of the main chamber, a very large one with a width of 50 meters. The ceiling reaches up to 36 meters.

The floor was uneven and slick, but well-trodden. Governor General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., visited the cave in 1932, I was informed. Yes, well-trodden but still magnificent. About a hundred meters into it, one sees stalactites and stalagmites illuminated by incandescent bulbs. A passage leads to another chamber. Callao has seven.

In the middle of the main chamber, people had built a chapel, actually an altar and a concrete platform with several rows of pews. In the semi-darkness, the opening event for the Heritage Month closing started: the priest celebrating mass, a choir and a bamboo ensemble performing, and officials giving short speeches, most important of them the wife of the province’s governor. Jozaida Lara spoke in behalf of her husband Edgar Ramones Lara, the newly-elected governor. “To tell you frankly, I am not a native of Cagayan North but I am married to a true blooded Cagayano whose dedication to serve his province and whose drive to preserve, conserve and protect the Cagayano heritage has molded me to be a Cagayano myself,” she told us. I was groping in the dark and touching the walls of the cave.

“Our preparations for this reflect our genuine pride in our cultural and material inheritance and a visible display of our ability to live the legacy of social cohesion, peace, love, unity and prosperity,” she further said. “We hope and aim too that this celebration be an instrument in letting Filipinos, especially Cagayanos, to know our heritage. The sooner we understand what our heritage is all about, the easier it is for our children to embrace our heritage too. And most of all, we should remember, anything we do for our community sets an example for our children on what values they should be fighting for.”

To close the activity, we were to wait for the flight of the bats. Everyday at six in the evening, the multitudinous bats of Callao would fly out of the cave. Today, there were none. There was just the rain pouring heavily now as we trudged down.  

Outside of the cave, excepting this momentary downpour, I initially found generally dry and sprawling land, about 9,000 square kilometers carved out of the northernmost portion of the Cagayan Valley, including several islands strewn along the Babuyan Channel. The Sierra Madre mountains run along its eastern side, blocking it from the Pacific Ocean. The Cordillera mountains of interior northern Luzon lie on its west. On its bosom the Cagayan River, the longest and largest in the country, snakes its way, pouring into the sea in Aparri. Most part of my trip was along the river where many old churches of the province, mostly our stops, are located. Along the way, the landscape varied—surprising bosomy terrains clothed viridescent with sparse grass; fields of rice, corn and sugarcane; foothills with caves; mudflats along the river banks; wide open sea; and houses and establishments, huddled together or haphazardly strewn about.

A large part of the event was a tour of select towns and sites, which Cagayanos perceived as what constitutes heritage. The “caravan” had people from different agencies; local officials and guides, which were really employees of the provincial government; official guests; students; and a handful of journalists, including me. On a separate vehicle, the festival director Bambi Harper and organization president Armita Rufino, figures of the cultured and the refined, braved the heat, dust and inconveniences of provincial travel with little complaint.

Cultural presentations welcomed the caravan at every stop, colorful goings-on with a fiesta atmosphere—music, children in costumes and snacks. Each had the backdrop of the town’s cultural pride and heritage, usually brick churches, inspiring awe in their air of antiquity and cutting figures of sturdy beauty against the bright, eternal sky. This was my general and cursory introduction of Cagayan.

A foretaste was provided by photographs and a museum visit. Donald Tapan and his daughter Nikkorlai, from a known family of photographers, opened a photography exhibit at a small mall, Paseo Reale, in Tuguegarao City, the capital city in the southern part of Cagayan and the industrial and commercial center of the whole region. The two were commissioned by the provincial government to go round the province and capture its beauty from the beaches of Camiguin and Fuga islands, and the ruins of the Cape Engano Lighthouse of Santa Ana up north to the venerable image of Our Lady of Piat and larger-than-life tableaux of Christ’s suffering in Iguig down south. Now here, in glossy and color-enhanced vibrancy, antiquity, eternity and majesty were epitomized by the ordinary.

At the other side of the city, the Cagayan Provincial Museum and Historical Research Center was spruced up for the “Zininaga: The Treasures of Cagayan North” exhibit. The museum is housed at the Expo Building, one of the buildings flanking the capitol building, an octagonal, weather-beaten affair of mostly plywood and dust. The museum appeared to have not seen much people since it opened in 1973. In the country, museums largely tend to be overlooked.

The exhibit was divided into sections with the Natural Heritage and the Cultural Heritage proving to be largest and the most interesting. In the Natural Heritage section, live and artificial plants tried to effect a sense of vegetation, strewn sand and seashells a beach feel, and papier-mache semblance of a cave, serving as backdrops for the display of pictures of Cagayan’s beaches, caves and landscapes.

Across, the more interesting Cultural Heritage section presented animal fossils, artifacts, antiques, ethnic and trade wares, heirloom pieces and liturgical works. The few artifacts bespeak a flourishing pre-Spanish culture in the area and trade relations with foreign peoples. For some time now, Cagayan has been exciting archaeologists and historians with discoveries under the dry landscape. A number of archaeological diggings were made. Fossil bone fragments suggest prehistoric animals, some elephant-like and some horse-like, that roamed the valley. Shell middens were unearthed in Lal-lo and Gattaran, and the sites were entered as candidates in the Unesco for world heritage status.

