Walk Through Heritage: The Santa Ana Walking Tour

April 17, 2015

"But there's nothing to see in Santa Ana." My sister and husband's voices rang inside my head as I stepped out of the cab to the bustling pavement. 

On the outside, Sta. Ana looks pretty much like the rest of Manila: chaotic, trafficked and perennially populated. Save for Sta. Ana church and the to-die-for P35 pancit palabok at the public market, to me, there wasn't anything else impressionable about this district.

Was I not looking deep enough?

Perez Ancestral House in Plaza Hugo.

It was that curiosity that led me back there, along with travel bloggers Kim and Sol, one rainy December morning upon the invitation of the town's residents. 

Our tour commenced at Sta. Ana Church's St. Francis Convent, where we received a briefing on gorgeous Santa Ana residents like Piolo Pascual this half-a-millenium heritage zone. 

And while home-grown guides Ernest Panis and Boyet Magale - members of the non-profit Santa Ana Heritage Tourism Association (SAHTA), a congregation of town residents involved in the promotion of the heritage and culture of Santa Ana, along with Fundacion Santiago - are masterful storytellers, treading the age-old halls of Santa Ana Church, I felt that the district's colorful stories are best told by the structures themselves.

'Cause it was just five days before Christmas.

And believe it or not, there are 10 invaluable ones you might be missing all along.

1. Our Lady of the Abandoned Parish (Sta. Ana Church)


Originally built with bamboo and nipa - then much later, with stucco - the two-storey Santa Ana Church is the most storied of all structures in the district. It's so called for its role in sheltering Filipinos who abandoned their homes and possessions during the war.

There are even haunting stories of children - prostate, gashed and drenched - carrying their weakened fathers and mothers to the church aboard sharp sheets of roof that were rope-tied to their backs.

This sprawling church patio was once a burial site for pre-Spanish locals, believed to be mostly Muslims. Skeletal remains were found here during an excavation in 1966, as well as ancient potteries including an 11th century AD porcelain bowl , buried under that fountain in the center.

Large and commanding, its size serves as a benchmark for other constructions in the vicinity; hence the issue with the DMCI condos. But that's another story.

  • Camarin dela Virgen

If there was an award for the most awesome ochre room in the planet, the Camarin gets my vote. And I'm sure the NCCA and NHCP would agree, having declared this little dressing room a National Cultural Treasure.  

Not only because it houses the Queen and her Pedestal - which, by the way, is partly made from an old Spanish galleon - but because it hosts so many neat, dated structures that you wouldn't even think could exist in a city church.

Look up and you'll see Sistine Chapel-like paintings that are as old as the whole 17th century church (the oldest datable painting in the country, in fact). 

Gaze down and you'll see cerulean Ming Dynasty porcelain tiles lining the floor. 

Stare straight ahead for Nuestra's flowing black locks. Her face is on the other side of the wall, the retablo.

  • Retablo 
Wedding and the retablo. On the left ofthe wall is the famed 1956 Mamuyac painting created by Sta. Ana resident Anastacia Mamuyac. She's lost both her hands when she did the painting. Both hands. I'll let that sink in.

Splashed with gold and, uhm, more gold, the 18th century retablo is where the other half of the Lady (her face) is found. It's a three-tiered, 12-meter high structure of 12 niches, with the Lady at the center and Archangel Michael at the top - and a Spanish churrigueresque design that's as beautiful as tongue-tying to pronounce.

Now, repeat after me: churrigueresque

  • Belltower
The second floor leads to a claustrophobic staircase to the belltower. This hexagonal, twice-restored tower isn't just any belltower. It's also 'miraculous', townsfolk believe. 

And the Japanese said they saw snakes up there.
Maybe they were electrical wires?

Story has it that when Japanese soldiers clambered up
 to here, they saw snakes dangling by the bell. Frightened, they retreated, saving Santa Ana from captivity. Turns out those were actually thick layers of  rose thorns. Residents here believe though that the Lady miraculously turned thorns to reptiles to save the day.

Standing on the edge of Christmas. View from the belltower.

Us ladies had a blast viewing Sta. Ana in all directions and all of its heritage-ness from 40-feet up the belltower's life-size windows, 'cause, well, the belltower is usually off-limits to other peeps. #ilovemyjob 

  • Virgen dela Pozo

Locked by a gate from the outside to prevent visitors from consuming its now E. coli- infected water, this dark dug-up well at the back of the church was, in the 17th century, a pilgrim's Mecca. Townspeople and those from neighboring districts flocked the well to drink water from it, believed to cure all kinds of illnesses. A 1919 typhoid breakout halted that.

2. Pao Ong Hu Taoist Temple

A short hop over to the street across the well is a two-room 1950s Taoist temple. The temple was built for Pao Ong Kong, a revered Song Dynasty judge (there's another more famous Pao Ong Kong temple in Pasay).

Inside and out. The signage outside actually says "Nuestra Senora de los Desamparados".

