I had been hearing about the amazing beaches in the Philippines for years now, so I always had it on my list as a ‘must see’. I had the perfect opportunity to travel to the Philippines for my niece’s softball tournament so I thought this would be my chance to finally experience the Philippine beach hype. I researched it all on the internet, found flights out of Manila to Boracay, searched for cheap hostels, and then something happened; a friend mentioned trekking.
He said that there was a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the northern Philippines which highlighted rice terraces in the mountains created 2,000 years ago. Yup, you read that number right…ancient rice terraces built high into the lush green mountains. Right before I booked my beach plans, I decided to research these ancient rice terraces a bit and googled images of ‘rice terraces Philippines’. The first picture was displayed and that’s all it took. My heart yearned for green mountains and fresh air; my heart yearned for come cardiovascular exercise, and my heart yearned for photography and culture. The beach sunset was fading fast in my head and my heart took over.
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Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras
The rice terraces are all the product of the Ifugao ethnic group, a minority community that has occupied the Philippine mountains for thousands of years.
The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras are ancient sprawling man-made structures 2,000+ years old. It includes the 5 clusters around the region. I was planning on visiting the towns and terraces of Banaue, Batad, and Hapao to name a few.
They were indeed given UNESCO status for their cultural landscape features.
For 2,000 years, the high rice fields of the Ifugao have followed the contours of the mountains. The fruit of knowledge handed down from one generation to the next, and the expression of sacred traditions and a delicate social balance, they have helped to create a landscape of great beauty that expresses the harmony between humankind and the environment. — UNESCO Description
However, after doing a bit of research I realized that going to the beach was easy, but going to the rice terraces was a bit more of a logistical challenge.
Where are the Rice Terraces in the Philippines
The rice terraces are located in the remote areas of the Philippine Cordillera mountain range on the northern island of Luzon, the Philippine archipelago.
How to get there: Manila to Banaue Overnight Bus
One reason why not many people know about or travel to the Banaue and Batad rice terraces is that they are kind of a pain in the butt to get to.
The only way to travel directly from Manila to Banaue is by bus. Tickets cost 690 PHP ($13.50) and the bus ride takes between 9-11 hours, depending on the traffic conditions in Manila. You could also fly there, but you’ll need to fly to Cauayan airport and take a van or taxi from there to Banaue.
Here’s a good site with more info on the bus, tickets, and times.
I settled into my seat on the bus and prepared for my 10-hour journey with some Dramamine, a blanket, a pillow, and my iPod. Within about 10 minutes I was asleep. It was restless, wake-up-every-hour sleep, but it was sleep. I arrived at Banaue 5 minutes after I woke up at 8 AM. Being ushered off the bus as I was wiping the sleep out of my eyes was quite a wake-up call. But I made it. Now it was time to plan my hike!
Rice Terrace Hiking Itinerary
I met Nora, my certified trekking guide when I got off the bus. Yes, that’s right…Nora…a female. It dawned on me that in all of my trekking travels around the world – I had never had a female guide before! She was about half my size, and I wondered if she could do mountain rescue if I needed it! Then I saw her biceps, and was impressed and jealous at the same time! I learned later that these biceps were formed by pounding rice for years and years as a child and adult. Who needs a gym when you have rice?
We planned the following itinerary:
Trekking in Hapao Rice Terraces, overnight in Banaue
Start 2-day trek from Banaue terraces to Pula village/terraces to Cambulo village/terrace. Overnight in Cambulo village. Trek from Cambulo village to Batad rice terraces and waterfall. Overnight in Batad guest house.
Back to Banaue and take the overnight bus back to Manila
Do you need a guide?
You do need a guide to do the village-to-village trek. That’s why I hired Nora.
Trekking Guide – Nora Atolba – email: [email protected]
If you just want to go to the terraces by car or walk a bit through them you don’t necessarily need a guide. However, guide rates are very reasonable and you could also book a tour that includes the bus from Manila like this one.
What gear do you need to hike?
