FHM Supplement - Cordillera Road Trip

by Stephanie Dychiu

TRIP 1: Baguio-Sagada

When you wake up tomorrow morning, take a bath, put on your tie, leather shoes, suspenders, and other articles of clothing that will cover your excuse for a body, and drive to the office.

Then, for a change, imagine how things will be when you’re finally living your dream of going on a road trip. You can fling all your worries to the wind, not caring that the timekeeper in your office will be furiously subtracting numbers from your paycheck (leave without pay, see). That wouldn’t bother you—no, sir!—because by then, you will be in your SUV on your way close to the tip of the North. Just think: five days without cellphones, email, fax machines, and traffic schemes changing by the minute.

Not possible, you say? Think again. We’ve got an itinerary that will take you on your SUV from Manila up to Baguio, the Cordilleras, and back to Manila in five days. It’s a road trip that will soothe your inflamed premature midlife crisis like a salve.

So what are you waiting for? Pack your things, get your set of wheels ready, and disappear from the life that you know and hate—at least for five days.

You’ve got a long day of driving ahead of you, so make sure you’re speeding out of Manila on the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX) by 7:00 am. Don’t worry about leaving home on an empty stomach or a bursting bladder; there’s a Petron station along the highway with a Pancake House and Starbucks just 15 minutes after you come out of the tollbooths. Take a leisurely hour-and-a-half to have breakfast and shop for supplies at Treats. Make sure you fill up your kikay kit with essentials, not with gum. Then gas up and have a quick vehicle check-up at Petron before getting back on the road.

Follow the highway all the way to Tarlac, where you can take a break for lunch. *Important Tip Not To Be Ignored In All The Excitement: Space out your journey so your companions don’t develop cabin fever and start singing Barry Manilow songs. Several fast food restaurants are located right along the highway in Tarlac, so you won’t be forced to eat Cordillera dog meat this early in the journey. Get back on the road by 1:30 pm, and drive non-stop to Baguio. You should be there by around 4:00 pm.

Spend the night in Baguio. Upmarket travelers can stay at Camp John Hay (Loakan Road, Baguio City; Baguio phone: 074-4460231 to 50 local 1003/1004; Manila phone: 8450892 or 8450911). This former sanctuary of the US military is now a tourist playground of pine forests, picnic spots, horse and bike trails, skating rink, and a mini-golf course. For better or for worse, Metro Manila landmarks like Starbucks, Country Waffle, Dencio’s, and Brother's Burger have taken root in the John Hay compound, so you’ll feel like you never left home at all. If you’d rather save your cha-ching to buy knitted Baguio ski caps you won’t ever use, a more affordable alternative to John Hay is the Hotel Supreme near the downtown area (113 Magsaysay Avenue, Baguio City; Phone: 074-4432011).

Have dinner at Café By the Ruins (25 Chuntog St., Baguio City; phone: 074-4424010), arguably Baguio’s most notable and cozy restaurant. Here you can sample Benguet coffee, red rice, and fresh salad greens doused in mouthwatering “Ruins dressing”, a heady mixture of mayonnaise and fish roe you will be obsessing about for the rest of your life. If you’re in the mood for more exotic fare, check out the eateries in the slaughterhouse compound near the Santo Nino Barangay Flea Market, where appetizing Soup No. 5 (cow testicles swimming in beef broth) and mystery meat can be found at prices that are easy on your pocket. For those with weaker stomachs, traditional home-cooked Pinoy fare is also served.

After dinner, comb Session Road and nearby streets for second-hand designer duds to spruce up your sorry wardrobe back home. The wag-wagan (that’s ukay-ukay to you, Manila boy) is a good place to pick up sweaters and coats in case you forgot to pack enough warm clothes in the mad rush to be out of Manila by 7:00 am like we ordered you to do. At an average cost of P50 per clothing item (sometimes with an authentic North Face or Herve Leger label), you’ll be smiling through your sneezing fits while rummaging through the musty piles. Needless to say, but still we will say it for the benefit of the daft, you must wash the clothes before using them.

If the sequined shirts and crocodile boots at the wag-wagan put you in a clubbing mood, throw them on—with lots of cologne—and drive up to Legarda Road for drinks, dancing, and a round or two of billiard games. Gimbals (Mount Crest Hotel, Legarda Road; Phone: 074-4456945) and 18 B.C. feature live bands and the best-looking crowd in all of Baguio. Try your best to fit in, despite how you look.

