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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.