Banaue Rice Terraces: The Eighth Wonder of the World

Photo of Ifugao warrior

A trip to the Philippines would not be complete without a visit to the world famous Banaue Rice Terraces. Located in Banaue, Ifugao Province in Luzon these rice terraces are believed to have been carved by hand with minimal tools by the ancestors of the indigenous people of the area. It is thought that Ifugao, and the Ifugao people, are named after the term i-pugo which translates to the people of the hill.

The rice terraces are located in an area that is least populated and the least densely populated region in the Philippines. The remoteness of this mountainous region made for the isolation of the people who fiercely resisted the Spanish invasion and battled the colonizers for hundreds of years.

The Banaue rice terraces are situated at about 5,000 feet above sea level on the lower slopes of the rainforest. This location provides the necessary water through an irrigation system developed perhaps as much as 2,000 years ago. Each rice terrace is enclosed with “steps” that help retain the water during rice planting, and it is said that they would encircle half of the Earth if they were laid end-to-end.

Although the rice terraces are still used to this day for the growing of rice and other vegetables, the work is hard and many of the younger generation of Ifugaos prefer less difficult work in the larger cities and in the hospitality sector that has resulted from the terraces tourist industry. The steps that surround the terraces require constant attention and upkeep, mainly by manual labor. Being situated in a rainforest, the terraces face perpetual erosion which require constant maintenance. Giant earthworms, olang in the Ifugao language, contribute to the erosion as do snails and rodents. The problem is further exacerbated by drought which was severe in March of 2010 causing the terraces to completely dry up.

The terraces are found along the step mountainous slopes of Ifugao and the aboriginal people have been their principle custodians. And although rice is the mainstay of Ifugao culture, and the Filipino culture in general, the cultivation of other vegetables, fruits and even coffee has been a part of this region for many generations.

Rice harvest time in the Banaue region calls for elaborate feasts and rituals. Tungul is celebrated at the conclusion of the rice harvest which demands that no agricultural labor be employed during that day of rest. During the harvest festivities, rice cakes and rice wine are enjoyed as part of celebrating a good harvest. The chewing of betel nut, momma in the local dialect, is also undertaken by some of the participants.

The carving of the steep mountainsides to form the rice terraces involves leveling of the land, removing the large stones and boulders, building retaining walls with the stones, and developing an irrigation system that takes advantage of the rainfall. The technologies involved in the design and construction of these elaborate rice paddies and sophisticated canals that funnel water into each subsequent terrace is a major feat of ancient engineering.

The Ifugao people have always adhered to their traditional, basic ways of rice farming, and have resisted the temptation to introduce new strains of rice that might require less effort and resources but would dilute and weaken the historical gene pool. For their steadfast devotion, in March of 2009, the rice terraces were declared to be free of genetically modified organisms (GMO), an achievement celebrated at the Dayanara viewpoint, overlooking the terraces. The event was in association with local and municipal government, Greenpeace, and the Miss Earth Foundation. In Banaue, the Kiangan rice terraces are grown the nagacadan and julungan varieties of rice.

In 1995 a small portion of the Banaue rice terraces was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, described as “a living cultural landscape of unparalleled beauty.” There is some mixed information regarding the entire Banaue rice terraces being included as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The entire Banaue rice terraces were in fact, not included due to the “presence of numerous modern structures.” (More on this later.) The confusion may have been further exacerbated when the Banaue rice terraces were used to illustrate the Philippine twenty-peso banknote and on this particular piece of Philippine currency it is written, “Banaue Rice Terraces UNESCO World Heritage Site.”

Above, one the 10 traditional and authentic Bare huts, a stilt house indigenous to the native Ifugao people of Banaue, that are used as guest rooms at the Hiwang Native House Inn. It was mentioned earlier that UNESCO had not certified the entire Banaue Rice Terraces as one of their heritage sites due to the number of modern buildings that have sprung up around the terraces. This is mainly due to the fact that the rice farmers of this area traditionally lived in the huts like that shown in the photo, however, you cannot fault them from wanting to live in more modern accommodations. Most rice farmers have rebuilt newer, more modern structures on their property, which includes parts of their rice terraces.

