Often overshadowed by nearby Vigan, the municipality of Bantay, Ilocos Sur is perfect for travelers who seek a balance between the old and the new. After all, this town is not just the welcome mat for one of the country’s best-preserved Spanish colonial towns. Discover what else you can do in this quaint municipality, beyond just a stop-over at its very popular church.
Established in the 16th century, the town of Bantay is said to have gotten its name from its unique topography and role in colonial times. Flanked by lush mountains and hills on its eastern side, the municipality was in a strategic position to guard the trading ports of Vigan in the southwest. It is also this identity that shaped the town’s life, with its most iconic structure—the Bantay Church and Bell Tower—standing guard over the rest of the town.
Today, instead of standing guard against marauders, the municipality of Bantay now welcomes travelers who seek to explore the rich heritage of Ilocandia. With its own laid-back charm now complemented by contemporary establishments, this town is starting to become more than just a stop-over for travelers journeying to the North.
With its location just along the national road, Bantay is very easy to reach, especially since it’s just beside the City of Vigan. Simply ride a bus to Vigan from Manila or Baguio and alight once you see the Bantay Church, which is just a few blocks before the Vigan welcome arch. And in the odd case you go miss that stop, don’t worry—Bantay is merely a quick tricycle ride away from the Vigan city center.
Similar to many Filipino towns, the main mode of public transportation in the town of Bantay is the tricycle. Alternatively, you can just walk around the town proper; many of the municipality’s commercial establishments are just a few blocks away from the Bantay Church complex.
The most popular tourist attraction in this municipality is the Bantay Church and its standalone Bell Tower, which were first built in 1590. These two brick structures not only comprise one of the oldest church complexes in the region—they also played a pivotal role in Philippine history. After all, the Bell Tower doubled as a watchtower for Spanish forces during the Spanish colonial period. It also served the same purpose for the Allied forces in World War II.
Meanwhile, the Church is also the Shrine of the Our Lady of Charity, patroness of the province and fondly called Apo Caridad by the locals. While its interiors are so simple compared to its Neo-Gothic and Romanesque façade, it is a popular pilgrimage site for devotees across the region.
And sure, Bantay Church may be the municipality’s biggest tourist draw, but it’s definitely not the only one. A lot of people actually don’t realize that the iconic Quirino Bridge, which offers picturesque views of the Abra River, links Bantay to the municipality of Santa. This vintage steel-spanned structure, which was named after Philippine President Elpidio Quirino, is considered one of the most attractive bridges in the country.
Of course, taking pictures at the Quirino Bridge is not the only thing you can do in the area. You can head on to the Ilocos Sur Adventure Zone located just beside it. This outdoor park is crammed with a good variety of activities for thrill-seekers, from wall climbing and riding a giant swing, to zip-lining the entire 400 meters across the Abra River. Travelers can also climb up the Bantay Bell Tower to admire the magnificent view from the top. This panoramic view extends as far to Abra and the Cordilleras.
Aside from the usual local fast food joints, there’s also the Bantay Food Court located just in front of the Bantay Church and Bell Tower complex. This open-air roadside collection of stalls sells home-cooked meals prepared by the area’s microentrepreneurs.
For a fresher, healthier approach, head on to the Mira Hills Bar and Restaurant that’s located along the national highway. This establishment boasts of a literal farm-to-table approach, as the restaurant sources the ingredients for its dishes from the farm beside it.
Being a quiet town, Bantay doesn’t have much in the way of nightlife. While there are a number of bars and restaurants such as the one at Mira Hills in the area, there are arguably more interesting options in the Vigan City proper.
There are a number of accommodation options available in the town of Bantay for different kinds of travelers. Tourists on a budget can stay at Henady Inn, which is just several blocks away from the Bantay Bell Tower. Meanwhile, the Metro Vigan Fiesta Garden Hotel is also a good midrange option. Finally, those who want to splurge can check in at One Vittoria Hotel. While located on the main highway—farther away from the town proper—this hotel does offer a free shuttle service to the Vigan Heritage Zone. More options can be found in nearby Vigan, which is just immediately south of Bantay.
Check the weather before you go. This is especially important if you’re planning to try out the activities at the Ilocos Sur Adventure Zone, as they may suspend operations due to inclement weather. The outdoor park occasionally hosts group tours and training camps too, so if you want to avoid the crowds, make sure to call the camp or message them on Facebook before going.
Visit Bantay Church early in the morning. Not only will this spare you from the scorching heat of the sun—it will also spare you from having to jostle with tourists later in the day.
Make sure you’re prepared to climb the Bantay Bell Tower. There are no elevators to the top floor of the bell tower; you need to climb several flights of stairs. So make sure you’re fit enough to climb to the top—it is a bit steep—and wear comfortable shoes. Only bring a small bag, too, as the bell tower’s stairs can get pretty cramped at certain points.