30 January 2023

Bangaan rice terraces, one of five UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ifugao, were small but stunning.
For years I'd wanted to see more of the Philippines beyond chaotic Manila where I'd visited three times in the past (plus once to Boracay).

This trip my top goal was to see the famous rice terraces in the remote mountains of Luzon. But, as long as I was in the country, I wanted to swing by the Instagram-hot island of Palawan and also visit Cebu, the third-largest city outside of metro Manila. Along the way I discovered the charming mountain city of Baguio. See my video itinerary below.


Popular destinations on the long island of Palawan are at the north end, but I landed at the main airport down in Puerto Princesa, where I had one afternoon and night before the drive north.

Seeing the first of Palawan's many miles of vertical, scene-stealing limestone cliffs, the legacy of ancient coral deposits.

Mercy, my smart upbeat guide, drove me to the subterranean river and provided clever commentary on the cave and the park.

Tourist boats are allowed to visit about half of the eight kilometer underground river and see the packed stalactites lit only by the guide's flashlight. Rules, such as no electrical wiring, are strictly enforced to preserve the unique ecosystem.

My favorite sunset from my balcony at the Lime Hotel in El Nido.

From El Nido, the island-hopping boats take you to beautiful lagoons, beaches, inlets, and limestone labyrinths.

Lots of kayaking that was rarely as shallow as shown here. Most of my kayaing was in calm inlets, not out in the ocean. Went snorkeling once and it was good thanks to handfuls of food that attracted fish.

We tried to time visits to avoid the crowds and were usually lucky.

The Secret Lagoon, Hidden Lagoon, and Small Lagoon could only be entered by a narrow passage or swimming underneath a hole in the rocks. Others had wider openings but were always ringed by jagged, vertical limestone ramparts.

Every day the guide and crew magically produced a healthy, tasty lunch featuring freshly grilled fish and fruit.


Cebu (population nearly one million) was holding its annual Sinulog festival which attracts visitors from all over the country and some from overseas. Its big, colorful parade reminded me of Carnaval in Brazil but with a strong religious theme.

Sinulog honors Santo Niño (holy child) and, more specifically, Santo Niño de Cebu, a small statue of the Christ Child that miraculously survived a devastating fire in the early days of Spanish colonization. It is said to have been instrumental in converting the indigenous population to the Catholic faith.

Many faithful come here to the Basilica Minore to pray before the venerated Santo Niño de Cebu statue (the small figure above the red roses).

Perhaps foolishly, I did not take my phone/camera to the packed grand parade — but at least I have some photos of Sinulog as celebrated elsewhere in Cebu. At the nearby mall, some people would promenade with embellished Spanish-themed costumes posing for endless selfies while many businesses featured dancers in glamorized indigenous-inspired costumes.

In the Philippines, as in other countries in the region, many entrepreneurial families of Chinese descent have become extremely wealthy. Here is a beautiful Taoist Temple on a Cebu hilltop with many palatial residences.


Up in the central mountains of the big island of Luzon is the city of Baguio (pop. 350,000), about 250 kilometers north of Manila. It is so cool and pleasant that every high-ranking government official has an assigned home here to escape the stifling heat and congestion of Manila.

In many respects, Baguio is an American creation begun when the US took the Philippines from Spain in 1898. Americans built the first road into the mountains to allow convenient access to this area. Then others Americans designed key city elements such as Burnham Park.

Nearby Camp John Hay was once a small but important US military base and the site of fierce fighting when the Japanese attacked in 1945.

In the center of Baguio is large Burnham Park surrounding a lake filled with boat rides and plenty of families enjoying the pretty, tranquil landscape.

Baguio spills up and down the surrounding mountains.


I saved the long-awaited, famous rice terraces to be my last stop, following my island adventures in Palawan and urban days in Cebu and Baguio.

Part of the long winding hillside main street of Banaue (pop. 20,000), the largest town in the area with the many famous rice terraces.

When I started noticing pampered roosters with bands on their legs, I knew they must be raised for cockfighting. Sure enough, Banaue had its Saturday afternoon cockfight. Large sums of money are bet on these 30-second fights. I had previously come across such a scene in Timor-Leste.

Incidentally, the last U.S. state to outlaw cockfighting was Louisiana in 2008. On its evils, go here. For a brash defense (and attack on hypocritical multiculturalism), go here.

Collectively all the various terraces are often called the "Banaue Rice Terraces," perhaps named for the main town nearby. The most widely photographed are the Batad terraces, shown in a closeup above and a larger photo below.

Most of the huge terrace complexes were begun some 2,000 years ago — carved into the mountains by the Ifugao people using their hands and simple tools.

The astonishing "amphitheater" of the Batad rice terraces. If I had visited a few months later — when the weather gets really hot, muggy, and rainy — the terraces would all have been psychedelic green.

My photo of the Hungduan rice terraces make it easier to see the bright green seed beds where the rice seedlings are first being grown before planting.

Left: Kids coming home from school.
Right: Marina, a cool 55-year old mother of ten, who came to my rescue when I was out hiking solo in the mountains and was not sure which path to take.

At the terraces that do have the name "Banaue." Sadly many of the owners have moved and are not working these terraces (more trouble than they are worth) that are getting overgrown with grass and weeds.

My favorite little Bangaan rice terraces where villagers are still farming most terraces.