Banaue - Ifugao Province - The Philippines
May 8th - 9th, 2016
Our night bus to Banaue halts for its second rest stop at 5.30am, just as the sun is rising and we are able to enjoy the rest of the ride in daylight through ever narrower, winding, bumpy roads that have stunning views out across the countryside of Ifugao Province - Rica Terrace country! This is the reason we have come..to see the UNESCO 'Stairway to Heaven' rice terraces hewn some 2000 years ago by the Ifugao tribespeople, a feat to rival the building of the pyramids and a sight comparable only to Machu Pichu in all of our travels so far!
The bus ride ends in the town of Banaue and we are quickly whisked to the tourist office to pay our obligatory 'environmental' fee...no mention of what this covers or why it is exacted from tourists only, then comes the task of working out where we can go and how much we can see given our limited time and budget. We end up settling for a tricycle ride (think small motorbike with side carriage, covered entirely with patched, bodged roof to keep the sun off) to Batad, a night there and a guide for the trek back to the road via various terraces and villages in the mountains, where we would get picked up by the same tricycle for the journey back to Banaue, giving us time if we wished to walk up to the Banaue terrace lookout spot.
Our journey to Batad, despite being slightly precarious, not to mention loud and bumpy, was surprisingly pleasant, the views were outstanding, the breeze glorious and our driver stopped frequently for us to stretch our legs and take pictures of the incredible vistas before us. Eventually we arrived at the end of the 'new' road and instead of the hour's hike that the guide book suggests, we had only a short 15 minute walk down to the village where we were able to locate the recommended accommodation of Hillside Inn (recommended due to it's spectacular views out over the terraces) and sort out our room for the night.
After dumping our overnight bags (we had left the bulk of our luggage at a lock up in Banaue) and paying a 'Heritage' fee...again, no explanation etc, we quickly changed and headed out to see the UNESCO terraces and to find the waterfall we kept hearing people talk about, swimming togs at the ready! We soon discovered why everyone kept asking us to be our guide, the upper village where we were staying is like a maze, steps and pathways all intertwining to create vast confusion, however, we were determined to make it on our own (mostly because we couldn't afford a guide for both days) and through perseverance, a bit of luck and asking directions from some local children, we were finally out on the terraces themselves and able to enjoy the peace and tranquillity. The main village is nestled much lower down in the middle of the terraces and looks very quaint, though we had not the energy to go down to see it any closer.
The terraces are a spectacle worthy of a better writer and photographer than I, but all I can do is try and covey the sheer scale and awe they inspire as we trod carefully along the narrow edges, some of which were rather precarious due to the sheer drop to the terrace below some 20ft or more away. The rice plants were at the peak of their growth, bright green and swaying hypnotizingly in the cooling breezes, each terrace had its own irrigation channel from which water supplied by a local spring, flowed to cover the base of the plants by several inches. We followed the terraces round the amphitheatre like hillside and then climbed up many steep, narrow steps to a small shelter where many other tourists had gathered to take in the amazing views. Not to miss a trick, the locals had supplied the shelter with a stock of items for sale, drinks and snacks mainly, but also cigarettes sold individually, rice wine and souvenir tat.
Tourism has become a survival problem for the terraces, we are easy money - accommodation, transport, guides etc - whereas farming the terraces is backbreaking work, scaling hundreds of steps a day, carrying large loads etc. The problem being that more and more terraces are being left to ruin in favour of tourism, so much so, that they no longer provide enough food for the villages as they used to, but if there are no terraces, there will be no tourists in the future! This lack of foresight seems to be the way of things over here, people don't care about the rubbish they dump today affecting the lives of those who come tomorrow, it is very sad to see and I really hope something is done about it, that the people are educated in time to prevent the loss of something so special and precious.
We continued our adventure by finding the way down to the impressive 30m high Tappia Waterfall and commenced to join the many locals and other tourists in enjoying a swim in the deliciously cool pool at the base. Lingering until we were actually cold (a novelty recently) we spent an hour on the shore relaxing in the sun as we dried, watching local children play and trying to decide whether we risk the burgers that were being sold in the little huts there or not! We erred on the side of caution and bought some nuts to eat instead before starting the long haul back up the stairs and along the terraces to our hostel, where after a shower and rather disappointingly small, though tasty, chicken adobo and rice (a Philippine speciality) we watched the sun go down from our balcony before collapsing in bed to a full 10 hours sleep!
In the morning we met our guide after breakfast and he showed us the way out the back of the village and across more terraces to a well worn track that led between Batad and other small holdings and villages. The 5 or 6 mile journey to the road and our pick up was glorious, high up in the mountains with not a soul to be seen, you could see for miles across the troughs and valleys of the region, rice terraces dotting the landscape with surprising regularity, showing just how many people actually live off the land in this rugged country. The only slight on this beauty was the amount of election propaganda strewn along the path...today was election day in the Philippines and we guessed that you choose who to vote for by who has the most campaign litter on the paths!! By the time we arrived at the road, our legs were exhausted, my shoulders were red (no matter how much sun cream I use it sweats off too quickly in the bright sunshine) but we both agreed that it was more than worth the effort and one again likened it to our trip to Machu Pichu.
Our return trip to Banaue was uneventful, yet just as pretty as on the way there, after saying goodbye to our guide and tricycle driver we spent the afternoon wandering around the town before catching another night bus back to Manila.