White sandy beaches, idyllic islands, lush palm trees and dense jungle – this is what the Philippines is known for. However, if you want to discover a different side of this island nation, you should visit Banaue in the north of Luzon.
Banaue lies in Ifugao, a province that was only truly controlled by the government after WW2. Due to its remote location, it retained a lot of its traditional way of life even in the face of colonizers and invaders. Even today, local customs, laws and decisions made by a council of village-elders plays an important role in this mountaneous region.
The easiest starting point to Banaue is Manila. The bus ride should cost around 500 Pesos (9 USD). The name of the bus company is Ohayami Trans, and the bus ride takes about 8 hours. The ride on the winding mountain roads is not always pleasant, but it is the only option to get there, because there is no airport. I strongly advise visitors to book their tickets early, on order not to get a dreaded „center seat“, which is very uncomfortable.
The ride, however, is well worth it when you see the flat land give way to rolling hills. Banaue itself is a small town, but there are enough guesthouses and hostels, and the town with its narrow streets and small houses has a lovely atmosphere. In family-owned shops you can see the famous Ifugao wood carvings, and in the evening dances are held i front of the town hall. The close-knit community, so it seemed to me, is very keen on keeping their culture alive, while at the same time being very open to foreigners.
Once you have registered at the tourist office, you can either go hiking on your own, or choose from the available tours. My hostel, the Pink Banaue Hostel, offers 2-day-tours to Batad for 2000 Pesos (37 USD) – a fair price compared to other tours that are offered. Batad is the most popular destination in the Banaue and arguable has the most beautiful rice terrasses.
On the first day you start by taking a van to a view point outside of Banaue. Here you can already see the rice terrasses. The hiking trail is pretty straight forward and is situated next to the terraces, some of which are 2000 years old. It is not hard to see why rice plays such an important role in the region´s lore and customs. The rice terrasses are great works of engineering and are still cultivated by hand. A slow and difficult process, because every rice seedling has to be planted manually. On your way and in the small hamlets along the terraces you will be greeted by what I can only describe as the sweetest, kindest people in the Philippines. Life in the mountains may be difficult, but the locals are genuinely interested in foreigners and very welcoming.
If you book a 2 day tour, you will spend the night in a small, cosy homestay. The food was good and nothing will disturb your sleep here. However, do not expect internet or any cell phone signal.
On the next day, you will continue the rest of the way to Batad. The path gets quite steep, but the view on top is definitely worth it. On a clear day you will have a beautiful panorama of the rice terraces and the majestic mountains in the background.
After gorging your eyes on the breathtaking view, it is time to hike to your last stop – the Tappiyah-Wasserfällen. The trail that leads to it is infamous for its incline and quite demanding. The waterfall itself is quite tall and impressive. You can also swim there, although not directly underneath it.
All in all, a trip to Banaue is a must for every Philippines tourist, even though it takes some time to get there. The landscape is pleasently different, the local culture and artworks interesting, and I immediately fell in love with the locals. If you decide to go, do pack some rain gear as it rains regularly in Banaue. The nights get a bit colder as well, so long clothes are recommended.