The music of the late great singer John Denver is arguably among the top playlists of road trippers exploring the gorgeous countryside. A personal favorite is “Rocky Mountain High” because of my fascination for Colorado’s rugged terrain which is a thrill to negotiate.
And while we don’t have the Rockies, up in northern Luzon is perhaps its counterpart—the Gran Cordillera mountain ranges which cut across six provinces and a highland dream drive. Known as Cordillera Administrative Region, it takes pride in its age-old indigenous cultures and breathtaking vistas which are second to none.
With its very low Covid-19 cases, the region has been classified as low risk and preparations are under way for the restart of its economic engine, which includes tourism. Below is an epic road itinerary you can consider while awaiting the go-signal to visit, where the journey is as exciting as the destinations.
Pitstop 1: Baguio. An all-time favorite due to its cool climate, the city recently earned praises for its notable handling of the pandemic with its efficient triage and contact tracing systems, which earned its mayor to be named the national czar.
More than being a summer mecca, Baguio wants to be known for its creative and artistic soul which have made it part of the elite global Unesco Creative Cities Network. You can go hopping around museums, galleries, art cafes, and spaces which locals have transformed into havens of different art forms.
Sink your teeth on home-grown dining outlets which showcase the rich upland culinary heritage, many of which were rendered a gourmet twist.
A must-do is forest bathing, the Japanese practice of walking in the woods to improve health and well-being. The first Forest Bathing Trail was opened a few years back at Camp John Hay which cuts through a forest of thick and soft pine needles, canopies, and foliage. People can hug a tree, walk barefoot, inhale the pine scent, and do yoga or meditation to commune with nature.
Pitstop 2: Benguet. This province-next-door is the region’s farm tourism hub where visitors can immerse in agriculture-based recreation. In La Trinidad, you can swing around Cosmic Farm, Mount Costa, The Green Living Room, as well as Strawberry Farms and Trading Post for strawberry and vegetable shopping.
Not to be missed is Northern Blossom Flower Farm in Atok, an internet sensation because of its wide floral variety and the majestic mountain panorama. Just a few minutes away is the marker for the highest point in the Philippine Highway System where motorists pull over for a snapshot.
Pitstop 3: Mountain Province. Driving on along the splendid Halsema Highway will take you closer deep into the Cordillera’s heartland as the ethnic-themed welcome arch in Bauko town comes into view.
Its top getaway is Sagada town which is famed for nature adventure at Sumaguing Cave, Bomod-ok Falls, Echo Valley and Hanging Coffins, Kiltepan Rice Terraces, as well as its well-preserved weaving, pottery, and tribal traditions.
Bontoc, the provincial capital, offers a pleasant surprise with its smaller but picturesque rice terraces of Maligcong, Kadchog and Bayyo. Situated strategically at a junction, it connects to many highland towns, and this is where you’ll chose your next destinations.
Pitstop 4-a: Ifugao. A 61-km drive will take you to this province which is home to most parts of the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, a 2,000-year old ancient architectural wonder and named as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Banaue is the tourist hub which has the most photographed rice terraces, and hosts most of the lodgings, restaurants and souvenir shops.
A place to spend the night is the government-run Banaue Hotel which is adorned by Ifugao motifs, offers evening cultural shows, and has a mini-village down below.
For an overload of the so-called “stairway to heaven”, you can motor to either Mayoyao, Hungduan or Kiangan. The latter takes pride in its Nagacadan Open-Air Museum where you can walk through the terraces, enter tribal hut museums and interact with the locals. Kiangan is also where Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita surrendered in 1945, thus marking the end of World War 2.
Pitstop 4-b: Kalinga. A 122-km trip northwards takes take you to this enigmatic province, across attractions such as Palang-Ah Falls and Buscalan Village in Tinglayan, Awichon Village, Mabilong Weavers Village and Aguinaldo Park in Lubuagan, and Padcharao Lake in Pasil.
In Tabuk City, you can frolic at the icy waters of Banga-Banga Falls and marvel at the meandering Chico River, the country’s premiere whitewater rafting site. From here, you explore the rest of Kalinga and head back to Manila via Isabela.
After driving across the mountains, you’ve done what the John Denver song says, “He climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below. He saw everything as far as you can see.”
Photos by Bernard Supetran