Chiseling Through the Dusty Mists of Time at the Paoay Sand Dunes

Examining the thrills of these infinitely astonishing sandy hills.

Half an hour past five, the thrills of riding a 4x4 truck tumbling down the vast blankness of these sandy escapades have dissipated. They said to us that this time of day was best if we really wanted to roll with the dunes, and they were right. Fun was had, so next comes the introspection.

Our group gets off and takes a long view of the trail and the 20-foot sand ridges and the horizons and the waters of Suba Beach, all staring at us waiting for our next move. The Ilocos Norte wind is as hot and sticky as the worn-out foam on the steel bars of this dune buggy we were clinging on to.

We were told of an adventure and an adventure was what we got. Deep into the heart of the North, the Paoay Sand Dunes happened to be one of the many stops during our first day in Ilocos Norte. This is a press tour and we were soon treated to an Instagram reel of an experience over the course of a four-day span.

It's hard to fit in all that (five locations a day, mind you) in just one piece. Ilocos Norte is beautiful—beaches pristinely white, bagnet and logganisa delightful, and history bare—and the stories there are aplenty. Here is an attempt to capture some of it. While exhausting, there is more to be written about and a lot more to be grateful for about that trip, considering what our Ilocano partners put into this.


Our dune buggies sandwiched between the stacked stones installation.

Photo by Bryle B. Suralta.

Denis Villeneuve's Dune was the first film I watched in the theater once quarantine restrictions were lifted. It is based on the saga by Frank Herbert and is considered one of the great sci-fi works of its time. More than being basically a fight over spices, Dune can be interpreted as Herbert's own dissection of the Middle East in the '60s (spice is oil and the planet Arrakis is Iraq). It's a transfiguration of destiny in many ways, reckoning with its feudal past and the entrapment of posterity.

Ilocos Norte, meanwhile, is the first place I traveled to outside the comfort of Metro Manila and Cavite since the pandemic began. So when I read about the Paoay Sand Dunes on the press brief, I was excitedly relieved. The power of Dune had yet to wear off at the time, and I know that this would be the perfect venue to somehow actualize and exercise my own thoughts on Filipino destiny and Ilocos Norte's local history.

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Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, Jr., a son of Batac, Ilocos Norte, after all, was the president to be based on the polls. He had built a campaign talking about destiny, too. Surely, there was something in these dusty dunes that related to his father and the narratives that surround junior's presumptive reign.

Earlier, we were told by one of our coordinators, a man named Jesus Silutan, that we were headed for Ilocos Norte's own version of Dubai. 20 minutes away from Laoag City, the Paoay Sand Dunes is a geological marvel that spans 88 square kilometers of white sand. A lot of frequent travelers to the north may be more familiar with the La Paz Sand Dunes, which is another 20-minute drive from Paoay through the Laoag-Paoay Road.

The packages offered come with sandboarding perks.

Photo by Ilocos Norte Tourism Office.

When comparing the two dunes, La Paz is said to have steeper drops and is known for its peculiar pig-shaped hills. Thus, it is known as Bantay Bimmaboy locally. A lot of filmmakers, too, have added myths to La Paz. They used the La Paz Sand Dunes as a backdrop for their cinema.


What do Nora Aunor, Fernando Poe, Jr., Mel GIbson, and Tom Cruise have in common apart from being great actors? They all shot films in the Ilocos Norte Sand Dunes. Movies like Ang Panday, Himala, and Temptation Island, as well as Hollywood's Born on the Fourth of July and Mad Max chose these settings for their scenes.

The Paoay Sand Dunes, on the other hand, is La Paz's curious brother. Raw in legend, but brimming with tales yet to be discovered, these sands invite the same kind of thrill-seekers and wanderers as La Paz. A one-hour ride on a dune buggy here costs P2,500 and already comes with sandboarding privileges. Not too bad, given the immaculate white sands and the skipped heartbeats that come as casualties with the rides.

You can't put a price on pushing the boundaries of the heart, after all. Hop aboard the dune buggy and ride out the coattails of the trail and just enjoy it, we were told. And I did. A few good friends of mine then pointed to my knees.

The anxiety was apparent, really. I'm pike, and my knees meet in the middle. I have never had the best balance. So when the truck started to go, suffice to say, I was nervous. It didn't help that I was cursed with sweaty palms, which meant that I'd have a looser grip than most on the bars.

Our group posing for an aerial shot with "Reflection of Rebirth" by Raphael David.

Photo by Ilocos Norte Tourism Office.

On the trail, we were met with cascading slopes, ranging from 10 to 20 feet tall. The views were impeccable. Getting that high can only mean the more spectacular the fall. The tremble of my knees manifested into the high pitches of my screams.

Winds were strong and the tides were low, both ushering us into the steep, wondrous decline. On the sides of the hills, you are greeted by a beaten-down art installation by Leeroy New and the newly minted "Reflection of Rebirth" by artist Raphael David.

New and David use very different mediums for their pieces but convey a sort of messaging that ties back to Dune. Recycled plastics and aluminum offer insights into our own culture. Both works are arresting and offer us a glimpse into an idea of a sci-fi future born out of the artists' own experiences.

If you look at them closely, and from just the right angle when the sunset hits, they remind viewers that they are instruments of our collective future. Not all thrills have to be loud and brazen, of course. Most can always be found hidden in between the screams, tremors, and fears.

The dirty truck our group rode, coincidentally, was parked next to another covered in Marcos and Duterte stickers. This was Marcos country, after all, and that was no surprise. When we were called back, I made a quick run to a local vendor to buy a bottle of water.

I stood there and drank as I waited for my friends to finish sandboarding. The vendor was wearing a Marcos shirt, as well, and had a box that had Marcos stickers on it, too. This is Ilocos Norte, I thought to myself.


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Bryle B. Suralta
Assistant Section Editor
Bryle B. Suralta is the assistant section editor of Esquire Philippines.
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