Not many may be aware of it but, aside from the 7.8-magnitude earthquake in July 1990, there were two major events in Philippine history that occurred in this city: the assassination of Gen. Antonio Luna in 1899; and the Great Raid of 1945.
But is it a happening city?
Cabanatuan is one of the hottest cities in the country (climate-wise). One mall had to construct cathedral-like halls and ceilings to offset the heat.
It is the commercial capital of Nueva Ecija, a landlocked province in the Great Plains of Luzon, the country’s ninth richest province and the Rice Granary of the Philippines.
Although its ratification as a highly urbanized city is still pending, it appears to be gathering momentum as a major investment hub, with large-scale residential developments, mammoth malls and new infrastructures, lifestyle centers, entertainment areas, busy street scenes.
It has over 30,000 tricycles, earning it the dubious title Tricycle Capital of the Philippines. Those bull-headed tricycle drivers refuse to take the slow lane on the highway and stall the traffic for hours.
They’re also pesky photo-bombers. Visitors who try taking a panoramic shot of Plaza Lucero or a selfie with the statue of Luna astride a horse have to wait for them to move out of the frame.
Luna’s monument in the plaza in front of Cabanatuan Cathedral (Church of San Nicolas de Tolentino) is said to be the exact spot where he was killed by Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo’s men, the Kawit Brigade led by Capt. Pedro Janolino.
Locals say the cathedral, constructed in the 1930s, was the former site of Aguinaldo’s headquarters when he made Cabanatuan the capital of his revolutionary government before fleeing to Palanan.
But visitors are confused as to the exact location where Luna died. A historical marker at a nearby street corner identifies it as the exact spot. Some accounts say it was in front or on the stairs of the casa parroquial (rectory, now a school). If so, he must have dragged himself across the street before he fell on the spot where the monument now stands.
Unlike other places in the province that abound in heritage structures—such as San Isidro, Gapan, General Tinio—Cabanatuan can boast only a few.
One such is the Old Provincial Capitol. It was designed by William Parsons, the prominent architect who did government buildings in Manila, Cebu and Laguna during the American colonial period. It has been renovated and expanded.
Another heritage structure is the defunct train station. Built in 1927, it has been converted into a day-care center. It looks dingy, crowded with hawkers and various commercial establishments.
Structures in Cabanatuan are mostly modernist. (This must be the price of progress.) The only heritage structure we see that resembles an ancestral house is not even a house but a restaurant, Hapag Vicentico’s.
A compound of small structures with a courtyard, it looks pretty but not architecturally authentic. It used to be an abandoned residence that has been repurposed with parts assembled from demolished structures.
Art and history
For more authentic history, one has to go to the city’s outskirts. There’s Camp Pangatian Shrine, the end point of the Death March.
It was here where the Raid at Cabanatuan occurred, the subject of the 2005 John Dahl movie and briefly depicted in John Wayne’s 1945 “Back to Bataan.”
It used to be a military training camp of the Americans before it was turned by the Japanese into a concentration camp for Allied prisoners of war. The site is now a neglected park with a derelict structure where the original watchtower stood, another casualty of the battle between city and provincial governments.
Cabu Bridge, blown up by Capt. Eduardo Joson (played by Cesar Montano in “The Great Raid”), was really a small bridge, according to locals. And the river was just a creek—now a swamp overgrown with kangkong. The site has no marker, a literal “kangkongan ng kasaysayan.”
The Provincial Capitol in Palayan City is a grand structure with capacious halls and indoor pocket gardens. On the lobby is a life-size statue of Eduardo Joson, called the Lion of Nueva Ecija, cast in bronze by National Artist Napoleon Abueva.
The capitol houses Museo Novo Ecijano, the provincial museum, which features life-size dioramas of flora and fauna; antique household articles and farm implements; vintage photographs and paintings; festival costumes and native attires.
Going farther from Cabanatuan, one encounters more historical and cultural landmarks and some of the most wondrous vistas in the country: Minalungao National Park’s limestone formations; Gabaldon’s ecopark, waterfalls and Dupinga River; Philippine Carabao Center in the Science City of Muñoz, an exemplar of modernist architecture; Gapan’s Byzantine-style church, the first in the province to be declared a National Cultural Treasure; site in Bongabon where First Lady Aurora Quezon and company were ambushed by insurgents; site in Cuyapo where Apolinario Mabini was arrested by the Americans; San Isidro’s Tabacalera, symbol of the oppression of the tobacco monopoly in Central Luzon; Sideco House, also in San Isidro, frequented by Aguinaldo and where Gen. Frederick Funton later planned his capture.
Triala House of Gen. Manuel Tinio in Guimba, with its turn-of-the-century furniture and stained-glass; Carrangalan’s forest reserve in Capintalan, maintained by an Ifugao community; Dalton Pass, also in Capintalan, with its World War II memorial in black marble and a tower marking the border between the province and Nueva Vizcaya.
Another emerging tourist destination is Pantabangan Dam, constructed in 1947. It is considered a bass-fishing hotspot in Asia. The view is exhilarating and there’s a small pier for those who’d wish to explore the edges of the reservoir.
This is the gateway to Baler, Aurora. Going this way, one will see more of the natural beauty and golden bounty of the province.
Nueva Ecija is also referred to as the Food Bowl of Central Luzon. It is one of the country’s top agricultural producers—not only of rice and corn but also fruits and vegetables, carabao’s milk and meat, poultry, onion and garlic, mango, calamansi, banana, eggplant, squash, tomato, beans, sunflowers.
Surrounded by six provinces and inhabited mostly by Tagalogs, followed by Kapampangan and Ilocanos, it is a melting pot of cultures—what one would call “cosmopolitan.”
Although not indigenous foodstuff, we can affirm Cabanatuan’s carabao’s-milk ice cream is one-of-a-kind. Its longganisa, which uses beef instead of pork and locally known as batotay, is justly famous.
And the innumerable gotohan lining its plazas are an oasis for late-night travelers. Our companion declared one of them had totally redefined the dish goto for him.