I ADMIT that Cagayan is not on the top of my list of provinces to visit prior to 2019, but I love being proven wrong. Here I am today, pining for this valley which has captured and captivated my heart. I first set foot in Cagayan about 12 years ago to visit my college barkada Paz and at that time, I was only able to see the Tuguegarao Cathedral, the remnants of an old brick factory, and snippets of the downtown area.
While I was always telling myself to go back, the thought of driving 10 hours or more from Pampanga, or seating on the bus for 12 hours or more from Manila made me put off the trip for some time. Finally, my Marian devotee of a mother mentioned she wanted to visit the miraculous image of the Our Lady of Piat, and that Philippine Airlines now offers flights from Clark to Tuguegarao, with the flight taking about an hour or less. So we packed our bags one weekend and off we went to Cagayan Valley.
This time around, Cagayan did not disappoint and prepared for me an epic adventure, leaving me wanting and craving for more. Most of our trip revolved around the Visita Iglesia concept, getting to visit heritage churches around the province namely St. James Parish or Iguig Church, St. Philomena Parish or Alcala Church, St. Clare of Assisi Monastery in Iguig, Basilica Minore de Piat in Piat, San Raimundo de Penaforte or Malaueg Church in Rizal, Nassiping Church or St. Michael the Archangel in Gattaran, and the St. Peter and Paul Cathedral or Tuguegarao Cathedral.
With the exception of the modern St. Clare Monastery, the baroque churches I mentioned are made of bricks and originally date back to the Spanish colonial period. The Malaueg Church in Rizal is the lone National Cultural Treasure in the province of Cagayan.
Beyond the heritage churches, one of the most interesting facets of our trip is the long drive to Santa Ana, Cagayan, for the most part alongside the mighty Cagayan River which is peaceful and scenic at this time of the year. While we did not get to visit Punta Engano and Palaui Island this time, the long drive to Nangaramoan beach through the Cagayan Special Economic Zone is worthwhile, descending from a circuitous route to find the beach at the road's end. Having the beach to one's self is indeed the best escape anyone can have.
Nangaramoan beach is a public beach managed by the Local Government Unit of Santa Ana and there is a 20 peso ecological fee imposed per person. I do hope that after the closure of Nangaramoan, which preceded Boracay's, locals will be more aware and proactive in implementing sustainable ecotourism development. I will choose the pristine stretch of white sand and the solitude of Nangaramoan over Boracay anytime.
Passing through CEZA was quite a feast for my eyes, enjoying the sakura-like blooms of the Madre de Cacao trees along the road, or the seemingly endless stretch of mangrove forests which have been preserved. I also noticed the graveyard of abandoned vehicles, some from luxury brands, which probably did not have the proper custom clearances. I just thought they should have been put to a good use instead of being overgrown with weeds and wildflowers.
For the gastronomic side of the trip, I was fortunate to be in the good company of my friends who are locals of Cagayan. We were able to enjoy lunch at Las Palmas Hotel where I had a fill of seafood like squid, and a delectable dinner at the Patio Enrico which featured grilled seafood dishes as well as my friend Paz’s favorite flavorful seafood treasure soup.
In Santa Ana, we made a stop at this eatery which was a well-ventilated nipa and bamboo roadside joined called JNJ Restaurant which served fresh seafood catch such as squid, fish fillet made from tanigue, and fish head sinigang. Manong Mark who heads the local water district at the town was kind enough to bring us some pasayan, freshly caught and cooked shrimps which were juicy and sweet.
En route to Tuguegarao, we had a dinner stop at the cozy home of Nayong Pilipino executive director Mich Aguilar Ong in Lal-lo, where her family graciously prepared a delightful dinner of Lal-lo cuisine, which has its own niche among Cagayan cuisine given the history of Lal-lo town that used to be the capital of Cagayan and seat of the Archdiocese of Nueva Segovia.
It was a delectable spread of the Lal-lo version of dinuguan, wherein the blood sauce is mixed with deep-fried pork intestines, ipon fish, in reality the fry of goby fish, which makes a seasonal appearance once a year, during colder climate, igado, pork and beans cooked from scratch, squash flowers cooked with pasayan, and Lal-lo longganisa paired with fruity lubeg vinegar. Dinner was capped with bignay wine and Kalinga coffee, with Lal-lo milk candies for desert.
En route to Piat and somewhere in Solana, we had lunch at an unnamed eatery in the midst of a picnic grove which offers freshly cooked tilapia and hito, and other local dishes, and the tilapia sinigang and freshly grilled fish eaten al fresco were a hit among the hungry travelers. I missed eating pancit batil patong this time around, a sure sign that I should definitely go back for another visit soon.
Special thanks to my friends who have made our travel truly memorable and worthwhile, that it feels like I have a family waiting for me to come back to Cagayan, Paz Ave Mendoza and family, Angely Lubo Mercado and family, Kristine Basquez and family, and Michelle Aguilar Ong and family.
Cagayan, from its churches to its coast, from its cuisine to scenic charm, how you have captivated me and how I cherish you in my heart and my mind!