Getting to Batad is not for the faint-hearted.
This remote Filipino village, famed for having arguably the most beautiful rice terraces in the world, is not accessible by motorized vehicle. First, you get to Banaue, a remove village in Northern Luzon, accessible by bus from Manila. Then, you set out towards Batad, and go as far as paved road will take you. (If you hire a trike — a little motorcycle with a sidecar attached — they can take you as far as the Batad Junction, and it will set you back about 350 pesos. A jeepney can go the additional steep 4km up to the Batad Saddle, but that will 1000 pesos to charter.) Then, from there it’s as steep hike down a dirt path on the hillside into Batad, where you’ll be off the grid entirely — far from phone or internet access. Those that make the journey are greatly rewarded with stunning rice terraces and a village relatively unaffected by the outside world.
Batad was one of the places I was most excited about while planning my trip to the Philippines, but my excitement had been tempered by apprehension. Information about the area was confusing in the guidebook and scarce online. As a woman traveling alone, I was also anxious about finding another traveler to partner up with. I was surprised by how few fellow backpackers I found in the Philippines, and after reading a horrific cautionary tale of a woman being murdered while hiking the same trail solo in 2007, I decided it wouldn’t be wise to hike alone. Luckily by the morning of my departure I had partnered up with my travel buddy from the day before, the appropriately nicknamed G.I. Joe, and while we were both equally confused about logistics, at least there was safety in numbers.
I was still watching my budget closely, but after a hearty breakfast (70 php/1.72 usd) and buying snacks for the journey ahead (128 php/3.15 usd) I had no choice really but to fork over the money for a trike to the Batad Junction. No way were we splurging for a jeepney to the saddle, but with a good negotiating face on I was able to get a trike for less than what the tourism office had quoted me (150 php/3.69 each). Of course this meant that both G.I. Joe and I had to share a space that he alone would have been slightly cramped in, but hey — budget win!
During the 12km trike ride, it started to drizzle, and I wondered about the wisdom in making absolutely zero effort to waterproof my bags. Suddenly, the trike stopped in what seemed to be the middle of the road — then I followed the driver’s gaze to a nearly fully vertical path leading up the mountain range on the left. The road was desolate and abandoned, and I once again wondered how we would find our way back to Banaue the next day with little to no cell phone service in Batad (and our driver didn’t have a phone number anyway — I did ask, just in case).
I took a deep breath, made my peace with the rain and the uncertainty, and off we went. In spite of the rain and the vertical incline, it wasn’t that bad — getting to the saddle only took an hour. I long ago learned to ignore guidebook estimates for things like this, which told me it would take two. Our hour included a stop to rest when we saw three little kids huddled under a shelter. As we dolled out our sticky bun bakery rations, they told us about their lives. These kids, ranging from 7-10, go to school in Banaue but return home to Batad every weekend. All that way twice a week — and to think some parents in the US debate whether or not to allow their ten year olds to walk unsupervised to the bus stop down the block.
At the saddle, which is meant to hold stunning views over the terraces, we found a blanket of fog wrapped around a few shacks selling pineapples, walking sticks and coffee, and a bunch of jeepney drivers waiting for their charges. Once we forged on and were hiking down into the terraces, the rain lightened and we caught occasional glimpses of the terraces themselves, and I was much more motivated. After nearly an hour of passing no one on the trail, we encountered what I can only describe as a walking ambulance — a large group of men carrying a thick bamboo pole with a hammock drooping from it, and a sickly old man hanging out the side. Two thoughts ran in parallel through my mind — an excitement filled where am I?, and a cautious warning of better be careful down there.