Archeologists theorize that perhaps the earliest man in the Philippines lived in Cagayan, something like and a contemporary of the Java Man. But they are still looking bones. As of now, the diminutive, kinky-haired and dark-skinned Atas, nomadic hunter-gatherers, are believed to be the first people here. Then groups of Indo-Malay peoples arrived, sometime between 200 B.C. and 300 C.C., becoming the indigenous groups Ibanag, Itawis, Yogad, Gaddang, Iraya and Malaweg. The Ibanags were the largest group followed by the Itawis.

These early inhabitants established villages, farmed and raised animals. They wove cloth out of plant fibers and kapok, fashioned household and farm implements from metal and cooked their food in clay pots. They had also established contact and trade with foreigners like the Chinese, the Indians and the Japanese. Pieces of evidence of such contact manifest some linguistic elements that are of Chinese, Indian or Japanese origin, and the artifacts dug up from a number of diggings. At the Cagayan museum, there are several Chinese jars and plates.

Somewhere at the back of the museum, the supposedly very important La Cagayana Archive, containing some records and writing pertaining to the province, was in want of better storage and attention.

Zininaga is an old Ibanag term for “heritage,” the voluble curator Primitiva Talla informed us. We were lingering at the Cultural Heritage section, the only-air-conditioned part of the building, to escape the afternoon heat when we chanced upon her. “I am the highest paid janitor here,” she introduced herself, implying the fact that she is an ordinary government employee with no specialization in any museum-related field and is tasked to look after the objects, including a tall Ming jar which she said is the most valuable item of the museum, a late 15th century artifact dug in the town of Piat. The museum was originally in the brick building across, she said. In a few years, it will be transferred to the old provincial jail, after the inmates are all relocated. I thought it would be a good idea.

Like many bustling commercial centers in the Philippine provinces, Tuguegarao City is an indistinctive jumble of shops, eateries, schools, power lines and houses. This is the entry point to the province with its airport, bus terminals, some modern conveniences and few inexpensive hotels. We stayed at the Hotel Roma (tel. no. 078-844-1057), along Luna Street in the city proper, a shiny new but insipid hotel. But one finds something interesting here amidst the seeming mundanity like tasty pansit batil-patung in roadside food stalls and maybe some old ruins.  

Luna Street ends at Rizal Street where the Saints Peter and Paul Metropolitan Cathedral rises among stores and drab little buildings. The cathedral is outlined in white paint along with its niches, pillars, entablatures and windows. Beside it is a tall belfry. What made this church, as well as other churches in the province, so appealing is its brick construction, unlike the churches I am used to.

Churches in northeastern Luzon, particularly in the provinces of Nueva Vizcaya, Isabela and Cagayan, are notable for their being made of bricks, the readily available material in the area. The banks of Cagayan River yield rich clay. In the barangay of Atulu in Iguig, artisans still gather the gummy soil from the river and fashion pots and bricks. In other places, churches were built of limestone, volcanic tuff and coral stone. Here, the churches glow with the color of late sunset and russet earth.

These houses of faith are what Cagayanos believe mostly constitute their heritage. Handsome and old, they are indeed. For the scholars and lovers of architecture, the churches of Cagayan present an architectural achievement, a blending of Western and local sensibilities, and a design born out of unique circumstances. The material itself, clay bricks, is not customary for such edifices, thus presenting a different and remarkable way of how churches look and creating other design idioms.
In a way, it also shows how the Spanish-inculcated Catholic religion has been presently largely embraced by the people of Cagayan and of the Filipinos in general. For the many common people, churches are sacred places and testaments of faith.  

Like, most part of the country, Cagayan is predominantly Catholic. When the first Europeans set foot in the Philippines in 1521, the fire of Catholic evangelization was set ablaze. When the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed on Cebu, he claimed the land for Spain and converted some natives to Roman Catholicism. After that several Spanish expeditions were sent to the archipelago to colonize and Christianize it. Miguel López de Legazpi arrived in Cebu from Mexico in 1565, gathering small communities under one central power and establishing permanent settlements. In 1571, he reached Manila, defeated the local Muslim leader Rajah Sulayman and established a city, which became the capital of an emerging country. Throughout the conquest, Catholic missionaries were brought along, converting natives and building churches.

In Cagayan, Juan de Salcedo is recognized to be the first Spaniard in the province. In 1572, the young captain, the grandson of Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, traced the coastline of northern Luzon and reached Cagayan. Sailing through the Cabicungan and Abulug rivers, he came upon the mighty Cagayan River and named it Rio Tajo. The great mountains of the area seemed forbidding for the explorer. He didn’t set foot and went on his way.

