Exploring Northern Luzon – From the Grasslands of Sagada to the Ifugao Rice Terraces

Phnom Penh-3244After only half a day in Manila, I made my way up to Baguio, a fairly big town in the North of Luzon, the main island of the Philippines. There I was supposed to meet up again with Dolf and Chris from Belgium whom I had traveled parts of Laos before. After an 8 hours bus ride I finally arrived and was greeted by the guys who had already arranged our accommodation. It was really nice to see both of them again and to know that some awesome adventures will await the three of us. However, Baguio was only the jump-off point to the Cordillera, the mountainous and remote north of the Philippines. After a few reunification beers, a hearty dinner and a good night of sleep, we took off to Sagada.

Sagada – The hanging Coffins and Marlboro Country
We arrived in the tranquil mountain town of Sagada in the afternoon. After checking into the local home stay, we wanted to explore the surroundings and find the famous hanging coffins.  Buried in those coffins hanging in the cliffs are elders of the animistic Applai tribe and even today, those who can afford it, opt for that type of burial. Some of the coffins in the area said to be 500 years old. We walked down a windy path into the so called Echo Valley and there they were – coffins, carved and painted, hanging steep up in the rock of the surrounding cliffs. It was a pretty impressive sight and despite a few rain showers, we managed to get some good pictures.

On the way to Sagada through the Cordillera Mountains.

On the way to Sagada through the Cordillera Mountains.

The view of Sagada from our terrace.

The view of Sagada from our terrace.

Sagada view out of our room.

Sagada view out of our room.

The hanging coffins in Echo Valley, Sagada.

The hanging coffins in Echo Valley, Sagada.

The next day Dolf was feeling sick, so Chris and I decided to do a couple of hikes by ourselves. We wanted to save the money for a guide and do it by ourselves. We got some info at the local tourist info and started our trek with the destination Kiltepan Mountain. The hike was a short one and we arrived at the viewpoint where we could overlook the Kiltepan Rice Terraces. The view was great with the vast terraces appearing underneath misty clouds. Amazed by the scenery, we didn’t know that this was nothing compared to what we would discover a few days later.

Kiltepan Rice Terraces from the Viewpoint.

Kiltepan Rice Terraces from the Viewpoint.

Having fun despite the rather mediocre weather.

Having fun despite the rather mediocre weather.

Back on the main road, we took another path which was supposed to lead us to the hilly grasslands known as Marlboro Country. Luckily the weather changed and the sky cleared up so we could enjoy the hike through the pine forests. After a bit of walking through high shrubs we were rewarded with the most amazing view of this trip so far. It was wide open country with an almost 360 degree view down lush green mountains and rice terraces. We were surrounded by grassland without any other people in sight. It‘s a cheesy name but Marlboro Country actually sums it up really well.

Panorama from our viewpoint. The hike was really rewarding.

Panorama from our viewpoint. The hike was really rewarding.

Banaue and Batad – Hiking through the World Heritage Ifugao Rice Terraces
After Sagada we boarded a Jeepney, a shared Jeep used for public transportation all over the Philippines, to make it to Banaue. Banaue and its little neighbor Batad are home of the world famous Ifugao Rice Terraces. Expecting a laid back mountain town, we were pretty disappointed by Banaue. It was fairly big, busy and rather unattractive with lots of tourists and the locals spitting a lot of Moma, red spittle from chewing the bethel nut, onto the streets and sidewalks. The enduring downpour didn’t improve our impression. Since we were not able to do anything, we spent the rest of the day in and around our guesthouse with high hopes for the next day which should take us to hopefully more pristine Batad.
We took another Jeepney and once again rode on the roof. Whenever we had the chance so far we did it and it is so much fun. Not the most comfortable way of traveling, but the wind in our faces and so much better views than riding inside – we enjoyed every bit of it.

