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Tropical Experience Travel Services - Tours of the Philippines
Blog - Clouds and Rice in Banaue, Philippines
Imagine yourself walking along a mountain made of stairs with steps filled with water. On a beautiful day, you turn your head up: the sky is blue with fluffy white clouds. Looking down, you see sky and clouds reflecting on the water. Gaze ahead and again you see countless steps growing bright green plants with local farmers planting rice. You can guess why this place is called “stairs to heaven”.
Stairs, water, clouds, sun, rice. Not bad, right? Source: Tropical Experience Travel Services
We are talking about Banaue, located on the mountains of the Philippine Cordillera, a place in the north of the Philippines famous for its rice terraces. Of course, the Philippines are made of thousands of islands and you may easily expect a vacation made of sea, sea and sea. For sure, we do have a lot of seas and we are talking about some of the best seas of the world. But you can also find more within these islands: not many people know that the Philippines also have high mountains and elevated landscapes with cool fresh breeze.
Some rice terraces are “hiking” on the mountains of the Philippine Cordillera. Source: Tropical Experience Travel Services.
Banaue is a small town at 1,500 meters above sea level in the Ifugao Region, a lovely and quiet place which we visited several times already. This mountainous place is getting a lot of attention from travel magazines for its spectacular landscapes, but thanks to its off-the-beaten-track location (you’d need a long trip by road), the area is still not too packed and busy. We observed that the prevalent tourism is European, especially the young and active crowd, but you can also encounter families and many groups of adventiruous “senior” tourists.
The main attraction is of course trekking along the rice terraces, which can be visited in 5 villages (Batad, Bangaan, Mayoyao, Hungduan and Nagacadan), which features stunning examples of human settlement and agriculture. Those villages have been declared (with their rice terraces) as UNESCO Heritage. The best way to explore these places is by trekking: the villages offer paths to walk through with the help of expert local guides who are usually the sons or relatives of the village rice farmers themselves. These paths have different difficulty levels, so that you may choose to take the more challenging hike or maybe just stroll and appreciate panoramic views (maybe tasting some of the fine local coffee in one of the stops). In the area, you can also find waterfalls and caves, typical of the limestone rocks of marine origin that the mountains are made of (sea seems to be unavoidable when travelling to the Philippines, even on high mountains!).
Around Batad Village on a sunny day. Source: Tropical Experience Travel Services.
Igorot, the local ethnic group, is yet another one of the many cultural peculiarities of the Philippines. Here you can discover their houses, small but very cozy, equipped with exquisite utensils and wooden decorations. One of the unique features of the Ifugao house is that no nails nor bolts are used in building it, wood blocks and pieces are carved to fit into place with some strong twigs and bamboo ropes to hold them together. It is also possible to sleep in a typical Ifugao house, a unique experience being one with nature, with the smell of the wood, the sound of the birds and the sweet music of a water spring flowing along the rice terraces! There are also different solutions for hospitality in Banaue, mostly in small family-owned inns or bed and breakfast.
An Ifugao house and a rice-pounding tool . Source: Tropical Experience Travel Services.
Woodcarving for sure is yet another specialty of the area, since the locals show great abilities and sell very resistant and high quality furniture and wooden decorations. The colorful “alampay” clothing is also unique in this region as the fabric is hand-woven by the local women, with particular patterns and hues that describes the culture and social status of the wearer.
A parade in Banaue. Source. Tropical Experience Travel Services.
And, of course, we shall not forget about the town’s main product: rice! The “Tinawon Rice” is an age old rice variety from the famed rice terraces of Ifugao. What is special about the rice in Banaue aside from being organically grown is that, unlike the usual 2-3 times a year of typical rice farmers, they are cropted only once a year. And so the name “Tinawon” which, in their local dialect, means “planted once a year”. They say, the reason is not to consume natural soil nutrients and still have enough for next year’s planting. The grains are short, roundish, light brown and a bit rough as compared to the common polished and smooth white rice. The amount of rice harvested should be enough to sustain the town for the whole year.
Tinawon Rice. Source: Tropical Experience Travel Services.
Born by their inventive minds, the Ifugaos started to carve the rice terraces into the mountains and their complex yet very efficient irrigation system, by hand, some 2000 years ago. No machineries nor heavy equipment were used, just bare hands and some simple tools. No slave labor were exploited, just families and communities working together. It is said that when the length of the rice terraces, if put together end to end would encircle half of the globe. Just genius!
Walking around these places makes you feel the atmosphere of this ancient landscape, in a continuous evolution and preservation. While challenging natural constraints, people adapted themselves and produced a genius and a very beautiful example of a balanced relationship between humans and the environment. Your visit could be so an extraordinary experience from an environmental, cultural and historical point of view.
Curious tourists can explore the villages now walking through the main trails, but we can just guess how challenging it was for the locals many years ago to penetrate these valleys covered by thick tropical forests and find cozy places for the production of their daily sustenance. Also realizing it, the experience will be more special to you.
(written on April 2014)