Vacation, The Philippines Adventure (Pulag, Sagada, Banaue)

The Philippines Adventure (Pulag, Sagada, Banaue)

Photos are here.

So, in order to take a break from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, we decided to take a short, relatively cheap and scenic-beauty filled trip to the Philippines. The plan was to cover, in a span of 6 days, Mount Pulag (2922m), Sagada, Banaue and visit a friend’s place in Laguna (3hrs from Manila).

This being the New Year break in 2009, several would-be participants canceled, leaving only leader Liz and I to enjoy the natural beauty Philippines that has to offer.

I decided to check out the flight fares for a late night flight on 29th December 2009 and an early return on 5th Jan 2010. Several options showed on Zuji.com and I instinctively picked the cheapest one that read “Direct Air” aka “Hong Kong Express”. Ticket cost HKD 1920 per person. I bought them. Then it was time to apply for a Philippines visa which cost a whopping HKD 320 (almost 20% of the flight fare!)

29th December 2009
I wasn’t quite sure about this budget carrier and wasn’t expecting a great deal of service.

A rather angry looking check-in counter lady, ominously named “Sinny” processed our tickets. Surprisingly, there was no hitch. We soon got our boarding passes and went to board HK Express which was to depart at 2130 HKT. We soon discovered that Sinny had actually done us a favor by putting us near the emergency exit seats which have about 30% more legroom than standard coach! What’s even cooler about these seats is that the guys in the row immediately in front are forbidden from reclining their seats, otherwise the emergency exits could be blocked! That means even more legroom and no disturbance from any snob in front. The flight was clean, seats were great and the flight attendants even managed to fix me something vegetarian without any prior special request. I was impressed.

We reached Nino Acquino at 2330 HKT. We then took a cab to Pasai City Victory Liner bus terminus (about 300 pesos) and bought seats on the next available bus to Baguio city (30th December 2009 0330 HKT). We had a couple of hours to kill and that was spent listening to FM radio being played on a loud speaker in the bus terminus. (Philippines has some excellent FM stations that play contemporary music unlike Hong Kong).

Me in Manila

30th December 2009
At 0330 HKT we left for Baguio city and tried to sleep on the bus wherever possible! Bus was full because a lot of were returning home to spend New Year’s in their native places.

We reached Baguio city at about 0930 hrs. Baguio city is a pretty congested, polluted city with many, many people. It’s the equivalent of a town in southern Guangdong in China.

The plan for the day was to go to Mount Pulag (2922m, second highest in the Philippines). In order to get there, one has to go to Kabayan (3 hrs from Baguio city) and register at the Visitor’s center. From there, there’s a further 2 hours’ drive to the Ranger station where the hike to Pulag would begin. The best way is to charter a Jeepney (Philippines’ elongated, gaudy, bright mode of transportation). In order to reduce cost, one would need to find other backpackers and pretty much split the cost.

Liz then contacted Roger (+63 92080 68656 – if you are going to call him, let him know you were referred by Liza in Hong Kong and no, we don’t get a commission). Roger has Jeepneys available for chartering. We tried calling a couple of times and he eventually answered his phone and told us that he had an immediately available Jeepney called “Lost In Love” and he would let us charter it at a special cost of 6000 pesos. We accepted. Not sure about the “In-Love” part but the driver of the Lost-In-Love Jeepney was surely lost! He didn’t show up until about an hour had gone by. But, finally we did see his bright colored Lost-In-Love Jeepney and were on our way to the Visitor’s centre. Emily (I think that’s her name) at the Visitor’s centre greeted us and made us watch a 15-minute presentation on Mt. Pulag. I was actually impressed by the presentation. Some old, professorial looking guy talks about the varied vegetation on Pulag and what it means to the environment, etc, etc. Even after a sleepless night the previous day, I actually found this presentation rather exciting! The video ends with instructions on what not to do on Pulag (create a fire, create noise and pretty much anything you would avoid doing on the MTR!)

Lost-In-Love Jeepney

Emily and the presentation

Emily charged me USD 15 (foreigner fee) but promised that the extra discriminatory fee (it’s 100 pesos for locals) would be used towards the conservation of Pulag! We paid an additional 150 pesos camping fee, 50 pesos entrance fee and were to pay a registered guide 500 pesos for the hike to the summit).

