An afternoon in Intramuros (Or: Any tour can be a ghost tour if you ask the right questions)

Wander Manila invited me on an Inteamuros tour and of course, I said yes! This is my first Wander Manila tour, if you don’t count their highly successful One Night in Intramuros virtual ghost tour last Halloween 2020, which attracted a whopping 21,000 views the night it livestreamed. This time, it was to be a regular historical walking tour. But since I’m me and I know that our tour guide Benjamin Canapi does not shy away from dark tourism done respectfully, I knew that I could get a few ghost stories out of the adventure.

The tour started at the Baluarte de San Diego, a Spanish fort that was supposed to be a watchtower until the Spaniards realized that the marshy soil wouldn’t be able to hold the structure they wanted to build. Unfortunately, they realized this in the middle of building the tower, which is is why there’s a circular structure in the fort that doesn’t seem to be used for anything. Spain sent their best and brightest to the Philippines, you can tell.

The entrance to Baluarte de San Diego, a former Spanish fort that’s now a lush garden.

Baluarte de San Diego is now a garden where public and private events can be held. It’s a wonderful place for a wedding reception or a weekend market.

The reason the Spanish chose to build a fort in the area was because way back before all the land in the area was reclaimed, it sat on the banks of the Manila bay. What is now the Club Intramuros Golf Course and beyond used to be water.

We left Baluarte and made our way to the San Agustin Church, passing by Cuartel de Santa Lucia, or the ruins of the American barracks. The ghostly marching of an unseen regiment is said to still be heard in the area sometimes, one of the few places in the area with what seems to be a repetitive haunting.

The entrance to the ruins of the American barracks, where ghostly marching can still sometimes be heard.

We paused in front of the San Agustin church, the oldest church in the Philippines and the third and most lasting of its incarnations, the other two being mostly made of wood.

There’s a museum inside, as well as a beautiful garden. We didn’t enter, as there was a mass going on and the museum needs to be explored on its own, not as part of a tour.

This majestic structure has seen a fair amount of tragedy. It was the only surviving public building during 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. To me, San Agustin was where everyone seemed to like getting married. As a child, I didn’t see what the fuss was about, especially since you had the air-conditioned Manila Cathedral just down the block.

Built in 1571, the San Agustin church is the oldest church in the country.

The San Agustin church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, though it stands to lose this status should the highway over the Pasig river be built. A prime example of how not only the areas beside the river will be negatively affected by that project.

Across 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 any Spanish era ghosts anyone claims to see might actually be cosplaying spirits.

Intramuros is home to four universities, one of which is the Lyceum of the Philippines, one of whose buildings occupied what used to be the San Juan de Dios hospital.

If I’m not mistaken, the hospital was built in 1578 and stood in the same area until it moved to its present location in 1953. This piece f history is probably why there have been reports of people seeing bloodied nurses running through one of the hallways, even though the university’s medical school is located in Laguna.

Lyceum students have allegedly seen ghostly nurses running though one of the halls, even though this branch does not host the university’s medical school.

Next we passed the Aduana, also known as the Intendencia, the Spanish customs building. Manila was a very important stop in the galleon trade route, and this building was where all that trading action happened. The galleon trade ended when Mexico declared independence. The building later housed the Philippine Central Bank, National Treasury, and Commission on Elections (not at the same time) and later burned down. There’s currently an effort to restore it, which is why it’s covered in netting and scaffolding.

For the longest time, the structure has sat, slowly decaying, before this current bid to restore it to its former, historically accurate, glory. You didn’t have to be a sensitive for it to give you the creeps, but all the same, people have seen glowing lights inside that are too bright and too active to come from a candle or a flashlight, and there are claims that people tend to get lost in the building, as if space works differently there.

The Aduana, or Spanish customs house, an important building in the galleon trade route and where we assume a lot of bribes allegedly changed hands.

Part of the tour involved pointing out where significant places once stood before they were destroyed, mostly during World War II. Manila was the second most devastated city in the world next to Warsaw in Poland, and according to Canapi, it scarred Manileños so much 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), the oldest university in the Philippines, the university where National Hero Jose Rizal went to school, used to stand. It is now this:

This is where UST used to stand.