I think the most important thing to have is hiking poles. Hiking through the terraces from village to village is an immense amount of up and down. It’s tough on the knees. Plus, often times I found myself on narrow little ledges through the rice fields. The hiking poles will help with balance and your knees.
I also recommend:
- Proper waterproof hiking boots
- Raincoat or poncho
- Wool socks that dry quickly
- Silk sleep sheet for the guesthouses
- Travel towel
Don’t Leave Without This Essential Hiking Gear
I’ve hiked all around the world and have found some key gear that I take on every hike for every kind of weather. From backpacks to socks, check out my list of the best hiking gear out there!
Meeting My All-Female Hiking Team
My lunch was packed, my sunscreen was on, my backpack was prepared, and my chariot tricycle pulled up outside my hotel. Tricycles in the Philippines are a motorcycle and sidecar that is enclosed. It’s not very comfortable, but it is affordable. When the trike pulled up, it appeared to be already full – I was slightly confused.
Nora greeted me and introduced Joy, a tall, young local woman. Nora explained that she hired Joy as my porter and wanted to know if it was ok that my porter was a female. My answer of course was an excited “Yes!”. I was already pretty excited that I had found a female guide in Nora, but this kept getting better! I’m all for girl power, so I had no issues with Joy being the porter; in fact, I was actually quite impressed and proud to be trekking with an all-girl team!
However the all-girl team didn’t end there, a young girl also got off the trike and Nora introduced her as Karina, Joy’s 12-year-old niece. She said that Karina didn’t have school this week and wanted to know if it was ok to tag along with us. Hell, when I arrived here I was a bit worried about being a solo traveler – but now I had an instant female entourage – I welcomed the company! My entourage of girls was really a unique experience for me in my travels. I loved the fact that these women were out working in professions that were normally dominated by men.
Philippine Tricycles are an Adventure
The 5 of us, including our driver Yazzer, squeezed into the tricycle meant for 2 and took off. Our first early morning stop was the world-famous Banaue Rice Terraces. There are terraces all over this area of the Philippines, however, the Banaue and the Batad rice terraces seem to be the highlights of the area.
We climbed up a bumpy dirt road and had to try to counterbalance our weight and sit forward so that the whole bike wouldn’t tip over backward…which actually happened once already! The trike’s front wheel went airborne and Karina and Joy fell off the back! They got up, dusted themselves off, and hopped back on; they passed my test on toughness. In fact, it was then that I realized that I was probably the wimpiest chick in this group!
Banaue Rice Terraces
The Banaue Terrace viewpoint was one of those few places in the world that really took my breath away. That overwhelming rush of excitement that you get when you see something truly incredible came sweeping over me and left me rather speechless.
I have seen many famous sites, Taj Mahal, Great Pyramids, Roman Coliseum, Eiffel Tower, Grand Canyon to name a few, but I think the effect of seeing those places was less since I had been exposed to all of them before in magazines, television, books, movies, etc. When you come across something that you’ve never actually seen before, it has a more profound effect; that was the Banaue rice terraces for me. They were stunning.
Banaue to Batad Rice Terraces Hike
After my rice terrace photoshoot in Banaue, we continued up the bumpy mountain road to the beginning of our trail for trekking. We bid Yazzer goodbye as we would be on foot for the next 3 days going from village to village. Joy strapped on my big backpack, Karina took the lead, and Nora and I brought up the rear. The trail was great, not very traveled, but good enough to easily find your way.
This was the main way for many of the villagers to transport things in and out of the village of Pula, which was to be the destination for our lunch break. I learned that Joy and Karina travel this trail often as they have relatives in these villages that they visit quite often. However, they normally transport bags of sweet potatoes when they visit. All of a sudden my little backpack that Joy was carrying seemed rather luxurious.
Pula was a typical Ifugao village whose life seemed to center around terraces and other agriculture. Kids were running around everywhere and there was no sign of adults as we walked into town. Nora explained that the adults go out and work on the terraces or woodworking during the day while the kids are in school. We stopped for a lunch break and ate the food we had been carrying with us.
