We arrived into Manila at 4:30am and by the time we got through customs and got our bags, it was just starting to get light outside. We got a taxi to our hotel in Malate (from the airport, the yellow airport taxis are the best but once you get into the city, you should avoid the yellow taxis and take the white ones on the meter only) and luckily were able to check in.
Our plan for the next week or so was to head to the North Luzon area in the Cordillera Mountains to visit the famous rice terraces out of Banaue/Batad. There’s a whole loop that people do but for some reason, the itinerary is explained very poorly both by the Lonely Planet and by the people at our hostel. We’re not sure why it’s made to be so confusing, but we felt like we were pretty much on our own in figuring everything out.
It took us some time to figure out the best way for us to make the loop but finally we decided to do it the opposite direction that most people do it (by starting in Baguio instead of Banaue), mostly because if we did it the more popular way, we’d have to spend a n extra day in Manila waiting to take an overnight bus, whereas by starting with Baguio, we could leave first thing the next morning and get an earlier start.
Once we had that figured out, it was time to start exploring Manila. I didn’t really know what to expect as we’d heard very mixed things about it. Mostly though, we heard it was pretty dangerous. So much so that we thought there was a chance we’d have to just hang out at our hotel at night because we wouldn’t feel safe enough going out. That wasn’t the case at all. I didn’t feel unsafe at any time throughout our stay in Manila. In fact, there are more police officers here than I’ve seen almost anywhere else (all of which – from mall security guard to the police patrolling the street – are carrying huge guns).
One thing we did notice though, was that Manila was very unlike most of the other Asian cities that we’ve visited. In fact, we didn’t really even feel like we were in Asia anymore while we were there. The Asian etiquette that we’re so used to didn’t seem to exist here. I almost felt more like we were in a city like Lima (though much bigger and nicer) than anywhere we’ve been in SE Asia so far.
We walked around our neighborhood, which was pretty dead since it’s more of the going out/nightlife area of Manila. Then, we walked over to the Robinson’s Mall, which is a very popular mall in the area. It had nothing on the Bangkok malls, but it’s known to have a great food court, so that’s where we stopped for lunch/our first meal in the Philippines. The most popular meals here consist of rice with meat on the side and then a fried egg to top it off.
After lunch, we walked through Rizal Park (Jose Rizal is a national hero here – he’s almost viewed as a sort of God. He was executed in Rizal Park after his incarceration at Fort Santiago) and then headed to Intramuros, the walled city, where we visited Fort Santiago, Casa Manila, and the church of San Agustin. We spent a couple hours walking around, but between the heat (it was hotter than we’ve ever experienced in Thailand) and being up almost all night, we needed to head back to rest for a little. The main mode of transportation in the Philippines are what they call Jeepneys, which look like little mini buses and are all decorated differently and very colorfully. We found one that was headed near our area and hopped in for our first of what I imagine will be many Jeepney rides.
After napping for a little, we headed out to explore our area and find dinner. We walked around the corner to the St. Andros Market, which is basically a big fruit market. We had read that they have BBQ stands set up all around the market. They did, but we decided that we wanted to figure out what all the foods were before just blindly picking some. We walked around a little bit more down a very local street where Dave stopped to try a game of what looked like a mix of pool and air hockey and then finally decided on our dinner spot. We had seen a burger cart and decided to pick up a few pieces of fried chicken and some peanuts from a stand nearby and bring that over to the burger stand and share a burger there. It was awesome. When we got home, we immediately looked up all the different foods we had seen so we’d be prepared for the rest of our trip.
As I mentioned, Dave and I decided to do our trip to the North the opposite direction as most people here do it. Our first stop was Baguio (a 6 hour bus ride from the Pasay Bus Terminal in Manila). We left early and arrived in the late afternoon, but due to the fact that it was pouring rain and I was a little sick, we unfortunately didn’t get to do much exploring. The city of Baguio is much larger than we had thought it would be. The main attraction is the Baguio Market, which has pretty much the best and cheapest snacks ever (there were hundreds of vendors selling hundreds of snacks; all of them had the same deal: 3 snacks for 100 pesos, or $2.50). Of course, we stocked up for the rest of our trip
The next stop in the loop for us was Sagada, which we read is a very cool and chill little town. We got the earliest bus out of Baguio (6:30am) and by halfway through our 2nd 6 hour ride in two days, we were praying that a night in Sagada would be worth the trek – We made the trip through Baguio just to see Sagada since we had heard such good things. If you skip Sagada though, you can just take an overnight bus to and from Banaue and save the couple of days that it takes to get there. In that scenario you would just see the rice terraces out of Banaue/Batad.
Just to lessen the suspense – we ended up loving Sagada and agreed that it was definitely worth the extra travel time. As soon as we got in, we headed to the tourism office and met a couple from Canada. We decided to all do the popular cave connection tour, which is a three hour tour through a cave in the area. It’s famous for the hanging coffins at the entrance of the cave, where the local villagers buried the deceased (they believed that if the dead are buried underground, their souls will be trapped. Instead, they stack up coffins in the entrances of caves so the spirits are free to roam).
