Santa Maria Church of Ilocos Sur

The Santa Maria Church was inscribed six years earlier than Vigan in UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites.

It is grouped together with three other churches under the category of “Baroque Churches in the Philippines.”

Having just seen photos of the Santa Maria Church, I had an impression that it paled in comparison to the San Agustin Church, Miagao Church, and the Paoay Church.

I was definitely curious to see how / why this church got included in UNESCO’s prestigious list.


Santa Maria Plaza with the Santa Maria Church peering out in the background.

Fortress Church

I didn’t know that the Santa Maria Church was actually built on top of a hill. I was surprised to see a beautiful grand staircase leading to the church.

Even the hillsides were reinforced with baked clay and stone bricks. The physical effort of building this church complex must have been a daunting task. I was already impressed.

Many Spanish-colonial era churches are known for their secondary function as a fortress defense. For me, the Santa Maria Church looked to be one of the best examples of fortress church architecture in the Philippines. The hilltop location together with its defensive wall was a special feature I hadn’t encountered before.

Made me feel like I was visiting some remote town in Latin America.


Granite staircase leading to the Santa Maria Church

Santa Maria Church Facade

The facade of the Santa Maria Church looked very bare. Loved the texture of the red bricks but it still doesn’t compare to the artistic facades of many churches in the Philippines.

It was difficult to take a good photo of the church facade because of the mid-day sun. There was a harsh shadow covering the whole facade. I presume its northward orientation would result to unflattering photos at any time of the day. This may be the biggest reason why I haven’t seen any breathtaking photos of the Santa Maria Church before.

Santa Maria Church Facade

Earthquake Baroque

After taking a glance at the facade my attention was instantly drawn to the boxy buttresses at the sides. I loved the moss cover and utilitarian look of straight lines. The stark feel appealed well with my soft spot for minimalist design.


Butresses serve as a support structure against earthquakes.


Love contrast between the vertical and horizonal lines … also the red bricks and the green moss cover

The bell tower was located a few feet away from the Santa Maria Church. During a major trembler, tall bell towers would usually topple down first. Building it separately minimizes the risk of damage to the main church structure.


Bell Tower of the Santa Maria Church

The convent was unusually located in front of the church and bell tower. Most convents are located at the side or at the back of the church.


Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion Parish Convent

World Heritage Site

Finally, I’ve already seen all of the “Baroque Churches in the Philippines” in the UNESCO World Heritage list. The Santa Maria Church definitely deserved to be included in that list.

Aesthetically, there are a lot more impressive churches but the beauty of the Santa Maria Church lies in its unique features aside from its inherent heritage value.

I personally liked the borderline minimalist feel of the Santa Maria Church.


UNESCO World Heritage Marker

The journey

From Vigan, I went to the terminal and hopped on a southbound bus headed to San Fernando, Pampanga. Arrived in Santa Maria town after one hour (P40 fare). Dropped off at the Santa Maria Public Market. From there, it was a short tricycle ride to the Santa Maria Church (P8 fare).

From Vigan, getting to Santa Maria should only take 30 minutes by car . The buses were sooooo slow because they made many stops to wait for passengers.

Thankfully, there were a few interesting sights along the way.


Pres. E. Quirino Bridge over the Abra River


Narvacan Mall


Spanish-colonial bridge at Santa Maria Town Proper. The tricycle passed by it before reaching the Santa Maria Church.