Bicycle touring the Philippines: Mountain Province and into Ilocos Sur

Back in Banaue, the tourist center of Ifugao, Jeff and I took a forced rest day ’cause of the rain. We spent too much time watching weather forecasts — it appeared to be drier to the west, but I wanted to head east to see Batad, Bangaan, and Mayoyao. Jeff was less excited about the rice terraces and more concerned about spending miserable days riding in the rain and the clouds without being able to see anything.

I headed off east on my own and was pleased with the decision — I loved the bicycle touring in Ifugao, and the clouds were mostly high enough to not obstruct the views. As I approached the Ifugao-Mountain Province border, the area started to feel remote. In Jacmal, where there was not only a high school but also a university campus, I found a restaurant. Unfortunately it was Sunday — no students and no food. I bought some packaged junk food and pushed on (downhill).

There was nothing in Awayan, but it was still downhill to Butac (not to be confused with Butac near Natonin). I asked around in Butac — nope, no restaurant. I really needed to eat since I knew I had a climb ahead. Locals were helping a family with a car fix a flat tire. The family had apparently come from the direction where I was heading and had asked about a restaurant in the next village. There wasn’t one, but locals had given them a bag of food. Do you want it?, they offered me. Wonderful, thank you, I said, and found a place to sit in the shade. Fried fish heads and some boiled sweet potatoes.

Luckily there were a lot of fish heads ’cause the ride to Natonin ended up being harder than I expected. The roads in Ifugao had almost all been paved. Just a km after crossing the border to Mountain Province, I came to this:

Welcome to Mountain Province.  The roads in Ifugao had been surprisingly good.  The next ~14km were probably the poorest road of the trip, but they've started to improve it working down (east) from Natonin. by bryandkeith on flickr

Probably just a short bit of construction after a landslide, I assured myself. Nope, the dirt/mud/rocks continued almost all the way to Natonin.

IMG_20240128_114016 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20240128_120411 by bryandkeith on flickr

I walked most of a steep, downhill section before the river, wondering what kind of gnarly high-clearance 4WD could actually make it through. There weren’t even motorcycles.

The views though were nice. I saw cultivated fields and houses but no people,

IMG_20240128_112509 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20240128_115110 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20240128_115855 by bryandkeith on flickr

until the river!

IMG_20240128_121015 by bryandkeith on flickr

What about the bridge?, you’re wondering. Yes, there was one — yay!

IMG_20240128_121025 by bryandkeith on flickr

Plenty wide for a bicycle but not wide enough for cars. It was destroyed not so long ago in a typhoon. I guess this is what a couple people were referring to when they warned me that the road might not be open to Natonin. In hindsight I wondered where the family who gave me the fish heads had come from. I hadn’t seen any turnoffs.

Is the road any better for the 850m climb to Natonin?, I asked the workers (they were repairing the bridge). No, they said, but you’ll get through.

IMG_20240128_130430 by bryandkeith on flickr

I actually managed to ride most of it, but I used up all my fish head energy and was definitely hungry by the time I got to Natonin.

IMG_20240128_122104 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20240128_121727 by bryandkeith on flickr

In Natonin I was happy to find Dan(dy) who opened Sakura (“cherry blossom” in Japanese) Homestay with the money he saved from working six years as a nurse in Fukuoka. He also opened a restaurant, but there was no food ’cause it was Sunday and his employees had the day off. Dan directed me to the two basic eateries just down the road. The first one was closed — it was Sunday, the woman reminded me — but the place across the street is open, she said, pointing.

Slim pickings and nothing looked good. What’s this?, I asked. Dog, I thought I heard her say. Sorry? Ruff, ruff, dog, she said, pointing at one walking by in the street. I took another look at the tiny bony birds with beaks that I imagined were colorful songbirds yesterday.

songbirds?, I wondered.  They were very small. by bryandkeith on flickr

Sure, one portion of dog, please.

dog by bryandkeith on flickr

The rice was tasty. The dog was too chewy with too many bones and too much fat.

The views around Natonin were good.

IMG_20240128_162352 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20240128_163316 by bryandkeith on flickr
Butac, Natonin
IMG_20240128_163823 by bryandkeith on flickr

I started as usual early the next morning and was soon wearing my rain jacket, rain booties, and rain overmitts. The clouds were low, and I couldn’t see a thing. I stopped under an awning and chatted with a mother who was also waiting for the rain to let up. She was chewing betel nut (moma, the locals call it), very common in the cordillera. It’s good for my teeth, she explained. How can so many people believe this when it makes their teeth look so horrible?

It started to rain harder. I messaged Dan and headed back to Sakura. That day I ate both lunch and dinner at his tasty restaurant. May not look so exciting, but I bet you weren’t fortified with fried fish heads and boiled dog yesterday.

IMG_20240129_122757 by bryandkeith on flickr

Dan had a fast internet connection, and the weather and the views were excellent the next day. I made a good call.

