For our 30 day trip to the Philippines we decided to break it into two parts, two weeks in North Luzon and two weeks down south on the Visayan Islands. This blog will take a look at our time in North Luzon, in the Cordillera.
The Cordillera is a mountainous region, made up of numerous provinces including Kalinga, Ifugao and Mountain Province. The tribes of the Cordillera, known as the Igorot, have distinct traditions that have survived both the Spanish and the American occupations.
Our time in North Luzon was also far cheaper than our two weeks down south, with most of our guesthouses up north being PHP 500/night. Down south it was more like PHP 1000/night.
From Manila we took a six hour bus to the city of Baguio, the upland gateway to the mountain towns further north. Baguio is a hill station at an elevation of 1450m; the city is surrounded by pine forests and hills and the air is noticeably cooler than on the plains. However the city itself is busy and clogged with traffic; there are also many fast food restaurants, a shopping mall and other city ‘delights’ that we were desperate to get away from.
By the time we arrived and checked into our accommodation it was quite late in the day, so we had very little time to actually see much of Baguio. We wandered down to Burnham Park in the city centre, which is pleasant enough with a boating lake and rose garden.
We then found the cheapest eatery we could, which wasn’t easy in a city of fairly upmarket restaurants, and turned in for the night, ready to resume our northward journey early the following morning. In Baguio we stayed in a local family run homestay for PHP 700/night; the room was basic but there was at least a hot shower in the shared bathroom.
From Baguio we took the 8am bus to Sagada, a journey of around six hours. Sagada is a wonderful, cool mountain retreat, surrounded by green rolling hills, forest and mountainous scenery. Each morning and evening mist descends over the mountains and town, giving it an ethereal, otherworldly feel.
We stayed at Sagada Homestay and managed to bag a discounted rate of PHP 500/night, owing to their mistake of forgetting to write down our reservation. The homestay is ideally situated a short walk up from the one main street, which allows for fantastic views over Sagada and the surrounding countryside.
There are lots of outdoor activities to do around Sagada from hiking to caving. Cave Connection is a popular excursion that sees adventurous folks scramble through an underground passage to link Sumaging and Lumiang Caves. This, however, was definitely not for us!
The Hanging Coffins of Echo Valley
Our first activity in Sagada was a three hour guided tour into Echo Valley to see the famous Hanging Coffins. It is mandatory to take a guide but in the end he was worth his weight in pesos for his valuable local knowledge and cultural insights.
Our hike began by St Mary’s Church and then led up and into Echo valley, which is green, lush and beautiful. Before we reached the Hanging Coffins we passed through a cemetery and past a burial cave. Some of the coffins are centuries old whilst others have been put there quite recently.
Traditionally, those who could afford to wanted their coffin to be put high up on the sheer rock face; that way their spirit would be closer to the sky. It was certainly rather eerie walking through the valley and its mystical element led us to ponder what a great feat it must have been to get the coffins in such a location.
Our hike took us also to Bokong Falls, a small waterfall set amidst rice fields that offers a fairly deep pool, perfect for cooling off in.
Other Activities around Sagada
Later that day Ollie and I visited the small village of Demang, an extension of Sagada that was the area’s original settlement. It is very traditional and we certainly received plenty of attention and curious waves as we explored this small suburb.
The following morning we hiked to the summit of Mount Kiltepan – 1636m high. At the top are panoramic views of rice terraces and the surrounding mountains. It is known for being a superb sunrise spot, though we weren’t too worried about getting to the top for that kind of hour!
Later in the afternoon we hiked down to Lumiang Burial Cave, though we didn’t venture in for any serious exploration. At the entrance to the large cave are over 100 coffins; the oldest is believed to be about 500 years old. To be buried in the caves around Sagada is considered a great privilege and one that Animistic elders still aspire for today.
Our final day in Sagada was pretty dreary with mist and drizzle the order of the day. We decided to do a half day walk to Lake Danum, 5km away. It is not, however, anywhere near 5km and is pretty underwhelming.
Still, it gave us a chance to stretch our legs before we retired to the relative warmth of the homestay restaurant to escape the rather English weather that had descended upon Sagada that day!
One of the highlights of Sagada for us, and indeed the whole of the Cordillera, was the huge variety of vegetables that we were able to enjoy. I was incredibly excited about broccoli and ended up having it for breakfast and dinner! In case you were wondering – a cheese and broccoli omelette does work!
Bontoc and Maligcong
From Sagada we took a shared jeepney to the bustling market town of Bontoc, about an hour’s ride away. At 900m above sea level, Bontoc feels noticeably warmer than Sagada. However, we did not stay in the town itself. From Bontoc we took another shared jeepney up to Maligcong, where we stayed, not far from the village itself, at Suzette’s Homestay.
It was very peaceful and scenic, the homestay overlooking the fabulous Maligcong Rice Terraces. Suzette was a wonderful host, offering us coffee and cake upon arrival and plenty of insightful information about the local area. Her home cooking was also a real treat and certainly the best food we’d had since arriving in the Philippines.
We spent two nights here; on our first afternoon we hiked through and explored the Maligcong Rice Terraces. Since planting season had not yet begun the terraces were brown and waterlogged; this gave them a different kind of beauty. The stone walled terraces are vast, certainly the largest we’d ever seen.
