Kalinga has always been a province that has evoked a strong sense of curiosity from me. The name of the province itself is a virtual oxymoron from the place’s actual reputation and geography. While the term “kalinga” in Filipino means literally to take care, the province has a geographical terrain that is hardly hospitable due to its ruggedness. The pervasive and enduring stories about the province’s head hunters among its tribal communities also do not help much in promoting a welcoming environment for curious travelers who may want to seek paths through the Cordilleras away from the relatively more touristy areas of Banaue and Sagada.
I recently traveled with Ed of Eazy Traveler to explore Kalinga. Ed has been to a lot of places in the Philippines and he wanted to take advantage of the recent September 2010 long weekend to go to a province that he hasn’t been to. I was supposed to be a solo trip but after seeing his post of Facebook, I just couldn’t resist the opportunity – and the challenge – of foraying to Kalinga.This is a trip that I wouldn’t have done alone.It’s embarrasing, but yes, I’ve fallen victim to the rhetoric against Kalinga and I’ve fallen for the black propaganda hook, line and sinker. You can ask Ed to verify this information for you. I was very nervous before we left for the trip.
I did not do any research before the trip aside from the baseline information that I knew about Kalinga. I knew it was in the Cordillera Autonomous Region (CAR) and based on my past travels through Bontoc, Banaue and Sagada, I just knew that it was going to be a tough ride. Ed was really well-versed in the cultural aspect of the area and for a plan that was hatched just a day before the actual date of the trip, he sure had a good idea of what he wanted to do in Kalinga. Aside from seeing the stunning mountain and hills of the region, Eazy Traveler also wanted to see the last remaining people who don tribal tattoos – a throwback to the culture’s once violent yet artistic past. Most of the tattooed individuals are already octogenerians who had their tattoos done over four decades ago.
We left Manila at around 830 PM. We took the lone Cable Tours bus (station located near Trinity College and St. Luke’s Medical Center along E. Rodriguez St) that takes one from Manila to Bontoc, Mountain Province. This is the same bus that people headed to Sagada could take. The fare is 650 pesos and the ride takes around 12 hours. The bus makes several stops along the way for toilet and snack breaks.
After 12 hours, we finally reached Bontoc. Ed told me that there were only two buses/jeeps that go to Tinglayan. We needed to catch the first trip that leaves at around 9 AM because the next one wouldn’t be leaving until 1 PM. Since Tinglayan is a good three hours away from Bontoc, it was really ideal that we get on the first bus. We only planned to be in town for the duration of the long weekend and we had to be back by Monday morning.
It took a while before we located the bus to Tinglayan but it should be easy to find in the future. For future reference, the “station” is located next to the Mountain Province State Polytechnic College just down the street from the Cable Tours office and the police station.
The mini-bus was already full when we got there so we had to go up to the roof and just hope that it doesn’t rain. I’m sure any Pinoy traveler worth his or her salt would have tried toploading a bus or jeep at some point but when you’re doing it for three hours with a dozen other people and a few LPG tanks, it can be quite uncomfortable. Being on the roof also meant you had to dodge electrical wires, tree branches, rock formations and water pipes!
The fare was 100 pesos.
The roads were really rough and recent landslides made the already poorly-maintained road even harder to navigate. The bus would literally tilt back and forth and side to side. Ed and I were seriously considering jumping off to safety should we feel that the bus was about to fall into the ravine.
After three hours of great views, dusty roads and close calls, we finally reached the town of Tinglayan. We had a quick lunch at the Sleeping Beauty Guest House which was pretty much the only hostel in town. We could have stayed the night there but Ed decided that we should go straight to the villages.
Our first stop was the village of Tulgao – around an hour by jeep from Tinglayan town proper. As luck would have it, the jeep would again be full and we would have to ride on top of the jeep again after doing it for three hours earlier in the day. The ride was worth it though. The mountains, hills, meadows and falls that were in full view on the way to Tulgao made the trip visually exhilarating. I doubt if the same could have been appreciated inside the confines of the jeepney. There were times when the jeep cut through the mountain’s spine making the risk of falling to the ravine twice as likely. During those times, I contemplated stepping off and just walking until the jeep has passed the spine.
Upon arriving in Tulgao village, we were welcomed by the Guyang family. They openly let us into their home and even gave us our own room. I was so tired from the 16 hours of traveling that we had to do to get to Tulgao so I decided to take the afternoon off. I was already running a fever then and I didn’t want to worsen whatever lowlander condition I had.