Make up for all the hours of sleep you lost yesterday by waking up late today. However, it is never good to be driving through mountain roads after dark, so be sure you’re back on track by noon. Bring along some fast food take-out to snack on when you take a quick break later on the way to Mount Data.

Head towards the exit to La Trinidad, Baguio’s neighboring city. Near the exit, you will find the last Petron station you are going to see for the next three days. Better tank up, check your tires, do some yoga if you have time, and complete all necessary vehicle maintenance at this station, because there will be nothing but desolate Halsema Highway from here on.

About 60 kilometers after you exit Baguio, you will come across the highest point of the DPWH national network of highways (7,400 feet above sea level), evidenced by a stone marker carrying the most imaginative name, in case there might be some misunderstanding, of “Highest Point”. This is a good spot to stretch your tired legs and wolf down the fast food take-out you’ve been drooling over since Baguio. Two little sari-sari stalls on this spot sell sodas cooled au naturel by the mountain air. You must try them if only to prove manang isn’t lying when she says, “Oo, malamig po ang coke namin,” even when there’s no fridge in sight. Another 40 kilometers down the road, you will finally reach the Mount Data Hotel, a property of the Philippine Tourism Authority. You should arrive here around 4:00 pm.

Mount Data
Mount Data Hotel (Sinto, Bauko, Mountain Province; Smart Link satellite phone: 0985421514; Resident Manager Dollie Theodore’s cellphone: 0918-3344701) is perhaps the best-value mountain lodge in the country. First-class service and facilities come at economy class prices. This little-known hideaway is actually quite popular among VIPs trying to get away from it all. And if you are a VIP—which, unfortunately, you are not—there would be a point to knowing that a conveniently situated helipad in the hotel lets you quietly chopper in and out with minimum fuss.

This itinerary allows you to stay in Mount Data only until 4:00 pm the following day, so it is recommended that you waste no time sitting down with Resident Manager Dollie Theodore or any of her staff to discuss what sights to see. It’s 100 to 1, though, that you will want to plan a return trip the minute you set foot on this soothing mountain haven.

If you are in a penitent mood after several near-death encounters racing up the rough road from Baguio, drive 30 minutes from Mount Data Hotel to Mount Bandilaan, where you can climb a 200-step hill that leads to a shrine of the Virgin Mary. Or, you can take in the breathtaking views at the Inodey Falls Viewpoint (30 minutes away) and Sabangan Viewpoint (1 hour and 40 minutes away). In Sabangan, you can visit the Sabangan Loom Weaving House, where you can purchase native napkins, table runners, placemats, and bags. For fresh produce grown in the gardens of Bauko, visit the Abatan Public Market 20 minutes away from the hotel. Don’t forget to ask Dollie or her staff about Mount Data’s famous enchanted eel . . . that got your attention now, huh?

Get back on Halsema Highway by 4:00 pm so you can reach Sagada by 6:00 pm, when the dark settles in. If it is your first time driving up to Sagada, don’t be foolhardy and attempt to drive in the dark, unless you are curious to know how it feels to hurtle off a cliff behind the wheel of your car, while cows casually graze in the background and wonder about your IQ.

Check yourself in at St. Joseph’s Resthouse (phone: 0918-5595934), one of the best places to stay in Sagada for its convenient yet quiet location on top of a small hill. Dorm rooms are available as well as stand-alone cottages, some with fireplaces. There is a restaurant inside the compound which opens into a small garden set up with picnic tables, where your posse can veg out after the drive from Mount Data.

But don’t vegetate for too long. Everything closes at 9:00 pm in Sagada (really, truly), so hit the town for dinner as soon as you’ve fixed up your lodgings. For such a tiny town, the dining options in Sagada are surprisingly plentiful. This itinerary allocates two days in Sagada, just about enough time to let you sample the best Sagada dining has to offer for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Don’t leave the town without eating at the Yoghurt House, Massferre’s Inn, the Log Cabin, Alfredo’s, and Shamrock Café. Remember to inform the restaurants in advance that you will be dining there so they can ensure your preferred dishes are available and you don’t have to wait long when it’s time to eat. No one wants to see you running amok because of your acidic stomach.

