The Banaue Rice Terraces is world-renowned and considered as one of the most famous landmarks and tourist destination of the Philippines. Only rightly so since this living cultural landscape of unparalleled beauty truly lives up to expectations. The captivating scenery will leave you breathless and speechless at how despite modernization, these remnants of ancient civilization endure.
Utilizing an elaborate farming system composed of wet-rice agriculture and religious rituals, this legacy is handed down, generation to generation without written records. No modern tools were also used in building these mud and stone-walled terraces. One can only be amazed at how the water is harvested from the mountaintops and then passes through a complex system down to the bottom of the valley, thereby distributing water evenly on all of the terraces. This living cultural landscape was also hailed as the 8th Wonder of the World, and featured in the Philippine banknotes, previous and present.
But what many probably don’t know is, the Banaue Rice Terraces, near Poblacion, is not really a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Contrary to popular belief, it didn’t pass the criteria set by the popular organization to be inscribed in the World Heritage Site list. The Ifugao Rice Terraces that can truly claim that title are located in more remote areas of the Philippine Cordillera Mountain Range.
Banaue Rice Terraces: National Cultural Treasure
These acclaimed terraces can be found in Nagacadan (KIangan), Hungduan, Mayoyao, Bangaan, and Batad. They have a distinct and unique design that distinguish them from each other: Nagacadan’s two distinct terraces are bisected by a river, Hungduan Rice Terraces looks like a spider web, traditional houses and granaries are interspersed in central Mayoyao terraces, Bangaan rice terraces backdrops a typical Ifugao traditional village, and Batad is famous for its amphitheatre-like semi-circular terraces.
Collectively, the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, including the one near Poblacion, are declared as National Treasures in Presidential decrees 270:1963 and 1505:1978. They are also protected by Republic Act No. 10066:210, under the protection and conservation of the National Cultural Heritage.
Ranging from 700 – 1, 500 meters above sea level, the Ifugao Rice Terraces differ from their Asian counterparts because of its steeper slopes and higher altitude. Thus, the rice that grows here is also special albeit not high-yielding unlike the foreign varieties adaptable to mountain conditions.
Banaue Rice Terraces: The Four Viewpoints
You see, there is not only one spot to view them but rather four viewpoints separated by a short distance from each other, all accessible via the main road. When we went there last November 2014, the original plan was to walk from the inn we were staying in, up until the Main viewpoint. But the weather was in a bad mood since the first day, making our trip to Batad even more challenging. Kuya Randy of Randy’s Brookside Inn was gracious enough to arrange two tricycles for the four of us, to take us through each of the viewpoints and snap our cameras to our heart’s content.
The first viewpoint was an unassuming space beside the road, with just a railing separating you from the ground and the cliff below. Lady luck was on our side, and the rain was called away for at least a few hours.
A few minutes from the first viewpoint, the second stop also didn’t have much signage. But this time, visitors can go down a few flights of steps to a small landing pad closer to the terraces. The view is also free of wires that distract you from the view, like the first stop.
Meanwhile, signage and marker abound in the third viewpoint. There was also a few souvenir in the other side and there was even an elderly Igorot waiting for tourists. You can make a small donation in exchange for the pictures taken with him. Conveniently, you can sit by the concrete edge and just let the beauty of the scenery sink in.
Our melancholy moment was cut short by the drizzle. It was nature’s way of telling us to get a move on. Upon reaching the main viewpoint, the adage “save the best for last” popped into my mind. It definitely earned its name because by far it was the grandest among the four. Grandest in the sense that it was the most modern, with a large balcony set on concrete legs with a few souvenir stalls on it and a stairway leading you down to the foot of the terraces. Other souvenir stalls can also be found on the roadside near the main viewpoint. Waiting for the tourists were also five elderly Ifugao women, who’ll delightedly take you up on the offer to say “wacky wacky” repeatedly while striking a pose in one corner of the viewpoint. This spot also offers you a seemingly endless view of the terraces stretching out until the Poblacion. Our guide even quipped that we can trek along the paddies and come out right near the town.
Harvest season has already come and gone but even devoid of rice stalks, one still can’t help but be awed by these engineering and agricultural marvel made by our ancestors with nary a modern tool. With the urging of our guide, we descended the carved steps leading below the mountain. Luckily, there was a railing to hold on to, a reprieve in case your legs can’t take the burn because of the steep man-made stairs. The ubiquitous sunflower is ever-present along the way, its bright yellow color serving as a shining beacon towards the so near yet so far rice terraces. Finally, we’ve reached the end of the railing and found that it’s beyond our powers to go down the next flight of stairs. Imagine our embarrassment when two local children passed by running up and down the said stairs like it was a piece of cake!
The Rice Terraces are presently threatened by climate change, modernization, migration, as well as uncontrolled tourism. Some parts are also undergoing restoration due to the damage brought about by previous typhoons and neglect. They were also once in the list of endangered heritage sites in 2001. Thankfully, the Ifugao Rice Terraces Rehabilitation and Preservation Act was passed a few years back paving the way for restoration efforts and steps to sustainability.
Out of the 5 terraces inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list, I have only been to Batad and I can truly say that even though it is smaller than the more famous Banaue Rice Terraces, I loved how it is nestled deep in the mountains and its more intimate feel. I would definitely come back for the other four, though.
UNESCO or not, these living treasures should be protected as well as the traditions that come with it. Surely we’d want them to last for another 2,000 and more years.
DIY Guide to Banaue Rice Terraces
How to get there:
Take the Ohayami Bus in Sampaloc, Manila. Travel time is around 9 hours with 2 stopovers. For updated prices and online booking, check out Ohayami’s website. When you get to Banaue, be sure to book the return trip, as it is almost always full.
After booking your return trip, be sure to register at the Banaue Tourism Office and pay the Php 20 environmental fee.
Be sure to bring enough cash. Although there are ATMs, it’s better to be prepared.
There’s not always mobile signal.
Pack for cold weather as it can get really chilly in the evenings and early morning.
Have you been to Banaue Rice Terraces?