The Banaue Rice Terraces in Ifugao, Philippines, preserve a lifestyle over 2000 years old. Here, millennia ago, the local people carved terraces into the Philippine Cordilleras mountains, effectively creating paddies to grow rice in land that was otherwise too steep for farming. The terraces not only created flatland garden beds, they also held back and directed the water, providing irrigation. You might even say these early farmers were engineering geniuses!
So now, come with me on a hike through time on the Batan Rice Terraces of Banaue.
Take a Jeepney Time Machine
My adventure started with a jeepney at the Banaue Hotel and Youth Hostel. Not familiar with jeepneys? Well, these elongated jeeps serve as public transportation all over the Philippines. At first, I sat on the bench seats inside, but soon climbed topside to feel the wind in my face as we wound higher and higher into the Cordilleras on narrow cement roads.
Of course, topside also gave me a better view of the communities that have changed little over time. While the “modern” homes of the locals now often featured cindercrete block or tin buildings rather than bamboo nip huts, the styles hadn’t changed. House fronts sat a few feet off the road with their back parts supported on long poles shoved into the mountainsides.
Soon, our jeepney came to an abrupt halt. We got out and watched while the driver shoved large rocks under all four tires to keep it from rolling down the steep unfinished mountain road. Taking turns before starting the walk to our destination, we all visited the log framed, tin covered outhouse that sat almost on the the road with the sign — Pay Toilet.
Batad UNESCO Heritage Site
Batad is part of five clusters of rice terraces designated as the UNESCO Heritage Site, Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, in 1995. Our walk to Batad, while downhill, still took a lot of exertion to climb over large dirt lumps and rock. The Welcome to Batad sign was most welcome when we finally reached it!
Below us, the rich green valley, partly terraced, partly forested, spread out. Bright colored roofs in Batad’s main village dotted the landscape. It was hard to believe that every single thing used by the people in those houses had to be carried in or out, the same as has been done for thousands of years.
Walking stick in hand, I followed our guide down the path, ready for adventure.
Walking on the Rice Terraces
We followed the trail past the upper businesses offering overnight stays for visitors. As we descended, we found slippery patches of wet stone as well as some uneven stairs chopped out of the rock. A few spots even provided handrails for those like me who lack balance.
At last, we reached the terraces.
And that’s where you really needed your balance. Terrace walls are made of small rocks almost perfectly matched in size. While we’d use cement today, their ancient builders had to rely on mud to fill the cracks between them. Larger rocks, which must have been split to create flat edges, topped the walls for us to walk on.
Slip off the wet rock and your foot would slide into muddy water, something I really wanted to avoid. So although I had to spend most of the walk focused on my feet, the terraces kept me mesmerized. Indeed, I’d call the terraces feats of engineering.
Terrace tiers cover approximately 12,500 miles (20,100 km) spread over the Cordilleras area of the Philippines. That amounts to 4,000 square miles (10,360 square km) of rice terraces. In itself, the vastness is impressive. However, the most impressive fact is that all of the terraces are absolutely level. Why? To keep the water evenly distributed throughout the rice paddies.
Back to Upper Batad
Climbing back to Batad was a challenge! However, it also provided lots of opportunities to view life in the main village.
Around us, the villagers worked, seemingly oblivious to our intrusion. A young man carried sheaves of rice on a shoulder pole. A child picked mango fruit from a tree. A few men cut bamboo with a handsaw, for repairs to a building.
At one point, we stopped to watch an elderly man separating rice from its hulls. Feet permanently misshapen and curled for balance, both hands firmly holding a grinding stick, he pounded the rice in a stone bowl. Then, a young helper held out a piece of basket that served as a sieve to separate the rice from the chaff. Afterwards, chickens gobbled the bits that blew away off of the ground.
The image still sticks with me, one of my favorite journeys into what life would have been like in another time.
- Linda Aksomitis
- : Linda Aksomitis has visited 20+ countries as a travel writer for her blog, guide2travel.ca. She's also the award-winning, internationally published, author of 30 books. Speaking engagements have taken her from Canada to the Philippines, as well as the U.S. and Sweden.
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