The Philippines’ Mountain Provinces

Batad, Philippines from the air. Dronestragram photo.
Batad, Philippines from the air. Dronestragram photo.

The Choicest Cuts in These Exotic Islands

By David Rich

Those flocking to the Philippines for its gorgeous beaches and crystalline waters are missing some of the choicest cuts in these exotic islands: World Heritage rice terraces, steamy volcanoes, an old colonial city, and vertiginous mountains to rival the Andes, all easy and inexpensive to sample in a few relaxing weeks.

Rice terraces in Batad
Rice terraces in Batad.

A Last-Second Veering Off

Vigan, on the Philippine Sea in Northern Luzon, is the best preserved colonial city in Southeast Asia, the only such city in the Philippines to escape carpet-bombing in World War II, barely.

Allied forces had radioed the news on their final approach; the Japanese had fled, and Vigan escaped destruction.

This last-second veering off spared an eclectic collection of exotic wooden homes built in an amalgam of Mexican and Chinese styles, a meld that must be seen for disbelief.

The cathedral in Vigan
The cathedral in Vigan.

These sprawling homes were built by rich Chinese merchants in the 19th century, constructed of exotic dark woods on four-inch planking, and stuffed with musical instruments, typewriters, and horsy accouterments, now quaintly antique.

Photogenic Cathedral

The windows were formed from capiz shells hijacked from a flat bivalve indigenous to the Philippine Sea. The Capiz is about the size of a clam, and translucent, much cheaper than glass and impervious to Philippine’s frequent typhoons.

Vigan’s cobblestone streets are reminiscent of Cartagena on Columbia’s Caribbean coast, complete with horse carriages for local commuters and lounging tourists, hireable for two bucks an hour.

After almost complete destruction by two 16th century earthquakes, Vigan’s cathedral was rebuilt with foot-thick walls, photogenic in a nearby reflecting pool. However, the inside is as crude as sin.

Local weavers have off-set the primitive with colorful, psychedelic creations, available in many local outlets, while talented Vigan potters produce entire city blocks of symmetrical ceramics.

Twenty Pigs and Sixty Chickens

Relief from Vigan’s seaside heat and humidity is readily available in the mountain provinces jutting sharply skyward a few kilometers from town. These provinces harbor super surprises, beginning with the hanging coffins around Sagada.

A street in Vigan
A street in Vigan.

You can still buy a hanging crypt if you pony up twenty pigs and sixty chickens, a quantity to shudder Porky Pig and delight KFC.

In return, the locals will tote your coffin high onto a karst limestone cliff and lower a coffin-herder gingerly over the practically bottomless side with your coffin right behind.

While hanging from twirling ropes the herder will maneuver the coffin onto cliff-side brackets or into a handy cave, a mere hundred meters (325 feet) above the swirling river below.

And you’re home free, except for the tribute of barnyard livestock enjoyed by the entire community in your wake.

Email for reservations. But don’t be impatient for a reply because Hector is difficult to contact. He’s often hanging around outside, away from Sagada’s internet cafes.

If you inspect these memorial cliff-sides with their hundreds of coffins, wear mud-proof clothing and non-skid footwear, because you’ll come back from Echo Valley, which is coffin central, ready for head-to-toe laundering. The jungle grows verdant for a reason, which is constant rain outside of summer months.

Ruins at Cagsawa
Ruins at Cagsawa.

But while still kicking, you’ll appreciate Sagada’s laidback atmosphere and cool mountain climate, far removed from the horror of Manila traffic and the humid Philippine lowlands.

Sweeping Grandeur

The next surprise is World Heritage impressive, the mountainside rice terraces around Bontoc, Banaue and Batad.

These storied terraces are gussied up in emerald during April and May, but still impressive year round, making the rice paddies of Bali look anemic while rivaling the sweeping grandeur of equally isolated Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes, and the more urban Cinque Terre on the northern Italian coast.

