The Halsema Highway is one of the Philippine’s engineering feats. Its 130kms road stretching from La Trinidad Benguet to the Bontoc Mountain Province has an elevation of up to 7400 feet. It is the highest highway in the Philippines and is one of the most scenic drives you can experience in the country. Whenever I embark on a 6 hour journey from Baguio to Sagada via public transportation, I’ve always wished I could somehow stop for a while on some points of the road. That came into a realization when I became the local guide and assistant photography mentor for Jim Cline’s first Philippine’s Photo Tour led by Humanitarian Photojournalist Karl Grobl. With our own mini-bus at our disposal, the group made a few interesting stops along the Halsema Highway.
Fresh from a mid-morning shoot at the strawberry farms of La Trinidad, Benguet, we entered a small tollway oddly placed in between residential areas which made our driver Christian and co-navigator Joe laugh amusingly. The road from there took some twist and turns until it completely opened up to an interplay of the immense view of mountainscapes from left to right. The road has significantly gotten better, smooth and paved since the last time I went through this route.
Halsema Highway was known as the “Mountain Trail” back in the 1900s where people used horses, water buffaloes and even their feet to go through this trail. Civil engineer Ej Halsema, where the highway was named after, oversaw the widening of the mountain trail in the 1920s. It was until the 1930s when the trail became passable to vehicles. The main reason for doing so is to allow easy transportation of mineral resources in the Cordilleras. Even at this time, the road is being improved and worked on.
Over an hour, the light aquamarine colors of Ambuklao Reservoir reveals itself on the right side of the road. Mt Pulag, with its mighty presence and height rolled with us except for the moments nearby mountains and hills would cover its sight. We took a stop on a roadside bend in Atok where a few vendor stalls are lined up. The mountains slopes filled with vegetable paddies were a sight to see and somehow reminds me of Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. A mother and child in one of the stalls indulged us by being a subject in front of our lenses.
We finally reached the area of Cattubo and stopped on the Highest Point of Halsema Highway with a couple of markers stating 7400 feet on the boards. More views of vegetable paddies sloping through the mountains, but what was more interesting was Aneitra’s fascination of the Philippine’s Balut. Aneitra, who used to work as a news anchor and reporter for the local Ohio Fox News, wanted to see a balut or “Fertilized Duck Egg” and finally found the stalls selling them here. I was equally amused on the group’s reactions as they crack the egg and see what’s inside. Anietra was satisfied with tasting only the yolk, but I thought it was pretty brave of her to attempt to try it out.
We made another stop on the road somewhere in Sinipsip near Bayayo area where a stretch of Vegetable paddies of Loo Valley can be seen in glorious panorama. Mid-afternoon then finds us on the crossroads of Halsema, known as the town of Abatan. From here, there are roads leading to Mankayan – Cervantes, Loo Valley – Agno River and straight up to Bontoc Province. Since this is a meeting area and also source of transportation, the place is one big market where a large chunk of the vegetables are sold along with the meat shops and gadget stores.
From Abatan, we breezed through the rest of the way passing by Mt Data and a hotel with the same name and also Mayabay finally leaving the Benguet domain and entering the Mountain Province. The road here was wide and smooth and finally a restroom stop in Sabangan. There was this cute little park named Benenas Park just beside the toilets. It has a nice picnic area and dap-ay (a meeting lace) on top of the hill.
Just a little further up a few meters is the Panorama Parkview. It has a nice coffee-shop on top and a souvenir shop below. This is also the jump-off point to Mt Kilawatan which is fast becoming a popular destination for climbers. Don’t be deceived though as the people there are claiming that Mt Kilawatan is the third highest mountain in the Philippines but is in fact only the 10th Aside from this, there’s an interesting view of the Centipede Rice Terraces which seems to crawl at the foot of the valley. Sabangan is a very interesting place for future explorations as it also has more natural attractions like waterfalls and bird watching.
There was a moment there where we thought we were lost but were actually not. I’ve been used to going through this route on a public bus and our driver Chris and co-navigator Joe are also new to this road which led to the slight confusion. Towards the end stretch of the road to Sagada, it becomes rough with a lot more steep curves. The road constructions slowed us down after we passed the split of the road where the other path leads to Bontoc. On what seems to be a crawl on the dirt road, we did manage to reach Sagada’s Rock Inn by the evening. It took us longer than the usual 6 hours because of our stops but we made it thanks to Christian’s driving prowess which definitely deserves a pat on the back from each of us.