Manila, while hectic, was a fantastic time. We saw a lot of new things (e.g. jeepneys, halo halo, and Manila traffic) and met a bunch of really cool people. But, after four chaotic days in this megapolis, it was time to move on.
Without knowing much about it, we said goodbye to our new friends at the Pink Manila Hostel and made our way to the bus station to catch a bus heading toward Banaue. To keep things simple we took a cab. No jeepneys. No metro. No walking. No sweating. And most importantly, no drama.
Nonetheless, we started working on our haggling skills at this point as the taxi driver who wanted to overcharge us. We have gotten much better at haggling since then.
Then came the bus ride…
The bus ride to Banaue
For once, things worked out. We made it to the bus station without much trouble. We prepared our bags, hailed a cab, and promptly arrived at the bus station at the expected rate. No Rambo Cabs this time!
But it can’t always be perfect, otherwise there’s no story! As we got on the bus, we noticed that there the air conditioning unit was above our seats, so the space for our bags was greatly reduced. Also, the drivers decided to play a movie at full volume on a 10pm overnight bus. Obviously, one of the bus’s six speakers was directly above our seat.
Ceci slept like a baby for most of the drive. I had ok sleep, but it could have been better. For one, I am very uncomfortable not wearing a seat belt in a moving vehicle. And this bus had no seat belts. In fact, I need my seat belt while sitting in my car with the engine off! So, anytime the bus had a bit of a hard stop, I jolted awake. Worst of all, this happened relatively often.
In any case, Monday morning arrived. At 7am, our bus was pulling up to the rudamentery station in Banaue.
The tour guide packages
A new guy jumped in the bus to explain that they had prepared a free jeepney into the center of town for those of us who had not reserved accommodations. Once we grabbed our bags, we hopped on the jeepney and were brought to a local guesthouse and restaurant. We had breakfast and were told about their tour packages.
We were a little skeptical, but it seemed like a legitimate operation, and at about $100 for two people for two days, it didn’t seem ridiculous. The package included a full-time tour guide, accommodation at a guesthouse for the one night, lockers for our bags, transportation between all the sites, and all the rice in the world. (Actually, the package included no rice. 🙁 )
Ceci and I discussed and decided to go ahead with the two day package. They offered a one day package that seemed too short (“…we drive you up, you take picture, we bring you back…”) and a three day package that seemed too long (“you walk from here, then tomorrow you walk, and the next day you walk back”).
The tour begins
We were assigned a young local guy named Graham (pronounced GREY-HAM) to be our guide. We prepared our day bags with the bare essentials and hopped on his tricycle to drive to the beginning of the “hike.” (Notice I call it “hike.” I will elaborate.)
We were dropped off by a tricycle in the village of Kinakin where we would start our “hike”. This was no hike. This was a trek.
We continued on foot, slowly making our way through the mountainous trail. Parts were dirt, some were paved, and a few sections were built up as a new road to reach these remote mountain villages.
Maybe an hour into the walk, Ceci had the brilliant idea of asking Graham how long the day’s walk would be. For some reason, we had forgotten to ask earlier. And the tour group cleverly missed this minor detail.
Graham answered “18 kilometers.”
We were shocked! It wasn’t our first hike. When Ceci and I got engaged, we walked for about 14 relatively flat kilometers (roundtrip) to reach a beautiful waterfall at the beach. But 18 kilometers, through the mountains no less, was definitely a trek. It would definitely be a new milestone for us.
At this point, we couldn’t turn back. We were committed and would continue with our trek. Stopping for water and the ocassional rest, we walked for about 3 hours before reaching the village of Cambulo (pronounced kham-bulu).
As you can see, the view of the village was splendid. From that view point, we traveled 45 minutes before reaching the village.
Once there, we ordered lunch at a lovely guesthouse. We had some of the local rice and vegetables, which were quite tasty.
Graham took a nap. I followed suit.
Once our bellies were full and our legs had a rest, we were off again. This time, our goal was to reach the village of Batad.
The trek did not get easier at this point. There were more stairs. More climbing. Narrower trails. More drops.
But the view once was we reached Batad was nothing short of astounding. The terraces that the people of Batad had carved out hundreds of years ago by hand were incredible. It’s clear why they are considered the 8th Wonder of the World.
One of the best parts about our tour was our guide, Graham. He was knowledgeable and friendly. Ceci and I had a ton of questions about the villages, the culture, and the cultivation of rice. He happily explained and quelled our curiosity.
As we walked through the fields, he stopped to show us the different types of rice, the special techniques for ensuring a good crop, and many of the customs of the region. We certainly learned a lot and really felt like we got our money’s worth.
Graham also seemed to be good friends with lots of the people in the village. So we stopped and had a quick chat with them whenever they were doing something interesting, or on the topic of our discussion.
One of Ceci’s questions was about how the rice is removed from its shell. When walked past a family working on their rice, Graham explained. They placed the rice in what looks like a huge mortar and spend several hours a day pounding away at the rice using a large wooden pestle.
They then shake out the rice and much of the shells fall out.
One other interesting thing we saw and learned was that the women of these mountainous village are just as physically hard working as the men. They all conduct intense physical labor to harvest the rice and prepare it to bring it to an edible state.