As I sat in the dusty little village hut in Pula with no electricity or plumbing, half-naked kids running around among the roosters and pigs; I couldn’t help but have my mind wander back to Puma, Nepal where I lived for a few weeks doing volunteer work. I knew that it would happen – I knew that one day I would look back on that Nepal experience and yearn for it again. Even though it was one of my greatest challenges, I found myself wanting to go back; see my old students, and families that I came to know high in the mountains of Nepal. Pula, and Puma…so many similarities.
Pula to Cambulo Hike
We took off for the 2nd part of the hike from Pula to Cambulo. My little rolling shady mountain trail disappeared as we trekked up and out of Pula and it turned into tactical trekking for the next 3 hours. We hiked on the actual terraces; poised on the little narrow strip of wall terrace teetering between the rice on my left and what I imagined to be a deathly fall on my right. Memories of my childhood gymnastics lessons came flooding back; reminding me that I quit those lessons because I sucked.
As an adult I have developed a fear of heights – so I simply tried to focus on the back of Nora’s shoes as I concentrated on every step of the 12-inch wide terrace wall. Unfortunately at this point I wasn’t doing much looking around at the scenery since it would invoke my panic.
After a total of 7 ½ hours of trekking up the valley and back down, we arrived in Cambulo. We checked into one of a handful of guest houses and happily dropped our bags and I treated the girls to a beer and a coke for Karina.
As we drank our beer, they laughed at the blister on my thumb. They thought it was hilarious that my hands could be so wimpy that I would get a blister from a walking stick….yes – even I think that sounds pathetic.
Philippine Native Chicken
Nora had been teaching me many things along our hike; what berries to eat, how to catch dragonflies and save them for dinner, and roots to chew on to soothe a sore throat or cough. She also talked a lot about native chicken. She talked about how it was used in various village rituals, the smell of it, how it was slaughtered, how good it tasted – you get the idea.
I had never heard of native chicken before, and I honestly didn’t really know what it was. Of course, the obvious question that I finally asked was “Is there a difference between native chicken and regular chicken?”
Nora looked at me as if I was an idiot and said “Yes, one’s native and one’s not!”
“Oh, I see,” I said.
Actually, I didn’t see it…but sometimes it’s just easier that way. I knew I’d get down to the bottom of it sooner or later.
It was actually sooner; we had a special meal of native chicken and rice for breakfast the next morning! Finally, this was my chance to really try to understand native chicken. We had seen tons of chickens in the rice fields, out on the trails, and wandering around the villages, but now it showed up on my plate instead of the pancakes I was hoping for.
I eventually learned that a non-native chicken was white in color and purchased at the local market, while a native chicken was one that was bred at someone’s home and feeds on rice. I suppose you could think of it as free range and not free range.
The native chicken was actually very good, it did have a different flavor and the meat was a deep red color which was a bit baffling to me. Native chicken mystery solved! It was bound to be a great day of hiking when we started out with this good ‘fuel’!
Cambulo to Batad Hike
We took off from Cambulo with one additional person in tow. Our all-girl team had picked up a male! That’s what happens when you are an all-girl team apparently; the men want to tag along.
We had met another solo backpacker at our guest house in Cambulo, Rowan from Australia. He was going in the same direction we were so we were happy to have some additional company. Little did I know that Rowan would provide a massive amount of entertainment on a grueling hiking day! And, little did I know that his favorite comment to make was “Are we there yet?”
We climbed up out of Cambulo using all the native chicken energy we could muster up. The ‘lower’ trail that we wanted to take was closed due to dynamite blasting occurring high above the trail where a new road was being built. Therefore we had to hike up to the new road and follow that for a bit and then come back down.
This seemed to be a hard way to start out a long day, and my legs were already screaming and my heart pounding after an hour of hiking. We followed a young brother and sister team ages 11 and 9 carrying a case of heavy bottles each on their backs. Yes, of course, this made me feel wimpy considering their sack of bottles weighed more than my backpack and probably half of their body weight.
The young 11-year-old boy was carrying them effortlessly while toting a huge knife, called a bolo. Nora informed me that all men carry bolos in this area, they never leave home without them. Rowan took one look at bolo and said, “Damn, my parents wouldn’t even let me have a Gameboy.”
