Echo Valley (Sagada, Mountain Province)

After checking in to our rooms at Alapo’s View Inn, we rested for a while then assembled at the ground floor for our guided tour of the lush and picturesque Echo Valley, one of the most popular hikes in Sagada.  Though it wasn’t our first visit (Jandy and I have visited it twice before), it would be the first for most of the group. We conveniently wore shorts and slippers and brought along our jackets, water bottle and my camera.  From our inn, we all entered the compound of St. Joseph’s Resthouse and St. Joe’s Cafe, then crossed the road to the grounds of the Anglican Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, the oldest church in the Cordilleras outside of Baguio City.  Here, we already noticed the huge number of people also undertaking this introductory tour of Sagada.

Echo Valley and its famed hanging coffins

Further up the St. Mary High School gate, past the basketball court, Centennial Bell and the Sagada Cooperative Store, we climbed paved steps up to the Sagada Cemetery which has 14 Stations of the Cross and is marked with a huge cross.  I asked the guide if he knew where the burial plot of Eduardo Masferre, the famous photographer who died in 1995, was but he was just as unknowing as I was.  Well, maybe next time.  William Henry Scott, the American historian who died in 1993, is also buried here.

Sagada Cemetery
The cemetery has a fine view of the northern valley. Further up the cemetery is Calvary, the cemetery’s highest point.  From Calvary, we went down a narrow, steep dirt path to Echo Valley.  Along the way, we espied, on the left side, a 40-ft. high cliff where the Sagada rock climbing tour is conducted (PhP250/pax).  Sagada, with lots of cliffs and rock formations, is one of the few Philippine destinations that offer the fairly young sport of natural rock climbing.
 
Sagada Rock Climbing Tour
At the valley’s vantage point, some of our companions shouted out loud to hear their echo while others just admired the pleasant scenery.  From afar, we could already see 2 clusters of the town’s famed hollow-log “hanging coffins” or kuongs.
 
Aldrin and Jandy at the vantage point
From the valley, we again made a steep hike down, to the “hanging coffins” located on large limestone cliffs at the opposite side.  The few “death chairs” (sangadil) placed next to the hanging coffins were still there.
 
It was already starting to rain when we made our way back up the valley and the path was already becoming slippery.  Our jackets, made just for cold protection, was soon soaked inside and out and we were soon drenched when we arrived at the church and sought refuge inside.  Here, we waited for the rains to subside before making our way back to the inn.

Alapo’s View Inn & Cafe (Sagada, Mountain Province)

After our lunch at Tchayapan Restaurant, we again boarded our jeepney and traveled the remaining 19 kms. from Bontoc to Sagada.  Upon arrival at Sagada’s town proper, I was surprised at the huge volume of out-of-town vehicles parked along the town’s narrow roads.  We all checked in at the 2-storey Alapo’s View Inn & Cafe.   We were to stay 2 nights here.  The inn is located about 300 m. from the municipal road, along the now concreted road leading to the next town of Besao.

Alapo’s View Inn & Cafe

Like most inns in Sagada, Alapo’s is also a no-frills place to stay.  Our simple, spartan room, where Jocie (our tour coordinator), Jandy and I stayed, had just 2 beds (with an extra mattress on the floor), a table, a monobloc hair and a small wall-hung mirror.  Evening lighting was provided by a dim, low-wattage energy-saving light bulb.  Truly, no place for the luxury-minded tourist.  However, unlike many inns in Banaue, it had a power outlet where we could charge our electronic gadgets.  

Our spartan room

Bathrooms were shared and we often had to wait in line to do our morning or evening rituals.  The showers had no water heaters but, luckily, Jocie brought along a portable water heater.  The inn had a coffee shop, where we had our Filipino breakfast (choice of corned beef, longganisa or tocino  with rice and fried egg plus coffee) and could watch cable TV, and a grocery where we could buy some of our basic necessities.

