Adventure: Rice Terraces of Batad

An old man agreed to let me follow him home one morning (for a nominal fee) and I thought I was going to die. But I didn’t. And it was the best day ever.

Immediately after finishing my fresh eggs and locally grown coffee, I hop into the tricycle with “John.” (Just about everyone is named “John” if you ask them… I wonder what his real name is? …and how many vowels it has?) We’re on our way to the drop-off point where I’ll begin my hike to Batad. A truck can take me further up the mountain to the first lookout, but from there, no matter how you got there, you must hike through the jungle for a while to get to Batad. No roads in or out.

While I heard wonderful things about Sagada, the rice terraces, waterfalls, hanging coffins (yes, you read that right), and the easy ride to get there, I figured that the “easy ride” part would attract more tourists than I really wanted to hang out with… so, I opted for the place you had to hike into. But then, I also opted to hike twice as far (and tackle 72x the difficulty) as the other travelers heading to Batad. I’m cheap, so it’s a good thing that I’m also adventurous.

The very-bumpy, hold-on-for-dear-life, oh-my-God-are-we-going-to-fall-off-the-side-of-the-cliff-?, this-is-the-best-roller-coaster-ever-! trike ride is the best thing — sure, you can take a larger truck or something, but you totally miss out on the excitement of seeing these guys in full-glorious-form. They LIVE on these bikes and can take them anywhere — but they’re also interested in living through the day, so I know we’re not going to die in this thing. After about an hour… maybe an hour and a half (who knows, really?), we get to the drop-off point. This is called Batad Junction and it’s where the 2-hour hike (straight.up.) starts. “John” the younger, on his trusty bike of amazingness, drops “John” the elder and me off at the junction and we head… upward.

Now, “John” the elder is a sun-gristled man in his 60s who chain-smokes all the way home. He says he makes this hike about every other day. He’s also the most patient man alive. His chain-smoking-self is sprinting up this mountain while I’m wheezing out an “excuse me ‘John’… can we slow down a little?” Knowing full well that “we” are not slowing down because I couldn’t keep up with this man if I wanted to. He smiles politely and says, “oh yes, of course.” Three or four wheezes into the trek, he’s now looking for excuses for us to stop and take pictures. Every time I think I see a level section of road ahead, it’s not… it’s just less-steep. These mountains are amazing, and I’m focusing on my feet… or rather, each foot. One at a time. Just five more steps. Success! Can we do five more? Yes! …then I look down the mountain toward where we started… Complete. Disbelief. O.o There’s no way we’ve climbed that far up! I can’t breathe and my legs are cursing my name (while plotting my demise), but I can’t stop either. No freakin’ way.

Hike to Batad

“John” points out a tiny wooden shelter waaaaaaay up over our heads. “We sit down there.” Oh sure… and how do we get there? By continuing to hike STRAIGHT F*%&ING UP, around the mountain’s peak and back again to the look-out point — like we’re making an upward spiral around the mountain. I signed on for this. I paid for this. I’m going to do it.

Did I mention that it’s also land-slide season? With the consistent rain this time of year (~May through October), the mountain sides tend to slide down and cover the road. There is heavy earth-moving equipment at several points up the mountain, ready to clear things up when the boulders and mud make their way onto the road. This becomes a more significant event later in the afternoon…

I really don’t know where she came from, but about 40 minutes from the look-out point, she joined us like she thought we needed a guide dog. Not asking for anything in return, not begging for food, just keeping us company, like it’s her job. She lives up here on this mountain. Her fur is the same color from all the dirt she wears. She’s fit and spry, but doesn’t expend more energy than she needs to. She’s just making sure we make it to the look-out.

Batad Guides

Our new companion isn’t the only one living up here, either. Along the roadside, tarps and heavy cloth cover cliff-side beds where families are living. Most are families of the men who clear the roads, some are simply living outside of town, growing what they need and collecting fresh water from streams.

“John” picks up the pace a little once we can see the look-out shack. He’s confident that I’ll make it from here and he’s got some familiar faces to Batad Coconutsgreet. There’s some shade, a few benches, and some fruit sodas if I’m interested… though, I’m eyeballing those coconuts laying in the corner. I could drink all of them. Settling for a brief break in the shade, I watch a few chickens roam around and meet the new dog-guide that will accompany us the rest of the way into Batad. The dogs make the hand-off, and we’re on our way again.

This side of the mountain is cooler, wetter, and more like a jungle-path than a road. We’re crossing streams, climbing up rock facings, and balancing on logs. We’re also going downhill for some of it — a delightful bonus. I’m not sure if he doesn’t understand the question or if he just doesn’t want to scare me, but “John” pretends not to know what kinds of animals live in the jungles around us.

