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Blog - San Juan City: My Discoveries of the Genuine Metro Manila Life
Metro Manila is not (only) Manila
After writing several posts about Manila, the capital of the Philippines, I decided to take you around to a lesser known area of this giant metropolis of about 13 million people. We first need a clarification for those who are not yet too familiar with the Philippines: you say one thing if you say “Metro Manila”, the big metropolis, made of 17 municipalities; another thing is talking about “Manila”, which is the capital and is only one of those 17 municipalities. These two general notions of Manila are often interchanged.
Photo - Here I am in San Juan City with a very Filipino hat!
Today I’ll take you around San Juan, the smallest municipality of Metro Manila and – for land size – the smallest city of the Philippines! To be precise, its complete and official name is “San Juan del Monte”.
What to Expect When You Visit San Juan
Just to be clear: this is not the place where I would recommend you to “absolutely” go spend your days in (Metro) Manila during your Philippine holiday for all the “must-sees” famous spots. Yet, I could suggest it as one of the several places where you could go around to glimpse the “everyday life” of the locals.
San Juan is mostly a residential area (if we exclude the big commercial area and malls of Greenhills), peculiarly with some neighborhoods made of rich households alternated with low income families’ houses with a simpler lifestyles. In any case, I’d not worry much as a foreigner strolling around, at least by day time. Though several parts of San Juan look like they need some sort of infrastructure improvement (and that’s why you’ll see many on-going construction project sites around) the general environment is pleasantly decent and I find it a pleasant place for my week-end strolls. Last but not least, the locals are very friendly to foreigners.
Photos - Some scenes of San Juan, with the famous Filipino "Jeepneys"
Pinaglabanan and Its History
The most historically and socially relevant place of San Juan undoubtedly is the Pinaglabanan Shrine. Pinaglabanan literally means “place of the battle” in the local Tagalog language. That’s because it’s the site where one of the legendary battles of the “Katipunan” occurred. The Katipunan was the Filipino revolution society who were against the Spanish colonizers during the late 1800’s.
During the battle, the revolutionaries tried to occupy the Spaniards’ gunpowder warehouse (which was located exactly where the public elementary school is now, right in front of San Juan City Hall). In many other parts of Manila, many insurrections against the Spanish were appeased by the colonizers and a lot of “Katipuneros” were killed during the battles or executed after then.
Photos - San Juan City Hall, the Elementary School and a statue dedicated to the "Katipunan"
Today: San Juan Park and Its Life
Surrounding the Pinaglabanan Shrine, you can now find a public park which is an important social space for the local community. Especially during week-ends you can find people jogging or strolling, sellers roving around with their ice cream carts as well as roaming taho vendors (a typical Filipino street dessert that could be described as a soy panna cotta with a caramel topping). It’s also easy to find big groups of boys and girls rehearsing dances and choreographies, something much loved by Filipinos in general. The park is spacious enough to host rehearsals without the need of renting a space.
Photos - A central view on the Park, which is also a free wi-fi spot; A not-so-easy coreography; Aice-cream seller ("sorbetero") with his cart
You can also easily encounter badminton players (we are in Asia!) but also – though more rarely – of sipa, a sport known also as “Sepak Takraw” in South-East Asian Countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. It’s quite a scenic sport that looks like tennis-football…or maybe more like a volleyball played with feet! It’s a matter of perspective. It’s usually played with a rattan ball or anyway with balls that don’t bounce. At high levels it can become an extremely acrobatic game. This is the only open public place in the Philippines where I chanced to see sipa players.
There were even times in San Juan Park when I also was able to see athletes train for fencing!
Photos/Video: Players of "Sipa" (watch the video!) and fencing trainees at the Park of San Juan
Still talking about sports, just few meters from the Park you find the Filoil Flying V Centre, a quite modern sport arena where, mostly during week-ends, you can watch national basketball and volleyball matches, often broadcasted on national TV. Still in this area you will find the local police station, the fire station and also the local prison.
Some public vegetable patch gardens used to be located on one side of the park, they were quite nice and rich of local crop species where you could see local groups taking care of them. Though, now, as of writing (September 2019) the park is going through some restyling and those gardens were demolished. I’m not sure if definitively or just temporarily. Personally, I surely hope to see them back!
The main part of the park is dominated by an interesting sculpture called “Spirit of Pinaglabanan”. The sculptured statue is permanently surrounded by iron barriers, probably to avoid vandalism or that people sit on the stairs.
Photo - The "Spirit of Pinaglabanan"
The Museum of the Katipunan
Facing the above-mentioned monument, on the right side of the park, you will find a building made using the typical ancient Filipino style, with the peculiar window shutters decorated by squared “capiz” shells. It’s the Museum of the Katipunan, inaugurated in 2013 to celebrate the 150th birthday of the Filipino nationalist hero Andres Bonifacio, the commander of the revolution. The museum is small but interesting and modern. Several artifacts of the revolution were preserved and you can learn about them through interactive explanations.
You could curiously notice that the revolutionary group was a masonic group and that is why Freemasonry in the Phlippines is synonym of revolutionary heroism against the colonial government. In fact, the word Katipunan somewhat means “association of people”. Also the initiation rituals of the Katipuneros represented in the museum and several symbols on the exposed artifacts clearly recalled the iconography of Masonry.
