Trek Through Otherworldly Rice Fields in the Philippines

Farmland stacks to the sky on a trek through the Ifugao Rice Terraces.
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Farmland stacks to the sky on a trek through the Ifugao Rice Terraces.
The region’s rice terraces were all carved by hand in the Philippines.

The region’s rice terraces were all carved by hand.

Be careful for this one,” says Jonathan Domondon as he delicately steps over a thorny branch fallen across the trail. “We call it lupa. If it touches your skin, it will cause a severe rash, bad fever, and you’ll be sick for days. Our forefathers blocked the trails with lupa to stop the Japanese invasion in World War II.”

Jonathan—26 years old, wearing shorts and a T-shirt—is our guide and a trained naturalist. He knows every plant along our path through the Cordillera Central on the northern Philippine island of Luzon. This hollow-trunked fern is used to channel water; that soft-leafed fern is boiled for medicinal use. There are wild grapes, wild strawberries, wild onions. But, in fact, we’ve come to this remote region for something utterly unwild: a cultivated landscape.

After three hours of hiking through rainforest, we suddenly break out into sunshine at an overlook. It’s as though we have passed through a portal and entered a world where the horizontal has become vertical. Farmland drops away at a dizzying angle, as if crops have been turned on their sides. We stand on the edge of the Ifugao Rice Terraces.

The 7,000-foot-high, steep-sided mountains fan out in every direction. They’re meticulously terraced and almost every platform is brilliantly viridescent, a shimmering green I’ve seen only in dreams. We’ve come in April, the end of the dry season and the perfect month to experience the verdant pageantry of rice cultivation. The Ifugao Rice Terraces, hidden deep in the Cordillera, are one of the most magnificent feats of ancient engineering on the planet. Each level is just 15 feet wide, and 20-foot-tall stone walls support layer upon layer of them that cascade down the slopes. After a lifetime of backcountry navigation, I feel like I’ve stepped into a life-size, 3D illustration of contour lines.

Paddies are flooded for months at a time in the Philippines.

Paddies are flooded for months at a time.

For the next five days, my wife and I, led by Jonathan, hike village to village, exploring the terraces on routes long used by locals to tend the fields. Our path snakes out into the green vastness, the trail no more than 1 foot wide. It’s as if we are walking atop the wall of a castle—to the left is a 2-foot deep carpet of rice, to the right a leg-breaking drop down to the next paddy. Jonathan warns us to watch our step—a European trekker died in a fall off the trail earlier this season.

A barefooted, bent-backed woman plants rice far below us. With her wide-brimmed, fuchsia-colored sun hat, she looks like a tiny flower amongst the descending cliffs.

“We have one crop a year,” Jonathan says, “but it begins in a nursery plot and then must be replanted by hand to a larger field one month later.” Women do all the planting; men do the field leveling and wall maintenance. “If you don’t keep the walls clean, rats build nests between the stones and eat the rice,” he says.

Balance required in the Philippines

Balance required

Deeper into the terraces, at least 500 feet below us, we spot a water buffalo pulling a wooden sled through the slick mud. A small boy in blue pants stands on the sled directing the animal.

“Buffalo can only be used to plow the lower fields, just above the river,” Jonathan explains. “Up here,” he motions to the narrow fields above and below us, “planting and plowing are done by hand.” The sowing is staggered so that every eight years each paddy can lie fallow long enough for the soil to recover its nutrients.

We reach the thatch-roofed village of Pula at dusk and spend the night in a tiny hostel on stilts, cantilevered out over the rice paddies. Roosters crow all night long, gut-thin dogs bark, pigs squeal, babies cry. The rice fields ripple in the moonlight.

Boiling red rice

Boiling red rice

Typically, trekking is associated with hiking through remote mountains. Part of the point, of course, is to escape all signs of civilization. But our trek through Ifugao is a very different kind of experience. Rather than an immersive hike through wilderness, this is a deep dive into a timeless agrarian culture—an opportunity to glimpse a different world view and marvel at the ability of humans to physically transform their landscape, to survive.

