Star Jewel Lodge in Apayao

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It is a jewel. And I am happy to have found it.

Star Jewel is, to me, the best place to stay in Apayao. It is in Luna town, the first town the traveler will hit when entering Apayao via the usual and fastest way – –  from Pamplona in Cagayan Valley.

 

First town from Cagayan Valley

The place is comfortable, homey, and friendly. No frills. No fuzz. I rate it 5 stars not because of its rooms nor its facilities. No, no way it compares with the best hotels. But it is perfect for travelers like me wanting to experience the rugged beauty of the province of Tuguegarao.

It is a nice place to come home to after rock climbing, after crossing rivers, after spelunking or just taking boat rides thru underground rivers. It is a nice place to have a beer, and a chat with other guests with the same passion and interest. And for warm, small talk with the owner, retired nurse Josefina, and her staff.

owner Josefina, retired nurse

Josefina tells me that when she started the business, it was billed as “homestay”. Because that was how the hospitality business started in Apayao when there were only a few visitors, and no real hotels. Realizing that homestays mean accommodating visitors into your own home, and because she has built private rooms for guests, she then called it, appropriately, a lodge. Star Jewel Lodge. And because of her facilities, the lodge is accredited by the Department of Tourism.

I arrived around 7pm because travel to Apayao is really long. Travelers from Manila will have to take NLEX SCTEX TPLEX and drive on all the way to Pagudpud and to the  Cagayan Valley towns of Sta Praxedes, Claveria, Sanchez Mira, and Pamplona. It is in Pamplona where there is a junction to Apayao with Luna as the first town.

The late arrival, tired from travel, was met with a pleasant dinner of crabs and adobo, plus seaweeds salad, and bananas for dessert.

My room was clean and nice, I mean nicer than I expected since Apayao is a poor and remote province. My room had aircondtioning, a nice bed (actually 2 beds), a proper toilet with shower and toiletries.

 

The common dining area was simple and folksy, complete with a videoke for visitors, at no extra charge. Coffee is always available and one only needs to get some from the thermos. Drinking water is purified.

Breakfast can also be arranged, as I did.

Exploring Apayao’s rock formations, underground rivers and other interesting spots will necessitae staying at Star Jewel at least two nights. Thus, plan your trip well, and book the nights you will need. Because you might otherwise have to stay somewhere with less than the comforts and atmosphere of Star Jewel.

Josefina does not always have her mobile phone with her. So you need to persevere and keep calling. Better yet, send her a text message so you know you get your reservation across, and continue to call to confirm, if she hasn’t returned the call.

As I checked out after 2 nights for my long journey to Kalinga, Josefina gave me plenty of suman (rice cakes)  as my baon. Wonderful, thoughtful lady indeed. 

I felt so enamored I wanted to review them on tripadvisor, but they were not listed. So I listed Star Jewel on tripadvisor and, hopefully, they will be so listed. I will be back to Star Jewel. For the suman. And for the warm welcome.

visit their facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/STAR-JEWEL-LODGE-830464200351918/

Road Trip: Apayao to Kalinga

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November 14, 2017 I posted on my facebook wall

And,  immediately, my well meaning friends who only recently visited Apayao and Kalinga gave me friendly advice:

“Ingat sa daan… expect the unexpected”

“be very careful. the road is very treacherous.”

“Via Pudtol-Kabugao-Conner-Tabuk…. yan ang tunay na adventurer….”

That is because I was going from Apayao to Kalinga on a route less traveled. My friends who recently visited, and other sets of friends who visited Apayao and Kalinga, would eventually exit from Apayao thru Cagayan Valley and enter Kalinga thru Tuguegarao.

In fact, when  I wanted to estimate the distance and travel time thru waze, the app was responding via the route always taken: exit thru Pamplona and then enter Kalinga thru Tuguegarao. Waze would not recommend the route.

