Kalinga’s culture among the clouds

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A stunning view of the mountains in Kalinga is sure to impress visitors.

THE province of Kalinga sits high atop the mountains of Cordillera in the north of Luzon. From Manila, you can go by car, which will take you half a day, or by plane to Tuguegarao in the neighboring province of Cagayan. And from there you are just an hour drive away.

Sounds quite a journey, doesn’t it? But tourists, locals and foreigners alike, have been flocking to Kalinga in recent years with one goal in mind: to experience this culture among the clouds.

Once known as a land rife with tribal wars, Kalinga is slowly transforming itself into a backpacker haven. One of the province’s main attractions is Buscalan in Tinglayan town where Apo Whang Od lives.

A petite woman aged around 100 years and whose body is covered with exotic patterns, Apo Whang Od is said to be the last traditional Kalinga tattoo artist. With a small bamboo hammer, thorns, and charcoal, she has been tattooing warriors and women for decades. Her patterns can range from eagle, snake, centipede, lightning, heaven, and fertility, among others.

And there is also Awichon Village from the nearby town of Lubuagan. Considered as the province’s “Center for Culture and the Arts”, Awichon features traditional Kalinga houses on the edge of a cliff, with views of long mountain ranges.

The houses are made of wood and are slightly raised from the ground. Inside, there are no divisions, no walls, but just one big room with eight sides. At the center is a fireplace that both serve as a heating system and as a kitchen. Outside, gongs, weapons, shields, and carabao horns are hung in the outer walls of the houses.

The village was built by Alonzo Saclag, Sr., a National Living Treasure and is my grandfather, to preserve the rich culture of Kalinga.

Dances that usually feature bird-like movements as well as songs that have been passed down from generation to generation are usually performed to welcome visitors who come not just from the Philippines but also from other countries such as Germany, Israel, Thailand, and the United States. Tourists can sleep in one of the traditional houses for Php500, inclusive of food.

And if you decide to stay the night, I guarantee that you will wake up the next day to a stunning view of the mountains and feel the clouds touch your skin. You will be energized by the aroma of roasted coffee beans and by chirping birds that greet you a good morning.

Those who are looking for some adrenaline rush can also do whitewater rafting along the Chico River. Participants will surely be thrilled by exhilarating drops and rapids and by breathtaking views along the way. Some even “top load”, which means hopping onto the roof of a jeepney, to have a better view of the journey. One can also hike rice terraces etched unto the mountainsides.

The best time to visit Kalinga is from January to June as it is the rainy season during the second half of the year. It is also advisable that visitors bring enough cash as the city center is far from the places that you will be visiting.

Kalinga is not your usual travel destination when you visit the Philippines. It has no beaches and late-night parties to offer. However, when you decide to go, it will be a different and beautiful experience – one that will last with you forever, just like a tattoo.