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Steve and Emma's Travel Tales

Trekking in the Cordillera Mountains

PHILIPPINES | Monday, 28 December 2009 | Views [2997]

Our flight from Puerto Princesa to Manila was on time and we got back to the capital with plenty of time to hot foot it to Victory Liner’s bus station.  We jumped in a taxi using the coupon system at the airport to find ourselves paying way over the odds to basically go round the corner.  The bad news - the bus station is a dump and, the good news - there were seats left on the 11pm bus bound for Baguio.  That gave us plenty of time to grab a late meal but we didn’t fancy anything in the bus station.  On wandering out of the main entrance we found ourselves to be in a very shabby part of town and everything was shut.  From paradise on Palawan to misery in Manila!

Luckily the bus arrived on time and was soon loaded up and ready to go.  We tried to get as settled as possible but you never really get comfortable.  Following a night of very limited shut-eye we reached Baguio at 5am feeling exhausted.  We weren’t going to be defeated and so set our sights on carrying on with the mammoth journey.  A taxi across town, at a very reasonable metered rate, soon saw us in yet another bus station.  The colourfully named, Slaughterhouse bus station, was where we hoped to jump on a 7am bus headed for Kabayan.  We were in the right place but the timetable had changed and we would have to wait until 10am for our next mode of transport.  Once more we weren’t going to let this get us down so we decided to pop to a nearby guesthouse for breakfast.  In actual fact we had to wait for Baguio Village Inn to open their cafe and then we had some breakfast.  We spent most of the time lamenting the fact that we hadn’t just jumped on the Bontoc bus that did leave at 7 bells!  The enforced wait meant we had plenty of time to stock up on cash and picnic supplies for Mount Pulag – we didn’t expect there to be much in Kabayan.

By the time the bus pulled in there were loads of people waiting and considering we’d been there hours longer than most we were determined to get seats together.  It was a bit of a scrum to get on board but I managed to book us a pair of seats.  It didn’t take long for people to get themselves, bags and chickens squeezed into place and off we set.  Baguio is a favourite mountain retreat for Manilans but by now town was busy, bustling and full of fumes and we really couldn’t see the attraction.  We joined the jeepney jam and crawled up the hill out of town.  It was lovely to be on the move again and we mentally prepared ourselves for 4 hours of squashdom with the last part involving unpaved roads. 

Sure enough the first 3 hours of the journey went smoothly and we travelled through some stunning mountain scenery.  Then we abruptly bumped off the end of the concrete and the road conditions deteriorated quite dramatically.  We tried to keep taking photos to show how lovely the route was but we were being bounced and jostled about way too much.  It was tame in comparison to the Leh to Manali trip but there were sections with a reasonable amount of scare factor!

On passing Ambangeg we were tempted to admit defeat and get down as we knew the easier track up Mount Pulag started from here.  But no!  We carried on as we were still determined to do the more difficult Akiki trail and Kabayan was only about 20km away.  That last 20kms took almost another 2 hours and we rattled into Kabayan hours and hours later than anticipated.  Don’t forget we’d been travelling since 8am the previous morning and were thoroughly fed up by this stage.  The one and only guesthouse, Coop Lodge, was surprisingly still in existence and unsurprisingly had a room.  It turned out to be the worst room of the entire trip – tiny with bunk beds and shared fairly grotty bathroom facilities. We were so exhausted that it didn’t bother too much. 

Kabayan has very little to offer the world and our attempts to find out about the Akiki Trial and secure a guide resulted in failure.  To be honest we weren’t too dispirited as we’d begun to realise that to do the route we originally planned we’d have to travel back down the last 20km stretch another 2 times.  Or carry all of our gear.  Neither were pleasant prospects so we went back to the drawing board.

Mount Pulag

We revised our plans and got up very early the next morning to catch the first bus back to Ambangeg with all our gear.  We worked out that we would have time to get to Ambangeg and walk up Mount Pulag in one day.  Then we’d be able to get back to the bus stop in Ambangeg in time to jump on the 1.30pm bus to Baguio.  We didn’t really have any desire to see Baguio again but to move on we’d have to return, to then venture back into the Cordilleras using a different road.  The actual distances from Kabayan to our next destination, as the crow flies, was minimal, but believe me no vehicles were heading any further than Kabayan on that road.  Anyway we’ve still got a mountain to climb!

