To Filipino lowlanders brought up on sunshine and beaches, the tribal heartlands of the north and their spiny ridge of inhospitable mountains, the CORDILLERA, are still seen almost as another country, inhabited by mysterious people who worship primitive gods. It’s true that in some respects life for many tribal people has changed little in hundreds of years, with traditional ways and values still very much in evidence. If anything is likely to erode these traditions it is the coming of tourists: already an increasing number of tribal people are making much more from the sale of handicrafts than they do from the production of rice.
The weather can have a major impact on a trip to the Cordillera, not least because landslides can cause travel delays during the rainy season (particularly May–Nov, but continuing until Jan or Feb). Since the rains come in from the northeast it’s the places on the eastern side of the mountains – such as Banaue and Batad – that are usually worst hit, and fog can roll into those areas any time from October to February. Throughout the region it can get cold at night between December and February. It’s worth noting that the rice terrace planting seasons vary significantly; the lower-lying areas typically have two plantings a year while the highlands have one. Terraces are at their greenest in the month or so before harvesting, although their barren appearance after a harvest can also look impressive.Read More
- Kabayan and around
Bontoc and around
Bontoc and around
The road from Baguio to BONTOC is the Halsema Highway or “Mountain Trail”, a narrow, serpentine gash in the side of the Cordillera that’s sometimes no more than a rocky track with vertical cliffs on one side and a sheer drop on the other. Although the surface of the road has been greatly improved in recent years, it can still be an uncomfortable trip by public transport as some of the buses are crowded and not especially well maintained. The views are marvellous, especially as you ascend out of Baguio beyond La Trinidad and pass through deep gorges lined with vegetable terraces.
BONTOC lies on the banks of the Chico River about an hour east of Sagada. Primarily used by tourists as a transport hub, the town is also a good base for trekking and has easy access to the beautiful Maligcong rice terraces. Some of the local tribes can be nervous of foreigners and it would be unwise to approach them without a guide to help smooth the way (P300–500/day). One well-known local is Francis Pa-in (t0915/769-0843), who can also act as a guide in Tinglayen; ask at the Churya-a Hotel if you can’t get him on the phone.
There isn’t much to see in the town itself but don’t miss the Bontoc Museum, next to the post office close to the town plaza. It includes photographs of headhunting victims and of zealous American missionaries, and there is a small collection of indigenous buildings outside. The museum shop sells items including handmade jewellery and CDs of traditional music.
The small town of SAGADA, 160km north of Baguio, has long attracted curious visitors. Part of the appeal derives from its famous hanging coffins and a labyrinth of caves used by the ancients as burial sites. But Sagada also has a reputation as a remote and idyllic hideaway where people live a simple life well away from civilization. Sagada’s distance from Manila, and the fact that the quickest way to reach it from the capital involves at least one buttock-numbing bus journey on a terrifyingly narrow road, means it has kept mass tourism at bay. Sagada’s lofty beauty is given added resonance by its very un-Filipino-ness. The landscape is almost alpine and the inhabitants are mountain people, their faces shaped not by the sun and sea of the lowlands, but by the thin air and sharp glare of altitude.
Sagada only began to open up as a destination when it got electricity in the early 1970s, and intellectuals – internal refugees from the Marcos dictatorship – flocked here to write and paint. They didn’t produce much of note, perhaps because they spent, it is said, much of their time drinking the local rice wine tapuy. European hippies followed and so did the military, who thought the turistas were supplying funds for an insurgency. Today the place still has a very relaxed atmosphere, which continues to be enhanced – for some – by the locally grown marijuana, which (while very definitely illegal) is easy to come by and generally tolerated.
There isn’t a lot to do in the town itself although there are plenty of activities close by. The Ganduyan Museum, next to the Ganduyan Inn, is worth visiting for its collection of Kankanay artefacts. Other than that there’s plenty of scope for just hanging around and enjoying the tranquillity of the town, while in the evenings you can settle down by a log fire in one of the wooden cafés or restaurants. A curfew means you can’t drink after 9pm, but by then almost everyone has gone to bed anyway.
If you have time then it’s worth wandering down to the village of Demang, reached from a turning on the right just beyond the George Guest House and Pinikpikan Eatery. The village is older than Sagada and remains practically untouched by tourism. It’s a quiet residential area with several dap-ay (stone circles where community matters are resolved).
The tribes of the Cordillera – often collectively known as the Igorots (“mountaineers”) – resisted assimilation into the Spanish Empire for three centuries. Although they brought some material improvements, such as to the local diet, the colonizers forced the poor to work to pay off debts, burned houses, cut down crops and introduced smallpox.
The saddest long-term result of the attempts to subjugate the Igorots was subtler – the creation of a distinction between highland and lowland Filipinos. The peoples of the Cordillera became minorities in their own country, still struggling today for representation and recognition of a lifestyle that the Spanish tried to discredit as unChristian and depraved. The word Igorot was regarded as derogatory in some quarters, although in the twentieth century there were moves to “reclaim” the term and it is still commonly used.
Though some Igorots did convert to Christianity, many are still at least partly animists and pray to a hierarchy of anitos. These include deities that possess shamans and speak to them during seances, spirits that inhabit sacred groves or forests, personified forces of nature and generally any supernatural apparition. Offerings are made to benevolent anitos for fertility, good health, prosperity, fair weather and success in business (or, in the olden days, tribal war). Evil anitos are propitiated to avoid illness, crop failure, storms, accidents and death. Omens are also carefully observed: a particular bird seen upon leaving the house might herald sickness, for example, requiring that appropriate ceremonies are conducted to forestall its portent. If the bird returns, the house may be abandoned.