The town of Bontoc in Mountain Province does not get much attention as it should. To most travelers, it is simply a jump-off to the more exotic or Instagram-worthy Sagada, Banaue and more recently, Tinglayan.
At an elevation of 800 meters above sea level, it is warmer than the rest of the Cordillera region. It is a valley dissected by the mighty Chico River that separates the towering ranges of Polis and Data. When people of the highlands seek a warm refuge from the cold mountain weather, Bontoc is the natural escape.
And so for many centuries before the Spaniards arrived in the highlands, Bontoc played the role as the historical capital of the whole Cordillera. The Spanish government launched several missions to reach Bontoc. In 1857, Bontoc was made headquarters of the Comandancia Politico-Militar de Bontoc and a year after, it was made an independent military command. Bontoc was one of the ten politico-military commandancias established in the Cordillera to gain political control over the independent tribes of the Igorots.
When the Americans came, Bontoc became part of the Lepanto-Bontoc administrative province in 1903, which was later divided into three subprovinces, namely, Bontoc, Lepanto and Amburayan, in 1918. In 1920, the subprovinces were organized to form the integrated Mountain Province, with Bontoc as its capital.
However, in 1966, Mountain Province was separated into four provinces: Benguet, Kalinga-Apayao, Ifugao and Mountain Province. Bontoc was relegated as the capital of the smaller Mountain Province, instead of the whole region.
Today, Bontoc remains the trading, commercial and cultural capital of the whole region. It is also an important starting point to explore the rest of the Cordillera.
How to get there
The quickest way to reach Bontoc is to enter the Cordillera via Baguio City. Take the NLEX, SCTEX and TPLEX, and exit from either Binalonan or Urdaneta and continue driving north all the way to Rosario, La Union. From there, the trail to Baguio is either via Kennon Road or Marcos Highway. From there, continue to La Trinidad and then enter the winding Halsema Highway. Bontoc is 150 KM or roughly 4-5 hours from the Halsema entrance.
An alternative is to go to Bontoc via Banaue. Take the same NLEX, SCTEX and TPLEX combination but exit from Pura. From there, continue drive at Guimba, then Munoz, and enter Dalton Pass via San Jose. Continue driving at the national highway until Bagabag where the road forks to Ifugao province. Continue driving through Banaue before finally descending to Bontoc after 40KM.
Bontoc can also be accessed from Ilocos via the Tagudin-Cervantes Road, from Kalinga via Tabuk-Tinglayan Road and from Abra via Balbalan-Pasil Road.
What to see, what to do
The best place to start is to visit the Bontoc Museum. It showcases how the people of the Cordillera lived in the past. It has a vast collection of tools, costumes and decorations used by the people in their daily living and rituals. It also has an outdoor exhibit showing the many houses that can be found in the province.
Another attraction worth visiting before it gets demolished is the old capitol building built in 1907. It is one of the few remaining half-brick, half-wood buildings that the American built in the area.
Bontoc also has two churches: a Roman Catholic church built during the last years of Spanish occupation; and an Anglican church built during the start of the American mission.
A few kilometers from Poblacion are some of Bontoc’s hidden attractions. On top of the list is the magnificent Maligcong Rice Terraces. These stone terraces offer a breath-taking vista of verdant greens as far as the eyes can see that have not changed for centuries. Hire a local guide to visit the viewpoint at the summit of Mt. Kopapey or visit the lovely village of Favarey where the tombs of the deceased family members are located right next to their houses.
Another village worth visiting is Mainit, where communal hot spring baths are available. The locals always welcome visitors to join in the community bath during full moon.
There are also many lovely villages worth visiting: Bay-yo with its stunning rice terraces and its picturesque village; Talubin at the junction leading to Barlig; and Banaue where the houses are built right next to the river and the rice terraces located near the Poblacion.
In Samoki, older women continue to do the traditional Igorot weaving.
Where to stay, what to eat
I always time my visit to Bontoc during the very early morning and head straight to the second floor of the public market where I get my favorite rice coffee and rice pancake. If I’m a bit late, I go to Midtown Café where they serve budget meals for less than P100: a big cup of rice, fried chicken or fried pork, and sautéed local vegetables.
The market is also a good source of organic mountain fruits and vegetables, and local rice varieties like black pirututong and red mountain rice. On weekends, it is possible to buy “etag” or local dried salted meat.
For lodgings, Bontoc offers mostly basic accommodations in fan rooms and shared bathrooms. Budget travelers usually stay at the old Pines Kitchenette and Inn, but now most backpackers opt to stay in Churya-A Hotel in Poblacion or the nearby Ridge Brook in Samoki.
In Maligcong, there are two places to stay: Terraces View (Contact Rowena: 0915-1881732, lodging P250 per person) with its own vegetable garden. and Suzette Maligcong Homestay (Contact Suzette: 0915-5463557, lodging P300 per person). Both offer basic accommodations with shared bathrooms. Electricity is now available 24hours per day, but mobile phone signal is very weak.
In Mainit, there’s a new resort built with several hot spring pools. It is called Geston’s Mineral Spring Resort, where you can enjoy bathing in hot spring water after exploring the many attractions of Bontoc. That is the perfect way to end a day in the heart of the Cordillera.