So we bounced our way back down the road and were ready to check in with the Protected Areas Office good and early.  Well we were ready but we had to enlist the help of a local to rouse someone at the office!  The good news was that from then on in our plans finally started to fall into place.  Yes, we’d be able to leave a bag, yes, we’d be able to secure a guide at the Rangers Station and, yes, we’d be able to pick up a tent for the night on the mountain.  Once we’d parted with quite a lot of cash (P750 each) for our entrance fee and watched a very informative video it was time to set off.  We’d been travelling for days to get here and sincerely hoped this mountain was worth it!

Most people who do the Ambangeg route cheat and take a jeepney up the 11km dirt track to the Rangers Station.  There was no way we were going to compromise any more than we already had.  Don’t forget we’d hoped to do the Akiki or Killer Trail.  Besides which we had all day to get up there, the weather was glorious and there were views galore all the way up.   Along the way we passed through lots of rural villages where the only work is to grow vegetables.  However they do live in a superb setting – The Cordilleras really are stunning and we could see range after range.  To be honest we didn’t really feel like we’d cheated at all in the end, as the 11km track proved to be much tougher and a greater workout than we’d anticipated.  We reached the Rangers Station in 2hrs 45mins and the locals reckoned that was pretty good going – we felt very unfit and it just proved how little exercise we’d done since scaling Stok Kangri.

We were soon introduced to our tent and guide and now it was time to start the walk proper.  From what we’d read about the route we thought we’d probably done most of the steepest climbing.  We steadily climbed out of the village and the vegetation gradually changed into furry forest i.e. stunted trees with lots of moss clinging to the branches.  Once more we were afforded with amazing views and stopped to take lots of photos in case the weather was against us the following day.  The path did climb for a while up through the trees but the steepest section wasn’t too long or arduous.  Towards the end of the furry forest we passed a spring and were advised to fill our water bottles – the water up there really was that fresh and clean.  About 10mins later we emerged from the forest and found ourselves in the grassland plains towards the top of the mountain.

Camp 2 was on the edge of the forest but we knew that a huge group of about 200 people were behind us and planned to use this area.  We decided to carry on to Camp 3.  Now that we’d cleared the trees there were great views all around and the weather was still spot on.  The path began to climb very steadily and we realised we were getting closer to the summit, 2922m.  We actually expected the path to go up and over the top but in fact we skirted round the base of the summit.  Our guide told us that it was only about 15mins to Camp 3 so we took her advice and set off with the intention of going back to the top for sunset.  On rounding the final bend we were dismayed to see how steeply the path descended to Camp 3.  We loyally followed the guide but felt we’d been very foolish not to have popped up to the top when it was only 5mins away.  What if the weather turned?  We promptly left the guide setting up the tents while we retraced our steps and went to the top.  We had a fantastic 3600 panoramic view to ourselves and we were glad that we had taken the chance to go up as we could see clouds moving in.

It turned out to be a lot of time and effort to get here but in the end it was all worth it.  Mount Pulag is beautiful and the easy walk up proved to be much better than we’d anticipated.  However, that night’s sleep was substantially colder than expected.  It was partly our fault that we were so cold, as we’d decided not to carry the full sleeping bags for just one night’s use and only had the thermal liners with us.  We wondered if lying on the floor at almost 3000m is something we should stop doing!  I’m sure we’ve made rash promises like that before.  We reckon all our treks from now on include porters, ponies or both with sleeping mats and plenty of extra hands to carry our sleeping bags!

Against the odds we survived the night without suffering from hypothermia - 5am and sunrise finally arrived.  You wouldn’t believe how long 10 hours feel when you’re chilled to the bone and shivering uncontrollably.  We thought the best way to warm up was to pack up our things and head for the top of Mount Pulag again.  We unzipped our tent to step into a cloud – it didn’t look like we were going to get a sunrise spectacle.  Never mind going back over the summit was a minor detour.  We got to the top only to encounter yet more cloud and the massive group we’d been told about.  Not only was it standing room only but there wasn’t room for everyone on the very top.  Thank goodness we’d gone back up the previous evening to enjoy the views, sunset and total peace and quiet.  We didn’t hang around and headed off back to the Rangers Station.  We were walking in cloud for a long time and gradually getting quite soggy so were glad we hadn’t hung around.

Once we’d said farewell to our guide and tent we set off back down the track.  Fortunately conditions improved as we dropped down below the cloud and once again we could admire the views.  We reached the Protected Areas Office dry and with loads of time to spare before the bus would arrive to take us back to Baguio.  The lady who runs the place opened up her kitchen to us so we could make some instant noodles and have a brew.  Much as we enjoy cheese sarnies it was great to get something warm.

