The Cordilleras : On the Joys of Trekking, New Ink, and Meeting Fang-Od

May 8, 2013

Buscalan 01
rice terraces nearing the village in Buscalan

There was the famous Chico River and the lower Cordilleras. Taking a photo of it was a bit challenging given that we're seated on top of the jeepney. Yes, we wanted to start this 4-day adventure the right way - by toploading! After a 12-hour night bus from Manila, our Cordilleras adventure started in Tabuk, Kalinga. It was going to be a 3-hour jeepney ride to Tinglayan to meet Kuya Francis Pain, our guide for Buscalan, .

Buscalan 03
Kacel, Vio (a friend I met in Burma) , and I on top of the jeepney. 
Tiring and exhausting but we had the best view.

Buscalan 04
boys showing off

Buscalan 05
one of the better roads

The view from the top was beautiful. Unobstructed views of the mountain ranges and the river. And of course the rice terraces that can be found all over the Cordilleras. Despite the rough roads, cliffs that go straight down to the river, and the challenge of not falling off the jeepney, it was still fun, exciting, and rewarding. 

Buscalan 06
beautiful view of the Chico River and rice terraces of the Cordilleras

Buscalan 07
how cool is their ride?!

Buscalan 08
more gorgeous views

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Buscalan 09

Our supposedly 3-hour ride to Tinglayan turned into four hours of exciting yet very exhausting jeepney ride. A quick lunch upon arrival, we found ourselves catching another bus. Let's just say that I never thought that after traveling in India and Nepal, it will be in my own country that I'd get to experience my first chicken bus ride.

Buscalan 11
bus from Tinglayan to Buscalan; Vio getting close to a fellow passenger; our guide Kuya Francis

We turned right somewhere and got on a narrow and rougher road. At some point, you'll get used to this kind of bus rides. But not to the sound of a tire exploding. I thought that since the locals in the bus didn't react, maybe this was normal. But when a woman reacted when our bus was turning a curve, I got a little bit scared. A few minutes after, our driver decided to stop and we started the trek up to the village. 

Buscalan 12
view during the 40 minute trek going up to the village

Buscalan 13

The view was gorgeous as we got closer and closer. Portions of rice terraces can already be found on some parts of the mountains. The trail was narrow but it was already paved, lessening the danger of losing balance and falling off the cliff on our right side. We made our way down to the river, stopped for a bit to see the waterfalls and watch the little boys playing and swimming. They also did some diving and stunts when they saw me taking their photo. 

Buscalan 14
kids having fun in the waterfalls

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cold but enjoying the water nonetheless

Buscalan 16
jumping off

Then the steep climb up the mountain started. It was a relatively short one, and we got to stop at some of the rice fields.

Buscalan 17
taking a break

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Buscalan 19
nearing the village

It was already getting dark when we finally made it to the village. But Fang-od was still doing her last tattoo for the day. A few backpackers and locals were also there to watch her. One of them told us that the Portuguese guy was the sixth for the day. They all had tattoos done, some said it was painful, some said it was the same as that of a machine-made tattoo. 

Buscalan 20
Fang-od, traditional tattoo artist

We were welcomed into a small house by a group of mothers and children. Served us native hot coffee, really good and comforting after an exhausting day of traveling to get there. They spoke a different dialect but they also made an effort to speak to us in English and in Tagalog. They were a fun bunch of women, making jokes and making good fun of our guide Francis.

Buscalan 22
one of the few traditional houses standing

It was a big village, some traditional houses were still standing, but most were already with tin metal roofs and are made of cement. But pigs still roam around like dogs. They even have a 'criminal pig' who had a triangle-shaped wood worn around its neck as punishment for killing their crops. Some elders were still out in the fields. But one was there that time and was making a broom. I asked Kuya Francis how old he was, the elder answered with a proud '92!'. He still had good vision at such an old age. The men were busy making machetes. The women doing chores, little boys playing, little girls in groups chatting. And the feisty children playing with whatever they can find.

