The Philippines: highlands and islands

Live volcanos, world heritage rice paddies and Luzon's colonial past captured Katherine Tanko's attention in the Philippines

4 mins

“The amazing thing about Pinatubo,” said our guide Owen, “is that it’s continually changing.” Scooping up a handful of lahar, the fine-grained mixture of ash and stone ejected from Mount Pinatubo during its headline-grabbing eruption, he explained how wind and rain constantly reshape the volcano’s post-apocalyptic landscape. “Every time I climb it, it’s completely different.”

But then, Pinatubo is not your average volcano. It’s only been eight years since this once little-known mountain erupted in a fit of volcanic fury that made the USA’s Mount St Helens look like a backdoor barbecue. Over three days in June 1991, Pinatubo blasted ten billion cubic metres of debris 40km into the stratosphere, turning day into night and Manila, 90km to the south, into a giant ashtray. By the time it was over, hundreds had died, thousands had been evacuated and the landscape around Pinatubo was transformed forever.

It was just the latest in a series of disasters – man-made or otherwise – that have given the Philippines something of an image problem. From Martial Law to People Power to the occasional, landscape-ravishing typhoon, the Philippines has long been a country less travelled. Yet this tangle of tropical isles on the far fringes of the Pacific is one of the most extraordinary countries in Asia.

Colonised by an unwieldy combination of medieval Spain and modern America, it produced Asia’s first great nationalist leader, its first armed independence struggle and in 1946 became the first independent nation in colonial Asia. Today, its combination of relaxed openness, hospitable people and the odd, freshly erupted volcano make travelling here an intoxicating affair.

We first met Owen in Angeles, an exhaust-choked town of flashing jeepneys and girlie bars next to the former American Clark Air Base. A British expat and old Filipino hand, Owen’s first attempt to reach Pinatubo’s crater – an arduous trek across uncharted territory – took days. Since then, erosion and hikers have carved out a somewhat easier route that will get you there and back in nine hours. Most guides even offer a tantalising overnight option that includes beer, steaks and crater-side camping.

We set off at 4am for the two-hour drive to the start of the trail. Following a wide flat riverbed, we splashed through shallow ribbons of water tumbling over grey rock, flanked by low grassy banks on either side. As we twisted our way up the canyon, the sandy slopes gave way to soaring cliffs of ash a hundred metres high, carved into a surreal, silent moonscape of peaks and spires.

It is the sheer volume of lahar that makes Pinatubo so spectacular – and so deadly. Debris 200m deep was dumped on these slopes during the eruption, of which only 20% has been eroded so far – much of it through towns, villages and farmland, burying entire communities in thick stinking mud. Worse, lahar slides – when rain in the hills loosens the ash and sends it hurling down the mountain – can plague an area for years after an eruption.

Consequently, my mind turned to questions of safety. “Is there, er, anything to be worried about out here?” I asked Owen as we paused to rest and rehydrate. “Well,” he replied, “You probably shouldn’t stand too close to the cliffs just in case they collapse. But the only real problem is rain,” he said, peering at the sky. Not only can a heavy downpour swell the river and cause lahar slides, it can also trigger secondary explosions by seeping into hot deposits below ground. “Once I was heading back with a German traveller and it started to rain. ‘Should we take shelter?’ he asked. ‘No,’ I said, ‘We get the hell out.’”

Four hours after setting out on foot, we finally arrived at the crater, a ring of jagged cliffs enveloping a shimmering turquoise lake. Before you could say pyroclastic flows, Owen had stripped down to his swimming trunks and dived into the water. We quickly followed suit, paddling out towards the middle of the lake where we watched smoke rise from hot vents on the far shore and brought up handfuls of sparkling black volcanic rock from the watery slopes. Floating above the gaping hole that had wrought so much destruction, there was now only silence.

Vigan: Luzon's cultural capital

After a few days spent resting our aching limbs, we followed the road north to the sleepy coastal town of Vigan. For over three hundred years, it was the political and cultural capital of northern Luzon. Today its streets are lined with a fantastic collection of centuries-old churches, airy mansions and dilapidated merchant houses, making Vigan the best-preserved Spanish town in all the Philippines.

