There are some cities in the world which can only be described as great cities. Cities where you can walk around all day and never cease finding good street food, restaurants, parks and shops. The people are nice and the streets are clean.
Baguio is such a city.
I probably spent too long in Manila. Once you’ve seen the Intramuros, there isn’t a whole lot there to see. The Mall of Asia was interesting, but I think my stay was probably about 2-3 days too long. Most of that is accounted for my by confusion over the Filipino transportation system. (More on that later)
It is a shame that the entry point into the Philippines is Manila, because Manila is the least desirable place I visited in the Philippines. Once you leave the city, things and people become much nicer.
Through asking on the internet and people in the hotel, I eventually figured out exactly what I needed to do to get to Baguio. I would go to Baguio and use that to get to Vigan and Banaue rather than going directly from Manila to Banaue. It takes more time, but it was worth it.
Baguio is up in the hills. It is sort of considered the summer retreat of wealthy Filipinos because the temperature is usually about 10F cooler there than it is in the rest of the country. In fact, the Filipino equivalent of the summer White House is located in Baguio.
Unlike most of the cities in the Philippines, Baguio is a city founded during the American occupation, not the Spanish, so it lacks many of the Latin features you see on other places. The city is also much cleaner than any other city I’ve seen in the Philippines. For starters, there is green space. There is a large park in the middle of the city with a lake. It almost reminds me of Central Park in New York. (In fact, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if that was the model for the park). You can rent a boat in the lake, you can rent bikes in the park, and there are tons of food vendors around the park and in the downtown area.
Baguio is also a college town. It is the only place in the Philippines where I saw students studying at restaurants between classes.
Getting from Baguio to Banaue was much harder that you’d think just looking at the map. As the crow flies, it is about 50 miles. The bus trip, however, is eight hours. This is partly a function of having to drive around the mountains and part a function of the roads being less than stellar. (I did not travel in a single bus that had a working speedometer. I’d guess that we were moving at about 40-50mph most of the time).
I wasn’t really certain where to get off. Baguio is a big city of about 250,000. Banaue is about 1/10 the size and it is all stretched out along a road for miles. There doesn’t seem to be a city center of any sort. The bus eventually stopped in front of the Banaue Hotel and Youth Hostel and everyone on the bus pretty much mentioned to me that this is where I was supposed to get off. The hotel itself seemed way over staffed. Maybe it was just the wrong season for tourists or it could be the fact that it was a government run hotel opened during the Marcos era. I dunno.
When you first see the rice terraces in Banaue, it is pretty stunning. I saw some modest terracing going into Baguio, but nothing remotely approaching this. The people of Ifugao (the province where Banaue is located) have been terracing the sides of the mountains here for over one thousand years. The tourist brochures you see for the province go out of the way to point out that the rice terraces, unlike the pyramids or other great structures, were made by the people who lived there for their own benefit, not by slave labor. Moreover, unlike the other great wonders of the world, the rice terraces are still in use according to their original function.
The rice terraces are also not just located in Banaue proper but are spread out for miles. To view some of the more remote terraces can take an entire day of driving and hiking. Due to time constraints and weather, I decided to stick close to Banaue. Knowing that I had to spend a day on the bus going back, a day going to Vigan and a day to get back to Manila, I figured more days driving around in a jeepney wasn’t worth seeing an extra terrace.
The day after I arrived, I walked down to the village which was directly below the hotel. A girl met me on the steps and followed me around, offering to be my guide through the village. I figured “why not” and she showed me what there was to see. There was one old man who wanted me to pay 200 pesos to see the skeleton of his grandfather he had kept in a burlap sack in the closet. I passed. Seeing a dead body really wasn’t something I had in mind when I set out that morning to take photos of rice terraces.
The hotel described the village as an authentic Ifugao village, however, the only thing that seemed authentic about it was that a few huts were up on stilts. Everything else about it seemed just like every other Filipino village I’ve seen, except for the fact that it was off the road near the bottom of a valley.
The girl eventually took me down to the bottom of the terrace into one of the actual rice paddies. To see it close up gives you an idea for just how difficult and time-consuming it must have been for people without any modern tools to sculpt the sides of mountains. I don’t know how long it would take to make a single level of a terrace but it would least have to be a year of clearing brush, moving stone and earth and creating the barriers to hold in the water. I’m also not sure how they manage to keep the walls of the terrace from breaking if they get too much rain. It would seem that a really bad rainstorm could potentially destroy everything. Some terraces probably had as many as fifty levels and they would extend in either direction for sometimes over a mile.
The next day I rented a jeepney to go to some of the better lookout spots around Banaue to take photos.
I was impressed with what I saw around the hotel but was blown away when I got to some of the better locations. It was raining during most of my stay, so while the photos may not have been the best, I got to see some of the streams and waterfalls going at full blast.
During the bus ride into Banaue, large stretches of the road for almost the entire trip was take up by people drying rice. They would spread the rice out over large plastic sheets, or sometimes just on the bare pavement, and constantly turn over the rice with a flat shovel to dry it out. It seemed like every square inch of flat, paved surface in most villages was taken over by rice. Basketball courts, schoolyards, and walking paths were all covered with rice. I was told that most of the Philippines have three rice harvests per year, but in Banaue, they only have one. Usually in March. I assume this is due to the climate up in the hills vs lowland regions.
UNESCO has the rice terraces listed as an endangered World Heritage Area. The terraces themselves are not in danger, however, the construction of shanties around Banaue is starting to take away from the beauty of the area.
The rice terraces of Banaue are what I’d call one of the Secret Wonders of the World. Like Nan Modal I visited earlier, they are impressive human accomplishments created by pre-modern people, that almost no one has ever heard of. You can’t just go Banaue. It takes some effort. There are no airports anywhere nearby and the only way there is overland.
If you bother to make the trip it is well worth 20 hours of bus time.