We got off at Batad Junction from where we had to walk up to the so called Batad Saddle. From there it was another 45 minute hike to Batad. We arrived in the upper parts of the village situated right in their famous rice terraces also known as the Amphitheatre  Our guesthouse had a terrace overlooking the whole valley and the village itself. It was marvelous and after we had checked in, it was clear that an extension of our stay in Batad was needed. We made the accordant arrangements and took off to our first hike which took us through the terraces, the villages and down a big gorge leading to the mighty Tapia Falls. The masses of water coming down the fall were enormous and swimming in it was like swimming in the ocean with fickle waves and wind blowing in your face.

For our second day, we booked ourselves a local guide to take us through the terraces again and to the village of Cambulo on the other side of the mountains surrounding Batad. Our female guide Maribel was very friendly and told us a lot about the background and history of the terraces. The distinctive feature about the terraces in Batad is that they are stone walled whereas the ones around Banaue are mud walled. It is said that the terraces are more than 2000 years old. But even more impressive than those facts were the views from the top of the terraces. The lush green fields, their complex arrangement and their reflections were something we had never seen before. All three of us said that this was the most impressive scenery we had come by thus far. It was incredible and I definitely took too many pictures of that proclaimed 8th world wonder.


Our hike with Maribel took us to Cambulo where we spent a couple of hours for a swimming break in the river nearby, a good lunch and some fun with local kids as we visited their school. Having played basketball for most of my life it was also great to see them having a good and roofed court – and that in the middle of the remote mountains in the Philippines.

On the way back along some sketchy paths.

On the way back along some sketchy paths.

In the Philippines every little village has a proper basketball court. So sweet.

In the Philippines every little village has a proper basketball court. So sweet.

Hanging with the school kids. Nice shot by Chris.

Hanging with the school kids. Nice shot by Chris.

After a strenuous hike back through some overgrown and almost non existing paths, up the steep hills of the rice paddies and along the sophisticated irrigation canals of the Ifuago engineers, we made it back to our guesthouse. There our host surprised us with a tour of the traditional Ifuago he keeps behind his main house. It was great to see how people lived not even that long ago and to hear about their customs and history. It was a great finish of an eventful day. Exhausted but very happy we called it a day with a bottle of the local rice wine.

Inside the traditional Ifuago House of our host in Batad.

Inside the traditional Ifuago House of our host in Batad.

Last Thoughts …
Starting to travel a country from the North has proven to work out well. Once again I was lucky to explore remote regions and take in some fabulous scenery before heading to the Southern parts of the country.
Summing up this side trip, it is safe to say that Batad was our highlight. The fact that it is still only accessible by foot makes it rather unattractive for mass tourism. Also most of the people that come there are day trippers so staying there overnight makes for a truly authentic experience.  So far Batad was able to keep its authenticity but signs of change are already becoming evident. A big part of the rice fields is apparently only maintained because of the tourism and inside the village a lot of hustling for the tourist money is going on. That being said, it is not pushy and people are still super friendly and generous.
A fact, which applies to the whole country of the Philippines, is that people speak very good English. This enables one to actually have a proper and deeper conversation with people which I haven’t experienced so far. It makes traveling so much more worthwhile and I am already looking forward to our next adventures in this beautiful archipelago.

The terraces of Banaue. These are mud walled and after Batad, were not so impressive anymore.

The terraces of Banaue. These are mud walled and after Batad, were not so impressive anymore.

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Categories: Culture, The Philippines, Trekking | Tags: , , , , | 63 Comments

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63 thoughts on “Exploring Northern Luzon – From the Grasslands of Sagada to the Ifugao Rice Terraces

  1. Beautiful pictures. Cannot wait for the next place your going :)

    • Hi Samokan,
      thanks again for your positive feedback, I really appreciate it. The next update will follow soon. Philipp

  2. Wondering if you have plan on going to Batanes Island, the northernmost island of the Philippines.

    • Hi Samokan,
      we were actually discussing it but decided not to go because it is a little out of the way and our time is limited. I think it must be amazing though. Have you already been there?

