Philippines · Travel

Into the Mountains of Luzon

When we heard that Molly’s sister Rose would be back in the Philippines in June- we added it to our list of destinations. It worked out perfectly that we would be able to be in the country at the same time!

When we went to book plane tickets from Sydney to Manila, the best price we found was actually a few days before Rose and company would arrive. This left us a total of 5 days to fill while we waited to meet up, but with the restriction of needing to be back in Manila at the end. We opted for the mountains. The city of Manila is located on the island of Luzon, but north of the city on the same island is a vast landscape of stunning mountains. Filled with cities, villages, rice terraces, and endless shades of green. The time we spent there was an adventure all the way through.

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Our first destination was Banaue (Buh-now-aye), a central hub for exploring the rice terraces in the area. It was a 10 hour overnight bus ride from Manila. The bus itself wasn’t too bad, the seats were slightly bigger than airplane seats which allowed more potential for sleep… but apparently there is no wasting space on this bus. After we found our seats a gentleman flipped down a small plastic chair into the isle and settled himself right into it. This was also the case for every other row, meaning there was no longer an isle down the middle. Even so, we did our best to get some sleep. It was going alright until there was a loud thump and exclamation from our bus driver. We then spent roughly an hour on the side of the road with no explanation. The two bus drivers were getting out and back into the bus repeatedly but no one else seemed to be concerned so we just sat tight until the bus started moving again… with no further mention of the incident at all. When we arrived in Banaue we found out that the windshield had cracked. Something had struck right in front of the drivers face, no wonder he yelled. They had apparently patched the issue with glue and tape, at least well enough to finish the drive.

As soon as we got to Banaue, we were excited to do some wandering in the terraces. We found a hostel to stay at which allowed us to put down our bags, talked a bit to the hostel manager about the best way to get to the terraces- and set off. They are located just beside the town and up some stairs. Okay, not just some stairs… a lot of stairs. Our friend Joe (the hostel manager) had told us to “Just keep going up” which was an accurate instruction. We spent a fair bit of time going from small stone staircase to the next small stone staircase. Occasionally the top of the stairs would pop up us out into someone’s yard, and we would have to walk around a hut or two before we found the next set of stairs. When we got to the terraces themselves, we were even more amazed than we had been when we saw them from the town proper. They are vast and impressive, winding their way around the curve of each mountain, going all the way to the peaks at the top. Not only are there an impressive amount of them, but they were made by hand!! At one point our path ended at a terrace that was being repaired. The elderly man was diligently working away and didn’t hear us approach. We watched him work for a moment before asking if it was alright for us to take a picture. He obliged cheerfully, posing until we told him we had finished. He had a systematic method for pulling the mud from the bottom of the pools, and stacking it neatly onto the older but lower mud borders.

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We walked along the outside of the terraces, up some more sets of stairs, passed a hut being newly built and smiled and waved to the locals we passed along the way. We made friends with a couple boys who were happy to take Alec’s “crisp high fives”.  We got so far up that the walls of the terraces changed from mud to cement, and went even higher still. On our way winding back to Banaue we stopped for a second to take it all in. Okay, there was also a good breeze. We were amazed at the beauty and ingenuity of the whole thing.

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The next day we went on a guide led expedition to the township of Batad, and to the waterfall hiding below. The rice terraces in Batad are a UNESCO World Heritage sight. They are different from the ones in Banaue because they are all made with stone walls instead of mud. They are also in amphitheater set up which makes for an incredible feeling as you walk along them. To get into Batad from Banaue we had to take a 45 minute jeepney ride, and then hike 30 minutes on a little dirt path, as there isn’t a road that goes all the way there. The sights of the terraces were so distracting that it took intentional effort to carefully watch our steps as we wove our way around the amphitheater. We made it to the top lookout point, took a break and then headed down the insanely numbered and incredibly steep staircases. The hike to the waterfall was steep and slippery so we took it slow. By the time we got to the waterfall itself we were soaking wet and sweaty… so needles to say we beelined for the water. The falls were so big that they created some pretty intense waves in the little lake.

The hike back out of the village was a lot more up those stairs than the hike in had been… our group had to take a few water and breather breaks (did I mention it was quite hot & humid?). On our final stretch back to the jeepney we started to pass villagers on their way home. It was market day and a number of them had gone into Banaue to buy supplies… which they were bringing back to their homes on foot. Children carrying garbage sized bags of lunch supplies, older women holding boxes on their heads, men with sacks of rice or cement mix on their back… all passing us by with solid footing and not a hint of needing a break. It was quite a crazy contrast, and thoroughly impressive to us.

We also went up to Bontoc for a night. Our original goal was to get to Sagada but the way transport between cities works in the area is that the bus’ leave when they have enough people. This makes for a lot of waiting around, and makes it nearly impossible to keep to a schedule. So when we arrived in Bontoc we decided to make best of our time there. We explored the city, its markets and little shops… tried Halo Halo and found a cute little cafe to eat at. We fell asleep to the sound of karaoke (three different venues) floating through the streets. The next morning we got to visit the Bontoc Museum, which was incredibly unique. It had a lot of historical artifacts from the mountain tribes that live in the areas, including a few human sculls from one headhunting tribe! We were stoked to learn more about the tribes, as we didn’t have quite enough time to head into the Kalinga area like we had hoped.

A really massive factor in how much fun we had in Banaue and the surrounding area was the hostel we stayed at. Joe, (previously mentioned) became a great friend in a short period of time and we loved chatting with him about life, travel and the town. Overall, our stay at Pink Banaue was one of the best hostel experiences we’ve had yet. We met so many cool groups of people, and had a really good time hanging out and getting to know them.

Another significant aspect of our first Philippine adventure was the culture. Having come from time in the US, New Zealand and Australia, we have been experiencing cultural differences, but on a fairly minor scale. Jumping right into life in a more rural area of the Philippines brought a wide array of new experiences, and with them our intricate curiosity. We found ourselves fascinated with all the contrasting aspects…  from the seemingly small things in everyday life to profound differences in perspective. It cultivated a craving for a better understanding. We wanted to learn how to say things right, how to get around, what to expect. Luckily we were meeting up with just the right people to help us out 🙂

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Our time in the mountains was an incredible introduction to a beautiful country.

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