Harmony between humankind and the environment: The Ifugao Rice Terraces

Ifugao, which means People of the Hill, is a province in the Cordillera Administrative Region on the island of Luzon, in the Philippines. This area is famous for the 2000 years old rice terraces that are inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List with the name of “Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras“. This was the first property to be included in the Cultural Landscape category.

The site comprises five clusters of rice terraces: Batad Rice Terraces, Bangaan Rice Terraces, Hungduan Rice Terraces, Mayoyao Rice Terraces and Nagacadan Rice Terraces. I managed to visit the first three of the list and I was stunned by the harmony between the environment and the people living there, who morphed the landscape according to their needs but managed to preserve the environment.

A good way to visit the rice terraces is to stay in Banaue, a small town in the middle of the Cordillera mountain range. Banaue can be reached directly from Manila or nearby bigger cities such as Bontoc, Sagada and Baguio. I took a Jeepney from Sagada which was full so I had to sit on the roof. Although very uncomfortable it was an amazing experience.

The Jeepneys ready to leave Sagada, to go to Banaue.

From Banaue it is relatively easy to arrange visits to the rice terraces. The easiest way is to hire, either privately or through the local tourist centre, a car or a trike (little motorcycles with side cars) to get as close as possible to the sites.

When I reached Banaue, and settled in one of the many cheap guesthouses, I hired a trike and agreed with the driver to be taken to Hungduan. The hills around Banaue are completely covered in rice terraces, from top to bottom. Terraces are literally everywhere you turn your head to. The hard work put in by local people to create this incredible landscape can be seen in every single terrace. The road that goes to Hungduan passes through the Banaue rice terraces, which are the terraces close to the town and can be seen from the viewpoint. These rice terraces, despite being remarkable, are not included in the UNESCO inscription due to the presence of many modern structures.

Banaue Rice Terraces. These terraces, near the town of Banaue, are not part of the UNESCO inscription.
Mirror-like terraces near Banaue.

The Hungduan terraces are completely made of mud walls and said to look like a giant spider web. I found them impressive, but I couldn’t see any resemblance to a spider web.

Hungduan Rice Terraces.
The spider web Hungduan Rice Terraces.
Rice Terraces in Hungduan Area.
Hungduan Rice Terraces.
Local boy from Hungduan showing me his comb.

The next day I hired another trike to visit Bangaan and Batad. I was first taken to Bangaan, which is on the road from Banaue to Mayoyao. Bangaan is a typical Ifugao traditional village and it’s located at the bottom of a small valley whose sides were transformed into rice terraces. It is very picturesque and from the top it looks like a fairy tale village.

Bangaan seen from the road. The rice paddies seemed almost fake from this point of view.
Close-up of Bangaan village from the road.
Bangaan and some of its rice terraces in the background.

From the road it’s possible to walk down to the village, through the rice terraces, in about 20 minutes. I did so while my trike driver was waiting for me. The village is inhabited by the farmers who work in the rice paddies; their main source of living, beside the few tourists to whom they sell coffee and souvenirs, is obviously the rice. In Bangaan I learned about Bulul, the guardians of the rice, which are wood carved male and female figures of the ancestors, initially used for ceremonial purposes and now mainly sold to tourists.

An inhabitant of the rice terraces.
The valley where Bangaan is located is stunning.
The mountainside as seen from the bottom of the valley.
Red plants are here and there among the fields.
Typical Ifugao house in Bangaan.
Local children in the village of Bangaan.
Posing on the way down to Bangaan.

After Bangaan my driver took me to Batad. Or better, he left me at a place called the Saddle, which is the highest point along the paved road, on the way back to Banaue from Bangaan. To get to Batad I had to walk downhill from the Saddle for about 15 minutes on a paved road, way too steep for the trike, and that’s why he didn’t take me any further. At the end of the paved road a lot of local people approached me wanting to guide me through the village. I think it’s a good idea to hire a local guide, even though not necessary, as they know the history of the place, all its little secrets, the best places to eat and they don’t want much money. The village of Batad isn’t connected to any road, so from the end of the road my guide lead me on a muddy path through the forest to reach the village.