      • Not yet, but a friend did and he went in June. The place is amazing , out of this world but my vacation this year is short , so planning to do it next year. It takes a little bit of planning going to the island since transportation going their is not regular and of course the weather. There are more than 7000 island to explore , so have fun. Pictures are beautiful .

      • Philipp Dukatz

        You are so right, there is heaps to explore here. That also makes travelling a bit more difficult than in the other countries so far because you actually have to decide where you want to go and what you want or have to skip. We are looking forward to the islands to spend some quality time at the beaches, do some fishing and maybe some surfing. Where are you going for the Holy Week? Seems like lots of people are on the move for that ….

      • Still in Japan as of the moment, so no Holy Week craziness for me :)

  3. Awesome adventure in the Philippines. I’m glad to know that you had a great time. I have yet to see those infamous hanging coffins in Echo Valley, Sagada.

    • Hi Traveller,
      I can definitely recommend Sagada, not only because of the coffins. It’s quiet, relaxed and fun to stay at. It is one of these places where I would have liked to stay for longer. Have you been to the Philippines or are you planning to go?

      Greetings, Philipp

      • I will succumb to my fear of trekking and do that someday. I’m actually living in the Philippines but haven’t gotten the opportunity to visit such peaceful place.

        Cheers, Jean

      • Philipp Dukatz

        Hi there, you can easily do that. It’s not so difficult to get there and I have seen a lot of “seasoned” travellers who have done it. It’s a great place to see and until now it is still not so touristy. I hope you will make it some day ;) Philipp

  4. I don’t think a tandem tricycle would fit along that tiny log path! LOL
    aside from that, it’s a beautiful place and somewhere that would be so great to visit, when we get nearby on that leg of our world charity ride.

    • Wow, you guys are doing a ride around the world on a tricycle? That sounds awesome. I will sure follow your updates. Great idea! Cheers, Philipp

      • Lol, sometimes in our planning stages it doesnt seem like the greatest idea! So much to try and work out, but I am sure it will…you can read about it on our posts ‘the mad plan’ and ‘the mad plan mileage’…certainly hope to encompass some good exploration like you do, but just with the addition of wheels!

      • Philipp Dukatz

        Hey, I think you will have some great experiences. Travelling on two wheels (I did it a lot on a motorcycle) just puts you in the scenery and environment whereas travelling by bus or car just lets you have a look out of the window. Once again, great idea of you guys.

        Cheers,

        Philipp

      • thanks for the moral support Philipp – we may need a lot of that along the way! lol. i ride a motorbike too, but sadly the cost of using it for touring the world was a bit much, so it’s into storage for that :-( (and a Vmax has the fuel capacity of a teacup)

  5. kirstylskilton

    Your travels and accounts are so inspiring! I can only imagine how you must feel when you wake up every morning and go to sleep every night – you have an awesome life!

    • Hi Kirsty,
      thanks for positive feedback. It’s been really good so far but there are also moments which are not so great and where I don’t want to wake up at all. That’s part of travelling and shouldn’t be overlooked. I decided to put the focus on the positive aspects though. How are your travel plans going? Greetings from the Philippines, Philipp

      • kirstylskilton

        What are the negatives you have experienced?
        I haven’t made any concrete plans at all yet in all honesty, I’ve had a lot of university work on lately. A friend of mine is travelling Asia at the moment and plans to travel some of southern Africa next summer – she has invited me to go with her so that is something I am definitely going to think about!
        Kirsty

      • Philipp Dukatz

        Hi Kirsty, first things first. It’s good that you focus on school now….travelling won’t run away. And the perspective to travel South Africa doesn’t sound bad at all. That’s a continent I have never visited. It must be beautiful there….and a lot of wildlife to spot. Ok, I better go. Take care, Philipp

  6. Wow! This, I must say, is the best Rice Terraces post I’ve seen on WP. The images are wonderfully captured. So vivid. Moreover, I love how it was written! Reading the words felt like it was indeed a great adventure.

