I first heard about the town of Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur from a friend who worked for a movie Maruja (Carmina Villaruel version). She told me about this beautiful town with a nice church located on top of a hill. She also explained that some of the scenes of the movie were shot at the footpath connecting the church with the old cemetery.
This made me excited. I immediately scheduled a road trip to Ilocos that would make Santa Maria as one of our major stopovers.
When we arrived in Santa Maria, I was completely mesmerized by its beautiful church made of red brick. I then realized that it was one of the Philippine Baroque churches that made it to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. At the back of the church, we had to walk down through about a hundred brick steps to a footpath leading to the old cemetery. It was not easy finding the cemetery because it was completely covered with vegetation. But when we found it, we went inside and found the ruins of the old cemetery chapel. We went inside it and inspected its old altar. The whole place felt eerie and so we got out quickly as soon as we came in, promising never to come back to that place again.
I broke my promise. I came back to that place many times. The last time, I took several pictures inside the ruins of the cemetery chapel. I saw streaks of white lights on several photos. Must be the orbs welcoming back.
But seriously, there are many reasons to come back to Santa Maria. Aside from its magnificent church, bell-tower and convento, it still has many heritage houses and buildings, a beautiful plaza, and natural attractions like waterfalls and gray-sand beaches.
How to get there
Santa Maria is 370 kilometers from Manila or around 40 kilometers before Vigan. It can be a destination itself or can be combined as part of the Ilocos road trip.
From Manila, drive north via NLEX, SCTEX and TPLEX and exit from Binalonan. This will take 2-3 hours driving and will cover more than half of the distance. The other half will require driving through the tricycle-filled Maharlika Highway from Binalonan, going north via Pozzorubio and Sison before crossing the bridge to Rosario, La Union. From here, take the road on the left that passes through the many towns of La Union before crossing the bridge to Tagudin, the first town of Ilocos Sur. Then it passes through several towns named after saints, like Santa Cruz, Santa Lucia, Santiago and San Esteban, before finally reaching Santa Maria.
What to see, what to do
The town’s mai n attraction is the Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion church, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993. It was built on a hill overlooking the town in 1765 not only as a lookout but a religious center to administer Catholicism in the area. The church can be reached by climbing the 85-step stairway of granite rock. Its exterior is made of red bricks. The right side of the church is adorned by a huge relief retelling the story of how the statue of the Lady of Assumption was found on top of a tree.
On the right side of the church is the free-standing bell-tower built in 1810, also made of red bricks. It was used in the past as a lookout to warn the people of the attacks by marauders.
Fronting the church is the old convento. It was once the seat of the ecclesiastical administration during the Spanish colonization and the home of the clergy. At the back of the church is the wide stairway that leads to the abandoned cemetery.
Inside the compound of the Santa Maria East Central School is the old Santa Maria Twin Chapel. The original parish was built on this ground. The north chapel that now lay in ruins was dedicated to Senor Sto. Kristo, while the south chapel was dedicated to Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion. The south chapel is now used as a classroom of the central school.
Scattered around the streets of Santa Maria are several heritage houses and buildings dating back from the Spanish era.
From the town center, a barangay road leads to the lovely Pinsal Falls. Located about 11 kilometers from the highway, the road to Pinsal is now mostly paved. An entrance fee of P30 allows visitors to cool down at its 300-feet wide river with an 85-foot drop. On top of the waterfalls are more natural pools. Several scenes from Fernando Poe Junior’s “Ang Panday” were shot here.
Lastly, there’s this beach in Santa Maria with an unusual name: Suso Beach. It’s actually adjacent to the main highway (the landmark is after Suso Elementary School). Visitors can just park their vehicles, go down to the beach and enjoy the cool waters of Suso.
Where to stay, what to eat
Located along the Maharlika Highway is the Casa de Romas Hotel and Waterpark. It is the only hotel that offers comfortable family lodging in Santa Maria. Those looking for more affordable lodgings can check out some of the basic cottages in Suso Beach.
The nearby town of San Esteban also has several resort hotels by the beach. But for those who wish to do more heritage explorations can drive 40 kilometers north to Vigan where staying in old mansions is the norm.
Food in Santa Maria, like in most Ilocos towns, is mostly of the Ilocano favorites. At the back of municipal halls are several carinderias selling dinaldakan, pinakbet and dinuguan. In the afternoon, these stores also sell empanada, the Ilokano variety with grated vegetables and green papaya, longganisa and eggs.
But the best way to cap a day of exploration in Santa Maria is to go to the several gotohan eateries near the plaza. Their version of goto is made from boiled cow innards and served with locally-made miki noodles.