Kalinga to Abra : Extreme Roadtrip

6 Comments

This is a route I will advise the faint-hearted not to take. There are no phone signals in 85% of the route, the roads are non-existent in many parts, necessitating traversing thru narrow, muddy  edge-of-mountain roads. There are many stretches where the concrete roads are still good, but they suddenly disappear after the trip, one will remember only the narrow, muddy terrain.

Kalinga and Abra are two provinces within the Cordillera Administrative Region, which also includes Apayao, Benguet, Ifugao, and Mountain Province.


The Cordillera Administrative Region encompasses most of the Central Cordillera, the largest mountain range in the country, occupying half of Northern Luzon.  It is both the highest and the single largest mass of mountains in the entire Philippine archipelago.Because of its mountainous topography the region has been referred to as the “Watershed Cradle of North Luzon”

The only landlocked region in the country, it is bordered by the the Ilocos region in the west and southwest,  by the Cagayan Valley  on the north, east,  by Isabela in the southeast, and by Pangasinan and Nueva Vizcaya  in the south. It is the least populated region in the country, and is home to numerous indigenous tribes such as the Kalingan, Isneg, Tinggian, Ifugaos, Kankanaeys, Ibaloy, Bontoc, Bago, Illian, Baliwon and many others. Collectively they are called Igorots.

But despite being centrally located between between the much-visited Ilocos Region and the high-tourist-traffic Cagayan Valley which is popular for centuries old churches and exotic beaches , the provinces in the Cordilleras have limited entry points from neighboring towns and cities due to its topographic configuration mostly of steep slopes and mountain ranges. Abra is accessed via Vigan, Benguet via La Union, Apayao, Kalinga, and Mountain province via the eastern Cagayan Valley and Isabela.

Yet, this unique topography of mountains, valleys and rivers make the region a must-visit for travelers seeking adventure and wanting to soak in a different culture one can only experience by meeting ethnic people from the hinterlands.

HOW I DECIDED ON THIS ROUTE

On hindsight, I should not have taken a so unfamiliar route.  But then maybe something in me craved for the uncertain. The sense of adventure started when I did the Apayao-Kalinga route, another road less traveled. Normally, travelers would exit from Apayao from Luna town to Cagayan Valley, and enter Kalinga from there, via Tuguegarao. Instead, I took the mountain road to Kalinga, with traveler friends either advising me against it or warning me of the treacherous road, and that I must take extreme caution.

But then again, maybe I just have a taste for roads that pose a challenge. I went from Baler once to Manila via Bongabon, even while I could take the easy Pantabangan way. Yet, the lure of rugges roads in the rainforests thrilled me, so I drove my 4×4 then tru shallow rivers. On my last drive to this route, it is still beautiful, but now less exciting because the roads are now mostly paved.

And have you tried going to Baler from Nueva Vizcaya, via Quirino? That was also some experience.

I checked with locals. They said the route to Abra is via Balbalan. So some route exists. And it is only 173.5 kilometers. Hmmmm.

So here I am, wanting to go to Abra via another road less traveled. My friends actually said maybe it is  “roadless travel” when I told them about it.

 

START POINT: KALINGA

Kalinga province has rugged and sloping terrain, with mountains soaring to 2,500 meters. On its western side, which is on the route to its neighboring province of Abra, are sharp, rugged,  inter-linking peaks of steep slopes, plateaus and valleys, and rainforests. There are numerous rice terraces to awe visitors in the towns of Pasil and Balbalan.

Tabuk City Hall, Kalinga

DESTINATION: ABRA

Abra  is on  the  Western side of the massive Cordillera in Northern  Luzon. Its deep valleys and sloping hills are enclosed by rugged mountains,  except in the western portion where the Abra River flows towards the coastal plains of Ilocos Sur.  These rugged mountains are shared with the boundaries of the province of Kalinga.

TRAVEL SUMMARY:

At the end of my travel, I reassured friends who knew I was taking this route with a facebook post describing the adventure.

Route not recommended. I am probably just so adventurous, and foolish ( hehehe). And because I knew my 4×4 can handle the road. Total of 6 hours with maybe cumulative 30 minutes spread in different spots with mobile connection. Too many unpaved, very muddy roads on long stretches. Landslides in too many spots I stopped counting at 100. Too many portions where half of the road has nothing under the concrete – – the land must have been washed away. There is a portion where the car had to negotiate an elevated, unpaved road where on a wrong maneuver, the car could fall. And that is why we never saw public transport throughout the trip. Extreme adventure. But something in me says I can do it again. Call me crazy.

REWARDS: Beautiful Sceneries

Pasil

I first chanced chanced upon a beautiful, quaint cafe by the provincial road in Pasil  on the way to Lubuagan, Tinglayan and Bontoc. This is Bangyan 88, a cafe/resto  where, on the next bend to the right, one starts the journey to Abra.

