Or: any tour can be a ghost tour if you ask the right questions
Wander Manila invited me on an Intramuros tour and of course I said yes! This is my first Wander Manila tour, if you don’t count their hit Halloween 2020 virtual ghost One Night in Intramuros tour, which drew 21,000 views on the night of its live broadcast. This time it was to be a regular historical walking tour. But since I am me and know that our tour guide Benjamin Canapi is not afraid of black tourism done with respect, I knew I could pull some ghost stories out of the adventure.
The visit began at the Baluarte de San Diego, a Spanish fort that was supposed to be a watchtower until the Spaniards realized that the swampy ground could not contain the structure they wanted to build. Unfortunately, they realized this in the middle of the tower construction, which is why there is a circular structure in the fort that does not appear to be used for anything. Spain sent its best and brightest to the Philippines, you can tell.
Baluarte de San Diego is now a garden where public and private events can be held. It is a wonderful place for a wedding reception or a weekend market.
The reason the Spanish chose to build a fort in the area was that long before any land in the area was reclaimed, it was on the shores of Manila Bay. What is now Club Intramuros golf course and beyond was once water.
We left Baluarte and headed towards the Church of San Agustin, passing through Cuartel de Santa Lucia, or the ruins of the American barracks. The ghostly march of an unseen regiment is said to be still occasionally heard in the area, one of the few places in the area with what appears to be repetitive haunting.
We stopped in front of San Agustin Church, the oldest church in the Philippines and the third and most enduring of its incarnations, the other two being mostly made of wood.
There is a museum inside, as well as a beautiful garden. We did not go in, as there was a mass and the museum should be explored on your own, not as part of a tour.
This majestic structure has known a lot of tragedies. It was the only surviving public building in the earthquake of 1863. The Japanese turned it into a concentration camp during World War II, and many civilians were massacred there.
I didn’t know any of this growing up. For me, San Agustin was the place where everyone seemed to like to get married. As a kid I couldn’t see what it was, especially since you had the air-conditioned Manila Cathedral just down the block.
The San Agustin Church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, although it risks losing that status if the highway over the Pasig River is built. A great example of how not only areas next to the river will be negatively affected by this project.
On the other side of the church is Casa Manila, a museum housed in a replica of a Spanish colonial house from the 1850s. The structure was actually built in the 1980s, so all the ghosts of the Spanish era that one claims to see could in fact be cosplay spirits.
Intramuros is home to four universities, including the Lycée des Philippines, one of whose buildings occupied the former hospital of San Juan de Dios.
If I’m not mistaken, the hospital was built in 1578 and stood in the same area until it moved to its current location in 1953. This piece of history is probably why there is has had reports of people seeing bloody nurses walking through one of the hallways, even though the university’s medical school is located in Laguna.
Next, we passed the Aduana, also known as Intendencia, the Spanish customs building. Manila was a very important stopover on the galleon trade route, and this building was where all of this trade action took place. The galleon trade ended when Mexico declared independence. The building then housed the Central Bank of the Philippines, the National Treasury, and the Elections Commission (not at the same time) and was subsequently set on fire. There is currently an effort to restore it, which is why it is covered with nets and scaffolding.
For a very long time, the structure sat, slowly degrading, before this current attempt to restore it to its former historically accurate glory. You didn’t have to be sensitive for this to give you goosebumps, but still people saw glowing lights inside that are too bright and too active to come from a candle or flashlight, and there are claims that people tend to get lost in the building, as if the space works differently there.
Part of the tour was to point out where important places once stood before their destruction, mainly during WWII. Manila was the second most devastated city in the world after Warsaw in Poland, and according to Canapi, it marked the Manileños so much that it took 50 years before they started talking about it again.
The previous paragraph is there because we were shown where the University of Santo Tomas (UST) is, the oldest university in the Philippines, the university where national hero José Rizal attended school. This is now it:
The thing with Intramuros is that after WWII, nobody wanted to live there anymore. What was once a vibrant, bustling metropolis had been reduced to rubble. Its former inhabitants were in shock, grateful to be alive, eager to leave, to get away.