At about 7 the next morning the dog catchers were out. In the Philippines you can be fined for not having your dog tied up, and Natonin offers rewards to people who bring in illegal dogs. That begs the question: what happens to the dogs if no one claims them?

trying to catch dogs by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20240129_073420 by bryandkeith on flickr
Santa Isabel

Here’s what I would have missed had I continued in the clouds the day before.

IMG_20240130_070930 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20240130_082154 by bryandkeith on flickr

I climbed a pass and descended to Barlig which ended up being one of my favorite towns in the Philippines. It’s up at 1600m (the highest I stayed in the Philippines, I think), and as in Natonin, it was cold at night. I slept in all my clothes again. Tourists come to Barlig to walk up nearby Mt. Amuyao.

IMG_20240130_110603 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20240130_121110 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20240130_122029 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20240130_141359 by bryandkeith on flickr

There are no roads in the village, only the highway above town. The houses are connected with narrow concrete paths often with steps. It was fun to explore.

IMG_20240130_142540 by bryandkeith on flickr

As usual I walked through the rice fields as well and watched the locals toiling away. A huge amount of work goes into the rice — maintaining the terraces and irrigation systems in addition to planting and harvesting. Almost all of it is done by hand. In the April 27, 2024 issue The Economist reports that “No farmer in the Philippines may own more than five hectares, so farms stay tiny and inefficient.”

IMG_20240130_142548 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20240130_152336 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20240130_143832 by bryandkeith on flickr
IMG_20240130_152546 by bryandkeith on flickr

Another thing I liked about Barlig was the food. I ate both lunch and dinner in the restaurant below the hotel.

IMG_20240130_180120 by bryandkeith on flickr

The next day was a big day, probably the most climbing I did in a single day on this trip. On the first pass between Barlig and Talubin, I actually had some cordillera views with no agriculture.

IMG_20240131_073531 by bryandkeith on flickr

After another pass I rode through Bontoc, the provincial capital,

IMG_20240131_094037 by bryandkeith on flickr
a couple kms SSE of Bontoc

had lunch in Sagada near the top of the next pass,

IMG_20240131_133203 by bryandkeith on flickr
Kapay-aw, Sagada

and spent the night in Domog (yet another pass and later a climb at the end).

There are too many wires in this photo, but how long will it be before there's a tool to automatically get rid of these? by bryandkeith on flickr

I was ready for a hotel in Sapung, but the only one was full. Then it was uphill to Otucan which was bigger than Sapung and didn’t have a hotel. It was more uphill to Bauko, but the only hotel there was a gaudy resort on the top of a hill that was off my route. I continued uphill to Domog (1300m).

The next morning I met Jeff for breakfast in Cervantes, about 800m lower than Domog.

Mount Namandiraan? by bryandkeith on flickr
Mount Namandiraan?
IMG_20240201_075944 by bryandkeith on flickr

Well, I had breakfast. Jeff had already eaten.

Jeff and I had a pretty casual ride to Quirino that day and were kicking around the idea of continuing on to unknown accommodation options in Tiagan or San Emilio.

IMG_20240201_125029 by bryandkeith on flickr

We found comfortable accommodation in Quirino and thankfully decided to stay ’cause the next day was one of the hardest of the trip. Quirino’s down at 300m, and that night we slept with a fan! Finally, it wasn’t cold!

Much of the cordillera had fairly continuous climbing — not many descents on the long climbs, nor climbs on the long descents. The road the next day, however, from Quirino to about Lidlidda over the Quirino Skyline was exceptional. It felt like we were always climbing or descending very steeply. Maybe I was just tired.

IMG_20240202_074729 by bryandkeith on flickr
the famous (?) Quirino Skyline by bryandkeith on flickr
looking back down toward Quirino from the Quirino Skyline

In Lidlidda we had to look around a little, but eventually we found an excellent place for lunch. The noodles somehow reminded me of a soup version of bibimbap, and the kimchi was the real deal. Did you learn how to make kimchi in Korea?, we asked the cook. No, from youtube, she said.

IMG_20240202_124944 by bryandkeith on flickr

We found the flats!

IMG_20240202_150238 by bryandkeith on flickr

Corn too.

IMG_20240202_143724 by bryandkeith on flickr

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4 Responses to Bicycle touring the Philippines: Mountain Province and into Ilocos Sur

  1. Jennie says:

    Such stunning scenery!

  2. Jeff Anderson says:

    Great photography Bryan! Riding those muddy passes looked like a real slog fest.

  3. Mike Painter says:

    Lots of mud, dog, fried birds! Who could ask for anything more? (Looks nice, though!)

    • Bryan Keith says:

      Hahaha, Mike, that makes it sound pretty bad, doesn’t it? But the scenery was great, and there were no tourists! Gee, I wonder why, you might ask. 🙂

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