We have a total of 25 days in the Philippines, so we tried to plan the trip thoroughly as it is very hard to travel. Even if the distances are small, it seems to take ages to move from one island to another or even between cities. Here is a map of our planned itinerary:
After a night in the plane, we arrived early morning in Manila, Philippines’ capital. We spend two days there, discovering this massive city and visiting intramuros, the old Manila from when Philippines were a Spanish colony.
To be honest, we didn’t really like it: although intramuros is nice, the rest of the city felt a bit like being in Delhi, with the poverty and dirt, and without the monuments and palaces that make India so fascinating.
We caught a night bus on the next day to the Ifugao mountains province in North Luzon. The 8 hours journey wasn’t really comfortable, and we were surprised by the chilly temperatures when we arrived in Banaue early morning: we didn’t expect to have to wear sweaters in the Philippines! But it was definitely worth the trip:
Banaue is home to the World Heritage listed rice terraces, which are considered as “the 8th wonder of the world”. They are particularly impressive because of their outstanding number (if Banaue rice terraces were connected end to end, the length would be ten times longer than the Great Wall of China), their chiseled beauty and by the fact that they were created more that 2 000 years ago!
The Banaue rice terraces are mud-walled, which is distinguishing themselves from most of the other stoned-walled rice terraces in the cordillera
The Hapao rice terraces, greener because the rice was planted earlier
The weather was really chilly but did not prevent us from enjoying the trip
A walk in the rice terraces led us to some natural hot springs for a relaxing bath (smelling like sulfur though)
A jeepney. It is the equivalent of Philippino buses, and it fits 30 persons (using the roof and side-ladders)
Sagada, 3 hours away by jeepney from Banaue, seduced us right away. This small village is much more isolated than Banaue or Bontoc and has a very chilled atmosphere, probably helped by heavy consumption of the local grown weed.
Sagada offers a wide range of trekking and caving activities, as well as good insights on the Animistic Applai (the local tribes) culture. We had a great few days there with our new friend Peter, a fellow Dutch traveler we met on the jeepney from Banaue.
Our little guide in Echo Valley
The most impressive thing to discover was the hanging coffins in which the bodies are “buried”. We had different explanation about the meaning of that practice: our young guide in Echo Valley explained us that the soul of the dead were closer to paradise, whereas our caving guide told us he wanted to be buried this way because “it would be easier for his spirit to go out and have beers with his friends than if his body were buried underground”. Fair enough.
Some of the coffins are not in a really good state
But the highlight of our Sagada stay was definitely caving. We started off in the Lumiang Burial Cave, where over 100 coffins were staked in the entrance and the oldest believed to be 500 years old.
The entrance in Sumaging caves, with hundreds of coffins on the right
From Lumiang, we spend about 3,5 hours in an underground passage linking this cave to Sumaging cave. This was an incredible experience that was definitely more adventurous than we expected, having to go through a handful of small paths and passages just large enough for one body, and climbing or descending through holes up to 3 meters-high. We ended our caving experience by swimming in some ice-cold underground natural pools of Sumaging cave after some bat-watching.
As it was impossible to get around by ourselves, we hired a guide for this adventure. We didn’t feel that secured since the guide seemed stoned and was carrying just one gas lantern as source of light that could have easily broke. We made it out alive.
Bontoc is the most important market of the cordillera, and is definitely not as peaceful as Sagada. We witnessed the harvesting of the rice during a walk on the local rice terraces, and discovered the local tribe’s culture in an amazing museum. One of the most impressive practices was head hunting: men would fight and behead some rival tribe’s members, come back with the head to celebrate and were keeping the jaw bones as trophies.
On our next day, we took a jeepney to the remote towering, sprawling stoned-walled Malincgong rice terraces. Although most of them were not planted yet (each village decided of its planting and harvesting dates), the reflection of the sun on the water of the terraces was truly beautiful.
We booked and payed seats for a night bus back to Manila to catch our flight to South Luzon on the next morning, but we didn’t take into account the fact that busses, boats or even planes depart on Philippino time: it can be 30 minutes before or after the scheduled time. When arriving at 6:45pm for the 7pm departure, we had the nice surprise of discovering that our bus was already gone. Fortunately, we were able to board on the 8pm (which left at 7:15pm BTW) and rejoin our bus after one hour. We made it to Naga, South Luzon, but we’re not likely to make that mistake again in Philippines!