Our first taste of the Philippines was a journey up to The Cordillera region of North Luzon, home to to the Unesco World Heritage listed Ifugao rice terraces. We also had our first experience of Filipino night buses, which I have to say, after over 14 months of travelling, are officially the coldest buses I have ever been on. They even ask you if you have your coat with you when you get on, and everyone sits there freezing wearing all the clothes they own, whilst frantically stuffing the curtains into the air-con vents to try and block the flow of icy air!
Anyway. We decided to split our time in the Cordillera between a few small towns, to really get a feel for the place, and see the famed rice terraces from a few different perspectives.
We started with Banaue, which is where all the buses go from Manilla and is really the jumping-off point to surrounding towns. We spent a couple of nights there and trekked up to the town’s viewpoint which offered great views of the rice terraces, though we were blighted by cloud and rain by the time we’d reached the top! So we waited around and took some photos with some local hilltribe people (look at those outfits!) until we could see the terraces in sunshine.
The town was pretty tiny and cute, with a school full of screaming children and just a few restaurants and a market. We liked the feel of the place, and despite there being many backpackers there, locals seemed happy to see us and we got lots of ‘hellos’ as we hiked up to the lookout, from cute little kids playing on the hill alongside puppies and cockerels, and little micro-businesses of wood carvers, crafters and farms. We also found a great bakery selling incredible banana cake, which was another huge thumbs up!
For our second town, we took a bumpy tricycle (motorbike with sidecar… a bizarre contraption common in the Philippines!) to the next town over, Batad. We shared the ride with a guy from our hostel, Peter, and we hiked together to town after the trike dropped us off, where we bumped into Will and Natalie – a really fun Northern couple we’d met in Banaue – so we decided to all stay in the same hostel, Rita’s, a humble family-run lodge on the edge of the rice terraces with a killer view.
The terraces in Batad are known for their breathtaking views, and this was definitely the most postcard-perfect lookout in The Cordillera. It’s basically an amphitheatre of rice terraces, peppered with little houses and a village in the centre. When the sun came out, the bright green terraces were blinding against the sky, the clouds reflecting in the terrace’s watery surface, and it was really quite stunning.
After drinking in the view for a little bit, we decided to hike together to the nearby Tappiya waterfalls. The walk was pretty fun as we had to work as a team to make sure we didn’t fall off the narrow rocky edge of the terraces into the water-logged rice plots. It involved a lot of balancing and keeping each other updated about which rocks were sturdy and which were wobbly! Some of the walk had ‘steps’ of rocks jutting out the edge of the terraces to move you down, which were less than secure!
It took us about an hour to cross the amphitheatre (including time for back-tracking when we went wrong) and after a heart-pounding climb up the steps and out of the terraces, we took a trail down to the waterfall itself, which was super pretty and FREEZING cold! We took a quick swim to refresh, but couldn’t manage more than about 5 minutes before the cold got the better of us.
On the trek back, we passed a sweet lady selling homemade rice wine out of her house so we bought a bottle and spent the evening drinking the bizarre, fizzy concoction on our terrace. It was a bit chocolatey, very boozy, and definitely divided the group. I think I was the least keen, as I couldn’t get over the bits of floating rice which I found a bit gross! It was a fun night of exchanging travel tales (Will and Natalie being near the end of their trip, and so expert travel advisors!) and it was really relaxing being in such a basic place – no wifi, no electricity, no hot water – just good old-fashioned conversation… and rice wine. We watched the sun set over the terraces and sat up talking by candle light until we were told to go to sleep because we were keeping the kids up!
For our last town, we were torn between hippy tourist haven of Sagada (which had been strongly recommended in the Lonely Planet) or the ‘Wild West frontier town’ (LP’s words, not mine!) of Bontoc. In the end, we opted for the more ‘real’ town of Bontoc as we tend to prefer places away from the hoards, and it really paid off. Bontoc’s a pretty buzzing place, surrounded by mountains and more rice terraces, and everyone there was super friendly.
We visited a really great hilltribe museum that included local hilltribe clothes, an outdoor replicate of a hilltribe village, and even some gnarly pictures of headhunters and their loot. We ate at local restaurants for next-to-nothing, and stayed in a domestic tourist-type hotel, which meant trying our first freezing cold bucket shower! It was actually pretty refreshing in the heat, and it felt kind of novel. Little did we know this would be the kind of shower that we’d face for much of the Philippines. Oh, and a bucket flush toilet too. Fancy!
On our last day we had a load of stuff to do (booking ferry tickets, finding wifi, getting shoes fixed) which proved pretty easy, and lots of helpful people made it even easier, showing us where to get things printed etc. Filipino people were already cementing their position as some of our favourite people: so positive, upbeat and friendly. I also found an INCREDIBLE second-hand-clothes shop, and with my birthday coming up, treated myself to a new dress, floral shirt and some 80s long denim shorts, which filled me with far too much excitement. NEW CLOTHES AFTER NEARLY A YEAR!