BONTOC, Philippines?This idyllic capital of Mt. Province in northern Luzon, situated at the crossroads of Ifugao?s crown jewel Banaue and the famed Sagada highlands, is carving its own niche in the Cordillera?s booming tourism business.
Linked to either town by a dirt-road much narrower and rougher than Baguio?s zig-zag road, Bontoc is enjoying some windfall from burgeoning public interest on Sagada, which was made known to the world in the 1960s by European backpackers who fell in love with its great caves, hanging coffins and lovely landscapes.
After hitting the global tourism charts, domestic tourists too started exploring Sagada in the 1980s, thus lifting tourism in the adjacent Bontoc in the absence of mass transport going straight to the highlands. Tourists from Manila can go either via Baguio or Banaue but there?s now an increasing appetite to hit two birds with one stone?see the Banaue Rice Terraces en route to Sagada.
?Most of the tourists coming here now are only passers-by,? says Frank Odsey, mayor of this third-class municipality known to many as a mere gateway to Sagada and an alternative source of lodging during the peak season.
During the recent Lenten break, for instance, some Manila-based tourists heading to Sagada but who ran out of sleeping quarters there found refuge in the Bontoc poblacion. In such cases, tourists would take a 45-minute bumpy jeepney ride to Sagada first thing in the morning and then return to their Bontoc camp before dusk. Not bad, tourists say, since it?s also from Bontoc that they would take the bus back home to Manila anyway.
Jewel in the Rough
But Bontoc is emerging from the shadows of its more popular neighbors. With its equally rich Ifugao heritage, postcard-pretty landscapes and natural resources, the town is striving to lure more tourists and make them stay longer.
Unknown to many, Bontoc was endowed by its forefathers with its distinct clusters of rice terraces built at about the same time that the world-famous Banaue Rice Terraces were chiseled out. It is also blessed with a number of hot springs, which, if developed, can offer the weary traveler some respite, for instance, after a weekend of serious hiking and spelunking.
Hilda Peckley, whose family owns Churya-a Hotel in Bontoc, says there?s a lot more to her hometown that the outside world hasn?t explored.
Aside from the rice terraces and the hot springs, Peckley says Bontoc has its pristine waterfalls and caves which natives believe to be connected to Sagada?s famous caves.
?You have to spend a whole week here in the Cordilleras to explore everything,? Peckley says.
She adds that the hotel business in Mt. Province is doing well, especially during the summer. Recently, Churya-a (the native name of Bontoc) Hotel acquired a property and put up an annex in Sagada.
Meanwhile, Odsey says plans are underway to build a domestic airport atop one of Bontoc?s peaks?in what could be the first in the Cordilleras. The plan seeks to give tourists going to any of the region?s hotspots the option to fly than endure a 10-hour road trip. It has the potential to catapult the town into a logistics hub.
But building the first airport in the Cordilleras is a tall order. After finding the suitable peak amid Bontoc?s rugged terrain, it has been difficult to convince the descendants of old tribes to yield their ancestral domain, Odsey says.
Bontoc is nevertheless grooming itself to attract more tourists. It is also developing ?homestay? programs for backpackers to address the lack of commercial hotels and inns outside of the Bontoc town-proper, replicating the state-backed transient bedspace programs popularized in the Western countryside and now adopted in rural tourist spots like Sagada and Pagudpud in Ilocos Norte.
Of landscapes, cultural heritage
Two of Bontoc?s terraces stand out?the Bay-yo and Malegcong terraces.
The Bay-yo terraces, built on a low-sloping valley embracing a quaint little village, offer a breath-taking respite for travelers en route Banaue to Bontoc. It is so pretty that tourists literally halt in the middle of the road to take panoramic snapshots. Unlike the usual rice terraces which resemble stairways to heaven, the Bay-yo terraces, when viewed from the roads high up in the mountain, look like a pile of jigsaw puzzle pieces spread out in a reclining valley.
?People often mistake it as still being part of Banaue,? Odsey says of Bay-yo, which has been featured in various travel documentaries.
