Travel feature on Banaue in Ifugao province, Northern Philippines, for AsianTraveler magazine’s March-April 2011 issue, Philippine Summer: Hidden Destinations. Photos by Sherwin Ballesteros & words by Nikka Corsino.
Full text update as of January 11, 2012:
The sun never shone on us in Banaue.
But that meant only one thing: seeing the world-famous landmark—previously known to us only through history books—breathe in a different light.
Banaue’s silent grandeur spoke to us beneath the thick fog, the intermittent drizzles, and even the muddy tracks we had to tread along the way.
It had rained the whole weekend we were there, which meant our view of the terraces—endless mounds of green and brown, gigantic and yet silent, seemingly watching our every move—was almost always obstructed by thick white fog.
We had embarked on what turned out to be a 10-hour night bus trip to Ifugao province, home to the so-called Eighth Wonder of the World, hopeful that we will set foot on Banaue soil under a beautiful early morning sunrise that would give us the most favorable shooting condition for the vistas we were sure to see.
But a cold, sleepy, and wet Saturday morning greeted us as our bus plied past the first few roadside houses along Ifugao a little past six in the morning. The day’s early risers sat on wooden benches by the roadside, owners opened shop, and children looked out the windows, their faces lighting up as our bus passed by.
Still hopeful that we would be seeing later in the day the stream of sunshine we were hoping for, we headed to our first stop: the stone-walled terraces in Hapao, a barangay (village) in Hungduan province in Ifugao, roughly an hour and a half from Banaue.
The road to Hapao had been rough, not to mention muddy, as the semi-paved road was blocked by huge mounds of landslides. Now and then, our view of the valley beyond would again be shielded by a thick wad of fog. Our tour guide Jake had kindly confirmed what we had suspected of our incredible timing: it had started raining non-stop in Banaue only two days previously.
We reached our destination a little past 11 AM, and luckily for us the drizzle had momentarily stopped and the clouds had parted, allowing for a majestic 180-degree view of the terraces, one of the oldest in Luzon.
“Our forefathers were trying to create something unique,” proudly said the owner of a souvenir shop beside the viewdeck of the Hapao Terraces.
With less steep slopes than those we saw in Banaue on our way to Hungduan, the Hapao Rice Terraces are stone-walled patches of green disturbed by random clumps of houses and a prominent church on top, perhaps the closest I could get to the green mountainscapes of Ireland and Iceland with the iconic lone white church on one side I had always wanted to photograph.
The Bokiawan River cuts through the planes like a snake, the sound of its gushing current reaching us from around 50 feet above. We took the cable car ride that gave us an even more magnificent view of the terraces, vivid green fading into the whiteness of the clouds.
Of severed heads and ancient huts
On the way back from Hapao, we stopped by the Hiwang Native Village at Gohang barangay. What greeted us were two well-maintained traditional Ifugao houses, called ulog or bale Rising about a meter from the ground, supported by thick logs as posts, these usually six square-foot thatched native houses are bedecked with artifacts from the many rituals and celebrations in a typical Ifugao family’s life.
Human skulls courtesy of the family’s head-hunter members, skulls of buffalos, and other animals butchered for a wedding, birthday, or any other special occasion hung neatly on the ulog‘s outer walls for display.
As owner Mang Noel explained, these artifacts reflect the status of a certain family, as butchered buffalos, for instance, are typically afforded only by the wealthy.
Inside the ulog are wooden sculptures of the Cordilleran rice gods, called bulul, as well as several household items such as bowls and ladles, all made of wood.
Surrounding the area are several elaborate stone sculptures, commissioned by the Japanese in the 1940s from Mang Noel’s ancestors.
Tourists may also rent one of these native houses and sample the way the Ifugaos had lived before, as well as view the terraces down below. Unfortunately for us, the thick fog prevented us from taking in the panoramic view the place offers.
From Hiwang, we went to two of the three viewpoints of Banaue’s pride—the same man-made structure figuring prominently in the Php1,000 bill.
Holding the bill against the view before me had felt surreal.
It felt like looking for the start and end points of a maze that’s a million times bigger, its topography naturally changed from the time the photo was taken.
But here I was, at the so-called Eighth Wonder of the World, perhaps as grand as the Pyramids of Giza I have always wanted to see.
Unlike the Hapao Rice Terraces we had earlier seen, those of Banaue are like big, steep-sloped mounds of earth that stretch to as far as the eye can see. From our point, we could hear the great rush from the waterfalls from the terraces’ left side. To our right was Banaue’s town proper—minute, quiet, and seemingly a world away.
