BY ALLAN SEIDEN – From the hillside lookout, one of several along this stretch of road, layered terraces descend toward Banaue (ba now way), both the name of a valley and of a somewhat ramshackle town scenically wedged into the steep-walled confines of surrounding mountains.

Terraced fields climb every hillside, life sustained by the rice each terrace provides, an accomplishment acknowledged by the United Nations, which has named Banaue a World Heritage Site.  It is worthy of that designation, a place made special by the toil of succeeding generations, a milestone on the road less traveled.

Tropically verdant Banaue and its neighboring valleys are part of the Cordillera, the ruggedly mountainous north of the island of Luzon, with summits that rise more than 6,000 feet from the lowlands.

This is the home of the Ifugao people, one of many distinct tribes that inhabit the isolated valleys of the Cordillera, planting, tending, and harvesting the terraces their ancestors started building when Rome was an emerging world power. Succeeding generations would add to this ancestral heritage as the population grew, taming the vertical landscape with ever more terraces.

In addition to being farmers and hunters, they also sought the heads of neighboring tribes. Head hunting survived in places not far from Banaue until the 1930s, when the last of the Cordillera’s tribal peoples converted to Christianity. Artifacts and fascinating photos of that pre-Christian past make a visit to Banaue’s small museum worthwhile.

With modest exceptions, until recently, life continued as it had been lived since the first terraces were built 2,000 years ago, transforming vertical hillsides into useable land.  As in old Hawaii, terraced fields, like walled lo`i, were served by an elaborate, gravity-fed irrigation system that carried water from upland waterfalls and streams to water loving rice fields.

Getting to Banaue isn’t easy, isolation providing a buffer to change that have urbanized once tranquil Baguio, the gateway to the Cordillera preferred by American military and expats when the Philippines were an American commonwealth (1895-1946).  It’s less than an hour by plane from Manila. With no place for an airport, which means, one way or another, you’ll be getting there overland.

On the map it’s a mere 250 miles north of Manila. I’d scoffed at talk of a 10-hour-long trip even after half a dozen confirmations that this was the case.

Departing Manila on a northbound freeway, I was convinced we could do it in half that time. I had hired a car and driver in Manila for an eight-day swing through the Cordillera at a cost of about $100/day, plus fuel, room, and meals as we traveled.  With rooms at under $100 a night and meals priced at under $5, the Cordillera proved a very affordable destination.

Racing along at 70 mph in his four-wheel drive Toyota, a necessity for travel on the Cordillera’s mostly rough, unpaved roads, I figured we’d make it in six hours, maximum. The truth came when the freeway ended, abruptly replaced by a two-lane road with a seemingly endless procession of cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, buses and jeepneys.  Suddenly, 70 mph was replaced by 15 mph as we crawled our way north.  Most visitors to Banaue opt for the faster (7 hour) overnight bus trip that departs Manila late in the evening and arrives in Banaue as dawn pastels paint the sky and a its soft cargo of clouds, silhouetting the serrated peaks of the Cordillera.

The town of Banaue, at an elevation of 3,500-feet, sits astride a fast-running stream that’s carved its way into the landscape. Several bridges cross the stream, one a swaying rope bridge typical of the region. The town takes its cue from the landscape, homes built on every half-level patch in the layered fashion of the terraced fields. It is largely a linear town, much of it bordering the road that links Banaue to the highest passes in the Cordillera to the north and Manila to the south.

While the terraces continue to be cultivated, there are places where fields have been abandoned, a sign of changing times, as a new generation seeks the rewards of a modern lifestyle.  It seems inevitable that in time, far fewer terraces will be planted and maintained. All the more reason to see it while it’s still intact, with Ifugao elders still to be found in colorful, loom-woven style traditional to the Ifugao.

Banaue’s steep-walled valley funnels weather from the steamy lowlands inland, toward the cooler heights of the Cordillera.  It’s a recipe for the dramatic weather that became a highlight of my days in the Cordillera, with many an afternoon surrendering humid heat in thunderous rainstorms that ended in rainbows and sunsets.

