It takes a long time to get to the Philippines from almost anywhere in the world, so most travelers head directly for the islands in the south of the country.
While those islands are undeniably gorgeous, the biggest highlight of my recent month-long Philippine adventure actually came from visiting the mountain towns in northern Luzon.
For those interested in getting to know the culture of the Philippines, plan at least 5 days in your itinerary to visit northern Luzon in the Cordillera province. We traveled with Filipino Travel Center, the only private tour operator that lets you customize your travel experience, and we learned a ton and loved the experience. Being able to change our minds based on the weather or how we were feeling was really invaluable!
What You’ll Need:
- At least 4-5 days to go north from Manila
- Transport to northern Luzon. We highly recommend getting a tour guide to explain and provide connections to other mandated tour guides (you’ll be required to hire ‘local’ guides in each city you visit, even if you visit with a tour guide from Manila). This area is rich in culture and dangerous to drive on your own, so investing in this area is crucial.
There are several ways to travel up north from Manila: if you don’t want to go the private tour route like we did, group tours are available, though they squeeze in 17 people at a time in small vans or mini-buses and have a very specific route. Driving on your own is not recommended as the roads are all very narrow and getting around without GPS or cell phone signal is tricky.
Where to Go
Hapao Rice Terraces
Most people head to Banaue to view rice terraces, but this entire region is full of rice terraces, and to be honest, those in Banaue were our least favorite. We loved the terraces we saw in Hapao, because they felt much more quiet and remote.
When traveling through the rice terraces, you’ll have to get a local guide to walk you through the terraces. I really appreciate this, as it helps to stimulate jobs within the very small communities. Their fee is 500 pesos. We tipped 300, so it came to 800 all together.
Sleep: Uja Native Village Inn is your primary option in Hapao. Accommodation is in 8 traditional thatch-roof huts on stilts. It’s not for everyone as it’s really rustic and slightly buggy, but we enjoyed it for a night. 2000 pesos per night.
Banaue Rice Terraces
Banaue is the most well-known area for rice terraces in Luzon, having been the first to receive UNESCO World Heritage designation. Unfortunately, the recent construction of large buildings near the terraces has lost them this status. It’s still a nice place for a visit, though as we said, there are better areas.
Sleep: Banaue Hotel is your first option, the largest hotel in the area. It’s older, run-down and definitely haunted. But hey, maybe that’s your thing. 2500 pesos.
Not feeling a stay in a haunted hotel? You can also try the Sanafe Lodge in town, rooms are between 2000 and 2200 pesos.
Kalinga: Tattoos By Apo Whang Od
Most people drive to Kalinga to visit the village of Buscalan, to be tattooed by Apo Whang Od, a 101-year-old tattoo artist who is the last surviving mamabok of the Butbut tribe and one of the most badass women I’ve ever met.
She tattoos the traditional way with a pomelo thorn and pine tree soot, and you’ll have to hike for an hour uphill to reach her. You’ll also need the assistance of a local guide to get on her wait list, which during high season can span the length of several days.
Sleep: She has a guesthouse above the tattoo shop for this reason, where rooms are 200-250 pesos per night.
Sagada: Hanging Coffins and Caves
We originally came to the north to see the hanging coffins in Sagada, but we found so much more to love here! Don’t miss the chance to spend a few nights here if you have the time. This small mountain town has a 9 p.m. curfew so it’s sleepy and charming, albeit a bit rustic. Your accommodation options aren’t the best here or anywhere in the north, really, but here are your best bets.
Locals have been hanging their deceased from coffins in limestone cliffs for at least four centuries: no one knows for sure how far back this practice dates, but records show it began at least in the 1500s. It’s definitely an interesting sight to see, and learn more about. There are only three places in the world where villagers bury their dead in coffins hanging from cliffs, and this is one of them.
The valley where you’ll find the brightest hanging coffins in Sagada. You’ll need a local guide to take you through here, they can also help explain the history in more detail.
One of the coolest caves in the world, not to be missed! You’ll get a little wet and dirty while climbing around through here, but the sights are well worth it. More adventurous travelers can try the “cave-connection,” an adventure through a series of four caves that will have you crawling, swimming and squeezing your way to the end. If you just want to go to a cool cave, the first cave is awesome and you don’t need to do any swimming or squeezing, which we recommend as they don’t use harnesses, ropes or safety gear.
St. Joseph’s Guesthouse: wood-paneled cabins and rooms, albeit outdated and older. Think small bathrooms with showers over the toilets. Wifi (sometimes) in the lobby. 1500 pesos.
Masfere Inn and Restaurant: same level of accommodation, but in a louder location. Still, a safe bet for a night or two. Rooms are 1500 pesos, they have family rooms for 2500.
Tip: Try Sagada Brew for at least one of your meals. They have the most delicious, fresh shakes, soups and salads. This restaurant was the highlight of this part of the country for us!