Additionally, because of the remote location of these villages, they must trek down the mountain with incredibly heavy objects on their back, including sacks of concrete weighing some 45kg (90-100 lbs). They also load up some ten bundles of rice (like the one Graham is showing in the picture above) each weighing 5kg, and then carry this over to their homes where they will pound it away and dry it.
In one word, these mountainous people are STRONG!
From Cambulo, we walked for about 2 hours before reaching our guesthouse in Batad.
We were greeted by a lovely couple, Elmer, and his wife whose name we did not catch. We conversed with them about local life and the culture, as well as some of the differences between their country and ours.
We enjoyed a beer together, had dinner, took a much needed shower, and went off to bed.
During the trek, the heat seemed to keep the bugs away. However, with the sun away, the bugs will play. Soon after sunset, we applied large quanities of bug repellant. It helped as I don’t think either of us was bitten, but the room had no mosquito net, which was not something we were prepared for. No matter. The repellant appeared to have done its job.
Day 2 of the Trek
Morning came. It may have been that we were just really tired but, even though the bed was not exactly a posturepedic, we got a very good night’s sleep.
It was very close to dark, so we didn’t notice when we arrived. But, in the morning, the view from our room was marvelous!
After enjoying the view for a few minutes, we went downstairs for breakfast. The young lady made some delicious omellettes with some local eggs and vegetables. This might seem like no big deal, but vegetables seemed to be impossible to find in a prepared dish in Manila.
We grabbed our bags and were on our way again. This time, Graham promised to bring us to a waterfall.
What he failed to mention (again!) was how difficult it would be. Day 2 seemed harder than day 1. Perhaps it was because we were already tired from the day before. Perhaps day 2 had much more climbing and descending than day 1. Perhaps we were just being babies. But day 2 was a very hard day.
I don’t know how many stairs, both natural steps and human-made, we climbed. I do know that, at one point, he had to 2,000 steps to go. And this was in the last 1.5 hours of our 4 hour trek. So…
After about an hour, we reached the bottom of the canyon and the location of the waterfall. I will admit that the waterfall was rather stunning. And swimming in cool water was a welcome change from the constant heat and sweating both in Manila and in Banaue due to the trek.
Once there, we prepared to swim and walked over to the water. Our feet were really tired from the long walks, so this made walking over stones, and already painful endeavour, a little more painful.
Ceci was scared of fully going in the water. I was too. But again, I was super brave and went in first. “It’s no so bad!” I yelled. I lied. It was pretty damn cold. Ceci knew I was lying. But she too was brave and finally submerged herself.
We hung out for a while, observing some older roudy European tourists. The funniest (and most impressive) part was when we saw a 50ish-year-old lady bringing a huge 30-40 lbs sack of drinks on her head down the mountain to her little drinks shop at the waterfall. She didn’t even break a sweat. Yet, these tourists were swimming, yelling, and throwing their hands in the air like they had reached the top of Mount Everest. Granted, it was not easy reaching the waterfall. But the local folks do this regularly.
Anyway, we swam for a little while. Graham joined in. Meanwhile, the Europeans started building a little tower of rocks. They must’ve stacked ten or twelve stones atop each other, building a tower. Shortly thereafter, Graham showed them how to build a real tower. He started tossing large stones into a pile, and then building what he called a “twin tower” that was at least twice as tall as the Europeans’. It was quite impressive!
We hung out for a bit longer, then started our trek up the mountain. Going down was no cake walk. Our legs were actually shaking about half way down. It was like doing lunges with our own weight for 300 steps. But the way up…
The way up was even harder than the way down. Or perhaps it was the other way around? In reality, neither direction as easy. Going up took a ton of energy. And walking along the edge of the rice terraces was beautiful, but made us uneasy as falling on one side meant a 10-foot drop onto mud, and a fall on the other side was a big boot-full of mud. Mud was certainly in our destiny.
Ceci had one miscalculated step and dipped her Keen in mud. It was uncomfortable, but it was better than a drop on the other side!
We walked a few minutes. Then, when Graham found a small running stream of water, he pointed and told Ceci to step there (pointing at the stream). Naturally, I laughed. Poor Ceci…
After cleaning her foot, we continue our trek for about an hour or so longer. We reached a point of maximum steepness near the summit and were offered a ride by the locals for 50 pesos. Ceci said no. “We started this and now we finish this!” she exclaimed.
Finish it, we did. Ten minutes of intense climing later, we met with out driver. He picked us up and took us back to town where we would be catching the 7pm bus back to the dreadful Manila.
Graham made sure to tell us one last white lie: the Manila to Banaue ride took 9 hours, so we assumed the same length on the return. This meant that the 7pm bus would arrive at about 4am. “No!” said Graham. “You should arrive at 7am. You know… because of traffic!”
We believed him. He lied. We were back in Manila at 3:30am…
We’d love to hear your feedback! Have you had similar experiences? Have questions about Banaue or getting around Manila? Tell us what you think below!
And if you find yourself in the Banaue area and are in need of a tour guide, be sure to get in touch with Graham. He was incredibly helpful, insightful, and overall a lot of fun to hang out with for two days! You can reach him through Facebook.