May 11, 2004  (STAR) RENDEZVOUS By Christine S. Dayrit  -  It was a sunny day when our Asian Spirit Dash-7 plane circled the terrain of the Baguio mountains and taxied safely on the runway of Loakan Airport. A cornucopia of towering trees greeted our eyes as the cool mountain air wafted the scent of pine everywhere. The airport terminal made of wood looked more like a quaint mountain lodge in Vermont, New England. What a glorious experience it is to get to Baguio in 40 minutes, without the hassles of traffic, pollution and back pains! (After riding the plane, I vow not to take land transportation to go to the famed Pine City anymore.) From Loakan airport, our friendly driver, Manong Henry, took us to La Trinidad, Benguet just 20 minutes from the Baguio Market.

It was delightful to view the acres and acres of strawberry fields in La Trinidad. Like a student in history class, I discovered that La Trinidad, the capital of Benguet, got its name in honor of the wife of the governor general after a Spanish expedition reached the valley in the middle of the 19th century. A fort was eventually built after some skirmishes with its native dwellers. Fascinated by the cool clime and scenic highland valley inhabited by the Ibalois, the Spanish colonial authorities thought of putting up a hill station among the pines. Unfortunately, their era abruptly ended and, along with it, their plans for this mountainous region. Thanks to the road-building American colonizers who realized the vision, two roads were built in the early 1900s connecting the new hill station to the lowlands – the Kennon Road which followed the course along a deep ravine of the Blued River and Naguilian Road which followed the old trail from the town of Naguilian through Sablan. In the 1930s another important road was built, the Halsema passing through still uninhabited high mountain ridges of Benguet all the way to Bontoc, Mountain Province. Due to the construction of the Halsema, fairly flat places like Natubleng became attractive for vegetable growing.

Experiencing Benguet, we could surmise, is like a journey to the heart of heaven. An ethereal place where the sun, gentle breeze and rain kiss the sky, and where all produce like flowers and berries grow in abundance. Lakes and waterfalls pour gloriously down majestic mountain slopes like billowing veils of radiant brides who will never weep. A blessed marriage of arts and culture exist in this haven and people are immortalized in caves and caverns like the days of yore, preserved far better than the Egyptian mummies. It is no wonder explorers from National Geographic and Discovery Channel frequent this breathtaking tourist destination. It’s like a stairway to heaven as a bride marches along the altar, and fresh flowers and bouquets of bright green lettuce line her path. Great rivers, as well as gently flowing brooks and streams, await the weary traveler. But there’s more than meets the eye for beneath these wonders is the indefatigable spirit of a strong and beautiful people who have chosen to preserve their indomitable and timeless culture for us to experience and relive through the ages.

According to gracious Mayor Nestor Fongwan, who we were privileged to have as our tour guide, Benguet is the gateway to the Cordillera. It is the roof of northern Luzon, located at the southernmost tip of the Cordillera Administrative region, which straddles the soaring mountain ranges. Both located in Benguet are the country’s highest mountain in Northen Luzon, Mt. Pulag (second only to Mt. Apo) and the country’s highest elevated highway system – the Halsema Highway, with the highest stretch located in Atok reaching an elevation of 7,400 feet above sea level.

Spread across 261,548 hectares of lush land – hills, rivers and valleys, some 47,750 hectares of agricultural land are available for cultivation. Yearly, hundreds of thousands of metric tons of vegetables are harvested from its rich soil. Benguet is the country’s top strawberry growing province and a major source of prized cutflowers. In fact, the flowers featured during the Panagbenga of Baguio are sourced from Benguet. Mining is a traditional industry that traces its roots to prehistoric times. At the arts and crafts workshops I saw indigenous craft skills, design sense and artistry combined with an abundance of raw materials. No wonder Benguet is a hub for craft skills like loom weaving where threads of various colors are interwoven to create beautiful fabrics. Other craft skills include pine weaving and basketry using pine cones, needles and twigs woven into baskets, vases, trays and much more. Furniture making is also a thriving industry – the province is equipped with skilled artisans who make finely crafted furniture from pinewood, bamboo, runo and other materials.

Benguet’s towering mountains are not only crowned with pines and grass. Underneath the grandeur of the peaks where gold mining was popular, caverns and caves sheltering mummies of rich ancestors abound. Benguet is one of the few places in the world whose ancestors practiced the science and art of mummification. The mummies can be found in caves reached by hiking from a jump-off point along Km. 52 of the Halsema Highway, Tinongchol Burial Rock (Kabayan). This burial rock, almost as big as a regular three-story building, houses centuries-old mummies. While the Egyptians had to wrap their ancestors in cloth and preservatives, Benguet’s baknangs were preserved in their naked glory – with their body tattoos still visible to this day. Most of these are found in the caves of Kabayan town, specifically Bangao and Timbac, and in the Kabayan Museum. Mt. Kabunian (Bakun) is an ancient burial ground of mummies ensconced in the giant rocks crevices and believed to be the dwelling place of gods and goddesses. It is recommended only for experienced mountain and rock climbers.

An unforgettable tale Mayor Fongwan shared with us was the story of the Apo Anno, famed 12th century Kankanaey hunter of Benguet, the half mortal son of a goddess. Apo Anno lived for 250 years and was revered by the community. Tattoos covered his whole body depicting the extraordinary life he lived. He was mummified by the Kankanaeys in a coffin safely tucked in the mountainside of Nabalicong, Benguet. For 600 years, the remains of Appo Anno were left alone in complete silence and solitude until unknown intruders came across the mummy and stole the body in 1918. From then on, the displeased spirit wreaked havoc, bringing heavy rains and landslides to the region. At the 1922 Manila Carnival, the mummy resurfaced but only for a short while. Finally, in 1984, a mummy showed up in an antique shop and was obtained by the National Museum. A Benguet tribal priest (mambunong) identified the mummy as local son Apo Anno. In May 1999, Anno made the triumphant journey back home replete with the rituals of a grand feast that lasted for three days before he was reburied. At the culmination of the event, a rainbow appeared in the sky, as if to symbolize Apo Anno’s happy return.

Timbac Caves (Kabayan) was proclaimed as a National Cultural Treasure under Presidential Decree 260 and house many of these mummified ancestors.

Benguet is also blessed with mountains that seem to reach the sky. No wonder it is becoming increasingly popular to climb these spectacular peaks.

Mt. Pulag, playground of the gods and the country’s second highest mountain at 9,640 ft. above sea level, is just a little lower in elevation than Mt. Apo in Mindanao.

Mt. Ugo (Tinongdan, Itogon) is a cloud-covered mount at the eastern bottom of Benguet which rises to 2,150 meters or 6,450 feet above sea level. On its peak remains the age-old marker installed by the Americans after World War 1 pointing to Nueva Vizcaya, Pangasinan.

Other major attractions include the Hanging Gardens of the Philippines (Atok, Buguias and Kibungan) mountain peaks and slopes beautifully terraced with vegetable gardens rising up to the skies. A visit to the country’s first ever gold mine at the Balatoc Mines Tour in Balatoc, Itogon will have you experiencing the thrill of the underground.

On this green and verdant land, there is so much to discover and rediscover. However, the real treasure of Benguet is not only in its God-given beauty but in the innate kindness and genuine concern of its people to preserve what God has given them.

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Asian Spirit flies daily to Baguio City. For more information, call 851-8888. To get around Baguio and Benguet by car, call Manong Henry at 0917- 2590243. Mayor’s Fongwan office can be reached at (074) 422-2601.

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Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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