Deep into the Cordillera Mountains

Last Kalinga Tattoo ArtistAn ash-covered thorn taps into my arm, threatening to leave a permanent mark. We’re sitting in the bamboo home of Whang-Od, a 95-year old woman and the last Kalinga tattoo artist keeping this 1000-year-old art alive. She pauses from her playful tattoo demo, cocks her head and smiles as if to say, “You want one?” I’m thinking about it…but first how we got to the ancient rice terraces of Banaue, the deep caves of Sagada, and to the head-hunting territory of Buscalan.


Banaue Rice Terraces

Traveling the Cordillera Mountains to explore Banaue Rice Terraces, Philippines travel, hanging coffins of Sagada, and tattoo artists of Kalinga

Two hundred and sixteen miles from Manila and ten-hour drive up windy mountain roads, the Banaue rice terraces reveal themselves. Chiseled into cliffs of the Cordillera range, thousands of emerald paddies cascade from one to the next with a complex maze of stairs in between. The terrain is so steep it would completely intimidate the modern farmer, but the locals have been cultivating this land for over 2,000 years. We were in awe of the hand-crafted mountains, a symbol of incredible resilience and tradition, and it drew us closer.

The Road to Batad

batad philippinesThe town of Banaue is the hub of the terraced countryside and the village of Batad is its crown jewel. The valley of paddies is perfectly preserved, partly because it is so far from modern civilization. To get there you take a Jeepney to the “Saddle” (150 Pesos) then find the sturdiest looking “tryke” taxi to take you up the unpaved, typically washed-out roads. We attempted this journey with our quirky awesome German friend Mattias, but we didn’t get too far before were hopping out to push through mudslides or jump in other trucks to lighten the load. Supposedly the road beyond the Saddle is being paved now…which will undoubtedly make it easier but not nearly as eventful.


Batad Village

Batad rice terraces PhilippinesWe reached the rim of Batad, the village deep in a valley of rice terraces. It’s over an hour hike to reach the town, following a trail through the jungle, walls of rice paddies, and stairs that cut between houses. Continue 30 minutes past the charming homes at the basin and reach Tappiyah Waterfalls, a beautiful 200+ foot cascade and fun local hangout.



Sagada PhilippinesAfter two days in the Banaue region, we headed farther north to Sagada, a town that’s also full of incredible rice terraces, but most famous for its cave network and hanging coffins (a burial ritual where the deceased are tucked into the cliffs).


Sumaguing Cave

Sumaguing CaveCave tours can often leave you asking, why did I pay to be in dark dank space and feel claustrophobic? Not Sumaguing Cave! We entered a gaping hole in the mountain, armed with a guide and a headlamp ($7/person), and descended a thousand feet through the labyrinth of rock formations and underground rivers. The shadows of spelunkers were bouncing off the stalagmites and our lights were shimmering in the trickling waterfalls. You’d think walking down wet rock would be slippery, but the rough texture gave our feet a Spidey grip; plus, with the help of a few ropes, we felt boundless and spellbound in this surreal landscape.


Cordillera Mountain Roads

road to Kalinga PhilippinesOur buddy Justin (who also connected us with our awesome Sydney couchsurf), amazingly enough had a friend in Sagada. Dan and his wife Remy met us for a drink at a tiny bar, and after a fun evening, they invited us to her village of Buscalan. The journey would be a two-hour drive, an hour hike into the mountains, and the trip would completely throw off our travel schedule, but it was too good an invitation to refuse. The next day we went to the jeepney stop and it was so full, Mike had to ride on the roof while I packed in with 25 locals and 1 Dutch woman. As we rode the hairpin turns around the cliffs, I asked why she was heading to Buscalan and she said, “I’m going to get a tribal tattoo from the last Kalinga tattoo artist.” We didn’t know who Whang-Od was at the time but could gather she was a big deal (so much so she’s since been nominated for the Philippines Living Treasures Award!)


