North of Manila, the island of Luzon tempts visitors with some wonderful mountainous areas, volcanic landscapes and a beautiful coastline dotted with heavenly beaches. Heading up the west coast from Subic, the Zambales coast is dotted with laidback resorts, while the Lingayen Gulf is the location of the Hundred Islands – a favourite weekend trip from Manila. Further along the coast, the province of La Union draws visitors particularly for its surfing. North of here is Ilocos Sur, known primarily for the old colonial city of Vigan, where horse-drawn carriages bounce down narrow cobblestone streets. The area around the capital of Ilocos Norte province, Laoag, features a number of sites related to former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was born in the nearby village of Sarrat. And on the northwestern edge of Luzon there are excellent beaches around Pagudpud.
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The northeast of the island is one of the archipelago’s least visited wildernesses. Those who head this way usually do so for the excellent surfing on the east coast at Baler, but further north is Palanan – the jump-off point for the barely explored Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park. For many visitors, though, the prime attraction in Northern Luzon is the mountainous inland Cordillera region. Highlights here include the mountain village of Sagada with its caves and hanging coffins, and the stunning rice terraces around Banaue and Bontoc. In the village of Kabayan in Benguet province it’s possible to hike up to see mummies, discovered in caves in the early twentieth century. Kabayan also provides access to Mount Pulag, the highest mountain in Luzon. Finally, far off the northern coast lie the scattered islands of Batanes province.
It’s a rugged but spectacular trip from Bontoc to BANAUE in Ifugao province, along a winding road that leads up into the misty Cordillera and across a mountaintop pass. It may only be 300km north of Manila, but Banaue might as well be a world away, 1300m above sea level and far removed in spirit and topography from the beaches and palm trees of the south. This is the heart of rice terrace country: the terraces in Banaue itself are some of the most impressive and well known, although there are hundreds of others in valleys and gorges throughout the area, most of which can be reached on foot. At nearby Batad there is rustic accommodation so you can stay overnight and hike back the next morning.
Banaue’s stairways to heaven
The rice terraces around Banaue are one of the great icons of the Philippines, hewn from the land 2000 years ago by Ifugao tribespeople using primitive tools, an achievement in engineering terms that ranks alongside the building of the pyramids. Called the “Stairway to Heaven” by the Ifugaos, the terraces would stretch 20,000km if laid out end to end. Not only are they an awesome sight, but they are also an object lesson in sustainability.
The terraces are on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and they will not last forever if they are not protected. They have always been subject to constant deterioration, due to weather erosion, imperfect irrigation systems and the actions of earthworms. Today, however, there’s a shortage of young people to help carry out repairs – rice farming has little allure for many of them; they are understandably tired of the subsistence livelihood their parents eked from the land and are either working in tourism or packing their bags for Manila. Alongside this, another recent pressure is the conversion of the rice terraces into vegetable terraces or into residential and commercial areas.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
Between them making up half of the Ilocos region (La Union and Pangasinan provinces make up the other half), Ilocos Sur and Ilocos Norte line Luzon’s northwestern coast. Long and narrow, Ilocos Sur is sandwiched by the sea on one side and the Cordillera Mountains on the other. For most tourists its highlight is undoubtedly Vigan, one of the most atmospheric and enjoyable cities in the country. Walking its cobbled streets and exploring its heritage homes gives an inkling of the former importance of this trading city. Ilocos Norte is still strongly associated in Filipino minds with former President Ferdinand Marcos, and his family continues to wield considerable political power in the province. Sites related to the Marcos family in the area include Ferdinand’s birthplace in Sarrat, the mansion known as the Malacañang of the North beside Paoay Lake and Ferdinand’s mausoleum in Batac. Getting away from the Marcoses, on the northern coast the town of Pagudpud draws visitors from across Luzon with some of the best beaches on the island.
The busy and congested streets of the Ilocos Norte provincial capital, LAOAG, can’t compete with Vigan’s historical core when it comes to aesthetic appeal, but there are a handful of things to do and see in Laoag including one of the country’s best museums. The city also makes an excellent base for exploring the beautiful coast at nearby La Paz and Suba or touring sights associated with former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
The most interesting attraction in the city is the Museo Ilocos Norte, which provides an overview of the province’s history and culture. Close to the main plaza, it’s housed in a restored Spanish-era tobacco warehouse. Exhibits include vintage costumes, farming equipment and tribal artefacts. There’s even a replica of an ilustrado (educated middle class) ancestral home complete with antiques, and the souvenir shop has some interesting books and gifts.
Close by are the Sinking Bell Tower and St William’s Cathedral. The bell tower was built by Augustinian friars with a door big enough for a man on horseback to pass through. The tower has sunk so much that today you can only get through the door by stooping. The cathedral, one of the biggest in the Philippines, was built in 1880 on older foundations. The Marcos Hall of Justice, the square white building on the west side of Aurora Park, was where a young Ferdinand Marcos was detained in 1939 after being accused of the murder of one of his father’s political opponents. Marcos wanted to graduate in law and used his time in detention wisely, swotting for the bar examination and successfully preparing his own defence.
