Kalinga to Abra : Extreme Roadtrip

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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.

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.

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