It’s hard to find the words to describe the Banaue Rice Terraces of the Philippines. Amazing, awesome, magnificent, and marvelous are just not powerful enough. Pictures can’t truly illustrate the wonder of the place.
Not so long ago I was fortunate enough to visit Banaue with my husband and family members based in the Philippines. I don’t remember how I first learned of the terraces, perhaps from tales told by my grandmother, but it has always been on my bucket list.
Before my visit I had assumed that it would be just a site to be ticked off my list. I never imagined the region and its indigenous people would be so awe inspiring.
The Banaue Rice Terraces are located in the mountainous region province of Ifugao in northern Luzon, one of the main islands of the Philippines. It is just one of a cluster of rice terraces in the region. These man made wonders were carved from the mountainsides mostly by hand by Ifugao tribesmen over 2000 years ago. They are situated an average of 4800 feet above sea level and cover an area of over 400 square miles. They are rice paddies fed by an ancient irrigation system from the rain forests above.
The terraces have been referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World and is said to be one of the most impressive feats of engineering in the world. Built mostly of stone and mud these terraces have faced many challenges including earthquakes and droughts. They must constantly be tended and maintained by the Ifugao farmers by knowledge that has been handed down by their ancestors who built them over 2 millennia ago.
The Ifugao people have a proud and deep rooted culture. Like their ancestors they still grow rice, some still live in thatched roofed huts in tiny villages near the terraces, wash their clothes in the rivers and streams that irrigate their crops, and revere their customs and traditions. They are one of the truly indigenous people of the Philippines having successfully resisted foreign influences since Spanish rule.
They are friendly and honest people who are eager to share their heritage and culture with visitors. A visit to Banaue is almost like stepping back in time. Getting there can be a harrowing experience.
Our “journey” to Banaue began very early in the morning. Our party left Makati in Metro Manila about 6 am. Banaue may be only 350 Kilometers away, but it’s at least an 8 hour drive, ours turned out to be 12 hours due to unforeseen town fiestas and hoards of slow moving tricycles along the route which caused major traffic on the 2 lane roads. At least the weather was good, there were no dangerous flash floods or mud slides which are common in this area during heavy rain. We managed to arrive at our destination before dark, a must when traveling in remote areas of the Philippines.[spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]
We had booked 3 “deluxe” rooms and a driver’s bunk at the Banaue Hotel & Hostel, the government run hotel that boasts the only “luxury” accommodations in the area. It boasts a swimming pool, clean deluxe rooms with private baths, a restaurant, and gift shop. We were greeted by a welcome sign bearing our name and were quickly checked in and escorted to our rooms.
Our rooms are best described as clean and adequate, by rural Filipino standards “deluxe”, but 5-star luxury it was not. But what the room lacked in frills it made up for by the views. All our rooms had a small terrace that overlooked the Rice Terraces. What a site to awaken to!
Dinner was served in the restaurant on one side of the lobby. The menu is limited, quite expensive, and not exactly delicious, but there aren’t many restaurants in town and they are all pretty much the same.
Dinner was followed by a cultural show in the lobby. Entertainers dressed in handwoven traditional garb, wanoh (loin cloth or g-string) for men, and tapis (skirt or sarong) for women, complete with headdress. They sang and danced to the tunes played on their ethnic instruments which included drums and a gong. The show was short but somewhat interesting! We enjoyed the part when they asked us to join them and taught us their dance.
After the show it was time for bed, we’d had a long day and I was so looking forward to our one and only day in Banaue. Besides wandering around in the dark is not advisable. Lighting is scant away from the hotel buildings and believe me when night falls in the mountains it’s DARK. You don’t want to be stumbling around the dusty road in the dark, there are no sidewalks, the streets aren’t paved, and the paths are very steep.
I awoke very early, it was still dark. I wanted to see the sunrise over the terraces. I stood at my balcony rail transfixed at the mystical sight that unfolded before me. As the first rays of sunlight peeked over the mountain I could see only clouds shrouding the valley below. Slowly they parted like a curtain to reveal a view that took my breath way.
