What we discovered on a walking tour and a Pasig River Ferry ride

What we discovered on a walking tour and a Pasig River Ferry ride
Inside the ferry operated by the Metro Manila Development Authority, which traverses the entire Pasig River. —PHOTOS BY CHARLES BUBAN

When my husband and I signed up for a heritage tour by Renacimiento Manila in September, we expected the usual daylong visits to old buildings and houses, with some historical trivia and eating stops on the side. 

But we got much more than that in this tour. We also found ourselves wondering why the government is not doing what it should in protecting structures that link us to our past, and concluding that it’s high time Filipinos realized the irreplaceable value of heritage sites.

Renacimiento Manila is committed to heritage advocacy. Its vision: a “progressive and livable City of Manila driven by heritage, and its cultural rebirth as the Pearl of the Orient.” 

The organization launched its heritage walks in 2021, taking participants to such places in Manila as Intramuros, Quiapo, Binondo, Ermita, and Santa Ana with the hope of leading them to discover the importance of preserving heritage sites. 

I spent part of my elementary education in the 1970s in a school in Santa Ana that separated itself from the Pasig River via a low concrete wall and a chain-link fence. During recess my classmates and I usually went to the back of the school, from where we threw stones into the river and waved at people on passing boats. The river, with its strong current that swiftly carried away objects that caught our fancy, mesmerized us despite its muddy brown color.

So it was a no-brainer that, among the heritage walks offered by Renacimiento Manila, I picked the “Pasig River Tour: Escolta-Santa Ana.”  It was a perfect choice that brought me back to my childhood, and more.

Early-morning start 

Participants were instructed to assemble at the Pasig River Escolta ferry station at 8:45 a.m. (A private company used to operate the ferry and charged fees for passage. When the company closed down due to financial troubles, the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority took over in 2010. Passengers only had to show an identification card to be able to board the ferry.)

The group of people that milled around the ferry station’s entrance numbered less than 20, but I was happy to see a child with his parents eagerly waiting for the tour to start. A tour like this is great for kids, better than the usual visit to the mall. 

When a man wearing a rayadillo (a military uniform worn by Spanish colonial soldiers from the mid-19th to the early-20th century) and a traditional native hat approached the group and smiled, I immediately knew that he was Diego Gabriel Torres, our tour guide. Torres, whose wit and humor immediately put us at ease, would surely make any tour engaging and exciting. 

Before we started, Torres—sociology graduate of the University of the Philippines in Los Baños, co-founder and president of Renacimiento Manila, and part of the Intramuros Administration—said his narratives and spiels are all based on the work of historians. 

Escolta: business hub

It’s hard to imagine that the building on Escolta that is now covered in plastic and iron sheets was the famous Capitol Theater designed by National Artist for Architecture Juan Nakpil.

Our first stop was on Escolta. Torres described the brisk trade that once made the street a hub where businesses thrived and where, apart from the Chinese and their goods, the British also sold ceramics among other stuff. Escolta grew in prominence to the point that “the Americans would refer to it as Manila’s main street… the business district,” he said.

There are many ways to demonstrate the significance of Escolta, but somehow, when you see the buildings there, such as Capitol Theater—designed by National Artist for Architecture Juan Nakpil, built in the 1930s and now owned by a property developer, with parts of its structure jutting out from the plastic and iron sheets that cover it—you want to know why the government allowed this to happen. 

Thankfully, steps are being taken to save what’s left of the theater. Narrated Torres: “The National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), after talking to the developer, said that ‘Okay, you may demolish parts of the building but preserve at least the tower.’ Last year they started to demolish the tower itself, stating stability issues (because there was an earthquake last year and it was damaged).” 

With the help of heritage advocates, the NCCA was convinced to prevent the owners from completely demolishing the structure. “On top of that, [the owners] are required to repair what they damaged and integrate the building to the new construction,” Torres said.

But last month the structure was covered with screens and iron sheets, according to Torres. 

