Travelblog SA#23: Machu Picchu & Ollantaytambo – Peru

23rd-24th October 2018,

3 am. That is how early you have to get up to guarantee to be on the first bus to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. I felt like a zombie as I put on my shoes and met the others in the lobby. We began the walk to the bus stop. It was a dark and miserable morning. It was raining, and it was a thick, heavy kind which drenching everything. We waited there for almost three hours in all, and it showed no sign of letting up.

About an hour in, hoards of people began to swarm past us, all on their way towards the trailhead for the steep climb up to the ruins. The previous evening, I had toyed with the idea of heading up by foot myself – as the bus is quite expensive – but at the last minute changed my mind. I figured that I am only going to see Machu Picchu once and I didn’t want to be worn out before I even reached it. And it seemed, considering the weather, I had made the right decision.

I was beginning to worry though. This was my only shot at seeing Machu Picchu. Coming here is a very expensive venture and I already had my train ticket out booked for later that day. It wasn’t just pouring with rain, it was foggy too, and you couldn’t see anything further than a few dozen feet.

By the time the bus came, the queue was huge, but we were – thanks to our early rise – the first on. The rain calmed down a little, but the thick fog prevailed.

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Simba – who’d been our guide for the last four days around the Salkantay trek – began to escort us around the ruins. It was still very foggy, so we didn’t get a decent view, but I guess it had a certain eerie quality.

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Machu Picchu is bigger than photos make it seem. It took us around two hours to walk around it. Simba told us some of its history. How it was abandoned by the Inca’s during the Spanish Conquest, and it is possibly thanks to that course of action it can still be admired today. Most of the other monuments of this empire were raided for their treasures and the stones were used to build the churches and mansions of colonial power. But this one, possibly the most treasured and sacred of all, remained hidden within the towering peaks of the Sacred Valley, where the Spaniards never felt the need to tread. It was rediscovered and brought to international attention in 1911.

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Although Machu Picchu is surrounded by terraces, it is believed that it was not enough land to produce food for all its people so they would have relied upon supplies brought up from other settlements in the valley. A large number of the skeletons found here belong to young women and many of the buildings seemed to have served a ceremonial function. All of these factors indicate that Machu Picchu was a sacred place, reserved for people who served a religious function.

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Simba explained to us some of the areas to give us to give us a better idea of how the people here lived. We were taken to the quarry, where the stonemasons who built this place worked. The Temple of the Sun, whose windows are aligned to where the sun rises and sets during the solstices and equinoxes of the year. There was also a stone platform where offerings were placed to Inti, the Incan god of the sun. The urban sector, whose water-channel system still functions today, is large and home to the Royal Palace, where it is believed the Emperor and his family resided.

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One of my favourite areas was the Sacred Plaza, which is home to not just the main temple, but the smaller – and yet visually more iconic – Three Windowed Temple. The windows represent the three realms of the Incan cosmos; Uku-Pacha (the underworld) Hanan-Pacha (the upper-world, where the gods dwelled), and Kay-Pacha (the present day world humans existed within).

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One piece of advice I would give to people visiting Machu Picchu is to book to climb up Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain, even if you don’t actually plan to climb them. They have recently implemented new rules which allow visitors to only enter the premises once and created a strict one-way system around the complex. Guards are placed in strategic positions, and they do not let you turn back once you have moved on to a new section. Being such a vast site, it would be very easy to accidentally miss parts of it.

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Weather is also another reason I advise this. The first time I walked through it was foggy, but on the second time, the air began to clear.

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Having a fear of heights made Huayna Picchu not an option for me. Even the path up Machu Picchu Mountain has some cringe-worthy sections which will trigger vertigo but it is doable if you grit your teeth during certain parts. The mist helped, I guess, as I most of the time I couldn’t actually see the drop below me, but this also worried me too. This was a steep and difficult climb, but was it actually going to be worth it in the end? I passed some people who were on their way down, and they said saw nothing at the summit and got bored of waiting for the weather to clear.

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I saw a coati whilst on my way up. It ran across the path in front of me and back into the forest. It was way too fast for me to get a photo of it but, for illustration purposes, here is what one looks like.

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By the time I reached the top the mist was beginning to clear. I drank some water, ate some chocolate and then walked over to the mirador where around a dozen people were all waiting – cameras primed – for a break in the clouds.

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It happened eventually, and I have a video of it here.

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The mist continued to clear whilst on my way down and I even saw some sunshine. When I reached the bottom and was back within the ruins, I finally got the view I had been waiting for.