We hiked up to Maligcong village, where life still continues as it has for generations. We also stopped by the local school, where we were surprised to learn that the young students learn everything in English! English is almost universally spoken across the Philippines, its population having the highest fluency we have come across anywhere in SE Asia.
For our second day in Maligcong we planned to hike to the village of Mainit, where there are more stunning rice terraces to be seen as well as some hot springs. We’d been told that we’d be OK to do the six hour round-trip trek without a guide, something we didn’t really want to pay for unless it was absolutely necessary.
The path starts off OK, meandering up through the terraces; it then, however, weaves into dense forest. With many junctions to choose from and with the path overgrown, we were forced to turn back. We’d stopped to ask a local for directions once or twice but once the path hit the undergrowth it was impossible to know which way to go. We needed a guide.
That day the weather was also very unsettled; it was rather misty and showery. With our plans abandoned we made what we could of the remainder of the day and walked down towards Bontoc, where we stopped at a viewpoint overlooking the town to enjoy the views.
Our final destination in the Cordillera was Banaue, whose stunning rice terraces are World Heritage listed and have been dubbed the ‘eighth wonder of the world.’
We based ourselves at Randy’s Brookside Inn, which at PHP 500/night, was pretty good value. Randy himself is excellent, a local man with years of guiding experience behind him. It’s fair to say that he is a real goldmine of information about all things Banaue.
Banaue was to become our favourite Cordillera location; it was very easy to fall in love with the place. Surrounded on all sides by stunning rice terraces and rolling green hills, it is certainly a picturesque town. There are also ample activities in and around Banaue to keep a visitor busy for a good few days.
Hiking around Banaue
The day we arrived we set out to Tam-an and Poitan villages; this was meant to be a short walk leading on to two further villages. However the circular route, to these two villages and up to the main road into Banaue, took us the whole afternoon to complete.
This was firstly because the path, at least to begin with, had turned to mud. We trekked for about an hour through rice terraces, squelching our way very slowly through the thick mud, ever mindful to take our time in case more than just our boots ended up caked in the stuff.
The second reason the hike took us so long was because we missed a turn and walked for some time in totally the wrong direction. We did wonder if squeezing our way through somebody’s beans, on the edge of rice terraces, was the right way but as we hadn’t noticed any other path, thought that it must be! It wasn’t until a villager, working in the terraces, asked us where we were going and turned us around that we realised our mistake.
With absolutely no signs, hiking without a guide in the Cordillera can be very challenging and frustrating. If there is nobody around to ask for directions, it is almost an impossible task. We eventually made it to Poitan village and then up to the main road; finishing the walk certainly felt like an accomplishment!
Batad Rice Terraces
The highlight of the Cordillera for us was our day trip the following day to Batad, whose rice terraces are not only World Heritage listed but are also the most famous of all the Ifugao terraces. Ollie and I and our new friend, Ola, took a tricycle to ‘the saddle’, from where we began our hike to the amphitheatre terraces and to Batad village itself.
Upon reaching the ridge overlooking the amphitheatre, it was difficult not to gape in awe at the dramatic scene in front of and below us. To say these terraces are incredible would be an understatement. As we hiked down, more and more stunning vistas opened up to us.
Whilst most of the terraces in the Cordillera are stone walled, those at Batad are made from mud, giving them a more organic feel. Walking through them was extremely precarious; we had to be very careful at every step to avoid falling face first into one of them – as Ola managed to do! Thankfully she saw the funny side of it!
As well as exploring the rice terraces of Batad, we also hiked down to Tappia Waterfall, which at 21m, is very dramatic and pretty. The descent down to it is very steep though!
We then hiked up to a viewpoint above the rice terraces, which offered a stunning panorama over the whole spectacle. Our day at Batad was certainly very special, the rice terraces there being the best we have ever seen, without a doubt!
Banaue Viewpoints and Rice Terrace Hike
The next morning the three of us hiked up to the main viewpoint above Banaue, on the way passing five other viewpoints. We didn’t think the rice terraces of Banaue were as dramatic as those of Batad but still, they are very beautiful and the trek to the upper-most viewpoint is worthwhile. From the main viewpoint we then began hiking through the terraces to complete the other half of the walk that Ollie and I had done on our first day.
Not long after we had begun we were joined by another man, who turned out to have one of the most incredible travel stories. Three and half years ago he’d set off for a three week holiday… and had yet to make it home!
The hike, this time, was very enjoyable; we walked through the villages of Bocos and Matanglag and past a waterfall just visible from Banaue. We made it back to Banaue at around 1pm.
There are plenty of other worthwhile sights around Banaue: the rice terraces of Hapao and Hungduan, the hot springs at Hapao, the terraces at Bangaan and numerous multi-day hikes that take you far off-the-beaten-track to remote Ifugao villages.
On our final day in Banaue, before we took a night bus back to Manila, Ollie and I took things a bit slower, deciding to take a short walk to a natural pool 4km outside of town. If it were a bit warmer it certainly would have been a great place to take a dip!
With so many rice terraces in the Cordillera it would be difficult not to get ‘rice terraced out.’ Having seen those at Maligcong, Banaue and Batad, we felt we’d seen the best of what the Philippines has to offer. But if you are a rice terrace fanatic, there are plenty of others out there!