Buscalan Village

Buscalan, KalingaWe reached the end of the road and started our hike up the ridge to the mountain village of Buscalan. We chatted with Remy about the Kalinga region and its traditions….in a word? Bad-ass. They have a long history as head-hunters, skinning the scalps of enemies who infringed on their villages, and this is largely why they get tattoos…as a talisman for battle and a tally of their kills. It sounded like a scary place to waltz into but the village welcomed us with open arms, including a rice feast from Remy’s family. The next day as we walked around town, some giggly teenage girls invited us over breakfast, and cute little kids followed us wherever we went.


The Legendary Tattoo Artist, Whang-Od

Kalinga tattooWe asked our new friends from breakfast if they knew where Whang-Od lived and they took us straight to her home. She was next to her fire, wrinkled yet wiry and nimble as a teenager, collecting ash to make ink and sharping her thorns. Beside her was the Dutch passenger (looking a little nervous) and Whang-Od’s teenage great niece, Grace,–her only apprentice. Whang-Od is not just passing down the skill of tattooing, but the entire archive of iconography from centuries of artists before her…and it now rests in young Grace’s hands. The gravity of this situation always stuck with us, so much so that we recently followed up with Remy, Whang-Od, and Grace to write an article for BBC Travel on the fragile future of the Kalinga tattoo. Their lives, the village, and the craft taken an incredible turn; we hope you read the story.

While we didn’t get a tribal tattoo, we will always have our experience in the Cordillera rice terraces, the caves of Sagada, and the people of Buscalan inked in our mind.


Philippines Cordillera Mountains

11 thoughts on “Deep into the Cordillera Mountains

  • July 26, 2016 at 8:09 pm

    What a fabulous article – you write really well and what an adventure. The Banaue rice terraces look so stunning. I’ve only travelled to Boracay and Manilla in the Philippines so I obviously have much more to see. I’m so glad you got Whang-Od and Grace to write about their heritage and the legacy of the tribal tattoos.

  • July 27, 2016 at 11:59 am

    Wow! what an adventure. I would love to do something like this someday. Looks like something spectacular and like a really great experience everyone should experience at least once! great photos!

  • July 27, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    Wow! You are such an eloquent writer…I wish I could write like this! Your travel adventure is so intriguing as is, but your writing takes it a step further. These places look absolutely stunning…I think I need to add them to my travel bucket list!

  • July 27, 2016 at 12:31 pm

    This looks like the dream vacation of a lifetime. Oh to be young and able to travel on a whim again. I have ever bee to the Philippines, but have lived in China and traveled all about there and Asia is in my heart.

  • July 27, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    This looks amazing! What a great way to document–the pictures were so vivid and brought your words to life even more. Looks like it was a great experience all around!

  • July 27, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    I’m from the Philippines and this is actually one of our rural spots that tourists rarely visit (mostly because transportation to get here can take very long and rowdy) so it makes me happy to see that you’ve taken the time to go here! I’ve visited here years ago and I was also awed by its beauty 😀 Thank you for sharing it!

  • July 27, 2016 at 4:41 pm

    Wow! Those are some stunning views! I love that cameras are so readily available that you can share these images with us. I think it is so neat that you visited with people who live there and were inside their home and their day to day life. Such a trip of a lifetime!

  • August 1, 2016 at 11:17 pm

    Fantastic!, awesome and thank you. I’m from the same region. May I use some of your contents in my blog (I’ll post your link in my blog & credit everything to you^,^) Big thanks.

  • August 3, 2016 at 1:33 pm

    I remember the story on the BBC website about the tattoo artist. Do you know if she tats up visitors she meets?

  • December 3, 2016 at 9:39 am

    Ye ye you went on holiday whoop whoop, your website does not really offer any insight into travelling on a budget just how much you enjoyed yourself, do the world a favour and go on another holiday but leave the camera at home.

  • January 11, 2017 at 8:00 am

    Damn, can’t believe you’ve been there. Banaue Rice Terraces was actually listed as the Eight Wonder of the World. I bet the experience is just awesome being able to see one of the world’s wondered places.

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