Back at Casa Vallejo (sort of) and dessert at Hill Station

When I was recalling some of my most memorable travel lodgings, I included Casa Vallejo in Baguio because it scared the living shit out of me and my companions when we stayed there more than a decade ago, just before it closed. We never actually saw anything, we just heard creepy sounds and felt the heebie-jeebies all throughout our stay. Well, I finally made it back to Casa Vallejo on a recent trip to Baguio.

The new Casa Vallejo

A friend was providing us free accommodations, so we didn’t book rooms in the newly refurbished boutique hotel. And refurbished it truly was. It had a bright and more polished looking lobby, the hallway was no longer as dim as before, and most importantly, that eerie I-feel-like-somebody-is-watching-me-from-the-end-of-the-creepy-hallway was no longer present. (It helped that at the end of the hallway, where the old ballroom used to be, was now the lobby with a cheery staff behind the counter. And we didn’t stay for the night, so we’re not sure how it ‘feels’ then.)

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The hills are alive…and they kicked my butt

In between the deadlines last week and the looming deadlines this week (hence the blog absence), P and I got to join some old college friends of mine to go up to Baguio for a three-day break. It was much needed escape–I was looking forward to the cool weather, checking out the new Casa Vallejo and the restaurant and bookstore beside it, BenCab Museum, and looking for a road to run on.

Ever since I started running, I have made a pact with myself to look for roads or routes where I could go for a run whenever I go on vacation. I have been to Baguio several times since I was a kid (it’s one of the most accessible  mountain city retreats from Manila), but I have never run along many of its sloping streets. Baguio has simply been more of a convenient escape-from-Manila-heat kind of destination for me, where I would often just eat, stay bundled up, then go out and eat some more. Sweating it out was never in the itinerary. This time, I was determined to take advantage of the cool weather, lace up and run.

Hello, Baguio road

We stayed in a house along South Drive, which starts as far as I can tell from the rotunda in front of the Panagbenga Park (at least that was my landmark) and it snakes south to Country Club Road, where Baguio Country Club is located, all the way to the other entrance of Camp John Hay. The run started out pretty nicely–a line of trees to our left and beautiful houses up on hills to our right as P and I ran along the sidewalk. But after a few minutes, the sidewalk would end and we would find ourselves either running along the road facing oncoming traffic or crossing the street so we could run along another sidewalk (that is until it ends, and we had to cross or run on the road again). Continue reading

A Baguio breakfast

The Kamote Bread of Cafe by the Ruins in Baguio City

One of the best things to have on a cold morning is warm, freshly-baked bread. And whenever P and I would go up to the mountain city of Baguio, I would drag him to Cafe by the Ruins every morning to have breakfast in spite of his mock “But we already ate here yesterday” objections. Cafe by the Ruins makes its own Kamote Bread (sweet potato bread), which you can order with some of the cafe’s delicious spreads, pates and fruit jams.

Ruins Herb Tea

I also like to order the Ruins Herb Tea to go along with the bread and the other breakfast items we end up ordering: the longganisang hubad (local sausage without the casing) crispy tapa, the daing na bangus (butterflied milkfish marinated in vinegar and lots of garlic), and the mushroom omelet, which you can have with the cafe’s signature mountain rice. All breakfast sets are served with a small bowl of fresh fruits–something which is in abundance in Baguio.

A daing na bangus and mountain rice breakfast

Cafe by the Ruins is located at 23 Chuntug St., Baguio City

Memorable travel lodgings: chilling, chilly or chilled

I just found out that Casa Vallejo, the oldest hotel in the mountain city of Baguio which was built in 1909, reopened early this year as a boutique hotel. It’s been around since the American Occupation and was one of the very few structures that survived the carpet bombing of the Japanese during WWII. But though it was spared in the war, the years were not as kind. It went the way of like many old pieces of architecture around the Philippines–decrepit and looking as if it’s about to crumble under its own weight. Right before it closed in 1997, when my sister and I and two friends found ourselves stuck in Baguio because we didn’t reach the last bus to Sagada, we ended up staying in this old hotel. And though that was more than a decade ago, Casa Vallejo remains one of the most unforgettable accommodations I’ve ever had on the road. And it got me thinking of some of those memorable hotels, resorts, or guesthouses I’ve temporarily called home while on a trip–whether because they sent chills down my spine or were just unbelievably chilly.

Casa Vallejo then (photo courtesy of JMagreda.blogspot.com)

1. Casa Vallejo (along Session Road, Baguio). Aside from the fact that it looked like it was just a couple of days away from attaining condemned building status (turned out they were closing it in a few months), the place just gave us the creeps. But we were in Baguio during a holiday and it was one of the few places with available rooms and they were cheap too. It only had shared bathrooms so using the toilet in the middle of the night meant getting out of our room onto an eerie and dark hallway, climbing the creaky staircase and running to the bathroom, while trying not to look behind you where Casa Vallejo’s old ballroom stood. The huge room was always dark and it had a heaviness around it. I always felt like I was being watched from that room and I refused to look at it. I later found out that it was where colonial government officials and the society belles before the war used to party. Well, it felt like they were still all there, wondering what happened and looking out the hallway. At the time, I felt like maybe I was letting my imagination run away with me, but when we got back to Manila and told people where we stayed, we were told that the place was haunted. That before it was a hotel, it had served as a prison and hospital during the war.

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Where to next?

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.

View of Hapao rice terraces from Uhaj Native Village Inn (photo courtesy of Uhaj)

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?”

Ah, Sagada.

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