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Despite my initial concerns, I actually consider myself to be very lucky with the day I saw Machu Picchu. I got to see it in two different lights. All shrouded in mist and atmospheric, and then, later on, in all of its majesty. And the views of all the mountains around it were incredible.

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I made my way back down to Aguas Calientes by foot down along an old Inca trail. By the time I got back, it wasn’t long until I needed to catch my train to Ollantaytambo. From there the rest of the people on my tour were headed on a bus back to Cusco, but I had arranged to be left Ollantaytambo.

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Ollantaytambo was a charming little village set within the heart in the sacred valley. It had old, cobbled, narrow streets and still retains much of its original Incan groundwork.

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I had a bit of a strange experience with the hostel I was staying at though. It came up as a last-minute deal on Booking.com at only 10 soles (about $3) a night for a twin room including breakfast. That is very cheap, even for Peru. Almost unrealistically so. It was a new place and she didn’t have any reviews yet, so I figured that maybe she was just running off a very small profit for a while to build her customer base. I booked it with the mentality that, if she gave good service, I would tip her generously and make sure I leave reviews for her not only on my blog but also Booking.com and Tripadvisor.

When I arrived, her demeanour toward me was a bit strange and cagey. She acted like she was only vaguely aware of my booking and when the matter of the price came up she claimed that it was a mistake and that she didn’t know how it had happened. Her tone was a bit accusative, and I felt like she was trying to make me feel guilty. I offered to pay her double (at 20 soles a night), and she agreed, saying she would still give me the free breakfast.

The thing is, another man (who had booked the same deal) arrived a couple of hours later, and she did the same routine with him too. Acting like she was surprised. She wasn’t a very good actress, and it all started to feel a bit fishy.

To be fair, her rooms were clean and nicely decorated, but that was the only nice thing I can say about the place. When I went to use the shower there was underwear hanging in it and a pile of bathmats on the floor. She kept turning the WiFi off for some reason, and whenever I asked her about it she acted like she didn’t know.

In the morning when I came downstairs for breakfast she pushed an overpriced menu in front of me and asked if I would ‘like to order something’. I asked her about the included breakfast she had promised me, and she pulled a face like I had just slapped her and said, “There isn’t any breakfast, but, out of courtesy, I will give you some papaya.”

That was the point when I decided to leave. I told her I didn’t want any papaya, went to my room, packed my bags, gave her twenty soles (which she eagerly snatched from my hand, in a manner which was almost cartooneqsue) and moved to a place a few doors up the road. They were actually more expensive than her, but they were nicer-mannered, honest, and I didn’t mind paying a few extra soles to not have to put up with her weird passive-aggressive behaviour.

I will name the place on here – it is called ‘Hospedaje Inka’s’ – but I have decided to not write anything on Tripadvisor or Booking.com because I don’t want to sabotage her business. I do genuinely hope she eventually figures out how hospitality works. She is new, so she should be undercutting the other hostels in the area ever-so-slightly and treating her guests well to build a reputation, not luring people in with crazy-cheap prices and then using weird passive-aggressive behaviour to try to extract extra money. I checked her place out on Booking.com a week later, out of curiosity, and noticed she still had not fixed the ‘mistake’, so I can only assume that this is an ongoing tactic she is using.

It is a shame, but I guess what goes around comes around. Like I said earlier, if she had behaved better I would have given her glowing reviews on several platforms, a tip (of my own volition, not because she had guilt-tripped me), and stayed there longer but, because of her behaviour, she got nothing but twenty soles and an early departure.

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Now that I had escaped from the strange lady, I spend the rest of the day exploring Ollantaytambo, which is home to some rather beautiful Inca ruins.

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They are not quite as spectacular as Machu Picchu but they had their own charm and, most blessedly, were much less crowded. It has a Temple of the Sun (which Inca temple doesn’t?), but the primary theme of Ollantaytambo seemed to be water. Its complex irrigation system still works, fuelling numerous fountains and channelling all the way to the ruin’s centrepiece, the Temple of Water.

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Ollantaytambo is actually a place I would advise people to not get a spoken tour for (or at least if you do, maybe consider walking around again afterwards alone) as the complex is quite spread out and I think the guides there are a little lazy because they were not taking people to the farther reaches of the complex, such as Inkawatana.

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I enjoyed having these areas to myself though. As I was walking back I saw Pinkullyuna, another set of Inca ruins on the other side of the valley, and decided to head there after lunch.