From the visitor’s centre, we had a 2-hour bumpy ride to the Ranger station. And when I say “bumpy”, I SO, SO MUCH mean it! Imagine riding a wild horse on an uneven, rocky terrain. This is much worse! Sleeping on the Jeepney is out of the question as you are bound to be rocked from one end to another! I was scared on several occasions and felt like the Jeepney could topple over, but my fears were allayed when each time I looked at the front towards the dashboard, I saw a skull that had blinking lights for eyes and the words “No Fear” written on it in bold! It all made sense.

The ‘No Fear’ skull on the dashboard

The Ranger Station

We were at the Ranger station at about 1500 hrs and our guide Ramon was all set for the hike. We left our heavier backpacks there and carried lighter backpacks with some winter clothing, a tent and some power bars. The trek to the camping spot was to take 3 hours. The scenery soon started to look absolutely stunning. Rice terraces, valleys, grasslands started to fill our horizons and we started to climb from about 2000m (Ranger station) to 2600m (camping spot). We trekked on a trail that boasted verdant vegetation and was filled with several special species of trees that gave the air a rich, natural, soothing fragrance. Carpets of moss, several inches thick, covered the trees giving it a soft greenish, carpet-like texture. Trees rose tall, vying for sunlight. Different species of ferns, unique to this region filled the canopy.

Vegetation


We came across two spots where natural stream water flowed freely and we helped ourselves to a tasting. At about 1700 hrs, we were at the camp site. Ramon helped us with the tent and the temperature started to dip. We both were tired from all the travel and lack of sleep and were looking forward to getting a good night’s rest in nature’s backyard.

Ramon and Liza setting up the tent

After consuming our dinner (several power bars), we tried to sleep at about 1800 hrs. I noticed my legs starting to shiver from the cold 30 minutes later. 10 more minutes and my whole body was shivering! I got up and put on my shoes! Then slept again. Woke up after an hour. Put on two blankets (I took the one from Hong Kong express upon Liza’s advice which came in handy). Slept again. Woke up after an hour. Put on another jumper (my last spare item of clothing) and slept again. It was ICE cold. I continued to get up as each hour passed by and had to do some Yoga to keep warm. My fingers went numb and I had to rub them against my jacket to revive them! Liza’s experience was also similarly icy cold! The tent had a cold layer of frost on it!

The cold tent

Full moon

31st December 2009
Although we were not very inclined to, we dared to step out of the tent at 0430 hrs to make the trek to the summit (1.5 hrs). Having covered myself up like a man in Siberia, I ventured out and got Ramon to wake up.

Dressed up but still cold!

The cold notwithstanding, it was majestically serene and beautiful outside. The mountain ranges and peaks rose mightily in the background and a clear moonlit sky combined with the elevation made all the stars look close by. The setting was majestic.

Sunrise on Pulag

Ramon was up and we reluctantly made the effort to climb to the peak (2922m) to catch the sunrise. With each passing step, the thrill and adrenaline took the place of a tired mind (and cold body) and the breathtaking scenery started to emerge as dawn broke. At 0600 HKT we were at the summit, rising above the clouds, surrounded by undulating and pristine mountains. What a beauty that was! We also had company on the summit from local tourists.

Mount Pulag summit




The trek back down was equally amazing. The ridges of the mountain were well above the clouds giving the whole place a heavenly beauty. This is why Pulag has the nickname stairways to heaven!

We trekked back down and reached the Ranger station at about 1200 hrs and made our way back to the polluted Baguio city on our waiting Lost-In-Love Jeepney.

We reached Baguio city at about 1500 hrs on New Year’s Eve. Our next stop was Sagada. We discovered much to our horror that all buses would be suspended until Jan 2nd. That gave us no choice but to hire a taxi to Sagada. We offered a waiting guy at the bus-stop a free lift which he gracefully accepted. The cab cost us 4000 pesos.

The cab

It so happened that the gentleman we offered the lift to was from Sagada and had connections there! He returned the favor by exchanging a flurry of SMSes with his connections in Sagada and got us a bed-and-breakfast place for 300 pesos per night, per head. In addition to that, he also made arrangements for a guide to take us around Sagada on Jan 1st which would normally be a non-working day.

