Adventures in The Cordillera by bus and foot

Posted: April 26, 2011 in The Philippines
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So this is it, our last country on the epic adventure – well our last country together. We touched down in Manila in the early hours of April 23rd and our pick-up was waiting as planned. We were whisked to our hotel; the Lonely Planet “our pick” called Malate Pensionne. After 2 nights with little sleep in noisy Singapore, the guidebook description made us think we’d find a peaceful abode. Think again. The guesthouse is a dive and is located in the heart of the red light area in downtown Manila. As soon as we opened our room, we heard the base beat of the nearby discos and karaoke bars. Muneeza sensed my rising anger and headed to reception to find a better room. Luckily they had one more available on the other side of the hotel and this one was thankfully quiet, though dark and dingy. As we were only staying for one night the desire for sleep outweighed the need for a decent room.

We passed into deep sleep almost immediately. The next day we discovered how gypsy the place was. The shared bathrooms looked like they had never been cleaned. Each time we follow the advice of the Lonely Planet for accommodation or food, it proves a rogue guide. We have no idea how the writers can make these recommendations, they just don’t seem very in-tune with travelers, or not those we have met anyway.

We dumped our bags and, having secured tickets for the 10.45 night bus to Banaue, killed the spare time exploring the nicer parts of town. We had a lovely walk around Intramuros, the old walled city that was the centrepiece of Spanish Manila in the 16th century. Alas during WWII the Japanese and Americans leveled most of the city, killing nearly 100,000 Filipinos in the process, and what remains is an allusion to an illustrious bygone era.

Muni respecting culture at Intramuros, Manila

We were relieved to board the night bus, as Manila didn’t really excite us. On our road I was constantly hassled to buy Viagra and other drugs. Perhaps I look like I’ve got performance issues. The streets are adorned with pimps, prostitutes, strippers, drug pushers and lady-boys. It’s not even amusing, it’s just tacky and sleezy and not where we wanted to stay. The Lonely Planet failed to mention any of this in its review. Useless.

Chilling in Banaue

First stop in North Luzon was Banaue, renowned for its stunning rice terraces that are now UNESCO World Heritage listed. After a 9hr body-jerking bus trip through the mountains, we disembarked at Banaue around 8am and a jeepney (strange hybrid between a jeep and a truck) took us into town.

We checked into the People’s Lodge and were happy enough with the room. Very basic but the sheets were clean and our window looked out onto the hills. The relaxing sound of the river faded in and out of our consciousness as we drifted to sleep, exhausted from the over night journey.

We spent the 24th organizing a trek to the rice paddies for Monday 25th. We met 3 cool Slovenians on the bus and arranged to trek together to share the costs of guides and transport. Having made plans, we then took a gentle stroll through town. Banaue is really small, population only 2,600, so it doesn’t take long to see the sights. We chilled at the guesthouse and watched One day in September, a docu-film about the siege of the Israeli athletes during the Munich Olympics. It’s an amazing film but it left us saddened by the darker side of humanity and the destructive legacy of global politics.

Behold the wonder of the rice paddies of Batad

We left at 8am on the 25th with our guide, Winston. No, he wasn’t from Jamaica. It took a painful 1hr jeepney ride to reach the trailhead, passing along a smashed up rocky road. The trek itself was wonderful. You start on one of the mountain peaks and climb steeply down to the path that winds across peaks and valleys towards Batad.

On all sides you see glorious panoramas of rolling mountains, lush with greenery. It’s surprisingly hot and humid for a mountainous region. After 45mins walking and seemingly out of nowhere, the town of Batad emerges and the spectacular sight of the rice paddies erupts from all around.

Batad rice paddies

The Ifugao people built the rice paddies more than 2,000 years ago, hewn out of the hillsides using primitive tools and a remarkable irrigation system for the period. Not only is the structure impressive but also the builders were clearly artists because the sculpted landscape is mesmeric and beautiful to behold.

The village of Batad is tiny, with a collection of ramshackle huts and houses, mainly built of wood and corrugated iron. We placed our lunch order at a restaurant and marched on to our next destination, the waterfall. The path was steep and narrow with vertical drops of hundreds of metres in some places. It took 1hr to reach the waterfall and we were all sweat drenched by then. I eagerly stripped off and jumped in the cool water to drop my body temperature. The current from the falling water was really strong and it was hard work to swim across to the rocky ledges on the far side, from which you could dive into the pool. The water drops from about 50m, so it’s impossible to get inside the water chute because it would strip your skin.

At the water’s edge, I slipped behind a rock to change back into my trek kit away from the eye line of the other tourists. Muneeza had waited back up on the path and could see me, so I opted for the cheeky mooning. However, I forgot that there was also an old lady sat there, selling drinks. Apparently, when I bared my pearly white globes, she shrieked with delight. I’ve still got it.

We headed back for lunch and it was a hot hard climb back up the path. We were all happy to tuck into some local food, a healthy chicken agado (type of stew with vegetables). The view from the restaurant was superb – straight out across the waves of rice paddies and valleys we had just climbed.

It was a reluctant group who stood up to walk back to the jeepney at the very top of the mountain. The walk isn’t technically difficult but it’s steep and hot. We stopped enroute to buy some local woodcarvings and watch the guy work. His cute kids were the money keepers, though the daughter had to keep picking up notes his really young son kept dropping. Eventually we reached the end point and climbed back into the jeepney for the tortuous drive back along the road from hell. The Chris Rea song was in my head most of the way.

We had planned to head off on Tuesday for Bontoc but Winston told us that a festival was taking place the next day and it happens only once every 4 years, bringing together all the local villages to compete in a series of games and challenges. We decided to hang around and soak up the atmosphere.

Love jamer & Muneeza x

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