Wake up early so you can visit the tourist information center at the municipal hall to plan out the rest of your stay in Sagada. The info center can assign reliable guides to your group so you can experience the best of Sagada with the little time that you have. Be sure to include these sites on your list:

Sumaging Cave. The most popular tourist site in Sagada, Sumaging is home to bizarre rock formations named “elephant”, “frog”, “pregnant woman”, and many other indefinable shapes (maybe you should name one after yourself). This excursion takes about 3 to 4 hours. Practice your motor skills before taking on this cave because the damp can aggravate your already wobbly sense of balance. Bring along a waterproof daypack with a change of clothes because you will be wading through knee-deep water at some point, or swimming in the waterfall inside the cave. Don’t get too adventurous and start wandering off on your own—a foreigner who tried to do this lost his way and was eventually found dead. Your guides are there for a reason other than to be amused by your pasty-white city-boy legs.

Echo Valley. The stone walls here can create echoes for your voice, hence the name. This area is a sacred burial ground of Sagada’s indigenous tribes so you must treat it with the necessary amount of respect, i.e., no shouting that you are the king of anything. In this valley you can find some of Sagada’s famous hanging coffins, which are actually wooden boxes carrying the remains of the dead that have been hung on the walls like paintings. This excursion will take about 1 hour.

Demang Village. If you’re curious to see what a traditional Sagada village used to look like, Demang is the place to go (not the Net). Cogon houses can be found here, as well as dap-ays, the circular stone structures where village elders meet to discuss community affairs.

Bomod-ok Falls and Bokong Falls. A waterfall is a waterfall, but between these two, it’s still a little hard to choose. Bomod-ok has the stunning big waterfall that is surrounded by rice terraces, but it takes 1 hour and 45 minutes to get there. Bokong is closer, just a 15-minute walk from Sagada’s town center. Although smaller than Bomod-ok, Bokong’s pool is actually deeper. You can dive into it from about 16 feet and pretend you’re not a wimp.

Danum Lake. When you’re through caving, trekking, and swimming around, and you still haven’t lost any body parts, haul yourself over to Danum Lake for a congratulatory picnic. After eating, you can collapse on the grass and pretend you don’t have to walk another hour back into Sagada town. If you’re really too exhausted to move another inch, bribe your companions with full body massages so they’ll set up camp for the night. Don’t bring out your battery-operated massage thingy until they bite.

Did we mention you’ll be rafting on this trip? You never imagined you’d be this excited, right? For good measure, book your rafting romp way ahead while still in Manila.

Save your rafting run for Day 5 when you’ve gained enough perspective to appreciate the historical significance of the Chico River to this region. In 1974, the National Power Corporation proposed the construction of four hydroelectric dams on the Chico River, a project that would increase power supply in Luzon at the cost of destroying centuries-old rice terraces and flooding the ancestral lands of the Cordillera tribes. The previously warring tribes signed peace pacts (bodong) with each other and united to fight the Philippine government. The armed struggle was exacerbated by the killing of tribal leader Macling Dulag by the Philippine Constabulary in 1980. Faced with a common enemy, the New People’s Army (NPA) allied with the local tribes to fight the Philippine military, turning the Cordillera into one of the most militarized regions in the country. The tribes eventually succeeded in their struggle, and the plan to build the dams was abandoned. Today, the Cordillera is a self-governing region of the Philippines where tribal laws still prevail over the management of resources, personal and family relations, and the maintenance of peace and order.

As a rafting destination, foreigners have likened the rapids of the Chico River to the Grand Rapids. The presence of Class 2, 3, and 4 rapids make it an ideal training ground for beginners. You’ll be a little bruised and scratched up by the end of the rafting run, but the eye-popping views of rice terraces, hanging bridges, and local children bathing in the buff will be worth all your nightmares of being dashed to pieces against the rocks.
Use your brain cells for a moment and wonder about this: If Herodotus were alive today, what would he consider the real Eighth Wonder of the world? Since the Greek pundit of the Seven Wonders of the World died in 425 B.C., the Cordillera Rice Terraces have been vying for the non-existent eighth title along with Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, the Panama Canal, Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater, and even King Kong.

Fortunately, UNESCO picked up where Herodotus left off and put out a World Heritage List that is not limited to seven or seventy sites, but extends to over seven hundred. In 1995, the Cordillera Rice Terraces were included in the list as “a landscape of great beauty that expresses the harmony between humankind and the environment.”

Yet there is more to the Cordillera than the rice terraces, and in this adventure, you will be entering a no-man’s-land of savage beauty whose fate remains firmly in the grip of the last Filipino headhunters, fierce warrior tribes that have successfully repulsed colonizers for centuries. You will be treading on sacred tribal ground that has been carved out of the sovereign Philippine state, a self-governing land whose concept of justice and retribution dates back to ancient times. Following the headhunters’ tracks can literally be a jaw-dropping experience (see why in Day 3 below). This is a challenge no true adventure traveler should pass up.

