North Luzon – The Cordillera


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June 1st 2013
Published: June 1st 2013
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Banaue, Sagada & Baguio

Banaue

We get a taxi from the Hostel to the bus station (the bus station is difficult to get to for travellers) at Sampaloc to catch the Ohayami Trans bus overnight to Banaue in Ifugao Province – North Luzon. The bus leaves at 10 pm direct to Banaue. It’s not plush but has reclining seats and Air Con. The bus isn’t full and has both locals and tourists on board. We’ve been warned that the Air Con gets colder at night - so come prepared!

We stop twice en route for toilet breaks etc. At one place it’s P5 to use the loo – expensive or what. After winding our way through the hills, and with blue skies above the mist, we arrive in Banaue at about 7am to be met by someone from Banaue Homestay where we are booked in. A room with a view only costs P800 per night. The place is up the hill about 5 mins walk and 2 mins by van. We are met by Beatriz (aka Bea) plus family who run the place. The views of the rice terraces from the Homestay are lovely and such a change from Manila and all we have seen in the Philippines to date. The fact that despite the poor weather forecast the clouds are light and the sun threatening to come through is positive. We have breakfast (to be paid for); its good food, C has American which includes 4 French toast with eggs & M tries the langanisa (local garlic sausage) with his eggs and red rice (local of course). Pretty much every Filipino meal is served with rice including breakfast, often with garlic, so much so that M decides he’s overdosed with garlic.

Feeling we need to take advantage of the fair weather as we are promised rain later in the afternoon, we decide to go to Batad – one of the big draws here – a World Heritage status amphitheatre of rice fields around a small village about an hours drive from the town. Bea arranges a private van driven by her brother Michael for P2600 for the day (on reflection a bit steep but we were tired and in a hurry so agree having come all this way and not wanting to do this trip in the rain).

On the way we stop off at a few highlights of rice terraces and the Hanging House – a souvenir shop teetering on the brink of the hillside - and has been for 50 years. We arrive at the Saddle Point which is the end of the road for Jeepneys or vans. From here we have to walk 3 kms to Batad information centre, register and pay P50 each. The walk downhill is fine and pleasant. At the registration point there are a whole hoard of “guides” offering to take us to the Viewing Point ridge – which you can see across the rice terraces, and to the Waterfall another 30 mins away and back via the village. As we aren’t too fussed about the waterfall we decide to do the viewpoint on our own using our own navigation skills – bad move! They have obviously arranged things that unless you are a local you’ll come up against a whole host of dead ends. As we struggle, a family offer to guide us for P100. Stubborn and not to be out done we say no thanks. We struggle back and forth for a few more minutes when a young lad – Cyrus we later learn who is 11 and has a day off from school - offers to be our guide. We carry on regardless but knowing how hapless we are likely to be he follows and from time to time (which is about every 10 paces) tells us which twist and turn to take…….. ok we give in. We offer him P50 and a bit extra if he does a good job as we like him and it would be fun to speak to a local & not get any hard sell. His English is really good and in flip flop only (footwear of choice for the locals) he struts off and takes us up, across and over places where we would never have seen or got to, quickly – given that we were still hoping to avoid the “promised” rain.

Cyrus is a great guide and fun to be with. He wants to be a policeman when he grows up. His family have 5 rice terraces and he and his friends play around here a lot so know the terrain. We eventually get to the top after 30 mins or so – the most exercise we have had for a while and given the trek to come in Ladakh, we need this. On impulse and as the weather is fine we decide to go back via the village which is a very steep descent down virtually vertical steps. It’s a good walk and we are glad we did it, however going back up, first to the Information centre is a real challenge (boy we are unfit). We say good bye and thanks to Cyrus and give him P100 – he earned it.

After a brief stop for lunch (largely coke, ice tea and bananas) we hike up the 3 kms back to the Saddle to take the van to some other rice fields we are due to see a 20 min drive further on. At the top we treat ourselves to a cold beer each – refreshing or what! and have a brief rest and chat to a friendly Czech couple from Prague – Andreas and Pietr. Time to move on …. but the van won’t start. Michael (the driver) is pissed off and is suddenly surrounded by all the Jeepney and Van drivers to give him a hand. 1 Hour later after various attempts at a hill start, removing & putting the battery back in etc etc … he gives up and gets us into a private Jeepney to take us back to the Homestay.

