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Beautiful Isabela, Amazing People

Representatives of the national media pose before the giant Bambanti 2023 signage

The province of Isabela isn’t called the “Queen Province of the North” for nothing. It is the second largest province in the Philippines, situated in the northeastern part of Luzon or the Cagayan Valley Region. It comprised of 34 municipalities and three cities: Ilagan, Cauayan, and Santiago serving as trade centers along with the municipality of Roxas. Isabela is the 9th richest province in the Philippines as of 2021 with Santiago City considered to have the fastest-growing local economy in the entire country. 

Isabela is divided into three physiographical areas that contributes to the beauty of the province. Eastern Isabela is rugged and thickly forested. The massive Sierra Madre Mountain range straddles the entire length of the province from north to south. There is a vast natural park, home to variety of wildlife. It is also where Isabela’s best timber can be found.

Coastal Isabela which is generally flat to rolling is distinguished by 113 kilometers shoreline facing the Pacific Ocean. Found here are the province’s vast fishing ground, beautiful bays, caves, small islands and white beaches.

Western Isabela is a vast, sprawling, fertile valley hemmed in by the Sierra Madre on the east and the Cordillera Central on the west. This flat and rolling area is subdivided into little valleys and sub-plains by the Cagayan River, the longest river in the Philippines at 301 kilometers long.

The Queen Province is acknowledged as the Top Corn Producer of the Philippines and Rice Bowl of the North, making it the top supplier of corn and rice for Metro Manila. 

Isabela is also home to Magat High Rise Dam and Tourism Complex known to be the highest and biggest dam in Asia at the time of its construction. 

Mary Anne Dy joins the student participants of Makan Ken Mainum competitions

Photos 2,3,5: Street dance competition, contributed photos from Critical Beauty.

Isabela's well-loved tandem: Gov. Albano and Vice Gov. Dy

Isabelenos: The Real Gem

But the real gem of Isabela is its people -- mostly Ilocanos and Ibanags -- who are known to be hard-working and who put prime value for their hard-earned money and are therefore good at saving them for good use. 

“We now celebrate the resilience and diligence of the Isabela farmer that has brought integrity of the province as the country’s biggest corn and rice surplus producer. The City of Ilagan is the Corn capital of the country and we have the town of San Mateo as the Mongo Capital of the Philippines and it is the province’ supplying rice to Metro Manila,” said Vice Gov. Faustino ‘Bojie’ Dy III before a huge crowd of Isabelenos during the Bambanti Festival held in the last week of January 2023.

Dy was Director General of the 2023 Bambanti Festival Celebration, aptly themed: Aptly themed ‘ISABELA, Pagharap sa Bagong Hamon ng Kinabukasan.’

“We are happy to report to our people that we have successfully bounced back by having the highest GDP last year after coming from the pandemic,” Governor Rodito Albano III added. 

The author with media friend Elvie Altez at the 2nd-placer (category B) Agri-Ecotourism booth of Quirino 

Queen Scarlet, aptly Lady Sapsap of Dinapigue

Festival King & Queen contestants

Queen Pilisa of Jones

Bambanti 2023 highlights

Standing tall in the field, scarecrows or the bambantis have been fixed figures used to drive away birds and pests from crops.  As a tribute to them -- and the hard-working farmers for the bountiful harvest – the bambantis are used as come-on as spectators are treated with various festive colors, dance performances, loud music and creative costumes which showcase the rich culture of the province since the inception of Bambanti Festival in 1997.

This year, colorful, beautifully, and meticulously assembled, 32 Bambanti Booths and Scarecrows vied it out for top prizes. A crowd favorite, despite its fishy smell, ‘Queen Scarlet’ by the Province of Dinapigue lorded over the giant bambantis and won first place in the Category A competition. The huge Lady Sapsap structure is glued with 45-kilogram small-sized dried sapsap fish. 

Participating municipalities put up uniquely designed booths in front of the provincial capitol featuring community life, history, and heritage, as well as the various indigenous world-class products, lifestyle merchandise items, and cuisine as the pride of place. Of the 32 entries this year, the City of Ilagan and Cordon topped others for first place for categories A and B, respectively. The City of Ilagan was adjudged 1st place for its masterpiece with its huge drone as a roof cover, a testament to the awesome development of the city. 

Started seven years ago by Mary Ann Dy, the better half of Vice Gov. Dy, the Makan Ken Mainum Competition aims to highlight the food scene of the province. This year, Isabela’s future generation took centerstage as they battle it out in coming up with the province’s food (Makan) and drinks (Mainum) innovations. Most of the student participants belong to Gen Z’s youngest group, from 9-14 years old. Their teachers, mentors, classmates, and supporters, naturally filled the vicinity of the cook fest either cheering them or giving them last-minute instructions. Santiago City came out with the best dishes while Tumauini served the best drinks for the day.

This year’s candidates for the Isabela Festival King and Queen competition flaunted their symbolic costumes -- colorful and with touches of indigenous materials that represented their respective municipality’s local culture and festivals -- at the SM Cauayan City. Candidates from Echague (Category A) and Luna (Category B) emerged first-place winners both for the King and Queen categories.  

 Divided into two categories, Street Dance and Dance Showdown, each contingent prepared a street dance routine performed around the sports complex's oval track and a dance showcase on the main stage. It was a tribute to the optimism and resilience that the Isabeleños of this vast agricultural province had shown against all odds while showcasing their rich history and culture. And with solid choreographies, clean successions, and fluid storylines of the contingents, crowd favorite Cauayan City (Steet dance, category A), lorded it over the 20 contingents. 

2023 Queen Isabela Catherine Joy Legaspi graces the sreet dance competition

The board of judges of Queen Isabela competition headed by Beauty Queen Shamcey Supsup (3rd from left)

San Manuel's Legaspi during the best in costume competition

Queen Isabela rules

Named after the Queen of Spain named Isabella II, there have been proposals to change the name of the province to something more indigenous, But these were rejected by the people of Isabela. Rightly, its beauty queen is called Queen Isabela. 

The intense questions during the Q & A portion surely made the beaucon more grueling as the ladies braved the cold weather of the coronation night. In the end, Catherine Joy Legaspi from the municipality of San Manuel bagged the Queen Isabela 2023 title. Joining her in the magic five were Queen Isabela Culture and the Arts Johanna Trisha Cinco from the municipality of Ramon; Queen Isabela Tourism Julie Mae Villanueva from the City of Cauayan; 1st runner-up Jaycel Lumauig representing the Indigenous Peoples Community; and 2nd runner-up Cherry Lee Garlijo from the municipality of Alicia.

And as a final treat to every Isabeleno, musical stars KZ Tandingan and Agsunta band capped off the festival with great performances plus they were treated to a mesmerizing grand fireworks finale.

Over all, this writer finds the 2023 Bambanti Festival the best ‘revenge’ festival after the pandemic. It is well-organized with disciplined people who showed love and respect for their leaders. 

The Manila media delegates in front of Isabela Museum

Congratulations and kudos, Isabela, for well-organized amazing event! See you again at Bambanti 2024!
(Photos by Teddy Pelaez)


Isabela is 10-12 drive from EDSA. Its capital town, Ilagan, 398 kilometers north of Manila, can be reached in 45 minutes air travel.



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