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At Long Last, Balbalasang, KalingaJun 21-25, 2011

At Long Last, Balbalasang, Kalinga

The Next Sagada
My curiosity about Balbalasang started years ago when I noticed the brimming construction taking place in Sagada. I started asking well-travelled people, "If Sagada becomes the next Baguio, what is the next Sagada?". All of them, without missing a beat, answered, "Balbalasang". Since then, I've attempted a few tries to backpack the area but something always happens to thwart it. Ironically, I'm making it happen now, now that I'm in Dumaguete and not while I was still living in Sagada.

Gold Mining
While at the mining town of Sabangan Biyao enroute to Balbalasang, one local prided himself that they don't use cyanide anymore to extract the gold. He said they now use mercury, as though mercury is an ecological solution. I told him of the hazards of using mercury. I narrated to him the horrors of the Minamata Disease in Japan back in 1956 - that mercury spilled in the river by a chemical plant found its way into the food chain - the micro-organisms to fishes and ultimately to humans. Babies were born with no legs, no eyes, etc. His reaction was immediate. He was pissed at me. In a reprimanding tone, he harshly exclaimed, "So how the hell are we supposed to get the gold?" His sentiment despite the inevitable hazard spoke volumes to me. I just shook my head and turned somewhere else.

Banao Tribe
Balbalasang is the domain of the Banao people, noted to be the gentle tribe amongst the fierce tribes of Kalinga. Since I was there as a passing tourist with minimal interaction with them, I can only go with superficial impressions.

Itinerary Out of Balbalasang
Upon arriving, I already tried figuring out my route out of Balbalasang. I had a few options. One, go back to Balbalan but take the Pinukpuk route into Tabuc. From Tabuc, I would just figure out where I go next. Two, I could cut through the mountain range into Abra, arriving at Bangued, the capital. I chose option 2, only to be told that there's only 1 jeep plying that route every Saturday. Saturday? But it's only Tuesday! I get stuck here for 5 days? I still went for option 2 thinking there's a lot I can do in Balbalasang.

Mountain Hamlet
The first thing I noticed about Balbalasang is its raw and simple beauty - an undeveloped quaint village along a clean river tucked neatly on a mountain range. It's so isolated deep within the mountain that the nearest city to its west is 5 hours (Bangued) and maybe 7 hours to its east (Tabuc). There is no passage from the north or south. A landslide on the two connecting roads and you can be stranded for days.

Mismanaged Expectation
The second thing I noticed is that Balbalasang has no tourism infrastructure except for its guest house. There were no restaurants, no cafes, no chillout places...heck, there were no tourists! It almost felt like intruding into a private home. Now, I get it when they said it could be the next Sagada. I guess what I expected was the Sagada I saw when I first visited in the early 80s - just a sprinkling of intrepid backpackers, a main chillout place where tourists would gather at night and share travel stories.

Hurting for Interaction
Being stranded there for a week with a guide that didn't show up, it became an issue for me. I started looking for interaction. No passing tourist to talk to, and the locals were too busy. Often, I'd find myself on my front porch re-reading Herman Hesse's Siddharta - a book I've read too many times over.

Barangay Clearance
I was advised that it would be a good gesture to introduce myself to the barangay captain...a sort of respect. I did. He was accommodating. Then he told me he'll issue a barangay clearance certificate that I should carry with me at all times! Huh? He also added that unless with a guide, that I should not stray too far from the barangay boundaries. Hmmm. I've always known that there are insurgent elements in the nearby mountains. Perhaps there was a recent military encounter, thus the new measure? Even the locals I talked to didn't know of that policy. Anyway, nobody came to give me the promised clearance.

A Place to Stay
Enroute, I was unsure if I could find lodging in Balbalasang. I heard many versions. I was told there was a guest house, but I was also told that the guest house already burned. I didn't come this far to back out. Worse case, I'll talk to the barangay captain if I can't find lodging. Turns out, both versions were true. There is a guest house that burned, but only the chimney burned, after a gung-ho guest fed too much firewood, the fire went up the chimney and burned the roof! But the guest house was still very usable. At P250/night with free use of the kitchen, it was a good deal.

