I’ve met so many wonderful people while traveling, some in the most random of places. While I wish I could share with you everything I’ve tried, encountered, or felt; oftentimes there is simply not enough time nor the words to adequately describe the experience. I hope to blog about them someday or maybe share them with my grandchildren when I am old and grey.

These are the two fascinating people I met during my trip to the province of Ifugao. When I had lost all hope of a story, fate intervened and I met both Innug and Noel on my 3rd day while exploring Hungduan.

INNUG, Ifugao farmer

I was not paying close attention while trekking the stonewall of the Hapao Rice Terraces. I stumbled while on the way down as my left foot stepped into a ditch, I was getting absent-minded and careless. Thankfully, I was able to hold on to Billy’s back as I fell which offered me enough stability to stand up and get my bearings. “Are you okay?” he asked. I laughed and fluffed my shirt. “No biggie,” I replied.

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Innug harvesting rice

Then out of nowhere, I spotted an Ifugao harvesting. She watched us inquisitively as we trekked by. It’s customary to ask permission before taking a photo, as most tribes fear that cameras and pictures take a bit of their soul. I was told by the guide that it was perfectly fine, and so I snapped a few.

Innug, it turns out, is 90+ years old. She lives alone, has no relatives in the area, and barely remembers her birthday. She was strong yet her arms were shaking as she harvested palay for the day’s meals under the very hot midday sun. While most of us city folk dream of retiring by age 60, here she is working hard even in her twilight years.

Ifugaos and Heirloom Rice

The Ifugaos have a very intimate relationship with the cultivation of rice, or as we call it, heirloom rice.  More than being a staple food, rice is culture and heritage with traditions passed down from generation to generation.

Trivia: Only Ifugao women plant in the rice fields. Additionally, the rice terraces can only be inherited by the first born male of each family. 

However, the interest in farming has waned over the years. Less and less locals are taking to agriculture as the younger generation prefer modern conveniences, the flashy city life, and corporate work. This is plaguing not only the Cordilleras but other Philippine provinces as well. The traditional Ifugaos now face a bigger challenge of maintaining their culture and the relevance of the rice terraces.

In response to this, the government is now incorporating farming and agriculture in their educational curriculum to help develop and entice the future generation to take on where their ancestors left off. Agriculture is the future, and we should fight to maintain it.

I lovingly admired Innug’s face as we fawned over her asking questions. Her laugh lines showed character, her smile evoked child-like wonder. We were, to say the least, very grateful and thrilled to be in the presence of a true-blooded Ifugao going about her work.

Before I left, I thanked her profusely for allowing me to photograph her. I hugged her tight, looked into her eyes and told her she’s beautiful. The guide translated everything and Innug replied, “Salamat, salamat” while nodding her head. I give her one last smile and rush off to catch up with my tour group, beaming with delight and satisfaction.

NOEL BALENGA, Grandson of Chief Pochinlan

It’s not every day that you get to meet a headhunter, or at least a descendant of one. As we were about to have coffee, I spotted dog and human skulls proudly hung outside one of the traditional Ifugao houses. I stopped and walked closer, intently inspecting the remains. Most of my companions were irked or completely grossed out, but I was looking at them with genuine fascination.

The Headhunters of the Cordilleras

Cordillerans are known headhunters where heads of their enemies were chopped off with steel battle axes during tribal wars. Feuds between tribes were quite common and warriors would go into battle for religious purposes, for an abundant harvest, the desire for exaltation, to increase wealth, or as a rite to manhood (source).

During WWII, many Japanese soldiers were slayed and beheaded by these fierce tribal warriors. As these lowland tribes were very resistant to foreign occupation, they successfully drove away the Japanese and as a result preserved majority of their heritage and traditional practices.

Noel and his wife, Gloria

Noel and his wife, Gloria

And one of the Ifugaos who did just that was Tribal Chieftain Ponchinlan, Grandfather of Noel Balenga (age 62), who beheaded several Japanese soldiers during his heyday. Noel inherited his portion of the Rice Terraces alongside the 12-acre land from his forefathers. His family proudly displays the skulls outside the hut which attracts the curious (me), and drives away the scared (everyone else).

Noel and his wife Gloria now own and operate Hiwang Native House Inn and Viewdeck, a famous tourist spot where you can stay overnight in a traditional hut or (if you are only passing through) enjoy a mug of hot Sagada coffee atop the mountain with a breathtaking view of the lush green Banaue Rice Terraces below.

His property also houses artifacts and artwork that his Grandfather has collected over the years. Some are up for purchase while some are treasured family heirlooms. There is no “guard” who surveys the place at night, he says his dogs are solely responsible for keeping watch.

How to get to Banaue:

  • Take the 30-minute flight to Bagabag, Nueva Vizcaya via Platinum Aviation Skies, Inc. Schedule is 3x per week and upon landing in Bagabag, drive/commute to Banaue will only take 1.5 hours. One way ticket is Php 4980/per pax.
  • Drive from Manila to Banaue, travel time is 11 hours

I recommend taking the more convenient route of flying especially if you are traveling with kids and seniors. For Weekend Warriors, flying is the more cost-effective and sensible option as it won’t eat up your vacation leaves. If you find the ticket prices exorbitant, remember that Batanes and Siargao cost pretty much the same.

Need a tour guide or agency?

For a hassle-free journey get in touch with Wakay Travel and Tours, the official partner of Platinum Aviation Skies, Inc. This ensures you won’t have to go through the time-consuming effort of arranging everything. Just book and go. Simple, easy. Visit https://www.facebook.com/bataneswakaytravel/ or call 0917 833 6779 / 215-2755 for more details.

There is definitely more to discover and experience in the Cordillera Region that a visit back is in order. What are you favorite tourist spots or fond memories of your visit to Ifugao? Share them with me in the comments.


My Banaue and Sagada media trip was sponsored by Tourism Promotions Board of the Phils. with Wakay Travel & Tours and Platinum Skies Aviation, Inc.