The province of Isabela in Cagayan Valley (Region II) appears to be a very laidback place.
Despite its size (second-largest province in the country, after Palawan) and status (one of the Top 10 richest provinces, the only one in Northern Luzon on the list), it doesn’t seem to provoke strong reactions or opinions from people on hearing the name.
Isabela is called the “rice and corn granary of Luzon,” and considered the trade and industrial center of Northeastern Luzon. It has exceptionally well-maintained roads and highways. President Ferdinand Marcos granted it with the first general electrification in Cagayan Valley.
Marcos also had the biggest dam in Asia (at that time) constructed here—the Magat Highrise Dam and Hydroelectric Power Plant in Ramon town, bordering Ifugao province, with a reservoir area of 4,450 hectares, now utilized for fish-cage operations and recreations like boating, fishing and water-skiing.
And yet, not many Filipinos are familiar with the province; some don’t even know where it is.
It only came to national consciousness fairly recently with the rise of the Dy political family; the ambush-killing of Ilagan Mayor Jojo Albano; and the ascendancy of Grace Padaca as its first woman governor.
But not many are aware that the ancestral roots of Vice President Jejomar Binay are here. And those of other notables such as former National Defense secretary Gilbert Teodoro, former senator Heherson Alvarez, folk singer Freddie Aguilar.
One has to be reminded that the Gaddang Revolt of the 17th century occurred here. Or that Emilio Aguinaldo hid in the hinterlands of its northern town Palanan, where he surrendered to American forces in March 1901, ending the Philippine Revolution.
The province has some 600,000 hectares of forest cover comprising one of the world’s largest remaining low-altitude rainforests, the unexplored hinterlands on its eastern coast a protected area known as the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park. The Bonsai Forest in Dinapigue is about 20,000 hectares.
Yet mention Isabela and, chances are, people have heard only of its trade centers—the cities of Ilagan, Cauayan and Santiago.
Cauayan is the region’s industrial center. It is a 55-minute flight from Manila (only morning of Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday).
Having the primary airport in the province, with flights to Manila and Tuguegarao, it has become a transit point. As such, a number of travelers’ hotels, restaurants and a mall have recently sprouted in the city.
Most structures here look recent or new. The only building one sees as old is Our Lady of the Pillar Church (Spanish colonial).
About an hour’s drive north is the capital Ilagan, the region’s primary growth center and investment hub. In land area, it is the fourth-largest city in the country (after Davao, Puerto Princesa and Zamboanga).
The city has several landmarks that travelers ought to check. St. Ferdinand Cathedral has in its tower one of the oldest bells in Cagayan Valley. Balai na Maguili is a renovation of a 19th-century convent, but the adoration chapel has been well-preserved.
The Coca-Cola Plant is one of the oldest industrial complexes in the region. The Tabacalera started operating in 1895 at the peak of the tobacco monopoly and is still producing what is said to be the finest hand-rolled cigar in the world.
At Bonifacio Park (or Freedom Park) is prominently displayed on a rotunda the Giant Butaka, to signify the city’s renown as the furniture center of Cagayan Valley. This is the world’s largest armchair, 11 ft high and 21 ft long, weighing nearly 2,500 kg, of solid narra planks and rattan strips, constructed by 25 workers in one month in 2003, costing P175,000.
The main tourist attraction of the city, and possibly of the whole province, is the Ilagan Sanctuary, covering four barangays in Fuyo Spring National Park at the foothills of Northern Sierra Madre, 10 minutes drive from the city proper. A helpful guide to this place is Carla Suzette Vargas from the City Tourism Office, a bubbly person with an arsenal of information.
The place has a mini zoo of Sierra Madre wildlife (a must-see is the hair-raising wild boar), plus two Bengal tigers (brought here as cubs, then a few months later, on a diet of chicken, have grown into monstrosities.)
There is a botanical garden, a butterfly sanctuary, and an herbal plantation. An essential-oil extraction project has been put up here by the city government and the Department of Science and Technology, a livelihood project that’s also intended for students and teachers of science classes.
