F Iloilo, why it should be on your 2024 Travel List - jeepneyjinggoy

Iloilo, why it should be on your 2024 Travel List

GarinFarm Pilgrimage finale, the blinding white depiction of the Bible’s ascension to heaven

Why Iloilo? The food, for one, Dinagyang, for the Sto. Niño devotee, and the short plane ride on a direct flight from Davao is a big plus. Twice in 2023, I visited the place, long before Iloilo was designated “Creative City of Gastronomy” in the Philippines by UNESCO. Surprising? No. It's a well-deserved recognition. For sure, the new title heightened the city's aroma and umami, making it a more enticing destination.

Dinagyang, one of the largest festivals in the Philippines, is held annually on the fourth Sunday of January in honor of Santo Niño

This Western Visayas province has long been on the foodies’ map. It’s the craving for the authentic Ilonggo fare that pushes gourmands to travel to sate the palate. I am one on the list who chases after the savory batchoy, Pancit Molo. KBL (kadyos, baboy, langka), and Chicken Inasal cooked with recipes passed down thru generations; the sweetest mangoes of Guimaras Island; and the sugary bites of barquillos, Butterscotch squares and cream horns. Ask a local where to get a fix of the real deal local masterpieces, you might be directed to a hole in the wall eatery, the interior of a public market or a fancier joint. Go, it will be worth your while. But watch out for the emerging culinary geniuses as well, for they are whipping up something new or putting a twist to old favorites. Does Batchoy Ice Cream intrigue you? 

Locals point to Popoy's Batchoy at the Central Public Market for this authentic Ilonggo fare

The Molo Soup of Camiña Balay nga Bato

Iloilo staple: steamed fresh oysters

Something new - Batchoy Ice Cream

However, there is more to love in the City of Love than its cuisine (and the Dinagyang Festival). In Iloilo’s treasure trove are famed and unfamiliar gems found across the province. Each municipality shines with its own unique charm, including beach and inland resorts (like Sol Y Mar, a R&R ecotourism farm site in Tigbauan that highlights harvest to table cuisine); local industries (like the SEAFDEC: Southeast Asian Fisheries and Development Center, which promotes sustainable fisheries development in the region for decades now); and historic landmarks from old sugar mills to watchtowers.

Escape from the city. The Sol Y Mar is a R&R ecotourism farm site in Tigbauan

Of fibers, sugar and tourist spots.

Did you know that Iloilo locals wove fabrics from pineapple, abaca, cotton and silk prior to Spanish arrival? The weaving industry was well set in place as early as the 17th century and the growth of the industry in the mid and late 19th century earned Iloilo the designation as the “textile center” of the Philippines. Today, the hablon weaving industry is very much alive in the town of Miagao.

Alive & weaving. The industry is preserved & flourishing in the municipality of Miagao

Sugarcane farming was the same. It was present pre-Spanish era but did not become a booming industry until the arrival of British Vice-consul Nicholas Loney the 1850s. The man was key to turning the province into a sugar producing giant. He assisted in infusing capital to grow sugarcane, imported cuttings and machineries, built shipping vessels for interisland transporting of sugar and opened the Iloilo port to international trade. The Muelle Loney, the Iloilo River Wharf, was named in his honor as the “Father of Philippine Sugar Industry.”

Sugar built mansions and today these ancestral treasures are listed as Iloilo’s Heritage Houses showing the city’s affluent past. The oldest, 1803-built Casa Mariquit aka Don Fernando Lopez Museum, was home to former Philippine Vice-President Fernando Lopez, Sr.; the dreamy estate of Mansion de Lopez, aka Nelly Gardens built in 1928, is a favorite venue for romantic affairs; the Yusay-Consing Mansion, aka Molo Mansion built in 1926, is repurposed as a souvenir shopping stopover; and the 1865-built Avanceña House, aka Camiña Balay nga Bato declared a Important Cultural Treasure by the National Museum, offers heritage tour and cuisine, which includes the famed Chocolate Espeso (Tsokolate de Baterol) and Molo soup. The list is long and each old house has an interesting story to tell. So do the breathtaking centuries old houses of worship. 

The dreamy estate of Mansion de Lopez, aka Nelly Gardens built in 1928

1865-built Avanceña House, aka Camiña Balay nga Bato declared a Important Cultural Treasure by the National Museum

The lady of the Avanceña House, Luth Camiña

The path of the pious.

From the city center to the countryside, a Visita Iglesia is an enlightening journey spiritually and historically—a double treat, so to speak. The 1874-built Jaro Cathedral, aka The National Shrine of Our Lady of the Candles, the first national shrine in Western Visayas. Among its unique features of Jaro Cathedral is an all-male ensemble of saints placed on the main pillars as opposed to the all-female grouping of the 1888-built Molo Church, aka Saint Anne Parish Church, which is referred to as a feminist church. Both churches are National Historical Landmarks.

