Agoo, La Union, a town full of history in North Luzon

When I first came to live in the Philippines a few years ago I never expected that I would end up living in a small town on the coast of North Luzon.

I originally lived in Baguio City thinking that I would the climate more agreeable but the combination of the ceaseless jams and cold, wet weather got to me in the end.

When it came time for myself and my partner to buy property we decided that the coast was a better choice. As she is from Baguio and did not want to go too far afield we chose La Union.

The warm weather and beaches appealed to me (I’m a big fan of ‘beer drinking weather’) and the proximity to Baguio appealed to her. So we found ourselves on the hunt for a place to live in an area that neither of us had ever lived in before.

After looking around (and around) for several months we finally found the perfect property in a town called Agoo.

Agoo is the commercial and business hub of the second district of La Union, has a population of about 65,000 people and, as I have taken great pleasure in discovering since we moved here, has a whole lot of history behind it.

It is one of those things peculiar to the Philippines that information can be quite difficult to come by, other parts of Asia that I’ve lived in have very well documented histories but not so here. Over the course of the past six months or so I’ve done a fair amount of research and what I’ve discovered about the city we now call home and the province that it is in has been extremely interesting.

agoo trikes
The Agoo city market today

During Spanish times

Agoo was established in the 15th century – being from the antipodes even this was something of a revelation for me as the country I was born in is barely 200 years old. Even before it was established by the Spanish it was home to a community and was a lively trading port for many years, one of the major trading connections between Northern Luzon and other parts of east Asia.

This changed during the reign of the Spaniards as they closed the country to foreign trade and by the time that trade routes were re-established Saul in Pangasinan became the dominant trading port in this area.

1892 Pangasinan Earthquake & World War II

On March 16th, 1892, a massive 8.4 earthquake struck Luzon and caused widespread damage, Agoo did not escape from this, infact it was largely decimated.

Among other historical sites that suffered from this calamity was the Agoo Basilica Minore, a historic Church in the town. The church has since been rebuilt and is home to a stunning old church bell. A few relics of the original building have been integrated into the current structure.

Fast forward to World War II and the invasion of the Philippines. Landing parties took the beachhead at Agoo, along with four others in the province, on the morning of December 22, 1941.

The Lingayen gulf on which Agoo sits, is a very strategically important piece of water and the invasion of the gulf was a key part of the assault on the archipelago. American and Philippine armed forces in the province were ill prepared for the assault and as such very little in the way of a defensive response was met by the Japanese Navy during their invasion of the gulf.

The assassination of Mariano Marcos in Bacnotan

A few miles to the north of Agoo lies Bacnotan which was the staging ground for the battle that finally secured La Union for American and Philippine forces. Unfortunately before this was able to happen the capital of La Union’s first district, the city of San Fernando, was reduced to rubble.

Post World War II was for Agoo, La Union and most of the rest of the country a turbulent time which culminated in the awarding of independence from America in 1946 and then lead into the Marcos regime, economic destabilisation and martial law. The province of La Union has a strong connection to the Marcos family.

The father of Ferdinand Marcos, Mariano was assassinated in the north of the province in 1945. While the exact details of his death remain unknown and no one knows exactly who is responsible, whoever it was, one thing we do know for certain, is that it happened in Bacnotan on March 8, 1945.

The next major event in Agoo’s history occurred in 1990 when an earthquake struck Northern Luzon.

Along with Baguio, Cabanatuan and Dagupan there was a huge amount of damage in La Union with most cities and towns in the province suffering casualties and damage. The ever-resilient people of the province picked up, rebuilt and got on with things. The damage was repaired and Agoo moved forward to take back the mantle of the thriving commercial hub that it is today.

Sites of interest for visitors to Agoo

There are a number of sites of historical importance in and around Agoo:

  • The Basilica Minore of Our Lady of Charity – a beautiful church and one of only 12 Basilica Minore in the Philippines. While the structure itself is not original due to damage sustained during natural disasters it has a number of old artefacts, including the famous Church bells. It also has some of the most beautiful stained glass artwork in the country.
  • The Plaza de la Virgen which is adjacent to the church and is home to some lovely bronze sculptures as well as beautiful surrounds.
  • The Agoo Museum (Museo de Iloko) is dedicated to the history of the Ilocano people who are native to the area.
  • The Jose de Aspiros ancestral house. De Aspiros was a member of the Marcos cabinet and was responsible for the upgrading of Agoo to a first class municipality. The main highway to Baguio from Agoo (formerly the Marcos Highway) is now called the Jose de Aspiros highway in memory of him.
  • The Pindangan ruins are to the north of Agoo in San Fernando City. These are the ruins of a Spanish church which was built in 1764.
  • Further north in the town of Luna lie the ruins of the Baluarte Watch Tower. The watch tower is 400 years old and stood largely intact until Typhoon Lando struck the province in October 2015.
  • The Bacsil Ridge Monument. Situated to the North East of Agoo this monument commemorates one of the most important battles of World War II. Bacsil ridge was the site of one of the last great battles of the war and was the location where the Japanese dug in.
  • The Bolikewkew Rice Terraces. To the east of the town of Bauang in Burgos are these stunning rice terraces.  Some say they’re every bit as impressive as the better known terraces in Ifugao.  They are certainly a lot easier to get to.

In summary…

So if you’re looking for an experience that most people never have in the Philippines we recommend getting off the beaten track and paying the province of La Union a visit. The province is well served by bus services from Manila, Angeles and Baguio and, depending on traffic, is only about a four-five hour trip from the capital by private vehicle.