The bus arrived not much later than scheduled and there were 2 seats free in the middle of the back row.  Not the best seating choice but better than standing considering the mammoth journey we’d undertaken followed by a freezing, sleepless night on a mountain.  We were getting jostled around more than most and tended to slide back and forth along the seat on every bend – constantly then!  Back in Baguio there was no messing around; we checked into The Village Inn, grabbed a shower, legged it to Volante for a slap up pizza and chilled in Rumours with a beer.  Early to bed as yet another early get up in store.

Baguio – Bontoc – Sagada

Following a cracking night’s sleep in a proper bed – the first for 3 nights on the bounce – we were up with the lark and ready to catch the 7am bus to Bontoc.  This here bus was already full bar the magic middle back seats – had they reserved them for us?!  No sooner had we sat down when the driver was off and it was only 6.50am – they don’t hang around in The Philippines.  Luckily the traffic was still light so we soon climbed up and out of the city and were headed back into the Cordilleras.  To add to the sliding along the back seat at every turn fun we had the cleanest most powerful bus to date.  This only resulted in us approaching bends faster than normal and sliding into our neighbours with more force.  Luckily everyone was very chilled and understood our position so no one made us feel embarrassed.

In fact we talked about how helpful and courteous everyone is on the buses.  Men will instantly give up a seat if a lady gets on with children.  Any ‘spare’ children are plonked on the nearest available female knee – I’m pleased to say I managed to avoid getting commandeered!  Boxes and baggage are stowed as quickly and conveniently as possible with larger deliveries on the roof.  Transport in these parts offers an important link between communities.  Not only are people ferried around but goods, produce and occasionally livestock are also to be found on board.  The conductors also act as local posties, collect orders and pay bills.  For this part of our trip we were on the Halsema Highway which forms a vital communication backbone through The Cordilleras.  Once again we were rewarded with fantastic views all the way – not to mention all the cracking people watching opportunities.

Amazingly we reached Bontoc in less than the advertised 6 hours (30mins quicker) despite people getting on and off along the entire route.  We’d seen footage of the damage caused by the 4 typhoons that had hit The Philippines a couple of months before our visit and had expected many roads to still be impassable.  However, we were very impressed with how quickly they have got the roads serviceable again and how quickly they are completing more long term repairs.  We had to carefully and slowly pick our way past the worst of the landslides but other than that the road was paved.  Even though it’s the one and only highway through this region we encountered virtually no traffic.  I suppose you don’t need to clog the roads with delivery vans as everything is on the bus!

Bontoc is a largish functional town but it seemed nice enough should we need to spend a night there later.  We soon tracked down the Sagada jeepney stand and for the second time that day had just sat down when we were on our way.  The side road to Sagada is rough and dusty but it only took 45mins to get there.  Instead of lugging our bags around town trying to find somewhere to stay we popped into the nearest cafe.  To be fair to us it was 2pm and we were peckish since breakfast had been in the dim and dusty past of 6 bells!  Past history has taught us not to carry full packs on empty stomachs looking for accommodation.  You only end up in the wrong place and / or in an arguement!!


We settled on George’s Guesthouse even though they only had a 4-bed penthouse suite left.  There was heaps of space, TV with BBC World (we were very out of touch with world events), hot water, a huge balcony and all for only P600 (less than RM50 a night).  Sound too good to be true?  There was a downside, as we had to share the communal balcony with the rude family from hell.  They seemed to think that dumping their dirty dishes outside our room, spreading their smalls all over the place and generally being loud was acceptable behaviour.  Steve pointed out these indiscretions but they were way too arrogant for it to register!  We decided to stick with the room and our patience was rewarded as they checked out the next day – yippee!

Sagada itself is a small, quiet town with an amazingly good choice of cafes and restaurants.  To be honest we ended up eating mainly western fare as they were better at it than Philipino stuff.  Should you ever venture to Sagada; check out Masferres Cafe for a cracking buttie and the Log Cabin to sit by the open fire.  The latter is more expensive and you have to book your food in advance (other than their very tasty pasta dishes).  There’s a good watering hole that attracts tourists and locals alike.  In fact the first evening we were there we got talking to one of the local guides and he told us about how they double up as rescuers and first aiders during typhoon season.  He had some very sad stories to tell us from that season’s devastation.  Time whizzed by without us noticing and we realised we were out past the 9pm curfew we’d read about.  To be fair no one had mentioned it and we weren’t the only ones still out.  Mind you we had to get back into the guesthouse via the side door – it was only 9.30pm!

