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Mountain Trail leads to culture, nature hubs

SCENIC ROUTE. A small rice paddy glistens near the town of Natubleng in Benguet province. The scenery is best viewed by travelers along the 165-kilometer Mountain Trail (Halsema Highway) linking Benguet to Mountain Province and Ifugao in the Cordillera. RICHARD BALONGLONG/INQUIRER NORTHERN LUZON

BAGUIO CITY, Philippines—Travelers who often frequent the 165-kilometer Mountain Trail may have gotten so used to the view along the scenic route that they often doze off all throughout the trip along this highway linking the provinces of Benguet, Mountain Province and Ifugao in the Cordillera.

It’s a different case for the first-time visitor. Tourists who pass through this upland road, also known as the Baguio-Bontoc Road or Halsema Highway, on their way to the resort town of Sagada or to the rice terraces of Ifugao, are rewarded with a spectacular panorama of lush mountains, verdant vegetable farms, meandering rivers, stunning sunrises, the enchanting sight of fog enveloping slopes and vignettes of countryside living.

While the road length stretches to only a little more than 100 km from La Trinidad town in Benguet to the Mountain Province capital of Bontoc, those raring for adventure and new sights should be prepared to spend six hours on the road.

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“You know you are on the Mountain Trail when you notice the stench. It’s part of the journey,” said Abe Domocmat, 52, a driver of GL Trans bus.

Passengers on buses headed to Mountain Province or interior Benguet towns know this only too well. The stench comes from chicken dung loaded on vehicles that bring their cargo of organic fertilizers to vegetable farms that dot the countryside.

Domocmat, who has been driving through the uplands for the past six years, concedes that the Mountain Trail’s foremost attraction is the view of the impressive Cordillera mountains.

While Baguio City’s Kennon Road offers its “lion’s head” as a popular tourist stop, the Mountain Trail marker indicating the highest point in the Philippine highway system at Barangay (village) Cattubo in Atok town, Benguet, has attracted its fair share of people posing for photo ops. That particular section of the highway is 2,255 meters (7,400 feet) above sea level.

According to the book “A History of the Mountain Province,” by Howard T. Fry, the construction of the Mountain Trail started in 1921. American engineer E.J. Halsema supervised its completion as a motor road in 1931.

Way of life

Traveling along the upland road offers a view of mountainside farms and vegetable terraces that a clueless tourist may mistake for Ifugao’s rice terraces from afar. Various crops in neatly arranged plots will greet travelers in the towns of Atok, Tublay, Kibungan and Buguias.

Local dishes, as well as newly harvested produce, are offered in pit stops along the way. A meal costs between P75 and P95.

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Km 55 in Atok, Timbac Road, leads travelers to Kabayan town, the seat of Ibaloy culture, where Benguet’s ancient mummies are found. The mummies are the preserved remains of ancestors of the Ibaloi and Kankanaey tribes kept in the town’s caves.

Kabayan is also home to Mt. Pulag, the highest peak in Luzon and a popular destination for skilled and recreational mountain climbers. A commercial center in the village of Abatan in Buguias town serves as the major trade hub along the Mountain Trail and the last Benguet town on this route.

Past Buguias is Bauko town in Mountain Province where a large statue of the Virgin Mary welcomes visitors.

A popular stop here is the Mt. Data National Park, noted for its rich flora and fauna.

The Mt. Data Hotel attracts tourists, especially those who bring their own vehicles. Visitors are especially drawn to the hotel’s flower and pine gardens and its chapel. This is where then President Corazon Aquino and rebel priest Conrado Balweg, leader of the Cordillera People’s Liberation Army, signed a peace agreement in 1987.

Visitors will not miss seeing the mighty Chico River that flows from Bauko and down to villages in the capital, Bontoc, and to the nearby province of Kalinga.

Sagada and Bontoc

The Mountain Trail splits into two at Dantay village in Bontoc, where the road leads either to Sagada or Bontoc proper.

Francis Degay, Mountain Province provincial tourism officer, said Bontoc also offered destinations that may appeal to tourists like the Ganga burial cave and the petroglyphs (rock engravings) of Barangay Alab Oriente. The Bontoc Museum houses important documents, archaeological finds and antiquities and photographs of the old Mountain Province.

On the town’s outskirts is Mainit Hot Springs in Barangay Mainit and the rice terraces of Barangay Maligcong.

One can go around town by foot or by tricycle (P9 per passenger). Rooms at local inns and hotels are priced from P200 to P600 while local restaurants offer traditional fare, like the native chicken soup “pinikpikan.”

A 30-minute jeepney ride from Bontoc will bring you to the resort town of Sagada.

Tourists have likened Sagada to an earlier and simpler version of Baguio City, when the summer capital had yet to be overtaken by development. The town is famous for its rock formations, caves, ancient burial sites and hanging coffins.

Jaime Dugao, an elder from Barangay Ankileng in Sagada, said tourists may sample local culture and traditions as the community still practices rituals related to the agricultural cycle.

A common sight is elderly males walking about in their traditional G-strings and headgear. Rituals are performed in the “dap-ay” (circular stone structure where elders meet) of the old villages of Dagdag and Demang.

Members of the Sagada Environmental Guides Association said that although some tourists had taken an interest in mushroom-picking as an alternative activity, the most frequented spots were Echo Valley, Bomod-ok and Bokong falls, the local rice terraces and the restaurant owned by the family of the late Cordillera master photographer Eduardo Masferre, where his photographs are displayed.

Farther down the Mountain Trail from Bontoc is Ifugao province, where the ancient rice terraces and the culture and traditions of the Ifugao people continue to awe even jaded travelers.

The road from Bontoc to Banaue stretches only 27 km, but tourists must brace themselves for a two-hour ride of a lifetime.

GETTING THERE

From Baguio City, a ride through the Mountain Trail costs P220 if you are bound for Sagada, and P212 if you are headed to Bontoc. The first bus leaves daily at 6:30 a.m. (Besao via Sagada). The last trip is scheduled at 1 p.m. from the GL Trans terminal at the Dangwa Tranco station on Magsaysay Avenue.

The first bus to Bontoc leaves daily at 7 a.m., while the last trip is at 2:30 p.m. Another bus firm, Rising Sun, offers its first trip to Bontoc at 5 a.m. The last trip is at 4 p.m.

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TAGS: Cordillera, Philippines - Regions, Tourism, Travel
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