I can’t describe the feelings I had as the early morning mists cleared and the terraces were gradually revealed It was a humbling, peaceful, awesome sight that poets write about. At that moment I knew that this trip to Banaue would be unforgettable.
It was hard to tear myself away from the view, but I had to get my party to breakfast so we could explore the terraces before it was time to head back to Manila. (I could only persuade my group to a one day trip to Banaue).
After breakfast most of us headed to the gate that led to the Tam-An village. The gate is located by the hotel’s pool. Beyond the gate is a narrow path that winds down the mountainside. It’s an easy hike down, up is another story. You’ll know you’ve arrived at the village when you see a cluster of native huts built on stilts.
Each hut is built to accommodate a family, if you ask they will allow you up the short ladder and you can crawl around the space.
When we arrived there were only a few women and children in the village. We were told the most of the men and the rest of the village were working, either in the fields or in the tourist industry as most younger villagers do these days.
We were greeted by a woman who asked if we would like to see her ancestor’s bones. Of course we would! So for the price of 100 PHP ($2) we were ushered into her cottage, she didn’t conduct this business in a hut. She unrolled a woven bundle to reveal her grandfather’s bones who had died soon after WWII.
She spoke English, as they all do, and explained their ancient burial traditions. She told us that when someone dies the community holds elaborate festivals to honor the deceased and other spirits. After several festival days the deceased is buried in a cave for a couple of years, enough time for the body to decompose. When the family has accumulated enough funds for a ceremony the remains are exhumed and the bones cleaned and taken to the family home. The family cleans and tends to the bones throughout the years. It was a fascinating glimpse into the Ifugao culture and well worth the $2. We later joked that “Lolo” or Grandpa was still earning the family money over 50 years after his death.
When we stepped out of the “bone” cottage we were approached by another woman who asked if we’d like to hire her daughter Mina to guide us to the terraces and if we’d like to go down in traditional Ifugao clothing.
The guide cost another 100 PHP and each costume another 100 PHP. By now we’d tripped on to the fact that these folks eked out a simple living by offering tourist “attractions”. How could we resist? Of course we hired the child, and of course we rented a costume.
We had to twist my cousin’s 15 year old son Chad to wear the wanoh and he only agreed as long as he got to keep his clothes on. He wasn’t thrilled but was appeased when we told him he would look like an Ifugao warrior.
As our erstwhile warrior was helped into his costume we admired the views from the village. The village sits at the entrance to the terraces.
Accompanied by our young guide who bears my name we set out to explore the rice terraces. We passed narrow creeks and irrigation canals where village women were doing laundry. They wash clothes by hand and beat them on the rocks, I suppose like how it was done in the stone age, it really was like being in a time warp.
We also acquired a string of children along the way. They happily ran back and forth between us as we gingerly made our way down the slick paths and hopped across creeks and canals. They were a delightful bunch chattering away in their native dialect and offering helping hands so we wouldn’t slip on the rocks. They didn’t beg or ask for money, it was just their inborn hospitality at work.
When we reached the “best” part of the terraces, at least the best photo spot according to our guide, we carefully walked into a paddy to admire the views that surrounded us.
Of course we took photos. We had to immortalize our newly minted Ifugao warrior Chadwick.
But it was very hot once the sun came up and it was time to head back to the hotel.
We made our way back to the village to return the costume and have a better look around. Once there my uncle Victor, an aging flower child, did his best to persuade the little old lady to share some of her beetle nut chew.
Beetle Nut is the fruit of the Areca Palm which is cultivated in tropical regions. The chewing of beetle nut dates back from the 1st. Century AD and is similar to chewing tobacco. It’s said to have medicinal value and stimulates saliva and appetite.
He might have succeeded had Maria, the costume lady, not stepped in. She told him that if he’s never chewed beetle nut before he could get very sick, at the very least he’d get dizzy and faint. Not wanting to have to drag his unconscious body up the steep mountain I made sure he didn’t get any.
Sweaty and winded we straggled back to the hotel pool where we found the rest of our party packed and ready to head over to the Sunset View Point. The viewpoint had to wait a bit, we were hot, dusty, and just a bit muddy, showers were called for. There was no way I was going anywhere without a shower!