Early to bed, early to rise really is the way of the world in The Philippines so our intended lie-in went off the ‘To do’ list instantly!  We lazed around with endless homemade brews until the unspeakably late hour of 8am.   It was great to be in a place with 24hour electricity where we weren’t in danger of causing another power cut.  Sagada may be at a slightly lower elevation that our previous foray in the Cordilleras but it was still mighty chilly.  Following quite a hectic time of it over the last couple of days we decided on a pottering day.

In the afternoon we took in a very pleasant stroll up the dirt track to Mount Ampacao – only a tiddler at 1889m.  The cloud had mainly cleared but the very top was still swathed and we didn’t fancy the mad scramble up.  To be honest we only missed out on the last 50m or so and there was just a mobile phone mast up there.  We were quite happy to stay below the cloud and look down into the surrounding valleys.  On the way back to town we spotted an area of rock formations that reminded us of The Pinnacles here in Malaysia.  The 2 fundamental differences are that it doesn’t take over a day of trekking to get to them and it’s where they hang their coffins.  Seriously the ancient, and still used, tradition is for the coffins to be pinned onto the side of rock faces so the occupants’ spirits can reach heaven more easily and quickly.  We didn’t investigate further at this point as we knew another hanging coffin area was on the agenda for the following day’s hike.

Indeed the next morning our guide, Ben, took us straight to Echo Valley and its hanging coffins.  The valley did echo by-the-way; we didn’t take part in the yelling as it seemed inappropriate in such a sacred area.  Along with hanging coffins some are also placed in the mouths of caves on the ground.  The tradition dates back to the area’s animist beliefs but has mainly been preceded, by the more traditional burial, since the American Missionaries overran the place in the 1900’s.  However, there is still about one bod a year who chooses to go to the expense of sacrificing pigs and chickens to be interred in this way.  It was all a bit odd, morbid and spooky but interesting none-the-less.

We clambered back out of the valley and headed out of Sagada towards the Kiltepan rice terraces.  Initially it looked like we’d be following the road all the way (so why the need for a guide) but we soon headed off into the pine forests.  Said favoured Christmas plant is another legacy of the American invasion!  Unfortunately it was still very cloudy and it hadn’t shifted by the time we reached the lookout point.  We hung around in the vain hope that we’d glimpse some of the rice and sure enough we got a brief window of opportunity.  The view was good but it must be amazing on a day when you can seen the terraces backed by mountain ranges.  Just as well we had more trips to rice terraces pencilled in for later in the week.

Unfortunately we had to double back towards Sagada before heading off on a side road for the next leg of the hike, to Bomod-ok Waterfall.  Once again we followed the road and it was a shame not to be using country paths.  That said there was virtually no traffic and with not having to watch our every step we could take in the scenery and learn more about the local area from Ben. We eventually reached Banga-an where a path branched off through the village that is spread out down the hill side.  We continued down the slope to Fidelisian and this was where our guide became very helpful.  Through him we gained permission to enter the village (the P10 entry fee helped too!) and needed the guide to show us the route over the paddy fields.  We moved steadily across the valley using the bunds and found ourselves in a narrow gorge.  Within minutes we’d reached Bomod-ok waterfall and most impressive it was too.

Luckily for us no one else had decided to take a trip to the falls so we tucked into our picnic, basked in the sun and generally enjoyed the peace and quiet.  Once more the route meant we had to double back but on returning to Fidelisian we branched out using a different route across the paddy fields.  The path steadily climbed towards Aguid; a lovely village perched high on the mountain slopes.  We rejoined the road at the top of the village and by now the weather was wonderful.  Almost as good as the views looking back down the valley – the famed UNESCO rice terraces of Banaue would need to be pretty spectacular to beat what we’d seen today.  We probably could have done the day without a guide but if you’re trespassing through people’s villages and visiting ancient burial sites it only seems polite to engage the help of a local.  Besides which Ben had proved himself to be very informative and all told we’d had a great day’s walk.


We rose early to catch a jeepney back to Bontoc where we hoped to catch the 9am bus to Banaue.  We got to Bontoc in plenty of time but the bus was already so full that there were people hanging out of the door.  Decided to give that a miss! So we just had to hope that a jeepney would be leaving in the not too distant future.  We were on our way again by 10am but we knew the journey would now be slower and indeed we reached Banaue much later than anticipated.  It was still daylight so we had time to check out town and get the lie of the land.  It was Christmas Eve and we were a little concerned that there wouldn’t be any guides working the following day.

