Even with Freddie it was not easy. Some steps were nothing more than nubs of stone protruding from the face of the rock, and it was difficult to put my faith in my size 12 feet, knowing that one slip would mean a long fall into the next rice terrace further down. Chris and I entertained visions of unfit day trippers, fresh from the Manila express overnight bus, pulling rice seedlings from their mouths, wringing the water from their fanny packs and cursing the place as impossible to get around. Freddie overheard us, chuckled and remarked that people do indeed fall into the paddies with some regularity.
As the sun disappeared behind the mountains and dinnertime crept closer, we were strolling back up to our inn when Freddie asked whether we minded taking the long way back through the village so that he could wish all a merry Christmas and introduce us to his friends.
And so Chris and I found ourselves following a man who had so recently been a complete stranger, shaking hands and offering seasons greetings to the people of Batad, and receiving sincere and genial holiday wishes in return. From a window high above, a Filipino waved a half empty bottle at me and shouted, “Hey Joe! Merry Christmas!” Any thoughts of skipping Christmas evaporated instantly amid the holiday music and the detonation of crude fireworks.
Across Batad lights blinked on, one by one until the town’s form could be seen gleaming white, green and red in the twilight. Acquaintances hailed each other in voices that soared over the terraces and echoed faintly in the hills before anonymous greetings drifted back over the shadowy gulf from the opposite side. Old men sat drinking rice wine and San Miguel beer. Families rushed to prepare chickens or pigs for cooking.
In small clearings young people set up large communal fires and lay aside bottles of alcohol for the night ahead. A group of teens gathered around a guitar and sang carols. In the midst of such bustle, we sat down on a log with Freddie, who offered us handfuls of soft pulpy mush from a jar of fermenting rice wine. As we sat and talked, slowly chewing the sticky globs and spitting out the fibres, I reflected on what had brought us here. And how foolish I had been to ever think that Christmas away from home would be unfulfilling.
If you go
Batad village is home to about 1,500 people. The famed rice terraces are thought to be around 2,000 years old. They were carved, largely by hand, into the mountains by the ancestors of the region’s Ifugao people. The best time to visit is in late spring and early summer, when the rice seedlings have grown into their greenest splendor.
How to get to Banaue
The easy, more expensive way: Have a tour agency charter a coach on the direct Manila-Banaue route. These often go overnight direct to Banaue with no stops.
The hard, cheaper way: Take a coach bus to Baguio from Manila. From there, hire a series of taxis, Jeepneys (a Jeep/bus hybrid) or chicken buses (the nickname for the dilapidated local buses that often transport more than people) to the towns of Banaue or Bontoc. From these towns you can access the myriad tourist sites of the region. This way is not recommended if you only have a few days to travel.
How to get to the Batad Rice Terraces
Once in Banaue, you can hire Jeepneys or tricycle motorbikes with sidecars to explore. (We paid a tricycle driver to return to the trailhead in two days to pick us up.) If you desire comfort and a guide, hire a van.
A muddy trail leads up to a saddle and then down to the village of Batad and its breathtaking panorama. The trek takes a few hours on foot and can be arduous if the trail is muddy. ATVs may be available for hire . From the saddle, it is another 40-minute trek down to the village.
Where to stay
If you are looking for a nice hotel, your best bet is to stay in Banaue. In Batad, you’ll find a number of small guesthouses and inns scattered over the hillside. For the best views and menus featuring good food, check out Ramon’s Homestay, Rita’s, Simon’s, Batad Pension or the Hillside Inn. Ask around and someone will point the way. Expect to pay between $4 to $7 a night for lodging. (Meals generally cost between $1 to $3.50). Each guesthouse will know how you can hire a guide. The terraces are privately owned, and only with a guide (about $10 a day) can you avoid stumbling over someone’s property.