The Banaue Rice Terraces, a UNESCO Heritage site in the mountains of Northern Luzon, were built around 2000 years ago. Rupert Parker sets out to explore them
The Ifugao, the indigenous people who live in this region, believe their ancestors constructed the terraces. They’re frequently called the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and were built by hand, using mud and stones. They’re irrigated from above, and if laid end to end, would encircle half the globe. As well as planting and harvesting the rice, maintenance is a year round occupation for the Ifugao.
It’s a ten hour drive from the Philippine capital of Manila, mainly flat, though open countryside, but finally the road begins to climb as it reaches the Cordillera, a series of spiny mountains that reach around 2900m. It narrows and negotiates the gradients in a series of long curves before reaching the scruffy town of Banaue at 1200m. It’s raining and the hills are covered in mist, preventing me getting my first glimpse of the famous terraces.
Next morning the cloud is still hugging the hills but rain has stopped and the sun begins to burn through. The Ifugao were once fierce head hunters, hiding deep in the mountains and never succumbed to Spanish colonisers. It was only in the 20th century that American missionaries began to make headway, converting them to Christianity, although around 5% still practise the old animistic religion.
Their culture revolves around rice, with an elaborate array of rituals linked with planting, cultivation and consumption. There’s only one harvest a year and, when scientists tried to introduce more productive strains, the rice didn’t taste the same. Even worse, the new breeds couldn’t resist the winds blowing through the terraces and the experiment was a complete disaster.
My first stop is above the village of Bangaan and I’m surrounded by carpets of green tumbling steeply down the hillside, studded with water and climbing up to the sky beyond. It’s April and the first seedlings have already been transplanted to the rice paddies and will stay there until harvest in September. In the village women are sorting the dried sheaves of last year’s rice, while their daughters pound the husks.
I retrace my steps and carry on to the saddle above Batad. They’ve only just driven the road through here and vehicles are still clearing rock falls and mudslides. The terraces here, if anything, are even more spectacular and I set out to hike to the village of Cambulo. The path climbs uphill, through the terraces, before leading into a small forest, dotted with waterfalls. It emerges at a small shack where I rest and buy welcome refreshments.
From here, the terraces get steeper and the narrow path leads along the edge of the paddies, water on one side and a steep drop on the other. You need a certain amount of nerve, and a good sense of balance. Still there are villagers working in the paddies, up to their knees in the mud, picking out the weeds. In the distance I see Cambulo, not much more than a cluster of houses, completely inaccessible by road.
I arrive to a hive of industry. Roofers are busy replacing the thatch on the tops of traditional wooden houses. Others are toasting rice in huge woks, the first stage in the manufacture of rice wine. When the grains are blackened, they’re transferred to huge vats of boiling water. Yeast is added and then the liquid is poured into jars to ferment. As you can imagine, it gets drunk fairly quickly and the batch they’re making is for a forthcoming wedding. I’m offered a rare month old vintage and, of course, can’t refuse.
Although the Rice Terraces are now recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, they require a colossal amount of maintenance if they’re not going to crumble into the hillsides. Fortunately, the villagers still depend on rice for their livelihood, and around 80% of the terraces are still under active cultivation. They’re still in danger, however, as many young Ifugaos are leaving to find work in the city. If that continues it could lead to a shortage of manpower and this great feat of engineering will be no more.
At the moment all is well and I’ve only explored a fraction of the network of trails running through the rice terraces. Most of them are only accessible on foot but they’re slowly being connected to the modern world as new roads are constructed
You can easily spend a week trekking from village to village, staying in basic accommodation, and experiencing a way of life that’s slowly disappearing.
The Banaue Hotel makes a comfortable base to explore the region, if you don’t want to stay in the villages.
Philippine Airlines flies direct from London to Manila.
It’s More Fun in the Philippines has tourist information.