An isolated mountain village 85km north of Baguio, KABAYAN in Benguet province makes a thrilling side trip, although because of the rough road you’ll need to spend at least one night in the village. There was no road here until 1960 and no electricity until 1978, and this extended isolation has left the village rural and unspoilt, a good place to involve yourself in the culture of the Ibaloi, who are friendly and helpful if a little prone to shyness in the company of foreigners (and that means anyone from further afield than Baguio). Hikers are also drawn to Kabayan for the chance to climb Mount Pulag, the highest peak in Luzon.
Kabayan came to the attention of the outside world in the early twentieth century when a group of mummies, possibly dating back as far as 2000 BC was discovered in the surrounding caves. When the Americans arrived, mummification was discouraged as unhygienic and the practice is thought to have died out. Controversy still surrounds the Kabayan mummies, some of which have disappeared to overseas collectors, sold for a quick buck by unscrupulous middlemen. One was said to have been stolen by a Christian pastor in 1920 and wound up as a sideshow in a Manila circus. Some mummies remain, however, and some have been recovered. Officials know of dozens of mummies in the area, but will not give their locations for fear of desecration. You can, however, see several of them in designated mountaintop caves.
Kabayan is most easily approached from Baguio, as the road to the north of the village (which joins the Halsema Highway at Abatan town) is very rough and suitable only for 4WD vehicles.
Making a mummy
Making a mummy
The history of the Ibaloi mummies is still largely oral. It is even uncertain when the last mummy was created; according to staff at the town’s museum, mummification was attempted most recently in 1907 but the wrong combination of herbs was used. It’s possible that the last successful mummification was in 1901, of the great-grandmother of former village mayor Florentino Merino.
What is known is the general procedure, which could take up to a year to complete. The body would have been bathed and dressed, then tied upright to a chair with a low fire burning underneath to start the drying process. Unlike in other mummification rituals around the world, the internal organs were not removed. A jar was placed under the corpse to catch the body fluids, which are considered sacred, while elders began the process of peeling off the skin and rubbing juices from native leaves into the muscles to aid preservation. Tobacco smoke was blown through the mouth to dry the internal tissues and drive out worms.