This story appears in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine, Israel edition.

A Journey through northern Philippines

Story by Daphne Raz    Photographs by Eddie Gerald

The dreamlike quality of the mountains and islands in the far north of the Philippines are so different from the atmosphere of the islands and the bustle of Manila that it sometimes appears that they are a realm apart.

The famous rice terraces of Ifugau, a UNESCO world heritage site, draw tourists from the Philippines and the world, but they are also the home of the Ifugao people who have been living here for thousands of years and cultivating them.

Banau resides 300 kilometers north of Manila, 1,300 meters high in the mountains. It has the characteristics of a typical mountain town – tall houses climbing up the slopes, a central market, winding roads and crisp, clear air. Down the road from Ifugau, the houses of Dalican teeter on the edge of the road. The terraces below the village glimmer in the sun. From afar, sounds of singing come from a Sunday service at a community church that convened on a wide terrace. Down in the valley, another village, Bangaan, is nestled among the rice paddies. Its houses, many of them old nipa roofed homes, huddle together. The rice that grows here is harvested once a year and feeds local families throughout the seasons.

Three hours drive through the Cordillera mountain range, mystical Sagada resides among scented pine groves of the Mountain province. For a long time Sagada was a well kept secret, frequented only by artists intellectuals who found refuge in the mountain town. After them, in the 1970s, came European bohemians and adventurous backpackers. Although today many more visitors frequent Sagada, the town retains a reserved atmosphere. Visitors are required to pay an ecological tax, there are no large hotels and at dusk a hush descends upon the town.

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Sagada is home to the Igorot people. Their history is well documented at the small museum in Bontoc, an hour's drive from  the town. However, Sagada is known more for its dead than its living. The limestone hills surrounding the town are dotted with handing coffins placed here by relatives of the dead who respected an age old tradition.

Coffins are piled also at the opening of caves so that the dead will have light and air. In stark contrast to the somber coffins, a group of young people call to each other at the entrance to the Lumiang cave. They are setting out on an adventurous passage to Sumiang, the deepest cave in the Philippines.

The Batanes islands, 150 kilometers from the tip of Luzon, provide an even more remote refuge. 17,000 people reside in the smallest province of the Philippines, which is actually closer to Taiwan. The islands and the surrounding marine habitat are a protected area. Only three of them are populated: Batan, Sabtang and Itbayat.

These specks of land are buffeted by a dozen typhoons and more every year, but their native residents, the Ivatan, are accustomed to the storms. Their traditional stone houses, seen primarily on the island of Sabtang, attest to their unique culture.  

Batanes is know for "the simple life" – the low key agriculture is organic by default and the people friendly by nature. The number of visitors is approximately 50,000 a year; there are no large resorts and cruise ships do not stop here. Instead of succumbing to mass tourism, the islands maintain their mystique as a perfect escape for romance and soul searching.