After nine years, Japanese ships led by the pirate Tayfusa entered Cagayan River.  News reached Gonzalo Ronquillo de Peñaloza, the fourth Spanish governor-general of the Philippines. Alarmed he dispatched Captain Juan Pablo Carreon with a hundred soldiers. After repelling the intruders, Carreon established a settlement with the families of the soldiers east of Cagayan River and 15 kilometers from the sea in what is now Lal-lo, naming it Nueva Segovia, after Carreon’s hometown. With him were two missionaries, the Dominican Cristobal de Salvatierra and the Augustinian Francisco Rodriguez. Thus, Spanish culture and religion was introduced to the province inhabited by the original Ibanag people and the smaller Itawes group.

Nueva Segovia became the capital of the Cagayan Valley, which also bore its name. The Diocese of Nueva Segovia was created in 1595 by Pope Clement VIII, making the town its seat. The following year, the town was accepted by the Dominicans as an ecclesiastical mission. Friars had established a number of missionary posts in different parts of the province.

Now, the Ibanags and other ethnic groups are largely Christianized and homogenized. Except for the language and little folk customs, I barely distinguish what is distinctive Ibanag. But culture is always in a flux. Cagayan is dominated by Ilocano, coming from the other side of the Cordilleras. Over the years, the Ilocanos have been trickling into the province. Almost 70 percent are Ilocano or Iluko-speaking. The Ibanags comprise 15 while the Itawes 13. These cultures, melding, comprise the Cagayano culture and heritage.

Even in the churches, one can perceive the local. No architects were brought in the Spanish expeditions. In building the churches, the Spanish priests relied on their memories of churches of their homeland or the great ones they saw around Europe, and the craftsmanship and native artistry of the Chinese and Filipino artisans they hired, who relied on their own traditions and sensibilities. The churches were also influenced by circumstances and geography as the builders used available material, improvised along the way, and took into consideration the environs. Through the years, the churches were damaged and then reconstructed. With each reconstruction or refurbishment, additional elements were included.

Before an old church, one can’t help to see glimpses of or feel history. The more discerning one may see details of native culture, etched on the stone. The people who live with it have celebrated some momentous events and gathered together in it. Through the years and changes, the church stands. Memories of their hometown are often symbolized by its church for those who went away. After the decline of Spanish rule in the Philippines, churches of these kind and magnitude are no longer built. Churches have become heritage.

Thoughts of Tuguegarao
In Tuguegarao stands the biggest of the churches in the region. Not quite unique, but the Saints Peter and Paul Metropolitan Cathedral is still beautiful. In 1604, Fray Tomas Villa established a pueblo called Tuguegarao and built a makeshift church with Saint Peter and Saint Paul as patron saints. Father Antonio Lobato, a scholarly priest who compiled the first Ibanag-Spanish dictionary and laid out and developed the streets of the town, spearheaded the building of the church in June 17, 1761 and finishing it in 1767. The progress of the town was hastened by the opening of the Cagayan-Manila road in 1738 by Fray Jose Martin. As the town prospered, the capital was moved from Lal-lo to Tuguegarao in 1839. In1910, Tuguegarao was made the seat of the diocese. During World War II, the church was heavily damaged and was rebuilt by Bishop Constance Jurgens.

There was some construction going when we visited. A row of offices and stores were being built as an annex. By the garden at the side of the church, an old wall was torn down, exposing the rocks and concrete between bricks, the “sandwich” method, the building technique at that time I was told. At the end of Rizal Street, in Bagumbayan, one can find the ruins of hornos, brick kilns, used to fire bricks for the church.

At the other side of the city, where Mabini Street and Legaspi streets meet, across the Saint Paul University, there is a smaller but older church, the charming Saint Hyacinth of Poland Chapel or popularly known as theermita of San Jacinto de Polonia. While the cathedral was being built, people were going to this chapel dedicated to Saint Hyacinth. Up to now, many Tuguegaraonons consider him to be their patron saint and celebrate its fiesta on August 17.
Currently under the administration of the Saint Paul Sisters, the San Jacinto chapel is the first building made of brick and mortar here. Constructed by the Dominicans spearheaded by Father Bernabe dela Magdalena, the chapel was finished on the feast day of Saint Hyacinth in 1724. Some say that since 1598 this is the site of the first parochial structure which became the chapel. Used as headquarters by American soldiers during the Filipino-American War in 1899, the chapel has seen damages and reconstruction. Now, it stands on elevated ground, an oasis of bricks and stone amidst the Tuguegarao traffic.

Esconsced by trees and ornamental hedges, the chapel perhaps stands about 25 feet, its austere façade embellished with four white columns and two entablatures, a round window and three arched doorways, and topped by bells. The front yard made with terracotta tiles and fringed with grass holds wood-and-steel garden benches to accommodate the overflow of parishioners.

As the sun rose higher, the streets became busier. I sat on a bench, the traffic behind me and in front the stone chapel, a contemplation amidst the cacophony.

Amorous in Alcala
If one is just driving through the Maharlika Highway up to the north, the first church and perhaps the only one one passes by is the Saint Philomene Church of Alcala. Standing along the highway, one cannot miss it, a splendid brick church, its façade unadorned with other colors, a pleasant surprise after a green and brown medley of houses and fields. It surprised me a couple of years ago, zooming through the highway on the way to Santa Ana and passing by it. Now, we stopped and stood by its shadow.

