THE Philippines, as a travel destination, is much more than just one place. Thousands of islands and scores of ethnic groups and languages comprise what most people know as the Philippines.
Aside from the capital Manila, with its shopping, history and nightlife, and the beach resort of Boracay to the south that attracts nearly a million visitors every year, the rest of the Philippines to the unknowing traveller seems to fall into the “miscellaneous attractions” file. Which is a shame, really.
One of the least explored but most accessible corners of the Philippines are the mountainous Cordillera Districts that dominate the northern half of Luzon yes, the same island Manila is on.
Just 180km north of one of the biggest cities in the world, the mist-shrouded and pine-clad mountains of the Central Cordilleras are home to only two per cent of the country’s population and, for better or worse, seem lost in time, a forgotten and overgrown corner of the Philippines.
The three main attractions are the mountain town of Baguio; the small, picturesque village of Sagada with its “hanging coffins”; and the world-famous Banaue Rice Terraces. Seeing northern Luzon’s tribal people in a cool, temperate, photogenic mountain setting will certainly dispel any preconceptions you might have had about the Philippines.
But the first piece of bad news: northern Luzon is vast and wrinkled, making getting around a bit harder than you would think, given the modest distances between attractions. The main “highways” that do a big loop through the mountains are only now being paved for the first time, with gaps of unsealed roads still remaining.
Visitors generally rent a 4WD and a driver to deal with the slightly unnerving driving culture here, but even so, expect to drive four to five hours between these three destinations. The trick is to have a couple of days in each place. This will make the travelling less onerous and give you a chance to explore each place.
Outside Baguio, tourist facilities like three-star hotels are lacking. That’s not to say you can’t find a place to stay. It just means that you won’t find spas or fine dining on this trip, beyond Baguio.
That said, the lack of hotel chains and other conveniences for mass tourism has its benefits as it keeps the charter flights and endless parade of tour buses away.
Northern Luzon, the way it is now, is perfect to visit before it becomes more developed and inevitably overrun.
Baguio, the “City of Pines”, has a climate of eternal spring. It is no surprise this town is hugely popular with golfers. Many come from Manila, about five hours away, just to play a couple of rounds on the 18-hole, par-69, Jack Nicklaus-designed course that surrounds the Camp John Hay Resort.
At an altitude of 1,500m, the climate, and vegetables grown here, is akin to Cameron Highlands. Strawberry-picking is a huge attraction in the fields on the outskirts of town. Families pay a fixed price for an empty basket and are allowed to fill it to overflowing with fresh, sweet strawberries.
Hiking and shopping in the bustling city markets are other popular things to do. But with the less boisterous, less crowded adventures waiting in the mysterious mountains to the north, Baguio is best left to the golfers and shoppers.
After a five-hour drive (135km) north through some sensational mountainscapes and through villages that seem to cling to the slopes for dear life (so as not to occupy any precious cultivatable land), your dusty van climbs one final mountain ridge and suddenly you are in a Filipino version of a Swiss alpine village Sagada.
Thanks to its remoteness, Sagada (2,100m above sea level) has not (yet) been turned into the tourist haven it has every potential of being.
The tranquil main street is lined with colourful houses with chimneys billowing fragrant pine smoke. Smiling villagers gather in the morning sun to warm up after a cool night temperatures can drop to as low as 6C.
But the real attraction lies just outside of town. With the help of a local guide, you stroll south of the village about 20 minutes down a dirt trail, around a corner and there it is – the giant entrance of the Sumaguing Cave in the limestone hillside, and lining the walls up to 20m high, are hundreds of “hanging” coffins.
Traditionally, the animist headhunters who once roamed these hills believed that putting a dead body in the ground would pollute and offend Mother Earth, but leaving the body easily accessible would invite wild animals to scavenge and defile them. So, many centuries ago, it was decided that the dead should be placed in hollowed out tree trunks and stacked on the nearly inaccessible shelves that occur naturally in limestone caves.
This practice died out about 200 years ago when the Spanish came to the area and converted the headhunters.
For the more adventurous, there are also very good opportunities to explore deeper into the caves in the area, but guides are essential (not to mention the gas lights they use to show the way).
The other main attraction is the surprising number of excellent hiking trails in this mountainous area. Due to the cool climate, hiking in the “tropics” can actually be a comfortable and sweat-free experience.
There are a few guesthouses in Sagada, but all are modest, backpacker-style ones. Still, this lovely alpine village deserves a minimum of three days to explore.
A four-hour drive east of Sagada, the road winds up and over a mountain pass. As you drop down through the cool mist, you are greeted by a sight that has had writers scratch around for new superlatives ever since they were first discovered by the Spanish.
“Relentlessly spectacular” comes closest to describing the many hundreds of iridescent yellow-green rice padis that were carved out of the contours of the surrounding mountains more than 2,000 years ago.
It is said that if put end to end, the rice terraces here would encircle half the globe.
This Unesco World Heritage site can be described as more of an architectural, even artistic, creation rather than simply a collection of rice terraces that have fed countless generations of the local Ifugao tribespeople.
Although there is, strictly speaking, no such thing as an “Eighth Wonder of the World”, this is how these rice terraces are often described. And when you stand at a lookout, shoulder to shoulder with other visitors, silently gawping at the gravity-defying landscape, you see why.
People come from all over the world to take in this vista, which, at sunset, resembles an impressionistic painting brought to life. The main Banaue rice terraces extend far out into the valley and, truthfully, is a spectacular site from any of the several vantage points along the road that snakes along its western border.
The valley, and the road that leads you down to the town of Banaue, is impossibly steep. In fact, the valley’s countless giant steps, layered like a giant wedding cake and surrounded on three sides by steep mountains, gives the unprepared visitor the distinct impression that they’re hovering in mid-air.
The fact that the rice terraces are frequently draped in a light mist only adds to the thrilling vertigo of the place.
Because the rugged Central Cordilleras mountains and their cultural gems are not easy to get to, and not laid out on a silver platter for you, this enchanting corner of Asia is really worth a visit.