Hiking From Cambulo To The Batad Rice Terraces, Ifugao Region, Phillipines
We woke up to the sounds of roosters, children and the snorting of pigs under our window.
We had a breakfast of banana pancakes, Mallauach and a pita-pizza served with tomato and onion on it.
I was treated with much respect, as the rumors of my overly generous tip (according to Jules) to the massage lady the night before had already circulated around the employees of the guesthouse.
We said goodbye to the Cambulo guesthouse, and strapped on our backpacks.
I was excited to hike between the rice terraces, and was happy that we had brought the proper shoes for this.
I felt confident until the serious part of our hike started…
Walking along the edges of the rice terraces on a footpath that in some places was only a foot wide, and balancing on slippery natural stones, proved much more difficult than I first thought it would be.
It was even more difficult if you add in the element of the vertigo inducing drop on one side, and the muddy rice terraces on the other side.
Falling off the path, down into the side of the cliffs, was not an option.
Some tourists have fallen in the past, and the result was serious injuries and broken bones.
When Jules asked me to turn around so he could take my photo, I accidentally placed my foot into the muddy rice terraces.
My foot sank all the way to my knee and I could hardly retrieve it without the help of Darwin, who came to my rescue.
In hindsight, I would highly recommend buying one of the inexpensive very long walking sticks which are sold everywhere, so you can plant it into the rice fields, to help you balance on the extremely narrow paths between the terraces.
In some places, we had nothing more than a tiny rock half submerged in the mud to serve as our foothold, and with a heavy backpack, it was almost a miracle that we did not fall.
I have to admit that I said some inner prayers for help and guidance for both Jules and myself that we complete this journey without injury.
In some stalls along the way, designed to supply the tourists with overpriced bottled water, snacks or with local crafts, I saw a T-shirt saying, “I survived Batad!”
I could fully relate to the feeling…
The local dogs and kids run on those slippery paths barefoot and with outmost agility.
Darwin tried to console me with the truth, that they were very used to it from living here their whole lives, and that if I had been living here since childhood, I too would have been able to do it effortlessly.
Even the very old people can climb those huge stairs effortlessly, although many women do it with very bent backs, from a lifetime of stooping to plant rice in the terraces.
When we arrived at the Batad region, we sat to enjoy the view, our legs dangling down the stone terraces.
We used the time to ask Darwin a million questions about the tribal Ifugao people.
When we were ready to continue, instead of walking towards Batad village, we veered left and started a long and very steep descent down 3000 stairs, some taller than my knee.
It did not feel at all like climbing stairs, each step down or up felt strenuous.
I found it extremely challenging to balance on those paths and the stairs with a heavy backpack on my back.
By the end of the day, my legs muscles were killing me, and I could hardly climb the steps to our room.
During our hike, Darwin told us about some of the traditions of the Ifugao mountain tribes.
When a couple get engaged, the man makes a celebration (called Moma) in which he must slaughter a pig and cook it for the community to let everyone know that the girl he loves is engaged to him and is no longer available.
When I asked Darwin if his own family cultivates rice terraces, he said, “No!”
His mother, he added, was a fourth child.
When I looked at him uncomprehendingly, he explained that the Ifugao tradition is that the first born child inherits the family’s rice terraces.
It does not matter if the first born is a boy or a girl.
The last born child inherits the family’s house, and any middle children get nothing.
Darwin’s father was not born in this region, and his mother is a fourth child in a family of nine kids.
The are three tribes of Ifugao (people of the mountains) living in this specific region:
The Tuwali tribe
The Ayangaan tribe
The Kalanguoua tribe
There are also Five Unesco world heritage sites in this region:
– The Batad rice terraces are the most popular with visitors, and it was where we were headed that day.
– The Bangaan village, with its original homes and pathways.
– The Mayuyao rice terraces.
– The Hapao Hunduan rice terraces and hot springs.
And the Kiangaan rice terraces.
Each of those terraced areas are very large, with construction techniques varying from stone walls to terraces that were constructed with mud walls.
Irrigation for the rice terraces comes from the uppermost terraces, which are fed by fresh mountain springs, and channeled down in a rush by large irrigation channels, or by dripping down from one rice terrace to the lower ones.
In Batad, the rice terraces are built from large stones that were placed by hand one on top of the other.
Some walls were very tall.
The footpaths between the terraces are very minimal, so as to maximize the growing space.
Traditionally, the tribal people of the mountains went half naked in the summers and wore traditional clothing in the winter and during festivals.
I saw black and white photos of tribal people taken in the early 1900’s, showing that the beautiful women went bare chested and wore sarongs which they weaved themselves around their waists.
The women had tattoos only on their arms, and the men had tattoos all over their upper bodies including their arms and chests.
The tattoos depicted lizards, human images, ferns, lightning, earth symbols like the stars, moon and sun, birds, snakes, dogs, deer and centipedes.
They also developed woven baskets in varying shapes to support their lifestyle.
There was the original backpack, which was made from woven pieces of thin bamboo or rice wicker, and was used to carry their food for the day, as they worked in the fields.
There were also special baskets used to collect snails from the rice fields, which still are considered a delicacy.
They boil the snails in water and garlic.