    Looking forward to your future posts about the PH. :)

    • Hi Miguel,
      glad you liked the post and the pictures. I am never too sure about the writing since I am not a native English speaker. So feedack like yours really means a lot and keeps me going. Yeah, and the terraces were actually so beautiful. So green that looking at my camera screen, I sometimes couldn’t believe it. We were worried at first if the terraces would be green at all at this time of the year. What we saw was beyond our expectations. Also in general Northern Luzon is very beautiful – I would have liked to see more of that.

      Thanks for stopping by and your positive feedback,
      Philipp

  7. Wonderful photos (as always), but the photos of the cliff burials and rice terraces are certainly unique and fascinating.

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Hi Victoria, once again thanks so much for your feedback. The coffin place was really special I have to say but the definite highlight were the terraces. Just wandering around in there and enjoying the amazing was crazy. Batad was very nice place and I can recommend everyone to go visit it.

      Thanks again for stopping by, I really appreciate it. Greetings from the Philippines,

      Philipp

  8. Very cool photos of an interesting place. Those coffins look really cool.

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Hey Jeff, thanks for your comment. The coffins were quiet a sight. Great to see because it is so much different from everything else we know. The North of the Philippines was very nice. Thanks again and greetings from Naga, Philippines.

  9. One of my favorite places aside from Coron Palawan. Hope you’ll enjoy exploring the islands.

    • Hey Adria,
      we liked it a lot and I have to say that it was our highlight so far. We are in Gubat at the Bicol Coast now. Afterwards it#s gonna be the Visayas and maybe Palawan. I really want to go although I heard that places like El Nido already have become very touristy. I will see. Thanks for stopping by and greetings from Gubat, Philipp

  10. Ria

    Hi Phillip! Beautiful pictures by the way. You missed the most thrilling part of Sagada, the Lumiang-Sumaguing cave connection. I went there last February. It will really test your flexibility. Ü

    • Hi Ria, we have actaully looked at doing the cave connection. But since we have done already quiet a bit of caving, we decided to skip it and do those walks around Sagada by ourselves. Sometimes you can’t do anything and you have to decide what you want to do. But now that you mention it, it really makes me want to try it. Maybe some other time. Do you live in the Philippines? Greetings, Philipp

  11. losernumbernine

    hello there! just want to ask how did you get there, i mean do you have a contact tourist guide while going to those places or you just asked before going there and explore them by yourselves? its’s for our thesis. thanks! :)

    • Hey there, thanks for your message. Individual travel is what I love and that is what we also did when we explored Northern Luzon. We read a little bit about it and then just set off by ourselves. Getting to places can take a while and finding the right jeepney or van might be tricky but it’s rewarding and definitely doable. Same goes for finding accommodation. We never pre-arranged anything but just rocked up at the place and went looking for something nice. We took a tricycle guide in Banaue to go see the terraces since this seemed very convenient. We also hired a guide for a day hike up in Batad which was definitely worth it since she took us across rice fields, along hidden paths and told us about the history of the area. I hope this helps a bit. If you need more info, just let me know. I am happy to help. Cheers, Philipp

  12. This is an amazingly informative article, Philipp! I loved reading it and the photos are incredible. It looks so unreal and reminds me a bit of the rice paddies in Bali! Can you email me the name of the guest house you stayed in? I’m looking to go to the Philippines next week and am now being swayed towards the Cordillera Mountains because of articles like this…!
    xx. Jillian

    http://www.roadtohereblog.com

    • Hi Jilian, if you have time, definitely check out the Cordilellera. It is so nice and unique and so different from the rest of the Philippines. So the guesthouse in Batad was Rita’s. The view was amazing and the owners super nice. Good food as well. If you stay there, ask the man to show you the traditional hut in their yard. It is very interesting. In Sagada we stayed in a place called Sagada homestay or something like that. It is more like a proper guesthouse though. Have fun in the Philippines and let me know how you liked it. Cheers, Philipp

      • Thanks for the info again, Philip! That’s super helpful. We hope to make it there. I think we’re leaning towards starting with El Nido first. Hopefully, it’s still not crazy touristy. Loved your articles about Palawan, as well.
        xx Jill

      • Hi Jill. if it is not set yet, consider maybe starting out in the North. I always liked to start with the mountains, do some hiking and trekking and then kind of relax on the beaches. Worked nicely in quiet a few countries. But yeah, either way, you will have a great time. Enjoy!!!!

