"Economy of tricycles and grilled sausages "
My imagination of Luzon island in the northern Philippines was an endless paradise of beaches and beautiful islands. The reality is pretty different. Experiencing non-touristic parts of the Luzon island truly opened my eyes. I felt like a first traveler, who came to the previously undiscovered areas. We were nearly the only white tourists there! Locals were stopping us and asking if they can take a picture of us or with us. This was truly unique and amazing backpacker expedition.
Luxury life for a few cents
If you look at the visit of the Luzon island of Philippines from a visitor's perspective, local prices are so low that even a "low-cost" traveler can enjoy a luxury vacation without worrying too much about the budget.
The most expensive lunches are for 2 bucks
It was the first time that we passed on the “wild cooking pasta on gas. Who would cook pasta when you can find a very good lunch starting at 1 USD literally on every corner. So, if you are a “low-cost” traveler, you will love the Philippines even more. We could often afford the most expensive meal from the menu, which was often about 2 USD. We also fell in love with local bakeries. We bought a large bag of pastries and filled buns every day for breakfast - on average, one piece of filled pastry was around 0,1 USD (more expensive ones – 0,2 USD).
Delicacies you can’t resist
Packed ice cream is from 0,3 USD. Giant servings of fruit or chocolate shake for less than 1 dollar. And I am not even speaking about street food! Sausages for 0,25 USD/piece, burger for 0,3 USD, pizza for 1 dollar, a bag of roasted nuts - 0,2 USD.
After all, we left our tent packed in our backpack many times because the price of the hotel room was as low as 5 USD per person/night.
Crazy transportation - water buffalo as a means of transport
You can find these colorful graffiti-splashed Jeepneys in every town and city! It’s a form of local public transportation. Jeepney is something like a small minibus mixed with a Jeep. Believe it or not, an incredible amount of people can squeeze in one Jeepney. Or not just IN, even on the roof! There are no paper tickets. You simply pass the money to the passenger next to you and he or she passes it again and again until money reaches the driver. If you don’t have an exact amount, the driver passes you your change the same way back. The journey within 5 km will cost you 0,15 $.
The whole Luzon island in Northern Philippines is full of Tricycles everywhere. Tricycle or so-called “trike” is the most common transportation in the northern Philippines. It's actually a motorcycle with covered sidecar, which can carry up to five people at the same time (sometimes even more :D). They have it everywhere and everybody tries to offer you a ride. Especially when they see a white tourist! They can nearly fight among themselves to sell you a ride with their tricycle because they usually charge tourists much more than anybody else.
If you take into consideration the original inhabitants of the Luzon island - Aeta people, you can forget about both Jeepneys and tricycles. The only way how to cross a quite deep river is to use a water buffalo. Northern Philippines Aeta people live in a very remote area, nearby a Pinatubo volcano. There are no paved roads, just dirty-dusty-sandy roads, and rivers with no bridges. Some of these people are riding water buffalos as horses and the others have special carts behind the buffalo.
Safety takes the last place
Northern Philippines don't have the safest transportation in the world. Have you ever ridden the roof of the bus? It was a premiere for us. It was the roof of local Jeepney. Simply there was no room left inside the Jeepney and since it was the only one, which was going from the Batad that day, we and the rest of other passengers had to climb to the roof. Fortunately, there was a luggage construction, so we could be seated and hold ourselves quite well. This ride was truly adrenaline experience with stunning views of the beautiful landscape and rice terraces.
Luzon offers also some interesting caves to explore. When we booked a cave excursion in Sagada, we didn’t expect smooth cave pathway. But this was the craziest and the most dangerous guided tour we have ever done! We got the headlamps and descent to the cave bottom began. Some places required almost an acrobatic position, to be able to fit the body in between these giant rocks.
Well, that was fun, but nobody overweighed could go this “cave connection tour”. Moreover, most of these rocks were very slippery. It was dangerous because there were few very narrow but unsecured places above a deep abyss. They obviously didn’t hear much about the safety. After this excursion we understood why there is so many "I survived Sagada" T-shirts in every souvenir shop.