In the Jeepney we meet travellers from Holland and Sweden and 2 young Norwegians (Mariann & Marios) who tell us that they are going to India in mid-July. Totally unprepared we feel as they have no plan of where to go and to cap it all her Mother & Grandmother are to visit for 10 days as well. They have no idea that it will be hot (40 – 50 degrees) and that Monsoon is likely to have arrived in parts of North India! We agree to meet them for a drink to give them some info and advice at their hotel - briefing them over a few beers and putting them in contact with Aditya (our Mr Fixit for all travel stuff in India).

Banaue has a curfew at 9 pm we are told when everything shuts down – a local regional tradition. As we are running a bit late we decide to have dinner at their place (Uyami Greenview Guesthouse) which is pretty disappointing. Our first choice, Sanafe – recommended by LP - was actually closed. Bizarre really as it’s a Guest House as well and this is sort of peak season!

Next day we decide to take it easier. We aren’t going to rush around to various trek sites and waterfalls – the other big draw here, but instead enjoy the rice terraces of Banaue which seem to us to be equally wonderful as Batad but seem to get less of a press. We take a trike to the main Rice Terraces viewpoint overlooking the town (about 6kms up) and from there make our way down leisurely stopping as and when as the weather is still being kind to us. The views are pretty spectacular and the folks in Banaue are rightly proud of them and feel they are better than Batad – we agree. So it seems does the government as a picture of the Banaue fields is now printed on the local P1000 currency.

At the main viewpoints we find local Ifugao people in traditional dress and you can take pictures of them for a donation (a local suggests P5 per person would do). We take a few shots and give them P10 each.

What we discover about local life is that they live in traditional extended families and support each other. There’s quite a community spirit and they are deeply religious – mainly Catholic but also various shades of Christianity.

They also love their music – western music mainly and for some reason Country and Western music blares out from many homes. Much of it is cover versions of pop songs by local artists – which you can make out if you pay attention as they don’t hit the high notes right. Locals love to sing too and Karaoke is big here in the evenings when you can be walking along and suddenly hear loud music and some flat tones trying desperately to hold the note…….. we are warned don’t smile or mock – they take this deadly seriously. Early nights are advised!

As we get to a spot (on the top of the climb up to the Patilong Elem School entrance) where we believe some of the best poster pictures of the rice terraces have been taken, the rain decides to come down a bit. We are in luck as we find a nice shelter and after 10 mins or so the rain subsides and we get our pictures. However, the rumbling in the sky suggests moving faster to get to the Homestay or we’ll be drenched. We make it just before the deluge arrives. It rains all afternoon so we sit on the verandah and enjoy the view with some hot tea and conversation with a lady from Leicester (UK).

We decide to dine in as it’s raining and our experience from the day before wasn’t much to speak of. They rustle up a beautiful Filipino meal - Chicken adobo and pork gatadobo (adobo with coconut milk) red rice and bananas for pud. It went down a treat – P140 each.

The next day the sun is out and it’s blue skies all around and it’s hot. We are picked up by a van at 8.30 am heading for Sagada. It’s a van arranged by Bea & her many connections! It only took 2.5 hours via Bontoc (though the guide book suggests 5 hours!). The road is a mix of concrete and dirt track and the landscape is largely pine and bamboo forests interspersed with rice or veg terraces down and across the valleys, till we hit Bontoc which has a unique feel of its own.

Sagada

We arrive surprisingly early at 11 am when we thought it would be 2pm at least. We are booked into Sagada Homestay – a large rambling collections of rooms, a diner and the main house (arrangements by Text only, they don’t have a website but are in the LP book). It’s 2 mins walk up from the Bus stop. It has good views of Sagada and rooms cost about P600 with shared bathroom. After checking in with Karen the landlady, we go to Register as required at the Information Centre – the guy on the desk (Mark we discover later) is really good and provides a lot of info. We realise that Sagada’s sites/attractions are closer and easier to get to see than we think.

We make a beeline for the “Yoghurt House” recommended to us by a Swiss woman we met in Manila when we arrived in the Philippines - she has been to the Philippines 5 times now – obviously loves it here. The café is a great place, yoghurt with fruit – banana, apple, mango and avocado with homemade strawberry preserve on top plus their own made chocolate cookies to die for – even M, not one to go for these things usually, is hooked. We go there again the next day for lunch after our mini tour.

