Most mountain hideaways inevitably begin with a stomach swirling bus and the road from Manila to Banaue was one of the worst. In Banaue, I crawled off the bus onto the paved floor and threw up. Once again being a traveller with travel sickness comes to haunt me. It takes me a while to adjust to my surroundings, but when the circling sickness finally starts to wear off it’s the bitter morning air which bites me. Away from the humidity of island life, and the smoggy pollution of Manila, mist rises over green tiered valleys and cold air splatters onto my sunburnt cheeks.
Located in Northern Luzon, on the same island as Manila, but a 12 hour bus ride away, Banaue is located in the Cordillera mountain range, and is home to dramatic rice terraced hills and the intriguing Ifuago tribe. It’s Saturday when I arrive and the town buzzes with a weekly market mostly selling second hand western clothing, bakeries produce donuts and port turnovers and the butchers hang pink chickens from their shop fronts. The American influence which exists in much of the Philippines is ever present even in the most remote of mountain towns. But I instantly like the place. Uyami’s Green View Lodge becomes my favourite spot, providing a cozy cabin environment, rich hot chocolate and sweeping views over the mist covered hills.
The mist barely rises all day, and I take a motorcycle up to the viewpoint to find a view of white clouds. Luckily I come across a group of elderly men and women in traditional tribal costume. They sit in this area everyday, allowing opportunities for tourists to photograph them in the Ifugao clothing and in return providing them with pocket money. They are sweet and camera confident. The male of the group is the most elaborately dressed and full of life. His neck is threaded with bones and good luck charms, his feet and legs are bare apart from a piece of cloth which covers his privacy. The women are quiet and curious, one wears Crocs on her feet and speaks good English. I’m allowed to photograph them each, and hand them polaroids of themselves to keep. They must have their photo taken several times each day by passing tourists, but for some reason having one they can actually keep seems to bring them great joy and they pass them around the group like school children just had their first picture taken.
The next morning i join a group of backpackers and head out to the hills for a 3 day trek. Our guide is 22 year old local man, he stands a few inches shorter than me and chews bettlenut continuously for the entire three days. He grew up in a local village nearby, away from the tourist trekking route. The trek takes us from Banaue to Pula, a village set beneath thick green forested mountains, framed by waterfalls and rice terraces. The houses in the village are still in the traditional Igufao style, straw triangle roofs and children running wild with the village chickens. It’s a pleasant lunch stop, after a morning of dry but misty weather. We’re not so lucky with the next stretch, as rain pours down and we tentatively walk in single file along slippery rice terrace edges. The views are breathtaking, layers of green mountain with mist rising and falling among the hills. Although being soaking wet and climbing difficult terrain makes it hard to appreciate it full. We’re all glad when we arrive at our stop for the night, the village of Cambulo.
Perched on a mountain side, Cambulo reminds me of the Himalayan villages I stayed in while trekking in the Annapurna Sanctuary. There’s a handful of guesthouses here set up for trekkers, mostly in basic shared accommodation. We arrive soaking wet and the warm fire set up in one of the Igfugo houses is very welcome. Dinner is cooked by the family who own the guesthouse and the menu consists mostly of omelettes and rice, vegetable or chicken curry. The food is basic but filling and everything we need for an early night to be ready for another long day of trekking.
The next morning I walk around the village as children head to the local school and local men pound rice from the fields. We leave the village and the weather quickly worsens. Once again we find ourselves walking through sleeting rain as we head towards Batad. When we reach the top of the valley, the rain pours even heavier but the view from above still looks incredibly picturesque. Batad is the poster child village for the area. It’s ridiculously pretty to look at from above, although head down and there’s very little to see. There’s a village festival on and locals are somewhat unfriendly and often drunk. It’s a weird atmosphere to be in and we instead sit in the comfort of our porch looking out onto the view of the terraces below, and once again waiting for the mist to rise. Eggs and rice and vegetables are once again on the menu, and we play cards as the sun goes down hoping for a little dryer day tomorrow.
It’s our last day on trek and the walk is short and easier than before. We make it to a main road and head back in a jeep any to Banaue town. A warm shower is my first priority, and we get a room at the lovely Koreen Guest House in the centre of town.
I spend a few more days walking around Banaue, visiting the local museum and hot springs. Anything to put off that inevitable journey back to Manila, which once again leaves my stomach in a twist.
Annapurna Mellor is a travel photographer, writer and co-founder of Roam Magazine. She fell in love with Asia shortly after graduating and has since spent extensive periods travelling and photographing in India, Nepal, Myanmar and many more. She shoots regularly for brands and publications and her work can be found in National Geographic Traveller Magazine, Lonely Planet, Suitcase and The Guardian. When not on the road, she is based in Manchester, UK.