The good thing about the climb was that the views were spectacular as we looked down on our disappearing tiny village of Cambulo. However, what goes up must come down (as a side note – this turned out to the be the theme of the day).
I looked at the scrappy, hand-written sign that said “This Waw Batad” with an arrow pointing down and let out a big sigh. The ‘waw’ down was steep and ominous looking, so I let Karina and Rowan go first and I slowly followed them careful of every step on the loose dirt.
The next 2 hours were spent winding through jungle, and rice terraces amidst the unforgiving sun as Rowan kept asking “How much further?” I will admit, besides this question, he was one of the most upbeat travelers I’ve ever met. He was extremely well-traveled. What impressed me most is that he’s definitely enjoying his time on this earth; taking everything in stride with a smile. He reminded me how much fun travel can be when you really open yourself up to the locals and interact.
After another grueling climb, we reached a peak with a little resting place where we took lunch. As we walked around the corner, there it was – the stunning amphitheater terraces of Batad. Once again, it was another breathtaking view that I really wasn’t prepared for.
The terraces went on forever with the little village of Batad poised down at the bottom of the amphitheater like the orchestra pit. The Batad rice terraces were planted and green, which made even more of an impact. Rowan and I went picture crazy for a bit and took a bunch of photos as Nora pointed out where we were going next; all the way to the bottom of the ravine to the picturesque Batad waterfall. I couldn’t even see the bottom of the ravine…it was a long ‘waw’ down no doubt.
I must admit, I was skeptical about the Tappia waterfall; I’ve seen many waterfalls and have been rarely impressed. Maybe my skepticism also came from the fact that this was yet another long hike down steep rocks…it better be good I kept thinking.
Luckily I was pleasantly surprised as the waterfall was this little paradise of white spray enclosed by a rocky cliff. It actually looked unreal it was so peaceful. I dipped my toes in and enjoyed the clear cool water up to my knees while Rowan took the opportunity to dive in and take a swim.
After the waterfall, we started climbing again. Karina actually ran up the stairs pleasantly reminding me of what it was to be young with no fear. We finally arrived in the small village of Batad
Batad Rice Terrace Amphitheater
We had one last big climb up to the top of the Batad rice terraces where the guesthouses were located. Why oh why did they have to be all the way back up at the top of the terraces? I’m not really sure why they didn’t have lodging in the actual village of Batad, maybe it was to torture the tourists into walking up to the top.
Let me just take a moment to say – this Banaue to Batad hike is challenging. It’s an immense amount of up and down, and a killer on the knees!
However it was all worth it as clearly it had the best views! At the top, it looked like one big rice amphitheater. The evening was spent at Rita’s Guest House where we were treated to pancakes, a cold bucket ‘shower’, and beer…what more can you ask for after 7 ½ hours of hiking up and down. It was a great feeling to get that kind of exercise and to experience some of the best rice terraces in the world with new friends.
Best time of year to visit Batad Rice Terraces
Most people want to see the terraces at their greenest as well as see people out working in the terraces. You are most likely to find that setting in April to May or Oct/Nov. I was there in March and it was quite green! You’ll just want to avoid July and August as that is typically the rainy season. I wouldn’t want to be trekking those steep terraces on muddy trails!
Where to Stay in Banaue and Batad
I let Nora choose the guest houses in the little villages, it was easier that way. However, if you are going to Batad and want a guesthouse with a great view – check out Rita’s guesthouse – I loved it!
Or take a look at the various options around the region on Booking.com to see all of the guesthouse options.
I never did make it to the beaches in the Philippines, yet I didn’t really care. I had fallen in love with this gorgeous landscape, mountain culture, food, and hospitality. But most of all I loved that it felt so undiscovered. I barely met any other people on the trail as most people drive to the sites around there – only a few people like me and Rowan hike! But I felt like hiking there gave you a whole different appreciation for the villages and the people who live there and work in these fields. If you want a real hidden gem in the Philippines, head north to the Batad rice terraces!
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