THE GLOW OF the Sunday afternoon sun fills the surroundings, and cheesy 90s ballads bleed softly from the speakers. I’m riding a jeepney past houses that clearly have seen better days, past a lively marketplace with people talking in a language I barely understand, and under the towering stand of a large decaying belfry that overlooks the busy streets. As we round a bend going to the city center, the provincial capitol comes into view and around it, a graceful portrait of Iloilo City appears.

Iloilo City, a fairly large city on the southeast portion of Panay Island in Western Visayas, has once been dubbed “The Queen City of the South.” It’s a claim that sounds self-aggrandizing, but exploring the city’s streets and coming across the colonial architecture and heritage sites strewn across town, I begin to feel that there’s more to the label than a mere tourism slogan. The charm is only helped by the city’s vibe that’s much more relaxed compared to Metro Manila and even Cebu City.

Museo Iloilo. The museum exhibits collections related to the indigenous Ati people, old pineapple fiber weavings, sunken ship treasures, and jewelry from Spanish burial sites.

I first came here in 1995, when we were dragged by our parents to a general assembly of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Churches of the Philippines (CAMACOP), an Evangelical denomination under which our church belongs. The sole memory I have of the city, however, is the dirty white walls of our hotel room, where I spent most of the time playing with my cousins. Twenty years later, on another general assembly, I grab the chance to explore the city on my own while the rest of my companions a) have gone ahead to Kalibo, b) are in a meeting, c) are in a nearby town conducting a workshop, and d) are sleeping in the hotel.

The old capitol building of Iloilo province. Iloilo City is the provincial capital, though as a highly urbanized city, it is governed independently of the province.

I am here with no proper itinerary in mind. The past few days, my mind has been preoccupied either with work or with Boracay, our destination after this. The truth is, I never considered Iloilo City more than just a pit stop in this trip and so planning the tour this afternoon has been an exercise in absorbing large volumes of information from the web in a short span of time. And one of the oft-recommended stops is Jaro. So after getting directions from the security guard at the hotel lobby, I find myself in a jeepney gliding through smooth traffic to the city’s northernmost district.

The Jaro Cathedral, also known as the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Candles, is the second national shrine in the Visayas, after the Basilica del Santo Niño in Cebu City.

I get down around fifteen minutes later at the Jaro Cathedral, known formally as the Jaro Metropolitan Cathedral and the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Candles. It’s the second national shrine in the Visayas, following the Basilica del Santo Niño in Cebu City. Squeezing my way through the sizeable crowd gathered this afternoon, I walk towards the structure and examine its Romanesque Revival style. Moments later I cross the street to examine the church belfry, which stands where the original church was built before it was destroyed by an earthquake.

A bowl of the traditional Ilonggo dish batchoy with puto

When I have my fill of Jaro’s retro charms, I ride another jeepney going back to the city proper. Here, I ramble along the sidewalks and take pictures of the Museo Iloilo and the provincial capitol, both of which are closed for the weekend. I walk further to a marketplace and soon find myself in a popular chain serving batchoy, a local dish that features chicharon (pork rind), liver, and egg noodles. The traditional recipe uses guinamos (bagoong in Tagalog, fish paste in English). The history of batchoy isn’t clear but many sources point the district of La Paz as its birthplace.

A Sunday afternoon scene in Iloilo City

Fueled by the artery-clogging ingredients of my meal, I press on to my solo walking tour. The sun is beginning to set and the golden hour paints a dramatic hue on the city’s colonial houses. But while much of Iloilo City presents itself as a repository of old time, modernity seems inevitable in a place that has struggled a long time to free itself from its past. These vintage structures stand side by side with unremarkable buildings, including an SM mall, of which the city has three.

The Church of Saint Thomas of Villanova, more popularly known as Miagao Church, is famous for its distinct relief sculpture. The UNESCO-listed church is in Miagao, a town 40 km southwest of Iloilo City.

Just outside the city proper, the Iloilo Conference Center is being built for this year’s APEC Summit. Notwithstanding controversies regarding its funding, the conference center is viewed by residents as a sign of major progress for the city that has fought for half a century to rise from the ashes of postwar destruction. But while the city is gearing fast toward the future, the best things about it remain rooted in tradition. And this afternoon I’m just glad to be reminded of it.

A few hours later in the evening, I’m finally reunited with some of the group and we’re having dinner of traditional Ilonggo dishes. We’re relating our experiences of the day. The mood is joyous, capping a hectic day with a moment of celebration. Perhaps it’s the natural joie-de-vivre of the place that makes it so easy to let loose here. I’m now finding that – despite my initial disinterest – Iloilo City, its people and its treasures are very much easy to love.

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