Maligcong, still one of the less-famous stars among the Philippines’ Cordillera, is going to shine brighterby Marco Ferrarese
I’m surrounded by an amphitheater of green pathways, chiseled into the slopes of hills that roll away farther than the horizon. A giant hand asperses their flanks with clusters of concrete and metal homes like grains of salt sprinkled on top of a fresh salad. I walk along concrete paths that unfold like blood vessels in an untamed wilderness, my reflection floating over pools of shimmering water. Who could have known I would find such bliss in Maligcong?
Looking at a map of the Philippines’ Cordillera, there’s no reason to stop here. In fact, everyone zooms to the two most famous stars of this mountain trail: Banaue, with its valley of Ifugao’s rice terraces, and Sagada, the region’s adventure capital. And when some German tourists ask us where we are headed as we bump together in a jeepney between Banaue and Bontoc, I’m not surprised when the name of our destination makes their eyebrows furrow: “Maligcong? Aren’t you going to Sagada?”
To the contrary, we decide to make a steep, seven kilometer diversion through the mountains towering right behind Bontoc, yet it feels like a world away.
“Watch the time, then. If you want to return to Bontoc, the last ride down is at 2 p.m. You can stay with Suzette, one of the two homestays in the village.”
We stop at the center of Maligcong, a dead-end concrete slab surrounded by houses on stilts facing an open amphitheater of interconnected rice terraces, which immediately takes your breath away.
“If you follow the paths along the slopes, you can walk all the way to Banaue,” suggests our travel companion. But before we can start navigating over the mountain-side, we must first find a place to stay. It’s not hard to locate Suzette’s. The homestay has a fantastic view of the surrounding valleys from a gracious wooden veranda that extends over a bend of Maligcong’s only street. Suzette’s hospitality is heartwarming: As soon as we put our backpacks down, she materializes back on the veranda holding a steaming flask of mountain tea she prepared especially for us.
“I boil it out of leaves plucked directly from the mountain slopes,” she explains.
Our goal for the day is to hike as far as the primary school made from a cluster of wooden buildings, which dominate the valley from the top of the highest terrace in view. Entering the path, we realize the peculiarity of Maligcong’s terraces. They have been fortified with stonewalls, and not simply carved out of the hills. More importantly, the valley still has to pick up in terms of foreign visitors. Only school kids on their way back home and farmers hopping in and out of the rice fields cross our way along the snaking stone paths, and none are interested in making a quick buck out of us. At this time of the year, the terraces are filled with hundreds of pools that change color as we move along under the sunrays’ play. It feels like we are walking on the lines of an ever-changing, 3D checkerboard, wedged on top of the valley.
A woman bends over to plant the rice, while wading knee-deep into the mud. She’s a bit picture-shy, but points us the way up and forward to the school’s grounds. Upon reaching the hilltop, we found the crest’s balding spot, its skin as reddish as sun-scorched clay, and it’s impossible not to sit and ponder while the sweeping wind combs our hair to the side. Just behind the school’s barracks, the mountaintop clearing has been transformed into a small basketball field. I guess that being able to play the national sport next to the clouds helps the local kids appreciate their seclusion from modernity.
Upon hiking down, we ask for directions back to Maligcong’s town from an old woman crouched in the tall grass. She’s taking a rest from shuttling her wooden basket full of farming tools up and down the hill. We don’t speak a common language, but she keeps pointing at a building ahead saying “clinic,” shaking her head each time we say “Maligcong.”
We resolve that to her, Maligcong is all of the world around us. It’s the place she knows like the back of her hand, and she trudged it all on foot for the best part of her life. Possibly, it’s the one and only place she knows, indeed.