Breakfast at the coffee shop 

When we felt like snacking, we just went down to the front desk where lemon or apple pie (PhP30/slice) and 3-in-1 coffee (PhP15/cup) where offered.  These we partook of while seated along the balcony which has great views of the town and the surrounding pine-clad mountains.   These views, plus its central location, made it ideal as a base for exploring Sagada’s natural and man-made wonders.  

Our view of the town from the balcony

Alapo’s View Inn & Cafe: Ato, Patay, Sagada, Mountain Province.  Mobile number (Ms. Juliet B. Medina): (0921) 327-9055 and (0918) 332-3331.

Tchayapan Restaurant (Bontoc, Mountain Province)

After our tour of Bontoc Museum, we all returned to our jeepney and proceeded to Tchayapan Restaurant near the municipal hall.  Said to be Bontoc’s biggest and best restaurant, I ordered the restaurant’s signature best seller Tchayapan Rice, Bontoc’s version of lechon kawali.  It is served with buttered fresh and crunchy vegetables on the side. Jandy, on the other hand, preferred the Tchayapan Beef Rice with the same sidings.  Both cost PhP80.  

Tchayapan Inn & Restaurant

For the same price, they also offer beef ampalaya rice, chicken rice, sweet and sour pork rice, sweet and sour pork/fish, pinapaitan, beef/pork steak, cheese burgers, pancit canton/bihon and chopsuey. Chopsuey rice costs PhP70.  They also offer chicken spaghetti (PhP100), spaghetti (PhP40), sandwiches (ham and egg, ham and cheese, tuna, PhP35; cheese, egg, PhP30).

Tchayapan Rice
Tchayapan Beef Rice

On our return to Banaue, Jocie, our tour coordinator, tried out the local delicacy called pinikpikan. Here, the chicken is bloodlessly killed by slowly pummeling its body with a stick or reed so that the blood remains inside. After the feathers are singed off in an open fire, the chicken is then chopped and boiled with dried salted pork called etag and simmered with vegetables. 

Pinikpikan
Tchayapan also offers budget travelers 7 single/double rooms (PhP150/head)with common bath (2 male and 2 female) and 4 double bedrooms with private bath and TV (PhP300-800). 

Tchayapan Inn & Restaurant: Bontoc, Ifugao.  Mobile number: (0929) 683-9607 (Ms. Florence N. Taguiba).  Restaurant open daily, 8 AM-8 PM.

Bontoc Museum (Mountain Province)

After our stopover at Bay-yo Rice Terraces, we all returned to our jeepney for the remaining 13-km. drive to Bontoc Central.  This time, Aldrin, Donald and I climbed up the luggage rack to have an unobstructed view of the great mountain scenery.  However, I wasn’t able to take photographs as I had to hang on to avoid falling off.  Upon arrival at the outskirts of the town, we alighted and returned to the cabin.

Aldrin, Donald and I on the jeepney’s luggage rack

Upon arrival at the town proper, we made a stopover at the Bontoc Village Museum, located within the Catholic ICM Sisters’ convent and the St. Vincent’s Elementary School.  Jandy and I also visited this museum during a short lunch stopover on our way to Banaue from Sagada.

Bontoc Museum
The museum 15 years ago

The museum, structured in a way to resemble an Igorot house, was established by Mother Basil Gekiere (a Bontoc resident for 56 years, she died in 1983) and run by the Belgian ICM missionaries.  It aims to preserve a varied collection of authentic artifacts and photos reflecting the culture of the mountain tribes.  Its exhibits present a good overview of the differences and similarities between the mountain tribes in 3 well-laid out and labeled rooms, one each for the Ifugao, Bontoc and Kalinga artifacts. It consists of a group of miniature traditional houses, a collection of rocks and fossils from different parts of the Cordilleras and old photos (including some of the Igorot headhunting days).  As before, photography is not allowed inside.