The bulk of the town’s heritage buildings are clustered around Mena Crisologo, a flagstone street running through the heart of the former mestizo quarter. Outside Café Leona, I watched as horse-drawn carriages, or calesas, jostled for customers in the shadow of once-grand ancestral homes. Built by wealthy mestizos, these elegant two-storey buildings combining Spanish, Chinese and Ilocano design have been handed down through the generations. However, a large-scale exodus of local families to Manila in the 1950s and 60s has left many of the homes languishing in a state of decay, looked after by caretakers, if at all.

In a makeshift bookshop piled high with well-thumbed texts I met Louis Acosta – better known as Doddy – one of a handful of locals campaigning to preserve Vigan’s historic buildings. “The idea of preservation is a new concept,” said Doddy, pointing to the rotting beams and crumbling façades showing beneath peeling paint. “There is no coordination for preservation, no sense that this is for the public interest. Some people say, why should we, a minority, dictate to others what they do with their private property?”

Vigan’s wealth of architectural and historic sites in such a compact area should make it an ideal town for exploring on foot, but for one thing: pollution. Tricycles emitting toxic plumes of blue exhaust plague the narrow streets like automotive locusts. Sampling Vigan’s delicious empanadas or famous longanisa sausages at the food stalls that ring the Plaza Salcedo, it was not long before the fumes had me heading for the air-conditioned sanctuary of the Café Leona.

It wasn’t just architecture that brought me...

This is also the birthplace of Father José Burgos, one of the Philippines’ greatest national heroes. Burgos was a Filipino priest who championed the cause of native clergy – incurring the wrath of the country’s Spanish Friars – and was executed in 1872 for his efforts. It was a clear signal that reform, much less rebellion, would not be tolerated by the all-powerful Friars, who had run the country like a medieval fiefdom for hundreds of years.

Burgos was the first in a long line of Filipino martyrs, and the inspiration of the greatest of them all: José Rizal. Rizal was just 11 years old when Burgos was executed. His political beliefs – that Filipinos were the equals of Europeans, and that if Spain could not rule the country well, she had no right to rule at all – were dangerously radical in 19th century Philippines. Believing that ‘there are no despots where there are no slaves’, his first aim was to awaken his fellow countrymen to the cause of their serf-like status.

He succeeded in 1887 with the publication of his book Noli Me Tangere (Don’t Touch Me), a scathing indictment of Spanish rule – particularly the corruption of the Friars – which sent shock waves from Manila to Madrid. When armed struggle broke out in 1896, Rizal was charged with inspiring the revolt – even though he didn’t support it, thinking it premature and doomed to failure – and was executed by firing squad in Manila.

Rizal’s execution marked the beginning of the end of Spanish rule in the Philippines. Within two years they were gone, replaced by the Americans whose mission to ‘liberate’ the country (after a prolonged battle with Filipino independence fighters, of course) was immortalised in Rudyard Kipling’s infamous ode to colonialism, The White Man’s Burden, written to encourage America in its noble cause.

While 50 years of American rule gave the Philippines public education, the English language and a democratic veneer, it did nothing to change the old order. Today, the country remains a kind of feudal oligarchy, with land and resources concentrated in the hands of a few powerful families, while millions of ordinary Filipinos struggle on the edge of poverty.

The Cordillera mountains

From Vigan we headed south-east, into the heart of the Cordillera mountain range, home to fiercely independent tribes and the only part of Luzon to resist Spanish colonial rule successfully for over three centuries. It’s also home to the spectacular Ifugao rice terraces around Banaue, a fantastic network of terraced rice paddies that have been designated a World Heritage Site having been declared ‘an outstanding example of a living cultural landscape’ by UNESCO.

One of the most spectacular villages is Batad, a tiny amphitheatre of cascading green paddies held in place by rough stone walls. Early each morning we’d head out to explore the terraced hills, scrambling along the stone walls like billy goats, while farmers waded ankle-deep in the paddies below. In the afternoons we’d retire to Rita’s Guesthouse, a family-run homestay high on the hillside, to drink tea and soak in the panoramic view.