We caught our first glimpse of Sagada in the dark at about 2000 hrs – it was such a welcome relief from the congested Baguio city! The air was fresh and rice farms filled with water for plantation filled either side of the road.

Fireworks and crackers lit the air above as we set foot in Sagada territory. It struck us then that we would be celebrating the New Year with the Taoli family (our host at the bed-and-breakfast place and our travel companion’s cousin).

Fireworks at the Taolis

1st January 2010

Happy New Year!

So, after a much needed dump and shower, we were celebrating the arrival of 2010 with Cherry and Francis Taoli and their 3 young children. Cherry is a wonderful host and their house is clean, cozy and comfortable. She taught me a lot about Sagada.

The Taolis

Sagada is a small place and the primary occupation for inhabitants there is farming. Sagada was not occupied by the Spanish but has a lot of American missionaries’ influence and is predominantly Anglican. Schools teach in English which is why pretty much everyone there speaks flawless English. Crime rate is more or less zero. Temperature varies from 6 degrees in winter to about 20-something degrees in summer. Although a lot of people there grow vegetables, menus are mostly dominated by meat since the culture calls for eating meat, especially during important occasions.

Cherry and her husband also gave me a “Ingot” (Philippino) name. Given my handsome and charming looks, they decided to name me after one of their smart family members “Tinacba”. So, if you are planning to stay at Cherry’s place (which I highly recommend), let her know that Tinacba from Sagada recommended her to you! Cherry’s number is +63 9202439680.

The New Year custom in the Philippines is that whatever you do on the 1st will be amplified for the rest of the year. For instance, if you have good food on the 1st, you will have good food for the rest of the year. So, at 0000 hrs, we had our hot cup of chocolate drink, salad and the rest of the folks had pork and dog meat! I hope to have lots of chocolate drink the rest of this year!

We woke up at 0700 hrs and at about 0800 hrs, our guide Randy called for us. Randy Diligen was introduced to us by Cherry and he’s a well built, athletic ex cop who speaks flawless English. No one here works on New Year’s day but Randy made an exception for us. I would highly recommend him if you want to get the best out of your trip to Sagada. His number is +63 9106346855 and let him know that you were referred by Tinacba from Sagada.

We went on a trek around Sagada in the morning. Sagada soon proved itself to be the highlight of our trip. The scenic beauty doesn’t cease to amaze. Lush green rice fields, vegetable gardens and beautiful species of vegetation fill the trails. Randy educated us on the different attractions in Sagada. He took us to the Ambacaon viewpoint from where we could see the Northern most tip of the Philippines. Then we were on our way to Bomodok waterfalls. The trail from Ambacaon is amazingly beautiful. Raspberries, blueberries and blackberries grow here in abundance. We were like little kids in a candy store as we plucked these fresh and sweet raspberries from the trees and devoured them!

Sagada

Ambacaon viewpoint

Eating raspberries

Also, we saw a carnivorous plant called the Pitcher plant. It has flowers that look like pitchers and contain water in them. As insects innocently land upon it mistaking it for nectar, the plant seals the flowers and traps and drowns the poor insects which are then eaten. Talk about cunning deceit!

Pitcher plant

This trail is full of beauty and we were mesmerized by it. We saw several picnic spots as well where many in this closely knit community were celebrating New Years. One spot was situated next to a strange river which was yellow in color. Apparently, it also turns bright blue and green during other months of the year. We were told that the reason for this is some kind of special soil that carries unique sediments from the streams.

Yellow river

We then saw what looked like a mine and some stone crushing machines in operation. Randy confirmed that it was a gold mine. Soon as I heard that, I couldn’t but help looking for gold (literally) and went on a stone searching spree. I decided to take a gold-filled stone by hook or crook but alas, it was too heavy to carry!

Gold mine

Hunting for gold

Too heavy to carry!

After several futile attempts at discovering gold, we finally gave up and continued walking. The sun rays were reflected beautifully from the water-filled rice plantations, giving the farmlands a golden, glittering beauty (or maybe I had too much of that gold on my mind!)