The route starts with this nice, paved road.

From a nice, paved road, you will probably ask “where has the road gone?” And before me was a truck where locals hitched a ride, as there seems to be no public transportation. There is a little barangay I saw, but before and after that was long stretches of muddy roads.

To be fair, there are concrete roads, too. But they suddenly disappear.

On the way, cloud covered mountains and rice terraces.

Balbalan

Balbalan is the next town after Pasil. In fact, this was the defined gateway to Abra, The town of Balbalan covers a huge tract of land – – mountains, valleys, rivers, streams and plateaus. In fact, a national park, Balbalasang Balabalan National Park sits on the beautiful mountain called Mt Balbalasang, and is a major draw among adventure travelers.  Balbalan is also famous for its rice terraces.

 

 

It is in Balbalan where the roads get muddier, narrower, and where landslides on mountainsides become more frequent. A lot of the concreted roads also become unservice-able because the ground underneath has been eroded, making the roads “one way”.

 

 

 

A most scenic part of Balbalan is the Balbalasang area.

 

 

 

Onwards to ABRA

One never know when the roads from Balbalan ends or where it begins to be part of Abra. I kept looking for any signs of the provincial boundary. Nada. Most likely because the roads are in perpetual construction or repair.

There are many stretches of this road. Just half of the road is concrete. And we were constantly praying that no one is on out opposite direction because there was no way we or the other vehicle could move to the sides – – about 10 inches from the ground. Luckily, no one came the opposite way. And that is because no one seems to want to be on this route.

 

 

 

 

 

I FINALLY KNEW I WAS IN ABRA.

Because there was this “To Kalinga” sign, I knew I was in Abra.

 

But I was not quite in Bangued yet. I also saw an arc, and when I went past it, knew that the place I just passed was Malibcong in Abra, an area defined as an “ancestral domain”. Interesting.

 

I felt like I was back in civilization when I hit the next town.

 

 

And then I was in Bangued. Total travel time, including stops for photography was nearly 7 hours.

 

As I told my friends, this is a route I should not have taken. I wasn’t able to photograph a spot where our 4×4 crossed a road that was almost just as wide as the vehicle we were in, and we could have fallen if our wheels moved a few inches away on either side. Visualize this, and it would have been impossible for me to have taken a photo. Once past it, I was just so relieved that I completely forgot to take a snapshot of that road we passed thru, no matter how short.

But then I may be crazy enough to want to try this route again. Especially since I have done it once.

Apayao Province: Adventure Destination

Leave a comment

In my books, Apayao is a top adventure destination. It is so raw that very few travelers venture into this northermost Cordillera province. Admittedly not an easy destination. But its remoteness adds to the adventure.

 

Apayao is bounded on the north and on the east by Cagayan. That is why it was, for a time, part of Cagayan. To its west is Ilocos and Abra. To the south is the province of Kalinga which was, also for a time, part of the Kalinga-Apayao province.

One would think that the asy access would be from Ilocos. There is none. Or from Abra. Think again. Apayao is accessed via Cagayan Valley, from the toen of Pamplona, in particular.

Thus, the adventurous visitor will have to travel all the way to Pagudpud in Ilocos Norte, cross Patapat, and drive on to the Cagayan towns of Sta Praxedes, Claveria, Sanchez Mira, and Pamplona. The junction in Pamplona leads to the first and most progressive town of Luna, Apayao.

One must make arrangements for accommodations before traveling to Apayao as there are not many. Again, that is characteristic of places where one goes on an adventure.

PLACES TO SEE

Marag Valley  is a haven for adventure travelers. Proceed to the Tourism Center in Marag Valley which is easy to find because it is within the barangay’s basketball court. Make arrangements to tour the Dupag Rock Formations, the Hanging Bridge, and the Manacota Underground River.

Dupag Rock Formation

If you are extremely fit and athletic, take the hard route. As for me, I felt that the easy route was actually hard. Wear shoes or sandals with great grip and traction as the rocks could be slippery. Do not go without a guide, as you will need him/them as human ladders.

The rock formations are accessed after crossing a shallow river.

 

 

Hanging Bridge

Not quite an adventure, but definitely a must see, even just for photography. A hut on the foot of the bridge serves as Visitors Center. List down, and make a donation. You can also arrange a picnic on a floating hut on the river.

 

 

Manacota Underground River

This is, to me, the better one of the two underground rivers in Apayao. Hike for 1.5 kilometers, crossing the same river 7x moving from one side of the river to the other, because in some parts the other end would be rocks and boulders where you can not hike. One river crossing would be nearly waist deep. Make sure you wear quick-dry shirts and shorts

Second river crossing was waist deep. And 5 more river crossings after this.

The reward from the long hike is the beautiful mouth of the river. Going in is even more pleasurable, as the narrow boat navigates in between rocks and boulders INSIDE THE CAVE. No this is not like Puerto Princesa.

