Photo Travelogue: A Trip to the Philippine Cordilleras
Luzon, Philippines 2007
I have had these photos on my hard drive for almost 10 years now. Who knows why it has taken so long. I have tried several times to edit, organize, and tell the story of this life-changing trip, but somehow I have never been able to do it. Perhaps I wasn’t equipped to do so back then in terms of writing and photo editing skills. Perhaps I’m still not properly equipped now, but I’m going to try. This story needs to be told, mostly to please myself and get it out of the back of my mind. But anyone who wants to read is more than welcome to come along for the ride!
The Journey Begins
In April of 2007, my friend and business partner Eli and I embarked on a journey of chance and mishaps, which eventually led us from sunken ships to epic landscapes. Being photographers, there were, of course, lots of photos taken along the way.
Our company, StoneDogs Photography had just finished covering a 2-day event in Ilocos (in the northern part of the Philippines). Along the way, we made sure to take lots of photos for ourselves as well!
With a bit of money in our pocket from the gig and a great starting point, we were ready for the next adventure! The plan was to go to Batanes, the northernmost province in the Philippines. The island province is only accessible by plane or by ferry. We decided to take a ferry. A quick Internet search (not sure if it was Google back then, perhaps Yahoo) told us that the ferry, the MV Ivatan Princess departed from the Currimao Port, which was not far from where we were. We said goodbye to our clients and headed off.
It was dark by the time we got to Currimao Port, but still early enough to make the night ferry. As we entered the gate and approached the main building, we were overcome by a feeling of worry. Why did the port look so dark and deserted? We didn’t see a ferry, or any people for that matter. A small group of men enjoying an evening drink told us that the ferry had sunk years ago! So much for proper research!
Note: I now know that the original MV Ivatan Princess was lost in a typhoon in 2004 (LOL!). But at the time of writing, the ferry seems to be operational again. Websites still only offer limited information, so please call the ferry company to confirm before heading out there like we did!
We were in shock for a few minutes, but our unwavering spirit of adventure (and desire to save face) helped us pull through. The destination was quickly changed to the Mountain Province, which was still reasonably accessible from where we were. Within a few minutes, we were on a bus to La Union.
A bus, a rented van, and a few hours later, we were in Baguio. From there we would take a bus to Sagada. I don’t remember exactly how long it took, but it was a long trip with some rough roads. I hear the roads and travel time have improved quite a bit, so it must be easier for travelers now.
Days 1 to 3: Sagada
After checking in to our guesthouse (and perhaps a quick nap), we went off to explore. Our first stop was Bokong Waterfall. In Sagada, almost every route is the scenic route. The waterfall itself was quaint, but the quiet, peaceful surroundings were just incredible!
Our next destination was the Echo Valley and the Hanging Coffins. As the name implies, this valley is known for it’s acoustic properties. I don’t quite recall if we did any yelling into the valley, but I hope not, as one should respect the dead laying in that valley. Here, coffins can be found high above, suspended from the limestone cliffs. Hanging the coffins there is not an easy task and it is said that the higher the coffin, the more valued the deceased was. Depending on who you talk to, some also say that being buried in that manner also brings the deceased closer to heaven.
The next morning, after a cup of coffee at the Masferré Inn, we headed off on a small path behind Sagada’s main road. There we found small villages among beautiful rice terraces and lush trees. It was interesting to see traditional structures mixed in with the newer buildings, most notably, the traditional fire pits where meetings were held with the town elders.
The highlight of this part of the trip was stumbling upon the workshop of a traditional weaver. It was interesting to see how the famous Sagada fabric was made.
Later that day, we were off to the caves. Lumiang and Sumaguing Caves are must-sees in Sagada. Dating back 500 years, the Lumiang Cave represents old Igorot (indigenous people of this area) burial traditions. There are about 200 coffins in the cave, many of which are stacked one on top of the other. The dark corners of the cave house the remains of the oldest Igorot ancestors.
The Sumaguing cave, on the other hand, is famous for the rock formations within. Known as the ‘big cave’, Sumaguing has the largest chamber among the Sagada caves. Inside you can find various rock formations with nicknames such as the ‘King’s Curtain’, ‘Shark’s Head’, and ‘Chocolate Cake’, which give you an idea of what they look like. Descending into the cave is not an easy task, and visitors are encouraged to do so with bare feet for increased traction.
After marveling at the formations and photographing them using wireless strobes (which were still a fairly new thing back then), it was time to head back up. It was close to the end of the day and we were the last visitors. We were ready to head back and tackle the challenging ascent.
Then our lantern died.
We were in the dark for a good 10 minutes or so while our guide attempted to fix his lantern. We had no flashlights or headlamps. There we were, 100-200 meters deep in the earth with no light and a not-so-easy path back up to the surface. We were a bit concerned, but surprisingly calm. As we waited for the guide to sort out the lantern, we saw another, bigger group of people enter the cave with several lanterns. Though they were quite a distance up, we thought we could join them once they came down our way. Unfortunately, they turned around and left the cave, apparently just taking a little peek inside. The bit of fear returned and we resorted to making jokes and pressing the test flash buttons on our camera strobes. I was ready to use the strobes to help us get out of the cave, but fortunately, our guide fixed the lantern and we were on our way back up. It was dark by the time we got back to our guesthouse.
Having gotten our asses kicked by Sumaguing cave the previous day, we decided not to do much the next day. We did go out to get some food and see the St. Mary’s Church, but most of the day was spent watching the National Geographic Channel. Yes, it was a bit pathetic watching cable TV in the middle of a Nat Geo-worthy destination, but we needed to recover.
Day 4: Bontoc
The next day, we were off to Bontoc, the capital of the Mountain Province. We were there to see the rice terraces and hopefully see some original members of the Bontoc Tribe. The Bontoc was originally a headhunting tribe who had distinctive body tattoos. They engaged in tribal wars with neighboring tribes until the 1930’s. The Bontoc Tribe lives on today as a peaceful agricultural people. The rice terraces were amazing to say the least. We did see a couple of elderly Bontoc women with ‘pong′-o’, the arm tattoos that were given to female members of the tribe and were actually able to photograph one of them.
Days 5 and 6: Banaue
The next day, we bid farewell to the Mountain Province and crossed over to the Ifugao Province to the town of Banaue. Banaue is the most well-known site in the Philippines for rice terraces. The 2000-year-old Banaue Rice Terraces are a national cultural treasure and were pictured on the old 1000 Peso banknote. What I didn’t know was the road from Sagada to Banaue has (had?) some of the most epic and dangerous mountain roads I had ever seen in the Philippines.
We were happy to arrive safely, and Banaue did not disappoint. The rice terraces were magnificent and I will let the photos do the talking here.
After 6 days in paradise, it was time to head back to Manila. I will never forget the sights, sounds, and experiences of this trip and it feels good to finally get this out of my head, off my hard drive, and written down after so long. If you have read this far, thank you very much!
I said before that this trip was life-changing. So what exactly did this trip change? Nothing outwardly obvious. However, in its own simple, quiet way, this journey expanded my horizons, opened my eyes, and made me realize that there is so much more out there than I can even imagine. My mind was forever opened. And I believe this is one of the best reasons why we travel.
I had an absolute blast editing the 6 and 8 megapixel files from my Canon EOS 10D and 350D, which are ancient by today’s standards. It was definitely a trip to see my shots from 10 years ago and how much my vision has changed over the years. Moreover, this was before I shot in RAW and dealing with the jpegs was a bit of a headache. Always, shoot in RAW, people! You won’t regret it, especially if you ever need to edit old photos in new software a few years down the line!