The pioneering anthropologist Henry Otley Beyer started his long teaching career among the Ifugao in the Philippine Cordilleras in the early 1910s. So when he later declared the Philippine Cordilleras' Rice Terraces to be over 2,000 years old, people took his word as gospel.
It turns out Professor Beyer was off by about 1,500 years; new research points to a more recent origin in the mid-to-late 1500s. Smaller terraces before then may have been put to use growing taro, not rice.
As villagers fleeing Spanish colonizers made their way to the mountains, a major expansion of terraces followed: the lowlanders brought their rice-based diets with them, necessitating the transformation of the Cordilleras' mountainsides to feed the newcomers.
Two millennia old or half of one, no matter – it's not the Rice Terraces' age that draws travelers (it's at most an interesting footnote), but their size and their place in the Philippines' cultural fabric.
The Original Culture of the Philippines, Revealed
The culture of the Philippines strikes visitors as a disjointed mishmash of Spanish, American and generalized Southeast Asian, with little connection to the rest of the region. Outside influences have largely washed away the Philippines' homegrown cultures.
But not in the Cordilleras, a mountainous region in the center of the Philippines' island of Luzon. The natives, who call themselves the Ifugao, retain habits and cultural traditions passed down before the arrival of the West.
“For me, personally, I fell in love with the culture of the people here,” explained our guide, Intas Travels' Nikki Takano. “If you want to know the deep side of the history of the Philippines, you go up north – we [Filipinos] used to be animist. We believed in a lot of gods – gods for rice, gods for mountains.”
The Ifugao carry on the old ways today. Even as American Protestant missionaries converted the Ifugao to Christianity, they couldn't eliminate many of the local animist traditions, from the veneration of the bulul (rice god) to the traditional sacrificial rituals performed before and after harvest.
A Three-Hour Trek Through Batad's Rice Terraces
Hiking through Batad – one of the five rice terrace sites recognized by UNESCO as a collective World Heritage Site – we get to connect with the most famous relic of Ifugao culture.
But you need to get to Batad first, and getting there makes one realize how well the terrain dissuaded outsiders.
A paved two-lane highway now connects the main town of Banaue to the barangay of Batad but stops well short of the terrace site. From the Saddle drop-off point – where the highway abruptly terminates – you'll need to hike down a rocky trail to a lookout point, where a ticket office and a cluster of B&Bs make a tidy living from tourists coming to see the most scenic of the Banaue Rice Terraces.
Preparing for the Challenging Batad Rice Terrace Trail
The tricky Batad trail is certainly not for beginners, and Nikki gets real with her clients about the difficulty ahead. “The [Batad] trek takes approximately three hours – that's back and forth already,” she warns us. “[We'll spend] 45 minutes going down to the village, taking stairs and walking on the edges of the rice terraces.
“This is the critical part: [each terrace] is about 7 to 10 feet high. I need you to do some balancing – the edges of the terraces are made of stone, and some of the stones move.”
Nikki tells us what we should wear during the hike: "Closed shoes are much better than sandals," she explains. "Wear long pants, if you're a bit sensitive when it comes to bushes, but otherwise shorts are OK." Other necessities: sunblock, drinking water (plenty of it - we're told to bring twice our usual supply), walking sticks or trekking poles, and ponchos for the possibility of rain.
"The weather is unpredictable here," Nikki says. "It might be sunny in the morning but very rainy in the afternoon. We have to prepare for anything."
Changes Throughout the Year
With such a challenging trail, it's too easy to forget to look up and see the Batad amphitheater at 360 degrees all around you. Hiking down to the village, you'll be watching each step, hoping that you won't lose your balance, falling either in the muck to your left or the ten-foot-drop and the muck to your right.
But if the sun's out and the trails are dry, you certainly should look up once in a while to marvel at the Batad rice terraces in their fullest glory. The Ifugao have worked with the terrain, carving flat, evenly spaced platforms that follow the mountains' original contour lines.
The terrace's colors change as the rice planting seasons progress. “That's the nice thing about coming here all the time – it changes every month,” Nikki tells us. “In summer, it's green; in June, it turns yellow, near harvesting.
“Starting from December, we'll see the 'mirror type', the fields are filled with water, so you can see the reflections of the sky,” Nikki explains. “That's my favorite time to visit.”
Living With the Rice Seasons in the Cordilleras
The life of the Ifugao revolves around rice: planting it, harvesting it, and performing rituals and ceremonies to mark the passing of the rice-planting seasons.
Unlike rice farmers in the Philippine lowlands, who follow three rice-growing cycles all year, the Ifugao rice farmers only grow one crop a year. “It's the elevation,” Nikki explains, pointing out that the lowlands' tropical climate allows year-round planting. “When you go up to Banaue, it's 1,300 meters above sea level, so the climate is cooler.”
With only a single rice crop per year, the Ifugao planters subsist solely on their output, selling virtually none of their harvest to outsiders. “They keep the rice for themselves,” Nikki tells us. “What they plant doesn't last for longer than one year, depending on how big their field is or how big their family is.”
We have arrived after the harvest, and the locals are processing rice for storage – we pass by porters bearing giant loads of palay, or unhulled rice grains still on the stalk, and we stop by at a local house, where an old Ifugao man is pounding the rice to separate the hull and germ from the rice grains.
The man swings the pestle vigorously despite his advanced age - “The Ifugao regularly live to their 90s,” Nikki tells us later. “They only eat organic rice and a lot of vegetables, and they do a lot of exercises – believe it or not, they still plant rice, and walk up and down the terraces every day.”
Threats and Opportunities
It might be for the best that the Ifugao are so long-lived, as the younger generations have displayed less interest in keeping with the traditional ways. The rice terraces are slowly being abandoned; about a third of rice terraces have been left to deteriorate, as fewer Ifugao have taken up the hard work of planting rice in their home villages.
“The young ones don't want to plant rice anymore,” Nikki tells us. “Some of them are able to go to universities, and they earn more in the cities.”
Government's hands are tied – as the terraces are the personal property of Ifugao families, they can only encourage locals to keep planting rice… even as the next generation slips away to the lowlands. The culture of the Ifugao – centered around the rice terraces and the traditions therein – may have finally met its match… unless growing tourist interest finds a way to bring it back to its prime.
With a little luck, the 500-year-old Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras may just make it to their 2,000th year.
The Philippines' Rice Terraces at a Glance
Getting There: Bus transportation from the Philippines capital of Manila travel nine hours to Banaue. Ohayami Bus (bus station on Google Maps) and GV Florida (bus station on Google Maps) provide the most reliable transport from the capital. Alternatively, you can fly Cebu Pacific from NAIA (Manila airport) Terminal 3 to the city of Cauayan in Isabela province – assuming you can charter a ride beforehand to take you to Banaue from there.
From the Banaue tourism office or via your Banaue hotel, you can arrange for a chartered jeepney to take you to Batad Saddle where you can begin your trek. From the Batad jump-off point, hire a guide to take you down the trail and back.
Where to Stay: In Banaue town proper, the Banaue Hotel & Youth Hostel represents the most high-end stay you can get in these parts, but manage your expectations. Built by the Philippines government in the 1980s, the hotel looks and feels its age. But hey, it has a pool!
For a cheaper, homier alternative in the town proper, try the Sanafe Lodge – the verandah overlooking the mountainside is a great place to socialize with fellow guests, and the food is terrifically tasty.
You can also check out this list of top Philippines destinations for travel ideas.