The caravan was on its way to north and stopping by the churches of central Cagayan where the towns of Lasam, Gattaran, Baggao, Alcala, Santo Nino and Amulung are. Alcala is 38 kilometers north of Tuguegarao, almost at the heart of the province. At the heart of Alcala is the Church of Saint Philomene.

Formerly a settlement called Fulay,  Ibanag for “red” because of the soil, Alcala was proclaimed a town in 1789, came under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Nueva Segovia and has its name changed in 1843. The church was constructed in 1881 by Father Casamiro Gonzalez, and Father Pedro Perez continued it. The bishop Gregorio Aglipay was proclaimed Ecclesiastical Governor of Cagayan here before breaking away from the Catholic church and establishing the Philippine Independent Church. In 1898, revolutionary leader Daniel Tirona made it a hide-out.

While not the biggest, the church’s breadth is notable, 24 meters wide, making it the widest church in the country. Inside, four rows of pews can be accommodated. The narthex can accommodate perhaps a hundred people. There were touches of modern renovation: tiled floor, new altar and galvanized iron roofing. But the façade still exudes antiquity, the bricks tracing the columns, niches, entablatures, windows and a few ornamentations. Two angels stand as sentinels on each side and one at the top. A small belfry is tucked between the church and a school where schoolchildren gawked at visitors roaming the grassy churchyard.

A short walk from the church, pass the church’s mossy garden, the old house of the town’s prominent family, the Ponces, stands on the residential area behind the church. It is not really grand but a nice, little house with a reverent air of oldness and coziness with its numerous potted plants, doilies on tables and old pictures and numerous papers neatly hang on the walls. The present owner, Maria Dolores Pablo Ponce, welcomed us with a sumptuous mid-morning merienda by the dining area overlooking a lush backyard. Local treats were prepared like the annatto-seed-colored noodle soup sinanta, which reminded me of sotanghon soup only tastier, and the conoidal suman patupat. These were served with fresh coconut water laced with strips of coconut meat, and old-fashion hot chocolate drink. We were always served chocolate, so raw and so delicious, in every stop.

Every wall of the house seemed to be bedecked with old photographs and memorabilia: newspaper clippings, certificates, diplomas. A highly-educated teacher, Dolores hung her diplomas, surprisingly numerous, on the walls of one room. In a typewritten family tree, she traced her father’s lineage starting with her great-grandparents Andres Ponce and Patricia Villanueva, her grandparents Macario Ponce and Filomena Padilla and parents Ambrosio Ponce and Urbana Pablo. She also traced her mother’s lineage starting with great-grandparents Ignacio Pablo and Silvestra Villanueva. The tree was framed with an old photograph of her and her siblings—two of them nuns—in the middle.

We lingered around the house, looking at pictures of people long dead and reading letters of love undying framed on the wall. The letters were written by Dolores’s brother Licerio, the eldest of the seven children of Urbana Pablo and Ambrosio Ponce, to his beloved Lucing. One, typewritten and dated November, 11, 1929, started thus: “No mention has been made of your name, because to be frank your name is so sweet, so dear and so sacred to me that I prefer not mention it in an ordinary letter. Besides my mother and all my relatives already know that it is for you alone whom my heart beats.” He then proceeded to ask her hand in marriage: “I have the approval of my mother, of Nana Ana and of all my relatives, they have assured me that if you accept me, immediate steps will be taken towards the realization of my dream to be united with you by the bonds of love and marriage.”

Another letter, dated November 22, 1929, assuaged dear Lucing who was bothered by talk of nosy people because of Licerio’s frequent visits: “Let us not listen to these barbarous persons who spend their lives in gossiping. To me, I would not care whether the whole world is against me, I would not care what the world may say, I must have to love you to the end.”

The old letters, browning at the edges and on the folds, seemed to throb. I sipped my chocolate, which had become warmer and more intoxicating.

Gathering in Gattaran
The sense of romance intensified at the ruins of a church in the next town of Gattaran, 28 kilometers north of Alcala. By the highway, the moss-laced burgundy ruins nestled on a carpet of grass, enclosed in a bamboo fence and garlanded with flowering hedges. Nearby a small, weather-beaten school spewed out young schoolchildren bearing little Philippine flags, reminding us that it was Independence Day. They waved the flags as we disembarked the bus. Some wore grotesque paper-mache masks, a curious thing. 

The Church of Saint Michael the Archangel is a small church of the barangay of Nassiping. The roof has been blown off and the walls are crumbling. At one side, one sees the buttresses, hiding among the ornamental candle trees. The belfry is crowned with vegetation. One can still climb it through small opening. Two walls, with plants growing in the crevices, remain of the façade and doorway. The nave is covered in grass. By the altar area, the townspeople built a makeshift roof and set up benches and tables for the images. Mass is still being celebrated here at the ruins. From the altar one has a view of the walls, the old belfry and a backdrop of virid hills and forests where a carabao occasionally meandered by, a scene both bucolic and gothic. The day was scorching. I wished for gray sky and drizzle. I wished to see this in somber atmosphere.

