Monday, June 21, 2010

Stairways to Heaven

Terraces in Banaue

Our Local Guide, Moises in Batad

Batad Terraces

Whose minding the terrace?

Tappia Falls

The Cordillera Rice Terraces in Northern Philippines are often referred to as stairways to heaven. They are as impressive to see for real as they look in pictures.

Terraces are found all over Southeast Asia (even in southern Europe). However, the Cordillera terraces seem to be over the top. In size, laid end to end they could cover half the globe. In construction, these terraces are like giant steps on steep slopes, with as much as 500 metres in vertical drop. In age, these have been in continuous use for 2,000 years with the oldest complex over 3,000 years.

Many centuries ago, the settlers of the Cordilleras were in dire need of farm land to plant rice. There were no flat lands in the mountains so instead, they constructed strips of rice paddies on top of each other. Today, these terraces serve as a living testament to the ingenuity and adaptability of man. They accomplished the task without John Deere or Caterpillar, high tech gadgets and slaves.

Banaue Terraces is the grandest, most well known and photographed among the terrace complexes of the Cordilleras which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage. My visit to Banaue in the 2nd week of May this year, was accidental but in hindsight, it worked out for the best. After I completed my work assignment in northern Philippines, I had planned to go straight to Sagada bypassing Banaue. However, there was no easy route direct to Sagada and the best way to go is through Banaue.

With 2 local colleagues for company and the boss' car for transport, we drove to Banaue and got into the mountain town at night. We checked in at Banaue View Inn where the lady of the house happened to be Lily Beyer Luglug, the granddaughter of noted anthropologist, historian, and Cordillera expert, Prof. Otley Beyer. Prof Beyer's collection is now at the Banaue Museum, next door to the inn.

The town itself is built on terraces slowly being overtaken by "town sprawl". Some of the retaining walls have been reinforced with concrete, but most still show the original stones of the terraces.

Next day as Lily recommended, we headed off for Batad to visit the amphitheatre shaped terraces and Tappia water fall. Batad is about 45 minutes away, via a gravel road 15 minutes off the highway. From Batad saddle (a ridge overlooking the tiny mountain village, and part of the terraces), we followed a trail down the side of the mountain until we reached the edge of the village. From here, the 3 of us decided to traverse the terraces, then hike further to the falls. Ignorance is bliss. We were to find out 4 hours later, that the trek down and back up is not for amateurs with weak hearts, loose limbs or wonky knees. Someone forgot to mention that.

Coming into the middle of this humongous amphitheatre, one feels more than views the terraces: huge, complex engineering, hemmed in by steep mountainsides, but oh so peaceful. How ancient farmers managed to match and fit the stones to form 6-9 feet of solid walls holding rice paddies in a complex this size and a few others was beyond me. That's like putting together a million piece jigsaw puzzle tight and snug, without slack, a few times over. The rocks that form the steps were just as solid, without the slightest wiggle or jiggle as we came down. Simply awesome and inspiring.

At the far end of the terraces is a rest stop on a ridge just before the trail down to Tappia Falls. Sitting on bamboo benches, we could hear the heavy breathing and labored steps of hikers coming up the trail from the falls. It was almost amusing to see people pop out of the trail, in such a state.

From here, we hiked or awkwardly clambered down broken concrete steps about 500 metres and at last, the falls. A young French tourist in one of the rest stops assured us that it is very nice down here, worth it. The 50 metre waterfall and the pool were definitely worth it, a reward for that knee busting downhill trek.

Going back up to the ridge, traversing the terraces one more time, then hiking up the mountain trail to the saddle took 2 1/2 hours. It also required numerous stops to deal with leg cramps, shot knees and catch one's breath. However, it was simply exhilirating, a once in a lifetime experience.

Test of the Heart and Legs
, Trip Advisor review.