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Pinkullyuna can be accessed by a steep pathway in one of the back alleys of Ollantaytambo. Historians actually believe them to be a series of storehouses, and they are definitely worth seeing because during the walk you get to glimpse Ollantaytambo from even more angles.

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The next morning I caught a bus back to Cusco, which will be my base for the next few days as I explore more of the Sacred Valley.

 

For more photos from Machu Picchu, click here. And for photos of Ollantaytambo, click here.

 

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Travelblog#47: Danum Valley – Borneo

25th February-3rd March, 2015

I returned to Borneo: a place I visited during my last adventure around Asia three years ago.

And why? Well, firstly; I discovered that when one flies from the Philippines to Nepal, it actually works out cheaper to go via Kota Kinabalu.

There were a few places I wanted to see last time but sadly missed, due to not having enough time.

But the main reason, really, is that I fricking love Borneo, and the five weeks I spent there back in 2012 were some of the most memorable and exciting from that entire trip.

So, on the morning of 25th of February, James, Chloe and I boarded a plane from Manila. Pedro, who had been our travelling companion for the last four weeks, was flying back home to Taiwan, so it was now just three of us. James and Chloe (the lucky bastards) were going to be spending six weeks in Borneo, in all, but I was just going to be accompanying them for the first few days.

The plane touched down upon Kota Kinabalu in the morning and, after booking tickets for a sleeper bus heading south that evening, we went for a little wander around town. I spent most of that day experiencing flashbacks and feeling fondly nostalgic: walking past a bar and remembering it was where me and a friend drank beer a couple of times, popping into a restaurant to examine the menu and realising that I had eaten there before. Remembering some of the things that I love about Borneo. Such as the crazy equatorial weather: the constant flux between dark clouds and blazing sunlight with blue skies; that damp scent of a storm about to happen, frequently in the air; the occasional rumble of thunder in the distance.

In the evening we boarded the sleeper bus. It was fairly comfortable but unfortunately we had to get off at 3am because it rolled into Lahad Datu early. Luckily there was a 24-hour café open so we took refuge there, eating mie goreng and roti canai while we waited for the Danum Valley Field Centre office to open.

 

Danum Valley

Day 1

By lunchtime everything was organised and we were upon a 4WD for a bumpy two-hour journey to the Danum Valley Field Centre. We were all very tired by then, so our heads were slumping and our eyes kept rolling back. At one point I was sputtered back into a state of consciousness by James yelling my name. I opened my eyes and, as my vision switched from blurry to focussed, I saw that he was pointing to something outside the window and scrambled for my camera.

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A group of bornean pygmy elephants; our first sighting.

A while later we rocked up at the dormitory, where we claimed our beds, and then James and I rustled up a vegetable curry in the communal kitchen. As we were cooking, a middle-aged German guy turned up with his parents and, as soon as I saw his face, I knew that I recognised him from somewhere.

“Errm, this might sound a bit weird…” I said. “But… did I meet you three years ago, when I was last in Borneo?”

“That depends,” he said. “Did you do any diving in Semporna?”

It turned out that he owned the outfit which I had done a few days of scuba diving with – the very same outfit which James and Chloe had booked to do their PADI Open Water courses with next week.

It was one of those ‘Small World’ moments.

We chatted for a while, as he cooked dinner for his parents. And after he left a group of Malaysian students came into communal area to make their dinners’ too.

Danum Valley Field Centre is primarily a research station for scientists – tourists are accepted, if there is room, but they are a minority – so it is not like a hotel or resort: the lodgings are very basic, and specifically designed so that people can do things independently. The Malay students were all from a university in Kota Kinabalu, studying subjects which ranged from the bio-diversity of ferns to renewable energy. They were all quite friendly and talkative, when they weren’t busy tapping away upon their computers.

 

Day 2

At the crack of dawn James and I went to the river, hoping to spot a few birds but we weren’t having much luck. I heard a rustling nearby and saw movement in the trees – and I could tell it was some kind of ape by the size of the disturbance it caused – so I went over to investigate.

I was expecting it to be an orang-utan, but what I found was even better; a small group of bornean gibbons.

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I think we were very lucky to see them so close; gibbons are creatures which you hear all the time when you’re in the jungle, because they make such a distinctive sound, but they are usually so high up in the canopy and moving so fast that they can be hard to see properly. During my four days in Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, I saw only one gibbon, and that was just a fleeting glance as it swung between the trees.