We thought we were taking a leisurely stroll through a cave, but this tour ended up completely taking us by surprise. Aside from our 45 minute cave swim in the pitch black in Vietnam a couple of weeks ago, this was definitely the most adventurous and also probably the most dangerous cave tour we’ve done. For three hours, we were sliding through tiny passageways, repelling down rocks without any safety equipment, and crossing underwater rivers. It was pretty awesome!
When we finally exited the cave, it was pouring (the rainy season was definitely upon us)… and we had a 45 minute walk back to town. Our guides asked if we could make it back on our own (though we later learned that they’re supposed to take us back to the info center). We said we could but 20 minutes later when we were hiding out under an awning to wait for the rain to let up a little, they passed us in a jeepney and stopped for just long enough to tell us that they wouldn’t give us a ride. That pissed us off and we wrote a very bad review about them back at the tourist information center.
We spent the rest of the night hanging out at our guesthouse with some other local guides, drinking tequila which they gave us and blueberry wine which we bought. We decided that we’d leave for Baguio (via Bontoc) first thing the next morning and made plans to continue the rest of our trip with our new Canadian friends.
We were the first ones in line for the 45 minute Jeepney ride the next morning from Sagada to Bontoc. On our way into Sagada, there had been some amazing views of the rice terraces. We saw some people headed the other way riding on the top of a jeepney and decided we wanted to do the same for the best views. It was a little scary (the road was very windy down the whole mountain with nothing but cliffs on the other side) but we definitely got the best views.
Bontoc is a really small town and we only stopped there for about an hour to walk down the main street and grab breakfast before continuing on to Banaue, a 2 hour van ride away through some of the most beautiful scenery we’ve ever seen.
Originally our plan was to spend a night in Banaue and then head out the next morning for a 2 day/1 night trek to Batad, where the famous Ifugao rice terraces are. Instead, our friends suggested that we make it a 3 day/2 night trek, spending one night in Batad and one night in one of the smaller villages nearby. That sounded like a great plan to us! So, as soon as we got into Banaue, we grabbed lunch and arranged a tricycle ride to what they call the saddle, which is the jumping off point for the 45 minute walk to Batad (walking is the only way to get there). We wanted to get a move on as soon as possible because we were worried about the rain that seemed to start at about 2pm every day.
As I mentioned, Batad is home to the Ifugao rice terraces, which are the most famous rice terraces in the North Luzon region (and arguably the world). As beautiful as all the rice terraces were throughout this region, the view from Batad is supposed to be the “aha!” moment that kind of takes your breath away. And, it was. Looking over the rice terraces and the village below was one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever seen, right up there with Machu Picchu. And all of the hotels have views overlooking this amazing sight.
We hadn’t planned to do anything in the afternoon because we had assumed it would be raining, but we got in and there seemed to still be clear skies, so we went to check out the village and then ended up continuing on to the Tappiyah waterfall, a very steep hour-long hike from where we were staying.
We’ve seen a lot of waterfalls and this one was unexpectedly one of the best. It was much bigger than we were expecting so we were pleasantly surprised. Dave and Mathieu (our Canadian friend) went for a swim, while the girls took pictures (the current at the base of the waterfall was very strong). Then, we started the long uphill-journey back.
Dave and I wanted to pick up a bottle of rice wine for the evening (we were in the rice terraces after all). We had stopped at the one place in town that had some in stock on our way down to the waterfall and had told the owner that we would pick up our bottle on the way back. We got back there only to find another group sitting there drinking the last bottle of wine… in the whole village. OUR bottle of wine! We sent the owner searching for another bottle, but he came back empty handed. When I asked at our guesthouse if they had any, I was told no again. Then, Dave asked and our owner pulled out a bottle. Apparently it’s a “man’s drink” and the owner’s bottle was a little old so he didn’t want to give it to me. Either way, the wine was awesome and we had a great dinner and evening overlooking one of the most beautiful sights we’d ever seen.
We started our trek first thing in the morning with a local guide we’d hired the night before (we paid 1500 peses for the four of us for two days, approx. $18 a couple). As we were walking out of Batad, he was telling us all about the rice terraces there. They took over 2,000 years to build and have amazing irrigation systems set up which filter water through each and every one of them. He told us that each family owns 2-3 terraces and when I asked him what they do with all the rice, do they sell it (it seems like there’s so much of it), he told me that the terraces have just enough rice to feed the people in the village. Wow.
We trekked about 5 hours on our first day, stopping in the small village of Combulo for lunch before ending up in an even smaller village, Pula, for the night. Again, the whole way, we were seeing some of the most amazing scenery and for a lot of it, we were actually walking right through the terraces. It was a very rainy and muddy day (at one point, my foot slipped and fell right in to one of the terraces, so I was soaked), but words and even pictures cannot describe the beauty or really do it justice.
When we arrived in Pula, our guide asked us if we wanted chicken for dinner. We said that we did and he said he’d ask to see if the guesthouse we were staying at (which was really just a local villager’s home) had any and then we could all prepare it together. After taking my very first bucket shower (a bucket of cold water due to no electricity in the home), our guide called us downstairs and we were introduced to our dinner, a very alive chicken waiting to be “prepared.” We got to watch the entire process – from seeing the chicken’s throat being slit to seeing how to burn off the feathers, take out the intestines, and cut the bird into pieces. I cannot imagine having to go through all of that every time I wanted to eat chicken for dinner (it took about 2-3 hrs in total). It was such a cool experience getting to see this.