Museum Ethno-Cordillera Library and Souvenir Shop

The library (with a limited collection of books) and the museum shop (which sells postcards, carved wood items and other novelties), formerly located at the museum’s basement during my first visit, is now housed in a separate building (Museum Ethno-Cordillera Library and Souvenir Shop).  Here, we met up with Sister Marcela Agang0-Ang, the new museum curator who is native Ifugao.  During our previous visit, the curator was Sister Teresita Nieves Valdez who, according to Sister Marcel, died a few years ago in her 80s.  

Sister Marcela Agang-Ang
With the late Sister Teresita Nieves Valdez

Besides the building is an outdoor museum with a replica of an traditional Ifugao village.  Here, we visited a model of a traditional Bontoc house with furnishings, a smithy and fish traps.   

The outdoor museum
The outdoor museum 15 years ago

There’s also an ato (where the council of elders meet), a ulog (where unmarried women live and a pig pen with a real, live pig inside.  The museum is now under the care of the Bontoc Diocese.  

An ulog
An ato

Bontoc Museum: Gumaang Road, Bontoc, Ifugao.  Admission fee: Php60/person.  Open daily, 8 AM-5 PM.

Bay-yo Rice Terraces (Bontoc, Mountain Province)

Upon crossing the border to Mountain Province, we made a second and final stopover at the lush green, 10-hectare Bay-yo Rice Terraces, located 18 kms. along the Bontoc-Banaue Road and 13 kms. from Bontoc Central (a 45-min. drive).  Jandy and I also made a similar stopover here 15 years ago.  Located on the southern slope of Mt. Polis, on an impressive precipice with a backdrop of mountains, it has high, fortress-like rice terracing. 

Bay-yo Rice Terraces
The drought-ravaged terraces 15 years ago

Compared to other rice terraces in Banaue, this cluster is much smaller but it doesn’t have houses or any other unsightly structures in the middle of the terraces, making it much more appealing to me. Whatever houses there are are packed on one side of a cliff, to the left of the terraces.   We can’t help be mesmerized by its charm and scenic location.  Worth some photographs, it can be seen from a concrete view deck along the road.  Jeepney drivers usually stop here but, in our case, I had to request our driver to do so.  There are public toilets located nearby.

The concrete view point
 
A sign here indicates that  this is a part of the “Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras” as inscribed by UNESCO which showcases the engineering feat and ingenuity of the Igorots depicted here as master planners and astute agriculturists.
 

Mt. Polis (Ifugao)

From the Grand Viewpoint, we proceeded on our way to the provincial capital of Bontoc and made a short stopover at the Mt. Polis Viewpont, along Mountain Province-Ifugao border, a regular peeing and supply stopover for bus and jeepney passengers.  Here, you can find a huge 30-ft. high statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary which ironically stands between 2 giant cellular communication towers.  

Statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The statue was said to have been erected to provide divine protection for the towers by dissuading NPA rebels from lobbing grenades at the facility.  For added protection, there’s also a police detachment that watches over these towers.  

An unusual sign

An unusual sign that I found here reads “DPWH Gender & Development Park.”Gender and Development (GAD) is a program that aims to address the physical needs of motorists along our national road network. Gender-responsive roads have beautified road and road lines, public toilets, visible road signages, informative and directional signs and warning signs (which include reflectorized stickers and paints on guard rails), and concrete pavements to give motorists early reaction time thereby preventing the occurrence of vehicular accidents due to lack of road signs.

Vegetable terraces with Mt. Polis as backdrop

On the south side of the highest point of the road (1,920 m.) is the 2,255 m. summit of Mt. Polis, a birdwatcher’s paradise and home to a tropical, mossy forest.  This should not be confused with the 1,829 m. high Mt. Polis in Sagada, a popular trekking site.  Fresh, really cheap organic vegetables, straight from the farm below us, are sold along the road.  Cheap, freshly brewed but bland upland coffee is also sold at coffee shops (Hannah’s Store, Coffee Hop & Restaurant; Mt. Polis Rolling Coffee Shop; etc.) along the road.  Thick fog usually engulfs the place during the early morning.