Then I tried to calculate travel time to Conner, the last town in Apayao that shares boundaries with the first town of Pinukpuk in Kalinga, and waze again calculated using the entry via Tuguegarao. Made me think the roads are impassable.

Starting point: Star Jewel Lodge

A chance encounter with a guest at the lodge I was staying in made me decide to take the Apayao to Kalinga route. The gentleman is from Conner. He said the roads are good, but the concern was that there is a long stretch of mountain roads where there was no mobile signal, and where there were no homes or communities. That if something goes wrong, the traveler will be helpless.

I also asked a friend who lived in Tabuk if the road from Pinukpuk to Tabuk was good. She said yes.

And so armed with this info, I made sure I had enough water and food, just in case something goes wrong.  And off I went.

From Luna in Apayao, the next town was Pudtol. It was a good stop to take a photo of the ruins of the old church.

 

Ruins of an old church in Pudtol, the most visited spot on this town

From Pudtol we started ascending the mountain road that led to Kabugao, the capital of Apayao. And then to Conner, the last town.

 

I realized, too, that in Apayao, there are cattle ranches.

 

From Conner, I saw the uphill road to Kalinga, starting from the town of Pinukpuk. And then it was on to Tabuk, the capital of Kalinga.

No wonder waze points to the route via Cagayan. This is a point where Kalinga, Apayao, and Cagayan meet.

 

The welcome sign at PINUKPUK,  the first Kalinga town from this route.

 

Travelers will then have the Chico River throughout the route, all the way to Tabuk City

 

The roads are used to dry either rice or corn

 

a business establishment in Pinukpuk

 

Finally, TABUK

Tabuk City Hall

Travel time, including stops, was 5 hours. The roads were alternately good and bad, mostly good. The views were fantastic, and more than made up for the uncertainty, and the potential danger.

Having taken this route, I now know that, with a reliable 4X4, this road is actually easy. Exciting. And scenic.

Kalinga

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Kalinga is a landlocked province within the Cordillera region. Prior to 1995, it was part of Kalinga Apayao. Apayao, now a separate province is north of Kalinga.

Kalinga has rugged and sloping terrain.  with mountain peaks ranging from 1,500 to 2,500 meters high. Its western side, towards the province of Abra, has sharp, crested, interlinking peaks of steep slopes, isolated flatlands, plateaus and valleys. Mount Balbalasang, a national park within the town of Balbalan is on this side.

Cordillera

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Mt. Balbalasang in Balbalan

Typically one goes to Kalinga and hike to the town of Buscalan to witness Wang Od, most popular for her art of tattoos. Even local and international celebrity have come to be tattooed by this now legendary woman.

But I choose to write about Kalinga and how it has been so blessed by mother nature.

RICE TERRACES

Kalinga boasts of majestic rice terraces. All over the province. In every town. Huge ones and rather small patches.

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CHICO RIVER

Chico River dominates Kalinga. It is a source of water, and a source of pride.

The most extensive river in the Cordillera region, it covers the provinces of Mountain ProvinceKalinga and Cagayan. It is referred to as a “river of life” for the Kalinga people who live on its banks, and is well known among development workers because of the Cico River Dam Project, an electric power generation project which local residents resisted for three decades before it was finally shelved in the 1980s – a landmark case study concerning ancestral domain issues in the Philippines.

It is also the most famous river for whitewater rafting. I have a set of friends who would set out for their annual whitewater adventure every year, on New Year’s day.

TABUK, the only other city in the Cordilleras after Baguio City

The capital of Kalinga is Tabuk City. It does look like any provincial city, with many hotels, restaurants and malls.

 

Tabuk City Hall

Within Tabuk is an interesting bridge that contrasts the old and the new.

My hotel of choice in Kalinga is Grand Zion.

Grand Zion Hotel

LUBUAGAN

A most interesting town to visit is historic Lubuagan, once the capital of Kalinga and also once the seat of the Third Philippine Republic when then president General Emilio Aguinaldo based himself in this small town for several days.  It laso had the first educational institutions in the region, and naturally had wealthier homes as it was then the trading center.