Buscalan 26

Buscalan 21
cute kids!

Buscalan 23
group of girls having their afternoon chat

We ended the daylight by the village's rice terraces, with an amazing view of mountain ranges and taking in the cold fresh air.

Buscalan 24

The next day we bid goodbye to the new friends we made. I went down a little bit to a wide space where one can have a view of the mountains and rice terraces nearby. I lingered there for a bit to take it all in. How lucky I've been to start my day with this view. How comforting and safe it feels to be surrounded by these mountains.

Rice Terraces, Buscalan, Kalinga, Cordilleras, Philippines
good morning, Buscalan :)

Fang-od is the last Kalinga tribal tattoo artist. At 92 years old, she's still as strong as though she's not nearing a century. When she laughs and smiles, her whole face, her eyes light up. She is contentment. Maybe that's what living in the mountains does to you. She looked at me, smiled, and hand-gestured that she's ready to do the tattoo. She even put on her 'work clothes'. I'm scared and I am also excited.

Buscalan 29
Fang-od, just being around her is a joy. She exudes simplicity and contentment. 
I'm pretty sure all travelers who've met her would say the same.

She's got gentle hands and the feel of the ink on my skin is a little bit cold but nice. And then there was the sound and pain of the first hammering.

Buscalan Tatt
Photo by Kacel

The repeated sound of the hammering, and the pain of it touching my skin was a bit relaxing. My first two machine-made tattoos never felt this warm. My friends said because there was blood gushing out of the wound.

Photo by Kacel

It took almost an hour then I heard her happy voice and said 'Nalpas!' Finished. There were no plastic gauze or petroleum gel to cover the wound up, just coconut oil that she also prepared. Less than an hour after, we had to get moving again to catch a bus to Bontoc.

Buscalan 30
view during our trek down to where the buses to Bontoc pass by

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It was another scary and scenic ride going to Bontoc. But the mountains and gorge more beautiful.

Buscalan 34
yup, that's how scary it was

Rice Terraces, Kalinga, Cordilleras, Philippines
more of those rice fields

Buscalan 32

Three hours and another jeepney ride after, we arrived in Sagada. A small town nestled in the mountains. It felt like a small part of my hometown, Baguio City, before overdevelopment happened. Pine trees and limestones can be seen, quaint cafes, restaurants, and reggae bars outlined its narrow streets. Although the flock of tourists has lessened the isolated-feel I thought it had, it was still a great place for walking and exploring. And also a place to just relax and share stories with friends.

Buscalan 35
view of Sagada from the Echo Valley lookout

Sagada 01
St. Mary's Chapel (Photo by Kacel)

Sagada 02
(Photo by Kacel)

We decided to do our own itinerary the next day without a guide. With only a map from Vio's LP guide, we made our way down to the hanging coffins.

Hanging Coffins, Sagada, Philippines
hanging coffins

Not really sure if we were headed the right direction after, we just pushed on and walked. We went deeper inside the forest. Stumbled upon caves, a dry stream, and a fence. It didn't stop us at all.

Buscalan 37
view from one of the caves

We climbed over it and continued walking until an undefined and muddy steep trail made us stop. There was a moment when the three of us got stuck and didn't know how to go down without having to sit and just slide down. We got lost but we still had fun.

Sagada, Philippines
the fence didn't stop us

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We decided to go back up and just walk the main road to go to the trail going up Mt. Kiltepan peak. From up there, one can have a nice view of the Sagada rice terraces.

Buscalan 40
view of the Sagada rice terraces from Mt. Kiltepan Peak

And now I'm on another 12-hour bus ride going back to Manila. She did a centipede tattoo on my back. In their tradition, it means protection. I think it's the best one for me now as every travel I do makes me want to see more and explore more. Climb more mountains, discover more gorgeous landscapes, and meet more extraordinary people. © . Design by Berenica Designs.