The Cordillera is a mountain range in the north of Luzon, featuring unique tribal cultures and distinctive landscapes. The people of the Cordillera are referred to collectively as the Igorot and successfully resisted subjugation during the three-century occupation of the Philippines by the Spanish. Consequently, the languages and traditions of the region were less affected than areas of the lowlands. The Igorot were eventually pacified by the Americans, and such the area is an isolated bastion of Protestantism within a staunchly Catholic nation. While most Igorot today live in towns and villages, many are still members of hill tribes that engage in (often fatal) skirmishes. Prior to spending nearly four weeks on beaches and hopping between the Philippines’ paradisiacal islands, I decided to loop north from Manila through the Cordillera, specifically to Banaue and Sagada. Banaue is internationally renowned for its rice terraces (touted by the Philippines’ tourism bureau as the “eighth wonder of the world”), while Sagada is used as a base to explore the caves, mountains and valleys located nearby.
When you’re forced to dive into a book with an opening line of, “It was Miss Somers’ turn to make the tea.”, your day has clearly not gone to plan. Perhaps that’s a tad unfair. Agatha Christie’s famed A Pocket Full of Rye, featuring master sleuth Miss Marple, is certainly an addictive read. In fact, I was so absorbed into the plot and fascinated by Marple’s interminable cunning that I finished the novel in a day. Not that I had much alternative. When I arrived in Banaue after a 10 hour overnight bus trip, it was drizzling lightly and the valley was completely obscured by fog. The weather remained unchanged throughout the day, effectively confining me to the guesthouse balcony and dining room. I was not in a position to complain though; the weather was comparatively pleasant in Banaue as a typhoon raged through the southern and central islands of the Philippines. But I was prevented from viewing the fabled rice terraces of the Cordillera, which represent an impressive feet of engineering constructed nearly 2,000 years ago on the slopes of precipitous mountains. The most spectacular reputedly surround the village of Batad, where I originally intended to stay. But since accessing Batad requires a 30 minute hike after a jeepney ride, I decided not to travel further than Banaue in the forecasted thunderstorms. I later regretted this decision, as I discovered other travellers had enjoyed mesmerising, if momentary, views of the wondrous landscape. Banaue, the primary centre in the area, is strung along a narrow highway that winds down a valley. Most of the guesthouses and restaurants therefore boast expansive views of the landscape. I ventured out for a brief amble through the town, hoping to sight the rice terraces. The fog parted briefly and I photographed a handful of terraces, though I was hardly treated to enthralling vistas. At least I had Miss Marple for entertainment.
I awoke the next morning to find the valley traipsed with the same depressingly wet blanket of clouds and quickly determined the imperative of my immediate departure. I chased the amiable weather forecasted for Sagada, on the other side of the mountain range, and was pleasantly greeted with a few rays of sunlight. I met Filipino Clint from Manila on the minivan to Sagada and his translating skills were particularly valuable in the town. Sagada’s layout is defined by a market square at the top of a valley, from which a steep main road of guesthouses and restaurants plunges down a slope. The constituent attraction of Sagada itself is Echo Valley, which features the intriguingly named “hanging coffins”. In order to visit Echo Valley, we were required to engage a tour guide, though this basically entailed leading us down a 500 metre path and noting a handful of historical points easily deciphered from a guidebook. I soon discovered that visiting virtually every attraction in the Philippines requires an associated tour, and as such the country is comparatively more expensive than others in Southeast Asia. Despite its provocative name, the hanging coffins were less enthralling than anticipated. I thought I would view a myriad of coffins spookily suspended and dangling from trees and cliffs, but instead about a dozen were secured to cantilevered beams and lying horizontally. The spectacle should more appropriately be referred to as the “shelved coffins”. Through a mixture of protestant and animist traditions, locals believe that resting the coffins in the air rather than the earth expedites the process for spirits to access heaven (its quite possible I have unintentionally fabricated that explanation). While throngs of people, myself included, were photographing the coffins, our guide remarked that the most recent shelving occurred in 2010. It made me ponder, how much time must elapse until it is acceptable to treat a grave, tomb or in this case exposed coffin as a desensitised tourist attraction? One year, 5 years, 10 years? The pyramids are effectively the most famous mausoleums on earth (we think), yet no one grieves for those buried inside. So at what point do we forget the dead and gawk merely at the structures they continue to occupy?
