Earth Day, Part 3: Banaue Rice Terraces

PART 3 of 3 for Earth Day 2009

by Leonard

The Philippines is dying.

In true Filipino fashion, this is a melodramatic statement – but it’s also a true one.  If it makes you feel better, its not only the Philippines.  With climate change, global warming and the depletion of fossil fuels, we’re pretty much all f*cked.

stairways to heaven

stairways to heaven


“Pare,  are you Fil-Am?  Do you already have a guide in Banaue?” the young local in the bus asked me, eyeing my Lonely Planet book. “Sige, when we get to town, just follow me.” 

Sadly, the Philippines is a place where you have to be ready for anything and surprised by nothing.  As soon as the bus arrived in the town centre, we dodged the hawkers and bee-lined straight for the Tourist Information Centre to figure out what to do first.

really its not as close as it looks

really its not as close as it looks

“You can hire an Official Guide here,” said the lady behind the desk.  “Most of the guides outside aren’t certified mountain guides, just kids from the village looking to make some money.”  She sized us up.  “You guys are tall, so you should be able to do the 3 hour trek pretty easily”, said the lady, drawing a straight and short line between the start and end points on the wall map.

Just then, our guide arrives.  “My name is Darwin,” assuring us that we would be safe with him and proudly holding up the laminated permit hanging from his neck that certified him as a trained mountain guide.  “Good that you came in the Tourist Centre.  The kids outside wouldn’t have told you anything about the terraces.  Me… I’m from here.  This is all I know”, he said.  “Plus if you fell, they won’t know how to save you.”

Darwin, our Ifugao Mountain Guide.

Darwin, our Ifugao Mountain Guide.

Aaaand cue nervousness… NOW.  GO.  We head up, passing villagers, kids going to school and dogs loitering in the street.  All par for the course but I wasn’t ready at all for what I would see upon reaching the top.

I swear, I cried.  

Silently to myself and not like a baby –  just overcome with emotion at the beauty that was filling my eyes.  My head was in the clouds in a good way, looking down at the rice terraces like stairs descending and here I was – at the top.  Knowing that these structures are said to be more than 5,000 years old and that they were built by the hands of generations made the experience way too much for me to deal with at once.  And so, all I could do was cry.  I honestly didn’t know what else to do at that point.  What a heavy moment.  I was just taken over.

Darwin snapped me out of my daze by giving me the only piece of safely equipment I’d be using that day — a long stick.  “You’ll have to use the walking stick and your body to balance yourself.”  Ugh.  We headed up and Darwin told us about life here.  He is an Ifugao, but you wouldn’t know it from his T-shirt, jeans and fancy hiking boots – an impromptu gift directly from the feet of a Swiss hiker who was also overcome by the moment.

If you know me, you know that I’m no athlete.  As we descended and ascended these terraces, going down steep rock stairs, crossing single log bridges over running streams and climbing steep cliffs using hands, feet and knees — the pain of lethargic North American life became an afterthought.  Somehow, we found the strength and energy to keep climbing.

wrong shoes for hiking

wrong shoes for hiking

The air was fresh here, way up in the mountains.  We didn’t see garbage or litter, or even signs of commerce or modern trappings.  Maybe the only trace was the corrugated metal roofing that the mountain folk used in their otherwise traditional homes.  When we happened by their houses, they smiled and waved because their Ibaloi was a few languages removed from mine, being a few stops to the left of my horrible command of Tagalog.

houses in the background

houses in the background

“They are cooking ‘azocena'” said Darwin.  “It’s common to eat dog meat here”, Darwin said, as a matter-of-factly as can be.  “We believe that it warms the body, which is useful here in the mountain climate, where the temperature can get down to 10 celsius.”  I smiled awkwardly.

We continued on and choked back fear of heights to take in the majestic views.  Reminder to self: don’t wear Chuck Taylor Converse if you’re planning to walk narrow rice paddies made of mud that tower as high as skyscrapers.  We stopped often to admire each and every view, sometimes to catch our wind but also to ask our guide questions about life here in the Rice Terraces.  He tells us that Banaue only produces 10% of its possible output of rice because most of the farmers have either left the area for more lucrative work in the city, or have resorted to the Tourist industry.  It seems like a shame considering the fact that there is still a rice shortage in this country.


Finally, a place in the Philippines that didn’t look like it was being destroyed.  Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the Banaue Rice Terraces were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.  Do we need outsiders to keep us on the ball as far as taking care of what we have, ecologically?  Maybe.  In any case, it seems to have worked.  I’m infinitely glad I came here.  If I truly want to see the natural beauty of the Philippines, maybe I can’t ask Filipinos – I have to ask UNESCO.  Oh well.  I wonder what the other World Heritage Sites are in the Philippines?  Palawan?  Donsol?  Vigan?

“When you come back again to see the Terraces, next time make sure to visit in May,” Darwin told us upon completing our trek.  “That’s when the harvest time comes and Banaue turns into a mountain-sea of gold.”


I’m not sure if I’ll be back here again but at least I know what the Philippines must have looked like thousands of years ago.  For all I’ve seen on my travels – this was an important snapshot to add.

I’ll never forget it.

Previous: PART 1 of 3 – Taal Volcano

Previous: PART 2 of 3 – Boracay

~ by Leonard on April 22, 2009.

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