Approaching Batad. Obviously I had to take a picture with the sign.
The first rice terraces that can be seen from the path leading to Batad.

In about 20 minutes we reached the edge of the main rice terraces, where I paid a small tourist fee and I had my first glimpse of the rice terraces and the village. Batad rice terraces are known as the amphitheatre-like terraces. Once I got to see them I immediately understood why. These amazing rice terraces were carved into the sides of the mountains around 2000 years ago and are still a truly stunning sight.

The village of Batad, in the middle of the amphitheatre-like rice terraces.
Panoramic view of the amphitheatre-like rice terraces of Batad.

While Banaue and Hungduan rice terraces are mud-walled, Batad rice terraces are stone-walled. It is possible to walk along them, go up and down on the paths used by the locals to work the fields and admire the incredible views from anywhere in and above the amphitheatre-like valley. The village, and the lodges overlooking it, also offer a few places to eat and have some refreshing much-needed drinks, after the tough hike and the heat of the Philippines.

The path to the village goes through the rice terraces. Walking is mostly possible only on the walls of the rice terraces, shaped in steep steps, which are wide enough for only one person.
This was my view while having lunch in Batad.
This section of the village gave me the idea of an island surrounded by a green sea. Stunning.

About 45 minutes away from the village, after a serious hike, there is the beautiful Tappiyah waterfall, where one can swim and enjoy the pretty cold blue water. It’s definitely a nice place to relax and rest for some time, although the rest is needed mostly because getting there isn’t easy at all. The only path is a mix of mud, steps and broken stones that can be seriously steep.

The village of Batad, as it look when going to the waterfall.
Tappiyah Waterfalls. A 70-meter falls that can be reached from Batad in about 45 minutes.
Tappiyah Waterfalls is a great place for a cool swim after the hard hike to get there.
There is only one path to and from Tappiyah Waterfalls. This one.

The bravest, with still some energy left after the numerous ups and downs along the terraces, can go to the viewpoint, the highest point of the amphitheatre, which is on the opposite side when reaching the village from the Saddle. It is impossible to miss the steps that climb to the viewpoint as, seen from far away, they look like a frightening scar along the side of the mountain.

Those steps climb the terraces, from the bottom of the valley, all the way up to the viewpoint. From this perspective they are frightening.

However, the view from up there is unbeatable. The valley can be seen in all its imposing beauty. It was hard, but it was worth every drop of my sweat.

The breathtaking view from the viewpoint. It is absolutely worth the effort to climb the hundreds of steps to get up there.
Going back down from the viewpoint.

At the end of a long day, my guide took me back to the paved road. From there I had to go back to the Saddle where my driver was still waiting. Luckily there were Jeepneys and one lone trike and I managed to negotiate a decent price for a ride to the saddle. After a day hiking in Batad, I was really glad I could avoid the long and steep walk back to the Saddle.

Time needed to visit the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras.

I spent a little over one and a half day in Banaue. I was on a tight schedule and this time seemed enough to appreciate the place, also because the day in Batad was very tiring and I didn’t feel like climbing any more rice terraces for a long while after that. Unfortunately I didn’t visit the Mayoyao and the Nagacadan rice terraces, but I think that would required at least another 1-2 days as the roads in the area are winding along the mountains and transports are therefore quite slow.

Reason for being inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The rice terraces in the Philippine Cordilleras illustrate how cultural traditions were preserved with continuity and endurance. According to UNESCO, archaeological evidence shows that the terraces have been in the region for about 2000 years virtually unchanged, although other sources believe that terracing began in the Cordilleras less than one thousand years ago as taro cultivation, before taro was replaced by rice around 500 years ago. In any case the rice terraces are an outstanding example of sustainable use of the natural resources, able to produce food for a local community. They represent the work of a community that has been in harmony with its environment for hundreds of years.

Living in south-east Asia I was used to seeing beautiful rice terraces, but I’d never seen anything like the Philippine Cordilleras. The landscape is truly stunning and the hard work of people to create a sustainable crop, while respecting the natural resources, should be of lesson for similar environments elsewhere.




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