Iloilo City: Where the past and present meet for the future

Exterior of Saint Anne Parish Church and a gazebo housing the images of six Greek goddesses—Aphrodite, Artemis, Athena, Demeter, Hera and Hestia—that stands on Plaza Molo in the district of the same name.

FOR first-time visitors, Iloilo City may seem like a place where the classic, the colonial and the contemporary not only co-exist, but also complement one another. True, this could also be said of other cities established during the Spanish colonial period that continue to flourish in the 21st century, but the co-existence of features of this vibrant Western Visayan city’s past and present never really feels awkward or forced. In fact, it feels rather natural.

This co-existence can be seen with a quick tour of downtown Iloilo City. From Casa Real—also known as the Old Provincial Capitol Building—and the Arroyo Fountain on the corner of General Luna and Iznart streets to the recently built Iloilo City Hall and Plaza Libertad on De la Rama Street, near what is called Calle Real, visitors may feel as if they are being pulled into the past and then pushed back into the present with every structure they pass by—year-old bank branches, decades-old offices, postwar shops, prewar buildings.

It is no surprise, then, that local-government and private-sector players—the Iloilo provincial and city governments, the Department of Tourism in Region 6 (Western Visayas), the Iloilo City Tourism and Development Office, the Metro Iloilo-Guimaras Economic Development Council (MIGEDC), the Canadian government-supported Local Governance Support Program for Local Economic Development (LGSP-LED), and the Iloilo Business Club (IBC) Inc., among others—are taking advantage of the dynamic relationship between the city’s past and present to spur development. They envision this development to include the transformation of Iloilo City into a top destination for meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions/events (MICE) in the country and the Asia-Pacific region.

According to IBC Executive Director Maria Lea Victoria E. Lara, the efforts to make this transformation a reality began in earnest with Iloilo City’s inclusion in the short list of possible venues for the 2015 Asia-Pacific Economic Conference Summit, which the Philippines will host. She said several structures and facilities are being built in preparation for this event and to enhance the city’s status as an emerging MICE center. These include the P500-million, two-story Iloilo Convention Center inside Megaworld’s Iloilo Business Park in the city’s Mandurriao district, which will have eight function rooms and can accommodate up to 3,700 people; and at least four hotels, which are projected to boost the number of hotel rooms in the city to between 3,200 and 3,500 by next year.


These construction projects, however, only tell half of Iloilo City’s continuing tale of transformation, only offer an encouraging glimpse into its future. The other half offers a sliding capiz window-framed view of the city’s past through the culinary and cultural-heritage tourism programs that local officials and their partners in the private sector are already implementing and improving to complement MICE events. Initiatives supporting these programs, according to Lara and Iloilo City Tourism Officer Benito T. Jimena, include the heritage bill filed by Rep. Jerry P. Treñas of the Lone District of Iloilo City to maintain and preserve the city’s six Spanish-era plazas; the city heritage tours that the city government designed and has been offering since 2010, when current Mayor Jed Patrick E. Mabilog became its chief executive; and the training of tourism frontliners on various protocols, the funds for which are provided by the LGSP-LED.

For a city rich in culture, history and potential, visitors may ask: Which sites are worth seeing? Which destinations deserve to be experienced? For Jimena, the answer is simple. According to him, such sites meet three basic criteria: accessibility, historical worth and “narrative” value. He said what makes Iloilo City’s tourist attractions, well, more attractive are the stories they tell.

Jimena is right. The tourist spots—and the significant structures—in Iloilo City and the towns surrounding it tell many stories: of immense wealth generated from sugar and textile production; of the high regard Ilonggos have for education (some of the nation’s most important colleges and universities are found in the city); of their constant striving to improve themselves and their way of life, as well as their need to maintain a healthy balance between work and play; and, of course, their faith, which continues to burn as steady as the perpetually lit candle carried by the image of Nuestra Señora de Candelaria (Our Lady of Candles), the patroness of the entire Western Visayas, at her shrine in the city’s Jaro district.


Cathedral of candles

THAT shrine—formally called the Jaro (or Saint Elizabeth of Hungary) Metropolitan Cathedral and National Shrine of Our Lady of Candles—is the seat of the Archdiocese of Jaro and the center of Roman Catholicism in Western Visayas. The church, a recognized national historical landmark that was constructed in the Romanesque Revival architectural style between February 1869 and February 1874, is notable among colonial-era houses of worship for two things.