The thing about Intramuros is that after World War II, nobody wanted to live there anymore. What was once a vibrant, bustling metropolis had been reduced to rubble. Its former inhabitants were shell-shocked, thankful to be alive, eager to move on, move away.

So the Walled City was left to its own devices. Itinerants moved in. In a bid to populate the area, permits were given to whoever wanted to hold business there, hence the strange landscape we know now, where warehouses sit side by side with museums and makeshift dwellings line some streets. And why what used to be UST is now an office building.

Night had fallen by the time we got to the Manila Cathedral, which stands in front of Plaza Roma, the axel from which the spokes that are the roads of Intramuros radiate. Each Spanish town had a main plaza, and for Intramuros, it was Plaza Roma. It‘s early December, and since Christmas season in the Philippines begins in September, the cathedral is gloriously draped in Christmas lights and the plaza is alive with an early night crowd.

The Manila Cathedral during the Christmas season.

It’s also been more than a year since everyone had to quarantine to slow the spread of Covid-19, so people are extra joyful to be out. And now that studies have shown that transmission is considerably lessened in areas with good ventilation, such as outdoors, everyone is eager to partake of the open air, now chilly with the winds of December.

We moved on to Fort Santiago, which was off one of said spokes that radiated from Plaza Roma. I’ve written about my supernatural encounters here before, all of them happening in just one night and was in no hurry to encounter anything like that again. Thankfully, nothing happened.

Fort Santiago sits on what used to be Raja Sulayman, the ruler of Manila’s Palace. Sulayman was Muslim. Fort Santiago was named after St. James, Slayer of Moors, an apparently fictitious character. Nobody knows if the Fort being built on top of a Muslim ruler’s palace then named after a fake saint famous for killing Muslims was intentional or coincidental. If someone knows the answer, please let us know!

One of its most popular “attractions,” is its dungeon, an underground area the Spanish used to hold artillery and the Japanese later used to hold prisoners. The old theory was that the prisoners held there would drown when the Pasig river’s waters swelled (the dungeon is located in the part of the Fort that’s beside the Pasig river), but it’s apparently been debunked. Still, that doesn’t make reality less gruesome: over 600 bodies have been found in that small space, all of them in various states of decomposition.

I couldn’t enter the dungeon because it involved going down a steep flight of steps that had no bannister, though I’ve been told that a lot of people who enter feel uneasy and claustrophobic, as if there were more people than there should be in there with them.

The bodies were given a proper burial underneath a white cross that stands next to the dungeon entrance, and it’s said that one out of four kids who pass the area will inevitably freak out for seemingly no reason.

The entrance to the Fort Santiago dungeon.

Behind the dungeon is the Baluarte de Santa Barbara, which currently houses the iMake History Fortress, a competition sponsored by the Intramuros Administration, the Embassy of Denmark, and Felta Multimedia Inc., the exclusive distributor of Lego in the Philippines where students had to use Legos to construct buildings that once stood or still stand in the area.

One of the entries in the iMake History Fortress exhibit.

The tour technically ended in Fort Santiago, but since it was dinnertime, most of the group (all of who I had met just 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 San Agustin church that houses Memorare – Manila 1945, a monument dedicated to the civilians who lost their lives in World War II.

Canapi, a tour guide through and through, had an extra and quite scandalous tidbit about the area. It used to be where the house of an important official during the Spanish period. Said official suspected that his wife was cheating on him, so he pretended to leave on a trip, then doubled back home to find his wife in the arms of her lover. Enraged, he killed the man, wounded his wife, stormed out of the house to the nearby San Agustin church, dragged a priest over, and made his wife confess to her adultery. After the wife confessed, he killed her.

“And do you know where she died?” he asked us. “About right where we’re standing right now!”

The area also used to be called Sampalukan because of the sampaloc (tamarind) trees that used to grow there, and allegedly also because of the love that went sour that fateful day.

If stories like this were included in history books, less people would think history was boring.

So while the tour wasn’t supposed to be a ghost tour, I did manage to get some ghost stories out of it. I’m waiting for the day more tour guides open up to the idea of dark tourism, which doesn’t necessarily just mean ghost tours. Dark tourism, when done properly, can be a respectful way to commemorate a complicated past while maintaining hope and optimism for a better future.


Yvette Natalie U. Tan is a multi-awarded author of horror fiction and the Agriculture section editor of Manila Bulletin.

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