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Life Inside the Walls: A New Look At Intramuros, the Walled City of Manila

by Shanice Espiritu February 08, 2018

Life Inside the Walls: A New Look At Intramuros, the Walled City of Manila

To anyone living in Metro Manila, Intramuros is not some unknown or secret destination. People generally know of Intramuros through any of these three things: its walls, the tourist destinations within the city, and the inescapable poverty that contrasts the elegant Spanish colonial era architecture. I myself have gone through these three stages of knowing Intramuros, but having spent some time knowing the city and its inhabitants, I have come to realize that Intramuros is more than its walls, its great architecture, and the informal dwellers therein.

 

One of the canons in Baluarte de San Francisco de Dilao
One of the canons in Baluarte de San Francisco de Dilao. The clock tower on the right side is part of the Manila City Hall

 

I have only recently started working in the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the highest cultural government institution in the Philippines. The NCCA is aptly located inside Intramuros, a city in Manila budding with its own manifestations of culture and history. Walking to the office is always a dream, as I make my way into the city, away from the incessant beeps of smoke-belching jeepneys and the constant rush of everyday life in Manila. Entering Intramuros through its graying stone arches is like entering a new world, as I am greeted with starkly different architecture from what exists outside the walls. The streets are lined with different-colored buildings, and there are even portions where the roads are still in their original cobblestoned form.

 

Entering Intramuros from Calle Victoria road in Manila
Entering Intramuros from Calle Victoria road

 

There are kalesas, or horse-drawn carriages that tour tourists around Intramuros for a fee, as well as e-jeepneys (the electric version of the famous Filipino mode of public transportation) that transport people from one end of the city to the other for a fee of 25 pesos, or 6 canadian cents. The city is a blend of both the old and the new in just the right places, and as a tourist, these are the first things you will notice apart from its graying walls.

 

A kalesa tours people around the walled city of Intramuros in Manila
A kalesa tours people around the walled city

 

Intramuros, also known as the Walled City, has stood for centuries. The city was built in the late 16th century as the city that held the seat of power in Manila.[1] The walls were constructed to fend of any possible foreign attacks since the governor assigned to the Philippines also resided and held office there. In 1898, when Spain seceded the Philippines to the USA, American forces took over Intramuros and held power there just like Spain. During World War II, almost the whole city was reduced to rubble[2] when the Americans bombed Intramuros in 1945 since it became the Imperial Japanese Army’s place of retreat.

You can see that Intramuros has had a very rich history, having been used as a seat of power by different nations at different times. This is why the blend of culture in the area is astonishingly diverse. Within the walls lie buildings that have retained original designs of Spanish architecture, modern Filipino buildings, and even Chinese museums since the land where Intramuros is in was also a marketplace for Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian trading ships even before Spanish occupation. You can also find Fort Santiago, the fort that held Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, prior to his execution.

 

Palacio del Gobernador, the former governor general's palace and current Commission on Elections headquarters in Manila
This is the Palacio del Gobernador, the former governor general's palace and current Commission on Elections headquarters

 

Because of this unique blend of culture and history, the walled city has been one of the most popular tourist spots in Manila, primarily because of the many things one can learn about the Philippines through going around it, but also because it is an area so starkly different and unique from the rest of the metro.

 

A store in Casa Manila, a historic house museum of Spanish Colonial heritage in Intramuros, Manila
A store in Casa Manila, a historic house museum of Spanish Colonial heritage

 

Manila Cathedral that stands at the heart of Intramuros in Manila
This is the Manila Cathedral that stands at the heart of Intramuros. It was founded in 1581

 

Inside the Ayuntamiento de Manila in Intramuros. It used to house the Manila City Council, but now, the building is being used by the Bureau of Treasury
Inside the Ayuntamiento de Manila. It used to house the Manila City Council, but now, the building is being used by the Bureau of Treasury

 

But Intramuros is more than its rich history and its engaging tourist destinations. Along the colonial houses lie communities of informal settlers, sometimes their houses piling up one on top of the other. Most of these families have lived for generations in the city, moving there in the aftermath of World War 2. During that time, Intramuros was devastated and heritage structures were the least of the government’s concerns, so these communities started moving in and claiming ownership of dilapidated buildings and vacant lots. To this day, there are around 5 huge barangays (native Filipino term for village) inside Intramuros.

 

One of the barangays inside Intramuros, Manila
One of the barangays inside Intramuros. In the Philippines, the colorful hanging decorations usually signify a fiesta, or a religious festival

 

The government has tried to push these informal settlers someplace else for many years, but what I have realized through interacting with them over the course of 4 months is that their presence in the city is as vital as the city’s land is to them. These people who live in shanties and crude homes are also the same building guards, servicemen, e-jeepney and kalesa (horse-drawn carriage) drivers, cooks, store owners and building employees, all contributing to the growth and development of Intramuros. On a daily basis I encounter these people who drive the pedicabs I ride to work, who cook the meals I buy from outside our building’s gates, the same people who I see thrive through being of service to the different businesses and organizations within Intramuros’ walls.

 

Old buildings interspersed among the barangays of Intramuros, Manila
Old buildings interspersed among the barangays

 

It may seem easy to drive these people away so that Intramuros would be pleasing to the eye, but what I have come to realize about this city is that it is as lively as it had been more than 300 years ago. In this city lie government buildings such as the one I work in, colleges and universities where students attend in order to be able to graduate and pursue their intended careers, offices that provide opportunities for those who work under it, and museums and other sights to provide a means of inspiration and rest to those who would want to discover more about the Philippines or themselves as Filipinos. Every person is vital to the walled city as the city is vital to them.

 

The roofs of communities lined with the roofs of preserved Spanish houses in Intramuros, Manila
The roofs of communities lined with the roofs of preserved Spanish houses. It’s an interesting mix of history and modern-day culture at the same time that’s very telling of Philippine society

 

If you ever think of visiting the Philippines, don't forget to pass by Intramuros. I hope you see beyond the majestic walls, the interesting tourist destinations, and even the poverty that stares you in the face. I hope that through your travels, you gain a glimpse of our country's beautiful history and culture, the problems that we currently face, and the many opportunities for improvement that we can work on together as a nation.





Shanice Espiritu

Author

Shanice wears many hats, but her favorite is being an advocate of Philippine history and culture. She currently works under the National Commission for Culture and the Arts of the Philippines, and is a slow fashion model and photographer on the side. When not being any of those, she loves making lists, playing the piano, and scheming about how to make the world around her a little more colorful.


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