Rice, the seed of the grass species Oryza sativa, was domesticated almost 10,000 years ago in China. An extremely labor-intensive crop, rice requires rich soil and enormous quantities of water. To raise rice on the steep walls of the Cordillera, Filipinos not only had to build tens of thousands of terraces—by hand with wooden shovels—but also create an intricate irrigation system, diverting water from the rainforests above down through rock channels and along mud canals.

The terraces were originally believed to be 2,000 years old, but research by archeologist Stephen Acabado, director of the Ifugao Archeological Project, has proven that they were built 300 to 400 years ago. Acabado believes that the brutal colonization of the Philippines by the Spanish in the 1500s forced lowland rice farmers to migrate into the mountains to escape persecution. With several millennia of rice-growing experience, they remade the land to suit their strengths. The Ifugao Rice Terraces were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.

In the morning, the villagers outside our hostel boil red rice in a giant caldron over an open fire. The men stir the gooey liquid with wooden paddles until the water boils off and the rice is a giant sticky lump. Women in purple sarongs then spread the steaming rice into 4-square-foot baskets.

One of the women turns to me with a spatula and offers a taste. The rice burns my tongue and the children laugh. “This is red rice,” she explains, “it’s not for eating. Red rice and sticky rice are for making rice wine.” Then she takes my hand and guides me under a thatched porch to a basket of white rice. “White rice is for eating,” she says, and offers me a handful.

Jonathan Domondon  on one of the trek’s many suspension bridges.

Jonathan Domondon on one of the trek’s many suspension bridges.

We hike through the terraces the entire day, passing along one slippery rib of mud to the next. We cross footbridges suspended over coursing rivers, and gain or lose hundreds of feet on steep, narrow steps. There are no roads here; everyone walks.

That night we stop in Cambulo, where all the village houses have pointed tin roofs and pink and blue walls. For dinner, we eat the mountain staple: white rice with bony chicken stew. With a group of French trekkers, we drink rice wine—which oddly doesn’t seem to affect the brain but completely melts my muscles.

The following morning, we drop thousands of feet down mud steps to Tappiyah Falls. Concealed in a notch where two mountains meet, the gushing cascade drops 230 feet into a green pool. Kids and mothers hang out beneath the falls, enjoying a respite from the 90°F heat. It’s a picnic-like scene: One woman sells sodas and another proffers bowls of rice with vegetables. Teenagers in tight jeans and black T-shirts hang out, texting on their phones.

It occurs to me that almost every rice farmer I’ve seen in the fields is elderly.

“Young people don’t want this life of backbreaking work,” Jonathan explains. “They want to move to Manila. They want to design computer games and buy cars.”

Even he has no interest in farming rice.

“Rice laborers make $10 a day,” he says. “It’s very hard work. I did it for many years. Sometimes you have to carry 50-kilogram bags of rice all the way up to the highway. Now I carry a little backpack and you pay me $25 a day.” He grins widely, “Plus tip!”

This loss of a labor force landed the Ifugao Rice Terraces on the list of endangered World Heritage sites in 2001. But then came adventure tourism. In the past decade, trekkers have helped revitalize the region, and it has been removed from UNESCO’s endangered roster. The hostels we stay in are still owned by rice farmers, but some of them now make enough money to pay others to work their paddies.

I’ve spent a lifetime experiencing the world’s natural wonders, from the summit of Everest to the icefalls of Alaska. We all need wilderness, but there’s something delightful and enlightening about hiking through another culture. You’re not simply on a journey of self-discovery (as backpacking is often portrayed); instead, you’re learning about others. How they live. How they eat. How they work and worship and celebrate. As intolerance grows at home and abroad, is there anything more important? 

Trip Planner

Getting there From the Ohayami station in Sampaloc, Manila, take an overnight bus to Bananue. Guides ($25/day) can be found in any of the hostels, or book in advance Gear Pack a light sleeping bag. Lodging Plan about $25/day per person for hostel and food. Total cost $900 (round-trip airfare from L.A., transportation, guide, lodging, meals).

Mark Jenkins is the writer-in-residence at the University of Wyoming.  

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