After a quick lunch we headed over to the view point we were told it was a must see. There’s a little gift shop at the view point and we met some Ifugao elders. The elders hang out at the view point and will chat with visitors. They’ll tell you stories of how it used to be, their history, and answer questions. They’ll also pose for snapshots for a small tip. They don’t ask for a set fee but instead rely on your generosity. They are a friendly group, it was a pleasure to spend some time with them.
We admired the views, every view is different, each one unique and spectacular.
We chatted with the elders, and picked up a few trinkets, and headed back to Manila.
Banaue is definitely off the beaten path. Getting there can be difficult. But it’s well worth the trip![spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]
If you’re considering a trip to Banaue here are some useful tips!
There are no airports nearby. The only way to get there is overland. From Manila it’s at least an 8 hour drive. You can make a multi-day trip of it by combining stops at other towns and cities in the Mountain Provinces including Baguio, Sagada, and Batad. All worth seeing.
The best way to get there, unless you’re on a tight budget, is to hire a private car and driver. I wouldn’t suggest driving yourself, maneuvering in Philippine traffic is a nightmare. Also local drivers will know the route, it’s easy to get lost.
Hire a car and driver from a reputable company. Negotiate the price before you start the trip. Your hotel should be able to help you with this as well as negotiating a fair price. We usually use Obazee Car Rental, a local company owned and operated by Malou and Thomas Obazee. They are very reliable and are reasonably priced, you just have to negotiate with her and tell her Ma’am Carmina sent you.
When you hire a car service you will be responsible for gas, tolls, driver’s meals and lodgings for the entire trip. Most hotels in the country offer driver lodgings and meals.
Leave early and get to there before dark. The roads to Banaue can be dangerous. You not only face natural hazards, there are bandits on the road waiting for unwary tourists after dark.
Don’t travel alone.
If you feel uncomfortable striking out on your own you can join a tour group, I believe there are local companies who offer Banaue tours.
The best way from Manila is to take the N. Luzon Expressway and Pan-Philippine Highway (AH26) to Nueva Vizcaya then on to the Mountain Province Road to Banaue. This route has tolls but will cut your travel time by at least 40 minutes. Take note the road forks in San Jose City, be sure you take the road on the right, the left side will take you to Baguio.
When traveling in the Philippines you must stay hydrated, specially during the hot summer months, but be aware that once you leave Metro Manila rest stops will be virtually non-existent. Bathroom facilities in the entire country are pretty primitive unless you are at a major hotel or use the paid facilities at the big malls. The further you travel away from the Metro Manila area the more primitive facilities are. When traveling your best bet for somewhat clean restrooms are the local fast food chain restaurants like Jollybee and Chow King. But even these places usually don’t stock restrooms with toilet paper, soap, and paper towels. It’s best to bring your own supplies.
Where to stay:
Recently in response to the influx of tourists several local “hotels” have cropped up in Banaue. I haven’t stayed in them, but from what of I know local establishments their standards are dramatically different than what most of us would expect. They are however as a rule clean and comfortable enough specially if you’re only staying a night or two.
We stayed at the government owned Banaue Hotel and Youth Hostel which was built in 1969. It was renovated in 1990, so it’s surely showing its age. Having said that it is the nicest place in town. As I’ve mentioned earlier the rooms can be kindly described as adequate. However they are not air conditioned and can get rather stuffy during the day. We booked rooms with private baths that actually worked, but if you’re expecting a hot shower you’ll be disappointed, I’m not sure if there was hot water on tap or it simply wasn’t working while we were there. Our rooms also had balconies overlooking the magnificent terraces, and in my opinion the view made up for what the room lacked in comfort.
A deluxe room which includes breakfast for 2 cost about $50 per night. They have less expensive rooms on the hostel side in the older section costs 250 PHP ($5+) a night per person for a bunk in a shared room. It’s designed for backpackers and drivers.
What to do:
The best activity in Banaue is hiking. You can hike to your hearts content. You may want to hire a guide to help you navigate.
