The province of Isabela in the Cagayan Valley is usually overlooked as a tourist destination. While it’s second largest province of the Philippines and the largest in Luzon in terms of land area, not many tourists would go out of their way to spend a vacation here.
The province is known as the “rice and corn granary of Luzon,” and is considered the trade and industrial center of Northeastern Luzon. However, a lot of work still needs to be done to develop accessibility to eco-tourism sites in the whole province. But if you’re going on a road trip up North or are already in the province for business, there are a few interesting places including historic churches and scenic spots that you can visit as side trips.
This guide only covers some highlights of the mainland that I’ve personally been to. A lot of the premiere destinations with beautiful white sand beaches and islands are located in the coastal areas of Isabela. These towns are cut off by the Sierra Madre mountain range and only accessible by long boat travel through open seas or limited chartered flights, making it very challenging or expensive to get to. I haven’t been to the coastal towns of Maconacon, Divilacan, Palanan, Dinapigue yet, but these have been on my bucket list for the longest time. With paved roads leading to these municipalities being developed, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the province gets discovered.
WHERE EXACTLY IS ISABELA:
Occupying the central section of the Cagayan Valley region in Luzon, Isabela is bordered by Cagayan to the north, Kalinga to the northwest, Mountain Province to the central-west, Ifugao and Nueva Vizcaya to the southwest, and Quirino and Aurora to the south. To the east lies the Philippine Sea, making the province one of the most typhoon-prone provinces in the country.
HOW TO GET THERE:
From Pasay in Manila or Cubao, air-con buses like Victory Liner and 5 Star travel to major towns like Cauayan and Santiago in Isabela for 500-600 pesos one way. Travel time is about 8-10 hours depending on the stops. There are frequent delays during trips and you will not usually have a definite journey time.
For travel between cities and towns, there are buses and van shuttles that ply the major highways. For short trips around towns, the tricycle is the main mode of transport. But if you’re traveling in a group, it’s really more convenient to have your own private vehicle for getting around. Getting to some of the eco-tourism sites requires long land travel on rough roads where jeeps and trucks are the main mode of transport.
To get to the jump-off for our hiking trip to waterfalls in Echague, we had to ride on the back of an Elf Truck, usually used to transport cargo. Many locals in the community here also still use the Karison, a carabao-drawn carriage to get around. For single travelers, you may have to hire a habal-habal for destinations that are off the beaten path.
WHERE TO GO / WHAT TO DO IN ISABELA:
Magat Dam is a major source of power and water supply in Northeastern Luzon, and Southeast Asia’s biggest hydroelectric dam. It is located at the boundaries of Alfonso Lista, Ifugao and Ramon, Isabela. This multi-purpose dam is used primarily for irrigating about 85,000 hectares (210,000 acres) of agricultural lands, flood control, and power generation.
Locals come here to enjoy the breeze, go jogging or biking. This is one of the more accessible sites with a scenic view that you can reach by all types of vehicles and there’s currently no entrance fee to visit. Recreational boating is no longer allowed, which is a bit of a shame, as this could be an added attraction in the area aside from sightseeing.
Madadamian Falls is a newly discovered ecotourism destination in the remote village of Madadamian in Echague. The waterfall circuit has 9 identified falls of varying heights and natural pools. The tallest, Mada Falls is about 18 meters high, while Damian Falls is about 12 meters high.
Photo by Ferdz of Ironwulf En Route.
While most of the other cascades in the circuit are not that high, what makes this destination interesting is the nature trail that involves hiking through hills, corn fields, canyon-like streams and bamboo forests as well as possible encounters with wildlife. Be warned that this isn’t a beginner-friendly hike and it’s best for those with hiking and mountaineering experience.
NOTE: Because of accessibility and security issues, all visits need to be pre-arranged with the Municipal Cultural and Tourism Office. For inquiries, contact them at the NIA Building, Municipal Ground Provincial Road, San Fabian, Echague, Isabela. Contact: (078) 305-5159. Facebook: Municipality of Echague.
The most accessible natural tourist spot in the whole province is the Ilagan Sanctuary located in a portion of Fuyot Spring National Park that comprises the Northern Sierra Madre National Park. A hike of about 2.5 kilometers from the caves will lead to Pinzal Falls which is the main source of water for the swimming pools right by the picnic areas. The sanctuary also houses several parks and recreation areas including a botanical garden, boating area, a hanging bridge, zipline, fish pond, and a mini-zoo.
Sta. Victoria Caves
Located within the Ilagan Sanctuary is the Sta. Victoria Caves, a network of nine-chambered caves the size of a chapel, though only three can be visited. Locals discovered the caves in the 16th century and named it after Queen Victoria, the queen of Britain at the time. Unlike other caving destinations, the chambers here have been developed for tourists and are very easy to explore.
The Philippine crocodile or bukarot is considered the most threatened crocodilian species in the world due to hunting, destructive fishing and habitat conversion. It was rediscovered in the town of San Mariano in 1999. The crocodile sanctuary protects this special animal by keeping hatchlings in a rearing station before releasing them in the wild 18 months later.