Inaccessible parts of the world
It might seem that there is no longer a single place on the Earth which couldn’t be reached by road, rail or by another way of transportation. Well, there is in Luzon - the mountain village Batad, which can be reached only by walk and many people still live there. It is about 30 - 45 min. walk from the last point which you can reach by car. 30 minutes on a very steep and narrow pathway! And I am not even mentioning - Cambulo, another village surrounded by rice terraces. That’s 3 extra kilometers behind the Batad. Footpath from Batad to Cambulo is repeatedly ascending and descending. It takes 2 hours to walk from Batad to Cambulo in this challenging terrain!
Leave the light on, otherwise, you will be devoured by mosquitoes
Would you say so? Isn’t it exactly the opposite? We thought so too, but Filipino mosquitoes are obviously different. So, if you ever go to the Northern Philippines, remember to bring a mosquito net! Otherwise, you can’t sleep with an open window and light off at the same time.
Well, many villagers leave the light on because they are still superstitious and afraid of vampires.
Excessively hearty people?
We had to get used to people staring at us. Wherever we went to, we were the absolute center of the attention. Many people wanted to talk with us or take a selfie with us. They asked where are we from, where are we going or if we don’t need any advise. Once even 5 people tried to find and stop the right Jeepney for us! All of them were really helpful and nice.
On the other hand, every time we got off the bus, at least 5 "tricycle taxi” drivers surrounded us and kept asking where we want to go. It was difficult to explain that we need a little more time to decide, whenever we didn’t have clear plans yet.
And I am not even mentioning one evening when we became literary celebrities for one local family. They invited us to dinner and later even to stay overnight at their house. Here is the whole story:
Don’t trust anybody!
It was kind of funny that everyone was telling us to be careful and don’t trust the others. They were telling us: "You're in the Philippines! Keep an eye on your things”. And we did. There was obviously high criminality because there were many policemen around. They were on every railway station, an underground station or in western fast-foods like McDonald's.
Do you need an advice? Ask policeman
They were always willing to help us and there was a guarantee that they wouldn’t recommend us a place of his friend who wants to take advantage of tourists. We always asked them because there was really better chance that they recommend us the most appropriate thing we ask or look for.
Well, I didn’t know what to think about this greeting for the first time until I found out that “mum” is a shortcut for “madam” not a “mother”. After all, when you hear it 20 times a day, you get used to it, somehow. Filipinos like to address people in a family way obviously. When we had a longer chat with somebody, they started to call us “brother” and “sister”.
Street food – Would you like to try a grilled chicken head?
Street food can be found literally on every corner of Luzon island, even in the smallest village. You can buy skewers, fried rolls, eggs or roasted corn for a few cents. Most popular meat is a chicken. Locals found the way how to use every single piece of chicken. It's not an exception to find grilled chicken heads, chicken blood, pounces or even intestines.
Due to our unfamiliarity and the fact that we thought that this deliciously looking thing is a grilled fish instead of chicken heads, we tried this “specialty” as well. Don’t do the same mistake 😀 After we left behind the corner, we gave skewer to the first dog we met. A crunchy skull is not very tasty 😀
Forget the classic western toilets. Although local WC is called "Comfort Room", you have to flush manually. What do I mean by manual flashing? There is a huge barrel full of water in front of every toilet. You have to take one of little “kettles” and return back to flush the toilet. This is how toilets in northern Philippines work. Hot shower is another thing you are not going to find here. Even in the hotel, we stayed in, we had to shower under the small tap with cold water.
What to pack for your trip to the Philippines?
The Philippines is such a unique country, that you should be prepared and pack well. Check this comprehensive packing guide to the Philippines to make sure you don't forget anything important.
Mystical Places of Luzon, Philippines
Hanging Coffins in Echo Valley
Once you are in Sagada you have to visit this mysterious place. There is an aerial burial area. Several dozens of coffins are hanging directly on the rock. Pinewood coffins are suspended with primitive ropes along a limestone cliff or simply placed in the high elevated caves in the limestone rock. It is a 2,000-year-old Igorot burial tradition. But not everyone can be buried like this, there are several conditions:
- Deceased has to be over 80 years old,
- Deceased must have grandchildren,
- His / her children must be married.
Although Filipinos are Christians, the funeral ritual is open to everybody. The only difference is the type of coffin in which they are buried. The coffin is made of a tree trunk, bounded by a rope. A dead person is placed in the coffin in a fetal position. Old Igorots believed that a person should depart the world in the same way he entered it.
Why are the hanging coffins hanging?