Accommodation in Laoag
The streets of Laoag are busy, so try to get a room away from the road if you’re staying in the city. If your budget will stretch to them, there are also some pleasant places to stay outside the centre.
Getting to Laoag
Laoag airport is close to the city, just ten minutes by jeepney (P10). Many of the bus and jeepney terminals are clustered to the west of Aurora Park, with minibus terminals (for services from Pagudpud and Vigan) to the north of the park. There is a Partas terminal on J.P. Rizal Street. All are within walking distance of the central hotels, although you may want to hop on a tricycle from the Partas terminal.
Laoag City tourist office (t 077/773-1676) is in the City Hall, on the southwestern side of Aurora Park in the city centre. There is a provincial tourism office in the Provincial Capitol building (t 077/770-4242). Banks, convenience stores and pharmacies lie to the east of Aurora Park on Rizal Avenue. There are numerous internet cafés in the centre, including one in the Gym Carry building opposite Max’s fast food outlet on General Segundo Avenue.
Laoag food and drink
There are some good restaurants in Laoag, while for cheap local dishes you could try the food court tucked away behind a white building close to the Shell station on Rizal Avenue. The local version of the empanada is more famous than Vigan’s, with a thicker crust and orange in colour. Laoag has more in the way of nightlife than many other cities in Luzon.
Moving on from Laoag
The fastest way to reach Manila is on one of the daily Cebu Pacific flights. The streets around Aurora Park are the hub for transport within the province, with vans and jeepneys leaving when they are full for Sarrat, La Paz, Batac and Pagudpud. There are also a number of bus terminals in Laoag such as RCJ (t 077/771-3308) and Maria de Leon (t 077/770-3532), from which non-air-conditioned buses head to Vigan, San Fernando, Dau and occasionally as far as Manila. For a greater degree of comfort, Partas (t 077/771-1514) and Farinas (t 077/772-0126) air-conditioned buses also make the long trip to Manila (12hr; P500–600). Partas also runs buses to Vigan (9hr; P585) and San Fernando (6hr; P384). GMW runs a service to Tueguegaro (6–7hr; P455) – there are numerous buses in the morning and a couple in the evening. You can take any Tuguegarao-bound bus to Pagudpud (1hr 30min; P60).
From Laoag it’s a couple of hours by bus to PAGUDPUD, a typical provincial town providing access to several wonderfully picturesque beaches. The Pagudpud area is deservedly becoming known as a destination that has all the beauty of Boracay, but only a fraction of number of tourists and none of the nightlife.
Saud Beach (“Sa-ud”), a few kilometres down a narrow road to the north of town, is a beautiful long arch of white sand backed by palm trees. Resorts on the beach hire out snorkelling equipment, and can provide bangkas (P5–600 for half a day) so that you can head to the best spots. Birdwatchers should check out the area behind the Saud Beach Resort. East of Saud (30min tricycle ride; P200–250) is the glorious Blue Lagoon (also known as Maira-ira Beach). The setting is stunning, with dazzling water lapping a sugary crescent of sand; the breaks also attract surfers from July to January. One stretch of the beach has been overdeveloped with a large and incongruous resort, but it’s possible to get away from that and still enjoy the sand and sea. From March–June, boats offer dolphin-watching trips (P300). To the west of Pagudpud and accessible by tricycle (P70–100) is the beach at Ayoyo. It’s not sandy, but it’s still beautiful and it rarely sees foreign tourists –there’s little here except palm trees and sea, overlooked by a single resort.
The Lingayen Gulf
Many of the beaches dotted along the western stretch of the Lingayen Gulf, between Bolinao and Dagupan, are working beaches, where people fish in the gulf’s rich waters and mend their nets. The sand is generally grey and unappealing and the water likewise; much of the coral has been destroyed by dynamite and cyanide fishing. It certainly isn’t all bad news though. The gulf’s primary attraction, the Hundred Islands National Park, is worth the trip here alone. There’s more though: at the western end of the gulf around Bolinao you’ll find good beaches and some excellent snorkelling areas, while at the northeastern end of the gulf the capital of La Union province, San Fernando, provides access to beaches and resorts as well as opportunities for trekking and climbing. There is also some excellent surfing if you time it right, with surfers congregating in the resorts of San Juan.
Buses from Manila, run by Five Star and Victory Liner, ply the route along the gulf although you’ll probably need to change bus – with Dagupan one of the main hubs – even if you are passing straight through.
Hundred Islands National Park
These tiny, emerald-like islands – actually there are 123, but that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it – are part of a national park covering almost twenty square kilometres in the Lingayen Gulf. Some islands have beaches, but many are no more than coral outcrops crowned by scrub. Sadly, much of the underwater coral in the park has been damaged by a devastating combination of cyanide and dynamite fishing, typhoons and the El Niño weather phenomenon. The authorities are, however, going all out to protect what coral is left and help it regenerate, meaning you can only snorkel in approved areas. Marine biologists from the University of the Philippines have been at the forefront of the protection movement, replanting hundreds of taklobos (giant clams).
The best place to base yourself for exploring the islands is the small town of Lucap, from which you can island-hop by day before returning to a shower and a comfy bed in the evening. Lucap can be reached by tricycle (15min; P60) from the city of Alaminos, which is on the National Highway.