Although spectacular, it was worryingly clear that some of the terraces had seen better days. Scattered across the slopes were pockets of collapsed paddy, many of them already overtaken by jungle. Everyone I asked blamed La Niña – an after-effect of El Niño – for the collapse, but it was clear many of the paddies had been abandoned.

“In the 40s and 50s we didn’t have this problem,” said Romeo Nabannal, an Ifugao farmer who, together with his wife Rita, runs the guest house. Back then, farmers sold their surplus rice to the lowlands while today most cannot even grow enough to feed their own families. Instead, locals must find paid work – often outside the village – to survive. Unsurprisingly, many young people are not interested in a life slogging it out on the terraces, preferring the material rewards of a steady job in the big city. “When people go out to work, they come back with wristwatches and nice clothes. Young people see this and want to go as well,” he said.

While some farmers supplement their incomes through tourism – opening guesthouses, acting as porters or selling wood carvings – others have opted for a more radical solution. The NPA (New People’s Army), a collection of landless and dispossessed peasants who have waged rebellion against Manila and its élites for decades, are still active in the Cordillera.

In an effort to prevent more farmers from swelling their ranks, new high-yield strains of rice, insecticide and other new-fangled remedies have been introduced to the region, but farmers like Romeo are unimpressed: “We have many government agencies and NGOs coming here, making notes, saying they will submit a plan,” he said. “But nothing ever happens.”

Camiguin's beautiful beaches

After a full diet of hiking, history and hill tribes, it was time to hit the beach. Camiguin, a pear-shaped island off the northern coast of Mindanao, is famous among travellers as a place where unspoilt natural beauty is matched only by the friendliness of locals.

Made up of seven volcanoes, it boasts hot springs, thundering waterfalls and a rugged mountain interior which spills down to an azure sea ringed by beach and mangroves. You can drive around the island in just a few hours – which means exploring is just a matter of hiring a motorcycle, bicycle or car and heading out.

From the ferry terminal, a bus whisked us anticlockwise along the island’s main road. Tidy clapboard houses and gardens overflowing with bougainvillaea flew past, interspersed by stretches of blue sea lined with coconut palms.

Leaving the main road, we headed into the island’s rugged interior where some of Camiguin’s poorest live – and where signs of the island’s legendary friendliness were most evident. Children dressed in threadbare clothes waved and shouted while their parents greeted us with wide smiles. Some 80% of Camiguins eke out a living from the land, copra being the island’s main earner. Although the island looks alluringly green, barely a fifth is still covered in natural forest: the rest is mainly coconut plantations.

Camiguin's main bulk of beach resorts

Promotional posters show a curve of blinding white sand against a rugged volcanic backdrop, yet we found ourselves standing on a damp beach of black sand and rock, much of it covered in creeping vine. The photos, it turns out, come from White Island, an islet of sugary white sand off the north coast.

We hired a local fisherman to take us across and spent an afternoon swimming in its warm, shallow waters. A family from mainland Mindanao were also there, celebrating an upcoming fiesta by dressing a life-sized statue of Mother Mary in lace before singing songs and taking photos to mark the occasion. As they prepared to bundle Mary back on the boat for the return trip home, someone asked where we were staying. “At Caves Beach Resort,” I said, indicating a huddle of bungalows nestled on the coast. “Ah, Rolly Gallardo,” the group chorused in unison.

Rolly, it turned out, was the owner of the resort, and a well-known figure on Camiguin. When we got back that afternoon, I made a few enquiries as to his fame. “He owns a big hardware store in town,” said one employee. “And his brother used to be the governor of Camiguin.” The brother had been ousted in recent elections by Pedro Romualdo who, after serving the maximum three terms in the senate, had moved on to the next available political post. “Did you vote for the new governor?” I asked. “No. I work for Gallardo, my life is with Gallardo. I always vote Gallardo.”

That evening we retired to Sagittarius, a tiny four-table restaurant that serves wonderfully fresh fish and delicious Filipino classics like pork adobo. The place was packed with foreign tourists, food refugees from one of the nearby resorts where the high cost and low quality of the meals had everyone grumbling. The cosy, family-run place was more in keeping with Camiguin’s legendary charms, and we were soon in high spirits, trading tales of our Philippine adventures.

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