When my itchy feet wanted to take off again a few months after the trip to Japan (and with my rambling ‘love letters’ to it over—for now), I had to ask myself, “Where to next?” If it was also going to be this year, it had to be a cheaper vacation. (Being in your 30s, married, and trying to have a baby meant savings had to be maintained, insurance and loans regularly paid, conventional and even alternative medicine to deal with, and other grown-up things to take care of before heading off for another trip.)
I thought, maybe I could cross my mahout dreams off my list and drag P to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand or see the mother of all temples in Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Then my brother-in-law was asked to exhibit his photos in White Canvas Gallery in Singapore last month. Of course, we had to go. Plus, it was an excuse to see friends who had relocated there. (More on Singapore later on.) Chiang Mai and Angkor Wat had to wait. But what do you do when your feet are still itching to go someplace? You plan a trip nearby that’s what.
I have always wanted to see the famed Banaue Rice Terraces. The more than 2000-year-old man-made terraces carved into the Cordillera mountains up north are a big tourist draw and, along with the rest of the Philippine Cordilleras’ other amazing rice terraces, it gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status back in 1995. Though more and more people report that the rice terraces of Banaue are in poor condition, suffering from erosion, littered with garbage, and just generally being neglected (hello, tourism folks!), the other rice terraces in the area—Batad, Hapao, and Mayayao—are still worth the trek up north. I even found a traditional inn overlooking the Hapao terraces, Uhaj Native Inn, which from the reviews in TripAdvisor didn’t sound like an overrated and overpriced lodging like some of the established hotels and inns in Banaue.
“I’ve been there and I don’t mind going back, but are you sure?” P asked when I mentioned it to him a few days ago. “You remember Sagada?”
A small and quaint mountain town where hiking and spelunking adventures abound, as well as hanging coffins and cheap accommodations (not in the same place, thankfully). From the seductive tales of backpackers, which I’ve heard since I was in college, Sagada sounded like a laidback mountaintop retreat far removed from the chaos of Manila (275 kilometers removed to be precise) that was sure to charm. I never got around to going there though until a decade later. On a whim, P and I and our friend Rachelle decided to take a bus to the mountain city of Baguio in the evening after work; then six hours later, haul our sleepy selves to another bus for the six hour climb to Sagada.
Far removed from the city (and its modern developments) meant that most of the six-hour bumpy and perilous bus ride was on narrow, rough mountainside roads, where the rest stops went from decrepit-and-don’t-even-think-of-flushing toilets to do-you-really-need-a-door-when-you’re-squatting-and-doing-your-business type of restrooms. (This was almost three years ago so things might have changed, let me know.) At first, it was okay, almost amusing. But by the time we reached the bus stop in Sagada, all Rach and I wanted was a place with a decent comfort room.
Since it was a trip on impulse, we hadn’t booked any rooms. St. Joseph’s Resthouse was one of the most popular (not to mention oldest) accommodations. It had such an inviting gate and pretty garden that it was our first stop. All the cottages were booked though, and the only few rooms available didn’t have its own comfort room; we had to use the common toilet and bath in the hallway, which was fine with us as long as the plumbing worked. It didn’t. Well, there was one faucet that worked, where a hose was attached as it dripped water into a big container with a teeny tabo (water dipper). Seriously, how would that tabo hold enough water to flush? And when I washed my hands in the sink, I realized that the sink had a hole underneath. The water came pouring down the floor. I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. The restrooms of the bus stops earlier had come to haunt us. We got our bags and left.
We walked to the tourist information center nearby, and the person we talked to was very helpful and pointed us to a relatively new guest house that was a 10- to 15-minute walk down the hill from the town center. A four-story concrete house, George Guest House didn’t have the charming grounds and garden of St. Joseph’s, but it had a clean comfort room where everything worked. So we were fine.
We spent the next three days happily exploring the small town, including its Saturday morning street market and eating at its restaurants and cafés (we were regulars at Yoghurt House for lunch or dinner, and Masferres for breakfast; the well-recommended Log Cabin was temporarily closed at the time). I loved the peace and quiet and the unhurried pace of the town. Some of the mountainside neighborhoods we passed were so scenic, where homes with lovely gardens overlooked lovely rice fields and valleys. For a little adventure, we also looked for the hanging coffins at Echo Valley, walked along rice paddies to get to one of the waterfalls in town, and hiked up a mountain side. I skipped on the spelunking, since I was a bit claustrophobic.
While I long thought that I was a pretty adventurous traveler, I realized then that I was starting to have more of an affinity for ‘outdoor vacations’ that meant just sitting in a mountaintop café with a view, with my most adventurous move being haggling for a kilo of Sagada oranges in the street market. But even though I didn’t do the requisite caving, I still enjoyed Sagada and anyone planning to see it should go ahead and make the trip. It’s the last six hour adventure of a bus ride from Baguio though that hasn’t pushed me to return. And this is why P had to ask if I was sure I wanted to go to Banaue as it also involved a long bus ride to the mountains. I’ve been researching online and asking friends and the route to Banaue is reportedly better and you can go straight from Manila to Banaue on the same bus in around 8.5 to 10 hours. That’s a few hours shorter. I told P, “That might not be so bad.”