When we finally ate the bird later that night, it definitely wasn’t one of the best meals that we’ve had (to put it nicely) but at the same time, I loved it (they boiled the chicken instead of frying it and our guide said they always overboil it for the tourists for safety reasons). Eating chicken is a treat for these people – our guide said that it was his favorite meal which he only gets about once a week – so even though we didn’t think it tasted that great, we got to see what these people eat and how they eat it. It was very eye-opening. And the whole chicken (with rice and veggies on the side) cost $12 split between the four of us.
In the morning, we set out for the last day of our trek, another 4-5 hours of hiking. The views on our second day were not as spectacular as they had been the day before (we were mostly hiking through the jungle), but it was still a nice day of hiking, and we were all very glad to make it back to Banaue by lunchtime. Even though we stopped at the Banaue viewpoint on our way back into town (also beautiful views of the rice terraces), unlike Machu Picchu where we ended our hike with one of the most beautiful sights we’ve ever seen, the ending to this trek was a little anti-climatic. In hindsight, if I could do it again, maybe I would do it the opposite way (spend the first night in Pula and the second night in Batad so that we could end with the amazing/most famous view of the terraces), but I’m not sure that’s even possible.
It was an amazing few days in the Cordillera Mountains/North Luzon, probably my favorite and most memorable thing that we’ve done on our trip so far this summer, but after a not very comfortable overnight bus ride back to Manila that night, we were ready for our last day in the city before heading to the islands for a week.
Once again, we arrived in Manila very early in the morning and when we were finally ready to get out to explore the rest of the city, it started pouring rain (ugh – rainy season!). So, we headed back to the mall to grab lunch and see a movie – always a treat for us (Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise, which was surprisingly pretty good). By the time the movie was over, it had cleared up so we hopped in a jeepney to Makati, which is the business area of Manila. Makati is the complete opposite of Malate, where we were staying. While Malate is a little grungy and kind of ghetto (but very local and cheap, both of which we like), Makati is high class all the way. It’s probably even nicer than any of the fancy areas in Bangkok (eg, Siam). We walked down Makati Ave. to the Greenbelt Mall (which is really 5 huge malls) and explored this completely different side of Manila for a few hours. We even saw a CPK (Dave’s uncle co-founded it) which was pretty cool and gave us a slice of home (pun intended).
We had heard so many negative things about Manila, but I found myself actually liking it. You have the nice, really fancy area (where you can’t tell at all that you’re in the Philippines) and also the much more local area where we were staying. The food is good (in addition to rice, meat and a fried egg which is the staple Filipino meal, the Filipinos love burgers, even gourmet ones, so that’s a great treat for us), it’s really cheap, and the people have been really nice so far (unlike the people in Thailand, they won’t necessarily smile at you when you’re passing them on the street, but as soon as you start to talk to anyone here, they are extremely friendly and helpful). And surprisingly, almost everyone speaks English here.
We had an awesome time trekking through the rice terraces and got a great taste of big, “bad” Manila, but now we’re ready for some beach time in Boracay and the Visayas. Buckets and hookahs, here we come (we hope)!
For anyone who is looking to visit North Luzon, from Manila, here’s a shorter version of the itinerary we did (which is pretty much doing the loop in the least amount of time possible). Not sure why, but the section in the Lonely Planet about this whole loop is very confusing.
Day 1: Take the Victory Liner bus from Pasay bus terminal to Baguio, (they run every hour from about 7am-3pm and will take 6-7 hours). We left at 9am and arrived at 4pm. Stay in Baguio for the night, make sure to check out the Baguio market for great snacks. Overnight Baguio.
Day 2: Leave first thing in the morning to Sagada (another 6 hour bus ride). They run from 6:30am – 1pm. We took the first bus out at 6:30am. You should arrive in enough time to do the cave connection tour in Sagada in the afternoon, which you arrange at the tourism center, right near where your bus will drop you off. Overnight Sagada.
Day 3: Take a 45 minute jeepney ride from Sagada to Bontoc (they start at 6:30am) and then a 2 hour van/jeepney ride from Bontoc to Banaue. You can spend an hour or so walking around Bontoc, but you don’t need more time than that. Once you get to Banaue, arrange a jeepney to the Batad saddle (don’t hire a jeepney from the tourism center, it will be double the price. Just ask around on the street for a local ride) and then walk the 45 minutes down to Batad village (you can only get there by walking). If you have time in the afternoon, do the 1 hour hike to the waterfall. Arrange a guide to take you on your trek the following day. Overnight Batad.
Day 4: Walk 2 hours to Combulo, stop for lunch, and then another 3 hours to Pula. Overnight Pula.
Day 5: Walk 4-5 hours from Pula back to Banaue, stopping at the Banaue viewpoint on the way back. You can take an overnight bus back to Manila (leaving at 7:30pm or 8pm) that night.