They were simply worried that dogs will eat the corpse. Another reason was that they wanted to be closer to the sky. Believe it or not, this tradition is still ongoing, the latest man was buried in 2010.
Manila - crazy dirty city
I would like to give you a friendly advice: Don’t stay in this city longer than you need to. Manila is a city of contrasts. Although you can find there, luxury western cafés, where coffee cost around 3 USD or fast foods like McDonald's, you can find there also street grills, where a 9-year-old boy is preparing dinner for you and even his younger brother assists him with accepting payments meanwhile their father (who is sitting nearby) is watching them.
You can get across half of the city for 0,15 UDS only. Believe me, it is not a pleasant experience, I was glad I didn’t suffocate with all that smog! If you drive Jeepney or a tricycle, you have no chance to avoid literally black clouds of smoke from all these old vehicles. Every single ecologist would get mad there! Rivers and streets full of garbage, rubbish, and dirt.
During our travels, we are used to walk around the city according to our GPS and point of interests. It’s NOT the best idea in Manila! During that walk, we found ourselves in places where you realize how lucky you are that you can live somewhere else. We saw children sleeping on the streets or other people who live in the most primitive "shelters" around the street. Chickens and cocks were tunning around the streets in the middle of this ugly city. It was highly inappropriate to take pictures of that scenery, so there is no illustration.
But if you leave Manila out, there are many beautiful places in the Philippines, which are worth it to see! Even in the less touristic place like Luzon Island. First, check this comprehensive backpacking guide to the Philippines and then read our list of the best places to visit in Luzon:
5 places you must see in the northern Philippines – Luzon island
Rice terraces in Banaue - 8th wonder of the world
Rice terraces are ubiquitous on Luzon island, but there are so many of then concentrated on one place in Banaue. Locals call it the eighth wonder of the world! It is a truly beautiful place where you can get only by foot. We have spent 2 days roaming around and photographing these beautiful rice terraces! Many tourists are coming by 10-hour bus from Manila just to see this absolutely monumental natural scenery. And it’s really worth it! Rice terraces are actually a lucrative business according to locals. Rice “magnates” have good lives there.
Hundred Islands National Park
This could be the most beautiful National Park on Luzon island. There are exactly 123 small islands in this beautiful National Park. You can hire a boat and your captain or boatmen will guide you among these cute islands. It is just a very short distance from the island to the island. There is a very nice view from several Islands! You can even ride a zip-line from one of these Hundred Islands. I must admit that this zip-line was the most beautiful one I've ever tried! So, I can highly recommend it!
There is a statue of Jesus on the top of one island - almost like in Rio! Another island has a nice cave, where you can swim in and if the water level is high enough, you can do cliff jumping there. There are sooo many islands, next one has a fine restaurant, a beach and a very cool rope bridge from one island to the other one. During the boat trip, you will also have a chance to do some snorkeling or jump from a bamboo ramp which is nearby a cave bamboo bar. A full-day private cruise with a personal guide cost us 16 USD per person.
Mt. Pinatubo is a volcano with a very beautiful crater lake inside. Colors of this lake change every week depending on the stage of the lake plankton. The color may vary from turquoise blue, green to brown.
Getting to the beginning of the hiking trail is already great fun! There are several deep rivers, so you have to simply ride an army vehicle! And that’s not all – whole giant tractor had to help these vehicles to go through the river!
Pinatubo is not possible to reach without a guide. We did this tour with TRIPinas company and we could definitely recommend them!
The Aeta tribe
In addition, you can meet Aeta tribe people, along the way! They live in simple huts and you can visit them on the way to the volcano! It is really cool 😉
Sagada - lovely mountain village and starting point for several expeditions. You can visit already mentioned Hanging coffins, an adventurous cave expedition or you can take a hike to the waterfall.
Luzon island persuaded us to come back one day again - to discover more treasures of these tropical islands. It is not the coincidence that all the travelers we have met in the northern Philippines planned to spend there at least 1 month or more. Our 9-day visit was just a quick “tasting trip”. I can also imagine that the northern Philippines is a very attractive destination for many digital nomads as well, because of its low prices!
Map of Tourist spots in Luzon
We have prepared for you a detailed map with all these tourist spots in Luzon, Philippines.
You can export the map and upload it to Maps.me or Locus mobile apps.
I want to go!
Check also our guide to Mindanao:
Check this beautiful video about Philippines:
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