Wherever I look, I’m surrounded by an amphitheatre of green, crisscrossed by paths chiselled into the slopes of hills that roll away beyond the horizon. A giant hand has strewn their flanks with clusters of concrete and metal homes. They stand on the slopes as if they were grains of salt sprinkled on top of a shimmering salad. Walking along concrete lines embossed like blood vessels on this forgotten world, we are like fleas combing through the green fur of an enormous creature. We are not daydreaming: it’s just the exhilarating effect of the untamed natural beauty around us.
Looking at a map of the Cordillera, the mountainous crown at Luzon’s head, just a night’s ride north of Manila’s hustle, there’s no obvious reason to come to Maligcong, a bucolic village in the province of Bontoc. The village is a way-point between the two most famous destinations in the mountain trail: Banaue with, its valley carved by spectacular rice terraces, and Sagada, the Cordillera’s adventure and backpacking capital. But some of the bestkept secrets remain hidden on maps.
As I bump up and down in the jeepney, the Philippines answer to the songthaew, passing from Banaue to Bontoc, a couple of German tourists ask where I’m headed. I’m not surprised to see their brows furrow when I answer Maligcong. “Aren’t you going to Sagada?” they ask. Sure, I think, but not yet — not without making one important stop first.
Travellers coming this way don’t seem to appreciate the bustling mountain-town charms of Bontoc. They stay just as long as it takes to jump into — or on top of — another jeepney and transfer to either Sagada or Banaue, remaining blind to the striking hills and graceful valleys. I’d visited years ago. Back then this transition point was a serious step up in traffic and human activity compared to the other stops along the Cordillera circuit. I remember seeing Maligcong appear in the valley below as I leaned on the top railing of a crowded jeepney, climbing seven steep kilometres from the noise of a teeming market to the remoteness of the other side of the same mountain. Little has changed since then. The rolling panoramas carved in the shape of gigantic rice-growing staircases continue to extend as far as the eye can see. The difference, however, is that the activity has totally vanished.
“Are you staying the night?” asks a skinny man, wrapped into a brown leather jacket, who’s rubbing elbows with me on the jeepney. “I believe so,” I reply.
“Watch the time, then. If you want to return to Bontoc, the last ride down is at 2pm,” he says as we bend forward to avoid a tree branch swinging overhead. “You can stay with Suzette. She has one of the two home-stays in the village.” His advice is opportune — it’s almost 12.30pm and I’ve come all the way here to explore at leisure. I’m in no rush. Nor should I be.
The jeepney halts at the centre of Maligcong, a deadend surrounded by houses on stilts set against a backdrop of interconnected rice terraces. The view takes my breath away at once.
“Follow the paths along the slopes and you can walk as far as Banaue,” suggests the sage travel companion, before setting forth up the road, fading into the scenery. Before I can join him amidst the veins of Maligcong’s rice terraces, I set out in search of Suzette’s.
It’s not hard to locate her home, but, when I arrive, with the exception of a rooster spreading its wings in welcome, it seems like nobody’s manning the place. I have to wait around the courtyard for a while before a woman, dressed for winter in a windproof jacket and beanie hat, emerges from the depths of a wooden house.
“I just had a very big group from Manila. I’m closed today,” she says. “I can refer you to my friend’s guesthouse.” But her home stay has an enchanting view of the valleys. From a wooden veranda that extends over a bend of Maligcong’s only street, the picture is pure and unobstructed. I’d rather not leave. We seal a deal quickly: she won’t have to clean up the room, and I’ll make do with whatever victuals she can muster. She’s not short on hospitality, though. As soon as I put down my backpack, she reappears on the veranda holding a steaming flask of mountain tea to try. Boiled out of leaves she plucked directly from the surrounding slopes, it’s as light and fresh as the surrounding air.
Suzette offers hiking advice, and I’m soon on the path. She says I could walk as far as Mainit, a village on the other side of the mountain typically reached by jeepney, if I felt like it. My goal for the day is much more modest — I just want to hike as far as the local primary school, a cluster of wooden buildings at the top of the highest terrace in view.
Maligcong’s peculiarity is the way in which the rice terraces have been fortified with stone walls, and not simply carved out of the hillsides. These stone-terraces should be an attraction every bit as big as those at Banaue; however, the valley has yet to gain much outside attention, and that remains its greatest charm. In fact, the only people I encounter on the snaking stone path are school kids on their way back home or farmers hopping in and out of the rice fields. There’s absolutely no stress from anyone interested in making a quick buck out of travellers, either. At this time of the year, the terraces are filled with water and mud, and the rice plants are still nowhere to be seen. Hundreds of pools below change colour as I amble along, observing the play of the sun’s rays on the hillside. It’s like walking along the lines of an ever-changing, threedimensional checkerboard.
I come up to a woman knee-deep in the mud, bent over planting rice shoots. She’s a bit camera-shy, but is happy to point the way to the school’s grounds. On reaching the hilltop, I stop to catch my breath, cool down in the stiff breeze charting the valley, and take in the remarkable views. Just behind the school, a mountaintop clearing has been transformed into a small basketball court. Even in the splendour of this rugged seclusion, there’s no getting away from the national sport, but what a breath-taking spot to play.
Returning down the hill, I ask an old woman crouched in the tall grass for directions to Maligcong, and, more to the point, Suzette’s. She’s taking a rest from lugging a wooden basket full of farm tools up the hill. We don’t speak a common language, but, smiling, she sweeps her arm proudly at the beautiful vista before us. It’s all Maligcong to her. One wonders how much longer this pastoral idyll will remain the way she and generations before her have known it.
Words By Marco Ferrarese; Pictures By Kit Yeng Chan