These better-known tourist draws are aped by the Batad terraces, which to visit takes a roundtrip hike of three hours, minimum. Stay overnight at any of the many quaint guesthouses to fully appreciate and explore the horizon-sweeping grandeur of Batad.

Children on a motorcycle in Bontoc
Children on a motorcycle in Bontoc.

Banaue and Bontoc aren’t chopped liver compared to Batad, but simply terraces of a different demeanor. Banaue’s terraces gradually cascade down a mountain to the town below, not as steeply as Batad’s, but with equal grace.

A few miles away (17 and 22 kilometers, respectively) over bone-crunching mud-splashing roads lurk Hapao’s river valley terraces and Bacang’s spider terraces, the latter stacked on top of each other like a modernistic pyramid.

I explored these terraces in the immediate aftermath of super-typhoon Chebi, aka Queenie, which swept across the northern Luzon mountains during my wet and windy bus ride to Banaue from Bontoc.

Tattooed Ladies

The closest terraces to Bontoc are spread across a mountain ten kilometers (six miles) above the nicely situated burg, which sits on an aquamarine river.

The town is the regional headquarters for tattooed tribal ladies and anciently-thronged men who pop down for a spot of shopping.

A guide at Mt. Pinatubo
A guide at Mt. Pinatubo.

While they drop down to town you should take the dollar roundtrip jeepney into the mountains to see the Maligcong rice terraces, seldom visited by tourists.

These stretch two miles (three kilometers) across vertiginous hills, beginning at the jeepney turn-around along a foot-wide (thirty-centimeter) terrace lip of concrete, thence meandering up and down over miles of paddies.

Supreme Agriculturalists

These terraces were built 2000 years ago, at the dawn of the Roman Empire, by notorious Ifguo tribesmen whose principal hobby, when not planting rice and veg, was hunting heads.

Now you’ll find their descendants decked out in colorful tribal regalia, posing for photos at rice terrace scenic views, with the only heads hunted being those on Philippine pesos.

The Ifguo remain supreme agriculturalists and the carvers of hard-wood statuary revered all over the islands.

During hours-long bus trips into this remote mountain interior, you’ll see lush terraces strung for miles along mountains so steep and precipitous they belong in the Andes.

However, the majority of these terraces are bereft of rice, instead dedicated to cabbages and calla lilies, rutabagas and okra, green beans and squash blossoms.

Mount Mayon
Mount Mayon.

The showy rice terraces produce insufficient rice for the locals, who must import the staple from flatter provinces.

Devastating Eruption

Last year I climbed Mt. Pinatubo, which abruptly erupted in 1991 after six hundred years of slumber. Its major explosions produced a pillar of smoke and ash nineteen miles (thirty kilometers) high. Resulting ash-falls left over 100,000 homeless, killed more than 700, and closed the huge U.S. Air Force Base at Clark, ten miles (16 kilometers) east of the volcano, making it the most cataclysmic and largest eruption in the 20th century.

The hike to Pinatubo proceeds among pyroclastic flows of mud warped into other-worldly shapes and ends at an emerald lake in the new crater. But that was last year and I was anxious for more.

So this year I planned to climb Mt. Mayon, the fiercest of the Philippines’ twenty active volcanoes and considered by many to be the world’s most perfectly shaped volcanic cone. But after Fuji in Japan and Osorno and Villarica in Chile, I had my doubts.

After flying into Legazpi, far down the Bocol peninsula, I found Mt. Mayon still smokin’ from a September eruption and climbs were prohibited.

The cone was impressive with a base eighty miles (130 kilometers) in circumference supporting 8000 feet (2500 meters) of pluming volcano.

But it wasn’t snow-shrouded like Osorno or Villarica, or as slenderly steep as Fuji.

Still, it wasn’t a bad specimen with a reputation for thirty eruptions since 1616, one in 1993 knocking off 75 locals, and in 1814 burying the town of Cagsawa, leaving only a church tower jutting.

I left with the satisfaction of knowing Mt. Mayon is the prime candidate for the Pinatubo of the 21st century, another rare filet for the always interesting Philippines.

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