We spent 27 days in the Philippines, and with the country’s incredible diversity in landscapes and in people, that was nowhere near enough. However, as a country comprised primarily of islands, it’s easy to get caught up in the temptations of the sand and the sea. The Philippines has far more to offer than just beaches, though. In particular, I found the province of Northern Luzon to be a prime example of the amazing non-beach offerings of the Philippines. And it’s not just the landscapes. It’s the culture, it’s the heritage, it’s the food, and it’s even the mountain air. So, without further ado, I suggest that you visit…
1. Busy Mountain City in Baguio
It’s no surprise that the Philippines is a hot country. With thousands of islands perched just above the equator, heat is a thing that’s bound to happen. But what happens when people who live in a hot country want to go on a vacation? Believe it or not, they escape the summer heat to Baguio.
Baguio is shaped like bowl, decorated on all the sides with small, colourful houses that have made people call it the Cinque Terre of the Philippines. Cinque Terre it is not – don’t go there expecting lemon-scented hills and a rocky beach paradise – but it is a city worthy of visiting in its own right.
Among its sights include the great views of miles of mountain’s at Mine’s View Park.
You can learn about the local Tam-Awan culture in the Tam-Awan Village which seeks to preserve the group’s cultural heritage with a really lovely, interesting, and informative cultural centre. They also have cool flowers, like the false bird of paradise!
And don’t forget the visit the Baguio Central Market! It’s huge and bustling, and it’s also where we learnt that ants on fruit means that the fruit is sweet and ready to eat! (Try the ube everything, as well as the strawberries – Baguio is famous for them!)
*TIP: Baguio lacks hostels to stay in. Between the two advertised in our Lonely Planet (we stayed at both), the Upstairs Bed & Bath was by far superior to the YMCA – both lacked in much security, but at least the Upstairs Bed & Bath didn’t smell like feet!
2. Rice Terraces in Maligcong, Bontoc or Banaue
We happened to visit the Philippines right after a massive typhoon that made intercity travel quite complicated – we had to cross a river by footbridge to get to a bus to Bontoc. By the time you’re there, however, I’m sure this won’t be an issue. Anyhow, due to this little issue we didn’t have time to visit the more famous (and further) rice terraces in Banaue. Instead, we went to Bontoc. One thing to note is that although your books may say that the rice terraces are in Bontoc, they are actually in Maligcong. Maligcong is fabulous, beautiful, and a great hike.
Plus, nearby there is El Nordo’s orange farm to end your day if you’re up for the extra 15 minutes of walking. Delicious local green oranges galore, and the owners are very sweet.
*TIP: We stayed at Suzette’s Maligcong Homestay (email@example.com/09155 46 35 57/+63 9155 46 35 57), and we woke every morning to a gorgeous view of the rice terraces. Once you take the small Jeepney from Bontoc to Maligcong, Suzette will be able to organize everything you need for you. Our guide was Juanita, and she was great!
3. Caving and Hanging Coffins in Sagada
Sagada is insane. A slightly more developed mountain town, many artists came to live here in the 1970’s. The city has so many highlights, we didn’t have time to see them all. Sagada is famous for its hanging coffins. While people in Kabayan used to bury their dead in mountains to give them close proximity to the gods, people in Sagada used to (and still do!) nail their dead to mountainsides to bring them as close as possible to the heavens. It’s a sight to behold.
There’s also a pretty awesome sunrise hike at Mount Kiltepan that you can do by yourself.
But that’s not everything. Sagada has hiking, which we didn’t get to do, and amazing, incredible, life-changing caving. For 400 pesos/$10.50 CAD/$8 USD. We were underground with our guide for 4 hours (though it can take less or more time depending on your speed) while he led us in his flip-flops over vast drops through the dark. I’m not sure if anything will ever compare, and all other caves have seemed unimpressive in comparison – just don’t bring your finest clothes. You will be swimming in cold water (for about a minute), and you will be walking through bat droppings.
Hands down, Kabayan was my favourite place to visit in the Philippines. The locals were incredibly kind and friendly, our guide was great, and there were mummies. Yes, that’s right, mummies. The mummies of Kabayan have great local significance, and many legends surround their presence in the mountains.
Easily the two most popular tourist attractions in this tiny town are to hike Mount Pulag and to visit the locations of the mummies (which is also a hike). Your guide will likely also take you to the National Museum of Kabayan,
as well as lunch (you may be expected to pay for your guides), an interesting treasure of 1000 year old skulls discovered under someone’s house ten years ago,
a second rock formation with mummies inside,
and even to the local weaving factory. WORTH IT.
While Mount Pulag also hosts the grandest mummy, at the time we visited this mummy was not open to visitors in order to preserve it. In order to do either of these activities, you MUST get a guide. This is very affordable at around 1000 pesos/$26 CAD/$20 USD for the whole day, including a driver (without the driver we were still hiking for about an hour round trip!). This amount can even be split between people! Without a guide you run the risk of getting lost or disrespecting or damaging these sacred remains, and no one wants that.
*TIP: For those travelling to Kabayan, you must first go to Baguio. From Baguio you go to the Slaughterhouse Bus Station (not the big one). It has only a few trips to Kabayan per day. There are only two places to stay in Kabayan (it’s THAT small), and very little information online. I stayed at the Pine Cone Lodge and Restaurant (firstname.lastname@example.org/+63 927 279 2588/929 327 7749). It was clean, cute, and pretty, and the food was great. Once you get there, they will be able to help you with whatever you need. Our guide was Ryan Baldino, and he was wonderful!
And there is so much more to see in Northern Luzon! What’s your favourite place in Northern Luzon?