I love this photo because it looks like I’m posing but really I’m grasping at my cramping abdominal muscles
Then, suddenly, we turned a corner and we were in Batad, and my mind was shuffling through all the phenomenal and stunningly beautiful sites I’ve seen in my life and trying to find something that matched up to this — and it was coming up empty. I couldn’t help but feel like I was in a scene from a movie as we entered the small village — dogs chased chickens across the dirt roads, kids sang on mud bleachers outside the one room schoolhouse, and hunched-over old ladies turned slowly to see the white faces walking by. Cinematic undertones aside, one thought overwhelmed me — this is travel.
This tiny town of 800 — which bloats to 1,300 in the holidays when people head home from the cities — relies completely on subsistence rice farming and tourism. For those who live here, life is strikingly similar to the way it was lived one hundred years ago. Sure, Batad got electricity in 2008, but there’s certainly no internet, and barely any phone signal — though I first thought that someone was joking when they told me this, I soon saw it with my own two eyes — in order to communicate with the outside world, locals hang their phones from trees or clotheslines and wait for a signal to pass through.
A wooden lean-to served as the village’s welcome office, where we paid a fee (50 php/1.23 usd) towards protecting the rice terraces, and were guided to a sweet and simple guesthouse where a cheerful private room overlooking the terraces was an absolute bargain (200 php/4.92 usd).
Though I was entering the first stages of internet withdrawal (oh, how I would have loved to Instagram this!), I was already regretting only staying one night.
I loved my guesthouse — minus their poor pet monkey
After settling into the guest house, a guide — with a laminated license to prove it — appeared and offered his services to take us across the terraces and to the nearby waterfall for a small fee (250 php/6.15 usd). I hesitated because of my dwindling peso reserves, but G.I. Joe agreed before I had the chance to object. I was momentarily annoyed, though I’d soon be grateful. My trainers were soaking wet and muddy from the rain so against everyone’s objections I set off in flip flops. And we were off!
The path to the waterfall brought us directly through the heart of the rice terraces at the perfect golden light hour. I was having one of those moments — I felt like an over-caffeinated child, unable to stop jumping around, flailing my arms and exclaiming to no one how beautiful it all was. I actually felt like I was high — it’s the only sensation my mood could be compared to.
I couldn’t believe we were able to clamber over the rice terraces — ones that have been in existence for over 2,000 years — as we pleased. I remembered the medical evacuation I’d seen earlier in the day and tried to step gingerly, though there was no keeping up with our guide, who had spent his entire life traversing the terraces and seemed to float above them.
A not so graceful foreshadowing of a scary moment the next day…
After passing over top the opposite side of the rice terrace “bowl,” we descended into a deep river valley that would wind around to a massive waterfall. It was quite the sight, but this was a clear case of the journey being the destination.
Also, it started raining as soon as we arrived, leaving us to huddle under cover and take turns speculating on whether the weather was getting better or worse.
See tiny little G.I. Joe on the banks of the waterfall? It was huge!
While the hike to the waterfall had been unbelievable, while trekking back in the rain once again the hours of hiking began to take a toll. My calves we started to kill me — like, close-my-eyes-and-try-not-to-cry-while-wincing-with-each-step kind of kill me. It made me a bit nervous for the next day, when my only way back to civilization was my own two feet.
When we made it back to the guesthouse, it was already dark and thanks to rolling blackouts we had a simple dinner by candlelight (200 php/4.92 usd). I was sleeping soundly by 9pm — and I noted that even in this remote village, the beds in the Philippines are more comfortable than any I ever stayed in in Thailand. Perhaps one silver lining of the US occupation of the country was that we were able to pass on the blessing of non-cement bedding.
In the second day of my Cordillera trip, I had spent a total of 1108 pesos, or $27.26 dollars. I had the equivalent of less than $40 to get me from Batad to Banaue to Sagada, where hopefully the local ATMs would have cash and accept my card.
But I could barely bother to worry about money. I was in one of the most amazing places I had ever been — I truly felt awed by Batad and so incredibly lucky to be there. I couldn’t wait to wake up again and explore more.
Have you ever been somewhere that felt so much like a different world it took your breath away? Tell me about it in the comments below!