I don’t see it coming, but we’re making our way through the trees and streams along the side of the mountain and suddenly… we’re here. This is Batad. This is “John’s” home.

Batad Panorama

As soon as the scenery opens up… it’s peace, and community, and industry, and children, and singing, and clamoring for lunch, and… did I mention peace? I could count the tourists on my hands. Visitors, not mobs. The green, terraced hillsides are breathtaking. I can smell the rice growing. A few terraces toward the bottom of the mountain are golden and there’s a small band of 5 or 6 people down there preparing to harvest those patches. Each terrace — or group of terraces — are owned by a family, marked by cloth flags, and they harvest the patches when they’re ready. We’re at the very beginning of harvest season.

Obviously, this is organic farming, and each year, a few bunches of rice are saved from the harvest, dried, and used as the seeds for next year. There are harvest ceremonies, ritual setting-asides, parties and such, but I’m a little early for all of that.

We break for some water, but there are a lot of rice terraces to hike before lunch. (If I were staying an extra day — which I’ll do next time — I’d hike over to the waterfall, too… this is the water source that feeds the entire terrace irrigation system. Stunning!)

At first glance, the barriers around the terraces look wider… then you walk on them. They’re about a foot and a half wide. …no-no, not 18” wide, but one and a half of your feet wide, which is plenty. Just don’t look out at the valley too much. Eyes down. Don’t slip. There’s mud everywhere. Not only might slipping lead to your death (which would be awful), but you’re also keenly aware that if you slip… you’re going to destroy someone else’s income. Their livelihood. Which, honestly, weighs just as heavily.

This is the WIDEST terrace we walked along, so I went ahead and took my eyes off my feet.

This is the WIDEST terrace we walked along, so I went ahead and took my eyes off my feet.

The funny thing about all this “eyes down” walking is that you have no idea how far you’ve gone until “John” says “look,” pointing out at the valley of green and gold below us. At that point, you are in this magnificent place… not looking at it, not checking it out,… you’re in it. Stunned, I just stood there with my mouth open. “John” took my camera, scaled the next wall, and fired off a few pictures for me. With my gaping mouth, now a smile, I just stood there… as far away from Batad as we could go and still be visible to town — almost around the next mountain bend. Smelling the sweet, humid air, the terrace mud, the rice growing, the sun gifting its rays to each little grain… I could breathe.

Andrea in Batad

I could stay in this spot all day… but there weren’t any chickens wandering by and I could have eaten my own arm I was so hungry, so back to town we go. “Town” feels like a funny thing to call Batad. “A hillside of covered porches” is far more fitting. The “cafe” is a small kitchen with a large porch. While I’m famished, I’m also sharply aware of how painful it will be to trek back to Banaue on a full stomach, so I opt for some rice with tuna, coffee, and lots of water. Fortunately, another group of tourists are breaking for lunch, too, so we dine together and take lots of photos (of the scenery). They’re Korean bloggers who have 2-3 times as many cameras as people, so we have lots to talk about. I think “John” is resting a little easier knowing that I have a group with which to travel back to Banaue… he was nervous about me heading back on my own.

Batad Lunch Porch

One of the bonuses about traveling with a group: they have a truck at the look-out point, so once we get there, we can ride the rest of the way down the mountain! Funny thing about having a truck: you are suddenly aware of how incredibly narrow these mountain roads are… a traffic jam on the side of a cliff where the only spot wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other is the spot where the road makes a hairpin turn… and you’ve got 5-9 vehicles trying to squish into that turn so everyone can get by… you learn to let go of a lot of things and trust that these guys know what they’re doing. You really have no other choice. There may only be 3 inches between your tire and death, but that’s 3 inches of not-death, my friend! To make matters even more fun, though,… remember all of the heavy equipment on our way up the mountain? It’s now mid-afternoon and they’ve started “blasting.” Yep. The parts of the mountain that they need to proactively clear off are being blown away with dynamite. Between blasts, after the road gets cleared, we can pass through (I’m super-glad I’m not walking down the mountain… I didn’t even know how super-glad I should be).

Batad Hike Lookout

Arriving back at the Junction, I meet up with “John” the younger so we can continue our journey back to Banaue. The motorcycle taxi is just as adventuresome as I remember and the mountain roads even more treacherous, but as we spy other folks making their way back, we pick up another passenger — a lady in her 60s who’s just picked a large bag of watercress — and give her a lift back to town. I love everything about this bumpy, roller-coaster ride.

I really want a shower, and a nap, and some food, and another nap,… but I’ll settle for a shower, some food, and a few beers among new friends, because I have a bus to catch back to Manila.

Next time, I’m staying for a week… or two.


Where to now?