The Philippines – The Sublime Scenery and Beguiling Beauty of North Luzon

The Philippines – The Sublime Scenery and Beguiling Beauty of North Luzon

The Philippines is a land of contrast and variation. For most, the first place you’ll see is the bewildering metropolis that is Manila; for many, it’s the sun-kissed beaches of its many islands, with perfect blue sea lapping at the sand, which compels them to visit. But the rolling green mountains in the North Luzon mainland – particularly in the Cordillera region – absolutely should be on any visitors’ radar too, in my opinion.

The twisty, picturesque roads of North Luzon make for a pleasant and welcome change from the traffic-clogged highways of Manila if you’re heading there from the capital. Here, soaring mountains layered with dense foliage had their craggy peaks smudged out by morning mist. Not that you’re in total rural isolation in these parts – the landscape is foregrounded by village dwellings, often fronted by a local resident or two sat out front to watch the mountain traffic go by.

Banaue proclaims its famous rice terraces to be the ‘eighth wonder of the world’. For me, they’re the very best illustration of how the human hand can work with rather than against nature to produce something utterly beautiful. Dating back some 2000 years, the rice terraces here provide a 360 degree panorama that will make you jaw drop from wherever you view them. Considering how old they are, it is quite something that they ingratiate themselves in to the steep gradients of the mountains as seamlessly as they do.

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The very best views of the terraces come from the viewpoints to the North of the town. There are four in all, with the third view perhaps providing the best overall panorama, and the last giving you the best closeup shot of the pyramid-like structure of the terrace shelves themselves. Older folk in traditional dress line the terraces for photo opportunities – I took my one! – and the changeable weather meant that I got to experience both the sunny and rainy sides of the terrace views!

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Great hiking opportunities abound, and you could spend your whole time here rambling among the hills. But in Banaue town, I do recommend checking out the Museum of Cordillera sculpture. Here you can read the story of the Ifuago people, who are responsible for the terraces, with woodcarvings and the grisly implements of the practice of headhunting all on show…not to mention a couple of oddball trinkets such as a Santa Claus carving and a Barbie Doll (to show the contrast with Ifuago Children’s toys, apparently).

Chilled out Sagada was a long and winding jeepney ride up from Banaue via Bontoc, and here the air was noticeably cooler and arguably cleaner. Its location isn’t quite as dramatic as Banaue’s but it’s scenic nonetheless, with the aptly named Echo Valley – where fingers of riven rock slash through the lush green hillocks at periodic intervals – providing the most impressive scenery of all.

These days you’re required to have a guide to take you to Sagada’s main attractions, including the most famous and iconic one – the Hanging Coffins. My guide, Ellis, did an excellent job of giving me some historical context enroute. The newer ones in Echo Valley (the older ones at Sugong are a lot more inaccessible), date back across 50 years or so, whilst the older ones go as far back as 500 years.

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In the ‘new’ section there are 19 coffins in all, with the most recent dating from 2006, and ‘more will be added’, according to Ellis. Both the bigger and smaller ones are a sight to behold – the bodies in the latter are buried in the foetal position, the idea being you are carried in the womb that way, and should go out as such – and impressive indeed for their ingenuity in being secured so high up the cliff face.

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Sumaging Cave is the place to be to get your rock formation fix, but be warned – it absolutely is not for the unfit, infirm, claustrophobic or just plain nervous. I have considerable mountaineering experience, but some of the stuff you need to do here – rappelling down slippery boulders and other cliff faces – is not in my comfort zone. Still, persevere and the rock formations on view are very impressive, including stalictites and collections of rocks with grand names such as ‘The King’s Curtain’. Fossils and dinosaur footprints add to the fun too!

Baguio was not a place I’d had in mind to visit, and by the time I arrived there wasn’t really any time left for me to appreciate it. My understanding is that its outer regions are all rolling hills and impressive vistas, but all I got to see was the bustling, traffic-choked centre, with a Jollibee’s on just about every street corner.

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Baguio is the gateway to both mountainous North and the heat of the South, and it certainly has the vibe of a domestic getaway place, with Burnham Park – where sunburnt patches of grass are intersected by paved rickshaw routes, a fairground and a pedalo lake – particularly popular with visitors to the town. If nothing else, people watching here provides an intriguing snapshot of people of the Philippines at play.