We stayed at the Hiwang Native House Inn and Viewdeck which is comprised of traditional native huts that the owner purchased from the rice farmers who were taking them down and building new houses. They had them disassembled and then reassembled along the western hillside overlooking the rice terraces. The rooms at this facility are the real, traditional 100-year-old dwellings of the Ifugao Native people, and the goal of property owner and management is to not only preserve the cultural history of these huts, thereby preserving the Ifugao culture and traditions, but also to provide their guest with a wonderful experience. They are very rustic accommodations and the climb up the hillside is an experience in itself, but there is no better view of the rice terraces anywhere else.

Above, the inside of the traditional hut that served as our lodging. We needed to climb a ladder in order to enter or exit our room. Under the house was an empty space where we ate our dinner and enjoyed the company of our family members who had joined us on this adventure. Just outside the hut was a modern bathroom and shower. Delicious food was brought up to us by hotel staff porters who climb the hill many times a day to accommodate guests.

Above, the decoration just above our bed, and below, in the garden, a Bulol statue or fertility idol, a traditional carving that depicts a rice god who is guarding it.

Above, a panoramic view from our room.

Above and below, the lush landscape on the grounds of the Hiwang Native House Inn.

Above, two young “domestic” tourists taking photos of the blooms.

Above, Mrs. Gloria Limangan Balenga and below, Mr. Noel Balenga, playing a traditional Philippine gong, are the managers of the Hiwang Native House Inn.

Below, at the Hiwang Native House Inn, they have a very nice collection of artifacts in a small museum which you can view for free:

Above, the skulls of World War II Japanese soldiers that were found during excavations at the rice terraces by farmers clearing the land. They are on display at the small museum at the Hiwang Native House Inn.

Prices at the Hiwang Native House Inn run about US$45.00 per night and include a wonderful breakfast, warm showers and a spectacular view of the Banaue Rice Terraces. If you would like more information, please see:

The drive to the Banaue Rice Terraces, which were declared a National Cultural Treasure by the Philippine government, is filled with many regional rice terraces that have a uniqueness all on their own. The road is an adventure that is accentuated by a series of constant left and right undulated turns rewarding you with many spectacular sights and breathtaking waterfalls.

Above, the rice terraces at Bontoc.

Above, the rice terraces at Sagada.

Above, the rice terraces at Atok.

Along the way, be sure to pick up a few bags of the Kapeng Barako coffee or Batangas coffee, a varietal grown in the Philippines, belonging to the species Coffea liberica. The term “Barako” in the languages of the Philippines means “stud” and is associated with the image of masculinity. Barako has a strong flavor and a fragrance that is reminiscent of aniseed. This variety of coffee was introduced to the Philippines by the Spanish friars in the 1740s and the name comes from Spanish word “varraco” meaning “wild boar.”

Above, the high mountain climate makes for a perfect environment for the Barako coffee tree, seen at the far right.

Barako coffee trees are some of the largest commercially cultivated coffee trees in the world, making them very difficult to grow. They are considered endangered due to low production and demand. It is listed in the Ark of Taste international catalogue of endangered heritage foods by the Slow Food movement. The taste of Barako coffee is said to be superior to Robusta, as most Philippine coffee drinkers prefer its taste to Arabica.

Above, a local Ifugao wood carver at Banaue with a mask I purchased from the Banaue Woodcarving Shop

Who wouldn’t want to see one of the great wonders of the world? Some are long gone, and others are slowly fading from our history as cultures transform and the world’s climate undergoes radical changes. The rice terraces at Banaue is one of those places that cannot be guaranteed to be there for future generations. It is not easy to get there but it will be well worth the effort to add this drop in the bucket.

All photographs are the copyright of Jim Jackson Photography. Please contact me for authorization to use or for signed, high-resolution copies.

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