Friday, January 21, 2011

Benguet: Taking the High Road

There is something about the Cordillera Mountains, located in the inland regions of Luzon in the Philippines, that attracts me during the holidays, specifically, the days leading to the day of my birth. I seem to find myself heading up to the Cordillera Mountains during that time of the year. Three consecutive years now I've gone up. And at every single time, I found myself getting all "travel high" throughout the experience.

View of the Ambuklao Dam, Benguet

Maybe it's the climate of the Cordillera Mountains. Temperatures in the more populated areas of Benguet, one of the provinces in the Cordilleras, ranges from 14 to 27°C. That is cold for a tropical country like the Philippines. I am guessing it gets colder in the more remote areas of the Cordilleras. I guessed right.

View from Halsema Highway, Benguet

I did not actually really plan this trip to the Cordillera Mountains. I just knew that I had a free ride going up and, if I wanted to, a free ride going down. An uncle of mine had a vegetable farm in one of the towns of Benguet, a sleepy little hamlet called Buguias. It's located about three towns further from Baguio City, the de facto capital of the Cordillera Mountains. The farm lies on the side of the main highway in the Cordilleras, the highest highway in the Philippines, the Halsema Highway. So when I got wind that he was heading up there to furnish an vegetable order, I hitched a ride.

Vegetable Farm, Buguias, Benguet

When we were younger, we all learned in grade school that this part of the Philippines is a "salad bowl," meaning that people grow all kinds of vegetables here. I was amused to see that that is actually true. My uncle's farm sits right beside the highway running through the Cordillera Mountains. And I noticed that every fifteen minutes, a truck, van or jeep, would pass by fully loaded with all types of vegetables. It is a salad bowl up in here!

Crop Terraces at Natubleng, Buguias, Benguet

Even though for my uncle and his family, this was technically a business trip, I was glad and grateful that they took me to some of the more panoramic spots in the Cordillera Mountains. One of them is a viewing deck for the Ambuklao Dam, located somewhere along the Halsema Highway, which at this point I deem not only the highest highway but also the most scenic highway in the Philippines.

Ambuklao Dam, Benguet

A few minutes drive further along Halsema Highway, and we reached the highest point in this high highway. We were now in Atok, Benguet, and at this point we were 7,400 feet above sea level. You have to remember that altitude sickness begins to kick in at about 8,000 feet. And I can say for certain that at 7,400 feet, air is noticeably thinner.

Highest Point in the Highest Highway in the Philippines, Atok, Benguet

The Halsema Highway connects Baguio City to the other towns and cities of this whole mountainous region, not just those of Benguet. Past my uncle's farm in Buguias, Benguet, you will reach further north into the Cordilleras, into proper Mountain Province.

View from the Highest Point in the Highest Highway in the Philippines (Atok, Benguet)

Driving through the Halsema Highway is quite an experience. I recommend bringing or renting your own vehicle or, better yet, hiring your own driver. That way, you have a more flexible driving schedule, meaning, you can stop anywhere along the road to take in the breathtaking scenery. And I promise you, you will. Many times over.

View of the Cordilleras, Buguias, Benguet

View of the Cordilleras, Buguias, Benguet

(To see the complete Flickr set, please click here: Benguet.Thanks.)

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