The butaka is a reclining lounge or rocking chair with a lengthy back and extended arms found in many homes in Isabela. The province is home to the world’s largest lounge chair (weighing 2,368 kilos) which was built to promote the woodcraft and furniture industry of the region. The gigantic chair which measures 9.7 feet wide, 20.8 feet long and 11.4 feet high can be found in a shed at the Bonifacio Park or Freedom Park in Ilagan as a town landmark.
Isabela has many beautiful churches, the most famous of which is the Tumauini Church, which is considered the most artistic brick structure in the country and has been designated a National Cultural Treasure. Built in 1753, the Parish Church of St. Mattias in Tumauini is most known for its unique cylindrical bell tower, said to be the only one of its kind in the country. The ultra-baroque church is also known for its extensive use of baked clay bricks stamped with finely designed ornamentation like flowers, cherubs and saints.
I really liked the abandoned vibe of the San Pablo Church and Ruins. Built in the 17th century, the church was nearly destroyed during World War II. A garden now remains inside the walls of the original church which leads to a more modern chapel. Its six-layer bell tower with a circular apex made of adobe is said to be the oldest in Isabela and the tallest in Cagayan Valley.
The St. Ferdinand Parish Church is dedicated to the Patron Saint San Fernando and is located just beside the St. Ferdinand college in Ilagan. The tower of the church is known to house one of the oldest bells in the region.
The Shrine of Our Lady of the Visitation in Gamu houses the Miraculous Lady of the Visitacion, which is frequented by travelers passing along Maharlika Highway.
Balai na Ilagan
Formerly a convent, the Balai na Ilagan (also known as Balay na Maguili) was set up by the Stewards and Friends of Ilagan, an NGO involved in socio-tourism efforts, as an arts, culture, music and literature hall for the youth. This is located beside the Rizal Park and is worth a visit if you’re in the area.
WHAT / WHERE TO EAT IN ISABELA:
When in Isabela, the most popular local specialty or dish to tryis Pancit Cabagan, made of stir-fried, fresh miki noodles with mixed vegetables, quail’s eggs and topped with cripy lechon de carajay or fried pork bits. You can try this in many restaurants but locals recommend always Josie’s Panciteria & Restaurant in Cabagan, Isabela as serving the best variety.
Inabraw (also known as dinengdeng) is a tasty yet healthy Filipino dish composed of different fresh vegetables such as jute leaves, bamboo shoots, young corn, patola, eggplant, tomato, okra, malunggay, bitter melon, string beans and other products with bagoong.
Cauayan has been dubbed the “mushroom city of the North,” so you can find some unique dishes made from farm-grown mushrooms here. One dish I got to try was mushroom empanada, a small pastry filled sliced oyster mushrooms and sauce instead of meat. The town’s Mushroom Center produces other unique mushroom-based dishes like mushroom pickles, mushroom tempura, mushroom patties, mushroom sisig, mushroom shake – and even mushroom ice cream.
Rice is a major agricultural product, so you can find rice delicacies like tupig and suman in different towns. One unique rice delicacy from Isabela is Inatata, made from glutinous rice creamed with coconut milk, sugar, and a pinch of salt. The name comes from a combination of the words for mother and father “ina” and “tata to reflect the labor of love from parents because of the care in which it takes to wrap the rice treats. The rice cakes are wrapped and bundled together into strings of 10 rolls.
Another homegrown rice cake is Binallay, made of glutinous rice and wrapped in banana leaves. The name comes from the Ibanag word “balay” meaning “house,” referring to the way the native delicacy is wrapped in banana leaves. This has religious significance and is traditionally served during the Holy Week, to help Isabelinos endure hunger during the fasting period.
WHERE TO STAY IN ISABELA:
Punta Amelita, Cordon
CULTURE & FESTIVALS:
My recent trip to Isabela was to cover the Tilamsikan festival, an annual cultural showcase organized by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts hosted by the town of Echague. As part of the event, we witnessed dances and rituals performed by the indigenous Yogad Tribe, the pre-colonial inhabitants of the region, whose mother tongue is the Yogad language and one of the smallest ethnic groups in the Philippines. They are now concentrated in Echague, Camarag, Angadanan, Santiago, and Jones, Isabela.
One of their faith healers demonstrated the Banca ritual that involves a miniature boat decorated to be made attractive to the spirits. While singing & dancing sacred songs, the healer falls into a trance as the spirits enter her. While in that state, the healer is able to load the evil spirits onto the boat with various offerings, which is made to float on the river with the current.
The most prominent celebration in Isabela is the Bambanti Festival celebrated every January. Named after the Scarecrow which guards the fields from birds and pests, the Bambanti Festival celebrates the agricultural industry, natural resources, culture and industries of the entire province.
Information for this article was compiled from two separate trips to Isabela in February 2012 (as part of a feature for Living Asia Channel) and in June 2017 (to cover the Tilamsikan Performance Art Festival in Echague).