Visitors are most welcome to light an incense and pray. Donations are also encouraged to help for the upkeep of the temple, which is mostly done pro bono by a local caretaker. 

3. Historic houses 

Everywhere in Santa Ana, there isn't a shortage of Spanish Period elements: Spanish architecture, massive wooden builds, and capiz-strewn windows. That last bit, especially.

Santos House

Possessing these elements are 19 privately-owned historic houses (houses that've been standing for 50 years or more). One, the Lichauco House, was declared a Heritage House by the NCCA.

This lovely veranda is inside the house.

We were given a peek into the Amparo Santos Ancestral House (or just Santos House), an 80-year old (eighty!) two-storey house along Isabel Street.

Devotees of St. Benedict, there are St. Benedict amulets on each window, door and eave of the Santos House. There's also a life-size statue of St. Benedict greeting visitors at the entrance.

We heeded stories of family gatherings and video shoots here (apparently, it's hotstuff in both film and TV) from the youngest of Amparo's children, Gabriel; and mused on the letter A monograms all over the house - an attribution to its original owner and queen bee, Amparo Lucero. 

Oh the charming things you'll find in someone else's lair.
Olden pots, pans and kettle; and personalized glasses painted by the Santos children themselves.

Kim mused on, uhm, the porcelain kitchenware in the cabinets. 

4. Old and New Tawiran (ferry terminals)

The old and the new. 

Santa Ana's location was strategic for war, one of the reasons why it was the only Manila district to have been spared during WWII. Its river's shape - part of the lengthy stretch of Pasig River - offered an excellent view of incoming raiders. This war-winning shape can be surveyed by the old ferry terminal at the back of the public market.

See that curve in the river?
Locals at the old ferry terminal can see raiders from where they stand, but because of the river's shape,
raiders won't be able to see locals from where they are. Amazing, ya?

This terminal serves people who literally just wants to cross over to the other side of the river in Mandaluyong via a wooden boat. The larger new terminal a few steps away serves to ferry people to river stations onward till Pasig.

5. Plaza Calderon

The busy December noon that it was, the entire U-shaped center island that is Plaza Calderon was abuzz with jeepneys honking and vendors hawking a flurry of trinkets. The busyness of the island isn't too far removed from its centuries-old past as Santa Ana's official plaza for community activities. Except back then, there wasn't any honking. Or hawkers.

6. SaveMore Atrium 

SaveMore on a list of historical sites. Who would've thought.

Sorry, my camera was acting up toward the tail end of the tour. But those are the bottles/ jars. 

It isn't SaveMore itself, but the enclosed polycarbonate case at the atrium, next to the long line of empty grocery carts. When you squint into the case, you'll see a small parcel of shrub-covered rocks safeguarding well-wisher coins, and wait, are those jars?

Yes, jars. Spanish period jars to be exact, found in that same spot during an excavation. Neat, huh?

7. Santa Ana Market for Palabok, Chicharon and Halo-Halo

Three words: palabok, chicharon, halo-halo.*

Tons of it.**

No elaboration needed.

*Santa Ana delicacies. Not to be taken when on a diet. 

**Stalls selling the same dishes are lined side by side in the market. Me pals and I used to eat at Felix and Gloria's after our nursing duty a decade ago, and I swear it's the best chicharon-topped P20-pancit I've had my entire life. For this tour, we were taken to Meckie's. Almost the same, but I still prefer Felix and Gloria's.

Other places you could explore:

8. Lichauco house and the Centuries Old Banyan Tree

Standing since the mid-19th century, the Lichauco Heritage House, owned by the mother of the first White Castle Whiskey girl and now heritage conservationist/ activist Sylvia Lichauco, is among the oldest structures along Pedro Gil Street. It's the only house to have been granted the distinction "Heritage House" in Santa Ana by the NCCA.

Sylvia Lichauco. She looks younger than me and she's like, 3 decades my senior. Sheesh.

(You might also meet Sylvia Lichauco, her 103-year old mom, and the terrifyingly beautiful, centuries-old Banyan Tree in their yard that looks like the Tree of Souls ).

9. Phil-Thai Friendship Circle

10. SAFRUDI/ Souvenir Shop for handmade eco-friendly goodies handmade by Sta. Ana residents 

An excavation in this compound at the back of the church (near the SAFRUDI souvenir shop) revealedinfant skeletal remains, believed to be children of the people buried in the patio of the church.

"There is nothing to see in Santa Ana," they said.

I smiled, sort of triumphantly.  T
here are far too many -- if you keep your eyes open.

Heritage is free; it's for everyone. We all have the right to it. It's our responsibility to preserve it, because without it, who are we, really?  - Sylvia Lichauco

For tours, please contact:

Boyet Magale (Head Tour Guide) 0927.5177899 and 0943.7257975| boymag.ilibertad@gmail.com 

Cheska Lacson (Coordinator) 0936-9677660 | cheska@fundacionsantiago.com

There's a minimal donation for tours, which will go to the indigent single moms of Santa Ana. 

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