The mountain province of Kalinga in northern Luzon has attracted tourists primarily through its cultural attractions, particularly through the indigenous tattooing of centenarian tattooist Apo Whang-od from Buscalan village in Tinglayan.
A majestic river valley in the northwest area of the province, however, potentially could be the next big thing in terms of ecotourism in the Cordillera Administrative Region. Legislated in 2022, the Banao Protected Landscape (BPL) is a new protected area that merges Balbalasang-Balbalan National Park and the Banao Watershed.
Dubbed the “Green Heart of the Cordillera”, the 21,567-hectare nature reserve was named after the Banáo tribe, a subgroup of the Kalinga people. They are the traditional custodians of the protected area whose indigenous lapat system of regulating the use and harvest of natural resources have conserved the surrounding forests for generations.
The nature reserve harbors endemic wildlife like the Philippine deer, Philippine warty pig, Luzon bushy-tailed cloud rat, Isabela oriole, and Kalinga narrow-mouthed toad, to name a few. In 2010, a Rafflesia species found only within the Banao Protected Landscape was first described by science. It was named Rafflesia banaoana in honor of the indigenous stewards of the land.
The Banao Protected Landscape covers three villages – Balbalasang, Talalang and Pantikian – under the municipality of Balbalan with the westernmost village of Balbalasang, bordering Abra province, as its administrative center.
One can start exploring the area by taking walks around the village center, which is characterized by numerous pinewood heritage houses built in the early 20th century. Built in 1928, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church stands in the middle of the village, established by American missionaries. The church was originally a wooden structure built with pine timber, however, it was renovated in concrete to its present-day appearance in the 1990s.
Old photographs of the Episcopal Mission, as well as the original church bell riddled with Japanese bullets from Word War II, are housed in a church office. Fortunately, parts of the original church were salvaged and used in renovating the nearby 1950s hilltop wooden rectory into the Alipit Guesthouse in 2018.
Another heritage site is the Gabaldon School Building of the Balbalasang Elementary School. The brick-and-wood structure was constructed from 1920 to 1926 under the leadership of Banao chieftain Juan Puyao.
One of the easiest yet extremely rewarding hiking trails in the protected area is the 30-minute climb from the Abra-Kalinga Highway, near the Kalinga Welcome Arch, to the view deck on Mount Nabanderaan, overlooking a deep, forested valley dominated by native Benguet pine (Pinus kesiya), which is often blanketed by a sea of clouds early in the morning.
The steep and narrow trail passes through dense mossy forest. My favorite find along the trail were Nepenthes ventricosa, a pitcher plant species with red-lipped traps endemic to Luzon Island.
The most unique plant species of the Banao Protected Landscape is Rafflesia banaoana, a site-endemic plant species with magnificent flowers that measure 40 to 50 cm across. It was first described by Filipino botanist Pastor Malabrigo, Jr. in 2010. The specific epithet honors the Banáo tribe.
Rafflesia are parasitic plants without true stems, leaves and roots that live inside Tetrastigma vines. Only its cabbage-like flower buds, which mature over a period of several months, emerge from the vines. Rafflesia blooms are incredible but short-lived. Their bright, fleshy flowers lasts only three to five days before they begin to darken and decompose, making them a rare and special sight to behold. Home at least 14 endemic Rafflesia species, the Philippines is the center of diversity for the genus, together with Indonesia.
There are a handful of Rafflesia sites found across the protected area, which may be visited by ecotourists on guided hikes. I visited a R. banaoana site at Mount Sinal-otan with park rangers Willis Cabbotot and Missan Dalunan. It took 2 ½ hours to reach the site from the trailhead near the Upper Saltan Bridge, traversing three peaks covered in pine forests. We came across one flower in bloom, measuring 42 cm across, two mature buds about to open, and cluster of black, senescent flowers.
How to Get There
Tabuk City, the provincial capital of Kalinga province, is 12 hours by bus from Metro Manila. Alternatively, one can take a one-hour flight from Manila to Tuguegarao, then transfer by land to Tabuk (1.5 hour drive).
Public jeepneys to Balbalan depart from Block 3, Purok 5, Bulanao, Tabuk City. Tabuk-Balbalasang jeepneys depart once a day at 7:00 am, taking at least 4 hours; while Tabuk-Balbalan jeepney departs twice daily at 7:00 am and 12:00 pm, taking at least 3 hours.
Travel Advisory: There is no mobile signal within the Banao Protected Landscape, except at the Kalinga Welcome Arch near the Abra provincial border, 30 minutes drive from Balbalasang village. There’s a PisoNet internet vending machine in the village center, however, the signal isn’t strong or reliable.
Where to Stay
Balbalasang village – the administrative center of the Banao Protected Landscape – only has two basic tourist accommodations, namely the Alipit Guesthouse and Protected Area (PA) Office. The Alipit Guesthouse, housed in a renovated 1950s rectory, charges ₱350 nightly per head. The accommodation has dorm rooms and a shared kitchen and dining area, where guests can cook and prepare meals.
The PA Office, located 750 meters outside the village center, can also accommodate tourists in their dorm rooms, charging ₱200 per person per night. The facility also serves as a rescue center for wildlife, which provide visitors an opportunity to observe them up close. During my stay, there were three Philippine deer and a flying fox rescued from Banao hunters who were hunting outside hunting season.
For tourist assistance, contact Balbalan Tourism on Facebook.