Mountain Province boundary marker
Straddling the boundary of two provinces

Banaue Grand Terrace Viewpoint (Ifugao)

After breakfast at Halfway Lodge, we all returned to our jeepney and traveled 3 to 4 kms. (25-mins.) uphill from the town, along the Banaue-Bontoc Rd., to the Banaue Grand Terrace Viewpoint, one of three viewpoints in the town.  The other 2 viewpoints are the NFA Viewpoint and the Dayanara Viewpont, named after 1994 Ms. Universe and former Aga Muhlach girlfriend Dayanara Torres (who later married singer Marc Anthony but has since been divorced).  This would be my first visit to the place as, during my first 2 visits , I just used the town as a jump-off point to Batad Rice Terraces. Besides, the town’s undulating tin roof tops and overhead, tangled electrical wires, weren’t exactly an endearing sight for me.

This popular photo spot, situated on top of a plateau at the outskirts of the town, affords a perfect view of the 2,000 year old, man-made and iconic Banaue Rice Terraces (the one we see in books, magazines, postcards and the PhP1,000 bill) and the magnificent valley to the poblacion. 

Though not included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site inscription, due to the presence of numerous modern structures around the area (making it score low in the integrity criterion of UNESCO), these rice terraces are still a National Cultural Treasure under the Ifugao Rice Terraces.  The early morning cast an extra dimension to the rice terraces. The terraces, on a rather steep incline, occupy a narrow, high spur in the mountain. The best time to see these rice terraces is from February to May when it is least likely that the views will be obscured by fog or clouds. 

View of the town proper from the viewpoint

Elderly, smiling Ifugaos often come here in full tribal regalia and tourists can pose for the camera with them, for a fee or donation of course, or you can be dressed in partial tribal regalia (headgear and shawl) then leave a small donation for its use.  

Dressed up in tribal gear

At the viewpoint are a number of roadside souvenir shops crowded in a small area. They sell a variety of handcarved woodwork, from the iconic bul-ol (rice gods placed in village huts and granaries), spears, canes to Chinese dragons.  They also sell food (strawberry jams and preserves, peanut brittle, wine, etc.), textiles (sweaters, caps, T-shirts, shawls, etc.), ref magnets, trinkets, furniture and basketry.

Also with the area was an inn (the 3-storey Viewpoint Valley Inn) and a restaurant (Banaue Heritage Cafe & Restaurant).

Viewpoint Valley Inn
Banaue Heritage Cafe & Restaurant

There were also wooden scooters on display.  One in particular, with the ornate dragon design, caught our fancy.  We each took poses (at PhP10 per shot) on this scooter.  Also, if we wanted to, we could have taken it on a test drive (for PhP50) down the road but the absence of a built-in brake held me back.

Trying out the dragon scooter

Arrival in Banaue (Ifugao)

Our bus arrived arrived at Banaue town proper by 7:30 AM, a full hour past the normal 9-hr. trip it would take from Manila. This would be my third visit to the town and the second for Jandy who first visited it last April 11, 1998, nearly 15 years ago (he was just 12 years old at the time). Upon alighting from our bus, we boarded a chartered jeepney that took us to the nearby 2-storey Halfway Lodge where we were to have breakfast at its big, ground floor restaurant.

Jandy and I with (L-R) Jessica, Joy. Desiree and Jasmin

Breakfast was nothing out of the ordinary: an omelet, pork tocino and fried fish plus 3-in-1 coffee but what was unusual, at least to the first timers in this part of the country, was the aromatic tasty and healthy native kintuman (called tinawon in Kalinga) the red rice grown at rice terraces.  This same rice is fermented to produce tapuy (rice wine).  A kilo of this rice sells for PhP85-90.

Halfway Lodge Restaurant

The lodge also has two single rooms and 13 double rooms with ensuite bath or common bath, all capable of accommodating various-sized groups (PhP500 for single person, PhP800 for 2 people and PhP250/head for groups).  Their rooms are said to have no outlets though and you have to charge your electronic gadgets (cellular phones, laptops, etc.) for a fee.  The restaurant balcony had a great view of the town, rice terraces and the Ibulao River (crossed by a hanging bridge).

