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[OPINION | Ilonggo Notes] Want to be an #Esplanaddict?

The longest linear park in the country lines the Iloilo river as it traverses through 5 of the 7 city districts: Molo, Mandurriao, Lapaz, Lapuz, and the City proper. Now almost close to 10 km in length, it had inauspicious beginnings over a decade ago, initially meant as an alternate traffic route and flood control system between Carpenter Bridge in Molo district and the major city highway, Diversion Road.

But as a vision of the city took hold, with the support of Ilonggo Senator Frank Drilon and the efforts of dynamic city officials and citizenry, the once dusty 1.25-km by-way was re-designed by landscape architect Paulo Alcazaren and converted into a walking park, and the newly christened “Esplanade 1” was formally opened in 2012. 

In the past 8 years, the once filthy river was gradually cleaned up and dredged, informal settlers re-located, and more paths for walkers developed. The esplanades became a focus for environmental regeneration as fingerlings were released, more mangroves planted, new bridges were opened to help ease traffic, and the 160 year++ old port of Iloilo — opened to world trade in 1855, also underwent a rehabilitation. This was necessary as it was the main outlet of the Iloilo river into the Guimaras strait, and was heavily polluted with oil slicks and half-submerged skeletons of fishing boats. 

There are now 9 esplanades – and each one has its own charm and character. Esplanade 1 easily is the best landscaped, with shade trees, greens, and fragrant blooms – ylang-ylang and frangipani – all around, connecting to a series of restaurants on the Boardwalk area, and thumping with Zumba enthusiasts. It also features the Instagrammable “I am Iloilo” sign, as well as pedal boats. There are also clean comfort rooms, and like all other esplanades, is well-tended by a band of gardeners and maintenance personnel. 

The pavement surfacing used is superior compared to the other Esplanades — it seems more solid, and has a “bouncier feel” compared to other pavements, so a different mix of materials, probably rubberized – may have been used; the other pavements outside of E1 are mainly concrete and appear weathered after several months. 

Esplanade 2 is directly parallel to it, on the opposite side of the river, and is very popular with walkers; one can appreciate some majestic homes as you pass by their backyards. An added attraction on Esplanade 2 is a weathered banca mounted on a pedestal, which features portraits of the Madonna by the renowned Ilonggo artist Fernando Kabigting. Esplanades 1 and 2 are currently “one-way” areas as per COVID-19 regulations, and bicycles are not permitted on the 2.6-km circuit.

Esplanade 1 Extension has a large performance area and the skater park, where young daredevils try out their best moves on skateboards, bikes, and roller blades. It also connects to Esplanade 3, which is currently under construction. Esplanade 4 is still a bit bare, with some areas planted to vegetables, but in a couple of years, the mangroves will provide more shade. It has two large open terraced areas – one of which was used for the highly popular Iloilo Night market just before Christmas. Esplanade 4 also has the COVID response-inspired bas relief, “Iloilo as one,” which features a rowboat making it through choppy waters, with rowers sporting face masks. It connects the two bridges: the Iloilo bridge on Diversion Road, and the Jalandoni bridge.  

Esplanade 5 is on the Lapaz district side and is marked by the Gaisano department store. This area also has a wide swath of mangroves, though this is also probably the least well-maintained, as many of the protective railings are rusty or missing, with several uneven patches on the path along the way. Esplanade 6 is parallel to it and runs behind several schools and hotels, and is easily the best lit at night; it also seems to be a favored spot for many fishermen. 

Both E4 and E6 run parallel to General Luna street, which is a “school belt” – the Maritime University, UP Visayas, University of San Agustin, St. Paul’s, Assumption Convent, and the Central elementary school, among others, are short walks away. 

Esplanade 7 is probably the shortest of all – under half a kilometer, and is also nicely landscaped, connecting the Forbes Bridge to the Rizal Bridge, which was formerly a railway.   

Esplanade 8 is the longest  – probably 1.5 km and traversing the whole length of Muelle Loney, from the Rizal Bridge to the Loney Monument, which is just after the century-old customs house and the Freedom Grandstand. Esplanade 8 is the most historic part, with easy walking connections to museums, the provincial capitol, city hall, Plaza Libertad, and the old shopping and heritage area with art-deco and modernist-style buildings built in the 1920s-1950s.  

The latest addition, Esplanade 9, opened in November 2020 and runs along the Lapuz district side, connecting the Forbes Bridge to the Quirino Lopez Bridge. Esplanades 8 and 9 are also popular with sports fishermen, and on any afternoon one sees dozens patiently waiting for the fish to bite. And because the river is much clearer, the fish and birds are returning – it was big news last month when a lucky fisherman was able to net a 10-kg sea bass along Esplanade 8, something virtually unheard of in the past. The city government is serious in re-stocking with fingerlings and banning the use of mechanized fishing equipment and gill nets along the esplanades.  

Little wonder then, that the river developments have won numerous awards for the city, nationally as well as internationally, and is seen as a model of urban regeneration. And, it has also given rise to “#Esplanaddicts” – the term for those who need to get their daily dose of the esplanades. 

But this isn’t all — if one talks walking/biking routes within the city, one can easily go to parks that are interconnected with the esplanades and the protected bike lanes along Diversion Road, such as the Gaisano city center, which has a series of canals, walkways, and a disused container park, and has an "unkempt" look, with three-meter-high reeds, marshes, gangly vines, herons and wild ducks. 

My other favored route is the Muelle Loney to Fort San Pedro circuit, which begins where the esplanades end near the customs house but which continues on for about two more kilometers all along the port down to the old lighthouse (“parola”) terminal for the ferries to Guimaras island, and then on to the former Fort San Pedro, with the breakwater, the views of Guimaras, and “Bala-an Bukid” with the cross. It has the best sunset view in Iloilo.

The commercial and tourist potentials of the Esplanades can also be further boosted by having pop-up food and drink stalls, and crafts and farmers markets especially on weekends; installing open-air sculptures or other artworks; painting murals on blank-wall areas; refurbishing several bridges; planting more mangroves; building bike ramps and busking areas for performance art; providing tricycle and bike rentals for children; planting vegetable gardens, selling some of the cuttings from the Esplanade gardens, and providing drinking water fountains. An added feature should be maps of the esplanades, with “You are here” signs and other relevant information.

And since nothing succeeds like success, an appropriation of P803 million has been set aside in the national budget for a four-lane road, with bike lanes and walkways on both sides, that will run from Mandurriao district to the junction of Cagbang village in Oton town. This will include an extension of the esplanade from the Carpenter’s Bridge in Molo district and will stretch for two kilometers, thus joining one more city district, Villa de Arevalo, into the esplanade loop. More reasons for cyclists, walkers, and #Esplanaddicts to rejoice, as Iloilo steadily rises toward becoming one of the top 3 cities in the country by the end of the decade. –

Vic Salas is a physician and public health specialist by training, and now retired from international consulting work. He is back in Iloilo city, where he spent his first quarter century.