BALBALAN

Balbalan is a hard-to-reach town towards the west of Kalinga. It is famous for its rice terraces and the Balbalasang-Balbalan National Park at Mt. Balbalasang

 

The towns of Pasil and Tanudan are also interesting destinations for their rice terraces. However access to most towns is difficult as most roads are eroded and, therefore, muddy for the most part.

 

 

My Route to Kalinga
Most people go to Kalinga via Tuguegarao. Admittedly, this is the easiest way. But the more adventurous can also approach Kalinga from Apayao, or from Abra. The roads to and from Abra or Apayao are not recommended for those who want to take it easy. But that will be another story, and I shall be writing about my travels thru these routes less-traveled.

This welcome sign greeted me when I came from Apayao

Pasil in Kalinga

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Pasil is a 5th class municipality in Kalinga.

My journey to Pasil started when I chanced upon a beautiful, quaint cafe by the provincial road on the way to Lubuagan, Tinglayan and Bontoc. This is Bangyan 88, a cafe/resto I am writing separately about. Found out that that spot in Pasil is practically the only point in this town that is easy to reach.

 

Turning right from Bangyan 88 leads to another provincial road that actually goes to Abra. The road starts as one beautiful concrete road with beautiful sceneries. 

And then the roads quickly changed. It felt like a different place.

I arrived in the barangay called Ableg where I saw a truck with locals as hitch hikers. The truck passed thru muddy dirt roads with cascading water from the mountains in certain sections.

Had t do a u-turn within a community to get to the other side of the mountain, to continue my journey. Until I got to 2 kms to the town proper.

There are stretches of concreted roads. But any traveler will have more vivid memories of how difficult the unpaved, muddy roads are to negotiate. In most parts, one wonders whether or not to go on, or just turn back.

I also saw the barangay called Balinciagao.

And maybe other barangays the signboards of which I chose to not mind, with myself concentrated on how to negotiate this extreme adventure on muddy roads.

While difficult, one is rewarded with sights of clouds covered mountains and rice terraces here and there.

The next town after Pasil, on the same road, is Balbalan. And that will be another story.

Balbalan, Kalinga

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I first saw the sign “To Balbalan” from Pinukpuk, the first town in Kalinga from Apayao. But I was so tired I decided to skip this town I had earlier planned to see, thinking I can do it another day. Or maybe even skip it for other places in Kalinga.

But then Balbalan cropped up again in my conversations with the owners and managers of Gran Zion, the hotel I checked into. It was supposed to be the best route to Abra which I wanted as my exit point from Kalinga.

So off to Balbalan I went. Via the provincial road thru Pasil.

 

 

After the long, almost torturous ride thru unpaved and muddy roads in Pasil, even with some stretches of concreted roads, I was at that point where I would have turned if I took the way from Pinukpuk to Balbalan. Now I am imagining – – could the roads have been better? or even more difficult? Oh well.

Balbalan is famous for its rice terraces. And also for Mt. Balbalasang which is where the Balbalasang Balbalan National Park sits. I have a separate story about Balbalasang.

Balbalan is a 3rd class municipality and, according to Wikipedia, “draws its name from an ancient practice. It was said that war parties coming from certain areas in northern Kalinga (probably, the ancient place of Salegseg) used to meet by a creek when mapping out their plan of attack against or when regrouping after attacking a certain village. Since they would always wash (balbal, in the local dialect) their blood-stained bodies and weapons in the creek, the place and its adjacent areas came to be known as Balbalan. Since its tribal war days, Balbalan has become one of the most peaceful place in Kalinga as dramatized by the selection of one of its ethnic sub-groups, the Salegseg.”

The town has 14 barangays, the farthest of which borders Abra province.

 

At the other end of Balbalan , one finds this signage in Abra.

