While most people think of beaches and sunshine when they picture the Philippines, the area north of Manila is like a different planet. If you fail to visit you’re missing out on a whole side to Filipino history and culture that really is quite fascinating. Having said that, taking the road less well travelled can make for a challenging – or at the very least, frustrating – experience, so here are some tips for backpacking in North Luzon.
PLAN YOUR ROUTE IN ADVANCE
While the distances between places in North Luzon don’t appear to be so great on a map, once you’re there, you’ll realise that the steep and winding roads make for slow progress. Especially if you have limited time, you should figure out in advance how many places you’re keen to see, how long it takes to travel between them, and when the public transport runs. For example, the last bus from Bontoc to Banaue is at 1 pm, and your only choice for reaching Manila from Banaue is to take a night bus that arrives into the notoriously dodgy capital in the early hours. You also shouldn’t rely on the staff at your accommodation for travel advice. Whether they’re unwilling to help or they lack the information, you’ll rarely get a reliable response. The Lonely Planet guide to the Philippines has some very useful tips. Unfortunately the Southeast Asia on a Shoestring publication is a little scarce on the details. A popular route is Manila – Baguio – Kabayan – Sagada – Bontoc – Banaue – Manila. This will take you a minimum of one week, and much longer if you intend to stay overnight in each place and do a lot of hiking.
PACK WARM CLOTHES
Thanks to the altitude, North Luzon gets really cold. You might think that a Filipino’s idea of cold isn’t too bad compared with what you’re used to back home, but they’re not exaggerating. After some weeks on the islands, 10 degrees feels like freezing. Add to this the fact that you’ve probably not brought too many fleeces on your Southeast Asia trip and you’ll soon be longing for the humidity of Manila. Even in the high season, there can be a stiff breeze and a lot of drizzle, and despite the outside conditions, accommodation rarely provides warm bedding, heating or hot water. In fact, ice cold bucket showers are all the rage. Also, be aware that despite the ridiculously cold outside temperatures, many of the longer-distance buses tend to really crank up the air conditioning. Some say the following inhabitants of the Opdas Mass Burial Cave in Kabayan died of a smallpox epidemic brought over by the Spanish. Others believe they were entombed together over the years because their low social status did not afford them a more elaborate burial. A third theory suggests they’re the remains of tourists who froze to death on the night bus from Banaue to Manila.
CHARGE YOUR ELECTRONICS
Whenever you have the chance, charge your laptop, camera, phone and any other electronics you feel like you can’t live without. Whether you’re staying in dorms or lodges, it’s not common to find power sockets in your room. You might also find that the restaurants in town charge for charging – especially in Banaue. The going rate is about 20 Php for your phone and 60 Php for your laptop. You’re then forced to stick around for hours ordering from a limited menu as you watch your batteries fill up at a painfully slow rate.
Just as power points are hard to come by, so too is WiFi. In Baguio, the Upstairs Bed and Bath has a surprisingly strong connection if you’re willing to brave the 30-bed dorms and rumours of ghost sightings. Make full use of it because there is no WiFi anywhere in Kabayan and you might end up staying longer than expected while your relatives back home worry that you’ve been abducted. In Sagada, most places will tell you to stop looking, but there’s a restaurant up some steps opposite the tourist centre that has a really strong connection. Banaue has numerous cafes that advertise WiFi, but it rarely works. Apparently, everywhere in town uses the same provider too, so if it doesn’t work in one place, you might as well cut your losses.
BOOK ACCOMMODATION IN ADVANCE
It’s not often easy to book accommodation in advance in the Philippines. Few places sign up to the usual sites like HostelWorld, leaving you with the painstaking process of emailing each place and waiting, perhaps indefinitely, for a reply. However, if you don’t do it, you could end up sleeping on the street – or close enough. This is especially true of Kabayan, which only has one lodge – the beautifully designed and spacious Pine Cone with its understandably popular 300 Php beds. Sagada may also present a problem if you visit at the weekend, and especially on public holidays like Chinese New Year. It’s a seriously popular short break destination for people who live and work in Manila. Its streets may be lined with guesthouses, but don’t underestimate how crowded it can get.
PAY THE FEES AND HIRE A GUIDE
There’s a very unique system in the north when it comes to tourism. At each of the towns, you’re required to pay a cultural and/or environmental fee. Keep hold of the receipt they give you as you’ll be requested to show it upon entering museums and points of interest. For most places, such as the mummies near Kabayan, the hanging coffins of Sagada, and any hikes or cave tours, you’ll also be expected to hire a guide. Who you get is pot luck. In some cases they might be extremely knowledgeable, like our guide Richie (below), but for the most part they’re just local men looking to make a few extra pesos. Regardless, it’s considered culturally insensitive and irresponsible to try to do these activities yourself. Usually you can split the cost if you can find other travellers to share your guide.
BE WARY OF BARBECUED MEAT
People in the north of Luzon have some interesting customs. Besides the detailed and gruesome mummification process, they’re quite partial to dog meat. If you order barbecued meat on a stick, there’s a decent chance it might be dog. If that possibility concerns you, you’d be best off sticking to the ever-popular fried chicken, or holding off meat altogether for a few days. Even if you’re partial to a canine kebab, roadside meat stalls like this one on the way to Sagada are enough to turn the biggest meat lovers veggie…
EXPLORE THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED
North Luzon is not a particularly popular destination for westerners, so if you make it up there, you’re already somewhat off the beaten path. However, it doesn’t hurt to take this a step further. As a whole, the region feels very safe, and the locals are usually very helpful when you ask for directions or advice. Make a stop at some of the lesser-known villages, hike between them, or just wander down a road that appears to lead to nowhere and you’ll likely catch a glimpse of traditional life that hasn’t been skewed by tourism. Shy village children, tipsy locals singing karaoke in their backyards, begnas rituals, and cock fight training are some of the interesting spectacles that might await you.