DAY 1: MANILA-BANAUE (Via Cabanatuan: 342 km; Via Baguio: 441 km)
If you are coming from Manila, follow the itinerary on Day 1 of Trip 1. We’ll know if you don’t. But this time, go past Baguio and stop for the night in Banaue. You should arrive in Banaue no later than 6:00 pm. Alternatively, this trip can serve as an extension to Trip 1, which ends in Sagada. From Sagada, drive a little over 60 km down to Banaue, a journey that should take around 3 hours or less.

In Banaue, check in at the Banaue Hotel & Youth Hostel (Manila phone: 5242502, 5242495, 5256490; Banaue phone: 073-3864087, 073-3864088). It’s a property of the Philippine Tourism Authority (PTA). The hotel stands right in the middle of the 2,000-year-old Banaue Rice Terraces at an elevation of 4,000 feet above sea level. Let’s see you make a dive from there, hotshot. Shoestring travelers can choose to stay in the hostel building which has communal but really comfortable dorm rooms.

Assuming you drove up from Manila and arrived in the early evening, your best bet would simply be to relax your cramped legs in the hotel and sample the offerings of the in-house Imbayah Restaurant, known to be the best in town. On certain evenings, the hotel’s Ifugao employees put together a cultural show for the benefit of tourists—so you’ll have more interesting pictures other than your feet and your index finger.

If, on the other hand, you drove down from Sagada, you should arrive with plenty of daylight left, so head off for lunch at the People’s Lodge and Restaurant (Phone: 073-3864014) in town. This restaurant has a small balcony with a nice view of a hanging bridge over the Chico River, and clusters of tin houses precariously built against the mountainside. Can you say picturesque? Oh, right, you can’t. You can also pick up maps and travel pamphlets at the restaurant’s shop.

A trip to the Banaue Museum is a good way to know about the culture of the places you will be visiting further along on this adventure. The museum is right next to the Banaue View Inn (Phone: 073-3864078), where you can ask for the museum to be opened if it is closed when you arrive. Before turning in for the night, arrange with the front desk of your hotel to have a guide accompany you to Batad the following day because, remember what the doctor said, you’re not supposed to be left to your own devices.

Start the day early and drive to Batad to trek down the amphitheater-like rice terraces. There, you can savor the authentic Ifugao way of life. You can even opt to stay overnight in one of the traditional rice huts—a very interesting experience. The hike to Batad is strenuous and will take over two hours, so make sure you bring lots of water and will power. If you’re not in great shape, ask your guide to bring you to Bangaan instead.

Leave for Kalinga by 9:00 am. En route from Banaue, stop by Bontoc to check out the Bontoc Museum so you can get as much culture while you can, other than ballet. It has a comprehensive collection of Igorot artifacts, from clothing to weapons to gongs (a.k.a. gangsa) with handles made from human jawbones. In traditional headhunting practice, the jawbone is removed after the head of the enemy is lopped off so it can be used to embellish gongs. The jawbones serve as the identification mark of the owner of the gong. See? Getting culture doesn’t have to be all sweetness.

Stop for lunch at the Ridge Brook Hotel and Restaurant, where you can ask about well-known Kalinga guide Francis Pa-In. Francis knows Kalinga customs, history, and culture as well as he will know at first glance that you are actually scared of the dark. He’s been assisting anthropologists and tourists visiting the area for years (among them, David Howard, author of The Last Filipino Head Hunters, a one-of-a-kind book documenting the vanishing culture of the Cordillera tribes, available on Amazon.Com for about US$ 17.50).

Get back on the Halsema Highway by 3:00 pm at the latest to reach Tinglayan in Kalinga by 5:00 pm. You should ideally have a full-time guide with you when you leave Bontoc and head for Kalinga so you won’t end up in the Pacific Ocean. Try to arrange this way ahead before you even leave Manila. Contact Naty Sugguiyao at 0917-9668081 or 0912-8401202 for assistance. Naty is the provincial director of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples who is based in Tabuk, the capital of Kalinga province. She is also one of the prime movers behind Chico River Quest, Inc. (www.chicoriverquest.com.ph), the pioneer rafting tour operator in Kalinga.

