Iloilo City proper with a jeepney full of passengers.

Solo trip to Iloilo City

I took a solo trip to Iloilo City for three nights. It was the largest city I’ve visited in one year and nine months, and it was a bit of a culture shock coming from the rural area of northern Aklan Province.

There are three provinces on Panay Island. For nearly two years, I’ve stayed mostly in Aklan. I take weekly trips to Kalibo, the provincial capital, for my spiritual group meeting.

Kalibo has a population of 74,000. Iloilo City, the capital of Iloilo Province, has half a million people.

To give you a tad more perspective, in Malay Municipality where we rent an apartment, there are 45,000 people, according to the latest census. Roughly half of them live on Boracay. We ‘live’ on the ‘mainland’ – on Panay Island.

Theo didn’t come, and he was nervous about my going alone. I promised I’d stay out of crowded areas and be careful.

The first thing that hit me: the traffic! Cars, and real taxis! There are no taxicabs where we stay, only tricycle cabs.

Also, the pollution. It’s nowhere near as bad as Cebu City or Manila, to be sure, but I’ve lived literally at the sea’s edge for nearly two years – and I smelled smoggy air again.

Trip to Iloilo City

I had two official goals for my trip to Iloilo City: to meet with a small group of people with the same spiritual approach to life as me, and to buy underwear. That second goal is a long story, and a blog post on its own.

My unofficial goal: to move. To travel. To go somewhere! For a short visit. A change.

In February 2019, we stayed in Iloilo for one night, just long enough to have dinner, sleep and shower. We were on our way to the Gigantes Islands with Theo’s mom Diane. We had come from Negros Oriental. Our travel stopped when they pandemic shut everything down in this part of the world on March 16, 2020.

This time, my trip to Iloilo City was for three nights.

I arrived after dark by bus on Night 1, so I start ‘Day 1’ the next morning. (More on the bus ride towards the end of this post.)

Day 1: Iloilo City proper & La Paz

Compared to Kalibo and Malay and Boracay Island, Iloilo has architectural highlights, several plazas and churches, tons of restaurants and shopping, including big malls.

From my hotel in La Paz, it was a short walk over a bridge to the area known as Iloilo City proper. My first stop was a small mall in the central city to buy some underwear. I was there as they opened and so it wasn’t crowded yet.

Next, I walked. I wandered down to Robinson’s, another mall area, but didn’t need to go in. There, I saw a Starbucks – open for business! I’m used to seeing the closed location on Boracay.

I walked down to the water and back up to the famous vendor street – J.M. Basa Street.

When it got too hot, I hired a bike cart driver to take me on a tour when it got close to noon. I picked George because he was cleaning his cart. I told him where I’d already walked.

He took me on a tour that started at Iloilo City Hall, went down by the old fort, along the domestic port road, by the downtown CityMall location, across from the ferry terminal (where we had first arrived on Panay Island in early 2020), the length of Rizal Street, and back down Ledesma Street where we eventually turned onto J.M. Basa. I didn’t mind going back down the vendor street – it was interesting to see it from the road.

I gave George 500 pesos ($10) for his hard work peddling over an hour. He was thrilled.

Next I walked around the La Paz neighborhood just to the north of the city proper. Mabini Plaza was great – an oasis in the city. There were lots of people doing laps on a loop around the park.

I went back to the hotel to shower off, and went out for batchoy for an early dinner. Batchoy is usually made with pork and chicken and liver and other meat parts I generally stay away from. But everyone told me to try the batchoy in La Paz – because that’s where the dish was created.

There are conflicting stories about where it first originated. But after reading reviews, I decided on Deco’s La Paz location – steps from my hotel. If it was packed, I’d get it to go back to the hotel.

It was packed. And no one wore a mask inside as they ate, of course. So the waitress took my order outside, and delivered it back outside to me. I asked her to fish out most of the liver, and the kitchen did, mostly. I ate around the liver and unidentified bits. My verdict? Delicious! Not to sweet, not too spicy, not too salty. It really was good. If I hadn’t had dinner plans for the next night, I might have gotten it again.

I relaxed for an hour, and then went to my spiritual meeting across the street at St. Clement’s Church. After my meeting, I went back to the hotel and slept great for night two.

Day 2: SM City, Atria, The Avenue, Riverside Boardwalk

I set off for SM City the next morning. That is a huge mall – much bigger than city proper location. Several floors with a gazillion stores. Even a Uniqlo! First one I’ve seen in the Philippines. (There must be one in Cebu City, I just don’t remember it – and we haven’t toured Manila.)

The underwear hunt continued, and when that was over, honestly — I wanted to leave the mall. I just wasn’t into it. Not even Uniqlo.

But it looked like it might rain, and I knew I probably wouldn’t be in a large mall again soon, so I walked around every floor. It still hadn’t rained, so I went back outside. The main road in front of SM City is a highway several lanes across — with crosswalks. No lights. Walker beware. Also, there’s a bike lane thrown into the mix.

On the west side of SM City there are new shopping centers similar to outdoor malls common in California, but smaller.

I had a delicious hot cafe mocha at Bo’s Coffee. Bo’s is the Philippine version of Starbucks. (I never did make into Starbucks and I don’t feel any loss.)

I walked towards one of the river walks in the city (there are a few) but decided to head over to the hotel Diversion 21 to meet my friend. We walked back to the boardwalk’s edge to have dinner at Guiseppe Pizzeria. It was the best pizza I’ve had in the Philippines. Heck. It might’ve been the best in Southeast Asia.

After dinner, we hopped in a cab to attend our spiritual meeting. That second night was a Catholic holiday, so there was a procession on the expansive church grounds. It was nice to hear people singing outside in the distance. It’s a sound I hadn’t heard in a long, long time.

Day 3: Bus ‘home’

I took a taxi to the Ceres Terminal where I arrived a few days earlier. The fare from my hotel in La Paz was less than 200 pesos ($4). Buses to Caticlan via Kalibo run frequently – at last two an hour as of this writing.

It’s a 5.5 hour ride from Iloilo City to Caticlan, the port town to Boracay Island. But my ride closer to six hours because of construction.

One thing that stood out to me on the road trip: the condition of the road! I don’t know if the pandemic stopped repair work, or if the condition of the road is simply because this is a developing nation, but the road had so many potholes and cracks you’d think you were in Cleveland, Ohio, after winter slow plows gouged streets for another season.

The fare costs 478 pesos (nearly $10). It makes three stops, including Kalibo. That’s where I normally hop on.

Where I stayed

I stayed in the Urban Inn Iloilo, across the street from where my spiritual group met for two consecutive nights during my visit. There are three hotels that have good reviews by other tourists (pre-pandemic, mostly) within a five minute walk from St. Clement’s Church (which is gorgeous, by the way). With COVID under control now, small gatherings are allowed. We sat outside and all wore masks.

After taxes and fees, my hotel bill was $61 for three nights. It was a tiny room, 15 square meters. But it had: air conditioning, kettle, WiFi, satellite TV (which hardly worked – weak signal), hot water. And it was clean.

By my third night, I was bummin’ over the mattress. It was a tad concave, and I don’t think I could have slept in it a fourth night.

Rooms in the back are much more quiet. The busy La Paz neighborhood is right outside the hotel door, and the local market is around the corner. There is a rooftop seating area that’s nice.

I’d give it 4 stars with a heavy weight on the price. I would stay there again – but I’d limit it to only two nights.

Thanks for reading, “Solo trip to Iloilo City.”

Posts pre-pandemic, when we traveled in the Philippines:

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