15th-18th February, 2015
Leaving Manila in behind, me and my three travelling companions – James, Chloe and Pedro – made our way to the bus station, where were loaded upon an aged vehicle. Once every space was filled, extra chairs were assembled in the aisle and more passengers were loaded on. This kind of thing is generally the norm in Asia, if you are travelling during the day, but this was night and… wasn’t this service advertised as a ‘sleeper’?
Ohayami are certainly not a company I would recommend to future travellers.
As the bus drove out of the city, engine straining from the weight of over 60 passengers, I discovered that my seat didn’t recline, and accepted the fact that sleep was going to be near impossible that night.
Banaue is a mountain town in the highlands of North Luzon. It is the gateway to the Ifugao Rice Terraces; an ancient complex of paddies spread across the Philippine Cordillera which archaeological evidence suggests are over 2,000 years old. In 1995 the area was awarded the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was one of the places which had originally inspired me to come to the Philippines.
When we arrived in the morning it was raining and we were very tired, so we resigned ourselves to a lazy first day. We settled into a nice guest house called Querencia Hotel, which had restaurant overlooking the mountains, and we relaxed, occasionally turning our eyes wistfully to the window, where the downpour seemed to carry on relentless.
It eventually cleared up for a while, and during this brief lapse we ventured outside and made our way over to a local viewpoint, where we caught sight of mist drifting across the valley, blocking much of the scenery from view but making for an atmospheric landscape.
We then wandered over to a nearby museum, which was filled with artefacts and had lots of information about the culture and history of the Ifugao tribes who call these lands home.
After a good night’s sleep – and much improved weather – the following morning we were ready to start exploring the area properly. We went for a wander along a trail which followed an old irrigation canal through some of the rice fields outside Banaue, passing Tam-an – a humbly picturesque village – and then Poitan, which had some traditional Ifuago huts.
We then returned to Querenia Hotel and packed our bags before jumping upon a jeepney heading to Batad. We had ideas in our minds of venturing out on a trek from there so we could see some of the terraces and villages which are a bit more off the beaten track. By a stroke of fortune we met a woman on the jeepney called Joy who was a registered guide. She was from Batad and spoke very good English, so we told her that we were interested in hiring her to take us out on a trek the next day if the weather was agreeable.
Batad isn’t properly joined up to any roads so we had to get off the jeepney and walk the last few kilometres. We managed to make it to the village in time to see its breathtaking terraces before the sun went down, and then we claimed a dormitory-style room in a simple lodging house. It rained all night, and when we got up the next morning the entire village was so enveloped by fog that all we could see from the balcony was white. We began to worry that we were going to have to rethink our plans to venture out on a trek that day, but luckily the haze gradually lifted and the sun came out.
We contacted Joy and told her that we could be ready to leave within a few minutes if she was still free to take us.
Shortly after that, she was leading us out of the village through the terraces. Along the way she told us lots of interesting facts about the area and its people, and she was also happy to do her best to answer any questions we had. All but 2% of the people living around Batad have converted to Christianity, but some of their old summer festivals are still in practice, and she was able to tell me that the wooden effigies of a sitting man I kept seeing everywhere were depictions of Bulul, who, back in the days when they were animists, was placed around the fields to guard the rice.
Once we had crossed the Batad terraces Joy led us over a mountain and through some woodlands. At around midday we reached a village called Cambulo, where we ate lunch, and then for the rest of the day we were hiking along a ravine with very striking scenery.
Later that afternoon we reach Pula, a small village perched upon one of the mountain peaks.
It only had one guesthouse, which was owned by an elderly lady whom everyone called “Aunty”. There was a French couple also staying there that night, and their guide and ours worked together to rustle up some vegetables and rice for dinner. While they were cooking Aunty’s grandson, Marvin, chatted with us about his life growing up in the terraces and his plans to get a job abroad for a while to improve his English. When we had finished eating we all sat around a fire and Marvin initiated a few puzzle games.
In the morning we rose bright and early. We were all keen to get going, as we were hoping to get back to Banaue by lunchtime so we could catch the midday bus heading to Sagada. We were accompanied by the French couple and their guide for the remainder of our journey as we walked for four hours through a terrain of forests until we reached the main road. Once there, we thumbed a passing dumpster-truck and jumped onto the back.
If you are interested in embarking upon a trek around the area with Joy (whom I would highly recommend as a guide) then she can be contacted via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or her telephone number (+639366580357).