  13. Great post and amazing photos! I’ve been meaning to go to Batad but haven’t found the time. I’ve only been to Sagada and it was also a great experience to travel to that place and go top loading on top of a jeepney on the way there. In case you visit this part of the Philippines again, I would really suggest you do the spelunking adventure down the caves in Sagada. A thrilling adventure awaits there! Just make sure not to go down on the rainy season as the cave gets flooded =)

    • Hi there Doi, welcome and thanks for stopping by my blog. It’s great that you also went to Sagada. It liked it a lot up there and I would have liked to stay even longer. The air is nice and it’s quiet. Good place. And yeah, we were actually thinking about visitng the famous caves but then decided against it. Instead we hiked by ourselves and visited the so called “Marlboro Country”, the hanging coffins and some other places. We got lost once but it was ok, not to bad. We hitchhiked back to Sagada. And we found a nice cafe / restaurant on the way back to Sagada..really beautiful setting, I can remember the name though. Where abouts are from Doi? Cheers, Philipp

      • The Travelling Feet

        Hey Philipp, I’m from Cebu. There’s also a waterfall at the bottom of the rice terraces in Sagada. I forgot the name though. When we went there (Feb), the water was really chilling cold and it would really pierce through your skin, about the same temperature as the pools inside the caves in Sagada. Glad you were able to find a ride back to your guesthouse. Hitchhiking rocks!

      • Yeah, hitchhiking is always an option. But the whole area is nice to hike in general. There is also a huge waterfall in Batad, you can easily make it there without a guide. You can swim there as well if it is not too cold. Cebu is nice…next time I am in the Phils I wanna see more of Cebu… I have just spent a couple of days in Cebu City but haven’t seen anything else…. From Cebu we took the ferry to Bohol and then to Camiguin and Siquijor …. What do you do in Cebu for a living? Cheers, Philipp

  14. Hi Phil D, Philippines is loving you already. Have you passed by Sagada Brew?

  15. Alice

    Thank you Phil for visiting my country especially my hometown Sagada. You brought me back home through the beautiful photos you posted. I appreciate very much your positive comments and suggesting to others to have a glimpse of this Shangrila of the north.. I feel proud about the hanging coffins as some of my old folks are resting in that place. It is suppose to be a sacred place but now it’s becoming more of a tourist attraction. As what the others said, you missed the big caves and also the burial cave, anyhow it’s a click away from Youtube. You can also view the rituals done by the villagers before bringing them to that final destination. By the way,have you tried shouting at Echo Valley and hear your voice reverberate on the surrounding mountains??? I hope you haven’t missed that heheheh……So long and God’s speed..

    • Hi Alice, thanks for your kind words. Sagada was a really nice place. I like it a lot. And yes, we did the echo shouting..it was quite impressive. I think I will have to return one day to do the caving and also white water rafting. Must be so good there …

  16. Spellbindingly beautiful photos!

    For your reference, though, it’s Ifugao, not Ifuago. :)

  17. Homer

    Really great pictures! You didn’t try exploring Sumaguing Cave in Sagada? That was my highlight. When you go back to the Cordilleras for another visit, head out to Mt. Pulag. It’s heaven. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6c_ZLRRSnbA

    • Yeah, I missed the cave… I didn’t have enough time to do it all….. Next time though. And yes, I really really wanna climb Mt. PUlag …. also something for next time