The place also offers wall-climbing and rappelling; swimming pool, picnic areas; boating, horseback and bicycle rides; fish pond and parks (adopted and developed by nongovernment organizations).
One of the biggest draws is the zip line, 72 ft high and 350 ft long, hovering over a meadow at a maximum speed of 15 seconds. Its platform is set on top of a hill 700 ft above the ground, thus the gravitational pull is stronger. Zipping at 80 km/hr, it is reportedly the fastest in the country.
For the faint-hearted, an open-sided cable car runs parallel to the zip line. A little farther is a hanging bridge over the treetops.
Or one may leisurely trek to the nearby waterfalls and caves, including a bat cave. The biggest is a nine-chambered one the size of a chapel, with stalactites and stalagmites, naturally formed lattices, shining rocks of various shapes and sizes glowing like crystals in the dark.
Seldom can one experience the natural world within city limits as one does here. Tourists flock not only to Pinzal Falls and Sta. Victoria Caves but also to Abuan River, said to be one of the cleanest bodies of water in Luzon, where the outdoorsy may shoot the rapids and wander the wilderness by rafting or kayaking.
About two hours drive south is Santiago, the region’s Premier City. Of the three cities, this one appears to be the most well-kept. It is three hours by land transportation to Baguio; two hours to Banawe; seven hours to Manila.
Santiago has been a city for 20 years, the first in the region, but it still has no airport—which riles government consultant Vic Santos. “We are within 60-km radius of tourist destinations—one requirement to have an airport,” he points out. “We have 35 banks. And where else can you find a public market of six hectares?”
He estimates that about 60 percent of Cauayan’s plane passengers are bound for Santiago, about an hour’s drive south. He adds, though, that a proposed airport in Nabbuan is projected to start building next year.
A site in Santiago that especially draws visitors is the La Salette Shrine on Balintocatoc Hill, the highest point in the city. On Holy Week, Catholic devotees come and pray along the life-size statuary of the Stations of the Cross on the way to the Transfiguration Chapel on top. The place is presided over by the heroic figure of Our Lady.
In fact, among the top tourist attractions of the province are its centuries-old churches, and not only during Holy Week or for pilgrims. Some of these Baroque structures are a marvel to behold, particularly those northward to Cagayan province: San Pablo de Cabigan Church in the town of San Pablo, the oldest in the province and its bell tower the tallest in Cagayan Valley; San Matias Church in the town of Tumauini, declared a National Historical Landmark and acknowledged as “the most artistic brick structure in the Philippines.”
Santos says the area surrounding the La Salette Shrine is government property of over 30 hectares. The fallow land will be converted into a recreational and cultural site probably next year, he says, to showcase the arts-and-crafts and indigenous dwellings of the province’s ethnic groups (Ybanag, Gaddang, Paranan, Yogad), much like Nayong Pilipino.
About 70 percent of Isabela’s 1.5-million population are Ilocanos, followed by the Ybanags and the Tagalogs.
Festivals and fiestas
Santos says that, to draw more visitors, they are conceptualizing a festival to be mounted annually in the place, called Balamban (or Butterfly Festival), inspired by the graceful flight of those winged creatures that throng the area’s scented gardens.
This is adding to the province’s numerous festivals and fiestas, among them the Pattaraday of Santiago; Gawagaway-yan of Cauayan; Mammangui and Binallay of Ilagan.
Grandest of all are the province-wide festivities: the Bambanti (or Scarecrow Festival) in February, to celebrate bountiful harvest, the region’s biggest festivity in terms of crowds; and Isabela Day in May, the anniversary of the establishment of the civil government of the province, which is said to be the grandest and most awaited celebration in Northern Luzon.
The province, created by royal decree on May 1, 1856, was named after Isabela II, queen regnant of Spain from 1843 to 1868, who was refused recognition by the Carlists for being a female sovereign and deposed in the Glorious Revolution.