The sound of gushing streams of water soon echoed in the air and fine particles of cooler moisture gently hit our faces, intensifying in strength as we got closer. The beautiful Bomodok waterfalls was soon in sight. The particles of water that did hit me were enough to convince me of the chillness of the water and deterred me from taking a dip in it! But, I still had a gala time taking scenic photos of this beauty.

Bomodok waterfalls



The day ended at about 1800 hrs after yet another scenic walk to Cherry’s place. This was definitely one of the most picturesque treks I have had!





2nd January 2010

Unesco regards Sagada’s caves as the 8th natural wonder of the world. So, it was the job of an expert (i.e. me) to verify this.

At about 0800 hrs, Randy led us to Sagada’s caves. We were told that we could get wet and that we would be exploring two different caves for about 4-5 hours. I have been to caves in China before and thought I knew what to expect.

We entered the caves and Randy brought with him a kerosene lamp so we could see more clearly. Flashlights do not provide enough lighting to appreciate the internal beauty.

The entrance

Navigating through the maze that lay underneath the ground was just simply mind-boggling. These caves are not for the faint of heart! One has to use ropes to negotiate arduous and slippery climbs. The boulders are massive and slippery. There are several swimming pools inside. Some over 6 feet deep! There are secret tunnels. We had to wade through water 4-feet deep (and cold) to get from one end to another. The ripples of water, natural springs, stalactites, stalagmites, rock formations will all leave you with amazement and will renew your respect for nature. I was enthralled to say the least and captivated by the beauty of these caves. On one occasion, Randy had to help me with a climb that I failed two times on. Several pathways were so narrow that I had to try some special yoga posture to try and sneak through.







These caves also tell a story and a pornographic story at that! (No, I am not making this up). Ok, I am going to try my best to “reproduce” this story but much of what I am going to tell you will require wild imagination! But before you go way too naughty in your thoughts, I have to regretfully say that I will be toning down much of the story so that this tip report gets a “Universal” rating!

Once upon a time, long, long ago, there once lived a king and a queen in a palace.

The palace

The king and queen had a pet horse and a pet frog and a pet elephant.

I am riding on the frog

The queen, her majesty

The horse

The elephant

They also had a pet turtle but a bad dinosaur stepped on the turtle and smashed it into two.

Turtle smashed into two

Dinosaur leg

During one romantic night, the king and queen were in their palace and the mood was perfect. Romance beckoned. The king then poured his queen a cup of soothing tea from his gigantic teapot as they had a candle light dinner. They had chocolate cake soon afterward.

Candle light dinner

The giant teapot

Chocolate cake

The king and queen were then listening to Bon Jovi’s Bed of Roses. King then decided that it was time for some action.

9 months later, the gigantic queen then gave birth.

Queen giving birth

And then they lived happily ever after!

(There’s also the formation which is supposed to look like kingly genitals but out of respect for the king and manhood in general, I refused to take a photograph of that!)

So, that’s the story! The rock formations were just incredible!

In the afternoon, we absorbed some of Sagada’s culture by visiting a school, a church and valley called Echo Valley. This valley has rocks that rise to the heights of a 300m hill and coffins are hung from it. Some Sagada tribes believe in life after death and instead of burying coffins, they believe that the coffins need fresh air and sunlight and are therefore hung from cliffs. This place thus has the name Hanging Coffins.

Church

Hanging Coffins

We visited a mini waterfalls in the evening before returning to Cherry’s place for packing! We were going to be off the next day, destination being Banaue before returning to Manila.

Mini waterfalls trek



Finishing the day with red horse beer

3rd January 2010

We woke up at 0500 hrs and said our goodbyes to the Taolis with a heavy heart. Sagada had been the highlight of our trip.

Next destination was Banaue and we rode a Jeepney “top” class to first get to Bontoc. We then continued our “high” class ride from Bontoc to Banaue on a big bus. Of course, when I say “top” and “high”, I mean them literally, i.e. on top of the Jeepney and on top of the bus! Our travel companions in this special class included a drunkard, several school girls and some gung ho, macho men who jumped around from one “seat” to another like monkeys in a zoo.




We reached Banaue at about 1100 hrs and soon discovered that all buses to Manila that evening were full. We then decided to go to San Jose (no, not in the US of A but there’s one in the Philippines). San Jose is on the way to Manila, so our plan was to take a 1800 hrs bus to San Jose and make our way to Manila from there.

