PHOTOS BY: Gunther Deichmann
Located in northern Philippines in the Cordillera Administrative Region (the north central area of Luzon) are the neighbouring provinces of Ifugao and Mountain Province. A mountainous region surrounded by lofty peaks, sloping ravines and hilly terraces, both provinces are renowned for their centuries-old cultural practices and local indigenous tribe, the Igorots.
Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras Undoubtedly the biggest lure of Ifugao are the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras. Dating back almost 2,000 years and reaching up to 1,500m, the rice terraces are living proof of the Igorot’s ingenuity and engineering prowess; the entire landscape is carved by hand. Thanks to the inaccessibility of the mountains, the region has preserved its authentic tribal culture away from colonial influence.
By mastering the power of irrigation, the forests above the terraces serve as a natural water supply for the rice saplings, while the streams and springs are channeled into irrigation waterways that run through the terraces.
Recommended months to visit the area are between April to August when festivals and rice cultivation take place. Rainy season is from July to January while cool months are from November to February.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site covers an area close to 10,360 sq.km. of mountainside, and actually includes 5 sites: Batad, Bangaan, Mayoyao, Hungduan and Nagacadan. Two notable rice terraces are the Batad and Mayoyo sites.
Taking the shape of amphitheatre are the Batad rice terraces, which can be viewed from the village that’s a 40-minute hike from the nearest road. A 2 hour hike from the village will take you to a high viewpoint from where there are excellent views of the terrace, while about 30 minutes away are the 70m-tall Tappiyah Waterfalls where you can go for a swim.
Situated 40km east of Banaue are the Mayoyao rice terraces, situated in a valley encircled by high mountains. These terraces are not as easily reachable as other sites and thus, are the best preserved of the lot. The only mode of transport is via local jeepneys that travel up a loosely marked gravel path. The unique feature of this site are its flat stone-tiered dikes which still retain their original structure.
Other attractions include dome-shaped Abfo’or Burial Tombs, which house the bodies of the town’s ancient warriors and elite, as well as sturdy tetrahedron or pyramid-shaped village houses, perched on wooden posts.
As the last refuge for the Japan Imperial Army during WW2, Mt. Napulawan’s diverse flora and fauna is its greatest draw among hikers. Standing at 2,642m, Napulawan boasts some of the most difficult trekking routes in the region, taking hikers 7-8 hours to reach the summit. Sightings of deer, wild boars and musang are not uncommon near the lower reaches of the mountain, while several caves, as well as stoned-walled trenches and foxholes remind hikers of its history. Because of its thick foliage and winding routes, hiring a guide is advisable.
As rice was a prestige crop, there is a complex array of feasts and festivals linked with taboos and agricultural rites.
Tungoh Ad Hungduan
The Igorots get together and commemorate the end of planting season by celebrating Tungoh Ad Hungduan every third week of April. Different tribes from around the province engage in a 4 day celebration where locals and visitors engage in a variety of performances, demonstration of indigenous practices and ritual feasts.
Gotad Ad Hingyon
Held in the last few weeks of April, the 9-day Gotad Ad Hingyon festival is celebrated by Ifugao royalty as a show of gratitude for an abundant reap. Locals get together in the preparation of rice, brewing of rice wine and sacrificing of poultry.
Hanging Coffins of Sagada
With a population of around 11,000, Sagada is a small town that’s famous for its 2,000-year-old tradition of suspending coffins of the deceased on cliff faces hundreds of feet above the ground.
Though the last known burial of this kind occurred in 1992, many burial sites still remain, most dating back to almost a century or more. The locals believe that placing the coffins on cliffs bring the deceased a step closer to heaven – the higher the coffin, the higher their regard for the deceased. The 5-day long burial ritual – accessible only to those who died a natural death and have grandchildren – begins with the hollowing out of a log, which is then suspended on the cliff with rope before the body can be placed in it.
Because of the high cliffs onto which the coffins are placed, most of the burial sites can only be reached via an exhaustive trek. Most visitors take a short hike to the Lumiang Burial Caves, where about 200 coffins have laid for over 500 years, stacked neatly along the cave wall, before forging onwards to Echo Valley where the hanging coffins are.
The highest point of Mountain Province, Mt. Amuyao (2,862m) boasts an unrivalled panorama of the surrounding towns. Amuyao attracts hikers of various experience levels because of its easy to moderate climbing path. Hikers can reach the peak in 3 – 4 hours.
Certified local guides provide extensive hiking tours up Mt. Amuyao, and are able to show a wholly different side of the mountain. Wide cemented walkways line most of the route; with parts where gravel tracks are the only way up.