When you think of the Philippines you probably imagine a glistening ocean, pristine beaches and picture perfect islands. These all exist and I’m reliably informed that some of the Philippine beaches kick Thailand’s butt! However, we decided to do things a little different for our short visit and what an experience it turned out to be.
My dearest brother-in-law has been trying to persuade us to visit the Philippines for a while now, we narrowly missed seeing him and his fiancé there just a few weeks before we arrived. Phil assured me that the landscapes and hiking were worth making the trip from Singapore and who am I to argue with someone who’s spent the last 10 years travelling the globe.
We managed to shoehorn in a visit of 11 days and decided to focus on the Cordillera mountain region in northern Luzon. The first thing to say about northern Luzon is that it’s not on the main tourist circuit and this was absolutely bliss. We were the only westerners on our flight out of Singapore and the only others we bumped into on the trip were a different sort of crowd, they were visiting purely for mountain trekking and we felt at home straight away.
It’s a bit of a mission to get up into the Cordilleras, we took a 5 hour bus ride from Clark to Baguio and then after an overnight stop took a 6 hour bus ride up to the stunning town of Sagada. The bus journeys themselves are like being on a sightseeing tour, ‘wow’ was the most frequently used word on both. It is incredibly cheap to get around in the Philippines, all of our journeys cost between PHP 200-450 (£3 – £7!).
We arrived in Sagada and it was love at first sight for me. It was an odd combination of feeling a little bit like a Swiss alpine town and a little like Colorado but with enormous amphitheatres of rice terraces everywhere you look. The smell of the pine was intoxicating and it felt great to don our walking shoes and get out into the mountains again. The temperature is mild and the air clear, it’s a world away from busy and congested Manila. It’s one of the those places that you want to scream from the rooftops about so others can enjoy it but also selfishly want to keep it just as you remembered with the small number of tourists and quiet atmosphere. We spent a blissful few days hiking and eating and it was just what we needed after a more hectic experience in Bali. The trails around Sagada are breathtaking and to finish up our days eating and drinking at the fabulous Yoghurt House was wonderful.
After Sagada we moved onto Banaue which is home to the most famous rice terraces in the country and gets many more visitors. The rice terraces themselves were lovely but I really didn’t like the town and we wish we’d planned our time here a little differently. Banaue is very close to the breathtaking mountain town of Batad and we really wish we’d opted to stay a few days in the wonderful isolation it offers. You reach Batad by driving up a dirt track from the main road for around 3km and then hike down into the village for 2km, we walked all the way from the main road at the bottom of the mountain and I’m so glad we did as the views of the mountains are wonderful.
Batad has the most epic rice terrace amphitheatre and the village is nestled on the side of the hills alongside the terraces. It’s very remote and has only had mains electricity for a few years. Every incoming supply of food, building materials etc has to be carried down the mountain by hand, to watch the villagers running up and down the steep trail with massive sacks of vegetables and huge containers of water was an incredible and humbling sight. You can hike within the rice terraces and spend the night at a few small guesthouses and I really regret not taking the time to do this. I can imagine how wonderful it must be going to sleep in the absolute silence of the Philippine mountains.
Stats for the Philippines
11 days on the road, our budget was £40 (PHP 2797.60) per day.
£30.85 (PHP 2157.64 ) TOTAL spend per day
£12.03 (PHP 842.02) per day on accommodation
£9.78 (PHP 684.27) per day on food
£4.54 (PHP 318.18) per day on transport
Luzon was incredibly cheap to the point where we only spent 75% of our daily budget. Every time we got on a bus it ended up being cheaper than my research had said and you can get really nice guest rooms for a few quid. We really pushed the boat out on food in Sagada because it was so reasonable and delicious, a wonderful few days of over-indulgence.
When you deal with constant touts you can become a bit jaded and cynical, questioning someone’s motive just for saying hello. The Philippine people we were privileged to meet were genuine, friendly and incredibly helpful to us clueless visitors. This started as soon as we boarded the plane from Singapore and I was sat next to a wonderful lady from Cebu, hi Rae! They seem genuinely thrilled that you’re visiting their country. If a kid waves at you where we’re from they’re just waiting to flick you the bird when you wave back. In the Cordillera I’m not kidding when I say that every child waves and says hello with a huge grin on their face. The country is blessed with a ridiculous proportion of beautiful people and their smiles really do lift the spirit.
If you enjoy hiking and getting out into the countryside I’d highly recommend visiting Luzon. You can catch a short flight from Singapore and blissfully break up the slog on the backpacker trail of South East Asia. When we visited in March the temperature was wonderfully cool to the point where I dusted off my jeans and dragged them out of my pack. The tourist infrastructure isn’t there yet but that’s a great thing, every time we had to take a bus or jeepney people were incredibly helpful and we found it really easy to get around. I sincerely hope that Luzon can retain its wonderful qualities when people start to realise what a magical place it is.
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