Hidden beyond the Philippine Cordilleras' main route, this small town, with its distinct stone-wall rice terraces, has an unimagined beauty few travelers get to see. By MARCO FERRARESE. Photographed by KIT YENG CHAN.
Published on Apr 11, 2016
MALIGCONG'S AMPHITHEATER of stone-wall rice terraces is one of the Cordilleras' unsung insider secrets. The journey there, a hair-raising 30-minute uphill ride from Bontoc's bustling market in a packed-to-the-gills jeepney (five departures per day), weeds out the faint hearted, but the pay-off is worth every bump in the road. Panoramas of rice steppes carved into rolling hills extend as far as the eye can see. It looks like a playhouse for giants, with rice-carpeted staircases zigzagging in every direction. This UNESCO World Heritage site is the sole example of pre-colonial stone construction in the country, but few have trod these fields.
The jeepney ride from Bontoc market to Maligcong is an intensely local experience.
You can do Maligcong as a half-day trip from Bontoc but, with surrounds this stunning, it is worth putting down your bags and staying a while. Suzette's Maligcong Homestay (+63 91 5546 3557) is an intimate lodge with three rooms, each with rustic wooden fittings and a spacious veranda overlooking the valley. You couldn't hope for a more gracious host than Ate Suzette, and her home-cooked pork adobo will warm your belly and your soul through Maligcong's chilly nights.
Suzette can arrange guided walks to the terraces and hikes to the hot spring in the nearby village of Mainit, but you can also just strike off by yourself on perambulatory excursions. Following Suzette's advice, we hike to Maligcong's primary school, a cluster of wooden houses dominating the valley from the top of the highest hill. As we leave the village limits along the snaking stone path, we stumble upon a group of shy school kids on their way back home. We all walk in single file past local farmers working knee-deep in muddy water tending to the paddies. I bask in the slice-of-life moment, and tell myself that this is what travel is all about. As we trudge along the ridge to the top, the afternoon sun starts a shimmering light show in the hundreds-strong patchwork of pools below us. I'm dumbstruck by the beauty of this ever-changing, three-dimensional checkerboard.
Maligcong is the only spot in the Philippines where you'll find these picturesque stonewall rice terraces.
Suzette had told us, "Even though I've lived here most of my life, it's hard to get tired of Maligcong. It looks like a different place in every season." Taking in the vastness of the view, I know exactly what Suzette means. I try to imagine what the stairs of the Gods will look like during my next visit.