Kintuman
Pork tocino
Fried fish
Omelette

Halfway Lodge and Restaurant: Poblacion, Banaue, Ifugao. Tel: (074) 386-4082.  Mobile number: (0915) 465-8921 and (0919) 614-2266.  Website: www.banauehalfwaylodge.com.

Enroute to Banaue (Ifugao)

Jandy and I were supposed to go on a beach camping and island hopping tour in Pagbilao (Quezon) but, at the last minute, my companions backed out and we were left with the possibility of, for the first time in a long while, of spending Holy Week at home.  While on Facebook come Wednesday morning, Ms, Violeta Imperial of Nature Awareness and Conservation Club appeared on chat and ask me where I was spending the holidays and, of course, I answered “nowhere.”  She offered her Sorsogon whale shark watching tour but, wanting to escape the oppressive heat of the city, inquired, instead, about her Sagada/Banaue tour.  There was only one slot left but Violet offered to check if there were Ohayami Bus (the only bus company plying the Manila-Banawe route) seats still on offer.    After about an hour, she told me I was in luck as the bus company had some “chance passenger” seats.

Our tour group

I returned to my usual packing, this time replacing beach wear with cold weather attire (jackets, woolen caps, etc.).  With our backpacks and a take-out Jollibee dinner and half a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Jandy and I were  brought to the bus terminal by my daughter Cheska and her boyfriend Marve by 8 PM.  Here, we met up with Ms. Jocie Dimaculangan, our tour coordinator, who also had, in her care, sisters Jessica and Jasmin Bez, Ms. Joy J. Tenedero, Ms. Desiree R. Benitez, Ms. Long R. Garcia, Ms. Eureka Joy Bueno, Ms. Diosa Diaz, married couple Lilia Kristina and Aldrin Tejada; and Mr. Donald Jesus G. Danao.

Our Ohayami bus

We soon boarded our bus and Jandy took his assigned seat while I waited for my “chance passenger seat” which turned out to be a plastic monobloc chair placed at the center aisle (there were 6 of us seated that way).  Truly, a first for me.  Our supposed-to-be 9 PM bus left the terminal by 9:30 PM and it had to negotiate holiday traffic to make it to the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX).  It was lights out by then and everybody on the regular seats were soon asleep.  It was a different case for us “chance passengers” as we had to stay awake in case the bus suddenly speeds up or stops.  How I envied the others. Jandy and I were soon wrapped up in our jackets and woolen caps as the bus airconditioning was set to high.

Save Oil Gas and Restaurant

Our bus had a long traffic spell somewhere in Baliwag (Bulacan).  Past that, we made our first stopover for peeing and meals at Sevilla Sweets and Restaurant at San Miguel (Bulacan) by 11 PM.  Afterwards, I somehow was able to get some shuteye until I was rudely awaken by the swaying of the bus as it negotiated the winding Dalton Pass in Nueva Vizcaya.  Now I had to hang on for dear life as my chair moved with each turn.  We made our second and final rest stop, by 4 AM, at the Save Oil Gas and Restaurant in Aritao (Nueva Vizcaya) where I had a cup of chocolate. Peeing at its clean restroom set us off by PhP5 each.

Nature Awareness and Conservation Club, Inc.: 18 Pioneer St., Moonwalk Village, Las Pinas City, Metro Manila.  Tel: (632) 801-1720. Mobile numbers: (0932) 243-9478 and (0915) 510-1600.  E-mail: Mother_Nature888@hotmail.com.

Ohayami Trans: cor. Lacson Ave. and J. Fajardo St., Sampaloc Manila.  Tel: (632) 516-0501. Mobile number: (0917) 561-7344.  E-mail: ohayami@ohayamitrans.com. Website: www.ohayamitrans.com.