This church is said to have been built in May 1850 on a one-hectare lot. At the time, the 20,000-hectare Nassiping was a separate town, established by the Ibanags in 1596 and named thus, from siping, meaning “twin,” because two rivers, the Cagayan and the Chico, merge nearby. A diocesan order in 1878 merged Nassiping with Gattaran and another town Dummum to form one town, adopting the name Gattaran,, and with Gattaran becoming the center. Gattaran’s old Church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria in Centro became the main church. War and weather slowly left the Nassiping church in shambles, becoming a forlorn structure that entrance visitors.   

There must be stories or a lore somewhere here. And there are. People tell of a large crocodile that terrorized the people of Nassiping long ago. The rapacious reptile emerged from the Cagayan River every feast day of Saint Michael the Archangel and sallied forth on the streets snatching townspeople. Fed up, the townspeople thought of ways of ridding this perennial threat. One was scaring the crocodile by wearing grotesque masks, some looking like devils, some like pigs. Dianggos they called these images. The naïve tactic worked.

People also tell of the Dianggos, meaning “jungle people,” of long ago. They were a tribe of dark-skinned, scary looking people with tails, living in the thick forests of the area. Once every year, they came out of the forests and frightened the townspeople. They were considered a great nuisance, especially to pregnant women. When the Spaniards came, they brought with them a statue of Saint Michael the Archangel. The townspeople were indifferent. When the Dianggos saw the statue, they went berserk and attacked it. Somehow, they could not get near the statue as they got weak and fell every time they charge. They retreated to the forests and were never seen again. The townspeople saw the power of the statue and came to venerate it.

Every feast day of Saint Michael the Archangel, on September 29, they honor the patron saint by dressing up like Dianggos and reenacting the story. The tradition was recently adopted by the town of Gattaran as its official festival, the Dianggo Festival.

Here now, the schoolchildren with misshapen masks provided a glimpse of the festival while we snacked onsuman and sipped from freshly picked coconuts on tables under trees by the ruins. The barangay captain frequently slipped in his long speech, and the teachers served refreshment and coached the children, a simple but charming affair. The children soon were frolicking on the grassy grounds under the shadows of the ruins.  

Up to Aparri
We were going north to meet the sea. There, the towns of Santa Praxedes, Sanchez Mira, Pamplona, Abulug, Ballesteros, Aparri, Buguey, Santa Ana, Gonzaga and Santa Teresita hug the northern shore. Somewhere out in the sea are the islands of Calayan, 57 nautical miles of Aparri. Before reaching the sea, one passes Camalaniugan, Lal-lo and Allacapan.

We reached Aparri, 102 kilometers north of Tuguegarao, almost by noontime, and went straight to the delta, where the Cagayan River pours into the sea. Springing from the Caraballo mountains of central Luzon, water trickles down to form a river, winding through provinces of Nueva Vizcaya, Quirino, Isabela and Cagayan. Along the way, it picks up its principal tributaries, the Chico, Siffu, Malling, Magat and Ilagan rivers. The Cagayan River passes fields, houses, factories, old churches, forests, communities and mountains though its 446-kilometer journey to the Babuyan Channel. Somewhere in Jones, Isabela, the fish ludong, found only here, travels to the river’s mouth to spawn. Then the fry swims upstream. When they are grown and ready to spawn, they will travel back to the mouth again. Fishermen catch them in fine nets, a delicacy.

Cagayan has one of the longest coastlines among the provinces with about 400 kilometers. Most of the time, we were not able to see it. Here in the coast of Aparri, the space opens up eternally, bright sky meeting heaving sea. Here it is difficult to make out the river mouth. It is big, two kilometers wide. We walked on a concrete jetty jutting to the sea. All the houses and the forests receded and we saw only water. We felt small. At the end of the jetty, some people were fishing. They were having no luck, just few measly fish and several jellyfish, scattered on the searing pavement and melting under the relentless sun. Someone pointed the islands of Fuga and Camiguin, hazy outlines. It could have been clouds. I imagined great ships. In the distant past, ships from China and Japan came here and entered the river, bartering with the natives. Then, the great galleons passed through here. Coming from Acapulco, they brought spices, wares and wonderful things. These were the days of the illustrious Manila-Acapulco galleon trade.

From the other side, Captain Juan Pablo Carreon arrived at twilight, bringing Spanish culture and Catholicism. He landed in what is now the barrio of Tallungan in 1581. Aparri as we know it began to grow. In 1653, the new town celebrated its first fiesta with aplomb, honoring San Pedro Telmo. People dressed up and partied. Mass was held in a makeshift church. Ships arrived for trade. Twenty-years later on fiesta day, Aparri was granted ecclesiastical recognition. The town as well as the church was officially inaugurated. The original church now lay in ruins, eaten by a big fire in 1761.

Glimpses of Catholic history in the province can be gleaned at the ecclesiastical museum behind the new Saint Lorenzo Ruiz Church, inside the campus of the Catholic-run Lyceum of Aparri, one of best schools in Cagayan. Here old religious statues and images, showing the wear of times, cast eerie shadows. Inside the glass encasements are religious items, liturgies and church literature, and priestly vestments. The sunshine outside was filtered through curtains the color of wine, bathing the room with the sweetness of age.