The end of the underground river cruise is a beautiful spot that looks like paradise. You may want to swim there, or just stay to immerse in the beauty of nature.

Lussok Underground River

This is easier to access. We parked our 4×4 right into the grounds where the tourism desk is. There is also a toilet for visitors here. Access is easier as there is no hike, but the roadworks have not been completed so we drove our 4X4 onto a shallow river and muddy roads. 

The cruise into the cave is steadier, as the boat has a balancer (bamboo poles on its side, but not really outriggers. It was so steady the guide stood on the other end of the boat. 

Start point for spelunking

Pudtol Ruins

This is found behind the Municipal Hall of Pudtol, within the school compund, right beside the church. This was an old Spanisg church built with the intention of Christianizing the indigenous Isnegs. Another church ruins can be found in Mataguisi, a different barangay in Pudtol.

Where to Stay

Star Jewel
Hands down, it will have to be Star Jewel. The proprietor, Josefina, is a retired nurse. Basic accommodations, but nice and clean, and airconditioned. meals can be arranged. The dining room is folksy, and there is a videoke for free use of guests.


Another Option
Big groups may want to stay at the cottages operated by the Tourism Office. Each cottage can have as many as 10pax for P2,500 a night. There are many such cottages, each one with its own dining room and a living area.


Contact the Toursim office thru their facebook page
https://www.facebook.com/apayaotourismoffice/

 

Manacota Underground River in Apayao

3 Comments

There are two (2) underground rivers I visited in Apayao. Lussok and Manacota. For some reason, Lussok is more popular. As for me, Manacota is a better choice if one has to see only one.

Manacota is within the Marag Valley tourism package, which included the acsent to the Dupag Rock Formations and the Hanging Bridge.

To get to the mouth of the cave, one has to hike for 1.5 kilometers and cross the same river seven times (7X). Why, you might ask, must anyone cross the same river 7x? That is because in some parts, the edge of the river would be rocks and boulders you can not walk on, and so you must cross. Repeat this scenario as many times and you end up crossing the river 7x. Alas, I thought it was more than 7, and the guide said they were not counting just getting wet walking in the river, on its sides. Just crossing from one side to the other is 7x.

Start of the trek

 

First river crossing, thru a small dam

 

Second river crossing was waist deep. And 5 more river crossings after this.

At the end of the river crossings, we saw this sign that enjoins visitors to preserve Manacota.

 

The fatigue from walking and crossing rivers is compensated by the beauty of the destination. And it was still just the mouth of the cave. So serene. beautiful.

We then boarded the boat without outriggers into the cave. This was realyy some adventure. The boat without outriggers was navigating thru rocks and boulders inside the cave. Some passages were so narrow it was just enough for the width of the boat.

The end point was even more worth it. It looked like paradise. The waters were stronger and the boat had to be anchored on one side of the cave to protect it from the rushing waters. We got off and saw some portions of the river so clear, so clean, and actually inviting guests for a swim. Perfect spot that we wished we could stay there longer and gave a picnic.

 

 

 

But we had to go back as another set of visitors had to use the boat for the same beautiful experience.

From the cave and into its mouth again

The trek back was easier, even as we were more tired. We were looking forward to a sumptuous second lunch (hahaha) that we arranged for the wife of the barangay captain to cook for us. Surely, some nourishment after this tiring but worthwhile adventure.

 

our guides, and the barangay captain

Pudtol Church Ruins in Apayao

1 Comment

Pudtol is about 20 minutes drive from Luna town proper.

Do not ask the locals about the ruins. Chances are they are unmindful of its significance. To get there, ask instead for directions to the Pudtol Municipal Hall, and you will find a church and school at the back. On the right side of the church are the ruins.

From online sources, the church  was built in the 1600’s by Spanish missionaries to convert the locals, known as Isnegs, to Christianity.  Today, the Isnegs comprise a good majority of the indigenous people of the province of Apayao, even if about half of its population are Ilocanos. At some point, this church was abandoned, and eventually deteriorated. Today, only the ruins tell of that story about early attempts to Christianize the indigenous tribes of the cordilleras.

Within Pudtol town, there are two church ruins – – the other one in Mataguisi. I actually went to Pudtol as a side trip on my way to Kabugao, and for some reson missed mataguisi, in spite of seeing the Mataguisi signs early on.

Pudtol can be visited on its own from Luna town. But if one is on his way to Kabugao or to Kalinga Province, then Pudtol will be an easy side trip since it will be on the way.

Hanging Bridge in Marag Valley

Leave a comment

Yes, it is but a bridge. But in beautiful Marag Valley, the hanging bridge takes on a special persona. Because of the general feel of the river and the fields, crossing the hanging bridge becomes an urge. I am told that single motorbikes even cross the bridge  – – I can not imagine how, but I believe.