On the other hand, the Bontocs consider the Malegcong Rice Terraces as the greatest landscape made by their ancestors. But unlike the Banaue terraces which were carved out of the mountains, theirs were constructed with stone piled atop each other to form terraces from the base to the top of the Malegcong mountain. Before the planting season, they are thus more brownish than their green counterparts in Banaue. They also look like stairways but are shorter than those in Banaue.
?Sometimes you?ll wonder where our forefathers got all the stones to build these,? Odsey says.
Another local jewel is the Bontoc Village Museum, built and run by ICM nuns and located within the Catholic sisters? convent and Saint Vincent?s Elementary School. It is a must-see for tourists seeking to learn more about the Igorots? rich heritage.
Although native houses have been wiped off the landscapes of Bontoc, the museum recreates its old social structure centered around village wards, where young men and women lived in dormitories and went home to their families during meals. Unlike the native houses of Banaue which stand on stilts and whose removable stairs are pulled up at night as a protection against wild animals, native Bontoc houses are built on ground-level but are in clusters.
?We try to preserve things as they are,? says Sr. Marcel Agang-Ang, a native Bontoc who came back after her retirement from the ICM congregation and now serves as museum curator.
Aside from offering an outdoor life-size diorama of the native Bontoc village, the museum has an interesting photo-documentary on the Bontocs? colorful pre-Christian history, including its legendary headhunting sport. There?s even a photo (dated early 1900s) of a beheaded person tied up in a bamboo pole and of an unceremonial burial for such a beheaded person (It?s considered a family disgrace to lose your head).
But today, this municipality with a population of 25,000 is home to a peaceful and friendly farming people who love country music and shun from politics.
The Bontocs comprise one of the six ethno-linguistic groups of the Igorots of the Cordillera region. The others are the Ibalois, Ifugaos, Isnegs (or Apayaos), Kalingas and the Kankana-eys.
Odsey says Bontoc does not have a woodcarving industry but has a loom-weaving tradition. Samoki, one of its old villages, specializes in backstrap weaving. Various colorful woven materials like knapsacks, placemats, bags and purses are among the popular products.
Temperature in most of Bontoc is warmer compared to the highlands of Banaue and Sagada. This is because it sits on a dormant volcano that now produces hot springs. These sizzling pools give it the potential to become the ?Los Bańos (Laguna) of the North.?
The residents of Barangay Mainit (which means hot in the vernacular), 18 kilometers away from the poblacion, have long discovered the medicinal and refreshing effects of hot springs. There?s another hot spring in the nearby municipality of Sadanga, 29 km away from Bontoc?s town proper.
?This is the area with the lowest incidence of skin disease because imagine them bathing in sulfuric hot water every day,? says Tex Odsey, the mayor?s son, while boiling a dozen of eggs in Mainit?s hot spring for afternoon snack.
Odsey, whose parents hail from Mainit, says previous studies were conducted to see if the area could produce geothermal energy, but it turned out that there was not enough to supply other regions.
There are only two private mini-resorts offering swimming pools and overnight accommodation in Mainit. Even the tiny houses along the spring thus have a pipeline linked to the hot springs water.
?Although it?s a dormant volcano, we?re not afraid because the earth is letting off the heat,? says Benedict Odsey, the mayor?s brother who owns Ben-Vic Resthouse, one of Mainit?s two swimming resorts which is still under construction.
But to attain its potential to be a hub of natural spa, Bontoc hopes to attract more private investments. It can?t even rely on overseas remittances, as there are more sons and daughters migrating to Baguio and Manila than anywhere abroad.
At present, local hotels and buses plying the Manila-Bontoc route can better help actively promote Bontoc as a tourist hotspot of its own instead of being content with the town remaining as a mere gateway to the more popular Sagada.
The local government hopes to use the Internet to promote its attractions, like the hot springs. To date, there?s very little official online promotion for tourists to be attracted to a longer stay in Bontoc. Leaflets and maps on the must-see sites are not yet easily available.
Likewise a big challenge for the whole of the Cordilleras is to smoothen the rough roads that lengthen travel time. And to prepare ways to ensure its rich heritage shall be preserved if and when tourists come in droves.