We walk to the Church and past the cemetery for the view point behind it for the Echo Valley Hanging Coffins site. We decide to take the path downward (involves a bit of a scramble and a few wrong turns) and get right up close where coffins are fixed to the cliff face. It’s an interesting burial system and is still practised today by about 40% of the population if they wish. It’s an old tribal custom in these parts going back to 500AD we believe. The site here is still used and the longest date we can discern is 1945 and we are told the latest ones have been up about a year. They remind us of the hanging burial grounds in parts of China. The coffins look small as if with infants are in them, however, the way they handle this is to have a group of folk dig out a coffin from wood and place it in its resting place empty and the community makes a line of folks from the home to the burial site where they pass the corpse covered in a shroud in a foetal position to fit it into the coffin.

Just when we are done the rain arrives at 2.30 pm and we make it to the Homestay before we get drenched as it’s a Monsoon - torrential. We get a beer from the diner – a Red Horse Beer (as they didn’t have pils) – made by San Miguel but stronger – we wouldn’t recommend it. Later the rain lightens and we make for Masferré Inn which get a good LP write up but we find no customers and the service is pretty slip shod to start with. However, after a few beers the food is pretty good and more folks arrive later on.

We breakfast at the Homestay with Tocino (sort of Chinese pork char sui – really nice) with rice (as usual) and salad, the local typical breakfast and C has the American with a few slithers of shrivelled bacon and a quarter of a mango – mean or what. We must mention the mangos in the Philippines – we’ve had them virtually every day and they are really lovely. They serve them at breakfast mainly and it’s the season so we aren’t complaining.

We decide to do the small guided trip which includes 2 Burial grounds and a Cave with the help of a guide provided by the Information centre. We are allocated a guide called Rafi – a local guy 42 with a son 21 studying to be a nurse in Baguio. He seems pretty chilled and talks freely about how life works in this part of the world. He is from the Kankanay community, the local indigenous group. His family like the rest of the community survive on farming largely - rice and tomatoes. The guide business is small beer but useful. He also works at the Information Centre Desk for 3 months of the year in rotation with 3 others. He seems to know everyone and is clearly one of the Elders in waiting.

We decide to walk to the Burial grounds and caves rather than take a car which most do, – we could do with the exercise and it is a lovely day. We first come across the Sugong Hanging Coffins which we see across the valley. You can’t get close to it. It’s mid-way up a jagged cliff face. There’s even a skull of someone on one of the coffins. What’s surprising is that the whole valley is full of burial spaces but can’t be seen as the trees and forest has grown over them. So there is a whole valley of the hanging coffins that just can’t be seen.

Next it’s the Lumiang Burial Cave – which is a very, very large cave with coffins stacked high and left open in the sunlight. The sunlight is key to the location. Some coffins have geckos carved into them – for good luck in the afterlife. Locals believe that the souls of the departed are found in geckos, snakes and butterflies so will not kill them. They would normally feed them and let them pass so as not to disturb their ancestors passing into the next life. They believe in reincarnation – even though many are now Christians. The Cave is no longer used for burials for hygiene reasons. It’s a bit bizarre really walking into what is an open mass grave yard and being so voyeuristic about it. Some folk go so far as to push their digital cameras into the coffins with openings to get pictures – we humans can be weird at times. There are a few open coffins with not much inside but we didn’t quite follow up on why?

Finally we get to the Sumaging Cave. It’s essentially a very large cave which has a lot of nice stalactite and stalagmite. It’s dark so you need the guide with the lamp. The big draw is the walk through the Cave to the Lumiang Cave which takes 4 hours underground and many come out wet and feeling that they are lucky to be alive – not sure about the morbid curiosity to put oneself through this and call it fun!! Just goes to show – not much else to do in Sagada?! Having got to near the main viewing point where you have to get totally wet we call it a day and head back. Not sure this is our thing – but we have a few nice pictures to show for it and can say we have tried caving. (On reflection we are not quite sure why we did the Cave – a misunderstanding by M as he thought there were more coffins and stuff to see inside).

So it’s off to lunch at the Yoghurt House again which is fun and spend the afternoon inside as the rain arrives at 3 pm ish. Excitement or what! We dine at Salt & Pepper – not too bad - something different that was local to the area - more pork and chicken with roast potatoes (a first) on a sizzling plate.