A little beauty in Buguey
East of Aparri is the sleepy town of Buguey, so unassuming it warranted a spur-of-the-moment side trip and not as a main destination. Many tell that Juan de Salcedo landed here, a small fishing village called Mission. It is a disputable thing but it is recorded that the town was founded on May 20, 1623. Before that it was a Dominican ecclesiastical mission in 1596. But at the start of the 20th century, it became a barangay of Camalaniugan. Then it became an independent town again in 1915, causing much celebration. It was nice and quiet now but every year in late July Buguey comes alive to celebrate its patron saint’s feast day and its prime commodity in the Parabur Crab Festival.  

Despite the quietness, the town holds “a sweet surprise,” as written by an excited Manuel Maximo Lopez del Castillo-Noche, an architect and architecture historian, in an article surveying the retablos of Luzon. He was talking about “the little known and out-of-the-way Church of Santa Ana de Buguey.”

Near a marketplace and partly hidden by trees, the Church of Saint Anne revealed itself, a diminutive and quaint sanctuary. A fountain surrounded by rosy periwinkle plants adorns its front yard. Four white pillars accent its brick façade. There are similarities between this church and the Tuguegarao cathedral. Lopez del Castillo-Noche described that “it has an austere but charming retablo mayor that appears to have been installed sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century. Though the retablo mayor, which is made of wood, suggests a more neo-baroque look, traces of the rococo can still be seen.” Beside the church are the ruins of a convent, now a nice little garden.

The parochial structures of the town were first built in 1610, including a library which is said to be the best in the region. Sadly, these were destroyed in a fire in 1732. In 1890, under Father Juan Gomez, the church and convent were reconstructed.

In this town of things lost and found, I walked about the convent ruins, thinking about the town’s name, derived from the Ibanag bugay meaning “shipwreck,” and twirling a periwinkle blossom, a small consolation for lost things.

Coming to Camalaniugan
We were going southward now, where the malaniog grows, a palm tree that looks like a coconut. In the olden days, they would know that it is Camalaniugan, a town that grew from settlements along the Cagayan River and the Babayuan Creek headed by Datu Guiyab. The friars Ceria and Castellano came in 1595 and converted thedatu and his people to Christianity.  

Presently in the barangay of Sapping, the new church of Camalaniugan dedicated to Saint Hyacinth of Poland was nearly finished. Workers were putting on the finishing touches to the edifice of brick, marble and concrete. It is a generically modern-looking one with clean lines and simple geometric design. Offsetting this is the wood-carved and color-rendered relief called Animas ta Pugatorio set on the façade, glass-encased, above the porch. In the morning, the sun would shine on it, the depiction of Virgin Mary and the tormented souls in purgatory, culled from the few treasures of antiquity the church owns.   

Another are the old bells, one in particular the oldest in the country. The bells are housed in the belfry beside the church, still old with railings. One can go up, circle the belfry from the outside and peek into the bells: San Jacinto, made in 1792; Nuestra Senora de Nieva y Santa Barbara, 1822; and Santiago Apostol, 1879. The fourth is the famed one: the Sancta Maria Bell, forged in 1595. No one knows how the bell came into the town. The only record found tells that the bell was brought to Manila in 1937, part of the attractions of the 33rd International Eucharistic Congress.

Behind the church, pass a school, one arrives at the ruins of an earlier church by the bank of the Cagayan River. This church, the third to be built in the province, is said to be constructed in 1596, the same year Camalaniugan was established as a pueblo and its ecclesiastical administration accepted by the Dominicans. In October 7, 1845, it was destroyed by a typhoon and an earthquake. On the wide grassy tract between the river and the village, it now stands, cutting a haunting figure under the eternal Cagayan sun. Its craggy windows look out to the now placid water of the river and across the old village of Dammang. Trees and plants have encroached on the former nave. The water of the river is insidiously eroding its foundation. A concrete embankment was constructed to keep the ruins from falling into the river.

With the ruins as the back drop, we had a picnic lunch of dinengneng and pinakbet, Ilocano vegetable stews, andlechon, roast pig.

The bricks used for the building the church were fired at the huge horno, brick kiln, nearby. No longer in use, it is the best preserved and biggest kiln in the province. Bricks for the churches and convents of nearby towns were also fired here. Set in a residential area, it was an impressive kiln.

When we arrived at the structure, a marching band greeted us. The girls were in gauzy purple costumes playing the xylophones and twirling their batons. A boy emerged from the top of the kiln, came down the wide stairs and sang the national anthem, ushering a short presentation, a dance-drama of the town’s history, undoubtedly orchestrated by the town culture vulture/versatile creative director-choreographer. Every town seems to have one, usually gay. Residents of nearby houses came out to watch until we had a little fiesta.

We had a chance to inspect the kiln after the show, a thing that reminded me of a small fort. Stairs led to the top. This doubled as a watchtower. Sentinels on top of the kiln kept watch and signaled if any intruder came from the river.