In Tinglayan, expect lodging options to be clean but basic. The Luplupa Riverside Inn is quietly tucked away inside Luplupa village and is the newest among the lodging houses in the area. Other options are the Sleeping Beauty Resthouse and the Good Samaritan Resthouse, which are closer to the Chico river but also closer to the roadside, making noise levels definitely higher than Luplupa Riverside Inn. These establishments all have limited beds, so be sure to make your reservations with Naty even before you leave Metro Manila. You can also ask her about the latest road conditions (landslides are a fixture in the Cordillera) and water levels of the Chico River (if you intend to raft or kayak).

Look up a man named Moises Atuban to help you get around Tinglayan. Moises lives in Luplupa, a village of less than 900 people (half of whom are below 18), where everyone knows everyone else.

Moises is one of the first locals to be trained as a rafting guide by Ned Sickels, an American photographer and rafting expert from Oregon who was befriended by Naty Sugguiyao while traveling in the United States, and persuaded to visit the Philippines to set up rafting tours on the Chico River.

Today, the Chico River Quest, Inc. is run entirely by the locals in Kalinga who are dedicated to preserving the river’s cultural significance and ecological value even while promoting it as a world-class whitewater rafting destination. National tourism officials can learn a thing or two from the initiative and ingenuity of these Kalinga folk.

According to Moises, whitewater rafting in Kalinga is best from September to January, after the rainy season has passed. Various river runs can be arranged, such as:

Tinglayan Marathon Run. This is a stretch of Class 4 rapids covering the length of the Chico River from Tinglayan to Tabuk. Rafting time in high water is 4 to 5 hours, going up 6 to 7 hours at lower water levels.

Chico River-Tabuk Day Run. This is a 3-hour rafting trip with Class 3 rapids that are ideal for beginners. Enjoy beautiful scenery without the treacherous continuous rapids of the Tinglayan Marathon Run.

Saltan River Marathon Run. The first day will be spent going from Tabuk to Balbalan where travelers can stay with a Kalinga family. The second day starts with a 30-minute trek through the rainforest, followed by a 4-hour, 30-kilometer Class 4 run down the Saltan River. The stunning limestone gorge, tranquil pools, and cascading waterfalls you will witness during this run will make you forget that you are actually scared witless of the rapids.

While in Kalinga, do not pass up the chance to trek through the villages and observe the local people’s way of life that remains largely untouched by outside influences. But don’t stare. You are bound to see old men and women with tattooed bodies roaming around the villages. Tattoos on a man signify that he was once a headhunter while women sport tattoos merely for adornment. Most of them will cooperate if you ask for a photo-op, so bring some medicines or matches to thank them afterwards (Cash is discouraged. So is a rendering of your favorite song). Make sure a competent guide is with you at all times.

Time to make the final push to Cagayan Valley, where caving awaits as a welcome break to all the rafting you’ve been doing—or frantically trying to do. Hit the mountain road departing from Kalinga by 6:00 am, and you should get to Tuguegarao, the capital of Cagayan province, in about two hours. Have a bite at Pension Lorita (Rizal St., Tuguegarao City; Phone: 078-8441390) before venturing another 24 kilometers to the Callao Caves Tourist Zone in Peñablanca, where you can check in at the Callao Caves Resort (Phone: 078-8441057) along the Pinacanauan River.

Callao Cave is a seven-chambered limestone cave that can be accessed either by taking a boat or walking 200 steps up to the cave entrance. It doesn’t have a helipad, unfortunately. Natural skylights in the cave keep it relatively well-lit and well-ventilated. One of the cave chambers has been converted into a chapel with wooden pews and a stone altar. Towards the end of that chamber is a statue of the Holy Family sitting on an unreachable rise by one wall. Bat droppings are common inside but don’t worry, they don’t smell as bad as yours.

Hire a guide to help you explore this natural wonder through the Sierra Madre Outdoor Club (Region 2 Department of Tourism, 2F Supermarket Building, Bonifacio St., Tuguegarao City, Cagayan; Phone: 078-8441621, 078-8462435).

Spend the rest of your remaining time in the Callao Tourist Zone swimming in the Pinacanauan River or exploring the other caves in the vicinity. Just make sure you have a good rest before making the long drive home. You’ve gained bragging rights. It would be a shame not to claim those rights at the office just because you fell asleep at the wheel, crashed into a tree, and met Elvis.

(This article originally appeared in Petron Rover, an FHM supplement, in November 2003.)