The first of these is the limestone image of Nuestra Señora de Candelaria, which is displayed on a balcony above the doors of the cathedral and which can be reached by climbing the concrete stairs built against the façade. This image is reputedly miraculous; according to some accounts, it occupied the niche near the top of the façade until it grew too big for the small space. The image also has the distinction of being canonically crowned by the late Pope John Paul II himself during his visit to Iloilo City on February 21, 1981.


(A brief digression: In English, Candelaria actually means “Candlemas.” It is a Catholic feast celebrated every February 2 that commemorates the presentation of the infant Jesus to the old priest Simeon in the Temple in Jerusalem and the purification of the Virgin Mary, which were done in accordance with the Law of Moses.)


The second are the wonderfully restored statues of Jesus’s apostles, which are perched on platforms attached to the columns in the nave. These enhance the cathedral’s very pristine interiors, which are painted in bright yellow, sky blue and white, and feature vivid murals depicting Biblical and heavenly figures and scenes. A few of these images—of Andrew and James the Minor, to be exact—have rather dramatic poses, while the rest stand stoic. Many people, especially outsiders, are familiar with the church because of these statues.


Faithful females

LIKE the Jaro Cathedral, another, slightly older house of worship is also known for its gallery of saints. But unlike the images in the cathedral, the ones in Saint Anne Parish Church in the district of Molo are those of female saints. This fact has prompted a lot of people to call the church “feminist,” or consider it and the cathedral as twin or sister-churches.


Built in the Gothic-Renaissance style in the 1860s, Molo Church is seen by many people as an architectural treasure—the spires on its twin belfries and the pointed arches on its main and side altars are only a few of its noteworthy features—which the National Historical Institute, or NHI (now the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, or NHCP), acknowledged when it declared the church as a national historical landmark in 1992. No doubt the 16 images of the holy women housed there—from Jesus’s disciples (Mary Magdalene and Martha of Bethany) and Roman martyrs (Lucy and Agnes, among others) to foundresses of religious orders (Clare of Assisi and Teresa of Avila) and pious mothers (Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine, and Elizabeth of Hungary)—are a great part of the church’s beauty, despite the fact that the years have considerably dulled their once-luminous appearance.


There are some stories on why these statues were selected to adorn the church’s interiors, which are, on the whole, less showy than the Jaro Cathedral’s. According to one story, the images represent the saints to whom Molo’s Spanish-era weavers were devoted and had prayed in times of distress. It is easy to imagine an indigena, or native woman, of that time praying to Saint Martha for help in a household problem, to Saint Lucy for the complete restoration of a loved one’s failing eyesight, or to Saint Monica for guidance on how to reform a wayward, worldly son.


‘Living museum’

THIS interesting tidbit on the history behind those images was shared with this writer by Luth Saludes Camiña, who, with her husband Gerard, owns and manages the Camiña Balay nga Bato, a two-story heritage house in the district of Arevalo that was opened to the public in June 2010.


Of all the city’s heritage houses, the Camiña stone house (also known as the Avanceña House, so named after its first owners) may be the only one that offers lovers of local culture and history a real taste of what it was like to live, work and eat in such a home during the mid- to late 19th century. For a very reasonable fee (minimum of P150), tourists who have made prior arrangements with the owners or their staff to visit the house are treated to demonstrations of hablon-weaving and tsokolate tablea-making on the first floor, where the Lola Rufina Heritage Curio Shop is located; and (depending on the tour package they availed themselves of) to a cup of rich and thick tsokolate tablea, hard biscuits (such as biscocho), and a hot bowl of molo soup on the second floor, where the museum proper is found.


Much of the house’s appeal lies in how Mrs. Camiña conducts her heritage tours. From floor to floor, from room to room, she impresses visitors with her deep and extensive knowledge of her own home: its history (the house was built from 1860 to 1865 by Padre Anselmo Avanceña, the parish priest of Arevalo at the time; Fernando Avanceña, Mr. Camiña’s great-grandfather, financed its construction); architectural style (“architectura mestiza,” in which, Mrs. Camiña explained, “the walls do not carry the house’s weight,” which is carried by large posts made of hard wood, such as molave and kamagong); and indications of social status (the house has 10 windows; according to her, the more windows a stone house has, the wealthier the homeowner is), among others.


Clearly, for the Camiñas, the house is not just their home; it is their “living museum,” where artifacts from the past are not gathering dust on shelves or encased in glass, but continue to be useful to people. The efforts they have made to turn their house into what it is today offer more proof that the past is always present, and can even make a profit. Such conscientious efforts are not only seen in Iloilo City, but also in nearby towns.