The fortified city was therefore left to itself. Homeless people have settled there. In order to populate the district, permits were granted to anyone who wanted to do business there, hence the strange landscape that we know today, where warehouses alongside museums and makeshift homes line certain streets. And why what used to be UST is now an office building.
Night had fallen when we arrived at Manila Cathedral, which stands in front of Plaza Roma, the axis from which radiate the rays that are the roads of Intramuros. Every Spanish city had a main square, and for Intramuros it was Plaza Roma. It’s early December, and as the Christmas season in the Philippines begins in September, the cathedral is gloriously draped in Christmas lights and the plaza is bustling with a nighttime crowd.
It’s also been over a year since everyone had to go into quarantine to slow the spread of Covid-19, so people are very happy to be outside. And now that studies have shown transmission is drastically reduced in well-ventilated areas, such as outdoors, everyone is looking forward to enjoying the outdoors, now chilly with the December winds.
We headed towards Fort Santiago, which was next to one of those rays that radiated from Plaza Roma. I’ve written about my supernatural encounters here before, all of which happened in one night and I was in no rush to meet something like this again. Fortunately, nothing happened.
Fort Santiago sits on what was once Raja Sulayman, the ruler of the Palace of Manila. Sulayman was a Muslim. Fort Santiago was named after Saint-Jacques, killer of the Moors, a seemingly fictional character. No one knows whether the fort built on top of a Muslim ruler’s palace and then named after a false saint famous for killing Muslims was intentional or fortuitous. If anyone knows the answer, please let us know!
One of its most popular “attractions” is its keep, an underground area that the Spaniards used to contain artillery and the Japanese later used to hold prisoners. The old theory was that the prisoners held there would drown when the waters of the Pasig River swelled (the dungeon is located in the part of the fort that is next to the Pasig River), but it has apparently been debunked. Still, that doesn’t make the reality any less gruesome – over 600 bodies have been found in this small space, all in various states of decay.
I couldn’t enter the dungeon as it involved going down a steep staircase that didn’t have a handrail, although I’ve been told that many people entering feel uncomfortable and claustrophobic, like s ‘There were more people than there should be in there with them.
The bodies were buried correctly under a white cross that sits next to the entrance to the dungeon, and it is said that one in four children passing through the area will inevitably panic for no reason.
Behind the dungeon is the Baluarte de Santa Barbara, which currently houses the fortress of the iMake story, a competition sponsored by the Intramuros administration, the Danish Embassy and Felta Multimedia Inc., the exclusive distributor of Lego in the Philippines where students had to use Legos to construct buildings that were once or still are in the area.
The tour technically ended in Fort Santiago, but since it was dinner time, most of the group (everyone I had met that day) decided to grab a bite to eat. On the way to the restaurant we passed the Plazuela de Santa Isabel, a park diagonally across the San Agustin Church which houses Memorare – Manila 1945, a monument dedicated to the civilians who lost their lives in WWII.
Canapi, a tour guide through and through, had additional and quite scandalous information about the area. It was once the home of an important official during the Spanish era. The official suspected that his wife was cheating on him, so he pretended to go on a trip, then returned home to find his wife in his lover’s arms. Furious, he killed the man, injured his wife, stormed out of the house to the nearby church of San Agustin, dragged a priest, and made his wife confess her adultery. After his wife confessed, he killed her.
“And do you know where she died?” he asked us. “Pretty much where we are right now!” “
If stories like this were included in the history books, fewer people would think history is boring.
So even though the tour wasn’t meant to be a ghost tour, I did manage to pull some ghost stories out of it. I’m waiting for the day when more tour guides open up to the idea of black tourism, which doesn’t necessarily mean ghost tours. Black tourism, when done correctly, can be a respectful way to commemorate a complicated past while maintaining hope and optimism for a better future.
This article first appeared in MYS Universe.
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