Our van ride up the zig-zagging road felt like it would never end. The drive up through the mountains lasted no more than two hours but this was after a full day of traveling by bus from the fishing village of Sabang to Cabanatuan and then by van from Cabanatuan to Baguio City, a destination hot spot on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. I had paid for a driver to take myself and my three friends on a weekend trip to Baguio and finally the Promised Land was nearly in sight.
I had flown to the Philippines to visit with my extended family for a few weeks in Sabang, and while there three of the cousins proposed the idea of making a multi-day trip to Baguio. The city itself has been built within the Cordillera Central mountain range in northern Luzon at an altitude of about 5100 feet above sea level (just shy of Denver’s 5280 foot elevation and well below Mexico City’s 7350 feet), and has a population of just over 300,000. The climate of Baguio has been classified as subtropical highland and due to its high elevation the temperatures are much lower than typical Philippines weather, and there is enough rain, mist, and damp air to almost make one think they’re in the Pacific Northwest. Almost.
After finally reaching the city boundaries our first stop was at a popular Igorot marketplace that caters mainly to tourists and sells food, plants, leather goods, t-shirts, and a host of other souvenirs. The Igorot people (or Cordillerans) are an ethnic group with a long history of living in these mountains and they have taken full advantage of marketing themselves to the tourists who make the trek up to the city. The Igorot are shorter and a little darker than the average Filipino, and in Baguio they can be spotted all over the place dressed in their traditional tribal outfits similar to the way some Amerindian tribe members will in the US in an effort of cultural outreach or entertainment.
Street food at the Igorot market included dried, sliced squid on a stick, boiled corn in a cup mixed with powdered cheese, and my personal favorite, the day-old baby chickens that are flash fried and also served on a stick. These little beauties taste like meatballs dipped in buffalo sauce. They are eaten head, beak, feet and all and are absolutely delicious.
It was now early afternoon, but before heading to the hotel our van driver wanted to take us by the Philippine Military Academy and do a little sightseeing. Travelling in foreign countries is always exciting, but even more so when you’re accompanied with close friends who are natives and you have a private driver who’s knowledgeable of all the local color. Hiring a driver in the Philippines isn’t expensive. One of the perks of the islands is the distance that an American dollar will stretch. Three days of driving cost me 13,000 pesos which equals just under $325. That’s about $100/day for this guy to be driving four people around in a well air-conditioned van (very important once we were away from Baguio) and taking them on a seemingly endless array of hotspots as I’ll outline below. The one strange thing about hiring a private driver in the Philippines is that he will be with you nearly all the time. Our driver (we referred to him as Kuya Bert) shared meals with us, stayed in our Baguio hotel room with us, and walked around with us as more of a friend than a hired hand.
The Philippine Military Academy (PMA) was established in 1936 and is the military school for the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The Academy consists of several dorms, museums, gift shops, and drill grounds with statues and memorials on display everywhere. Civilians are free to drive onto the grounds (they just hold onto the driver’s ID at the front gate) and take pictures along the main road. Several other families were there at the same time we were and I had to wait patiently sometimes for other little kids to have their pictures taken next to the helicopter and fighter jets before I could.
After leaving PMA we headed to our hotel, the Venus Parkview Resort Hotel, located on the west side of the popular Burnham Park. The hotel was decent but a little worn down. You could tell that at one time it must have been quite a spectacle but its better days were behind it. Regardless, it would more than make do for the five of us (including Kuya Bert) in a room. One night in the Venus Parkview for 5 people in a 3 bed room ran me 2150 pesos ($53).
After dropping off our stuff in our room we took off again to get supper. By this time it was dark and raining pretty hard outside. Bert drove us over to a seafood restaurant called Barrio Fiesta which was a large Igorot-themed place with a couple bars and a nightclub area in addition to the spacious dining room. Due to the rain it was virtually empty save for a family of Filipinos sitting at the table behind us. We feasted on a king’s platter of clams, mussels, crab, ar-arusep (a seaweed that looks like miniature bunches of grapes), bistek (Filipino beef steak), chicken, and plenty of San Miguel Light beer. By the time we were done we left nothing but a pile of bones, shells, and empty bottles. We ventured out into the still-pouring rain and returned to the hotel where we soon fell asleep with our bellies full and our heads spinning.
We woke up early the next morning, checked out of the hotel, and drove through town to the closest Andok’s Chicken for breakfast. In the Philippines there are three fast food combinations that can be ordered for any meal of the day and can satisfy any hunger. The first is called longsilog. This is a combination plate of langgonisa (Filipino sausage), itlog (eggs), and si nangag (garlic-fried rice). The second is tapsilog. This is a plate of tapa (fried beef strips), eggs, and rice. The last on is tocsilog made with tocina (sweet pork) with the obligatory eggs and rice. Fast food restaurants like Andok’s, NE Bake Shop, and Jollibee’s specialize in such simple dishes.