We get up early to catch the GL Trans bus at 7 am to Baguio. We are glad we did as the bus was full as soon as it arrived and so set off earlier than its departure time at 6.50 am. The drive was initially a bit hairy as the roads were poor and narrow and at times we seemed to teeter on the edge even though the views over the valleys were fabulous; initially covered in mist, and then opening up in the sunshine to show the beautiful villages and terraces of rice and vegetables.

The drive is winding for the whole 5 hours and sets off mainly the smaller children into getting sick – though their parents have come well-armed with make shift sick bags/cans/bottles to ensure they don’t create a mess. We eventually hit La Trinidad – a very over crowded town – a mess of cars, jeepneys, trucks, people and buildings (some complete, other being constructed, many abandoned half completed) occupying every single piece of land around the hill. The bus takes 1 hour to complete the last 2 miles of its journey from here to the main bus terminal, what with traffic and stopping every 10 metres to let someone off or on – personal service gone made and we’ve been on for 6 hours now going nowhere fast. At last the terminal – a hovel of a place in the middle of what one can best describe as a hellhole of a city called Baguio – the Regional Centre of the Cordillera. What a mess. It’s like a miniaturised version of Manila and Mexico City put into one melting pot.

Thankfully we had booked ahead by text at the Le Brea Inn P1200 for the night. We aren’t sure we want to hang around, however, we are not sure we’d be up to another 6 hour bus journey from here to Manila today – so we prepare to make the most of it. The Inn is as it describes itself – Simple and Clean – which is fine for 1 night and it’s in the centre of things and not too far from the bus stop for tomorrow’s early ride to Manila.

Having had not much for breakfast due to the journey we make for the Café by the Ruins – a famous little place nearby. It’s pretty nice and would not be out of place in London or any place in the UK – its scones, blueberry muffins, good coffee & tea etc. More Islington, Camden or Notting Hill than Baguio.

Walking around the market area one is struck by the way in which the locals seem to eke out a living from selling very little produce for very little. The poverty and impoverishment is pretty plain to see. It’s really tough life for these folks among the noise, smog and mess of the city.

And then at 3.30 pm the rains arrive …….. Again!!. So it’s the afternoon indoors –we have TV here and Wi-fi so make do. Having had a rather late lunch we skip dinner as it’s pissing down with rain and we aren’t feeling inclined to go out. So we chill out, watch a movie about an alien called Paul trying to go back home – shades of ET. Enjoyable.

What we have noticed travelling through the region is how the features of the folk who live here seem to vary from one province to another. In Banaue they seem to appear more tribal and Filipino, in Sagada there are definite traces of Chinese, Mongolian and Malay, on the way to Baguio they seem more like Andean or Mexican. We also notice folk seem to be more obese in Sagada & Baguio – we assume that these are the wealthier visitors from Manila & Baguio, and reflects their lifestyle as these are more prosperous areas.

We get up at 6 am to catch the Victory Liner bus back to Manila – we get to the terminal by cab and buy our tickets only to be allowed onto an earlier bus (7.10 am rather than the 7.20 am one, we are scheduled to go in) so we set off. For a while the journey is fine, Oceans 11 then 12 videos to watch, however, after 7 hours it’s getting tedious especially as the traffic in Manila is heavy and this is a Saturday. We are also getting driven slowly mad by the music on the bus - cover versions of songs which grate at times as they kill them slowly! Eventually we get there at 2.20 pm. A quick cab to the Hostel and we are glad to be there.

All we are ready for is something to eat (we are starving) – having had no breakfast or lunch - thankfully the Hostel is still serving up its special P99 meals. So a few beers and Lechon Kawali + Tocilog is just what the doctor ordered. Then it’s down to Robinsons for some stuff for our few days R & R in Boracay and a quiet evening in as it’s raining again in Manila for the evening.



All in all it’s been a mixed week. Banaue is very beautiful with all the rice terraces and very photogenic, but beyond that there isn’t really a great deal to keep you there. While Sagada is an interesting place with some unique and interesting tribal customs M is not sure that it’s worth all that effort coming here. It’s a small town with not much to do – but if you want peace and tranquillity and a chilled out place – this might be just the place for you. Baguio on the other hand is not worth the trip unless you want to see a messier version of Manila with no highlights. The bus journey is long and tedious. So not sure we’ll be back this way again. Different parts of the Philippines perhaps but not the North.


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