The kiln was built around 1600 by order of the parish priest then, Gaspar Zarate. In the time when the churches were being constructed, this was a beehive of activity. Men, from 18 to 40 years old, voluntarily and imperatively, fired the bricks, gathered firewood, hauled rocks from Magapit in Lal-lo and harvested sugar cane for the molasses used as binder for the bricks. By the banks of the river, women gathered clay and shells, pounding them into powder.

We entered via a small arched entrance at the side into a cylindrical space. The walls were partly green from moss. A circle of sunlight shone on the floor from the opening at the top. It looked like a dungeon. It reminded me of a chamber where two vampires are locked up in the movie Interview with the Vampire. As the day progresses, the circle of light closes on them, and they smolder into ashes. I imagined the intense fire that blazed within this. I smelled the walls, now muggy and mossy, and came out into the sunlight. From then on, I wanted to smell the bricks of the churches, almost wanting to lick them, trying to smell almost wanting to taste the burnt sugar and the sweat of men embedded in the earth.

Pious in Piat
Perhaps the most religious or spiritual site in the whole of Cagayan is in the town of Piat, 40 kilometers northwest of Tuguegarao. We were now down south again, where the towns of Rizal, Piat, Iguig, Penablanca, Tuao, Solana and Enrile are, along with city of Tuguegarao.  

After fields and villages, we seemed to be on a winding road uphill to the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of Piat. Aling Bing, the Cagayan Museum curator, said that during Holy Week and Our Lady’s feast day, pilgrims are lined up on the road day and night. We were on the road for some time and I could imagine the length and the multitude. The subject of their pilgrimage and devotion is Our Lady of Piat, a 400-year old image of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary made of papeir mache. I was incredulous but the material, light and durable, became fashionable in the 19th century in Europe, and in China, it was used centuries earlier.

The image was fashioned in Macau and brought by the Dominicans to Manila and then to Cagayan in early 17th century. Circumstances surrounding the image’s journey from Macau to Cagayan remain mysterious. Once enshrined in Piat, devotion to the image started and spread from Piat to the outlying towns and other provinces. Now, Our Lady of Piat is one of the most popular Marian images that riddle the Philippines, a nation with a special fondness for the Virgin Mary. Proclaimed as the patroness of Cagayan, Our Lady of Piat is held in high esteem by the Cagayanos to the point that affiliation with her is integral to their identity.

Since the beginning, Spanish priests were puzzled by the fact that the natives were immediately taken with her. Perhaps the image is “muy morena”, dark-complexioned, that Filipinos easily identified with her more than the blond, foreign-looking ones. But perhaps the greatest attraction is the miracles. Since the early 17th century until now, miracles attributed to the image have been reported. Famous is the early story about the drought. In 1624, the region was suffering from a terrible one. Facing famine, the people turned to their priest, who advised them to “make their peace with God by going to the Sacrament and making a novena to the Blessed Mother.” The people did, going to confession, receiving Holy Communion and reciting a novena to Our Lady of Piat. In the middle of their novena, rain fell.

Another miracle is reported in 1739, when a native was crossing a river near the shrine. He encountered a crocodile, which caught him by his enormous jaws. The native called out to Our Lady of Piat, and immediately the crocodile let him go. Stories of intercessions, cures, graces and wishes granted form the long list of the image’s credentials.

The esteemed image is housed in a new shrine, a complex that has a garden, a gift shop, an inn, a retreat center and a museum. Around the church grounds, makeshift eateries and stores selling candles and fans with the image of the Piat lady sprouted up, a thriving business to cater to the pilgrims and tourists.

Spearheaded by the archbishop Diosdado Talamayan and said to be partly built of the old bricks from the original ermita, the new shrine broke ground in 1988, blessed by the Cardinal Sin in 1995 and was regarded as a minor basilica in 1999.  

A Latin mass was especially held for us the day we visited. Halfway, I chose to linger around the museum, which houses religious artifacts, vestments of priests and richly embellished gowns worn by the image.

After the mass, a mid-morning merienda was laid out—steaming chocolate drinks, pancit, rice cakes and pawa, a local sweet that excited me more than anything else. Looking like little hills, the pawa is steamed sticky rice dough with a ground peanut filling. The dough is soft and chewy, and the filling grainy, salty and sweet. Thepawa immediately made it to my list of favorite native sweet snacks. I thanked for small miracles like this.

Immersing in Iguig
More chocolate and suman awaited in Iguig, 16 kilometers northeast of Tuguegarao. Along the highway in thebarangay of Atulu, children, made up and dressed in bright and crisp Philippine costumes, waited for us since early morning. By the barangay hall and behind the stores of clay pots and vessels, they performed a song-and-dance number, unmindful of the mud that caked on their knees when they knelt. Somewhere behind, women and men, also gaily costumed, staged a demonstration of shaping pots and making bricks.

Across the street, we found one of the oldest potters of the place, 78-year-old Victorina Banatao-Cadangan, who spoke only Itawis. She said she learned the craft from her mother Pascuala Lamusao-Banatao. It is the women who make the pots, shaping and designing them, while the men gather clay from the banks of the Cagayan River, knead it and make bricks. We learned that almost all of the potters in the area are related.