Ed was able to produce really amazing images of the last few remaining people of Tulgao who had the traditional tattoos. Apparently, most of the elders who have tattoos are very happy to have their photos taken – they’ll be even happier if copies of their photos are sent to them by mail! Ed is planning to do just that. The patterns designed on the arms and legs are reminiscent of the python’s skin and the signature curves of a centipede. Women have been traditionally tattooed for aesthetic and social purposes while men who are heavily inked are the ones who have shown their bravery and leadership during times of war with other tribes and in some instances – against foreign invaders such as the Japanese forces during World War II.
We had dinner at the Guyang household and called it a night. It was very cold. T_T
This is what greets you every morning at the living room of the Guyang residence. The mountain is literally in your face unlike in other places in the Cordilleras were they can still be quite a distance away. Incidentally, this is the only photo that I took in the entire photo set seen in this entry. All the other photos are by Ed using his Canon Powershot G11.
After a quick breakfast, we headed out to the nearby waterfall and hot spring. Boy, it took one hour one-way and it wasn’t a particularly easy hike! I’m not the most sure-footed of trekkers so I definitely took my time going down the steep and muddy paths. Our guide was one of the boys from the Guyang house hold. He told us the hike would only take 40 minutes but I guess we were really slow (?). The fact that we don’t really see a lot of wristwatches in town could also be a contributing factor.
Ed wanted to swing by Butbut to take more tattoo photos and Buskalan to meet the last tattoo artist in the entire town of Tinglayan but transportation arrangements and the weather didn’t meld perfectly. We waited for one hour at the junction waiting for a motorbike that would allow us to hitch a ride. You can’t really force anything in the Cordilleras. Much like in other mountain towns, time can be quite flexible and an “hour” is not “60 minutes”. The first shot in this entry was taken while we were waiting for the bike.
The ride to Butbut was very scary and bumpy. The roads in between Butbut and Tulgao has very steep ascents and treacherous-looking dips and curves. One wrong move and you can certainly veer off track to the waiting ravine or the monolithic mountain face. The slope on some areas certainly looked like it was over 50 degrees. Ed and I are both over 5 foot 7 inches so it was very uncomfortable to be cramped in a motorcycle with the driver in tow. It took 30 minutes to get to Butbut and the fare was 100 pesos each. The hike would have taken around 2-3 hours.
We quickly located the Baccoy family’s residence and we were also graciously welcomed. The Baccoy’s are so popular that they even made it to the pages of Lonely Planet Philippines! To top it all off, they would let you sleep in their ancestral home just a few steps from their current house.
Ed would again go around town to take photos of the elders while I retired and snoozed away in the Baccoy’s house. Ed would have an alarming discovery that none of the men with tattoos are around. Three of them died just last year (2009). The trip to Buskalan and the quest to meet the only remaining tattoo artist – who happens to be a ninety year old woman – would have to wait for another day. It’s a race against time!
After a quick breakfast with the Baccoy’s we were on our way. Here’s a photo of me having a cup of coffee that was made from beans that were roasted from the night before. Forgive the hair – I only took one shower during the entire trip.
These are the Baccoy’s. They’re really nice and accommodating. Just like the Guyang’s, they made me feel real stupid and embarrassed to have even thought that the Kalinga locals are hostile towards tourists. Host families in Kalinga don’t give set rates. They only encourage you to give them what you feel like giving. This is a testament to how undeveloped tourism is in this area. It would be interesting to see how this develops in the coming years. As for now, Kalinga continues to be a little-known paradise for adventure seekers and those who would like to immerse themselves in a cultural practice that is inevitably going to be gone within the next two decades.
After another motorbike ride that I’d rather forget, we got back to Tinglayan were we got on a jeep to the provincial capital Tabuk. The people inside the jeepney were also very friendly and were very enthusiastic to share the traditions of their province. It took three hours to get to Tabuk and we were able to book tickets for the lone 430 PM bus to Manila.
I got home at around 6AM the following day. Over a span of eighty hours, we were on the road for over 33. It was very tiring but the trip to Kalinga is one of the most inspiring and exciting trips I’ve ever taken. I’m very happy that I took the chance – and that Ed let me tag along – for this amazing experience. I will definitely be back!
Note: All photos in this entry are all by Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap @ Eazytraveler unless otherwise specified.
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