The Kitchen Deal
When I was told that there was no market to buy food from, I paniced. Where do I get my food? There were no restaurants or cafes around. I asked the lady if she can cook my meals for a fee. She said P50/meal. Done! She only did it once after I realized I could still buy canned goods in sari-sari stores. But here's the interesting part. On that one meal, she showed up with a friend. The two of them prepared dinner. When I got the bill upon my departure, I was billed P50/cook for labor! So, with her friend, it was already P100, just for labor...not including the food. Then there was additional charge for all the ingredients used in the meal. I forget the total amount, but that single meal amounted to something slightly over P200! Since I was already leaving, I didn't care too much about 'offending' them anymore. I only gave P50.

Micro Hydro
The Sibat NGO helped build a micro hydro in Balbalasang to power the town and adjacent areas as well. It used to be owned by the church, but it has been handed to the local government. It breaks down every once in while and parts need to be procured in Tabuc - a long trip through the mountain roads. It has been 3 weeks of no power since I arrived. With its increasing maintenance problem, the local government wants to give it back to the church. The church is saying, "No thank you."

The 2 Guides
I waited for days for the promised guide. He never showed up. Instead, 2 guys came over and said they were the substitute guides. They wanted to be paid individually. Without outrightly turning one away, I asked them why it's necessary for 2 guides to guide 1 person. They just smiled. I had to remind myself that I'm still in Kalinga country. It was a choice of sending off one of the guides and offend him, or just pay the extra fee. I chose the later for prudent measure - but I was pissed. They promised an 8:00 am to 2:00 pm hike. So we started out at 8, but were already back by 10:00 am. Of course they wanted full pay! Enough said.

Saturday Trip Out of Balbalasang
After a week of mismanaged expectation, I couldn't wait to be out of Balbalasang. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go (no waterfall, no caves...I asked), no guide to take me around, hardly anyone to talk to, etc. I even looked for the house of the jeep driver to make sure he is actually making that trip to Abra on Saturday. When he did show up, I was up and ready for my trip to Bangued! Little did I know that that 3 hour trip would turn into 7 hours!

--- TheLoneRider

How to Get to Balbalasang from Balbalan
  1. Wait for the 10:30 am jeep at the talipapa junction. Don't take a chance that the jeep will go to poblacion. P100, 3 hours.
Travel Tips:
  • Balbalasang Guest House - P250/person/room,
  • ask more than one person for any questions. You'll get different answers. Follow the common denominator. Don't take chances. Missing anything may mean 1 more day.
  • top load yourself!

01topload 02rice_terraces 03blind_curve 04pantikian_proper
05tight_squeeze 06mountain_road 07sabangan_biyao 08polluted_river
09balbalasang 10balbalasang_village 11guesthouse_bedroom 12balbalasang_guesthouse
13town_church 14front_porch 15rice_granary 16river
17hammock 18water_source 19pigs 20clean_river
21book_reading 22hotel_guests 23bonfire 24cowshit_shroom
25rest_stop 26hiking_guides 27river_crossing 28micro_hydro

These guys like this story:


Tiu de Guzman







Gibo Trebs







Tina DcTina Dc
(Aug 23, 2011) ...interesting journey. Reading your travel blog makes me not forget what I wanted to do, places I keep in mind to visit in this lifetime, that is if the universe permits. Thank you for sharing the experience.

Ivan SarenasIvan Sarenas
(Aug 17, 2011) The best campsite is the point of land where the two rivers meet, below the cemetery. enjoy pards!

"How's the birdlife there?"
(Aug 17, 2011) I could imagine there would be birds to be spotted there although I didn't really take notice. Hunting is still practised there, tho. My two guides were actually hunters.

Fredd OchavoFredd Ochavo
(Aug 17, 2011) How's the birdlife there?

"pa-share ha?"
(Aug 16, 2011) go nuts, Haidee! :)

Haidee Mia BustillosHaidee Mia Bustillos
(Aug 16, 2011) Git, pa-share ha?

Aarone SunglaoAarone Sunglao
(Aug 16, 2011) Sa wakas! Ilista na yan sa mga dapat puntahan.

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