The recent controversy that surrounded the supposed restoration of a Spanish-period watchtower in Pasuquin, Ilocos Norte, has inspired considerable curiosity over what has happened to these important structures that dot the coastline of the province since they were declared National Cultural Treasures of the Philippines in 2015.

Ilocos Norte, in the northern Philippines, was the last in Region 1 (Ilocos Region) to have its six watchtowers recognized as being of national importance. Earlier, La Union was able to secure the categorization for its five watchtowers, while Ilocos Sur achieved the same for four towers. Most of these monuments are in disrepair and in need of urgent care and attention.

Currently, Ilocos Norte has five coastal watchtowers (garitas), including those in Currimao, Badoc, Bacarra and Pasuquin, as well as a belfry (campanario) in the city of Laoag. A simple survey as to where these watchtowers are located across the archipelago would indicate that some of them are in villages named after them, such as Sitio Torre and Barangay Torre. The one in Currimao is a good example, as the southernmost of its twin watchtowers is located in present-day Barangay Torre (torre is the Spanish word for “tower”).

On Ilocos Norte’s east coast there are two other places that bear the name “Torre,” both in Laoag City. I first surveyed the Sitio Torre of Gabut Sur in the city as early as 2016 to verify the existence of a watchtower. Initial attempts always led me to the communication tower of the nearby airport, as most locals would point me toward it. However, my efforts were rewarded when at last I accidentally stumbled upon an old structure almost hidden by overgrown trees and plants. It was obvious then that the importance of the watchtower was not fully realized even by locals living around it.

The discovery brought about two realizations: first, that this watchtower was the one that is erected furthest away from the seashore; and second, more important, that this one, because of its closer proximity to the estuary, served to oversee activities in the mouth of the Padsan River, the main access route into Laoag in the past. It is not hard to imagine sentries watching over the main entry point to the city back then, as the north coast was prone to pirate attacks during the galleon trade days.

The proof that there is a watchtower in Laoag further enforces the importance of the city, as significant settlements back then would have required some level of protection and defense. Most recently, talking with more locals of Laoag revealed another lead: that the sand-dune landscape of La Paz also has a barangay called Torre. The exercise of locating a watchtower there proved to be equally worthwhile. Indeed, it appeared that another once stood on the other side of the Padsan River’s mouth. So the access to Laoag had two watchtowers, in the same way that Spanish-period ports of Currimao and Romblon also had. Unfortunately, the structure, or its remains, had been bulldozed off in the 1970s. There are a few broken ladrillos (bricks) scattered around in the barren landscape, sitting as the only proof that a watchtower once proudly stood there.

While most of the watchtowers along the coast of the Ilocos Region have been identified, documented and given national protection, there are still a few that have been missed. The case of the one in La Paz is the same as the fate of the historic watchtower in Salomague, another important Spanish-period port, in Cabugao, Ilocos Sur. Salomague’s was flattened in the 1990s, and a house now stands on its foundation. In 2017, I also stumbled upon yet another one in Agoo, La Union, made of round river stones, and it is also under the threat of being demolished. Reports also suggest that the remains of another tower also stands in Pangasinan province.

These watchtowers not only stand as testaments to a bygone age, but they also illustrate how important these places were to regional trade. Until such time that the Filipino people truly realize the vital nature of their own heritage, these vulnerable sentinels of the sea will remain unnoticed and unappreciated.