Race Across The Terrace: Banaue Town (Part One)

Elderly Ifugao
Elderly Ifugaos pose for a snapshot at Banaue Viewpoint

Swoosh! Another tree branch barely missed my head.

It’s been 11 hours since I left Manila, with the last hour’s ride proving to be a branch-dodging, butt-bruising and utterly hair-raising experience not inside but atop a jeepney overloaded with young boys spitting red moma, sacks of fresh greens, and a black native pig kept cool with some large leaves. While we bore the summer’s heat, the wide-eyed swine was comfily bound for slaughter on first class.

Viewpoint Rice Terraces
The mud-wall rice terraces of Banaue town

As the four-wheeled circus act grunted its way through the unpaved zigzag carved from the mountainous forest slopes, I clung for dear life onto the metal rails separating the top-loaders and the muddy ravine some hundred feet below.  Beside the vehicle, the shoulders of the road slid abruptly down into thick foliage dotted with graceful tree ferns. This was a place where calming beauty and adrenaline wrestled to the heavens.

Swoosh! Again, I successfully dodged another. After rounding a bend, emerald stairways of mud-walled rice paddies appeared.  I was in Banaue, I affirmed myself with a sigh.

In four days, I backpacked through the mountain ranges of the Cordillera from stunning Banaue through bustling Bontoc and foggy Sagada. I was on a mission to see something for real that never fails to impress me every time I see it in a textbook or postcard: our iconic 2,000 year old terraces.

While Jesus walked the Holy Land and the Great Wall rose from the ground, Ifugao highland tribes were making miracles of their own by sculpting a vast network of rice terraces with primitive tools, along the unforgiving slopes of the Cordillera mountain range some 1,500 meters above sea level. Rice terraces may be common throughout Asia, but no other can compare to the exquisite grandeur and solitude of Banaue’s ancient stairways. If these terraces were placed end to end, they will reportedly circle more than halfway around the world.

Ifugao Huts at Poitan Village
Traditional huts at Poitan village, an hour’s hike from Banaue Hotel

Decorative Pig Skulls
Pig skulls adorn some Ifugao huts

Although the terraced paddies in the municipality of Banaue are distributed among many villages, the most recognizable and accessible ones—as depicted in the one thousand peso bill—are the ones seen from Banaue Viewpoint, three kilometers north of the poblacion along the highway to Bontoc, Mountain Province. There are actually four viewpoints that give you different angles of the magnificent valley, each with its own posse of elderly Ifugaos smilingly willing to pose for the camera in exchange for a small donation.

Indeed, Banaue Viewpoint is a touristy place. Roadside souvenir shops manufacture and sell a variety of handmade woodwork, textile and basketry, like the iconic bulol (Ifugao rice god) traditionally placed in village huts and granaries. If you have five pesos to spare plus a stomach for strange flavors, you can ask a local to teach you how to chew moma, an addictive combination of areca nut, betel leaf, lime powder and tobacco believed to strengthen teeth and gums. This popular, red-staining treat induces salivation, causing one to spit frequently.

For those craving for roads less traveled, one can search for well-preserved rice terraces in less-accessible settlements within Banaue’s interior like those found in Batad Village.
After dropping some passengers (and the unfortunate pig on first class) at Bangaan, the jeepney u-turned and, after hitting a junction, began to climb further up to the “Saddle”, a valley ridge where one had to alight and hike down for another hour to Batad Village. Civilization was beginning to feel so distant.

This blog post is an excerpt from a travel feature I wrote in 2009 for ROAM Magazine, Issue No. 2.

Banaue Town
Concrete housing perched on the mountainsides at Banaue town

Pet Rhinoceros Beetle
A pet rhinoceros beetle at Tam-an Village

HOW TO GET THERE: As of February 2012, only Ohayami Bus has direct trips from Manila to Banaue. Autobus and Florida bus lines have ceased traveling this route. Ohayami leaves for Banaue (PHP 450, ten hours) everyday at 10PM at their Sampaloc station located at the corner of Lacson and Fajardo Sts, next to Metro Oil gas station. For reservations, call +6325160501 or +639175060817.

Banaue town is worth half a day’s exploration. The place is walkable, but short hops on tricycle costs only PHP 10 per person. For assistance, there’s a tourist information office in the middle of town. From the market, find your way to the rusty hanging bridge. Or take short hikes (1 to 2 hours) to Tam-an and Poitan villages; hiking trail starts at the swimming pool of Banaue Hotel & Youth Hostel.

WHERE TO STAY: There are several budget options in town such as Greenview Lodge and Banaue Youth Hostel, but I’ve always preferred spending the night in Batad village instead.

WHERE TO EAT: For the cheapest meals at PHP 40 to 60, go for the carinderias (eateries) found across town. For good food served with a great views, check out Greenview Lodge and Restaurant, or Imbayah Restaurant at Banaue Hotel. At the latter, try their yummy club sandwich (PHP 120)! At the town market, look for ‘turon dikit’, a local snack of sticky rice in spring roll wrappers at only PHP 10 per stick.

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