Bontoc is a little off the radar for a lot of travelers as everyone heads to nearby Sagada. But I had long wanted to visit this provincial capital of Mt. Province as it was the gateway to some interesting sights and of course, it has the Lang-ay Festival (which deserves a blog entry of its own), my primary reason for enduring the 12-hours bus trip.
The Adventure Begins on the Long Ride to Bontoc
Cable Tours is the only bus company that has a direct Manila-Bontoc trip. The Friday bus was already full so I took the Thursday one instead which turned-out just right as departing Manila on a Friday would mean arriving at Bontoc in the morning with the street-dancing in full-swing. I reserved my seat simply by calling their mobile number. But being the worrier that I am, I dropped by the station on Monday evening to pay for my ticket. It was close to 8pm and a few passengers were arriving. My name was on the Thursday passenger manifesto but the guy at the ticket booth said to just simply show-up and pay on my scheduled date. He assured me my seat was reserved.
Thursday arrived and the same guy was on the ticket booth. He smiled and said I had been promoted as my seat number had climbed-up from the previous #25 to #11 which meant nearer the front and less motion sickness! My pack was placed on the small space behind the back row as bigger luggage such as large sacks and boxes filled with I-don’t-know-what were placed on the compartment underneath the bus. The trip was full and I had a nice-looking guy as a seatmate. Of course, I had a window seat. The bus was nowhere as swanky or modern as those of Victory but it was comfortable enough.
I didn’t get much sleep as I had not anticipated how cold it was going to be. I had read in blogs how weak the air-conditioning is and it was quite true at the start of the trip but midway, maybe because the engine had warmed-up already or the temperature had cooled, it had started to get cold. By the time we reached Ifugao, it was freezing!
Ten hours later and I’ve tried every possible way to contort my body lest my joints and muscles lock-up for being confined in such a tiny space. We were passing through Lagawe then Banaue and finally stopped at a rest point at the border of Ifugao and Mt. Province from where we could see Mt. Polis. It felt soooo good to get some sunshine and to walk.
From then on, the road was convoluted ribbon of cement twisting and snaking through the mountainside. I couldn’t imagine how it would have been years ago when it was all dusty and rocky with precarious drops on one side. Fortunately, the bus driver took it carefully especially at blind corners. Actually, all throughout the trip, I felt quite safe with how the driver navigated the roads.
Moving on to the 12th hour of the trip and I started getting impatient. It was a little slow going as the bus discharged passengers along the villages by the roadside. I was quite hungry and needed to go to the bathroom. When the bus rounded a corner, Bontoc soon came into view. The concentration of tin roofs crowding on the valley floor were unmistakable. We passed a bridge over the Chico River that separated Bontoc from Samoki and finally pulled into the bus stop right outside the Cable Tours office.
Tin Roof Town
On this side of the boondocks Bontoc was as modern as modern could get. There was 24-hour electricity, well-paved roads, a couple of internet cafes, and shops selling stuff that makes living a little less complicated and little more convenient. Fortunately, the only commercial food chain was Mister Donut. I retrieved my pack and asked the bus conductor where Kidlaan Hotel was. “Oh, we passed it already. In Samoki,” came the reply. I decided instead to head to Churya-a Hotel which was just across the road. Fortunately, they had a private room available. The staff were very accommodating and friendly. The room, however, was not good value for money (Php 500) as it was quite small and the toilet flush and faucet were both not working. Since it was peak season due to the festival, I didn’t want to take the risk of scouring for cheaper digs (which I knew were plenty) around town. I paid for the 4 nights, dropped my bag, and looked for a place to eat.
Walking around the town, it soon became obvious that much of the structures were built without any thought of aesthetics which is typical of towns in the Cordillera. Hollow-block walls remain unpainted, iron rods poke-out of structures, and tin roofs gleam in the sun. From afar, Bontoc looks like one entire aluminum pan shining under the morning sun.
Sagada is really much prettier as there are less structures beyond 3-stories high and the houses look a little more charming. Perhaps also because there are wonderful views of the hills from within the town itself. In Bontoc, the nearby hills are littered with more of the tin-roofed houses and views of the river are blocked by haphazardly-placed buildings.
I head to the plaza where food stalls jostle with each other. They all sell the same thing—- burgers, hotdogs, fries, shawarma, siomai, halo-halo, and fruit shakes. I spread the economic benefits around by buying a grape shake in a stall and a footlong hotdog sandwich in another. I devour it and I’m still hungry. I move on to the shawarma stall. I head to the Bontoc Museum for a little food digestion and culture ingestion.
I’m not quite hungry yet when lunch time rolls in but I see a tarpaulin sign announcing a buffet! Yes! There is a buffet in Bontoc! A pink sign posted on the first floor of the building instructs gluttons to buy a ticket on the second floor before proceeding to the spread at the third floor. I tell the young girl manning the table that I want a quick look-see first at the food. I go up and head promptly down to pay Php 199 for the buffet and Php 50 for unlimited drinks.
