Visiting the Cordilleras: The lesser known Philippines

When people usually think of the Philippines, the first images that come to mind are either the densely populated streets of Manila, or many of the thousands of islands and the white, sandy beaches they hold. Very few people equate Philippines with a grand mountain range.

Until they visit the cordilleras!

Luzon is the largest island of the Philippines, and located at its north-central section, is the Cordillera Administrative Region – a massive mountain range that occupies a total of 6 provinces. And if you are hearing this for the first time, a cordillera is a Spanish term which implies what I just described. The word derives from ‘cordilla’, which means cord. Like a massive cord of mountains.

Most tourists visit up until Baguio, and say they have been to the cordilleras. True, Baguio is indeed part of the Cordillera region and I had the pleasure of watching the beautiful Panagbenga festival here in this city, some years ago. But it is still an urbanised, modern city that is located on the fringe of the Cordillera Administrative Region. Cordillera is much more than that, and to find out, you have to head further from the Benguet province, where Baguio is located, and delve deeper into Ifugao and mountain province.

And you will see why not many people venture this way. The distance from Baguio to Sagada is only 140 KM, and google maps will tell you that this route takes about 5 hours. Well, google maps never tried to take this route themselves! This is probably one of the most treacherous routes in SouthEast Asia, with landslides at many corners, and slippery roads, and narrow roads, and extremely dangerous roads! I had the fortune of sitting in a minivan with a travel group, but every time I passed the edge of a cliff, I said a silent prayer to any gods who cared to listen. And the whole drive took about 9 hours. Screw you, google!

Sagada is probably the best base to begin exploring the cordilleras, with cheap guesthouses and a small backpackerish feel. This small town in the mountain province is so mysterious, that it even has its own urban legends! One of them was that there was abundant marijuana here a few years ago, then the mayor of the town shut it down because he did not want too many dopey tourists heading this way. Another story which did the rounds was that the mayor was intentionally not building good roads between Sagada and Benguet province, because he did not want to encourage too many tourists to head this way, thereby maintaining the cultural originality of Sagada.

I could not authenticate both the stories.

The road between Baguio and Sagada.
The mountainous roads between Baguio and Sagada, with landslides galore.
The roads between Baguio and Mountain province
Now you know why I was praying! You would too, if you were riding on the side of THAT faint line, which is actually a road!

The whole town of Sagada may only have 1 ATM (I didn’t figure out where it was), but there is love in plenty. This sleepy town has one of the least crime rates in Philippines. So low, that some people actually sleep in houses that have no doors! So, it is one of those places where you could sit back, enjoy the coffee from the few cafes that have opened up in town, and feel a little well-mannered chill up your spine, thanks to the high elevation and the cool winds.

And there are quite a few things to see in Sagada too. Most visitors head for the hanging coffins of Sagada. Well, there are a few different hanging coffin spots actually, since hanging coffins are used by the people of Ifugao province to put their departed at rest. The best way to see them is with a local tour guide, whose expertise you can also take to get to the Sumaguing and Lumiang caves, the burial caves, and the Bomodok waterfalls.

On the way to the Bomodok waterfalls, in Sagada.
On the way to the Bomodok waterfalls, in Sagada.

Using Sagada as a base, there are some daily side-trips that you can make. And the first name that should pop into your head, should be Banaue. If you have marvelled at the beautiful rice terraces of Bali, Banaue will move you beyond words. The stunning rice terraces of Banaue are a UNESCO world heritage site by itself.

Now, the tricky part, and one which you should definitely experience, is getting to Banaue from Sagada. There are plenty of jeepneys that you can get to go there but they all go through narrow roads which are at a high elevation. And they all have an option for you to sit on top. (If you don’t, someone else will). SIT ON THE TOP! When you are staring down from the top of the jeepney, into cliffs which are 4000 feet high, I can’t even begin to describe how adrenalin-soaked such a drive is! You have to try it for yourself! And stop at any of the numerous viewpoints, to take a picture of the rice terraces.

Cordilleras
The view of the Cordillera mountain regions from the top of a Jeepney
One of the many rice terraces that dot Banaue.
One of the many rice terraces that dot Banaue.

From Banaue, you can take a jeepney or a tricycle to get to get to Batad rice terraces, which takes about 20 minutes. Well, not exactly to the rice terraces itself, but you will have to get off at some point and then trek to the rice terrace on foot, for another 30 minutes. But again, these rice terraces are UNESCO heritage sites too, so the trek is well-worth it.

Batad rice terraces
Batad has some beautiful rice terraces too

And as a last stop, I checked out the town of Bontoc. Bontoc has historically been the centre of the cordilleras, and they are named after the Bontocs, a feared warrior tribe of the mountain province. And maybe this is what makes the elders in Bontoc a little different from those in Sagada or Banaue. Almost everybody we met were trying to con us, offering exorbitant rates for guesthouses and treks, and almost pushing us aggressively into tricycles.

But the children are a different story. Bontoc, much like the rest of the cordilleras, has some of the most photogenic children that I have come across, very similar to the kids I met in Vanuatu. I had a field day clicking around the kids in Bontoc – since there was nothing much to click in the town anyway – and I think I will do another blogpost soon enough with just their pictures.

Children of the cordilleras
Do remember to interact with the local children. They are some of the most photogenic that I have seen anywhere!

An important point to remember, is to be back before sundown at Sagada, as travelling can be really difficult in this region during night hours. I was stuck one evening near the Bomodok falls, without flashlight, until a farmer came by and helped us out with the largest flashlight that I have ever seen!

Sunsets in Sagada.
Enjoy a calming sunset in Sagada, while sipping a hot coffee, and let the wind soothe you.
Wondering where to go from the cordilleras? Check out Vigan, the almost-Spanish town of Southern Luzon!
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