The 1874-built Jaro Cathedral

Jaro Cathedral displays all-male Saints at the pillars

The 1888-built Molo Church

Molo Church, the feminist church, has an all-female Saints at the pillars

In the coastal town of Miagao, 45-minutes from the city, is the Santo Tomás de Villanueva Parish, aka Miagao Church, one of the most impressive Baroque Churches in the country and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ornately decorated bas-relief of the facade is designed with a unique mix of medieval Spanish, Chinese, Muslim influences. Purposely built on the highest elevation of the town with massive and intensified walls and two bell towers of uneven heights may add to the church’s distinctive features but it also served as a protection from Moro seafaring invaders.

Miagao Church completed in 1797

The nearby towns have its historic churches as well: San Joaquin’s 1869-completed parish church, a National Cultural Treasure, displaying a military scene on its pediment; Tigbauan’s 1575-built St. John of Sahagun with a Mexican plateresque facade; and 1774-erected Guimbal Church built with yellow sandstone. 

Further south in the town of San Joaquin is the Garin Farm Pilgrimage Resort drawing in both the faithful and the curious alike with the Pilgrimage Hill, aka the “Stairway to Heaven.” It’s a biblical dioramic journey from creation to ascension, including a 480-step staircase that culminates with a blinding white heaven-like scene at the farm’s highest point. 

The new in the old.

Truly, one of Iloilo’s strong suits is its preservation efforts. It is evident across the province and most especially in the business district, the Calle Real, or the J.M. Basa Street. It was the main street of commerce during the Spanish era and the high-end shopping hub during the early American colonial period. The “Escolta of Iloilo” is today’s Calle Real Business District, a Heritage Zone, where the restoration of the historic buildings revitalized commerce and tourism of the area. Javellana Building and E/R Villanueva Building (once the International Hotel) are two of the Neoclassical, art deco and beau arts edifices flaunting its old glory, but with new occupants and business ventures. 

Restored buildings along Calle Real Business District, Iloilo's Heritage Zone 

Art also found its residences in Iloilo’s historic edifices. What was once the Iloilo Provincial Jail is now the National Museum of Western Visayas. It’s one of the first American buildings constructed in the country and with its design, cultural and historic value, it was declared an Important Cultural Property in 2016. 

“Panaysayon sang Paranubli-on” Mural (Narrative of Ilonggo Heritage) at the National Museum of Western Visayas park

Equally deserving of the spotlight is the UPV Museum of Art and Cultural Heritage (UPV MACH) with seven modest galleries in its complex. The impressive 1935-completed Neoclassical Art Deco building by Jose Arellano was a former municipal hall, a Japanese garrison, then a learning institution’s main building before it was converted to the art gallery it is today. The museum exhibits a comprehensive collection of art and artifacts highlighting the province. 

Art & architecture that will impress. UPV Museum of Art and Cultural Heritage (UPV MACH)

Spotlight on articles of clothing using handwoven fabrics at the Panapton Textile Gallery of UP Visayas Museum

Marching forward.

Tourism-wise, Iloilo’s preservation and restoration accomplishments added to the province’s allure. But the city’s new products to its attractions are as enticing, like the Iloilo River Esplanade. The impressive rehabilitation project transforms a dike road to a 9-kilometer urban esplanade and linear park built on both sides of the river that stretches through several districts. A most popular destination at sunrise and sunset, the eco-friendly space offers pedestrians a scenic tour of the river and city views.

Iloilo River Esplanade, the 9-kilometer urban esplanade and linear park is a most popular destination at sunrise and sunset

For an immersion in modern art, the Iloilo Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (ILOMOCA) at the Iloilo Business Park Township is a must visit. It’s the first of its kind in the region. Across three floors of exhibition spaces are five galleries including the impressive collection of the museum’s primary patron occupying the entire top floor and a space dedicated to recognized Filipino artists who identify as Ilonggo.

ILOMOCA at the Casa Emperador, Iloilo Business Park

A room for Ilonggo modernists & more. The first of its kind in the Visayas Region, the ILOMOCA in Iloilo Business Park exhibits all-modern art

Through the Department of Tourism’s Philippine Experience: Culture, Heritage, and Arts program that heralds the Filipino Brand and identity, the DOT Region VI - Western Visayas has crafted a list of highly-interesting tourism circuits, which spotlights Food and Gastronomy, Pilgrimage and Wellness, Living Cultures and Heritage, and an Arts caravan. Visit the DOT-Iloilo office and select one or all. A tour with a certified tour guide will let you discover Iloilo’s old and new gems beyond its facades and popular knowledge.

Next stop: Bacolod, and why it should be on your travel list, too.