This town in the mountains of Kalinga is very sparsely populated. In the 2015 census, the population of Balbalan was 12,195 people, with a density of 22 inhabitants per square kilometre. Truly an adventure traveling thru its mountain rods and hardly seeing anyone on long stretches.

Balbalasang, Balbalan in Kalinga

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Balbalasang is a barangay within Mount Balbalasang in the town of Balbalan, Kalinga.

At the heart of this barangay is the Balbalasang Balbalan National Park, dubbed as “the green heart of the Cordillera”

From wikipedia:

“The Park belongs to the Luzon Biogeographic Region, a unique center of endemism in Luzon. It is composed of two mountain ranges within the Cordillera Central with numerous rivers and creeks all draining towards the Saltan River. Mount Sapocoy is the highest peak at 2,456 meters. It is located at the western boundary of the park overlooking the Ilocos and Cagayan Valley. The lowest point in the park, with an elevation of 700 meters, is at Balbalan in the eastern portion.

An important center for biodiversity conservation, the park is home to 89 species of birds, of which 39 are endemic to the Philippines and 2 of them can only be found in Luzon, the Isabela oriole (Oriolus isabellae) and flame-breasted fruit dove (Ptilinopus marchei). While none of the recorded species in the park is critical or endangered, four species of birds are categorized vulnerable (2002 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species), among them are the whiskered pitta (Pitta kochi), Luzon water-redstart (Ryacornis bicolor) and Luzon jungle flycatcher (Rhinomyas insignis).

In addition, 23 species of mammals, 13 species of amphibians, 13 species of reptiles and 25 species of earthworms have also been documented. Among them are the Philippine warty pigLuzon striped ratNorthern Luzon giant cloud ratKalinga narrowmouth toad, and Luzon narrow-mouthed frog. Two of these mammal species are listed as endangered, namely the Luzon pygmy fruit bat and the Luzon bushy-tailed cloud rat.

At elevations above 1,000 m., the park consists of hardwood, pine and mossy forests. A species of Rafflesia flower has also been discovered in the park. ”

boyplakwatsa chanced upon this beautiful site on way to Abra via the provincial road that traverses Balbalan.

A beautiful community sits beside the rice terraces

As I understand it, the mountain park is presently closed for climbers. But no one is stopped from visiting this beautiful, albeit extremely hard to visit, barangay.

An onward journey takes one to even more rugged, muddy mountain roads leading to a town in Abra for indigenous people.

Bangyan House in Pasil, Kalinga

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Driving from Tabuk, the capital city of Kalinga on my way to the historic town of Lubuagan, my attention was caught by a prominent sign on the road within the town of Pasil, right before Lubuagan. The sign shouts Bangyan 88. And right there on the roadside sits a cottage that is actually a cafe and restaurant. I couldn’t resist the looks of the cafe, especially the al fresco seating on the veranda. Nice spot for coffee. 

The posts used are those of giant ferns called bangyan, thus, the name of the cafe.

Visitors can not but be curious with the structures surrounding, and actually part of the property. A tree house, a hut, and a stone house that serves as the souvenir shop.

There are earthenware displayed, including old ones and some rather new ones with interesting design. I ended up buying instead a lady’s costume belt used by Kalinga women when they dress up. I figured I could use this as accent when my female guests don tribal wear in my rest house south of Manila. Kinda expensive at P1,500 a piece, but this is done via an elaborate backstrap weaving in the nearby town of Lubuagan.

MENU
Went inside the restaurant to check on the menu, even though I was just there for coffee. Interesting dishes.

I pretty much know most of the dishes, but learned about the others I am not familiar with.

Tinuno is inihaw na baboy
Dinakdakan is a blend of pig’s ears, tongue, and brain sprinkled with diced onions, ginger, vinegar, and salt

Surely I will stop again next time. And most likely will have enough appetite for dinakdakan.


Visit their facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/pg/88-Bangyan-House-1607271369543579/posts/?ref=page_internal