For the longest time, the Antique Rice Terraces remained undiscovered. Locals were aware of its existence, but never really gave it a second thought. For them, it was just a field in their backyard that they tilled to get rice for their everyday needs.
If it weren’t for Prof. Emman Lerona of UP Visayas, it probably would have never gotten the attention of social media. Lerona, along with Flord Calawag of Katahum Tours, embarked to find the place after noticing a patch of squiggly lines on GoogleEarth. They went on an exploratory mission to seek out what lay there and were amazed to find perfectly preserved rice terraces spread out in a 600-hectare area in Gen. Fullon, a remote mountain village in San Remigio, Antique.
While the Banaue Rice Terraces are a major tourist attraction in the country, the main reason this has remained a secret is the community’s remoteness. Getting to the village is no walk in the park. At present, there are no paved roads anywhere near the area and there likely won’t be anytime soon. Getting there can only be done on foot on an 18-km long winding dirt path, crossing streams, uphill trails and give or take five mountains. Most visitors take 4-5 hours to hike there (one way). We were told that it took a local TV Crew 7 hours because they stopped to take drone shots.
We start our hike bright and early in a sari-sari store in the town of Valderrama. The first stretch is relatively easy, except for a few portions where landslides make the trail a bit tricky. We make a brief stop at a water source right before where the trail is all uphill.
Locals fashion us some hiking sticks from bamboo poles, which I find are a huge help navigating the terrain. Our group gets stretched as we walk, the fast hikers taking an early lead, while the rest of us managing to get by at a more leisurely pace. Most of the trail is forested, but sweat runs down my forehead from the exertion. However, the view of fields and mountains, birds chirping and perfectly sunny skies throughout the morning especially in the trail right next to the cliffs make the effort all worth it.
After 3.5 – 4 hours of walking, we finally reach a community. In one of the houses, we’re greeted with a bowl of the sweetest langka (jackfruit) I’ve ever tasted, freshly picked from a tree and bunch of mountain bananas. The owner of the house puts a kettle of water over a charcoal stove to boil water for us to enjoy some hot coffee.
Less than 200 families reside in the community at the foothills of the terraces, and many still practice subsistence living, just living off the land. Brgy. General Fullon is located just beside two waterfalls – Iglangit Falls and Igtamoni Falls, which irrigates the rice fields. The Sibalom river is abundant with freshwater fish and shrimp. Locals still hunt wild boar and other animals for meat while taking care of native chickens and pigs for livestock.
As we feast on the sticky langka, one of the locals shows us a purple flower called garlic vine. When there’s no garlic, they use it to flavor their food. I take a whiff and the flower and the leaves indeed have a distinct pungent scent. He lights up a cigarette rolled from tobacco grown in the fields, which are drying right outside the house.
A few houses away, we stop for early lunch at the house of the village chieftain and tribal leader. It’s a simple meal of native chicken tinola, monggo and rice. We’re distracted by the cats underfoot, including a very cute kitten who takes offense to being unceremoniously shaken like a baby and picked up repeatedly.
After another 30 minute trek, we arrive at the homestay where we’ll be spending the night. It’s a two-story house beside a basketball court, always a staple in every small town. Rows of corn line the ceiling waiting to dry, and a couple of dogs greet us enthusiastically as we leave our bags inside on the second floor hallway. Then, we head to the village’s school. Our visit coincided with the donation of school supplies from PART (Philippines Aid & Relief from Tasmania) Foundation to pupils here through the efforts of Prof. Emman and Katahum Tours and we’re asked to take part in a small turnover ceremony.
During our hike, we noticed large metal posts (which took 10 men each to carry), along the trail. These are part of an ongoing electrification project. But for now, there’s no electricity in the community. A generator is turned on from 6 to 9 pm just so locals have a source of light to prepare and eat dinner. There’s no cellphone signal, no TV and no WiFi. Instead, children play actual games instead of being glued to gadgets.
The children aren’t that used to visitors and are somewhat shy. It takes a while for them to warm up to our group. As luck would have it, heavy rain suddenly pours once we get to the school. Thick fog obscures the mountaintops that were so clear just a few moments earlier. We end up waiting a couple of hours for the rain to stop before the program can begin.
While waiting, fellow travel blogger Aleah and I attempt to play childhood folk games with the kids. There are regional differences in the chants and gestures for childhood staples, but two little girls are able to pick up the bahay-kubo hand clapping game easily. We end up playing a round of hopscotch in one of the classrooms, scrawling a board on the floor with chalk. The rest of the kids seem amused at our clumsy attempts and mistakes. Our game gets cut short when the program begins and the donations are sorted out and given to the kids by grade level. I’m really thankful to PART Foundation and Katahum Tours for combining this activity during our visit, as it made the hike more meaningful than if we had come for just sightseeing.
The rain finally stops and we make the most of the remaining daylight to visit the rice terraces. We’re told the viewdeck is just 30 minutes away from the school, but the trail is slick and slippery. Thick grass covers the barely noticeable trail and my companions opt to go barefoot for lack of proper footwear. The last stretch up the hill involves clambering up an almost 50 degree slope. But once we get to the top, the view is just amazing.
The fog covering the mountains earlier has thinned out, revealing a landscape of rolling hills on one side of the hill with waterfalls visible in the distance. On the other side, we see the lush green terraces that we just traversed in its full glory. These terraces are said to be at least 200 years old. Built by the Iraynon-Bukidnon, an Indigenous group living in Antique, they’re a sight to behold.
During the hike back the next day, I chat with Christian, one of the local guides. I find out that there’s no doctor or health center in the community. Most locals rely on traditional healers and women give birth at home. During emergencies, two men carry the injured on a makeshift stretcher – a hammock strung up on a bamboo pole – running the trail that takes average tourists 4 hours to trek in 2 hours.
He asks me now that I’ve seen how hard it is to get there, if I would ever visit again. I find it hard to reply.
Like all remote destinations, it’s easy to exoticize the whole experience. As an outsider, I welcomed the change of pace from the city life of 24-hour connectivity and days of slogging through traffic-congested streets. If you’re looking to unplug in an off-the-grid destination, this is as close to it as you can get. But for the locals, this is their way of life and not just a hiking trip for the weekend.
“Hwag mong sabihin mahirap puntahan ang lugar, para mas maraming bisita,” he jokes.
I ask if they get a lot of visitors. Not really, he says, though there have been more people coming in to sightsee ever since they were featured on TV last year. “Tingin lang sa view, picture, picture. Kayo pa lang yung pangalawang grupo na nagdala ng school supplies para sa mga bata.” I tell him I’ll be writing about our visit and ask what else the community could use. He says basic medicine for those who work in the fields, canned goods, rubber slippers and toys for kids especially during Christmas.
In a way, I’m glad that the community is remote and hard to get to. Like all off-the-grid places that I find beautiful, part of me wants to keep it a secret for fear that it will be ruined by mass tourism. I’ve seen the evolution of once unknown destinations into commercialized spots. But for now, I think this place will appeal to responsible hikers and mountaineers who know the value of preserving people’s way of life and culture. For those who do take the effort to visit, remember to take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints. And maybe a few donations in kind to help the community who live at the foothills of the rice terraces.
For more information about the Antique Rice Terraces, contact Katahum Tours:
- Website: http://www.katahum.com
- Facebook: Katahum Tours
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- Mobile: +6320-1261205 (smart), +63917-4503121 (globe)