The place isn’t full and I have small table all to myself. The food is quite good as there’s a wide variety of appetizers and main courses plus a garden salad and fresh fruits. The drinks were in drink towers and included soft drinks, iced tea, and Del Monte pineapple juice! Really good value for money. In fact, I returned here again the next day. The food was even better and there was fresh coconut juice!
The buffet didn’t seem to be a regular thing as the tarp signage only announced April 6-7. Maybe it was just for the festival. I was sure glad I took my lunch twice there as it was the best meal I had in Bontoc.
In Search of Food
My friend, Christine, was right. Good food is hard to find in Bontoc. On the course of five days, “where to eat in Bontoc” was the top search on my phone. Restaurants looked more like eateries. and didn’t look very appealing, even to a budget backpacker and adventurous eater like me. One dinner, I had a mind to go to Cable Cafe but it was empty and I didn’t fancy the singer-guitarist singing to lonesome me. I tried the much touted Walter Rice at the unnamed eatery beside the Walter Clapp Centrum Hotel. The Php 90 meal consisted of a cup of red rice, two tiny pieces of friend chicken, and about 5 pieces of fried pork. The rice was good but the protein were tasteless. I asked for an extra-cup and was served cold rice. The place wasn’t very nice either as there were flies all around. As the jeeps bound for Sagada are just outside its door steps, quite a number of people lunch there.
So much better was the Tchayapan Rice at the Tchayapan Hotel just by side of the tourist office. The servings of plain white rice, chopsuey, and lechon kawali were generous. The pork was soft and had the right flavorsome saltiness. Its skin was crackling and hD just the right amount of fat for taste with none of the dangers of a heart attack. It was so good I had two plates! Unfortunately, when I returned the next evening, there was no more lechon kawali so I settled for Chopsuey Rice and an order of sweet and sour pork. Still yummy and generous but I really miss the lechon kawali. The staff at the restaurant, including a middle-aged lady who seemed to be the proprietress, were all very friendly. On my first dinner there, a woman came in with her young son. She had just arrived from Baguio and had some vegetables with her. The kitchen gladly acquiesced her request to have the vegetables cooked for her and even advised her that one head of broccoli was enough as she was having it all to herself.
Another surprise was crusty pandesal I had for breakfast at the Churya-a. It was very very good. Possibly, one of the best pandesal I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, the next day, they served a different pandesal. The Php 100 breakfast was quite filling, by the way. There were three thick pieces of sweet ham, an omellette, choice of pandesal and rice, and coffee. And speaking of coffee, the Cordillera is coffee country. I could have it the whole day as it is very very aromatic and not acidic at all. It’s goes perfectly well with pancakes, another yummy breakfast staple in Bontoc.
Bontoc is not an easy place to like unlike Sagada which has oodles of charm. For most people, it’s just a jump-off point to Sagada or Banawe. There were quite a number of Europeans while I was there, including a couple I met at the Maligcong Rice Terraces. The low number of establishments that cater to tourists such as cafes, restaurants, and souvenir shops are probably just as low as the tourist numbers who stay for more than a couple of days. People actually visit Bontoc as a day trip from Sagada. Would I go again? Yeah, why not. There’s still Barlig and Natonin and of course, the “Lang-ay” Festival. I just hope Tchayapan wouldn’t run out of lechon kawali or Annayah’s would have a buffet again.
By the way, the route from Bontoc to Baguio is achingly beautiful. I wish I had my own vehicle so I could just stop and take pictures or just take-in all that greenery. It is sooooo amazing!
Getting There. Manila-Bontoc is via Cable Tours (09295280936-Manila) which departs from its mini station inside Trinity at 8:30pm. It’s located at the street between Shakey’s and the main campus, at the very end of the street which terminates at the Asian Institute of Liturgy and Music. You can call/text them to reserve a seat. Cost is Php 650. When you reach Bontoc, you can reserve your seat at their office along the main road. However, heading back to Manila, I would rather do Bontoc-Baguio then Baguio-Manila not only to break the trip but to see the wonderful wonderful scenery. In Bontoc, there are jeeps and minibuses that head everywhere such as Sagada, Banawe, Baguio, and other municipalities in Mt. Province.
Sleeping. Many places along the main road and the side roads. There are rooms with ensuite bathrooms and those with shared bathrooms. Average cost is around Php 400-600 for those with ensuite bathrooms. More expensive are the hotels in Samoki. Archog’s is Bontoc’s version of a five-star hotel.
Eating. None of the restaurants looked appealing. Lunch at Archog’s was okay but for me, the best was at Tchayapan with their rice meals. Do try the yogurt drinks (Php 35) sold at stores.