Ever since my first visits to the Baguio Museum as a child, I’ve been fascinated by the fire mummies of the Ibaloi people in Kabayan, Benguet. More than two decades after, a spontaneous weekend hiking trip with fellow blogger Christine Fernandez of Adventures of a Jovial Wanderer and a college friend finally brought me face to face with these ancient wonders in their hometown of Kabayan, Benguet.
Fire Mummies of Mt. Timbac, 500 to 1,000 years old
Ten hours worth of bus rides from Manila via Baguio City will take you to the remote town of Kabayan – the epicenter of the Ibaloi, one of the indigenous highland peoples who live in the Cordillera mountain range. Before seeing the mummies at Timbac, there are a couple of sights worth checking out in Kabayan poblacion, namely the Opdas Mass Burial Site and Kabayan National Museum. Discovered by Ibaloi hunter Banan Berong in 1971, the Opdas Mass Burial Site is the final resting place of over 200 ancient Ibaloi individuals who lived some seven centuries ago. Piles of skulls are displayed on stone shelves designed during a major renovation in 1991. Meanwhile, a small mummy from Pongasan Cave is displayed at the modest National Museum branch at Kabayan town, together with other artifacts of Luzon’s highland tribes.
Pathway to the mummy caves of Mt. Timbac
Some of the best mummies, however, that may be viewed by visitors are a long hike from Kabayan town to Mt. Timbac – the fog-capped third highest peak of Luzon – lording over the hamlet. Aside from the mummies, the grueling climb from Kabayan town to Timbac caves entertains hikers with majestic views of the Agno river valley and a stopover at the Tinongchol Burial Rock, a three-storey high boulder where ancient Ibaloi carved out holes to inter their dead in wooden coffins.
Majestic views of Agno river valley along the hiking route
Believed to be 500 to 1,000 years old,the Kabayan mummies are entombed in oval and rectangular-shaped hardwood coffins hidden away within “caves” – actually cramp rock shelters – along steep mountain slopes. Some of the coffins have anthropomorphic and geometric designs etched on the outer surface. And traditional tattoos have been preserved on some mummies. The Ibaloi people mummified their dead by smoking them dry, hence, the nickname “fire mummies”. The World Monuments Fund website explains the mummification process: “Dying members of the tribe drank salty mixtures to begin the process. After death, their bodies were cleansed, rubbed with herbs, and heated while their mouths were filled with smoke. These steps were performed continually over a period of weeks before the deceased were placed fetal position into oval-shaped wooden coffins with decorative carvings. These practices endured until the arrival of Spanish colonialists in 1500 and the caves themselves remained untouched until the 19th century.”
Stopover at Tinongchol Burial Rock
Unfortunately, many of the mummy caves have been vandalized or looted to be sold in the black market. To protect them, the locations of the 50 to 80 caves are known only to Ibaloi elders. According to recent reports, the mummies are also being attacked by natural agents such as water, rodent mites, insects and mold. Tribal beliefs hinder the transfer of these mummies to another location to prevent their further deterioration. Some Timbac mummies were on display at Kabayan National Museum, but “asked” to be returned to their original site, our Ibaloi hiking guide explained. While mummification is no longer practiced, present-day Ibaloi consider the mummy caves as sacred and still perform rituals in the area.
Ascending Mt. Timbac through cauliflower terraces and pine forests
HOW TO GET THERE: From Manila, take a Victory Liner bus to Baguio City (AC, 5 hours, PHP 455). A Liner buses (formerly Norton Bus) bound for Kabayan (non-AC, 5 hours, PHP 135) depart at 10:00 AM and 12:00 PM daily at the Slaughterhouse bus terminal along Magsaysay. Upon arriving in Kabayan, make you sure you register at the tourism desk of the police station, near the municipal hall. In town, there’s the Opdas Mass Burial Site (entrance fee: PHP 50) and Kabayan National Museum (PHP 20).
The Timbac Mummy Caves (entrance fee: PHP 40) are a grueling five to seven hour uphill hike along paved roads and dirt trails up Mt. Timbac – the third highest peak in Luzon. Take a guide: I recommend Ibaloi guide Vince “Bobot” Gapuz – Mobile: +63 9198524410, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Standard guide rate to Timbac mummy caves is PHP 1,000 for 1-5 pax.
To save time, we hired a jeepney (PHP 1,700) from a vegetable dealer’s house halfway along the trail to take us to the jump-off to the caves and then down to KM 55 along Halsema Highway, where we hailed a GL Bus back to Baguio City (non-AC, 2 hours, PHP 80). During the dry season, tour groups can hire a jeepney or 4X4 from Kabayan town to Timbac Caves for PHP 2,500 to 3,000. You can arrange this with the tourism assistance desk at the police station.
The shortcut route – only a two-hour 6 km hike – to Timbac mummy caves can be done by entering from the junction at KM 55 along Halsema Highway. There’s a welcome sign directing visitors to the caves at the junction.
Welcome to my website! I’m travel writer, photographer and online influencer Edgar Alan Zeta-Yap from the Philippines. Join me as I hike, dive, fly, eat and do pretty much anything in between across 7,641 islands and beyond. Need to reach me? Please write me an email.