Unesco Rice Terrace Trekking in the Luzon Province

“To live in the world without becoming aware of the meaning of the world is like wandering about in a great library without touching the books.” – The Secret Teachings of All Ages

Shit!, I thought as I pulled out my asthma inhaler for the fourth time on my trip. I mean, I knew this was coming but I had effectively pushed it to the recesses of my mind. Was I honestly trekking again? And I love how guides seem to change the trek times to make trekkers happy(ier). At the beginning, “it’s going to be 2 hours from Banaue to Pula where we’ll stop for lunch and then 2 hours to Cambulo where we’ll sleep for the night. Thirty minutes into the trek, “it’s going to be 3 hours to Pula then 3 hours to Cambulo.” I’m pretty sure I said, “are you kidding me?” and I might have even dropped the F bomb; he was 23yrs old and cool. At Pula he says “possibly 3.5 hours to Cambulo” and for the second time, “are you scared of heights?” “Yes”, I tell him, again. What have I done to myself?

Let me just say that I cannot begin to adequately convey how little exercise I do at home. And what I had chosen to do on my first trip for my blog? 180 degree difference. I swear, on this blog as my witness (and swearing on a personal non-travel blog I’m starting when l get home) I will begin to exercise!! Plus, I will have my readers to hold me accountable. I also have never understood hiking. To walk for the sake of walking? Is there some secret I haven’t be party to? Is there always a reward at the end of the hike? Luckily the ones I’ve chosen on this trip have been quite rewarding but sometimes I just wonder about you hikers.

I was set to transfer to a jeepney to get to Banaue from Bagabag after my interesting bus ride from Cauayan to Bagabag. I was dropped off at the side of a dirt road and with a bit of effort I was told where to stand to wait for the next bus. But here everyone wants business so I was able to haggle my way onto an empty jeepney for 80 PHP / $2 CAD for the 2 hour ride to Banaue. I enjoyed the ride, it was picturesque, in fact gorgeous – the running theme for this area of the Philippines and people would jump in and out as we stopped along the way, the driver calling out to see who wanted to join. At one stop I saw what looked to be very tasty BBQ skewers but that ended up being squiggly chicken intestines. I passed. We drove through pine forests reminiscent of Canada and the wood supplies the area’s elaborate word carver who make such things as the 6’ tall statues of Indians that you see in people’s mountain homes in Architectural Digest. Come to think of it, why were they carving North American Indians in full warrior dress? Right. For us Westerners. The craftspeople were hugely talented and since then I have seen their carvings selling for 10-20x what they were selling for on the mountain. I imagine at home it’s probably a 50-100x mark up, easily.

Coming around a curve from high in the mountain we drove into Banaue, slowly driving through town descending on the way. We passed a large steel bridge that had recently been washed out by a landslide (to give you an idea of a landslide’s power) and arrived at People’s Lodge where I was staying. It was in the “downtown” area and I really had no perspective of where I was in the town until I went to the balcony at the back of the restaurant and saw exactly where we were, how astounding it was, how cool and quaint this town was, how high above we still were to the winding river beneath us. I loved it, one of those places that you really want to share with the people you love. (My hotel is the orange building, the view of the valley was amazing. The road you see is still much higher than the river).

The goal of this visit was the UNESCO 2,000 year old rice terraces, to trek through them (turned out to be literally) and  tiny, tiny, villages, to see some incredible mountains and valleys, waterfalls and then head to Sagada’s pine forests to see the Hanging Coffins, Echo Valley and the Caves of the Dead. I knew there would be trekking but I truly had no idea what I was getting into. Sound familiar? 

I entered into People’s Lodge, got my room and sat down with a guide they recommended. His name was Jess Tony, he was 23 years old and I found out later he had two children. I also found out he didn’t know a ton about guiding but he was learning and taking courses and I beat him into shape. When I left him three days later I told him I’d recommend him if he learned to speak louder because one can’t hear the Filipinos, they whisper to one another and he would need to learn as much as he could about the area, the culture, and the Ifuago people. We sat down and negotiated a price for the next three days to include all guiding, transportation, accommodations and four meals. Sometimes I feel like I got the better deal and sometimes I feel like he did so all in all, I think we did just fine. All was arranged and I was off to bed rising early to get on our way.

And thus the trek began. Within minutes I was cursing, wishing I had worn my water shoes instead of my running shoes; I have a thing about wet hands (I wear gloves when I do dishes and I hate baths) and wet feet. The only rule of the trek was not as simple as it seemed. I was told not to look into people’s eyes when we came across mountain people but to be sure to smile. The older ones he told me practice witchcraft of sorts and recently an elderly woman came into town and put a hex on a family who became seriously ill. Fantastic I thought and I’d try my best to remember. The initial one hour incline was brutal but I coerced information out of my young apprentice along the way. (A colourful mountain crab to the right).

JT taught me that the 2,000 year old rice terraces were made by their Ifuago ancestors by first choosing a desirable mountain where they could grow their crops, rice included and they’d begin at the top by cutting into the land and letting the rain do some of the work enabling them to create and partition off terraces. The oldest child receives/ed the terraces, the second the house, the third the wood from the trees, the fourth goes to school and the children to follow either go to school or stay at home looking after the others. 

Then we came to our first landslide. WTF? The landslides in the Philippines, in that specific province had made the news the month before I had travelled. People had been killed, four in the next village over and I had hoped that the worst had passed before I got there. It had they thought but the trek I was doing had us passing through the landslides. There is NO first world country that would have permitted my trek and I met a couple days later that had turned back. And when I mean walked through them I mean in the middle of the landslides where the guides had made their path, an area about 6”-12” wide where we would walk while looking down the rest of the mountain, at the destruction, into the ravines. My guide particularly liked to stop in the middle of this path to ask if I was ok, just at the point where I would need momentum to propel myself through the landslide to the other side to safety. You know those times where it’s better to not put any pressure down because it will shift the ground beneath you? Yeah, those spots where shifting soil created landslides. I can’t tell you how many times I yelled at my guide to move so as not to die on his watch. And how many landslides you might ask? Likely a dozen or so. I thought of my parents, and becoming a parent and how many situations we all get ourselves into where ignorance is bliss for those who love us. Mom and Dad, I’m sure you know exactly what I’m referring to. What exactly again do you do Dad on those walks with the dogs? Climb cliffs, wade through quicksand and make fires? Exactly. 

Apart from that the scenery was surreal as we approached our first stop, Pula. Of course serenity could only last so long. As we approached our rest stop a mountain teenager passed us on the trail and I wasn’t to look at him but he had a double gauge shotgun and so he passed us and I turned to look. Shit! He had stopped on the trail and was staring at me. Great, witchcraft combined with a shotgun, wet feet and landslides. Couldn’t wait for the next part to begin! Up next..Pula – Cambulo – Batad. More trekking and meeting villagers.

What Was Spent On The Next Three Posts: Jeepney from Bagabag to Banaue PHP 80, first night at People’s Lodge PHP 390, dinner PHP 160, breakfast on Day 1 PHP 40, Package: 3 days trekking/guiding, transportation to Day 1 starting point, lunch and dinner on Day 1, accommodations in Cambulo, breakfast and lunch on Day 2, transportation from Batad’s Saddle Junction back to Banaue, accommodations at People’s Lodge on Day 2, return transportation from Banaue to Sagada, entrance and guide for Cave of the Dead and the Hanging Coffins, accommodations in Sagada on Day 3, PHP 7600. Breakfast, snack, lunch and dinner on Day 3, PHP 300

Total: PHP 8570 / CAD $202.25

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