There were also backpacks to collect crickets and locusts, which were also a loved part of their diet.
The tribal women plant, weed and harvest the rice, while the men maintain the steep rice terraces and built new ones, or log wood and build houses.
Festivals are a time to celebrate the harvest or the end of the planting season.
Even today the tradition of the festivals continues.
It is a time to put aside the daily hard work, and to meet with the neighboring tribes. At these festivals, they eat, play and compete with one another.
During festivals, they have wrestling matches, dances, and leg wrestling, in which both opponents lie down on their backs and kick with their legs.
Darwin said that it was a dangerous sport, and often inexperienced people dislocated their hips from the strong kicks of their opponents.
Perhaps the most exciting contest is the downhill race on an engineless scooter carved from wood, that does not have brakes or any shock absorbers
The wooden scooters are carved and designed with a lion, tiger, crocodile, deer or a horse pattern.
The race is extremely dangerous, since the region is so very steep and mountainous.
After the race, the scooters are sold to the tourists or put on display in the local museum.
One of the feats of strength is a race of men running with a pole across their shoulders, balancing a fully loaded rice sack on each side.
If you could see how difficult it is just to climb those stairs and walk along those paths, you would be in awe of the very idea that anyone can either run while balancing heavy rice sacks on his shoulders, or zoom down the slopes seated on wooden bikes without brakes.
At the end of a long descent, we arrived at Tapiya waterfalls.
Some people were swimming in the cold water pool beneath the falls.
Kids were spearing tiny fish on a handmade fishing spear, using hand made goggles to see underwater.
They grill those tiny fish and eat them.
After a very long climb back up from the waterfall, in which I was hardly able to lift my legs over the tall steps, it started to rain heavily.
We made our way to the village of Batad, taking shelter in peoples’ houses along the way, until the rain eased a little.
In Batad village, we saw many makeshift shops selling cookies and drinks, or offering simple guest accommodations.
As we walked through the houses, I saw mothers cleaning lice from their daughters’ long and beautiful black hair, grandmothers cooking over an open fire, and men squatting down chewing betel leaves, which rots their teeth and colors their mouths red.
The Hillside Guesthouse, where we stayed the night, had some backpackers whom we had seen the night before.
They were eating pancakes and Israeli food in front of an amazing panoramic view of rice terraces, which were coming in and out of the clouds like a mirage.
When we arrived, the staff was slaughtering a big pig, and its shrill cries sent a chill down our spines.
At the restaurant, we placed our order, since the kitchen is just a small, two gas burner affair, and then we went upstairs to see our room.
We were told that we will get the ” The PR or Private Room,” which is a room with a private toilet and shower.
The room was just as basic as the room we had gotten in the last guesthouse.
The mattress was handmade from flour sacks sewn together, and it had many bodily fluid stains on it.
The electricity did not work, which meant that showers would not be available until the electricity could be turned back on.
We did not expect it too eagerly, not wanting to be disappointed if it didn’t come back on.
We washed the mud off our bodies with wet wipes, and went downstairs to eat.
The food was edible, but just barely, and we munched on cookies and chocolate instead of ordering more.
The electricity did come back later that night, and we took lukewarm showers feeling grateful to be clean and not to go to bed muddy.
Jules joked that the meaning of the PR room, is not a ‘private room,’ but a “Pig Room,” as the window of our room was right above the pig pen, with five very large fat pigs splashing in the mud.
I found breakfast the next day to be tasty.
I had the Israeli Shakshuka and some boiled yam roots and enjoyed the food.
Jules ordered a banana pancake which was very floury and dense.
A short hike took us out of Batad.
Even so, my legs were stiff from the previous day’s climb of 3000 steps and the long hike, and I was happy when I spotted our Jeepeny coming down the road.
The Jeepney took us back to Banaue where we met Eddie, our driver, and said our goodbyes to Darwin.
Eddie drove us to a higher point above Banaue where we got a chance to see not just a panoramic view of the rice terraces, but also to see some of the old people wearing their traditional customs.
After a lifetime of hard work, these old people now sit and smile for tourists’ photos.
They probably make more money than they ever did as rice farmers.
An old medicine man in traditional clothing, was wearing a necklace made of boar’s tusks, the head of a monkey, and the head of a hawk, and headgear made from the skeleton of a big local bird and its feathers.
Eddie told us that there is an old lady living in nearby Kalinga village who is a famous tattoo artist.
She works with traditional methods that have been used in this region for hundreds of years.
She uses a thorn of a pomelo tree as a tattoo needle and the ashes of pine trees as ink.
Arnold is a driver who we had found on Tripadvisor.com and who had booked this whole trip for us, got a tattoo from her on his last trip to the region.
Arnold used to be just a driver doing good work, until somebody recommended him on Tripadvisor and wrote down his email address for any future tourists who might be interested.
The rest as they say, is history.
Tripadvisor is such a powerful modern day tool of what used to be the old “ear to mouth” way of spreading information from travelers to other travelers.
It has made Arnold a busy and successful tour organizer.
Now he hires other drivers to work for him, driving tourists all across Luzon island.
In gratitude, Arnold had asked this old lady to tattoo the logo of Tripadvisor on his arm.