Punnuk Festival in Hungduan

Some 2,000 years before rock band Led Zepellin released their smash hit in 1971, Ifugao tribespeople were buying… or building their own stairway to heaven—the Rice Terraces—on the slopes of the Cordillera mountains.

Dubbed as the Eighth Wonder of the World and inscribed in the Unesco’s World Heritage List, this ancient engineering marvel has graced countless tourism posters as one of the must-see places in the archipelago.

Due to perhaps apprehensions on copyright issues, people have called it “staircase to the sky,” but it didn’t seem to have the punch of naming it after the rock anthem.

There were flights via the Bagabag Airport in Nueva Vizcaya at some point, but because of terrain and weather considerations, land travel has emerged the most practical means of mobility, particularly for groups.

The good news is commuters now have a better option with the availability of a premium bus, Coda Lines, which can take you as far as Sagada, Mountain Province, which is often paired with a Rice Terraces itinerary. With paved roads for most part, the road trip is a visual treat even when on public transport.

Payawan Country Farm

Pit Stop 1: Lamut. This gateway town on Ifugao’s lowland is often bypassed because of its seeming obscurity. Tucked in its interior villages are family farms which have ventured into farm-to-table dining to lure motorists to a tasty and healthy meal stop and discover their hidden allure.

Come lunch time, pull over at the Payawan Country Farm which serves organically grown indigenous cuisine, and recommended by the Department of Tourism’s Cordillera regional office.

Pit Stop 2: Kiangan. The proverbial exciting part starts here, the cradle of Ifugao history and culture, being the province’s oldest municipality situated at the bank of the Ibulao River.

The town boasts of the Nagacadan Terraces Open-Air Museum, a moderate two-hour trek on rice paddies with a sweeping view of the sprawling small terraces. Hikers would enter a series of native huts which have displays of tribal farming implements, regalia, weaving, weaponry, literature, and vintage photographs.

At the heart of the town are the iconic Kiangan Shrine, a World War II memorial, and the school house where Japanese Imperial Army commander general Tomoyuki Yamashita surrendered to the American forces in 1945 to mark the end of the war in the archipelago.

Also within the vicinity is the Ifugao Museum, a regional branch of the National Museum which showcases the exquisite weaving and fabrics of the Cordillera indigenous peoples.

As a heritage town, it is dotted with American-era houses and structures, most notably the Ifugao Academy and the UCCP Church established by Protestant missionaries in the 1920s.

Spend the night at the artsy Ibulao Ibulao, the residence-guest house of Dr. Toto Kalugdan built on the rock cliffs and whose interiors can easily outclass a typical hotel room. Something to look forward to are its home-baked bread, upland coffee and international-style gourmet dishes. If it’s your lucky day, you can have breakfast at their own breakfast table in their gallery-like living room.

Kiangan Shrine

Pit Stop 3: Banaue. This needs no further introduction, being the most popular place to marvel at the “stairway to heaven” as immortalized in posters and the P1,000 bill. Despite hogging the headlines due to the flashfloods and earthquake last July, the town has been given the green light to receive visitors once more after thorough safety inspections.

Apart from the all-too familiar viewpoint, you can hike in the outskirts for a more intimate interlude with nature in the villages of Bangaan, Batad, Tam-an, Aguian, Hiwang and Uhaj, which have equally breathtaking panorama of the rice terraces. Afterwards, dip in the refreshing icy water of Tappiya Falls and Guihob pool.

And when it’s time to hit the sack, the 81-room Banaue Hotel is still the hands-down choice for its traveler-friendly amenities, ample and secure parking, delectable dishes, and the all-important Wi-Fi connection. The TIEZA-run property can also arrange tour packages and transportation, as well as evening cultural shows for a sizable group.

Banaue Hotel

Pit Stop 4: Hungduan. About 45 minutes away is this rustic municipality known for Punnuk Festival, an intriguing ritual to celebrate a bountiful harvest and mark the start of a new agricultural season. Held along the Hapao River, its highlight is the “guyyud” or tug-of-war game of men and women garbed in their colorful ethnic garb.

The movable feast begins with the “dumupag,” the owner of the widest track of terraced rice farm, announcing the start of the celebrations which is held on the third quarter of the year. The festival, which has been named by the Unesco as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, shot to national prominence in 2018 when then Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat joined the pulling game at the rushing river.

If you’re unable to catch this event, the mesmerizing riverine view is more than worth the heavenly drive.