In the northern Luzon Cordillera, photographer Nick Kuchmak finds out the Philippines isn’t all beaches and sea.

THE RICE TERRACES of Banaue and Batad are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a major tourist attraction in mountainous northern Luzon, the Philippines’ main island. Most tourists travel only from Manila to Banaue and back, but farther north is an area of traditional cultures and some incredibly friendly people not yet accustomed to the everyday sight of tourists. When I explained my trekking plans to Manila locals, I was warned of “evil” people who live “backwards.” What I found, of course, was the polar opposite.

While the experience was highly rewarding, I believe it is of the utmost importance to tread lightly. A guide is a necessity to aid in communication as well as to help you avert any cultural offenses. Also, things like candy and money should never be handed out, especially to children, although gifts are received warmly in the region — particularly matches — so stock up before arriving.

The Cordillera offers a glimpse of a completely different side to the Philippines. Here’s what I saw.


Rice blades, Luzon

1. Life in the Cordillera begins and ends with the harvest of rice.


Batad rice terraces

2. Tourists walk through the endless terraces in Batad village, a short day hike from Banaue.


Rice planter, Philippines

3. Now is planting season in the Cordillera and, while trekking amongst the terraces, many women can be seen completing the backbreaking task. Traditionally, it is only the women who plant.


Batad village

4. Batad's "Ampitheatre" must rank as one of the top viewpoints in the world. 360-degree views of endless rice terraces down a steep mountainside and, at the center, a sleepy little village.


Waterfall, Luzon

5. The water is freezing, but who would pass up a chance to swim under the beautiful Tappia waterfall, a short hike from Batad.


Child peeking through wood slats

6. Locals in Banaue are used to tourists passing through, but some remain shier than others.


Balancing on the rice terraces

7. Everyday life in the rice terraces requires balance and dexterity to avoid falling off the tiny pathways, and the locals accomplish this with ease.


Kids in rural Philippines

8. A warm welcome from the village kids of Dananao in Kalinga province. A sharp contrast from Banaue and Batad, the kids in these isolated villages have not learned to ask for candy and money from tourists and simply offer smiles instead.


Tattooed Filipino woman

9. This lady in Kalinga proudly displayed her tattoos, which were common on women as a sign of beauty up until the 1950s. On men, on the other hand, chest tattoos signified rank as a headhunter.


Dananao, Philippines

10. High in the mountains surrounding Tinglayen lies the isolated village Dananao, where only a few decades ago headhunting and tribal war were a part of daily life.


Rolled cigarette

11. Tobacco is a very important crop to the local tribes, secondary only to rice. Many tribal elders can be seen smoking out of the traditional pipe or, like this women, rolled leaves.


Pipe smoking, Philippines

12. A tribal elder enjoys his tobacco out of a hand-carved pipe while reflecting on the days of headhunting and the Japanese occupation.


Village woman, Philippines

13. Before arriving in Kalinga, I was warned of "evil" people and "backwards" customs but found the opposite in the wonderful villages surrounding Tinglayen.


Rice harvesting, Luzon

14. Throughout the Cordillera, harvest months differ. While one place only a few hours south might be muddy and brown, the terraces farther north could be at their greenest.


Coffee beans, Philippines

15. In these high hills, coffee can be grown and is a welcomed treat after a hard day trekking in the rugged mountains.


Elderly couple

16. This elderly couple requested I take this photo so I could send them a copy and their grandkids would remember them forever. It's important to keep these promises, as not following through may lead to mistrust of foreign visitors.


Coffins hanging on cliffs

17. If they can afford the cost of the animals sacrificed, Appalai elders around Sagada continue to be hung in coffins placed on the limestone cliffs. Upwards of 20 pigs and twice as many chickens is the normal price for this unique custom.


Filipino homestay

18. Due to a lack of infrastructure, homestays are the only option of accommodation in some of the more remote villages. Be prepared for basic sleeping quarters and "exotic" food, as well as an unforgettable experience.