I no longer know how many times Iâ€™ve visited Cagayan province ever since I first set foot on June 2005. For more than a decade, thereâ€™s always something to experience and learn everytime Iâ€™m there despite the long bus rides. Iâ€™ve marveled at its religious heritage, was in awe of its natural wonders and always delighted in partaking its culinary offerings. And always, in my mind, I ask myself, when I should go back, especially if I’m craving for pansit batil patung.
A rich religious heritage
The colonizing Spaniards first reached the northern part of the Philippines in 1581 with an expeditionary group sent to explore the Cagayan Valley. But it was in 1594 when the Dominican Order started its evangelization resulting in the building of churches with bricks coming from the massive hornos (ovens) in Tuguegarao and Camalaniugan. And thus, one of the provinces worthy of a visita iglesia.
The Cathedral of Tuguegarao is resplendent with its massive faÃ§ade and tall belfry. Although it has undergone renovation, obliterating some of the faÃ§ade details, its retablos have been restored to its original design. In the same city, the quaint Ermita de San Jacinto fascinates with its unique faÃ§ade.
In the municipality of Alcala, the St. Philomene Church is the widest in the region while the town of Iguig is known for the flying buttresses of its heritage church. But what makes this an unforgettable church is the sweeping vista of the Cagayan River meandering the lowlands while life sized stations of the cross at its grounds is a popular Lenten destination.
The town of Piat is the top pilgrimage town in the province with the miraculous image of the Virgin Mary drawing thousands of pilgrims from all walks of life. While up north, Camalaniugan is known for the oldest bell in the Philippines, the Sta. Maria, cast in 1595. Lallo on the other hand used to be the seat of the Diocese of Nueva Segovia in the 16th century before it was transferred to Vigan but the old church continues to face the ever encroaching Cagayan River.
Caves, beaches and Palaui Island
Cagayan province has so many untamed places. Callao and to some extent, Sierra Caves are not just popular for spelunking activities but this area in PeÃ±ablanca town is part of the PeÃ±ablanca Protected Landscapes and Seascapes, the largest natural reserve in the province. And it is also here that the oldest man in the country has been found, predating Tabon Man by 17,000 years. The pristine Pinacanauan River is also ideal for kayaking and swimming while at one part of the river is an ideal spot for the circadian flight of bats.
Up the northeastern coast is the Anguib Beach which is becoming a popular destination although, now, you can only reach it by pumpboats. Talisay trees line the beach while a walk of snipes are busy feeding at the waterâ€™s edge. And we were served a feast of seafoods including lobsters!
But it is magical Palaui Island that takes oneâ€™s breath away. Itâ€™s rugged, with steep hills and cliffs jutting out from the water. Itâ€™s thick with forests teeming with unique flora and fauna and lonely coves strewn with dead corals, smoothened pebbles and fine sand. At Cape EngaÃ±o, the ruins of a Spanish colonial era lighthouse stands forlorn, overlooking the often rough and choppy seas. Itâ€™s a short trek up this structure but the views are amazing.
Sweets, garlic longanisa and pansit
Cagayan province is also garlic longanisa country, almost similar to those in the Ilocos but varying in size, and amount of garlic and spices. Municipal variations abound, of which, two are prominent: the one from Tuguegarao and the other from Claveria. Pasalubong? Thereâ€™s the milk candy, popularized in Alcala and some versions like the one in Lallo and airy and crispy Chicha-rabao, banana chips as well as cassava and rice fritters. Piat also has its pawa, ground sticky rice filled with a mixture of sugar and ground nuts.
My favorite regional noodle dish is none other than the pansit batul patung. Itâ€™s proudly Cagayan that is delectable, sumptuous and filling. Many times that Iâ€™ve dreamed or pined for this that once, I hopped on a bus all the way to Tuguegarao just to indulge on this heavenly dish. Itâ€™s a mound of stir fried local miki, pieces of liver and carabeef then mixed with chopped onions, vinegar and chili peppers. The dish is served, traditionally topped with raw egg to cook while smoking hot while a cup full of soup makes for a savory abre gana.
And more to discover.
Tuguegarao City is the capital of Cagayan province and is reached thru buses from Metro Manila, Baguio and Laoag. There are also daily flights from Metro Manila by Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific.