Jun 4, 2011

The Banawe Rice Paddies: NOT A Walk In The Park!

Our trip in the Philippines keeps getting crazier and more challenging than we’d ever imagined nor intended.  Along with the long bus rides, crazy rough mountainous  roads and unexpected hikes, we upped the ante today and again surprised ourselves with the outcome of the day.  Destination:  the UNESCO World-Heritage listed Banawe Rice Terraces.

From Sagada, we descended to Bontoc, 2hrs away by jeepney.  Bright and early the next morning, we set off to board the local bus to bring us the 3hrs to Banawe (aka Banaue), where we hoped spend the day oogling the famous ‘Rice Terraces’ which were carved into the mountainside by the Ifugao people using only primative tools, some 2000 years ago.  Our main concern was about the weather as the region is known for its volatile weather.  Soon after we  set off, dressed only in t-shirts and shorts, it started to drizzle and got quite chilly, even in our bus as it lacked a lot of its windows! In desperation, we put on our rain jackets just to shield us a bit from the weather, cursing that we didn’t have extra jackets or even different clothing with us.  We also started to imagine that this trip along the twisty, winding, land-slide ridden road would end with us promptly getting on the next return bus to Bontoc after we got there.

Our bus from Bontoc to Banawe (yes, that's a goat on the roof!)

See the low-lying clouds?!

To our amazement as we neared Banawe, the weather began to clear and by the time we got off, it was even somewhat sunny and quite warm.  Whew—glad we had the shorts and t-shirts after all!  We were met by Bon Bon, a local guide who we met the day before in Bontoc, and we went for coffee to discuss our options for sightseeing in the area.  Really, our only expectations were to walk around a bit and admire and photograph the amazing rice terraces from afar, although treks through the fields were a common activity for visitors here.  Bon Bon suggested that we could do a 1.5hr ‘walk’ through the rice fields starting from the highest viewpoint just off the road (we’d get a 'tricycle' there), downhill to Banawe centre, where we currently were.  We voiced our concern about whether this would be suitable for the girls to do, and he said, ‘no problem, ma’am’.  So off we went, excited for this unexpected opportunity. After all, it was all downhill and the terraces were just ‘right there’.

Banawe centre, looking back up the valley towards the Rice Terraces

A Filipino 'Tricycle'

We set off from the viewpoint at 11am, down a steep flight of stairs.  The thing about descending is that often it’s actually harder than ascending. It became very apparent that going down was not going to be as easy as we’d thought.  And soon, it also became apparent that it wasn’t all downhill—in fact, we’d have to go up and down twice before the final descent into the town.  But wait—there were even more surprises!  The nice concrete steps, which were a mere 3 yrs old, eventually gave way to a muddy, rocky, fairly steep and slippery uphill scramble.  There were many more of these to follow during the course of our ‘walk’, including the same going downhill.  When we weren’t doing this, we were walking and balancing along the tops of ancient rice paddy walls, which were at times only 10cm wide and slippery too from moss, with rice paddies and irrigation channels on one side and sometimes sheer drops on the other.  Maddy and Jim each slipped off once, luckily only suffering a wet foot as they fell into the ‘upside’ channel.  At one point we had to cross the river via only a single steel beam bridge—Bon bon actually carried Yasmine on his shoulders for that, and again for the uphill scramble that followed.   All the while, the sun beat down on us and sweat dripped off our foreheads.  

Looking down from the Viewpoint--notice the stairs on the left, and that's the town centre at top right.

See the stairs leading upwards from the botton left?

That's Bon Bon

The beam-bridge

This is how high it actually was!
One of the narrower ledges

Bon Bon
An hour into it, we asked Bon Bon whether we were halfway yet, ‘no ma’am’ was his reply, while he tried to stifle a laugh.  Onwards we went.  By this time, Bon Bon was carrying Yasmine on his shoulders quite a bit, regardless of the terrain.  Scrambling uphill, downhill, along ledges, even through villagers’ farms—we couldn’t even keep up with him.  From time to time, we’d see the two of them sitting casually in the shade waiting for us, but by the time we neared, they were off again. By the 2hr mark, we saw that it would soon rain, and coupled with the fact that the last bus/jeepney back to Bontoc was at 3pm; now we had to really put a move on it.

That's a steep uphill folks.

Yasmine and Bon Bon, way ahead of us as usual.

We finally arrived back in the town at 2pm, three hours after we started-- hot, sweaty and hungry!  We thanked and paid Bon Bon (we really couldn’t have done it without him), grabbed a few sandwiches and got onto our very crowded bus.  Fifteen minutes later as feared, the rains started to fall heavily.   

Our ‘walk’ through Banawe Rice Terraces was certainly more like a trek, with a moderate degree of difficulty for us even if we didn’t have preschoolers in tow.  Having proper hiking footwear would have probably helped give us better traction in the slippery and often steep terrain as we only had our Tevas on.  The ‘Keens’ were definitely appropriate for the girls, and both were handy as we got our feet wet a few times (except Yasmine, whose shoes were not surprisingly dry and clean!).  Interestingly Bon Bon only had on the typical Filipino footwear of choice:  flip flops! For him, this really was a walk in the park.  In spite of all this, it was a very special experience.  It’s one thing admiring the rice terraces from afar, quite another seeing up close and being amongst it.  The steepness of the terrain, coupled with the sheer vastness of the rice paddies and their age made us really admire the hard work of the ancient Ifugao engineers.  We were so glad that we decided to this, albeit unwittingly and again, we’re so amazed by the abilities of our children.

Village Women of Banawe
We've really enjoyed our week in coolness of The Cordillera mountains, despite the higher than expected degree of difficulty for travel.  Having gotten away from the crowds and traffic of urban Philippines, we've not only felt more relaxed and 'safer' but have been able to experience the friendliness and hospitality of the local people too.  But at heart, we are beach people and we need WATER, so we are off to the west coast of Luzon.


  1. My dad showed me this it's sooooo cool. Thanks!

  2. Hi, Great to see other families getting "out and about" with kids. We have travelled throughout SE Asia with our kids since the oldest was 2 - now about to turn 8 but this Nov will be our first trip to the Philippines. The rice fields are definately on my to-do list and loved reading ur account....if you had known what you know now - would you have done 'the walk'? I am concerned about the weather....nov may not be so great..when where u there? We only have a short trip planned this time (2 weeks in total) and will be heading to a beach too - thinking Boracay at this stage. Any hints, tips and suggestion would be very much appreciated :)

    Em - Australia

  3. hmm--glad we didn't know what we do now cus its hard to say! At the end of the day, it was a very rewarding walk, and we were glad we had our guide with us--couldn't have done it without him! We were there in June and it was during monsoon season, although the rains came only in the afternoons when we were there. Read our posts--2 weeks is not a lot of time, but a lot of ground to cover. Luzon has a lot of offer on its own. It all depends on how you plan to get around--on your own using local transport takes a lot of time. many people hire drivers or join tours to speed things up, but travel is still hard as the roads are poor in the mountains. feel free to email me any more questions. Pagapud was THE BEST beach--check it out re time of year.

  4. Thanks so much for taking the time to reply - i know u r busy holidaying :) I have to say that I didnt really know anything about the Philippines when i, on a whim and a cheap airfare, booked our trip (like u, very unlike me indeed). I have so far booked 5 nights in Boracay....now I have 9 nights to fill and was considering hiring a private driver for a 5 day Luzon trip - 2n Baguio and Banaue and 1n in Sagada. This leaves us with 4 split nights in Manila (which sounds yuck)...starting to stress that I should have just layed on the beach longer - LOL. Any imput from someone who has been there and done that (with 2 kids) would be priceless - Thanks in advance :)

  5. hi
    we were the same--booked the flight on a bit of a whim without any idea about the country! but knowing what we do now, i'd suggest that you spend a bit more time in the mountains if you can. the roads are just horrible (if you can tell from our photos) so travel is slow, even with your own driver. and then there's the weather--can be tempermental. our first day in segada was rained out, so we stayed another and it was great. lots to see there. ditto for banaue--weather can be tempermental too and if you are only there for 1 day, then you are stuck. not much in bagiuo but is a good break in the journey. manila is not that bad--lots of shopping and stuff for kids to do (are you traveling with kids?? if so, what age?) surprisingly (park, AsiaMall).

    hope this helps.

  6. Thanks once again for your time, I cant tell you how much it is helping. Our kids are just about 8 and 5. We spent 7wks last year in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand so we have some experience BUT this feels like I am pushing it just that bit further - lol. I will take ur sugggestions to heart and re-visit the itinerary. Do you think it will be easy enough to organise a driver in Manilla. Glad to hear Manilla not too bad - looking forward to the shopping for sure :)
    Thanks - Travel safe

  7. Philippines is good, but travel overland, in Luzon anyway, could be very difficult especially in the mountains. Everyone and their dog will know a driver, but maybe check the Lonely Planet Online Thorn Tree forum for recommendations. Good luck!

  8. I stumbled upon this by accident, I am searching for rice terraces photos to use on some design. I live in a town adjacent to Banaue but I do my business mainly in Banaue and this post was a fun read. I am glad that you enjoyed our place (and that you used very kind adjectives in your post.) :-)

    1. Hi! We really enjoyed the north Luzon area and visiting the Rice Terraces was certainly an experience which we will never forget! btw--do you know/recognise our guide, Bon Bon?!

  9. Hi! Thank you for sharing your experience, it was funny and useful. We're going to the Philippines next April to visit some friends in Manila and we would like to visit the rice terraces. We re travelling with our daughter who will be 4 and a half by then and we were thinking to hire a private driver? What would you suggest? are two full days in Banaue too much? are there any day trips from there? we would like to avoid excessive driving since the little one is car sick. Could you recommend any good beaches in Luzon island? There must be some, since it is so big. Thanks a lot

    1. hi
      Hiring a driver would make travel easier and more efficient for you, especially if you are only there for a short trip. Going via 'public transport' as we did, is a LOT more arduous, yet also more budget friendly too :) Be warned though--the roads to Banaue go through the mountains and are VERY windy. We we were there, they were also in very poor condition, which does result in slower moving travel.

      While we only spent half a day in Banaue, we would have stayed longer if we'd hadn't left our bags in another town thus had to return to it. There are many short hikes but also, the scenery is lovely to soak in. And with a 4yr old, things tend to take longer to do anyway, so the extra time will probably work in your favour :)

      as for a beach--we LOVED Pagupud! (Check our post) It's on the west coast of Luzon, but at the far northern end. It's not really on the foreigner 'tourist trail' but it IS a popular getaway for the Filipinos of Manila, who flock to it on the weekends. If you must arrive on a weekend, i highly recommend that you have reservations somewhere. (we met a lovely woman who owns Casa Victoria, right on the beach, low-mid range.) but better yet try to go during the week as you'd likely have the place to yourself. check for the time of year though as there is a 'low season' where basically the place is closed down.

      hope this helps and thanks for visiting us :)