Historic town

ONE of these towns is Santa Barbara, located 16 kilometers north of the city. This modest and quiet municipality occupies an important spot in Philippine history, for it is the first town in the Visayas to declare independence from Spain, as well as the first outside Luzon to raise the Philippine flag. This declaration of independence, called “The Cry of Santa Barbara,” took place on November 17, 1898, and was led by Gen. Martin T. Delgado, who became the first governor of Iloilo province after he was forced to surrender to the Americans on February 2, 1901.


Those interested to learn more about Santa Barbara—which was included in the Freedom Trail of Philippine Independence—and its most distinguished son can do so through the instructive cultural-heritage tour managed by local tourism executives, led by Tourism Officer Irene S. Magallon. (This tour, a project of the LGSP-LED, was made possible through the MIGEDC.)


This tour involves visiting key sites around the town plaza. One of these is the Santa Barbara Church, which was constructed in the Baroque-Renaissance architectural style by Augustinian friars between 1849 and 1878. General Delgado used the church and its convent as his headquarters when the Revolutionary Government in the Visayas was established, and for this reason they were declared a national historical landmark by the NHI in 1990 and a national cultural treasure on November 17, 2013.


As of this writing, the disaster-damaged yet enduring house of worship is being rehabilitated and restored—a massive undertaking that, local tourism-office staff member Danelyn S. Sumaylo says, has a P50-million budget (more than half—P30 million—was provided by the NHCP; the rest, by national-level and local politicians) and is expected to be finished by June 12, 2015, in time for the holding of the nationwide celebration of the 117th anniversary of Philippine Independence Day in Santa Barbara.


Across the church is another key site: the Santa Barbara Centennial Museum, which was built in 1998, in time for the country’s celebration of the centenary of the declaration of its independence. The two-floor museum not only houses General Delgado memorabilia and a replica of the flag raised during the Cry of Santa Barbara, but also a host of other items—swords, World War II military equipment, colorful and symbolism-rich indigenous clothing, gowns, chinaware, antique jars—that were either donated or loaned by the town’s more affluent residents.


A stone’s throw away from the museum—in front of the Santa Barbara Municipal Hall, to be exact—is the country’s largest flag (30 feet by 60 feet), which flutters at the top what is said to be the nation’s second-tallest flagpole (120 feet). And facing it, at one end of the town plaza, is the Gen. Martin T. Delgado Monument, on which a bronze statue of the revered military leader stands and where his remains now rest.


Also part of the tour is a demonstration of Belgian bobbin lacemaking, which is unique to the town. Introduced to the women of Santa Barbara by a Belgian nun, Sister Madeleine Dieryck of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, in 1991, this type of intricate lacemaking is done by the industrious women of Women United Through Handcrafted Lace and Embroidery, a nonprofit organization that provides livelihood opportunities for female survivors of leprosy and their relatives. Some of the beautiful items they crafted—tablecloths of different sizes, coasters, handkerchiefs—are sold at reasonable prices in select shops and trade fairs here and overseas, mostly in Europe.


Heritage and history

IF Iloilo City’s tourism sites prove anything to visitors, it is that Ilonggos have a strong sense of heritage and history, and that they let this sense guide them in creating a path toward a future that promises progress and prosperity and, at the same time, keeps the past in the picture.


It is this same sense, one would like to believe, that guides local government officials in putting the profits the city generates to good use, in places where residents can see—and feel—where their hard-earned money went: the mangroves that are planted on the banks of the Iloilo River, regarded as one of the country’s cleanest rivers; the 1.2-kilometer Iloilo River Esplanade, which may be seen—rightly or wrongly—as a neater, much-better version of Manila’s now-gone Baywalk strip; and the restoration of the American-colonial-period structures—the International Hotel, and the Ng Chin Beng Hermanos and Serafin Villanueva buildings, among others—on Calle Real, which is being promoted as a tourist destination in its own right.


Like many cities founded during the Spanish colonial era that continue to thrive today, Iloilo City is still a work in progress and, as such, subject to changes, significant and otherwise. Its story—already deep and fascinating and textured as it is—is still far from over. In fact, it may never end: in Iloilo City, time seems to shift from street to street, and the past and present meet for the future. The characters and changing sceneries that lend color and vibrancy to its story have entranced many tourists through the years, and will keep entrancing them in the years ahead. It is a story that other cities in the country can take a page or two from.


For more information on the featured tourist sites, visit,,,ña-Balay-nga-Bato-in-Iloilo and

Image Credits: Alvin I. Dacanay


  1. I just hope Iloilo City does not suffer the same fate as Metro Manila where over development is taking its toll in terms of terrible traffic, congestion and pollution! Planners take note!

    • right!….the pace of new building and construction has already turned Metro Manila into a toxic cesspool, unfit for sane, healthy living


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