We checked into Sanafe Lodge which was okay but a little over-priced with it being peak season.  However it did have a cracking balcony area in the restaurant that over looked the river valley and some rice terraces.  The guide’s hang out was just over the road and we were delighted to hear that there would be some guides working on Christmas Day.  We quickly established where we wanted to go, how much walking we’d like to do and a price.  Banaue itself is a very functional town so following a brief wander around decided to go up to Banaue’s viewpoint.  Now this had always been our intention but we thought we’d be in Banaue in plenty of time to walk up.  No chance – the sun was already on its way down so we decided to go in a tricycle.  We’d just started to look for a likely driver when one found us, and quoted such a good price straight away that we jumped in.  The views aren’t that stunning but hey, nice enough.

Christmas Day and against the odds (we’d heard much revelry through the night once midnight mass had kicked out) our tricycle, driver and guide were ready and waiting.  As soon as we drove out of town we lost all signs of concrete on the roads.  Yet again we were being bounced and jostled around so it was just as well we hadn’t had a San Miguel session on Christmas Eve.  It transpired that our guide had been out but by the time we were ready to walk he seemed to have found his second wind!  Our main aim of the day was to find out if Batad truly deserved its ‘UNSECO World Heritage Site amphitheatre-like stone-walled rice terraces’ billing.

The tricycle could only go as far as The Junction so we enjoyed a pleasant walk up to the Saddle and then down the other side to Batad.  We were delighted to see the sun and were again walking through beautiful scenery taking umpteen photos.  Batad itself is a lovely little village – another one of those that perches!  The best news was yet to come – not only were the terraces as fantastic as we’d hoped but the walk would take us through them and back up the other side.  We knew we weren’t in the area during the best season but even during planting season it all looked great.  Once in the terraces we could really appreciate the craftsmanship that had taken place all the centuries ago.  In places the walls are up to 12ft high and you have to use the streams and irrigation channels to haul yourself up to the next level.  To ensure minimum erosion there is a set route that has been reinforced with concrete in places – fine by me.  We thought it was amazing to get right into the heart of the terraces and experience them in such a hands-on way.

Christmas lunch was munched back up in Batad looking down on the area we’d just enjoyed walking and clambering through.  There were a handful of tourists about but most of them were going on to a waterfall and not progressing to the next valley as we intended.  The first part of the path involved negotiating our way across another small section of terracing to get over a narrow gorge.  After a while the rice gave way to forest and grasslands then as we approached the next village we encountered vegetable crops.  How on earth people manage to plant and harvest on some of the extremely steep slopes without the aid of terracing is beyond us.  One slip and you’d accidentally find yourself a long way below home.

The tricycle was waiting for us at the pre-designated spot and ready to take us back to Banaue via one final village.  Bangaan is a truly lovely village nestled in among its own rice terraces and surrounded by mountains.  Time had slipped by so we didn’t have time to venture any further than the viewpoint from the road.  Never mind we’d had a fantastic day.  By the time we got back to our guesthouse for a wash and brush up; we’d pushed the time for first Christmas Day beer to the latest ever!

The following morning we had to catch an early bus that would finally take us out of The Cordilleras.  The next leg of our journey involved a coastal route but to get to it we had to return to Baguio one last time.  The noise, dust and pollution were not welcome after the clean mountain air but at least we knew this time we would NOT be back.  We booked flights from up north (Laoag) to Manila months ago!  We decided to have a Boxing Day treat (without spending too much!) and booked ourselves into Burnham Hotel where the rooms were wood panelled. 

The next morning would see us heading out of the mountains, once again, but for the last time on this holiday.  The Cordilleras are stunning and we’d love to explore them further - on foot.

Travel Information


We travelled by bus to Baguio from Manila with Victory Liner, loads of buses available.



Baguio – Burnham Hotel was really nice and highly recommended (1500 peso).


Baguio Village Inn tel. 074 442 3901 was more of a backpackers place but fine and right near Slaughterhouse bus station. ( 825 p)

Sagada – Georges guesthouse was ok with friendly staff, nice views and the penthouse suite had 4 beds! All for 600p


Banaue – Sanafe’s was as good as any in town (1000p peak season), not much choice and it has the best view from the restaurant. We wished we had stayed in Batad and done more trekking in the area though.

Our Top Food Picks

Baguio – Pizza Volante has great pizza, Flying Gecko has good sarnies, both on Sessions rd.

Sagada – Masferre inn has great bread and even decent wine. Log cabin has a log fire and great pasta.

Banaue – Try your luck at Las Vagas for Filipino dishes!












































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