Rice it up to the sky
Ok, you’ve been travelling through Asia for quite some time. You’ve been saturated by the sight of rice fields in the countryside of Vietnam. Stood on the top of Dragon’s Backbone terraces in Guǎngxī (China). Strolled around Tegalalang village in Bali (Indonesia). You think, when it comes to rice cultivation culture, you’ve done it all. Now, think again! You’re about to enter a new dimension. In Ifugao, it’s not merely about seeing rice terraces. It’s about seeing amphitheatres of rice terraces, covering whole valleys and mountain ranges.
Located in the Cordillera of Northern Luzón, a night bus drive from Manila, the rice terraces of Ifugao are one of the most visited sights in the Philippines. The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordillera, five terrace clusters around the municipalities of Batad, Bangaan, Hungduan, Mayoyao Central and Nagacadan, have been declared UNESCO World Heritage in 1995, being the first human built natural site to be included in the list.
The terraces were built by ancestors of the Ifugao indigenous people, with the oldest among them built 2000 years ago and then passed on inside the tribal clans from generation to generation. They are unique throughout the world for reaching higher altitudes and being built on steeper slopes than any other terraces anywhere. The Ifugao complex makes and elaborate farming system, departing from careful carving of the natural contours of hills and mountains to make terraced pond fields, construction of resistent stone and mud walls to fortify the fields, coupled with the development of intricate irrigation systems to channel harvesting water from the forests of the mountain tops. The terraces illustrate a persistence of cultural traditions and remarkable continuity and endurance, as archaeological evidence reveals that the farming techniques used in the region for 2000 years have remained virtually unchanged.
They are the only monuments in the Philippines that show no evidence of having been influenced by colonial cultures. Thanks to the difficult terrain, the Cordillera tribes are among the few peoples of the Philippines who have successfully resisted any foreign domination and have preserved their authentic tribal culture.
Entry lane to Ifugao Rice Terraces and jump-off point to the surrounding villages is Banaue, a small town in the North of Ifugao, bordering the World Heritage site villages, with Batad being the most famous and most frequented among the five. It is easily visited on a day trip from Banaue, although it is also possible to stay inside the rice terraces overnight or explore the five of them on a 3-4 day trek.
Banaue itself is a pleasant place to linger for some days. The lively village has a laid-back ambiance and is beautifully located at a hill, with most guesthouses offering a splendid view on the mountain in front. Hosting increasing numbers of visitors each year, Banaue has developped a corresponding infrastructure to cater tourists, with some decent guesthouses, nice cafes and restaurants, plenty of shops selling traditional wood carving handicrafts and furniture – we were inconsolable not to be able to pack some of the awesome hard wood chairs in our backpacks – and to Javiers delight it seems that a disproportionately high share of inhabitants owns jeepneys or tricycles, all gathered around the central square, hoping to grab a slice of the tourism cake.
We arrived to Banaue back from Sagada, in our last two days in the Philippines before taking the night bus back to Manila and catching the plane to Borneo early morning after. Lazy to change hotels four nights in a row and convinced by a good offer from our guest house, we decided to do the Batad terraces in a day trip. We were lucky to get into a nice tour group with two Argentinians on a leave from their working holiday in Australia, a Japanese exchange student learning English in the Philippines, a guy on a long weekend leave from New Zealand and a 20-year old English kid on not sure what kind of mission, who wouldn’t stop smoking weed for even half an hour. Unsurprisingly, by the end of the day he was completely stoned, chuckling about anything one of us might say, while baring his teeth like a horse – which made him look like a male version of Keira Knightley in her younger years.
Batad is only reachable by foot, as there is no road connecting the village to the outside. The trek to get there is anything but a sunday walk, as from the saddle of a mountain – where the road stops – is decends about 1000 steep stone steps, which are uneven and slippery and so a torture for weak knees. Not to mention, that after 10 am it is HOT and the sun inexorably roasts each and every trekker stepping out of the shade for some minutes. That’s what everyone tells you coming back from the trek and it’s no exaggeration – but the view of the terraces it worth every tiny bit of suffering. And once you get into the walking rythm and start sweating, it’s actually a lot of fun!
After reaching the village of Batad, the full-day trek leads through the terrace amphitheatre, walking on the edges of the fortifying stone walls – which is a quite tricky task and nothing for those suffering from vertigo, as some are more than 3 meters high. From the left end of the amphitheatre, about the same amount of stairs again descends to the Batad waterfalls. Who already feels his knees and calves shaking should not attempt to go down, as the trail is even steeper and more complicated than the one leading down to Batad. For the remaining: put your legs together, as cool, clean spring water pouring from an about 30 meter high stonewall awaits you for the refreshing dip you’ve been longing for since leaving the saddle – not to mention the extraordinary sights.
Lingering around the waterfalls also allows to delay a little what is now waiting for you: the 2000 meter ascent back to the saddle, with most stomachs already gnarling for food, only interrupted by lunch in a panoramic restaurant in Batad. We were glad to feel our leg muscles strengthened by the previous treks we’d done during four months of travelling, as just after getting out of work and university, we would probably not have enjoyed it very much. But at that moment, we were surprisingly okay with both, the steep steps and the heat and even felt the ascent took us much less than the descent.
We got back to the saddle late afternoon, delighted about the awesome day and proud of ourselves – up for a cool San Miguel beer, enjoying the last views of the terraces on the way back to Banaue. Of course, on the top of a jeepney!