Atulu is a small village of 1,148 residents, 85 percent of which are into pottery and brick-making. Stores line the highway selling pots, stoves, vases, jars and bricks. Together with neighboring pot-making barangays of Gammad and Malabbac, Atulu produces about 40,000 pieces of clay products monthly, generating sales of about P75,000, and many are sold within the region, in the Ilocos region and in Metro Manila.

Though thought to have started during the pre-war period, Atulu’s pottery is one of the oldest of the few industries of Cagayan, and the whole town of Iguig identify it as its characteristic product.

Another thing that Iguig is proud of is its Calvary Hills, larger than life tableaux depicting the sufferings of Jesus Christ in the 14 Stations of the Cross, behind the church. The small church itself seems unimpressive and modern-looking, but at the rear, it reveals its antiquity. Spouting plants in places, old flying buttresses anchor the church in place.

Made of brick and stone, the Church of Saint James the Greater, the only church with flying buttresses at its rear, is said to be constructed between 1765 to 1787 during the time of the parish priest Pedro de San Pedro, who also constructed the convent, bridge, stair and well. The roof is of galvanized iron sheets, said to be the first church to do so in the Cagayan Valley region. The church is renovated during the time of Father Camilo Castillejos in the 1980s.

On the church grounds, historical remnants are strewn. Built in 1768 of limestone and bricks, the old well was source of potable water in the whole town during the 17th century. West of the church, a brick stairway leads to the river. It was used by Spanish dignitaries, who traveled along the river to visit towns, and merchants to transport goods during the galleon trade.

Nearby is the newer Jubilee Cross Chapel, which holds an ancient object: a relic of the True Cross, said to be authenticated, a gift of Archbishop Bruno Torpigliani, the papal nuncio to the Philippines, to Archbishop Diosdado Talamayan of the Diocese of Tuguegarao.

But people come here mainly for the Calvary Hills, which has become a major pilgrimage site during the Holy Week. The series of statues were initiated by Rogelio Cortez, the parish priest, and constructed in 1982. They are now strewn on a four-hectare hilly terrain behind the church, overlooking the Cagayan River. The statues are imposing and brightly-colored against the greenery. But I think what captivates people is the landscape—little paddies and huts tucked among the green hills with the great brown river flowing nearby—an exuberantly bucolic scene.

The town itself was said to be founded in December 28, 1607, by the Dominican priest Ambrocio dela Madre de Dios. This year, the town celebrates its quadricentennial anniversary.

Luminance in Lal-lo
The National Heritage Month celebration officially ended in Lal-lo, 82 kilometers north of Tuguegarao. Most likely, it is chosen because of its historical importance. When the Spaniards first explored Cagayan, Lal-lo is one of the first settlements, becoming the capital of the region and a city, the fourth to be established in the Philippines. Named Nueva Segovia, it became the seat of a diocese, which was created in 1595 and eventually also named Nueva Segovia. Because of distance from Manila and the threat of the river, the diocese was transferred to Vigan in Ilocos Sur in 1755. The bishop Miguel Garcia requested that Nueva Segovia be called Lal-lo, meaning “braid” or “intertwining of two strands to form a rope,” to avoid confusion.

At that time, there were three churches in Lal-lo. After the transfer, the three were merged into one parish. The structures of the two churches were abandoned and eventually destroyed. The Church of Saint Dominic in the then parish of Bagumbayan became the town’s main church, and it stands today, handsome and reverent. Fathers Diego de Soria and Tomas Castellar founded this church in 1594. De Soria’s remains were interred in this church together with two other bishops: Diego Aduarte, the sixth bishop of Nueva Segovia, and Miguel de Benavidez, the first bishop more famously known as the founder of the University of Santo Tomas.

Behind the church is the town hall with its wide grounds and park, and beside it the cavernous Ciudad de Nueva Segovia Gymnasium. Here the closing ceremonies of the Heritage Festival proceeded with a long series of folk dances. Outside, dusk was gathering around the park where kids loitered or rode on their bikes. The sounds from the gymnasium were audible. “Without heritage, we are like sailing ships without rudder,” I could hear the festival director Harper say during a speech. The last light of the setting sun touched the vinaceous bricks of the church, leaving shadows to bloom among the crevices. Somewhere, the Cagayan River flowed silently. I thought of the birays that carried the early inhabitants, the Chinese merchant ships loaded with wares and the Spanish fleet bringing religion, all enriching the culture and encrusting it with layers. I also remembered how each town we visited welcomed us with flags and smiles, presented a show and prepared a feast, rustic hospitality that charms; the warmth encapsulated in cups of chocolate, crude but rich; and the cursory glimpse of lives nurtured by and spirit housed by the earth, all heritage.

For more information on the province, contact the Provincial Culture, Arts and Tourism Cluster (PCATC), at the Kammaranan Building, Provincial Capitol, Tuguegarao City, through telefax number (078) 846-7337 or 846-7576, or email Log on to