“When things like that are put up in front of heritage buildings, that raises alarm bells among the heritage community, and immediately we closely watched the development of the structure. The NCCA has been alerted about the movements in the construction area,” he said, adding:

 “Some would say that it’s already damaged, so what’s the point in saving it? Well, the point is to make a statement that developers can’t just go around destroying heritage in the city. They need to respect the structures, integrate them in the development of the city, so we can achieve a balance between the two.”

Before the group headed to the Escolta ferry station for the Pasig River tour, I took a quick look at a parking lot which used to be the Crystal Arcade—the first mall in Manila, designed by Andres Luna de San Pedro. Had the historic structure been preserved and not demolished, despite being heavily damaged during World War II, it would have been a win for Manila tourism, and mall-loving Filipinos.

River ride

It had begun to rain when we boarded the Pasig River Ferry. It was a different feeling for someone accustomed to driving on bridges and skyways, where the speed of one’s vehicle doesn’t allow one to appreciate the surrounding scenery. (And when one is caught in a standstill, one is hard put to look around, alert, like dozens of other drivers, for a chance to move even just an inch.) 

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A view of Manila’s Quezon Bridge while on the Pasig River Ferry

On that day, commuting below bridges and skyways was a novel experience. Of course, there was no traffic, and time seemed to slow down for one to take in the sights along the banks—which weren’t always pleasant but gave one a moment to ponder on the realities of life. There were the occasional water lilies and plastic trash floating on the river, but it seemed that compared to years ago, the river’s condition has improved. It remains to be seen what the proposed construction of an elevated expressway that will traverse the entire length of the river would do to this historic body of water.

We arrived at the Santa Ana station after 30 minutes, which included three ferry stops and the mandatory slowing down of the ferry as it passed the Malacañang complex. 

Heavy rain poured when we walked toward Plaza Calderon and stopped at a marker describing the spot where the first Good Shepherd convent in Manila used to stand. In the area, which is now part of SM’s SaveMore Grocery, we were shown a glass enclosure containing beer bottles and parts of the foundation of the convent’s old structure. 

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Encased in glass are excavated beer bottles and parts of the foundation of the structure of the first Good Shepherd convent in Manila.

Chuckling, Torres said that because the convent was originally where the Archbishop of Manila lived, the beer bottles were probably from parties held at the prelate’s residence, and not from the nuns’ consumption. 

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The 200-year-old Dita tree in Santa Ana that was saved by heritage advocates

A few meters from the entrance of the grocery stands a 200-year-old Dita tree that heritage advocates were able to save from being felled when construction in the area was being done. “It’s a heritage tree and witness to the house that used to stand in the area,” said Torres. “People feared that it was going to die. When the building was being built around it the tree started to wither, but during the pandemic it was able to recover and survived.” 

Our Lady and scepter

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One of the most beautiful baroque altars in Manila can be found in Our Lady of the Abandoned Church.

We proceeded to Our Lady of the Abandoned Church, a focal point of the heritage zone in Santa Ana. Torres mentioned that the church’s altar is one of the most beautiful baroque altars in Manila. On it stands an image of Our Lady holding a scepter originally owned by Archbishop Francisco dela Cuesta. It is said that the archbishop offered his scepter for the image after surviving a tumultuous event between the church and Governor General Fernando Bustamante. 

In Our Lady of the Abandoned Church are ceiling paintings dating back to the 1700s—among the oldest in the Philippines. Unfortunately, Torres said, a property developer was allowed to build a high-rise within 150 meters of the church, and the pounding of construction equipment caused cracks in the ceiling paintings. They are now in danger of being further damaged. 

Torres emphasized that a high-rise can’t be built within a 200-meter distance from a heritage zone.

A 50-meter walk from the church to a bakery on Plaza Hugo signalled the end of our heritage walk tour. The rain had not stopped since we arrived in Santa Ana and, thanks to a defective umbrella, my husband and I were by then soaking wet. But it was all worth it. 

We were happy to be able to relive the past and to be educated on the issues confronting heritage advocates. We realized that ordinary citizens like ourselves should actively help protect heritage sites before it’s too late.

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