Manila's Charming Old Downtown

January 1, 1970

by Aly Samonte

Situated in the middle of the busy city streets of Manila, Philippines, the Quiapo district has been a witness to the history and development of the country. Named after the water cabbage or kiapo in the local Filipino language, it is now referred to as the “Old Downtown of Manila”.

I have a personal fondness for this place as it is easy to get lost in all that sights, sounds and smells that surround this district. It might not be for the posh traveller looking for a relaxing time in Manila, you can even say it is a stressful place, but if you are up for adventure and really want to experience Manila’s unique charm, then Quiapo just might be the place for you.

Locals would often warn tourists to get out of Manila as soon as you can but the Philippines does not only offer picturesque landscapes and crystal clear waters. Manila has its own adventure if you know where to go.

The Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene

The district’s crown jewel, the Minor Basilica of the Black Nazarene otherwise known as the Quiapo Church, is where a life-sized image of a dark-skinned, kneeling Jesus Christ carrying the cross is enshrined. Majority of the Filipinos are Catholics and the religion is very much engraved into our culture so the Quiapo Church is always packed with church goers and devotees of the Black Nazarene.

The most awaited religious celebration in the district is the Translacion (“transfer”). It is a procession that reenacts the image’s transfer from the Minor Basillica to its old shrine in the walled city of Intramuros. Lasting for more than 20 hours, the procession is attended by millions of devotees from all over the country, each thronging to touch the icon in the belief that it may bring miracles.

Plaza Miranda

Outside the Minor Basilica stands the Plaza Miranda. The plaza houses various vendors of religious items, street food and, ironically, tarot card readers. Standing in the middle of the plaza, you could just admire how different everything is but it seems to belong to that place. I could barely grasp the fact that this was a site for an important moment in the country’s political history.

Some vendors opt to sell religious items outside the Church in order to make ends meet

The country’s political environment in the late 60s was full of tension. President Ferdinand Marcos was in his second term and the people’s growing disappointment with Marcos put his political future at stake with the 1971 midterm Senatorial elections, the traditional dividing line between continued political relevance or a reduction to the political sidelines.

The opposing Liberal Party was having a miting de avance at the said plaza on August 21, 1969 when it became the scene of two grenade attacks and almost wiping the political party’s senate and mayoral slate. Marcos was accused of being the mastermind behind the attacks and this further pulled his popularity down. He would eventually declare Martial Law and rule the country under a dictatorship that would last almost a decade before the People Power Revolution broke out.

The historic plaza now contains cacophony of sounds from the busy Quezon Boulevard and vendors asking passerbys “Ano hanap niyo?” (What are you looking for?) hoping to sell something. Different smells waft around; the musty smell of smoked fish to the cheap meals served in small stalls that line Quiapo’s winding streets.

Quinta Market

Besides being a destination for the religious and history fans, the district also offers fresh produce for a cheaper price. Stalls dot the streets around Quiapo Church and you can buy just about everything but I would suggest that if you’re after the good stuff, head to Carlos Palanca Street where you’ll find the Quinta Market and Fishport.

Situated just beside the Pasig River, the Quinta Market and Fishport offers the fresh catch of the day fresh from the boats that dock in Manila Bay. Vegetable, fruits and other meats are also found here.

In true Filipino culture, wet markets are the best place to get quality produce for a cheaper price compared to grocery markets. It can also be a place to test your bargaining or haggling skills. One thing you can absolutely do in the outdoor markets is haggling for a lower price.

“Cargadors” or porters would walk back and forth carrying items from the delivery trucks to the stores.

Most vendors prefer setting up in the streets around Quiapo because rent is not required.

The produce sold at Quinta Market is guaranteed local and fresh

Hidalgo Street

As a photographer, this is my favorite place in the Quiapo district. Hidalgo street is located adjacent to Plaza Miranda and it is considered as a photographer’s paradise. Various stores that offer different items and services line the street. This is the place you go to when you want your cameras fixed or you need to buy new gear. Like everything in Quiapo, camera models and parts in Hidalgo street are offered at a much lower price compared to those camera stores in malls. I was able to buy my Canon 80D for PHP1,000 (US $18) less than what it costs in the mall.

This is also one, if not, the only place where you can still have your films developed. Film camera culture is slowly gaining its popularity in the country but basic services are not yet readily available. Some film photographers opt to head to this street and have their films processed, scanned or printed. Some stores also offer cleaning and repair as well as various films in the 35mm format.

Maintaining the Old Charm

Quiapo will retain its cultural and historical charm even if it becomes one with the chaotic city around it. Trust me when I say that this district is a melting pot of culture and religion. This might be the only place where you will find a mixture of Catholic, Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist faith all in one district.

As I find myself engulfed with Quiapo’s religious, historic and modern ways, I cannot help but equate it as a representation of centuries worth of Filipino culture, which is a combination of different other cultures molded into one identity. It is both familiar yet unique every time I drop by for a visit.

Aly Samonte

By Aly Samonte

As a journalist and writer, I believe that amazing stories come from anyone and the best way to really discover and experience a place is to get close with the locals. More often than not, they will take you to the roads less traveled where true adventure awaits. An adventurous, bubbly ray of sunshine that is armed with a camera and a suitcase full of essentials, I take on the world head on. What better way to find something out than to take that first plunge to the clear blue waters?


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