An 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
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
The 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.
We 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.
After 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).
Cave 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
Our 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!)
We 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
We 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.