Tirad Pass National Shrine in Gregorio Del Pilar town, Ilocos Sur

Exploring Ilocos Sur’s highland towns

Tirad Pass National Shrine in Gregorio Del Pilar town, Ilocos Sur

Ilocos Sur is a household name for its Spanish-era magnificent churches, ancestral houses, heritage structures which remind us of its rich and colorful past.

But beyond its historic structures which often serve as eye candies for motorists on a long drive, this eclectic province has a charming secret hiding from plain sight—the highland towns which could yet be your greatest discoveries in this all-too familiar destination.

Suyo. Reachable via the Bitalag junction in Tagudin along the national highway, this quaint town is situated in the bosom of the mountain ranges which can lay claim to being a “summer capital’ in the generally humid province.

Dissected by the mighty and scenic Chico River which you get to see along the meandering gorge road, its terrain is hilly to mountainous, with almost a two-thirds forest cover.

With the icy rushing river, the spring pools of Eco-Mountain Resort and Isla Dawara, and the majestic water curtains of the waterfalls of Sangbay ni Ragsak, Kaman-Itil, Burayok, and Dawara, Suyo is a refreshing retreat off-the-beaten path.

Isla Dawara is an artsy day resort boasts of two huge swimming pools, a trick art 3D museum, and an outdoor sculpture gallery. For overnight stays, the government-owned Eco-Mountain Resort is the best bet with its overlooking riverine view, natural pool with slide, lush greeneries, modest but comfy and spacious bedrooms, and the all-important Wi-Fi connection.

A must-visit is Mt. Tapao, a scenic viewpoint which affords you to a rare treat of the ocean to the west and rocky mountains to the east. With an altitude of 618 meters above sea level, the peak is its top attraction because of its literally breathtaking vista, which includes an occasional sea of clouds and the Hollywood-like SUYO landmark which can be seen from below the Ilocandia’s main highway.

On its sprawling plateau will soon rise a 159-hectare economic zone which will house agro-industrial, information technology, light manufacturing, and solar energy. This high ground also played a pivotal role during World War II when Filipino and American troops captured it in early 1945 from the Japanese forces.

Isla Dawara Resort 3D art gallery in Suyo

Cervantes. This neighboring municipality takes pride in being the home to the Bessang Pass Natural Monument, site of the most decisive World War II battle in mid-1945 which sealed the defeat of Japan.

A mid-point in the Suyo to Cervantes highland highway, it is a 693-hectare protected area with an altitude of 1,600 meters above sea level and gives you the Baguio-like pine scent and cool weather. It is also habitat to a rich flora and fauna biodiversity, and thus a favorite among hikers and mountaineers.

Its core is a roadside military memorial shrine and public park immortalizing the uncommon valor of those who fought the furious five-month Battle of Bessang Pass. The park has picnic gazebos where you can look down on the zigzag road and get a view to a kill of the so-called “Battle of the Clouds.”

The seemingly endless road of twists and turns, which will test your driving prowess, is the backdoor used by many motorists en route to the Cordillera provinces of Benguet, Mountain Province and Ifugao.

Historical reenactors at the Battle of Bessang Pass War Memorial in Cervantes.

Gregorio Del Pilar. History lessons taught us that the boy general Gregorio Del Pilar was and nearly of his 60 men were killed by American troops pursuing President Emilio Aguinalso in the Battle of Tirad Pass. But then again, even teachers and jaded travelers have a hard time pointing out the location of the epic last stand type of battle.

Don’t Google because the answer lies in Goyo’s name itself—Gregorio Del Pilar, an interior upland town which is 38 kms east or about an hour’s drive from Candon City, Ilocos Sur’s southern urban hub. Tirad Pass National Shrine, ground zero of the battle where the horseback monument of the young general stands, is a two-hour hike from the población as it is inaccessible even by four-wheel drives.

The more agile ones can trek to the peak and get a feel how it was being chased by US Army soldiers which are more superior in numbers and firepower.

With the battle’s forthcoming 125th anniversary on Dec. 2, 2024, road warriors and history buffs can only hope that the long march can somehow be shortened by making a good portion of the trail passable.