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We went back to the dorm for a while to eat breakfast and, while Chloe was brewing the porridge, this bizarre little creature crawled across the veranda. Apparently it was some kind of mantis.

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We then set off again, deciding to walk along the ‘Coffin Trail’, which turned out to be a great place for spotting birds. We kept seeing this really beautiful black bird which had a distinctive feather sticking out from its tail, but none of us managed to get a good picture of it as it was moving around too fast. I did manage to get a fairly decent shot of this small spider hunter though:

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About halfway along the trail I suddenly heard a branch snap. What was that? I wondered, expecting some kind of primate. A large tree was obstructing whatever it was from view, so I primed my camera ready and sneaked up behind the trunk to get a peak.

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And that – to my utter shock – was the photo I took. I should also mention that it was taken with absolutely no zoom.

I immediately backed away.

“What was that?” James asked, noticing that something was up.

“It’s a f**king elephant!” I exclaimed. “Stay back.”

The creature immediately made a distressed trumpetting sound, followed by a growl. I never knew that an elephant could growl, until that moment, but it sounded like the kind of noise a predator would make.

I carried on pulling back, eventually veering to the side a bit to see if it was still there.

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I then discovered that there were actually four of them, and that one was a calf – which was why the the older ones were being so protective. They carried on growling, and Chloe was – quite understandably – scared. I was a bit scared too, but I couldn’t resist taking a few photos as I gradually backed away.

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Eventually the elephants stomped off into the trees, their trunks blaring out loud noises along the way. The path was clear, and we could carry on walking.

We reached the coffins shortly after that: they were placed there over 400 years ago by the Orang Sungai (literal translation: ‘River People’) tribes who used to inhabit the banks of the Segama.

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We did encounter the elephants again on our way back, but the second incident was far less dramatic: the creatures were busily eating leaves on a little ridge above us and, once they heard us coming, they calmly walked away.

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In the afternoon we came across a group of red leaf monkeys, which we observed for a while. They, and the gibbons I saw that morning, were the only primates which I didn’t manage to see last time I was in Borneo so, from that moment on, I could proudly say that I had glimpsed every species of monkey and ape on the island.

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At the end of the afternoon we visited Danum Valley Field Centre’s Tree Platform. Due to my fear of heights, I never made it up to the upper level – I barely made it to the first! – but it was still an enjoyable view. We stayed there until dusk.

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Day 3

We wanted to do at least one long trek while we were in Danum Valley, so on the third day we decided to hike along the ‘Rhino Pool’ trail.

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We weren’t quite as fortunate with the wildlife that day, but we were so grateful for how blessed we were on the previous one that we didn’t mind. The trail was a very nice one, passing through stunning primary rainforest, and there were lots of sounds, making it audibly one of the finest jungle treks I have ever been on.

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We reached the spot for which the trail gets its namesake (a rhino was spotted there by someone in 1995) after two hours, and then we took a different trail to loop back to the headquarters, arriving just in time to eat our lunch by a small beach on the bank of the Segama river.

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In the afternoon we took it easy and strolled around a series of small paths near the headquarters. We spotted black squirrels, pygmy squirrels, a few birds, another group of red leaf monkeys, and came across a decomposing tree which was covered in mushrooms and looked like something out of a weird fairytale.

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Just before sunset we sat upon a platform overlooking the river and were lucky enough to witness a pair of hornbills land upon the tree opposite us and swoop between the branches for a while just before they flew back to their nest.

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That night we were taken out on a guided night walk, where we saw a fleeting glimpse of a sambar deer, lots of spiders, and this lizard:

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Day 4

The three of us decided to venture off our own separate ways for our last day in Danum Valley, so we could spend it pleasing ourselves. I began it by getting up at 5am and walking over to the Observation Tower just before sunrise, so I could hear the dawn chorus, which was a very magical experience.

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I wandered aimlessly for rest of the day and saw a few creatures along the way, including a group of red leaf monkeys, more squirrels, and lots birds. Towards the end of the afternoon I came across a group of long tail macaques, and I sat down to watch them for a while as they bonded with each other.

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For more photos from Danum Valley, click here.

Travelblog#44: Ifugao Rice Terraces – the Philippines

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Later that afternoon we reach Pula, a small village perched upon one of the mountain peaks.

 

Pula

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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.

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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.

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For more photos from the Ifugao Rice Terraces, click here. My travel-buddy James also has his own photography website.

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 (jpoligon@yahoo.com) or her telephone number (+639366580357).