There are several short hikes in and around the area. From the Banaue Hotel you can hike to the Tam-An village which is a gateway to the terraces.
You can hike to the viewpoint and walk the suspension bridge just below the town market.
You can visit the Cordillera Sculpture Museum and the Banaue Museum. Both are in town.
For the more adventurous you can hike to Tappiyah Falls and have a dip at the pool. It’s a brutal hike downhill and will take you at least an hour. Remember what goes down must eventually come back up, if it was brutal going down, it will be much harder going up.
You can hike or take a tricycle to the Hapao Rice Terraces and Hot Springs.
Recently I heard there is a tour company that rents mountain bikes and quads, this might be fun.
Do a tour by car or bus to the other cluster of Rice Terraces in the area including Batad and Mayoyao. This will probably take a day as travel between towns is at least an hour or so.
Drive to Sagada and Bontoc to see the famous hanging coffins. These towns are 3 hours from Banaue and can be reached by private cars or public bus tours which leaves from downtown Banaue early in the morning.
You can combine your trip to Banaue with a tour of the other towns in the Mountain Province including Baguio, Batad, and Sagada. Several local companies offer 3 – 7 day tours. If you want to DIY you can hire a car and driver and tour the region on your own booking hotels in the different towns. Travel time to and from Baguio is about 8 hours. But Baguio is a fairly large city and has plenty of hotels and restaurants.
Whatever you decide to see and do don’t forget to bring your camera, you’ll want to take a ton of photos!
Health & Safety:
Philippine travel can be risky specially if you’re not familiar with the area. It’s best to travel with friends and relatives who live there, they will take good care of you.
As in many tourist areas always be aware of your surroundings. Pickpockets and petty thieves abound. Never leave your wallet in your back pocket and carry your purse close to you with the flaps closed and secured.
Never place your purse on a table, the floor, or on the back of a chair at restaurants, always have it your hands on it.
Avoid displaying large wads of cash.
Resist the panhandlers, stop and give money to one and you’ll find yourself surrounded by hoards of begging kids. You will almost certainly get pick pocketed. Besides I’ve been told that street beggars are part of a syndicate, the money they get is given to the boss.
Leave valuables home. Don’t wear ostentatious jewelry and watches, they will rip it off you, I mean this literally!
When possible keep passports and other important documents locked in the hotel safe. Carry only a copy of your passport.
Never leave valuables in the car and always lock the car doors.
Never travel alone, especially at night.
Avoid traveling remote roads after nightfall.
If budget permits hire private transportation from a reputable company.
Don’t drink the water! Drink only bottled water. Most big hotels and restaurants in the Metro Manila area claim to use filtered water, use your judgement on this. I’m good bathing and brushing my teeth at the Makati hotels I stay in (Shangri-La and Intercontinental) but I still only drink bottled water. Remember ice is frozen WATER so you may want to avoid iced and frozen drinks to be on the safe side.
Eat street food at your own risk. You never know how and where it was prepared.
If you need emergency medical attention the best place to go would Makati Medical Center or the new Asian Hospital. They are said to have the most medical equipment and good staff. My father had his heart by-pass at Asian and it turned out fine.
You can buy over the counter medication at local pharmacies. Some will even allow you to purchase prescription meds without a prescription, but I wouldn’t suggest doing so. This is never a problem I run into, my relatives are doctors and will prescribe medication when needed.
Carry tissue and/or toilet paper, hand soap or sanitzer with you. As I’ve mentioned above most local restrooms don’t have them.
My warnings are daunting I know, but bear in mind that the Philippines is basically a poor country. Yes you will see large malls, modern buildings, and other trappings of what appears to be wealth, but only a small part of the population are members of the rich elite and the emerging middle class. A larger part of the population is poor. The chasm between rich and poor is profound. Many eke out a living in low paying jobs, sadly others choose or are forced into unsavory activities. Criminal activities range from scams to thievery to kidnapping and extortion. So stay alert and stay safe when visiting the Philippines, it’s a beautiful country and well worth the trip.