I have always had an interest in quaint villages perched on high lands. Regardless of border, they all seem to share an identity of mysticism and spirituality. People who live in such communities seem to have a better understanding of the nature that surrounds them, like a secret has been passed on from past generations that they can easily trace. The simplicity of their cold bitten faces, their skin, tanned, wrinkled and hard from agricultural labor, in contrast with their enigmatic animist beliefs . What lies underneath that simplicity, there seem to be mystery. Like that universal image of a wrinkled old woman, sitting by the window overlooking the street, staring blankly ahead while smoking a tobacco as her lips move as if in chant or giving a curse.
So when I was bound for the mystical rice terraces of Ifugao, I was determined to ride on my idea of simplicity while giving respect to the spirit of nature that surrounded us. We all know what it looks like, we grew up with that image from our history books, always from that angle which is even printed in our recently replaced 1000 peso bill. So upon ascending the road to Ifugao province, every turn is a hope that the outing would be those green auditorium like rice terraces. And every time it isn’t, disappointment is instantly replaced by awe for those valleys between mountains, the steep drop it would make for a small miscalculation. Driving here, you know you do not get the slightest margin for error.
The road to Banaue
A miserable attempt at trying to piece them together
After a few small villages and many blind corners later, we arrived at Banaue, a thriving town funded by tourism from its world famous two thousand year old rice terraces. Albeit a little commercialized for mountain standards, it still gives a quaint feeling, with a few homestays, some restaurants catering for tourists from most parts of the world, and a very helpful tourist information center from which all travelers must register upon arrival. Its the sort of town where you pick up most of what you need, from food and water, to hiking shoes and transportation, before you delve deeper into the region. Staying in Banaue View Inn for a night, nobly located at the top of the town, we had an overlooking view of the happenings down below. The unofficial bus station occupying half of the street, blocking the occasional flow of traffic, while their waiting passengers have only road railings to lean on for comfort, and those last minute shoppers from the busy town square, with everyone seem to be moving about in all directions, we watched over them until everything slowed down as the sun set, giving way to the slowly glowing moon. At night, the town gives a totally different atmosphere. With hushed conversations from obscure faces overcast by dim light, tracing distant foot steps, the feral barking of a dog, it feels like something straight from a Scorsese movie.
Lording over Banaue from Banaue View Inn
An hour drive deeper into the province is Batad saddle, the end of one of the toughest roads ever. The strenuous incline to this point is still under construction, but its muddy and rocky tracks are open for vehicles who dare. While other travelers have no choice but to rent a jeep with fortified suspension, luckily, our vehicle, a Toyota Land Cruiser from the 1990’s, with its tall vertical clearance and armed to the teeth, is hungry for such a terrain. My driving partner offered to take the wheel, while my girlfriend and I dared to top load. White knuckled from our industrial grade grip on the railings, we were definitely rewarded with spectacular views that will haunt our memories for a lifetime. Upon arrival to the saddle, we gladly parked our tank and refused every offer of a guide for the single track human pathway down to the terraces.
Meet Elsie, our tank
The road going up to Batad saddle
Top loading going up to the saddle
Risking it for views like these
View of a lifetime
Single track from the saddle all the way to Batad
Unlike Banaue, Batad rice terraces is smaller in scale but offers more interaction by being able to hike around its amphitheater like terraces that is individually riprapped with rocks and cement. You can circumnavigate as you watch the locals tilling parches of land. We were advised to hire a guide to take us around the area. He was a short, thin and single middle aged man who lived in one of the few houses that stand on the terraces itself. Needless to say, he outpaced us in our desk job trained mid 20s bodies. Much to our desire to do this on our own, the guide proved to be very essential. With every information he disposed, we gained a better appreciation of the land. He told us that the communal process of planting starts by everyone working on the chief’s land, afterwards, they proceed to the second biggest owner of land and so on until everyone’s land is tilled and planted. It is then time for an end of plantation festival which includes a flooding of rice wine and ill fated live stock. Against common belief, whatever rice that is harvested here almost never gets out, its made for local consumption, and some that do are for souvenir material only. For entertainment, he explained to us that his reason for being a bachelor at his 50s is because in a small community such as this, the slightest imbalance of men to women ratio is a real problem.
Hiking Batad rice terraces
Interaction with the village
Smiles of achievement
After a short swim on the extremely cold water around the mighty waterfalls, we headed back to our home stay. To say that our room in Batad Homestay is simple is definitely an overstatement. There is nothing in that spartan room that you do not need. There’s the luxury of a ceiling lamp, two beds, 4 pillows and a cozy Ifugao made blanket. There are no 20th century power outlets. You stay in Batad for a couple of nights, and it is impossible not to find yourself regardless if you are lost or not.
Ice cold gush of water
That humbling feeling
Spartan room from Batad Homestay
Do you really need anything more than this?
Waking up to a morning covered with fog offering zero visibility, we opted to let it clear out by having breakfast on the restaurant balcony that should be over looking the terraces on a clear day. After all, our jelly legs were not in a hurry knowing that the 30 minute strut going down here converts to a 90 minute tongue-sticking-out trudge going up. After filling up our tanks with our hefty breakfast, we packed our bags and bid farewell to our reserved but generous host, and to those foreigners who we shared this home with. As hard as we tried to speak French, German and Spanish, a wave of hand was all we could muster. Laughing in our doomed attempt, it was the last thing we had to smile about as we made our ascend, barely making it to the top.