Photos - An original amulet of the Katipuneros; a reproduction of an initiation rite; original knives from the battle of San Juan
The entrance is free of charge, and comes with a free museum guide service (good and efficient, available also in English!). You can also watch some videos with the story of the revolution to familiarize with it before visiting the museum.
Lastly, the museum has good air-conditioning , good for cooling down during a hot tropical day spent going around the city.
Photo - The Museo Ng Katipunan from outside
The New “El Deposito” Museum and the Unusual Story of the Aqueduct
Just right beside the Museum of the Katipunan, you will find this brand new museum, inaugurated in 2019 with the name “Museo El Deposito”. It is a unique place of its kind that will let you witness the history of the Carriedo aqueduct, which supplied water to Manila during the 19th century. You will find several historical samples, like an original hydrant for one. I found also the samples of the old-style water purification systems interesting, as well as the ancient gears utilzed to distribute water around the city and the maps with the projects of the water supply system plans, some being quite forefront for those times.
Photos - A masterplan of the old water system of Manila; The entrance of the Museo El Deposito; An ancient traditional water purification system
The museum is very modern and I really liked it. It is also equipped with 3D eye-glasses to witness scenes from the past and to re-live episodes of the battle of San Juan Del Monte of 1896.
I was told that by 2020, it will be possible to enter through the old water reservoir, walking in an underground tunnel, having a very different perspective of the city.
Also here, the entrance is free!
Photo - 3D experience at Museo El Deposito
I was curious and wanted to follow a bit of this San Juan’s “waterish” past going around the streets of the neighbourhood of Barangay Isabelita to search for a bridge that was part of the aqueduct shown in the museum’s maps. The guide of museum explained that this is still standing. Searching going around and around, I finally found it. Though now it is fully surrounded by the cement structures of the city, it looks quite different from the 150 year old photos where it looked like it was immersed in some local countryside landscape. Here’s a photo below.
Photos - A nice residential road to stroll around; The bridge that was part of the ancient aqueduct
Last but not Least: Strolls Around the Local Streets and Barangays
Beyond historical places, as I said earlier, San Juan is also a residential city, tranquil and generally clean even, though it depends on which street you’re walking in.
For sure, the most comfortable place to have a stroll is the Greenhills Shopping Mall. It has a bazaar area, called “Tiangge”, which has nice souvenirs and it’s mostly famous for good bargainings to purchase pearls. Another modern stop can be the Santolan Town Plaza, a mini commercial compound near the park of San Juan, where you’ll find bars, restaurants, specialty shops and a cinema.
Photos - A nice house in Barangay Isabelita; The entrance of Barangay Corazon De Jesus; A small park and playground called "Mini Park"
Though, I’m not a big fan of shopping malls and if I had to give a tip to get the reality of the city, I’d start walking from San Juan City Hall (where you also find the park and the museum described above) and I’d start to explore the small neighbourhoods called “Barangay” in the local Tagalog language. Barangay Corazon De Jesus, for example, is always very active with small vegetable shops, children playing in the streets and a true classic: the street basketball court, a very important place for the Filipino social life!
Photos - Interesting things around the streets: Domestic roosters, decorated vases and a smart recycling basketball-style facility
Walking more around here, you’ll reach Domingo Street where sometimes I stop by an ice-cream shop I like, a treat with good value for money. In this area, you’ll also find the local church of Saint John the Baptist, a very busy place on week-ends. This is anyway a quite modern building: if you are interested in architecture and archeology, a nice stop is the well-preserved Dominican Sanctuary of Santo Cristo in Blumentritt Street, built back in the 17th Century which shows evident traces of the unique “earthquake baroque” Filipino style.
Photos - The modern Saint John the Baptist Church and the 17th Century Baroque Sanctuary of Santo Cristo
Another Barangay that is pleasant for a walk is the already-mentioned Barangay Isabelita, with some nice residential neighborhoods and little parks or corners where the locals interact.
In the near Barangay Pedro Cruz I unexpectedly also encountered a “cockpit center”. Yes it’s what you think: a place for fight competitions among roosters (and for making bets!). The structure is quite modern and looked crowded from the outside. I did not enter because animal fights and betting are not really my thing. Anyway, consider that this activity is perfectly legal in the country, plus it’s a popular and spread tradition in the Philippines as well as in many parts of South East Asia. And if you want to get to know some of the “real” Philippines, this is part of it too.
Photos - The cockpit center in Barangay Pedro Cruz; Cats in Barangay Corazon De Jesus; A Lechon (the delicious Filipino roasted pig) shop
Going around seeing the typical jeepneys, retail establishments, mini-shops, convenience stores, old houses and modern buildings, I learned to like to walk around San Juan. It has many contrasts and you will acknowledge the peculiar mix of tradition and modernity. If you have some time to go around Metro Manila, spend some of it in San Juan and enjoy some genuine life within the huge metropolitan area!
Enjoy San Juan!
Photos above - An ancentral Filipino House and a modern building; The "wet market" of Agora; Mini Park in Barangay Isabelita
Photos below - A greenish photo of San Juan Park during the rainy season and a brownish photo during the "dry season", when the red "fire trees" bloom.
(written on September 2019)