Sunday, July 1, 2018

Banaue Bound Part 3 - Hiking along the Hapao Rice Terraces

Whether it is a month long once-in-a-lifetime vacation, a trip of just a week or two, a week-end road trip or even just a day trip to a nearby destination, it always helps to do your research before you go.
Since it was my first trip to Banaue, I made sure to read up on how to best enjoy the short two days that we would spend there. 

Research led me to this valuable travelers' tip -- if you're short on time, it's best to hire a local guide and private transportation.  
Public transport between the towns (and terraces) of Banaue are few and far in between so save yourself  the long wait for a ride that may never come and just simply hire your own.  
The local guide we contacted (thank you internet,  for the topnotch recommendation!) took care of hiring a jeep for our two day excursions into the delights of Banaue.  
We could have opted for a van but who wants to sit in an air conditioned cocoon when you can inhale the fresh mountain breeze (and a few diesel fumes) from a jeep's open windows.

My research also led me to making up my own itinerary for the two whole days that we would be there.  I decided that on our very first day, we would head to Hapao Rice Terraces in Hungduan town.  I had learned that exploring the terraces would take about 3 to 4 hours, certainly doable in one afternoon.  
Hapao is less than an hour's drive from Banaue, and when we reached a certain vantage point in the snaky mountain roads, the driver stopped so we could enjoy this view of the roads down below.  

The local governments have an efficient system for assisting tourists and visitors.
Everyone is asked to register at the Information Center of each municipality upon arrival.
The town of Hungduan,  frequented by local and foreign tourists alike has a very good program involving local residents.  If you are heading for the terraces and the hot springs at its end (as we were), you are asked to hire a local guide to take you on the trek.  
I think it's a beneficial program for the residents and more importantly,  helps them realise that
they are important stakeholders in maintaining and preserving the integrity of the rice terraces.

A few hundred meters from the Information Center is a look out point where you have a sweeping panoramic view of Hapao.  The young man in lavender is our excellent local guide from Banaue, John Bodah and the lady in yellow is Elisa, our local Hapao guide.  

The view of Hapao Terraces just about took my breath away.  
Silly me, before I came to Banaue, I did not realise that the terraces are in different towns scattered all throughout the province.  Five of the terraces are UNESCO World Heritage sites.  
While Hapao is not one of them, it is magnificent and was easily my favourite among those that I would see on this trip.
Hapao's terraces are not tall -- they cannot be called "stairways to the sky" but they are wide and expansive, stretching as far as the eye can see.  

Today's adventure would be an up close and personal exploration of Hapao.  We would trek through about 2.5 kilometers of rice terraces to get to Bogyah Hot Springs, approximately located in the area  I have encircled in red on the photo above.
Our guide John assured me it would be a leisurely stroll.
Hmm,  let me be the judge of that!

A steep ascent over paved roads is the first sign that this may not be such a leisurely stroll after all.  Our guide had brought wooden poles but Jay and I had our trusty Mont Bell hiking sticks which we try to use on every hike we've taken. 

The trail started just past the cement road.   The path winds gently through the hillsides surrounding the terraces.  Trees and foliage sometimes completely block the view.

The dirt trail ends and and it's time to walk along Hapao's rice terraces.  
To make the experience tourist friendly (and I suppose a little easier too for the locals who live here) portions of the pilapil (walkways)  have been paved. It would have been much harder to walk on uneven stones and earth which is what the terraces are really made of.  
If you suffer from a fear of heights or from vertigo, you may find walking the pilapil a bit scary as 
there is a 3 meter drop on one side.  Our guides half-jokingly told us that if we felt like falling, we should fall on the side of the rice field and not over the other side  -- better to ruin some rice plants than to break a lot of bones.  

On the paved portions, the pilapil was just about 18-inches wide.  The unpaved portions were even narrower.  At first I stepped gingerly and slowly, one careful step at a time,  but as I got the hang of it,  I got into my natural stride. 
The scenery was awe inspiring -- I felt so small and humbled walking in the midst of these majestic mountains and the seemingly unending fields of terraced greenery. 

The clear, clean and bubbling Hapao River passes through the rice terraces, an important source of irrigation for the rice fields.  

The bridge that crosses Hapao River leads to a series of steep stone steps carved along the side of the terraces.  There is a small village at the very top - the residents climb up and down these steps everyday,  most of the time carrying provisions.  We met a lady balancing two small sacks of potatoes on her head and carrying a shopping bag at the same time. 

At the top of the steps, we were rewarded with an exhilarating view, albeit marred by this man's laundry.  After a friendly nod,  he turned back to gazing at his fields, unbothered by the excited tourists taking selfies.
As a point of reference, we had walked from the spot circled in red above, just under the purple shorts. 

It would be another ten minute walk from the village to Bogyah Hot Springs. While some of the native houses still use the traditional thatched roof,  I find it sad  that more have started to use yero 
or galvanised iron sheets.  

Our first glimpse of our destination!  Bogyah Hot Springs marks the end of the trail and promises both a hot soak and a cooling dip.  

Tickets to the springs are included in the registration fee  paid at the Tourist Information Center in Hungduan.  Tourists can use the springs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. after which it is reserved for the local residents' use.

While it is called Bogyah HOT Springs, this is a bit misleading as there is a pool with cold and clear water from Hapao River.  The cold and hot waters sit side by side with each other, separated just a stone wall.  There are cairns or piles of small rocks placed on the boulders.  The lady in purple on the right side was making one just as I snapped this photo.

I did not feel like changing so I merely dipped my legs in the warm water.  It was therapeutic after that walk through the rice terraces -- I could feel my toes unclench!

Jay decided to go all in and take a refreshing soak.  While you would not say this hot spring is "onsen hot" (40C)  it was warm enough to relax tired and aching muscles. 

Rain was in the forecast for the afternoon but the travel gods were kind to us.  We enjoyed the dry and cool walk back.  Going back was much faster as we had all gotten the hang of walking through the terraces -- even on the narrower ones made of packed earth and stones such as this stretch that you see above.

We made it safely back and in one piece!  No slips and falls, thanks to the expert guidance of our local guide Elisa.  If you ever decide to visit Hapao Terraces,  ask for her at the local tourist information center.  She was kind and patient and a fount of knowledge about the terraces, the people who live there and how they go about their daily lives.  Certainly the best person to walk you through this amazing experience!  


Jay and I discovered the singular joys of hiking and trekking late in our lives.  We try to enjoy as much of it as we can, while we can ... as I don't think we have many years of hiking ahead of us. 
Walking through the centuries old rice terraces of Hapao was one of the best walks we have enjoyed. We're both grateful to have done this short but very fulfilling trek. 

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