There are many beaches in this country of 7100 islands, and some of them are world-renowned. Some of my best beach vacations have been in the Philippines. But mountain trekking? The two large mountain ranges, north of the main island, are pristine with rice terraces carved on the side of the mountains.
Two long mountain ranges dominate the main island of Luzon. One mountain range split the northern tip of the island and merge with a second mountain range in the central valley. These are massive mountains with a peak height of about 7400 feet.
One of the initial discussion points (mine) was whether head hunters (not the executive recruiter type) and the NPA (communist guerrillas) still existed in the mountain region. The group immediately dismissed the idea with comments like, "this is not the Middle Ages, etc.
Weather and road conditions were a second discussion point. The rainy season was starting, and road conditions could be hazardous. This lead to discussions about the route to take. Do we go through the west side of the mountain range (through Baguio City) or the east side through the central valley and Nueva Vizcaya?
Next was transportation. We needed an experienced driver who could take us through the winding mountain roads. The road trip was going to take 10-hours, so we needed someone who could drive through the night to reach our mountain destination before nightfall the following day. We did not want to risk being on mountain roads at night, where it would be pitch black.
There are pretty decent air-conditioned buses available that go to Banaue, but the trip would take longer, and we would need transportation at the bus stations.
Luckily, our friend, Lucy, knew of a transportation service she had used in the past. The total cost of the trip, including lodging and subsistence for the chauffeur, was very reasonable. More importantly, it would give us more control over our schedule.
Lodging was the next issue. There was not a lot of choices. We decided to stay at the Banaue Hotel, which is the largest hotel in Banaue. We knew it was an older facility, but we did not know anything about its current physical condition. We would have to make do and hope for the best. \
We were staying a few nights so we could visit another place called Sagada, which people have said is a "must-see."
With the transportation arranged and hotel reserved, we scheduled to leave Manila at 1:30 AM so we could arrive in Banaue no later than 5:00 PM. Everyone had their personal need's like bottled water, food, and lots of snacks.Unsure of the rest stop conditions, I had a bag full of paper products, including a thick pack of anti-bacterial wipes for any conceivable emergency. We had a lot of tablets, lots of Imodium, just in case!
We hired a guide to take us trekking. We would go to the top of one of the terraces to see the view, then trek down to a waterfall at the bottom of the mountain.The trek to the waterfall would take about two or three hours and then back. It was sweltering and humid. By the time we reached the top, the thought of another four to six hours of the heat and humidity did not appeal to most of us. (Ok, we're whiners!)
The Igorots are the aboriginal people of the Philippines. They live in the mountain region, which makes up a good part of the northern island of Luzon. There are six different provinces in the mountain region, and there are many ethnic tribes in each.
They are known as "Igorot." Their language is diverse, with dialect variations.
As a child growing up in the Philippines, the "mountains" really meant Baguio City. Baguio is a mountain top city located on the southernmost province of Benguet. We loved going to Baguio because the weather was enjoyable and refreshing. There were pine trees everywhere and strawberries!
I read that the Spaniards had a tough time colonizing the mountain region. They set up a few outposts in the Central Valley but never in the mountains themselves. As a result, the aborigines were able to preserve their culture and beliefs.
When the Philippines became a colony of America, the Army Corps of Engineers built the first mountain roads in the early 1900s. In Baguio, they constructed Camp John Hay in 1903, which became the RR facility for the US Military and the Department of Defense up to the 1990s. It's now a communication facility for the US Military.
One thing I learned from this trip is that there are rice terraces everywhere and not just in Banaue. Some of the best ones we saw were outside of Banaue.
There are more beautiful rice terraces in the interior, but you need to trek to find them. In addition to rice terraces, there are also hot springs and aboriginal caves and underground rivers in many locations.
The next day, we set out to go to Sagada and a little village called Batad. It was going to be a three hour plus drive which did not leave us much time to sight-see. We arranged to meet a guide to take us to the caves to see the hanging coffins. There was an underground river tour as well if anyone was interested.
My first impression of Sagada was that the city was newer, with better infrastructure. It had a paved main street with shops in one story-concrete structure.We met our guide at the tourist office, and we headed out to the hanging coffin caves.