The North Luzon region is vast, and I only really got a glimpse of what it has to offer here. With plenty of friends of mine living in the Philippines, I’m sure to return one day to check out some of its other highlights; for the imperious beauty of Northern Luzon is something that promises to remain etched in my memory.

28 Comments

  • Voyager

    May 7, 2016 at 11:33 am Reply

    Most of the articles about the Philippines that I have read focus on the numerous islands and beaches, it is refreshing to read a totally new perspective about the place. Northern Luzon looks lush and green and a place of bountiful natural beauty.
    Voyager recently posted…How I Proclaimed My Love in CappadociaMy Profile

    • Joe

      May 7, 2016 at 7:09 pm Reply

      Thanks 🙂 Good to know I could show you a different side to this remarkable country, and yes Northern Luzon is a treasure trove of beautiful nature.

  • Helen Namauu

    May 8, 2016 at 3:30 am Reply

    , Thanks for the excellent description of this part of my native land, the Philippines. The Ifugao Rice Terraces are indeed beautiful, which is why it is considered as the 8th wonder of the world. It is a must for tourists to visit.

    • Joe

      May 8, 2016 at 6:59 am Reply

      Agree that they are a true highlight of the Philippines, although most people seem to focus on the tropical islands and beaches down south, rather than the comparatively cooler North. Hopefully more people will see them, as they do deserve to be admired! 🙂

    • Eugene M. Namauu

      July 5, 2016 at 11:39 pm Reply

      Hello my name is Eugene M Namauu I to love the natural beauty of this lands.I am married to Pinoy and have a son which lives in Ilocos Norte . Like Hawaii the Phillipines has many areas which has different types of climates. So everyone can enjoy it here.keep up the good work hope to see you there someday coz. ??

  • Tatiana Bastos

    May 8, 2016 at 4:08 pm Reply

    Rice fields always make for really cool landscapes…! Those on he North Luzon region remind me of Hampi, in India. Very different, but so full of lush also thank to the rice plantations. Very cool photos and informative article! 🙂
    Tatiana Bastos recently posted…What do Wes Anderson and brazilian carnival have in common?My Profile

    • Joe

      May 9, 2016 at 5:58 am Reply

      Thanks Tatiana. I’ve heard all sorts of positive things about Hampi, and it’s definitely a place I want to check out next time I’m in India. Look forward to reading your blog post about it 🙂

  • Tatiana Bastos

    May 8, 2016 at 4:11 pm Reply

    ps: I will be posting about India soon on my blog! http://www.efzin.co.

  • T. Michelle

    May 11, 2016 at 12:31 am Reply

    Cool post. I’ve been reading more and more about travel to the Philippines and I like what I see. I think I’ll have to add it to my bucket list. The North Luzon landscape reminds me of the lush green mountains in Lesotho in southern Africa.

    • Joe

      May 11, 2016 at 5:56 am Reply

      Thanks Michelle. Lesotho you say? That’s a comparison I Wasn’t expecting to hear, but definitely an interesting one – might have to remember that one next time I’m in Africa. If you do decide to go to the Philippines then let me know, would love to hear what you think of it 🙂

  • FeetDoTravel

    May 11, 2016 at 1:17 pm Reply

    Philippines is on our list to visit next year and yes, we will be visiting the islands and beaches, but most definitly the rice paddy fields, always stunningly visual and a must for us! Your post informs us of what to see, but also helps with what not to see – there is no way I could cope with rappelling down a slippery border so for me Sumaging Cave wouldn’t have been my cup of tea (my husband is a different story – he loves that adventure!) 🙂

    • Joe

      May 11, 2016 at 10:17 pm Reply

      Great, glad to hear that 🙂 The terraces are an experience you won’t forget, believe me, and you will be bowled over by them in a way that my pictures here perhaps can’t convey. Yes, the caving is not for everyone, but if you are the adventurous sort definitely worth doing. Hope you guys do get to go next year and look forward to hearing about it!