This vast valley of majestic handiwork was perhaps living proof of the Ifugao’s pride: their superior artistry reflected in this huge patchwork, a larger-than-life painting that has lived through the generations.
Pieces of history
On our second day, we headed for the native village Tam-an just below our hotel. The steps down the village, though concrete, were littered with wet leaves and branches from the days’ rains.
Upon reaching the foot of the hill, we were welcomed by a villager who invited us to see preserved bones of his great-grandfather. It is customary for the Ifugao to gather the bones of their dead, wrap them in G-string and hand-woven blankets, and keep them in their house.
“If any of the bones went missing, one of us in the family is going to be ill,” says the villager, Mang Jimmy, who has shown us the 90-year-old bones of his great-grandfather Magiano.
It was a lazy Sunday, and other villagers sat on wooden benches below their huts, children ran around, and ducks roamed about the wet, muddy soil.
The other part of Banaue’s history lives in the Banaue Museum. It couldn’t have been located anyplace better: sitting on perhaps one of the highest points in downtown Banaue, the concrete edifice gives one not only a peek into the Ifugao history through its collection of artifacts, but also a panoramic view of the bustle of the town below, Sunday church songs echoing in the mountains, and the roaring sounds of automobiles down below.
The museum, where taking photos was prohibited, gave us a rich glimpse into the artistry of the Cordilleras: beaded necklaces from Ifugao, Bontoc, and Kalinga; Chinese porcelain jars traded from the lowlands before the Spanish occupation, which were passed on as heirloom; the different storage baskets of the Ifugao, including the ulbung (rice storage basket) and the kayabang (carrying basket for sweet potatoes), plaited and made from rattan and wood.
Headdresses, indicators of power and wealth, and sometimes custom-made for brides and grooms, were also on display, as were intricate Ifugao belts (ginuttu), prized heirlooms made of clamshell disks.
A neat row of myriad spears, about six feet tall each, were also tucked on one side, including war spears (pahul), described as an inseparable companion of an Ifugao man because of tribal wars, made of hardwood with tips of metal of different shapes with hafts, richly decorated, and sometimes plaited with rattan or copper.
The Ifugao’s apparent artistry is woven into their everyday life. It is clear from the artifacts we saw at the museum, as well as from the countless souvenir shops we have visited, that Ifugaos breathe art—from their tattooed bodies, elaborate headdresses, and wrap-around skirts to their food bowls, spears, and houses. Every tangible thing about the Ifugao way of life speaks of a symbol—status, wealth, or belief.
The Banaue Trade Center, on the other hand, is the center of everyday business in Banaue, and activity peaks on Saturdays.
Albeit rainy, the market was abuzz when we got there in the afternoon. Vendors peddling their wares sat on makeshift stalls, the smell of poultry and rainwater filling the air as we walked along. Every Saturday, people from other towns and some from as far as Solano in Nueva Vizcaya troop to the market to sell their wares—from native cakes and dried fish to vegetables and live chicken.
Curio shops selling antique carvings, wooden sculptures, and woven cloths also dot the center, so do eateries serving local fare.
As far as food is concerned, one should expect simple dining in Banaue. Mostly located at the trade center, eateries offer local dishes such as the pinikpikan—native chicken stew which is prepared by bludgeoning a live chicken before it is cooked, supposedly for better flavor—which we sampled at a small eatery called Coolwinds Fastfoods for Php70 (USD1.60) per dish. For more choices, albeit not of native food, Imbayah Restaurant at the Banaue Hotel where we stayed should be the best choice for tourists. Imbayah’s most tasteful treat, however, is its generous servings of breathtaking views of the mountains courtesy of its floor-to-ceiling windows.
Peace among the clouds
We stayed at the Banaue Hotel, the biggest hotel in Banaue overlooking a vast valley that always makes for a great view from our room’s balcony.
After a full day’s trip through mud and mountains, markets and museums, retiring someplace with exactly the kind of warmth inside that still allows you to peek into the grandeur of the nature outside is the best.
And it is in fact in a restful state, sometimes in solitude, that one truly enjoys everything about Banaue.
As the curtain of fog thins, revealing the vast, quiet mountainscape, one cannot help but marvel at the peace this place evokes.
And even the slightest glimmer of sunshine that quickly gave way to yet another spell of rains could not disturb the sheer beauty of Banaue even under the least favorable weather.
Imposing and yet mystical at the same time, this quiet town in the mountains is truly a wonder on its own.
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