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Perhaps the most exciting road news during the quarantine period is the recent completion of the 89.21-km Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway (TPLEx), with the opening of the 11-km segment to its endpoint in Rosario, La Union. A project of San Miguel Corp., this long-awaited tollway is a game-changer for motorists and commuters alike who frequent the Ilocos, Cordillera and Cagayan Valley regions.

SMC big boss Ramon Ang enthused that despite the pandemic, the conglomerate isn’t scaling back on infrastructure investments to keep the economy and domestic tourism moving.

Suddenly, the highlands have become so accessible and enticing to road warriors with the splendid scenic and highways. You can push your SUV to the limit in the mountain region’s off the beaten paths, and “find and drive yourself in the Cordilleras” to borrow the Department of Tourism’s slogan. Below is a sequel to my last column’s road itinerary to the boondocks where the journey is as exciting as the destination.

Pit stop 1: Ilocos Sur. After a long but seamless drive through the newly-completed, you can grab a hearty meal Cafe Bossa at Candon City, an old house-turned-art gallery slash resto, or at Bistro Candon, which is known for its sinful chocolate cake. Swing by the St. John of Sahagun Church which voasts of a 46-meter long canvas painting. For a glimpse of local history, take a peek at the Cariño Ancestral House which houses memorabilia of prominent locals, historical artifacts, and collections from the descendants of sakada peasants who are regarded as the first overseas Filipino workers in 1906.

Take away a kalamay and the crunchy LSJ Chichacorn. a superb beer match. In Narvacan, the junction town to Abra, grab the mouth-watering bagnet Ilocano delicacy.

Pit stop 2: San Quintin. Pull over for an obligatory snapshot at the 40-meter Tangadan Tunnel which also serves as Abra’s welcome arch. A few meters away is the monument of Gabriela Silang, the Ilocana “Joan of Arc” and widow of Diego Silang, who continued the revolt against Spain in the 1700s. Other roadside attractions are the R&R Agri-Tourism Complexand stores selling the trademark tabungaw hats worn by freedom fighters.

The 40-meterTangadan Tunnel serves as Abra’s welcome arch

Pit stop 3: Bangued. The provincial capital, it is the most ideal place to spend the night after the long drive with its concentration of urban amenities and tourist facilities, which includes Strutzart Garden Resort, a cozy boutique bed and breakfast landscaped residence.  After a good night’s sleep, swing by Victoria National Park, a hilltop shrine of the Virgin Mary cradling Infant Jesus, and overlooks the adjoining towns.

Travel back in time at the Abraeniana Museum located at the Divine Word College for an overview of Abra’s rich history and indigenous culture, and at the Quintin Paredes Ancestral House which has retained its bahay na bato architecture. Shop at the Capitol Complex’s Abra Pasalubong Center for exquisite native loom-woven and embroidered crafts made of natural dyes, and native food products the province is known for.

Pit stop 4-a: Kaparkan Falls. Situated some 44 kms away, this mesmerizing terrace-like cascade in Tineg beckons. Once a best-kept secret, this has become a social media sensation and a must-see. It is best to seek advisories and confirmations from authorities before braving it all the way, due to the quarantine protocols and road situations.

Gololan Falls in Kabugao, Kalinga Apayao

Pit stop 4-b: Kabugao. If you passed up on Kaparkan, brace for an even longer trip to Apayao which dubs itself as “Cordillera’s Last Frontier for Nature Richness” and the domain of the Apayao tribe which is the most-heavily tattooed and elaborately-dressed indigenous people. A 243-km exciting mountain drive will take you to Kabugao where unspoilt natural wonders are neatly tucked—the Anag-Sicapo Wildlife Sanctuary and the 33-meter Gololan Falls where a rainbow almost always appears.

Spend the night at the town which has a couple of modest and homey pension houses.

Pitstop 5: Luna. Situated 96 kms away, this town is perhaps the most under-the-radar provincial capitals and this lives up to being a tourism frontier. Climb the iconic Dupag Rock Formation, passing through knife-like sharp stone edges. Other exciting getaways are the three-chambered Lussok Crystal Cave and the 6-layered Bayugao Falls, and other spots within Marag Valley’s lush forest.

With this this epic crossing of the roof of Luzon, you can lose and find yourself as you drive across the Cordilleras.