In the meantime, we visited several viewpoints in Banaue to see the world famous rice terraces. My impression was that Banaue, although pretty in some ways, is nothing compared to Sagada. Sagada set the benchmark quite high. Anyway, the pictures of rice terraces were quite good and Liza later led a hike to Puitan village which was described to contain “a magnificent line of Ifugao huts on mountain slopes surrounded with stonewalls” by the tourist board. Well, I can tell you, there’s quite some exaggeration there! Ifugao is a Northern province and this place is nothing more than a small village with some pyramid-like huts. I did enjoy playing with the children though and the air was much better than Banaue town which is crowded with tourists. One can however see a different kind of natural beauty there and I mean girls from various parts of the world who are there for backpacking! Speaking of which, the Poitan girls also seem to have somewhat of an obsession with their hair! They appear to go the extra mile to keep it dark, silky and smooth. Each time a village girl passed me by on the trail, I could smell a whole lot of shampoo!

Rice Terraces



Puitan Village



Before leaving Banaue, we had a great dinner at some western cafe. I tried the Philippines version of Lat Chiu Cheung (chilli) which is HOT!

Me trying the chilli

Yup I am buying a pig (no, I am not the pig you smart ass!)

In my secret life, this is my second job – a tricycle driver!

The rest of the day was spent traveling to Jojo’s house (our friend) who lives in Laguna which is 100km from Manilla.

4th January 2010
We reached Jojo’s house at about 0600 hrs to a warm welcome! Laguna is full of greenery and has a calming effect which you discover as soon as you enter.

Jojo is an avid hiker and adventurer who has traveled to several countries for trekking and backpacking. His backyard in Laguna is full of beautiful mountains, yet it is only 2 hrs away from the crowded Manila.

At Jojo’s house

Laguna

After a sumptuous breakfast at his place with his wife Deb, Jojo took us on a cultural tour of Laguna where we saw a 19th century church. Somehow, the conversation shifted to coconuts and I expressed my desire for a drink of coconut juice. Couple of minutes later, I found myself in Jojo’s aunt’s village house. Her backyard is a nature trip on its own! Several fruits and vegetables were growing along with many tall coconut trees! Jojo summoned some dude who sported a small pony tail and showed up with a long knife almost the size of a machete.

This dude climbed up the coconut tree without any kind of assistance and at an effortless pace that made it seem like he was waking on flat land! 3 thuds were soon heard and I enjoyed my first natural coconut drink in the Philippines!

Jojo’s aunt’s house

Jojo’s aunt – she is 91 and speaks excellent English

Jojo’s aunt’s backyard

All about the coconut

Anything a pony tail dude can do, I can do better

… but I can only get this far!

Hmmm… Refreshing!

We then went to climb one of Jojo’s backyard mountains called Tayak. It was a nice and easy 1.5 hr climb (about 800m) which gave us some glorious views of Laguna and the lakes and mountains that surrounded it.

Tayak – route and summit photos




In the evening, we drove motorcycles along a scenic route to Jojo’s farms by the lake. I loved driving on this route. It was amazing. The sunset at the lake was equally spectacular and we also did some rafting.

Jojo’s lakeside plantation





The trip and day ended with me proving my stunning vocals at a “Videoke” (Philippines version of Karaoke but has a video, not only audio). Needless to say, everyone there was quite impressed with my performance. Watch out Jon Bonjovi!

Late at 0030 hrs, we said goodbye to our lovely hosts and made our way to the airport.

5th January 2010
We got our beloved HK Express flight back to Hong Kong at 0800 hrs to pick up the hustle and bustle of the city from where we left of!

This Philippines adventure has been fantastic. I would highly recommend this trip to anyone interested in exploring some of the key natural wonders of the many that Philippines has to offer. Special thanks to Liz for organizing and leading this trip. Also, big thank you to Jojo and Deb for putting up with us and the excellent day out.

Corrections:
1) Unesco regards Banaue’s rice terraces as the 8th wonder of the world, not the Sagada caves. I guess they haven’t seen the caves yet because boy, are they wrong! Banaue is nothing compared to Sagada


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