  • Brianna

    May 11, 2016 at 5:22 pm Reply

    Woah! Hanging coffins?! That definitely piqued my interest… I’d love to know more about the cultural beliefs and practices behind it
    Brianna recently posted…A Drive Through Kathmandu: A Photo EssayMy Profile

    • Joe

      May 11, 2016 at 10:15 pm Reply

      It’s an interesting juxtaposition in some ways, in that it’s a reminder of traditional practices that clung on in Luzon after most of the Philippines had been colonised by Spain and then the USA. It’s a sacred practice that has clung on for centuries.

  • Erika (Erika's Travels)

    May 11, 2016 at 5:24 pm Reply

    These rice paddies are absolutely stunning. It really is amazing how people can use manipulate nature and eke out a living in the harshest environments. As much as I’d love to visit the islands of the Philippines, I believe that no trip would be complete without a visit to Luzon.
    Erika (Erika’s Travels) recently posted…Visiting Iguazu Falls: Brazil and ArgentinaMy Profile

    • Joe

      May 11, 2016 at 10:13 pm Reply

      Thanks Erika, and it’s true, they really are remarkable feats of engineering, doubly so when you consider they are 2000 years old! Luzon is possibly my favourite part of the Philippines, and it certainly would be a highlight for most people who visit I reckon 🙂

  • Rebecca Decker

    May 12, 2016 at 5:39 pm Reply

    It’s amazing how much we can accomplish when we work with nature instead of against it. I love the photo of the older gentleman in his traditional clothing. What a wonderful opportunity to learn another culture.

    • Joe

      May 12, 2016 at 5:49 pm Reply

      Indeed it was – I was there too briefly to gain a deeper understanding, but it was still an informative experience all the same. Truly lived up to the mantra that travel broadens the kind through new experiences 🙂

  • Amy

    May 19, 2016 at 10:27 am Reply

    Looks stunning! Philippines is pretty high on my list, though I’m not sure when I’ll get back to that part of the world. You’ve given me more reasons for wanderlust, though! Those rice terraces!

    • Joe

      May 20, 2016 at 4:57 pm Reply

      Yes they are incredible Amy. Definitely recommend you check them out when you do get to return to South East Asia 🙂

  • Michelle Gumangan

    May 23, 2016 at 9:12 am Reply

    Wow! it’s so nice to read all those comments of how parts of the Cordillera was able to capture the attention and interest of your readers. Need I say more of how it “captured” me way back? I have my two kids as a product of the beguiling beauty of this place. 😀

    • Joe

      May 23, 2016 at 6:40 pm Reply

      Ah, a place of romance then? 😉 There are few settings as awe inspiring, so not surprised to hear this Michelle!

  • shayan Naveed

    May 25, 2016 at 7:10 am Reply

    Woah never realized Ph had places like this. It’s a refreshing post. Definitely interesting. Would love to go hiking here.
    shayan Naveed recently posted…Exploring the Airplane Graveyard in BangkokMy Profile

    • Joe

      May 25, 2016 at 12:02 pm Reply

      Banaue is prime hiking country so this is the perfect place for you. Thanks for dropping by 🙂

  • Lance Kerwin

    May 31, 2016 at 1:38 am Reply

    Philippines is truly a land of contrast. The Ifugao rice terraces is one of my list of destination. Philippines is well known for its beautiful beaches. But for me, my home country is way more than that. Thank you for highlighting other places that deserved recognition. The pictures are awesome.

    • Joe

      May 31, 2016 at 11:20 am Reply

      Thank you Lance, and if you’re from the Philippines then you’re certainly entited to be proud of it as far as I’m concerned 🙂

  • Nowthatsahoneymoon

    June 1, 2016 at 1:07 pm Reply

    Aw, I remember visiting Banaue Rice Terraces when I was very young. I was in my teens when we went to Sagada and went to Sumaguing Cave – complete darkness, trekking on bat droppings, and my first experience rappelling down a large rock! Aren’t the hanging coffins interesting??

    • Joe

      June 1, 2016 at 4:13 pm Reply

      Couldn’t agree more 🙂 I got my hand in some bat droppings when I was leaning on a rock for some support: my guide just laughed at me 😀 Experiencing it as a teenager must have been very interesting, especially the adrenalin-pumping bits. The Hanging Coffins are probably the highlight for me though, with a very fascinating story behind them, as you say!

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