After breakfast we put on our “tourist” hats again and went to the very popular Baguio Strawberry Farm. The cool, damp climate of Baguio is perfect for growing strawberries, and a large field of them has been maintained on one of the few relatively flat parts of Baguio for years. Right next to the fields are little stands lined up and run by women selling strawberry jams, jellies, preserves, syrups, candies and just about anything else you can think of that can be created from the little red beasts. A man walks around pushing a metal cart and ringing a bell. He’s selling freshly made strawberry sorbet and you can have a scoop in a sugar cone for just a few pesos.
After leaving the strawberry patch we descended down another valley into the more urban part of Baguio. Driving through the city is different due to the topography of the mountain tops, and there are some areas where in order to make any real progress from one part of town to another requires zigzagging back and forth through different streets that ascend or descend to different levels of the city. It’s kind of like a classic arcade game in that way, and it creates some very congested traffic patterns.
After fighting traffic and exhaust through the industrial zone we arrived at the Bell Church Buddhist Temple in the small China Town area. The Bell Church is located north of the downtown area of Baguio and located within a gated compound filled with statues, Chinese memorials, and a set of steps that climbs seemingly forever up a nearby hillside. The compound structures include intricately designed arches and buildings adorned with flags, bells, and dragons. It has a pagoda, some fountains, and wonderfully landscaped gardens.
No photos are allowed inside the temple. I went inside, lit an incense stick, and said a prayer (or at least kept quiet for a few moments pretending) to commemorate my first ever visit into a Buddhist temple. It was a very relaxing experience.
We departed the Temple and headed straight for the Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Grotto in order to balance out all the Buddhist Dharma with some Catholic confession. The Lourdes Grotto is one of several Catholic shrines and places of meditation in Baguio. It is located on a high hill in the western part of the city where you will find the image (or figurine) of the Lady of Lourdes.
The grotto is a favorite pilgrimage site during Holy Week most especially during Holy Thursday and Good Friday. In order to reach the top of the grotto one has to climb the 252 steps that seem to go straight up to heaven (lots of steps in Baguio), or one can take an auto up through a winding, narrow paved road. We took the steps and had to stop to catch our breath once or twice (remember we were already at a high altitude), and we also bought some trinkets from some Igorot children who were camped out on the steps and who will play you a little tune on a flute if you give them a few pesos.
Many of the people who travel up to the grotto to pray also light up a candle at the altar below the image. There are vendors at the shrine who are willing to light up a candle for you and say a prayer for whatever personal intentions you might have while also attempting to sell you a wallet, a t-shirt, a crucifix, or some hand-woven clothing.
As it is in many other similar shrines, the grotto was constructed to commemorate the numerous visions of the Virgin Mary by a 14-year old French girl named Bernadette Soubirous. This happened in 1858 from February 11 to July 16 in the town of Lourdes which is in southwestern France. The visions were declared authentic by the Pope in 1862 and this also led to the authorization of the cult of Our Lady of Lourdes. By following the road a little further up and behind the Grotto you will see a strip of Naguilian Road and a beautiful panoramic view of a part of the province of La Union down below.
After departing the Grotto, Kuya Bert drove us off to Burnham Park located in a busy market area of Baguio. Burnham Park is somewhat akin to New York’s Central Park except smaller. There is a large pond manned by several paddle boat vendors, a never ending stream of children on bicycles (bike rental shops are all over the park), a roller rink, bumper cars, and the Orchadium, a walled-off orchard filled with beautiful flowers and fruit trees.
For lunch we drove to the nearby SM (Shoe Mart) City mall where we ordered Filipino food in the mall food court. We ordered from a place called Dokiks and feasted on tocina, langgonisa, tuna belly, sinigang (soup), bangus (milkfish), and squash in a coconut curry. We fed the five of us for 307 pesos (about $7.50 which included a 12% VAT).
Stuffed to the gills, we headed to our next stop, the amazing Baguio Botanical Garden. The Garden is located east of Baguio’s downtown area, and is roughly the same size as Burnham Park but with a completely different vibe. Burnham is more kinetic and active while the Botanical Garden is more contemplative and peaceful. Being tranquil and quiet, it is a nice place to just sit down and relax, take a leisurely stroll along its many winding pathways and also enjoy the landscape where you will find numerous types of plants, statues, a dark cave to explore, and memorials including the Japanese-Filipino Peace Memorial. You will usually find a group of Igorots at the main entrance who are dressed in their authentic native attire, and for a couple pesos they will be more than happy to pose with visitors for a souvenir picture.
Our second day in Baguio was running short and we had a long drive ahead of us if we wanted to make it back to Cabanatuan that night. Kuya Bert got us back out to the main road and we made our descent back down the mountain, passing the famed Lion’s Head along the way. The Baguio portion of this trip was finished, but we weren’t quite ready to go home yet. A long drive and a night in Cabanatuan still awaited us.