Many moods pass in a single day, a vibrant patchwork of light and shadow when cumulus giants make their way overhead, turning somber and ethereal as skies darken with the sudden arrival of low-hanging rain clouds. For 20 minutes the rain pours, skies clearing as the storm moves up the valley, revealing Banaue’s terraces as a giant garden, lushly green and alive, white ribbons of water falling layer by layer in Maxfield Parrish perfection.

Banaue serves as a point of departure for visiting neighboring valleys, each a world unto itself, life lived largely self-sufficiently in a setting where nature’s grandeur is ever-present and time plays out as the sun allows.  Most famous is Batad, an amphitheater valley where rock-walled terraces descend close to 1,000 feet.  It’s a day trip that starts with a morning departure by jeepney (the rustic Philippine jeep/van hybrid toughs it out on Cordillera’s rugged roads) that’s the ultimate social) to the Batad drop-off. From here it’s a beautiful 45-minute walk to Batad’s upper terraces and a view of the diminutive town nestled in the flow of terraced fields whose rock walls, some 8-10 feet high, provide a route down.

There are a few rustic guesthouses in Batad, but most “pilgrims” make their way back to the jeepney pickup and a meditative ride back to Banaue.

It was by chance that I came upon Hapao Valley and its hot springs, drawn to a hand-written sign marked Hapao that I’d spotted intersecting the main road linking Banaue to the outside world. It was my last day in the Cordillera, car and driver exhausted after seven days on the Cordillera’s challenging roads.

Early morning rain clouds had been replaced by billowing cumulus clouds that hovered overhead, pale colors slowly deepening.

Almost immediately, the paved road surrendered to the dirt road typical of the Cordillera, challenging but passable, hugging the hillside as it wound its way through a maze of green valleys hung in mist. An occasional homestead, some in the distinctive native style… thatch-roofed, raised on stilts, and accessed by an exterior ladder… are a reminder of times now fading to memory as cinderblock and cement replace the handcrafted homes of the past.

The day’s exploration ended in a pool at the Hapao Hot Springs, returning to Banaue in time for a dusk-hued storm driven to the east by gusting winds. A quiet turn to night followed, with a quick walk into town, where a dinner of river fish and beer would be my last dinner in this memorable corner of the Cordillera.

Getting There

Organized tours to Banaue are available from Manila. The independent traveler has a range of bus options (go for what’s most comfortable). Many prefer the overnight transfer, getting you into Banaue in term for an early breakfast.

Several bus companies and tour agencies have escorted trips to Banaue. Bus service is offered by Ohayami Trans (call 639175060817), Autobus (call 63 2 740-79-59), GV Florida Transport (call 02 731-53-58 or 02 743-3809).

When to Go

This is the tropics, so expect warm, humid weather year-round.  November through April are the driest months.  Temperatures reach the low 90s, with far greater humidity than in Hawaii.

In the Cordillera, exhilarating afternoon storms lasting an hour or so, clear by sunset as the cool night air settles over the mountains.  Evening temperatures can fall into the low 50s.

Where to Stay

The Banaue Hotel (www.philtourism.gov.ph) offers three-star resort-style comfort starting at $55 per night, with a decent dining room. I stayed at the Banaue View, which cost under $20 for two. The large balcony, facing Banaue’s terraced hillsides and with long views of the mountains, provided the perfect setting, with hosts who were cordial and helpful. It is also home to a small museum, introducing the indigenous people and their traditional culture.  (www.banaueviewinn@yahoo.com/ph).

Getting Around

Car rentals and car-and-driver rentals are easy to book at the Banaue Hotel, with car-and-driver the recommend. Organized jeepney transfers to Batad can also be arranged.  Uhaj is only six miles from Banaue, but the road continues, with hot springs and scenic vistas, although road conditions in the Hapao Valley are now considered dangerous.

© Allan Seiden, 2011

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