Abra 400. It sounds like one of those national cars from a Latin American country, but it’s not. It’s just my way of measuring distance to the places I frequently visit. It means Abra belongs to the 400km league, like Naga or Vigan—or in driving time, about eight hours.
But Abra is not like Naga or Vigan. It is not as popular as the other two. Most Filipinos do not know where Abra is, and only few can claim to have visited it. This is what makes Abra so attractive. It has so many attractions—from natural to cultural—that those adventurous enough to go there will be thrilled.
Abra means “opening.” It also refers to the river that connects the Cordilleras to the sea (South China Sea or West Philippine Sea, depending on the map). During the Spanish time, it was called “El Abra de Vigan,” or “The Opening in Vigan,” where the Chinese traded with the locals.
Abra is part of the Cordillera Administrative Region. Its original peoples are the tribes of Tingguian, Ibanag and Itneg. They built massive rice terraces that are as striking as those found in the rest of the Cordilleras. They still live in the uplands. But the province’s 250,000-strong population consists mostly of Ilocanos.
In Bangued, the capital, many Chinese traders came and settled. Bangued cityhood has been pushed in Congress since 2013, but with no success. It has a large land area of over 10,000 hectares, and a population of 50,000 people. It could be the third in the region to become a city after Baguio and Tabuk. It became the capital town of Abra in 1863.
The road passing through Bangued leads to many destination to the rest of the Cordilleras. Many off-roaders use this to go to the beautiful Balbalasang National Park in Kalinga.
How to get there
Bangued is around 400km from Manila. Using the tollways (NLEX, SCTEX and TPLEX) is longer and more expensive, but reduces the travel time to less than three hours to the exit in Binalonan (216km from Balintawak). From there, it is a continuous drive via four lanes to Rosario, La Union, where most vehicles make a brief stop to fuel up, get some snacks and take that much-needed restroom break.
From Rosario, the road goes north to Ilocos Region. The present road constructions in Bacnotan and Bauang, La Union, make travel time longer. Continue drive to Narvacan junction (Km 385), and from there turn right to Narvacan-Abra Road. The road ascends (this is the natural boundary of the Cordilleras), and after a few kilometers of winding roads, the climb leads to Abra’s Tangadan Tunnel. From the tunnel, the drive passes through the towns of San Quentin and Pidigan before finally reaching Bangued.
What to see, what to do
Abra is a nature’s paradise. There are several peaks to conquer, waterfalls to trek and rivers to explore. But I do not recommend going there unless one can find a good local guide. Your car’s navigation system is also of no use as none of the local providers have accurate maps of the province. I once attempted crossing the Abra River to visit a remote village, and I got stuck in the sand while attempting to cross the river.
It is best to visit only the popular attractions around Bangued. The Tangadan Tunnel is the province’s most recognizable landmark. The 40m tunnel started construction in 1934, and when it was finally completed, it made access to the province through Ilocos much easier. On the left of the tunnel is the statue of Gabriela Silang, an Abra native who led a revolution after her husband Diego had been assassinated by the colonizers.
In Tayum, Abra’s original capital, the ruins of the old capitol can still be visited. Also in Tayum, the house where Gabriela Silang sought refuge still stands and is now converted to a museum. The Santa Catalina de Alejandria Church in Tayum is one of the 25 churches in the Philippines included on the list of the National Cultural Treasures. The church, which is baroque in style but devoid of any embellishment, was completed in 1803.
In Bangued, the massive Saint James the Greater Cathedral is one of the capital’s main attractions. The construction of the church started in 1722 and was finally completed in 1807. Another attraction is the San Lorenzo Shrine which is actually a cemetery chapel made from red bricks. Also in Bangued is the Capitol Building constructed in the 1950s. Fronting the capitol is a newly renovated people’s park with multipurpose activity centers. Another attraction here is the Victoria Park, where one can go up to see a vantage view of the whole town.
But the visit to Abra will not be complete without visiting Abra River. In summer, the locals go there to swim and have a picnic. The river is now traversed via kilometer-long bridges. The bridges continue to attract out-of-towners who come to have their pictures taken there doing planking.
Where to stay, what to eat
Places to stay in are very limited. Most of the hotels downtown are in a state of disrepair. The only decent places are the two hotels located in Victoria Park: Oval Era Hotel and Rylanyan Place, which both offer comfortable rooms at affordable prices with a nice view of Bangued and the surrounding mountain.
For dining, the locals are very proud of their miki noodles, which the Chinese migrants brought and which are available in every street corner. Each restaurant makes its own miki noodles from flour and serve them freshly cooked with or without soup. Prices start from as low as P20 per serving.
Other popular dishes are the Ilocos longanisa and the Abra-style bagnet. The locals swear that their bagnet is tastier and crunchier because it is fried twice.
Those who wish to feel the local vibe should head straight to the place they call Food Court. It’s a compound of several restaurants with plenty of ihaw-ihaw stalls and with large parking. It’s smoky and noisy, but it’s a good place to find some locals willing to take you to the hidden attractions of Abra.