I’ve never seen it like this before,” Lyra laments as we glimpse the throng of people also trying to get into Cape Bojeador Lighthouse. “Four years ago there were no lines like these at all!”
Though I’d never been to Ilocos Norte before, I knew she had to be right. Every stop we’d made during our trip, from the Bangui Windmills to the Marcos Museum to the Kapurpurawan rock formations, had been packed with tourists—more than I’d seen in any provincial area in as long as I could remember. The endless sea of vacationers, most of them Filipino, interestingly enough (white and Korean tourists, usually found in all corners of the country, were largely absent), made it glaringly obvious that Ilocos Norte was now a tourist hotspot.
From what I can piece from various articles, a big tourism push four years ago saw the region’s annual visitor numbers jump from roughly 200,000 in 2011 to almost 750,000 today (a number that becomes even more impressive when you realize the resident population doesn’t even break 600,000).
“Hell with this,” Lyra finally exhales, leaving the line. “Hold on a second.”
She isn’t gone long and when she returns she motions for us to follow, which we do in quick time. Before we know it we’re not just making our way past the line, but past a door clearly marked “Off Limits.” It doesn’t take long to realize where the spiral staircase we’re climbing leads. It pays to travel with locals; sometimes they know someone who knows someone who can get you somewhere—in this case the lantern room of a landmark lighthouse.
Despite its surge in popularity, Ilocos Norte does a good job of holding onto its small town charm. Outside of the tourist areas the streets are relatively empty, and the general midday atmosphere is a cross between laziness and lethargy. The northernmost region of the Philippines is also the hottest, so it’s little surprise that everything—and everyone—tends to slow down in the hot hours.
Yet even though it’s in no short supply of rustic charm, Ilocos Norte does a hell of a job staying not just current but sometimes ahead of the curve. Windmills, for example, dot the landscape and not only does Ilocos boast the largest wind farm in Southeast Asia, but also the first combined solar-wind plant in the world. Not a bad idea in a country plagued with brownouts and some of the highest power rates in the world.
With all this in mind, it gets easier to understand Ilocos’ increased popularity. The region seems the perfect blend of classic provincial charm with modern sensibilities, and the local government is for once on the ball instead of behind it.
The private lighthouse tour is over and we’re in the car, on our way to the next stop—the Kapurpurawan rock formations. I have no idea what to expect when we get there but if the trip so far has been any indication, it’ll be amazing.
(Spoiler: It was.)