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  • Writer's pictureJacob Marsh


I am all about adventure, and getting off of the beaten path is something I am always trying to do. This trip is becoming more and more popular, but trust me, it is still an adventure, no matter how much research you do ahead of time.

The main reason so many people are venturing out to Buscalon is so that they can get a tattoo by the last remaining Kalinga Mambabatok artist. Whang-Od is her name, and she is 102 years old, living up in the mountains North of Bontoc, Philippians.

The adventure began at 6:30 pm from our hotel near the Mall of Asia, where we caught a Grab (Uber-like app) to take us to the Quezon City bus station. This trip takes about an hour due to the crazy Manila traffic, so it is worth leaving yourself lots of time to get around this city. The taxi cost us 800 PHP and we then boarded our bus to Bontoc, which we bought tickets online one-day prior for 1176 PHP. This bus also goes up past the famous Banaue rice terraces where most of the tourists stop. But we continued for the entire 11-hour ride through the night. At 7:00 am we got off of the bus in the middle of Bontoc, with no real idea of where to go next, all that we knew was that there is either a jeepney or a small bus to take us another 1.5 hours up the mountain towards Tabuk. We wandered the streets for a few minutes, admiring all of the tricycles racing around the streets in organized chaos, and found a bus with Tabuk written on the front. The driver said there was space and he left in an hour, so we grabbed a coffee around the corner and came back in around 9:00 am for departure.

Sit on the right side for this trip if you ever make it this far into the mountains, because the views are pretty incredible as you make your way up the winding roads with no guard rail. After an hour and a half, the bus will stop at the side of the road where there is a little hut and you get off here after paying the driver 100 PHP. This is a fun bit, at some times of day, there will be a Jeepney that goes up and down the little road near Buscalon, but we did not end up there at a convenient time, so we were ushered onto the back of motorcycles and raced up the partly paved road for about 15 minutes, costing another 100 PHP. Hold on tight to the bike or the driver, because they know the roads and are not afraid to go quickly around the corners or over the bumps! The road ends and you are at another hut, where we met up with Charlie, a contact that we had made and the guy who owned the homestay we are hoping to stay the night in. You will need to register a phone number and a few other details here just so that they get a general idea of who is coming and going from the village, and then you will depart on a half-hour hike across the valley and up into Buscalon. From this point, you will have a guide with you, helping to carry bags and making your stay more comfortable.

It is not a super challenging hike, but there are a few slippery spots to be aware of. The locals are all doing it back and forth in old flip flops, so it is manageable in just about any footwear. Once you are in the village you will be taken up to a resting point where they bring you locally grown coffee before heading to your homestay.

Our room is a 12' by 15' room with 2 mattresses on the floor and a bare bulb hanging in the middle of the room. There are two power outlets, a fan, and a window and that's about it.

We were taken over to the village restaurant after dropping our bags off and had some homemade Adobo and more coffee. Then our guide asked if we were ready for the tattoos! Everything we had read online said that getting them the same day was not normal, but I think because we were there on a Tuesday, the village was not very busy. We ate up and headed down to meet Whang-Od for Nikolai and Pia to get inked.

Nikolai was the first of the day and with no one else being there, Whang-Od was able to take her time and do the whole tattoo for both Nikolai and Pia, rather than the normal 3 dots and then having to go to one of the younger artists to get the rest of the design finished.

After the tattoos, we went back to our homestay to relax for a bit before dinner.

Our guide made us dinner in the lower level of the homestay, so we just had to go downstairs and talked with her before going to bed early with the hope of a nice sunrise.

Sunrise was a bust, which is normal this time of year, the clouds are very thick in the morning, but we still hiked up the rice terraces a little bit to get a nice view of the valley.

Breakfast was great, we had eggs, rice and veggies all fried up and we decided that we had no need to stay another night in the village as the tattoos happened earlier than anticipated. We packed up our things after breakfast and headed back across the valley and rather than get onto the back of a motorcycle, we climbed onto the roof of a jeepney and rode the 15 minutes down the winding, railless road to meet up with the bigger bus back to Bontoc. Hold on tight for this wild ride. It is something I have wanted to do for a long time but never had a good opportunity and this was it, beautiful day, in the mountains, with friends, away we went, the wind in our hair and fear in our fingers as we clutched onto the roof rails. We changed jeeps at the bottom of this road and headed back into Bontoc for another adventure to Sagada from here.

This trip to Buscalon is something I would strongly recommend, even if you do not want a tattoo, (I didn't get one) the area and the people are beautiful and it is such a great experience to get out of the major city.

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