The Journey is the Reward: Ifugao Rice Terraces

The northern regions of the Philippines are home to the nation’s only “cool” weather, where winding roads bring views of endless mountain ridges and the ocean is no where to be seen. Banaue is a popular tourist destination and backpacker haven in the Philippines. It is one of 5 sites included in the UNESCO World Heritage designation for its Ifugao Rice Terraces.

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And the rice terraces of the Philippines will take your breath away! This spectacle includes thousands of miles of small rice ponds, carved into the steep mountainside in a cascading fashion (imagine a topographical map come to life!).

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Members of the Ifugao indigenous tribe built the terraces roughly 2,000 years ago and they are still farmed today, producing the major dietary component of all locals. However population loss, as members of younger generations opt to move to urban areas like Manila versus continuing their ancestral traditions, threaten its future existence.

For the time being income generated from tourism helps to keep the rice terraces alive and running. And as a recent Banaue tourist, I’d consider this trip is the World’s 8th Wonder. My room Banaue Homestay looked out over the heart of the terraces, but what really made the experience for me was not just the view, but trekking within the terraces themselves.

Viewpoint
Viewpoint
Picture taking at the top of Viewpoint with Ifugao indigenous women in full attire.
Picture taking at the top of Viewpoint with Ifugao indigenous women in full attire.

Leaving from “Viewpoint,” I took a small trail with steep narrow stairs down to the valley below and crossed a small bridge. From there myself and my 3 new French friends climbed up another steep set of stairs to a new vantage point with beauty comparable to the renowned “Viewpoint.” Only now we were a part of the terraces themselves, including their sounds and movements as gusts of wind swept over the bright green field of rice stalks bowing in response.

From there our trek wrapped around an unseen side of the terraces revealing a 3-stage waterfall. A former landslide rendered our trail to loose dirt where there were once concrete stairs as we bear crawled our way up another mountain. After this climb we were rewarded with a shaded, flat trail, however it demanded acrobatic balance because portions were not a trail at all but the 4in wide wall of the rice terrace itself. A fall from here poses minimal physical threat, but your choice is either mud-sopped feet from the rice pond or water-saturated feet from the water channel on the opposite side. I was lucky that my acrobatic skills rose to the challenge, however my French friends were not so lucky. One chose the water channel and the other two opted for the hobble split technique whereby you place one foot on the 4in wall and the other on the neighboring vertical wall of the next terrace level. Unfortunately this hobble split technique tended to yield mud-sopped feet if you can’t regain your balance at the end of the wall. (Might want to take up slacklining before your next rice terrace trek my friends.)

Balancing on cemented rice terrace walls along our trek
Balancing on cemented rice terrace walls along our trek. This section was slightly wider than the earlier bit that took some casualties.
Notice the purple umbrella of the local leading us along the way. She was merely walking to visit her sister's house with her young niece, which for us foreigners seemed like an epic adventure!
Notice the purple umbrella of the local leading us along the way. She was merely walking to visit her sister’s house with her young niece, which for us foreigners seemed like an epic adventure!
That's me in the pink.
That’s me in the pink.

Rounding the next mountain pass we could now look down on the town center from a vantage point directly opposite that of my homestay room. We took turns guessing which tiny building was the one we had woken up in just earlier that morning.

Our Banaue Homestay hostel is one of those houses in the distance
Our Banaue Homestay hostel is one of those houses in the distance

When we finally completed our loop and finished back in town, we gained a better understanding for life in this place of mountain rice farming. Along the way we passed local homes with children playing and chickens squawking. Our “trail” was really the standard walking path for locals traveling from the mountains to the town. This entire experience of finding our way, asking directions, following strangers, balancing on small walls, and skirting the remains of landslides is an amazing reward for those willing to venture out of the comfort of the all too numerous tourist vans and get your feet dirty along the terraces themselves. And if you don’t want the challenge of finding our way, there are plenty of local guides looking to make some extra income by giving you a personal tour.

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