This proved quite an adventure as the mountain track leading to Batad was closed after a landslide, so I had to hike for two hours along a trail shrouded by thick forest. En route I strolled past raffia-thatched wooden homes perched precariously on cliff edges, and Ifugao women with betel nut-stained red teeth.
Entering Batad, I was breathless not just by the thinner air at 2000m above sea level, but also by the vista that unfolded before me. The amphitheatre of mountains encircling the village was cloaked in electric lime-green terraces striped by stone walls. Only scattered farms with thatched or shiny corrugated-iron roofs and groves of bananas disturbed this bewitching symmetry.
Batad is a peaceful village where children chase piglets and chickens up and down slopes so perilously steep I felt if I rolled out of bed I might just keep going. Accommodation is rustic – simple guesthouses with buckets of cold water for washing, and almost everything on the menu comes with rice. I plumped for Simon’s Place – unlikely to bust the budget at £2 a night – which has stupendous views of the terraces from its open-sided restaurant.
Apart from being spellbound by the beauty of swirling mists funnelling down from the mountains, and enjoying the air’s chilly contrast to the humid lowlands, it’s possible to arrange hikes lasting several days from Batad. With just an afternoon to spare, I arranged a short walk to a local waterfall.
Setting off, I noticed a local entrepreneur was selling T-shirts printed with ‘I survived Batad rice terraces hike’.
“Ah, the path is a little tricky,” said Benny, a local guide, with some understatement. All the walks entail venturing along the narrow terrace walls, which is unnerving as the terraces drop 3-4m to one side – I could imagine plummeting into the sludgy soft mud below. Benny zipped along like a mountain goat, leaving me to edge along like a novice tightrope walker.
But I soon found my feet and enjoyed the ingenuity of how the terraces were constructed to cling to the mountains, and how rice barns on stilts kept unwanted diners out. There was also plenty of wildlife – damselflies and exotic swallowtail butterflies fussed around muddy edges, and we saw black-and-yellow spotted salamanders, waterfowl, and noisy frogs. The stone walls were smothered in colourful lichens and ferns.
But it’s a battle, admitted Benny, to maintain the terraces for the future. We passed a few old women bent double, weeding, and Benny explained that younger people preferred to go to the cities to look for better-paid jobs. “My family has seven terraces, which are hard work to maintain, but even this doesn’t provide enough rice for us for the whole year,” he said.
We rounded a bend on the mountainside, and came to a dramatic terraced ravine that meandered like a snake. Waterfalls can often be disappointing but Tappiya Falls was more cappuccino than skinny latte – its powerful, foamy flow plunged 40m, thudding with real fury into a pool. At that moment I didn’t need to be told that I was experiencing one of the great natural wonders of the world. I knew it.
Chicken adobo – ubiquitous national dish that can also feature fish or pork, cooked in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and ginger, and served with rice.
Kinilaw – delicious variation on Latin American dish of raw fish or shellfish marinated in lemon juice and served with chopped cucumbers and tomatoes.
Longganisa – stubby garlic sausages that are a popular street snack at the Philippines’ many fiestas.
Pancit – hugely popular ultra-thin stir-fried noodles with meat and vegetables.
Buko pie – calorific but heavenly dessert made from young coconut flesh and evaporated milk.
Bicol express – sounds like a train, and if you eat too much of this fiery southern Luzon coconut cream pork dish, which is laced with beans and chillis, you might indeed head off the rails.
Lechon – different cities will argue who serves the best lechon but this iconic dish of roasted suckling pig originates from Spain.
Best islands for …
With 7007 islands in the Philippines’ archipelago, choosing which to visit can be tricky.
Tiny Boracay island’s perfect white sand beaches ensure it’s the Philippines’ most renowned holiday spot. It’s packed with resorts and plenty of nightlife, so if you prefer something more chilled and cheaper, opt for Siquijor in The Visayas chain of islands.
The Philippines’ archipelago boasts world-class dive sites in warm seas. If money’s no object, sail off to the awesome Tubbataha Reef National Park, where hammerheads and eagle rays create a dive feast. Easier on the wallet – and to reach – is Malapascua island, famed for its close encounters of the thresher shark kind.
Ecotourism hotspot Palawan bristles with excitement, and every visitor should attempt the amazing coast-to-coast underground cave traverse by boat through Puerto Princessa Subterranean River National Park.
World-class breaks and waves of the hollow, barreling variety pound the beaches at surf spots such as Cloud 9, located on Siargao island.
Manila’s best day trip is Corregidor island, which retains the heaviest World War II fortifications remaining across the Pacific. You’ll be shown beefy gun emplacements and bombproof tunnels as guides relay how General McArthur recaptured Corregidor from the Japanese.
Don’t miss Bohol for its weird saucer-eyed critters called tarsiers. They inspired Steven Spielberg’s Gremlins.
My most vivid memory of my first day in Manila were the crazy-looking passenger vehicles that have become a Philippines icon – jeepneys.
Imagine a jeep that has been stretched on a medieval torture rack, add plenty of bling, ear-splitting air-horns and pumping stereos, and colourful murals, many with religious overtones.
Travelling in a jeepney is both great fun and a practical way of getting around the Philippines. The vehicles emerged after World War II when the US army left behind stockpiles of military hardware, which included jeeps. Needing passenger vehicles, roofs and crew-seats were added to the jeeps, and over time the chassis were lengthened to take more passengers on board.
With some irony, given their initial use by the Americans in World War II, jeepneys these days are manufactured in the Philippines’ using second-hand imported Isuzu engines – made in Japan.