There is a small hut that serves as a visitor’s center. One needs to register, and make a donation. Gladly.

Not much to say, and I think the photos will invite you to see the bridge. Or maybe have a picnic on a floating hut.

Have a picnic on this hut that can float into the clean waters of the river

 

Register, and drop something in the Donation Box for the maintenance and improvement of the hanging bridge

 

 

 

Dupag Rock Formations in Marag Valley, Apayao

4 Comments

Bar none, this is the top draw when any traveler goes to Apayao.

First, for its sheer beauty. Second, for the challenge one has to take to conquer the rocks.

I am 61 years old, and a regular adventure traveler. And so the guide asked whether I am up to climbing Dupag using the hard route. Instinct told me to take the easy route.

The easy route was not at all easy. Even while I was blessed with good weather (a group of friends went 2 weeks earlier but did not make it to the rocks because of incessant rains), the climb was still difficult because the rocks were still rather slippery. I was wearing a good pair of sandals, but for some reason, my soles would slip. Thus, I had to do it more slowly, hanging on to trees and shrubs along the way, and clinging on to rock surfaces.

 

Higher into the climb, I was beginning to ask myself if I could make it, or retreat and go back down. But heck, I was there already, so I persisted and climbed some more. No harness. And the climb meant inserting my feet, usually just my toes, into tiny crevices of the rocks. And holding fast to the sides of two rocks, if not to the sharp ends of the top surfaces.

Moving from one section to the next is a bigger challenge. To go beyond one rock that looked like a giant blade into the next rock, one could fall. But our able guide perched himself between two rocks and asked me to use his thighs as a step. OMG! If he fell from my weight, we would both fall down. On top of that, I had to hang on for dear life to the top surface of another rock while stepping on his thighs. But I made it to the next spot.

I had lots of water for sustenance. And in many parts, I felt like the wind wasn’t at all blowing, the leaves on the fields still, and so I was gasping for breath, needing oxygen. I fanned myself using my baseball cap. And was unashamed to tell the guide I needed to rest to recover so I can go on.

Finally we made it. Success !

With the difficulty and all, I think I will do it again when I re-visit Apayao. Especially since I have made it once, and know exactly what to expect the next time.

How to get there

From Luna town, visit the Tourism Center in Marag, near the basketball court, about 15-20 minutes from Luna town center. Register and they will provide a guide and head gear for safety.

 

From the visitor center, we were guide to Dupag.

Vehicles are parked at a point before everyone has to cross a shallow river. There is a small hut afterwards, but it served its purpose better on our return, to rest a little bit.

Rest Area

Somewhere near the rest area was a hut where an old man lived, and he showed us a lambanog (fermented coconut wine) with ginseng and real cobra inside.

a real COBRA drink

Lunch

Had lunch in a small carinderia near the basketball court.

VISIT MARAG VALLEY

There are other attractions within Marag Valley. Like the Hanging Bridge, and the Manacota Underground River. Will be writing about these attractions, too. Meanwhile, I had to take a souvenir shot to prove my conquest of Dupag.

Lussok Cave and Underground River, Luna Apayao

Leave a comment

Prior to traveling to Apayao, I researched on “must see” places and Lussok is one of the Top 3. Thus, I made sure this was going to be part of my itinerary.

LUNA, APAYAO
This cave and underground river system is in the town of Luna, the first town one will hit when traveling to Apayao from Cagayan Valley, the easiest access to this province. Thus, Luna town has become the de facto provincial capital. In fact, the government center has moved from the official capital town of Kabugao to Luna.

On the rocky slope of Barangay Dagupan one will find this  this multi-chamber cave  with beautiful centuries-old stalactites and stalagmites, with crystals embedded. Thus Lussok is also called Lussok Crystal Caves.  The visit is via a boat without outriggers, on calm and placid waters from the opening of the river unto the end.

 

Our boat had a boatman and a guide who brought in a flashlight, admittedly rather weak, but enough to show us the images created by the rock formations – the Blessed Virgin Mary, fruits and veges, animals, and faces . The water was so still our guide was standing on the front end of the boat.

 

IMG_4577

IMG_4580

SPELUNKING

The Lussok caving adventure has three options for spelunking, with easy, moderate and hard routes.  The trail eventually leads to a bridge  above the entrance to the caves, visible to everyone going into the cave by boat.

Start point for spelunking

ACCESS TO LUSSOK

I understand from previous stories that Lussok was difficult to access. But with roads done, this cave system will soon be more accessible. On my visit, we drove our 4X4 all the way to the compound where they accept visitors to the cave. But that was after traversing a shallow river and muddy roads because the road has not been completed. I assume that in the next many months, Lussok will be most accessible.

 

The Visitor Center

 

literally: Apayao, Be Proud of It (Apayao: Ipagmalaki)