  18. Jen Cruz

    Your view from your room is so familiar. I think that is where i stayed last June, hahaha.. Wonderful pictures. I’m planning to go to Battad this year before going back to Sagada. You might want to check out Davao in the southern Philippines. That province is like a hot pot. Mountains, river, beach, islands, flora & fauna. If you’re into adventure like whitewater rafting, river tubing or ziplines, you will enjoy that place. Also one of the cheapest places in the Philippines, hehehe

  19. dines jansen

    A very complete, copmprehensive awesome article! Handsomely written. You are very articulate for somesone whose mother tongue is not English! I’ve been to Mt. Province but have not seen so much bauty as you did! On small detail, though. It i IFUGAO, and not Ifuago :) More power to you.

    • Thanks DInes….. especially for looking up this odler post of mine and appreciating it. And thanks for the hint.. I will have to change that instantly ….. Yeah, writing can be difficult sometimes since English is not my mother tongue and a lot of people are more articulate I guess but I like it and I like to have the opportunity to get in touch with paople from all over the world.. Thanks again and all the best

      • dines jansen

        Oh, what embarassing! I’ve pointed out de misspelled Ifugao, but I myself have committed so many typographical errors in my last coment! From now on, have to read first before sending….Fault van my keyboard ha ha …

    • Bad keyboard! Yeah, I usually do lots of typos and I always have to proofread my writing like twice…. so don’t worry about it.. I already corrected the Ifugao Terraces … thanks again!

  20. berns

    Sagada.. hmm one of my next destination this year, nice pic with the kids (especially the cute kid in violet) and i love the terraces, oh by the way, did you also went to Mt. Pulag?

    • Hi there, I couldnt make it to Pulag but it is my goal to climb it and see the sea of clouds. Glad you like my Sagada pics and the ones of the terraces. Good tmes there … Cheers, Philipp

      • Hi Phil, hmm a friend of mine told me that its better to go there by January to February if you want to see the sea of clouds:) better pack for 4 layer clothing cause its gonna be really cold there.

    • Hmm ok, I was looking at coming over in February..I hope I can manage to do it … Thanks for the tip …

  21. Julienne Yogyog

    WOW… i got curious about a post i saw in fb and now reading and looking at your pro-photos :) What makes your great pics greater is how you told each of their stories -in good english, too! It is a joy to read through your detailed and positive recounting of your experiences in each place you visited. You pointed me to the right direction and reinforced the adventurer in me. The sumaguing cave is great- but then there are other awesome caves as well…
    God bless and keep you safe till next trip :)

    • Hi Julienne, thanks so much for stopping by ….. I am happy that you liked the pictures..that is great feedback …. Thanks for your tip about Sumaguing Cave as well. Sure sounds exciting. All the best! Philipp

  22. James

    Hi Phil. It’s really nice that you had the chance to visit our region which i believe one of the best places in the Philippines especially here in Baguio. I have a Canadian friend whose been here for almost a year now and she fell in love with it and dont wanna go back in Canada anymore..haha..Anyways, thanks again bro.
    btw, i like your writing skills. really good.

    • Hi James, thanks for stopping by. Yeah, I had a great time in the NOrth. Unfortunately I did not have enough time in Baguio as I was just basically passing through. How about your Canadian friend? What has she been doing for a whole year? Did she work in Pinas? That sounds pretty interesting …

  23. It is always a joy to read people talking about how beautiful the Philippines is. I have been proud of my country and really wanted to tour all the islands if I get the chance to. But only seeing a part of it (Palawan, Boracay, La Union, Baler, Camiguin to name a few), I have this inner craving to see and experience more. I am glad to know you enjoyed your stay in my country and I hope you keep coming back and bring some more friends too. And I hope this blog convinced other travelers to try and be open-minded to visit this humble country of ours. Thank you once again and MABUHAY KA!

    • Hi Katrina, thanks for your kind message. I hope you will be able to explore more of your country as I want to the same. There is really so much to see and do..it is incredible …

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