The only three islands with any form of development are Governor’s Island, Children’s Island and Quezon Island. A day-trip to all three costs P800 for a small boat for five people (larger boats are also available). You’ll need to choose one island on which you will spend most of your time – the boatman will leave you there for a few hours then return, and you’ll visit the other two more briefly.
A much more appealing option is to pay P1400 for a “service boat” allowing you to visit the more interesting undeveloped islands. Some of these dots of land are so small and rocky it’s impossible to land on them, while others are big enough to allow for some exploring on foot, with tiny, sandy coves where you can picnic in the shade and swim. One of the prettiest islands is Marta, actually two tiny islets connected by a thin strip of bright white sand that almost disappears at high tide. Marcos Island has a blowhole and a vertical shaft of rock; you can clamber to the top and then dive into a seawater pool about 20m below. A number of islands, including Scout Island and Quirino Island, have caves; on Cuenco Island there’s a cave that goes right through the island to the other side. Shell Island has a lagoon in which you can swim at high tide, while birdwatchers should ask to stop beside Cathedral Island.
A dramatic crescent with big breakers that roll in from the South China Sea, the coast just north of San Juan in barangay Urbiztondo is a prime surfing beach. Most have surfboards to rent (P200/hr) and offer tuition (another P200). There are two breaks in Urbiztondo, one a beach break close to the main huddle of resorts and the other the Mona Liza point break at the northern end of the beach. Both are more suited to experienced surfers, while the best spot for beginners is the Cement Factory break in nearby Bacnotan barangay. The peak season is November to March, and at other times there may be no waves but you can get significant discounts on accommodation.
The northeast of Luzon, comprising the provinces of Nueva Vizcaya, Quirino, Aurora, Isabela and Cagayan, is one of the archipelago’s least explored regions, with miles of beautiful coastline and enormous tracts of tropical rainforest. Following the National Highway from Ilocos as it curves south brings you to the biggest city in the region, Tuguegarao, the starting point for trips to the Peñablanca Caves. Alternatively turn off the highway and follow the north coast road to reach Santa Ana, home to the country’s best game-fishing and the departure point for boat trips to the rugged and isolated Babuyan Islands.
The coast south of Santa Ana and east of Tuguegarao is cut off from the rest of Luzon by the Sierra Madre mountains. One of the only significant settlements is Palanan, jump-off point for the barely explored Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park. The climbing and trekking possibilities here are exciting, but the area is so wild and remote that it’s also potentially hazardous, with poor communications and areas of impenetrable forest. Further south on the coast – but unreachable by road from Palanan – is Baler, the best-known tourist destination in the northeast. This coastal town has become a popular surfing destination, but its location six hours from Manila means that it isn’t swamped with weekenders.
There’s only one major airport for the whole region and that’s at Tuguegarao, served by Philippine Airlines from Manila. There is also a small airport in Cauayan, from which it’s possible to take a twin-engine aircraft to the airstrips in Palanan and Maconacon. Buses run regularly from Manila to Baler via Cabanatuan, about three hours north of the capital.
Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park
At almost 3600 square kilometres, the Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park remains one of the country’s last frontiers. Said by conservationists to be the Philippines’ richest protected area in terms of habitat and species, the park is eighty percent land and twenty percent coastal area along a spectacular, cliff-studded seashore.
One of the reasons for the health of the park’s ecosystems is its inaccessibility from outside. To the east lies the Pacific, which is too rough for boats during much of the northeast monsoon (Dec–Feb) and typhoon (July–Oct) seasons; to the west, no roads cross the park or lead towards the more populated, rice-growing valleys. Small aircraft connect the towns of Palanan and Maconacon to the outside world, but that doesn’t make the area any less remote and for those unable or unwilling to pay for flights it’s very time-consuming to reach. If you do make it, however, then you’ll have no regrets.
The park has few wardens and no fences for boundaries, so you can visit any time you want without restriction; it is essential, however, to take a guide if you are to visit safely. A guide can take you down the Palanan River to the village of Sabang, from where you can walk through farmland and forest to Disadsad Falls, a high cascade that crashes through dense forest into a deep pool. For some of the trip there’s no trail, so you’ll have to wade upriver through the water. Another memorable trip from Palanan takes you northwards along the coast to the sheltered inlets around the towns of Dimalansan and Maconacon. On the isolated beaches here the Dumagat people establish their temporary homes.
The Zambales Coast
Zambales is an undeveloped rural province, known for its succulent mangoes, which is still largely undiscovered by foreign tourists. It is, however, worth a stop for its scenic beaches, good surfing and relaxing resorts. For a break from beaches you can head inland to Lake Mapanuepe, formed after Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991.
Travel along the coast is straightforward, with a large number of buses running along the main road. Victory Liner has services straight up the coast from Manila, stopping at major towns like Iba and Santa Cruz but able to drop you between if you request it. There are also dozens of local buses and jeepneys, so it’s easy to make short trips from one place to the next.
Top image: World heritage Ifugao rice terraces in Batad, northern Luzon, Philippines © R.M. Nunes/Shutterstock