Spelunking is apparently the thing to do while in Sagada. Caves, however, are not exactly my favourite landscape to explore, especially those that are very narrow, very deep and very dark. I therefore compromised and visited apparently the most cavernous in the area, Sumaging, with its cauliflower-like ceiling. The entrance to Sumaging is somewhat hidden within forest and bramble and not indicative of the depth and beauty of the cave. For the first 10 minutes, visitors descend a moonscape of derelict stalagmites and stalactites and clusters of bats. The majesty of the cave commences when flowing water is encountered. For the next 30 minutes, visitors scramble down the smooth, milky surfaces of intriguing limestone formations formed from hydraulic action. Water sweeps across the rock and trickles into pristine pools on four different levels. Limestone plunges into the pools with the curves and irregularities suggestive of waterfalls frozen into stone. I soon realised that despite the “ecological tax” charged at every natural attraction, safety and environmental standards are quite different in the Philippines than Australia. Absolutely no safety equipment was provided and there seemed to be no limit to the number of tourists permitted to tour Sumaging, which was quite dangerous since there was only one access point and the paths were slippery and steep to navigate. I never felt particularly claustrophobic in Sumaging, though when we reached the bottom platform I was certainly ready to escape.
The highlight of my time in the Cordilleras was a canyoning expedition I did just outside of Sagada. The tour was led by an affable American who had operated in the area for over a decade (and, naturally, had established a second family). Confident in the knowledge that Western standards of safety would be enforced, I had surprisingly no inhibitions about rappelling and jumping down 10-20 metre waterfalls throughout our 7 hour trip. Due to the remoteness and technicality of the route, our group of 5 tourists and 3 guides were the only people in the canyon all day. To access the canyon, we hiked through forest and small villages until we reached the first waterfall. By this point, I had already managed to slip and graze my leg, indicative of what was to come. The first waterfall was effectively a training run at rappelling and everyone descended without difficulty. The next waterfall required us to descend a slippery wall of 15 metres into the pool below. I soon realised how amazingly easier it is to deal with heights when you’re forced not to focus on the stomach-churning void, but at a tangible rock-face directly in front of you. I therefore found the most challenging aspect of rappelling was not at the highest point, but rather at the bottom trying to land on two feet. As the day progressed, we became progressively colder as it was only 18 degrees and we were required to jump into cold water with little more than a rash vest. My shivering was uncontrollable by lunch that a Belgian lady started dotting on me and became known as my “canyoning mum”. On several occasions, we were required to jump from the top of a waterfall into pools hidden from view at the bottom. On each occasion, I managed to stumble and hurt myself, the worst of which was jumping from a 12 metre ledge and landing on the side of my face. I had concentrated so much on nailing the run up that I had neglected to apply a bomb formation once airborne and suffered the consequent pain. At the end of the adventure, I was achingly cold and had cuts and bruises all over my body, but the thrill was well worth the trauma.
The food in the Cordillera was definitely better than in Manila, probably because of the presence of fresh vegetables. Pancit bihon quickly became my regular comfort-food order, a simple dish of stir-fried glass noodles, vegetables and chicken or pork. I sampled one of the few Filipino vegetable dishes (albeit with shrimp paste), pinakbet, which consists of pumpkin, okra and beans cooked in tomatoes, garlic, ginger, coconut milk and shrimp paste. Unfortunately the presence of the okra made the dish unpalatable for me. The owner of the guesthouse I was staying at generously invited me to attend a feast she had prepared for her grandson. The traditional spread consisted of winter melon soup, papaya salad, roast chicken, mussels, homemade spring rolls, a stir-fried pork dish, kare-kare and a centrepiece of pasta bolognese (classic Filipino!). Kare-kare is one of the signature dishes of the Philippines, with oxtail and vegetables cooked in peanut sauce served with a less appetising dollop of shrimp paste. Aside from the enormous hunks of pork fat that I kept mistaking for eggplant, the dish was indeed rather moorish.
After spending 4 days in the Cordillera, I decided to rush back to Manila to spend New Year’s Eve in a major city. Departing my guesthouse wearily but healthily at 6:00am, I did not anticipate to arrive at my hostel in Manila at 10:00pm with a cold likely acquired from canyoning and ulcers in my mouth caused by an extremely sour green mango. Nevertheless, the early hours of the return journey were spectacular, as the weather finally improved and we were afforded astonishing views of deep valleys, villages clinging to steep slopes and rice terraces.
That’s all for now,